The long view, mainly from above

by
13 October 2009

Nicholas Orme enjoys a church historian’s tour de force

A History of Christianity: The first three thousand years
Diarmaid MacCulloch
Allen Lane £35
(978-0-713-99869-6)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

WOW, what a book! A thousand pages of text, excluding notes, maps, plates, and reading lists. Three thousand years of history: three, because the scene is set with chap­ters on Israel, Greece, and Rome before AD. And goodness knows how many thousand references in what reviewers never mention but should: an excellent index.

Can one person write the history of Christianity? Isn’t its length and complexity best covered by an en­cyclopaedia, or a series of volumes by experts on different topics? Professor MacCulloch demonstrates triumphantly that a single author can still match the alternatives. Works by many authors vary in style and coverage, and rarely achieve coherence. This book, well organised and told in a single voice, has a unity and consistency that is far easier to follow and absorb.

Traditionally, church history is remembered in terms of great names (saints and church founders) and great events (such as Luther and his theses). MacCulloch follows this path to a large extent. Names and events still dominate, along with the great ideas of theology, philosophy, and science, of which he gives good summaries. He is less concerned with institutional history or, until modern times, with that of societies. The result is an account that is broadly speaking “top down”, in which leaders rather than followers appear as the motors of change.

Within this framework, the book is remarkably inclusive of time and space. One expects to get Western Europe and, after 1500, the Amer­icas and Africa. MacCulloch also gives careful attention to each of the branches of Orthodoxy — Greek, Balkan, Ukrainian and Russian; the Churches of Syria, Armenia, Georgia, and Ethiopia; India and China in both the medieval and modern periods; and, where appropriate, Judaism and Islam. When Oceania and Australasia are added, one would be challenged to find a major country that does not feature somewhere or other.

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The pace becomes a little breathless at times, notably in the 12th century, when church reforms, crusades, religious orders, and Marian devotion follow one another in quick succession. But this could be justified as cutting down Europe to size. At other times, the story is more leisurely, as in the pages given to Erasmus. That, too, may offer refreshment for those reading right through the book.

For this is truly an epic to read through, learn from, and reflect on, while also useful as a reference book. A tremendous amount will be new to most readers, like the links between unlikely and distant places. King Alfred sent gifts to the Church of St Thomas in India. A Gothic cathedral was built in Inner Mon­golia. The life of Buddha was turned into a Christian story by a ninth-century monk in Georgia, and trans­lated into ten European languages. One English version was made by the Civil War general Thomas Fairfax as late as the 1650s.

There is a proper attention to women, and many play parts in the story. Eminent here is the Virgin Mary, both in her presence and absence. “The most assertive woman of all” in the history of modern feminism, she appeared all over Europe and Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries, delivering political messages and stirring up strife. To Protestants she was equally dangerous, virtually written out of Handel’s Messiah and (one might add) completely so from the “Angelus” in Wallace’s popular opera Maritana.

The author honestly calls his work “a series of suggestions to shape the past”. It is deeply re­searched in some areas, well read-up in others. Sometimes alternatives might be preferable to a single conclusion: may not the Gospels date as well from before AD 70 as afterwards, for example? I noticed a few mistakes in topics that I have studied, but it would be otiose to mention them. None of us avoids committing errors.

My only caveat is the tendency, already mentioned, for so much of the history here to appear as propelled from the top. By contrast, in the modern period MacCulloch makes us aware of how, for ex­ample, Africans have modified the Christianity of the missionaries, or Roman Catholics the embargo on contraception. This counterpart church history peeps up from time to time in earlier parts of the book, but it would merit highlighting throughout. Even in the Middle Ages, ordinary people determined, as much as their leaders, how the sacraments worked and whether crusades, indulgences, or shrines succeeded or failed.

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All writings on church history have a purpose. Some are polemical: aimed by one tradition against another. Most of the rest are celebratory — sometimes contented cud-chewings. MacCulloch’s aims are to “help readers stand back from Christianity” and “to promote sanity”. It will be hard to read his book without feeling warmer to other traditions and a little less complacent about one’s own. Different traditions have grown not just from wilfulness, but from political, social, or intellectual conditions. None is free of mistakes in its past; none can honestly say “we have always been this.”

MacCulloch’s book is a wonderful achievement, well worth its price, and formed to instruct, entertain, and provoke discussion and thought for decades to come. It may even help to affect what happens next.

Dr Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University and an Hon. Canon of Truro Cathedral. His latest book, Exeter Cathedral: The first thousand years (Impress Books), is to be published next month.

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