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It's a Long Story.
on 23 June 2011
This is a secular book of history, written by a `candid friend' of Christianity. He does not make any judgement on whether Christianity is `true' in that he doesn't examine history with a view to validating the claims of Christianity. The story however is true in the sense that it is part of the human story (p.13). From this unfolds not so much a history of Christianity but a history of Christianities.
The story begins not in Judea with Christ crucified but 1000 years before, in Greece, Rome and ancient Israel, with the birth of the Messiah, the death of Jesus, the transformation of a Jewish cult into the official religion of the Roman empire, the evolution into separate Western and Eastern churches, the convulsions of the Reformation of and the Enlightenment, through to the French Revolution and the upheavals of the 20th Century. The final chapter does not summarise and synthesise or attempt to explain the story thus far, but contemplates the turns Christianity may take. As the book is subtitled, `The first 3000 years', the story is by no means over. However, the mushrooming evangelical mega-churches around the world are something of a come-down from the previous glories of Christian aesthetics.
You will I think profit from this book if you have at least some basic knowledge of the biblical story, and some interest in the history of ideas and religion generally. As an atheist, I certainly found the book illuminating. No doubt those who wish to garner material for an indictment sheet against Christianity will justifiably adduce material here but the excesses of the French Revolution should also give aggressive atheists and secularisers solid reasons to contemplate the consequences of an untrammelled will 'to force people to be free.'
The book sometimes to my mind fails to offer explanations as to why Christianity was so successful as an idea. Of all ideas, how did this one hold and spread, especially one with such inauspicious beginnings with its leader ending up dead? Of course, a theological reading of this is perfectly clear. He was dead, but was risen. Death is conquered. He died for your sins.
But this is a secular history and failing to offer an attempt at an answer won't do. Indeed I don't believe the question was even forthcoming. Granted, the nature of historical controversy, and the remoteness of this purported event, attested to by a mere handful of ancient witnesses, means there will never be a conclusive answer. But an attempt to at least summarise consensus of the matter might have gone some way to explaining why a cult centering on an obscure Jewish religious teacher in a backwater of the Roman empire metamorphosised in a world-historical force.
I felt that the author's style, frequent use of the passive voice and elliptical style of writing make this a harder journey that it needs to be. This, and the fact that the book reads very much a compendium, made the experience for me like navigating around the theological equivalent of a Kew Gardens which had been left to go to seed ages ago. Occasionally you encounter fascinating flora of ideas but at other places it is choked with weeds and undergrowth. I found the accounts of the role of evangelical Christianity (perhaps one of Christianity's few finest hours) in the abolition of slavery fascinating but the section around the theological controversies of the divinity of Christ dry as dust. To think people persecuted and killed one another concerning this nonsense still defies rational comprehension.
These factors diminished the enjoyment for me personally. I looked forward to reading this book as I am interested in church history and really enjoyed, for example, the Chadwicks' histories of the Early Church and Reformation respectively. Both of these books are well-written with a great deal of verve, and are very enjoyable, giving one a vivid sense of what the issues were about, which is vital if you are a modern reader steeped in secular thinking. I don't think this book is quite in the same league, and for me this was a disappointment. Hence the three-star rating.
Having said that, I acknowledge this work as a considerable achievement, and an indispensible reference for those interested in the history of ideas and their affect and influence on history.