Culture

The Challenge of Writing A Short History of Christianity

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Mention that you’ve read a short history of Christianity and people may assume you mean the New Testament. Or, perhaps, simply one of its books, Acts of the Apostles. But those are how-to manuals, not true histories.

Into this gap steps Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey with A Short History of Christianity.

Blainey’s created a cottage industry for himself out of this sort of thing. He’s also penned A Short History of the World and A Short History of the Twentieth Century. His Christianity book falls squarely in the middle of those tomes. Christianity is, in many ways, synonymous with what we used to call “Western Civilization,” at least the last 2,000 years of it.

His book belies its title because it’s anything but short, clocking in at some 550 pages. But that’s to be expected considering the scope and sweep of the topic. It’s not beach reading by any stretch. But this book, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time or Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, was probably meant more as a reference manual than an offering to be read and discussed in book clubs.

And there’s plenty worth dipping into here. Blainey provides a nice recap of the Lutheran revolution, explains the history of the Church of England and lays out how the Catholic Church (then just the Church) lost control of the Bible because of the power of the printing press, the internet of its day.

Blainey also misses some crucial points, though. The gathering at Nicaea in the year 325 gets only a couple of paragraphs, even though the decisions taken there shaped the church forever. He credulously discusses how various churches obtained relics through the centuries, including the supposed skull of the apostle St. Andrew. And he skips over the Thirty Years’ War, which author David Goldman tags as a seminal event in Christian history.

“[A]fter the initial, abortive revolt of the Bohemian Protestants against the Austrian Empire, the Thirty Years’ War became a Franco-Spanish conflict, fought by fanatics on both sides who believed that their nation was chosen by God to be his agent on earth. It was a religious war, to be sure, but a war between two perverse, nationalistic readings of Catholic Christianity,” Goldman writes. That conflict depopulated swaths of Europe as Christians killed other Christians.

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Blainey is on more solid ground as he comes closer to modern times. Like a boy looking for his toy under a streetlamp, that makes sense, since our records are so much better.

For example, he correctly notes that competition has kept Christianity stronger here than in Europe. “The United States, in religion as in commerce, produced a torrent of entrepreneurs,” he writes.

That’s because the Founders created a system with no state-supported church. The true meaning of the First Amendment’s protection of religion doesn’t mean you’re entitled to freedom from religion, it means the government cannot compel you to be a member of a particular church. That was unique: “In most of the major and minor states of Europe, one religion was dominant and received privileges not available to the others or, in some cases, even occupied a monopoly in religion,” Blainey writes. Competition, in religion as in commerce, makes a church stronger.

Blainey also hints at the potential death of Christianity, or at least the end of the growth of Western Civilization. “The expansion of Christianity and its global spread owed much to this golden age of European peoples,” he writes of the 150 years before 1914. “But the First World War, really a suicidal contest for European and global supremacy, ended with two distinct losers: Europe was one, and its fragile Christian civilization was the other.” Expect to hear more about this theme over the next four years, as we mark the centenary of World War I.

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So what does Christianity’s future hold? First, its growth will continue to come from outside Europe. “In the year 1000, most Christian baptisms took place in Europe and Asia Minor. In 1999, only a fraction of Catholic baptisms took place in that traditional homeland of Christendom,” he writes. “The fast decline of Europe as the heartland of Christianity was not foreseen in 1900.” A betting man might wager that Pope Benedict XVI will be the final European pope selected for quite some time.

Also, while many Christian traditions will endure, they will probably continue losing their religious sheen. Take Christmas. The “early Christians had borrowed an ancient pagan festival that marked the year’s shortest day and converted it into their annual celebration of Christ’s birth,” Blainey notes. Yet “by the twentieth century, the pagan were recapturing Christmas.”

And how!

They’ve taken Halloween (All Saints’ Day) and Easter (all candy day) as well.

It’s also worth noting that in the 20th century, Christianity wasn’t replaced by nothing. To paraphrase Chesterton, it was supplanted by several things. First, political parties acting as religions. Political “isms” such as communism, fascism and Nazism “demanded the same loyalty as Christianity had demanded in the Middle Ages,” Blainey writes. “They set up their own twentieth-century version of the Inquisition, and it was more efficient and deadly.”

In our own time, environmentalism has become something of a religion. Anyone who questions the “science” of “climate change” is tagged a “denier,” for example. For centuries Christians believed they could help save the rest of the planet by praying for it; now enviros preach they can do so by driving a Prius.

Near the end of his book, Blainey takes a few sentences to single out what he calls the “new Promised Land”: the U.S.

Americans act “almost as if God was viewed as the only ally” the country would have or would need, he writes. “Most Americans believed, or sensed, that they belonged to a ‘covenanted nation,’ called into being and guided by God. So far their history has not overthrown their belief.”

Christianity as the precursor of American exceptionalism? Perhaps. If Blainey chooses to write a “short history” on that topic, I’ll look forward to reading it.

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image illustration via shutterstock / Ricardo Reitmeyer / Anneka