Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A Short History of Christianity

Philip Harvey

This review of 'A Short History of Christianity' by Geoffrey Blainey (Viking Penguin, 2011,  ISBN 9780670075249) first appeared in the Australian Book Review, June 2012


Any recent 'big picture' church history will suffer by comparison with Diarmaid MacCulloch's incredible A History of Christianity (2009). That book discovers all manner of new evidence about this protean religion and opens up questions about its life in every age and across every continent. Even its subtitle, The First Three Thousand Years, wants us to appreciate that Christianity has to be understood through its origins in the Hebrew and Greek cultures of the millennium before Bethlehem. Geoffrey Blainey’s history begins more conventionally with the birth of Jesus.

The major peaks and troughs reappear before our eyes with Himalayan regularity: Jerusalem, Nicaea, Cluny, Chartres, Wittenberg, Trent, Plymouth. In such territory we look for the interstices, the small details and asides that give character to the storyteller as well as his story. Blainey can be good, as in this quick portrait of the least of the apostles: ‘Paul was an outspoken perfectionist, a sure formula for making enemies. His loyalty to the new Christian Churches was unshakeable.’ His summary of the medieval papacy as in effect ‘a huge service industry’ is irresistible. His thread of Antipodean references entertains the local readership, of which my favourite is his proof that James Cook was a crypto-Deist.  His penchant for the big and momentous delivers memorable facts, like in 1880 Rouen and Cologne cathedrals ‘were briefly the two tallest buildings in the world at the very moment when the first American skyscrapers were planned.’ And he presents useful formulas: communism and fascism were new religions that ‘set up their own twentieth-century version of the Inquisition, and it was more efficient and deadly.’   

When working on this scale a clue to an historian's thinking is preferences. MacCulloch devotes a full ten pages plus to Erasmus, but never even mentions Dante. This assists in our reading the ‘ironic smile of the divine and the sacred’ that animates his book, as well as registering his resistance to the kind of judgemental categorisations that are the stock-in-trade of the Florentine master. Raised a Methodist Geoffrey Blainey, perhaps not surprisingly, gives a lot of time to the Wesleys. He is terribly excited about John Calvin, who he calls ‘one of the most influential men in the history of the world,’ a claim that could be made with even more sureness about several others named in this book. Blainey rarely commits to a firm position himself, but ultimately this strong Protestant lean helps explain his cautiousness with Rome, his tentativeness with Byzantium, and his shyness (or is it antagonism?) towards Anglicanism.

Blainey, an Australian democrat, binds his text with timely reflections. He explains that ‘religious toleration is almost a modern invention,’ that in former times it was ‘important to hold the correct religious views rather than hold the freedom to reject them.’ This helps get inside the minds of ancestors for whom heresy could be a matter of life or death. He is also realistic about the mischievous cliché circulating these days, that religion is the cause of all wars. This book discloses very quickly how Christianity, like the other religions, has been used through time for other people’s wilful purposes, and has probably stopped more wars from starting than can be calculated. Even the scandalous Crusades became largely commercial enterprises, where the financiers and shippers reaped the rewards. The infamous Venetian destruction of Constantinople in 1204 Blainey puts down to revenge. He makes the telling observation that if there were Wars of Religion in the 16th century, then World War II could well be called the War of Irreligion.

Unlike MacCulloch, Blainey is not averse to authorial intrusion. Most startling is when he seems to speak for Jesus himself, as in his take on monasticism. We are told that Jesus much ‘preferred the company of people in the towns and countryside’ and had ‘no intention of devoting most of his day to prayer and the reading of sacred works.’ The Gospel is open to varying interpretation, as Blainey says himself, and no one would gainsay his attraction to a convivial Jesus, but there are many biblical warrants for the eremitic and communal life, just as there are repeated calls to pray and read the Word. Blainey is extensive on monasticism but his uneasy Protestant scruples spoil his presentation. Similarly, while he is versed in Reformation controversies over the sacraments, Blainey is curiously incurious about the centrality of the sacraments and the liturgy in either East or West.

A recurrent question is how Christianity survived while other religions, even whole movements and empires, did not. How indeed it flourished through persecution and centuries of radical change. Even reading its earliest documents (Paul’s Letters) today we are amazed at the speed and distance with which it moved. There is no simple answer. Geoffrey Blainey, typically, privileges the success stories while minimising the negatives, leaving the impression that except for the occasional setback, like the arrival of Islam, Christianity is a gold rush that never ended. That said, he is sensitive to eschatological imperatives, which ought to be the guide for our understanding of any kind of Christian, and the key to their own understanding of the future and the past.    

A problem with church history too is that while Christ declares that his kingdom is not of this world, here is all this worldly history.  What an historian renders to Caesar is Caesar’s. Judgements about Christian history are inevitably Brechtian. For every bishop famous for demolishing an Arian, there is a diocese of individuals practising their version of caritas. For every abbess interpreting her Teresa of Avila there are communities who have freely chosen humilitas and anonymity. One may be born into a Christian culture, but no one is born a Christian. Blainey likes the main characters but we sometimes wonder where everyone else has got to, which leaves this work somewhere between a textbook made from books and an avuncular armchair tour of historical events.  One chapter opens, ‘The ocean of Christendom could be placid for long periods, but sometimes the winds and currents were swift.’ This storybook approach to the narrative is deceiving and too easy. The idea that church history was ever ‘a placid ocean’ is, at best, a naïve assumption that MacCulloch would reject. Even that questionable term Christendom is left to work its magic, as though Christianity was ever one supra-national and undivided realm.

So, while Blainey at 80 keeps an informative and enthusiastic style, his grand narrative is discontinuous, too given to personal likes and opinions. He privileges congregationalism when the religion from the outset is indisputably episcopal. He recognises that ‘most of the modern debates of profound significance were originally dialogues with or within Christianity,’ but his book is not an indepth history of ideas. And while he believes in a worldview, Blainey exhibits a dependent eurocentrism and an unease with the other major religions. This is particularly so where he makes several seemingly gratuitous connections about Islam that may be construed as negative criticisms. The worst of these is his comparison of the shock felt by the world at the Fall of Constantinople (1453) with the surprise people felt when a seemingly defenceless city was attacked in broad daylight in 2001. Blainey is not referring to Kabul or Kandahar.

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