CHRISTIANITY: THE FIRST THREE THOUSAND YEARS
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking, $45, 1184 pages
Reviewed by William Murchison
It’s been said, with vast plausibility, that all human problems are theological at bottom. No doubt something similar could be said of human history - namely, that God lodges Himself, somehow or other, in the middle of everything: the subject of interest to believers and despisers alike; for that matter, to the Sunday morning Starbucks crowd.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s splendid account of Christianity’s long, momentous, non-ignorable life among us is in one way or another an account of everything that has gone on during the three millennia in which he sets his story. Three millenniums, not two, inasmuch as Mr. MacCulloch, the noted Oxford University specialist in church history, begins with the Greeks and Romans and their religious urges, carrying readers up to the feverish present. So. Another recycling of the Christian story? Not a recycling at all: Rather, it’s a well-informed and - bless the man - witty narrative guaranteed to please and at the same time displease every single reader, if hardly in identical measure. I guarantee it.
Its sheer length and bulk make “Christianity” as hard to pick up as to put down. The reason for the latter difficulty, if you call it that, is the author’s engaging prose style: fluent, well-judged and wholly free of cant and the kind of stuff in which theological journals immerse you.
Mr. MacCulloch covers the Christian waterfront so thoroughly - we have here accounts of Eastern Orthodoxy that may turn off American evangelicals, and narratives about American Pentecostalism that may inspire the Eastern Orthodox to page-flipping. There’s something here to bore pretty much everybody - but not for long, because Mr. MacCulloch, the author of a major book on the Reformation as well as a biography of Thomas Cranmer, the controversial, conflicted 16th-century archbishop of Canterbury, never dawdles, always moves along with nearest approximation to a sense of economy you can imagine in a book of 1,000-plus pages.
Yes, but what’s it all about? Is the author pro or con on the Christian proposition or just somewhere in between? I think we can go with pro in a general sense. Raised in an Anglican rectory, “brought up in the presence of the Bible,” the Diarmaid MacCulloch of 2010 introduces himself as “a candid friend of Christianity.” A friend is not the same as a family member. I’m disposed, speaking as an Anglican myself, not to fret over that indisposition to say more.
Evangelists for one project or another don’t write history. They can’t. There’s always the danger of their forgiving when they shouldn’t, at least in a strictly scholarly sense, and forgetting what needs remembering. Mr. MacCulloch does excuse himself, which is more than fair, from any imputed duty “to pronounce on the truth of the existence of God.”
The story of Christianity he embraces with apparent devotion - “an immensely varied and complicated tale … an extraordinary diversity.” Historians find moral task enough, he writes, when they set out “to promote sanity and to curb the rhetoric which breeds fanaticism.” If I have tarried over Mr. MacCulloch’s personal theology, it’s merely by way of noting what I think readers of most kinds will view eventually as his general impartiality, despite moments when you can sense the adrenaline racing (e.g., on Christian anti-Semitism as a scandal) or the eyebrow arching ever so slightly (e.g., on claims of a specifically Christian American founding by men not themselves models of orthodox devotion).
Nor, as he makes plain early on, is he a biblical literalist. Various readers won’t like various discourses, however politely worded. I beg them not to let an occasional difference of opinion stand in the way of absorbing earlier or later matter with which they may agree heartily. On so large a subject and in so long a book, is it fair, really, to expect of the author complete obedience to a single outside viewpoint?
One thing we have to remember about the Christian narrative, if I may return to my original premise, is its all-encompassing nature, hence its ability to arouse in the reader infinite interest. “Christianity,” the book, is more than informative, more than measured and temperate. It’s enjoyable - a jolly good read. So much comes together in Mr. MacCulloch’s thousand pages - Islam’s challenge to Christianity, the rise of evangelicalism, the emptying of European churches, the fundamentalist controversies (which he makes nicely clear as well as interesting), religion as a factor in the civil rights movement, the crematorium experience as a challenge to embedded Christian ways of understanding the last journey.
I speak here merely of topics with a certain contemporary application. The portrait of Greek and Roman religion, preceding even the depiction of the Jewish variety, which in turn preceded the Christian variety, is meaty. A historian who is going to ask readers to commit themselves to engage at length with his subject might as well make sure he lays the proper foundation for understanding. This one does so. The reader impatient for summations of modern religious turmoil can, nevertheless, skip the early chapters and, so to speak, read backward - from “the disappearance of Hell” in Christian discourse and the rise of Pentecostalism (which Mr. MacCulloch covers with detail and authority) to the death of liberal Protestantism in the 20th century to the secular enterprise of 18th-century Enlightenment. And so on.
The reader indeed can jump back and forth all he likes without losing the thread of narrative, always finding beguiling descriptions and characterizations that make him, frankly, remember how much better the average Englishman writes than does the average American (especially if the American is writing history). Where do we, as it were, get off the bus? Where it draws up at our present doorstep.
The conundrum for Christianity “is a society in which polite indifference has replaced the battles of the twentieth century. … Can there be a new Christian message of tragedy and triumph, suffering and forgiveness to Europeans and those who think like them? … Can the many faces of Christianity find a message which we remake religion for a society which has decided to do without it.” And may not many find amid Christianity’s many stories “the experience of wonder”?
One kind of Christian will wish Mr. MacCulloch had ended with eyes scanned in expectation of the Second Coming. Another kind will ask, what about climate change? A third kind - likely the most numerous of the lot - will shut this large book with gratitude for a long and stimulating journey.
William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.