Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A blockbuster for the Christmas tree?

I have yet to read Diarmaid MacCulloch's biography of Cranmer, but I enjoyed his book on the Reformation immensely. So, discovering this morning that he has yet another big book on the history of Christianity, has my Visa card quivering slightly. Actually this book is called A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, and, bonus, it's being made into a TV series! (H/T to Thinking Anglicans).

A flavour of this book comes through in these excerpts from reviews and an article, the first by a man the equal, at least, of MacCulloch in intellectual stature, ++Rowan, in his review in The Guardian:

"MacCulloch's treatment of Augustine is just one instance of the excellence of this book. He is fair, remarkably comprehensive, neither uncritical nor hostile; what is more, he shows an extraordinary familiarity with specialist literature in practically every area. The sections on Christianity's expansion eastwards and the tragic history of the churches of central Asia, still a little-known and under-researched subject, are among the very best in the book. Also outstanding are his treatments of the achievements and limitations of European Christian mission (he describes India as the "greatest failure" of Protestant mission effort, given the political advantage with which it worked), of the intimidatingly complex stories of Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox in the borderlands of the Russian empire, from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and of the distinctive legacy of Calvin, whom he rightly sees as setting out not just to carry through piecemeal reforms of an existing institution but to reimagine the Catholic religion itself on the basis of the same biblical and traditional material that others used to defend the papal church."

Already you may be wondering why this history is of the First Three Thousand Years ... but William Whyte in a feature in the Church Times helps:

"THE first great surprise of the book is that it tells the story of three — rather than two — thousand years of Chris tianity. More than that, it begins with the history of ancient Greece rather than an account of the Old Testament. “It has to,” Professor MacCulloch maintains, “because the New Testament is in Greek — because Christianity begins in a Greek culture.”

"Unless you understand the “con stant dialogue” between an “earthy, world-affirming Judaism” and a Hellenistic world-view, which seeks an unchanging, unearthly spiritual beauty, you cannot understand Christianity at all.

"The founders of Christianity — Jesus and St Paul — “jump in-between these two cultures”. The result is a religion that, from the first, offered a host of different, and even conflicting, accounts of God, of goodness, of human nature, and of salvation.

"The second surprise is just how global the book manages to be. In this story, the Western Church — the Latin Church of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism — is only one part of the puzzle. Indeed, that dominating and divisive figure St Augustine, the single most impor t ant theologian the West has ever produced, is deliberately introduced very late — some 300 pages in — “to emphasise how unimportant he is to most of the Church”.

"For the Orthodox, he is irrele vant. For the Eastern Churches, he is simply unknown. It is just a single example — one of many — but nevertheless a significant one. It highlights the effect of taking a truly worldwide perspective: a view that makes many of the preoccupations of the Western Church seem provincial — even parochial.

"That, in a way, is the key message of this book. Rather than revealing a clear, unified, and coherent Chris tianity, this is an account of the many different Churches and creeds that the Christian faith inspired. Professor MacCulloch’s account of Christianity shows it as a debate from the beginning: a constant argument between Greek thought and Jewish ideas, between hierarchy and equality, order and inspiration. Indeed, for him, “the history of Christianity is a history of division.”
This is not, however, a problem for Professor MacCulloch — much less something to be mourned. He rejects what he calls a “neurotic obsession with unity” in favour of a celebration of diversity: a history that reveals the ways in which the Church has changed and accommodated itself to historical circumstance."

In the Economist, incidentally, a heavier hand of criticism is present in its review:

"Some will be less happy with his treatment of Christianity’s early years, when basic doctrines were being hammered out. To this era Mr MacCulloch brings some baggage, and it can get in the way. A vicar’s son, he was ordained as a deacon but declined to become a priest in protest against a homophobic wave that gripped the Church of England in the 1980s. (He has been active in the gay Christian lobby.) More than once he makes the point that in telling the story of self-described Christians, one must look beyond texts by early Christian writers whose main purpose was to denounce heresy. Fair enough, but such is Mr MacCulloch’s preference for the heretical over the orthodox that a reader who relied on him alone might struggle at times to work out what the mainstream Christian view was, despite learning lots about those who were against it.

"Take one example: the Christian tradition—to which hundreds of millions of Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans are heirs—holds dear the belief that Jesus Christ was both fully man and fully God, a single person with two natures, divine and human. It is a belief that generations of Christians have wept over, experienced mystically and died for. But Mr MacCulloch devotes little space to that teaching, and many pages (complete with his own misleading terms) to those who rejected it."


Doug Chaplin said...

Interesting that the Economist fails to disclose the identity of their reviewer. The criticisms there don't look like those of an historian.

Peter Carrell said...

Yes, I noted that anonymity (though wasn't sure if that was an omission in the transition from print to web)!

Anonymous said...

I don't know who wrote the Economist review. Might it have been Edward Norman? MacCulloch's historical scholarship is not in doubt. One day I might get round to reading his book on Cranmer.
But's it's worth noting that MacCulloch does not now describe himself as a Christian.