Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s epic A History of Christianity starts with an obscure Jewish preacher who suffered the ignominious death reserved for non-Roman citizens, but whose moral teachings would eventually inspire a religious movement of some two billion people. This brilliant history brings together the philosophical, spiritual and intellectual beliefs of Christianity, explaining its deeper cultural relevance and broad mystical appeal.

Jesus Christ, as everyone knows, was a fringe dwelling Jewish preacher. He was crucified in brutal fashion by the Roman authorities (a gruesome death reserved for non-Roman citizens), and his notoriety should have ended there. Word of mouth perpetuated Jesus’ sayings and teachings, and some sixty years after Jesus’ crucifixion the Gospels would be written down. The New Testament was hence born, the first Christian Scriptures.

Three hundred years after Jesus’ death, the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity for himself and hence for the Roman Empire. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1000 page history takes the reader through two thousand years of Christian history, from Jesus the obscure Jewish preacher to a global super religion with two billion adherents. The sweep of the book, as you’d expect, is as large as humanity itself. Whether you consider yourself Christian or not, no doubt you will find yourself a part of Christianity’s story. Christianity’s philosophical program and moral teachings, like the language of Shakepeare, form a natural part of our consciousness.

MacCulloch takes the reader through the beguiling world of Christian dogmas, philosophical disputes and power struggles. Christian history gets quite convoluted and complicated, as you’d expect, with a lot of falsehoods perpetuated by the sheer power of the believer’s imagination. This is not to say that Christian thought is sometimes deluded, but rather that human will to power can often blind itself to reason and empirical evidence. Sometime Christian doctrines would be created that simply did not exist in the Scriptures. No wonder that powerful elites saw the danger in having the Bible translated into vernacular languages. The brilliant and sensitive translator, William Tyndale, was strangled to death and burnt at the stake for bringing the Bible to English readers (we still speak Tyndale’s English today, in the myriad of New and Old Testament quotes from the King James Bible).

The chapters on the Protestant reformation, and how Christianity could self-examine and change, show how our modern era came into being. MacCulloch’s intellectual grasp and historical breadth make his commentary on subject refreshing and full of insights. He also employs a lot of humour when describing the hypocrisies and occasional delusions of major Christian figures, making his narrative lively and often amusing.

For those wanting a thorough going history of Christianity through the ages, its moral and philosophical struggles, its wars and controversies, and its ultimate triumph, then Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history will not disappoint. It combines historical narrative with an intellectually satisfying investigation of Christianity’s importance as a philosophy, a mode of personal conduct, and a belief system.

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Published by Penguin, 2010. ISBN: 9780141021898 RRP: $29.95