A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

MacCulloch, Diarmaid
Allen Lane (2009)
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In the course of reading this brilliantly detailed yet historically shapely account of the three thousand year history of Christianity, I attended a conference on the challenges to our faith in the 21st Century.

We were addressed by Evangelical luminary Oz Guinness on a frightening array of inter connected phenomena which would make our proclamation of the Gospel difficult in a globalised technological age but the one thing he did not mention was the conduct of the hierarchy of the Christian churches themselves. If there is one major lesson from MacCulloch's staggering work it is that whatever challenges we might have faced from external factors such as the rise of Islam and the development of scientific method, the greatest damage to Christian churches has been inflicted by their hierarchies, while most of the repair has been effected by the steady and unspectacular faithfulness of humble folk. As we look forward to the challenges of the 21st Century we are held back by clerical hand-to-hand fighting over a small number of issues which are all, not insignificantly, bound up with sexuality and gender which MacCulloch says is the small knot of issues which presents us with our most immediate challenge. The major reasons for this 'blind spot' whose persistence bewilders non Christians is a long tradition of fear of sexuality, leading to celibate clergy and a wish to control a less worthy laity. It was only with the advent of the phenomenon of the genteel woman at the beginning of the 19th Century that women ceased to be viewed by Christian authority as uncontrollable, lewd temptresses. The diagnosis of the change and the date assigned to it are a perfect example of MacCulloch's talent for summary and precision.

Not surprisingly, given his background, he is much more sure-footed on dense theological ground than on the shifting sands of 20th Century sociology but at no point does he show any sign that he might fall. Specialists in one or another theological subject might find his brief description of their specialism somewhat skimpy but they will be grateful for the way in which he connects a myriad of specialisms into a coherent whole. The importance of high quality metadata in such portmanteau books cannot be over-estimated and in this case the cross referencing is impeccable, the end notes are truly fabulous and the index is invaluable.

It might be stating the obvious but most Christian histories are decidedly focused on the Chalcedonian tradition but MacCulloch is properly attentive to the Miaphysites, Dyophysites, Monothelites and Arians (if you are unfamiliar with these phenomena it only goes to show you need the book); and he is also complete, if not always illuminating, on the far-flung Christians of Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Although there is immense diversity in the Christian tradition that is no excuse for compartmentalism; the contrast between Catholic pessimism based on Saint Augustine's unbiblical formulation of original sin and the Orthodox notion that we were created to aspire to the divine is startling when we consider that the two Catholic churches are only in schism but not in a state of mutual heresy.

Overall, the lesson we learn from our history is that the survival of Christianity depends upon its adaptability. Looked at from our contemporary perspective, the longer the conservatives, Evangelical and Catholic, make the running, the worse off we will be.

In its own terms the TV series, now on DVD, is pretty average, suffering from an excessive degree of camera-friendly folksiness and some erratic editing and sound quality. Where the book manages to keep a good balance between a chronological and thematic approach, the DVDs, forced by convention into the thematic, lurch from city to city and idea to idea in a way that a lay person could not possibly grasp.

In summary, the Christian who claims to be well educated has nothing to learn from the DVDs but would find it hard to do without the book.