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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Christians’

- - Tuesday, June 25, 2013

THE CHRISTIANS: THEIR FIRST TWO THOUSAND YEARS, VOLUMES 1-12
Edited by Ted Byfield
Christian History Project/The Society to Explore and Record Christian History, $30 per volume, 288 pages

One of the most important subjects an author can or will ever delve into is the history of Christianity. Great writers such as Paul Johnson, Will Durant, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Diarmaid MacCulloch have lovingly crafted volumes of work on this important world religion. Scores of books have also examined aspects of Christianity, including Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's wonderful three-volume set about Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet there really hasn't been a book series that explored Christendom in a vibrant, lively manner so as to attract interest from all walks of life. In other words, something that could be displayed in a home, church or public library — and written in a succinct and enticing manner for families to read, learn, discuss and enjoy together.

Ted Byfield has finally changed this perception. The Toronto-born Albertan, who started out as a Washington Post copy boy, has been a respected conservative journalist for six decades. He founded three Canadian newsmagazines (Alberta Report, British Columbia Report and Western Report), helped establish two private Anglican schools and published a multivolume series titled "Alberta in the Twentieth Century."

Yet Mr. Byfield's recently completed 12-volume series, "The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years," could very well be his piece de resistance. Each hardcover volume has the look and feel of a classic Time-Life book, but they're so much more than that. The books are beautifully presented with high-gloss pages, stylish writing, original illustrations and full-color photos. Mr. Byfield commissioned talented writers from the United States (Charlotte Allen and Vincent Carroll, among others) and Canada (Paul Bunner, Michael Coren, Ian Hunter and John Muggeridge, among others) to work on individual chapters.

Each book is thoughtfully researched, analyzed and presented to readers. The contributors may come from different denominations, but they're united in their belief that Christianity — and other world religions such as Judaism and Islam — must be properly and accurately explained. There are various opinions expressed in each volume, and some are open to interpretation. Yet there's no question this series will make you appreciate the important role Christians have played in our world's development more than ever before.

For example, Volume 1 covers the period between 30-70 A.D., from the Pentecost to Jerusalem's destruction. There are interesting discussions about Jesus, and how his "pronouncements about his own identity rendered him absolutely unacceptable, a lunatic, a monster, or worse, perhaps the devil himself in human form." The story of Paul is also discussed, noting that "his presence remained a thorn in the side of the Jewish establishment." Yet his letters "portray a man acutely aware of the complexities of Christian life," and "the greatest benefaction Paul left to the hundreds of millions of Christians lay neither in what he taught nor what he wrote, but in what he did."

Volume 5 looks at the vicious Muslim-Christian battles. The Prophet Muhammad may have earned "distinction in the community" through his visions and life-changing experience at Hira, but a brutal side was also developing in Islam. As noted in "The Christians," "Muslim strength always lay in speed," meaning "[t]ens of thousands of men could be concentrated for a key battle, or dispersed in far-ranging sweeps to wreak brief havoc." The one saving grace was Pope Gregory the Great, "who was destined to play a key role in the preservation" of the Christian West "against the Islamic onrush."

Volume 12 views the modern era between 1914-2001. The two world wars are discussed in great detail. Christian-Jewish relations are examined, including a nice summarization of the latter's historical persecution, "Contrary to anti-Semitic lore, Jews have never dominated any one field, but because they are known as Jews, it is easy and tempting to generalize." There are chapters devoted to the Catholic Church and Vatican II, Israel ("The new state was born as a battleground The Israelis, though outnumbered fifty-to-one, were better equipped, better led, and fighting for their lives"), Pope John Paul II ("who had represented something important and good across the world"), and Christian writing.

"The Christians" provides a scintillating account of their incredible historical odyssey over 2,000 years. Mr. Byfield's vision, passion and devotion to Christianity made this book series a reality. In turn, it will make a great addition to the bookshelves of those of the Christian faith — and all other faiths, too.

Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a contributor to The Washington Times.