The Evil That Men Do: Faith, injustice and the Church
Marcus K. Paul
Sacristy Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
THIS is a very accessible, and, at times, passionate account by an author, a widely read Christian, intent on setting the record straight at a time when “the evil that men do” (in this case, particularly the evil that the Church has done, or in which it has been complicit) is well remembered, while the good they do (in this instance, the contribution the Church has made to the betterment of humankind) is oft interred with their bones.
Marcus Paul’s opening chapter, “Clearing the Air”, makes plain where he is coming from. His citing of the Leveson inquiry is a way of saying that he believes that the dominant cultural approach to Christianity is unbalanced, failing to take the goodness of individual Christians and churches into account, and focusing instead on the Church’s misdemeanours and errors, its inhumanities and hypocrisy. He sees that unfairness all around him in secular academics, and he states his intention to set the record straight without neglecting the reality of the matters for which there is no defence. (One of his approaches, however, is to offer a defence where he thinks there is one.)
With that declared aim, the author takes us on a rapid tour through church history, from the beginnings to the present, in ten chapters. It is only to be expected that in such an ambitious project there will sometimes be an unevenness of pace, intensity, and objectivity; but, although much of the material will be familiar to many readers, most will learn something they did not know about a period with which they are not acquainted, and will often have their prejudices challenged.
In the course of this journey, there are times when the author’s own passions come strongly to the surface, and readers’ opinions will vary on which are the most engaging. For example, the author tells much more of the Wesleys’ contribution than many who are not Methodists will know; and when he writes about the First World War he draws on his historian-cum-chaplain grandfather’s life and writing in a way that shows a profound engagement and respect. The author wants us to know that the challenging theological and moral questions raised by that terrible conflict are not left out of the reckoning; this section is a worthy addition to the many reflections on the Great War which have been produced in this centenary period.
In a book that is to be recommended on so many grounds, one small weakness and one larger issue are worth pointing out. The small weakness is that the endnotes are numbered continuously from start to finish of the book, without cross-referencing to either the chapter or the page to which they refer; that, together with the frustrating lack of an index, makes retracing one’s steps, or finding some previous reference, difficult.
The larger issue is one that will divide readers between those who, like the author, think our current cultural context is largely hostile, and therefore creates a view of the Church which needs redressing, and others who would want a more balanced account, not just of past history, but of the present context in which the Church comes to be evaluated.
Such readers may find the book more defensive at points than it needs to be, and will wonder whether the fairness that the author seeks in relation to the Church’s contribution in the past might not also be properly applied to the secularising culture that he sees all around us. Perhaps there’s some good to celebrate there, too.
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.