Thursday, July 29, 2010

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, 2009.

I don’t keep this reading journal as a way of crowing about what I have read; the blog doesn’t exist to trumpet notches on a bookshelf. Yet there are some entries, when I come to gather my thoughts on a book, that I can’t help but beginning by celebrating the fact that I finished reading it – even, and perhaps especially, when I really enjoyed the book, as in this case!

I first saw reference to MacCulloch’s magisterial monograph in Bishop David Hamid’s blog in October; Bishop Hamid reposts each month (with permission), the reviews compiled for the House of Bishops of the Church of England by that House’s Theological Secretary, Dr Martin Davie. I’ve been very tempted by more than one of the reviews, and a couple of the books have found their ways onto my shelves. Church history is in some ways one of my weaker subjects. Of all of my courses in the subject at seminary, only one wasn’t cross-listed to the Theology department and that was only because it was a reading course. My background, then, is more in the history of ideas, with the various other aspects of history sweeping in only as they affected theological developments. Reading MacCulloch, I was surprised both by how much I already knew and how much I did not. It’s a staggering, 1016 page, work that begins in the period well before the Church in both of the prominent cultures which would influence its early development (Greek and Hebrew) and extends through to the present day. Despite its length, the book’s vast scope means that the pace through the material is breakneck. MacCulloch’s prose is lucid and concise, and deeply funny with a simultaneously scathing and affectionate dry wit offering asides (I’m still laughing at bits about Moravians and a fascination with trombones, and the treatment of Henry VIII’s marital miscellany, but the humour is omnipresent; make sure to read the footnotes and the lists of major sources for each period, where even funnier bits lurk).

To attempt to offer a summary of the book would be audacious, given that it is in many ways itself a compendium. One observation I would make is that MacCulloch is interested not just in Christianity as we tend to think of it – that is, as a monolithic faith, albeit splintered into sects – but as it has been in varied forms and in possibilities. Much of what was new to me was about aspects of Christianity under- or mis-represented in most treatments, especially around non-Chalcedonian offshoots and local inculturations. The discussion of the Arian church in Europe was particularly fascinating.

MacCulloch has a gift for making the material deeply engaging, and introducing the reader to the major sources and gists of the various periods and types of Christianities that he elucidates. Many chunks of the book might seem deeply uncomfortable to anyone who comes to it with faith convictions that do not allow for serious consideration of other convictions. I think, as a whole, it’s a book that rewards the reader who already has at least a fairly familiar grasp on the history of the faith: the pacing is such that some topics receive short shrift, and background knowledge can help one fill in gaps. At the same time, as Dr. Davie noted in his review, much the fun of the book is deciding whether one agrees with the view MacCulloch propounds – or, perhaps, how one would nuance it. The thought I had throughout was that, if one needed to assess someone’s knowledge of Church History, asking them to compile a list of what they’d want to emend from the book in their own re-telling of the stories would be a very good assignment indeed.

I am glad that I spent the time with this work that I have; it has been a long read, and it has rewarded me richly. I have to agree with MacCulloch’s concluding words, about my reading experience as well as about the future of the faith he studies:
Original sin is one of the more plausible concepts within the Western Christian package, corresponding all too accurately to everyday human experience. One great encouragement to sin is an absence of wonder. Even those who see the Christian story as just that – a series of stories – may find sanity in the experience of wonder: the ability to listen and contemplate. It would be very surprising if this religion, so youthful, yet so varied in its historical experience, had now revealed all its secrets. (1016)

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