Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins

Competent, spiky - and sometimes irritating

This is very competent coverage of the history of Christianity in the East: scholarly, but easy to read, full of detail, but the larger canvas is never lost.

It's also spiky, in that the author has opinions and gives them. He has many telling points. Here are three examples. The idea the church after Constantine suppressed controversial gospels is nonsense when one considers that the Eastern Church, with no obligation to Rome, likewise refused to give credibility to these alternative gospels. He contrasts the disappearance of the church in North Africa with the survival of the Coptic Church in Egypt and gives this sensible assessment: 'Egyptian Christianity became native; its African counterpart was colonial'. And in terms of which Christians survived and which perished the answer often came down to geography, the higher up a mountain you lived, the better your chances of survival.

Competent and spiky - but sometimes irritating. The most irritating was the constant referencing to the unproven assumption that most Christians were unaware of the history of the Eastern churches. Indeed that irritant is in the title, which is wrong. It's not a 'Lost History', it's been there for anyone who has wanted to find out. Given that most of the author's readers will have some interest in church history the assumption is unlikely. Many Christians are aware that there was a great church in the East. However, even if the assumption contains some truth, we the reader s have bought the book to be told the story - not to be reminded that there are people who don't know the story. The section at the end was brave, but it was over ambitious. The author knocked the idea that the suffering of the church in the East was God's punishment (though that is a biblical idea), but was unable to really follow this up except to say we need a 'theology of extinction'. That really means a way of understanding suffering. That is over ambitious, best left for the theologians.

And Islam. Full marks to the author for not treating Islam as some great organised force; full marks for underlining the political and ethnic aspects of how Muslims treated Christians; and full marks for levelling an appropriate amount of blame at the feet of Muslims for what happened to the Christians. This was spiky.

But there was an irritating aspect to the author's approach to Islam. First there was the general statement that there is nothing in the Muslim teachings that would make Muslims more violent than other religions. That is tosh. The teaching of the founder of Islam on violence, both in practice and action, is very different to that of the founder of Christianity. So, human nature being what it is, it is fair to say that there is less restraint in Islam than in Christianity. And then there was this attempt at the end of the book to try and see Islam as a part of God's divine plan. As with the author's attempt to give some theology to the fate of the Eastern churches, this was also over ambitious, and so irritating.

The author has done a fine job making the history of the Eastern churches more accessible. A suggestion if the book is revised: a more thorough look at the impact of modern Christian mission on the Muslim world. The usual story has been converts from Christianity to Islam, but the script is changing in our generation and deserves the attention of scholars such as Professor Jenkins.

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