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History unearthed in the genius loci

19 July 2011

Paul Cavill considers a guide to far-flung and numinous places


Hitting the Holy Road: A guided tour of Christian history from the Early Church to the Reformation
Stuart Coulton
Inter-Varsity Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

THIS book is based on the excellent premise that history is important, and can inform the faith of modern readers, broaden their vision, and provide a corrective to any mis­placed sense of superiority. It also recognises that many of those modern readers whom it aims to reach will have only the sketchiest notion of the history of the Church.

Its approach to drawing in the reader, then, is to start at a place in Europe with historical associations. The writer describes the actual site and says why it was important. From there he goes on to outline the significance of a period in the history of the Church loosely linked to the place; and he closes each chap­ter with some reflections aris­ing from that history.

The places include St Peter’s in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Iona, Aachen, Cluny, Assisi, and Wittenberg. Photographs and boxes of biography aid accessibility.

If the title gives the impression that this is a travel guide, a kind of companion for pilgrimage, then that impression is pretty accurate. Some of the descriptions of the various places give clues to where to find interesting things, or indeed the site itself.

The style is chatty, and uses ex­clamation marks and colloquialisms (Gregory the Great had strong views about “who sat at the top of the ec­clesiastical food chain”, and Nero had a statue made of himself “in the buff”). The reflections are consid­era­tions of care for creation, the responsibilities of Christian leader­ship, personal holiness, concern for biblical truth, and the like.

The history is perhaps the least satisfactory part. The book covers a wide range of areas and periods, and maybe that is more than most historians could do with brevity, clarity, and verve. But his­tory here is often sketchy and gen­eralised. The writer does not pro­per­ly understand monasticism, for example (he thinks monks rejected God’s creation), and he gets names wrong — among others, Alarius for Alaric, Marellinus for Ammianus Marcellinus. Luther’s wife is Katy or Katie on the same page.

This is not a book for historians, but if it encourages the gap-year student or the tourist to enter into the history of the places he or she visits, and to reflect on that history, it will have served its purpose.

Paul Cavill is a Reader in Leicester diocese, and is Lecturer in Early English in the School of English Studies at the University of Notting­ham.

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