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As subversive as . . . top-down history

06 December 2013

William Whyte finds a breezy historian rather conservative

A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity
Nick Page
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30  (Use code CT260 )

ALTHOUGH it is never stated explicitly, Nick Page's Nearly Infallible History of Christianity is a sort of Horrible Histories brought to bear on belief. Like that popular series, its tone is light and breezy. It is full of anecdotes, and can be typified by a footnote that explains the origins of the word "rectum". Like Horrible Histories, too, this book is suspicious of authority - and of authorities. The implication throughout is that this is the sort of stuff they do not want you to read.

Ironically - and, again, rather like Horrible Histories - the end result is an ostensibly subversive book that none the less retells a very traditional story.

Here is the pure Early Church, as it descends into Constantinian corruption and the absurdities of esoteric theological disputation. Here is the appalling medieval Church, with its grasping, avaricious popes. Above all, here is a history of Christianity which is actually a history of Christian institutions - above of all, of the Western Church.

A really popular history, you might have thought, would have got beneath the pontiffs and the preachers to look at what ordinary people actually believed. This might have explained why the medieval Church was so popular, despite the corruption; why the abstract theological debates of the Byzantines were carried out on every street corner, Gregory of Nyssa complaining that even "old-clothes men, money-changers, food-sellers" were busy arguing about the nature of Christ, or the economy of the Trinity.

That Page could imagine another sort of history is made clear by his conclusion, which acknowledges that "the people who have really and always carried the story forward" are not those he has written about, but "those on the ground, the footsloggers". Can we hope that he will take his fertile, inventive, and imaginative pen, and write just such a story next?

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Tutorial Fellow in Modern History at St John's College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

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