A History of Christianity (Diarmaid MacCulloch)


Was this my penitential exercise for Christmas?  Some confusion there, and anyway it wasn’t so bad.  The book has 1161 pages but is an easy enough read.  It  starts with the Greek and Hebrew background from about 1000 BCE, so it’s clear from the beginning that we’re emphasising continuity rather than conflict.  I thought that this pre-Christian section was pretty sound, though someone else might have emphasised differences rather than similarities.  Then  again, the ancient peoples represented here–Greeks, Romans and Jews–were similar to each other and different from other ancient civilisations in not being subservient to a temple/palace complex.

But I was disappointed by the treatment of Russian Orthodoxy–the author seems to have missed the point about it being ‘pagan Christianity’, which is indeed connected with the European Jews ending up in Eastern Europe, since pagan Christians are more tolerant than the other kind.  He also omits the really rather splendid achievement of Russian Christianity in keeping the country at least in principle free from capital punishment for the best part of a thousand years, up to the advent of the Bolsheviks.  He thinks of Mongols and Tartars as being the same people (which is just wrong) and refers to widespread devotion among the Russian masses, when more careful investigators have concluded that they only had a very defective understanding of what Christianity was.

It’s  strange to discern events like WWI and WWII like the confused rumble of waves beating on a far-off shore, reflected only in what pronouncement the Pope did or did not issue.  Clearly MacCulloch does not believe in this God palaver, but does not wish to alienate his potential readership.  If you’re committed to ignoring the truth-value of claims made by Christianity, then the fact that 200o years of it led to two World Wars and the Holocaust doesn’t pose any particular problems,   though of course we don’t really have an alternative non-Christian Europe for comparison.   Still, it’s interesting to see how Christianity, which regards war as deeply sinful, managed to survive the appearance of Islam, where it is more of the nature of a sacrament.

I was interested to see how many of the difficulties of the Western Church at the beginning were connected with not being able to reproduce the subtleties of Greek in Latin, while in the middle I learned some new things:  the difference between Reformed and Lutheran churches, what the Protestants in the US think they are doing, the direful significance of Keswick and Chalcedon.

The observation that Hell has fallen out of favour recently is also interesting–perhaps this means that people in the West have returned to the state of Biblical Judaism, where the Jews were–or at least might reasonably hope to be–masters in their own house, and so didn’t need this afterlife nonsense.

MacCulloch apparently wishes to defend Christianity as a way of allowing people (especially in difficult times) to make choices and make sense of their lives.  He also seems to share something of the American view that Europeans having lost interest in Christianity shows they are decadent, when one might think it more significant that this belief system now enjoys no success where it originated (in the Middle East) and not a great deal in Europe, where it was developed.  But at least he recognises so-called Creation Science as completely vacuous, which is to his credit.

The donnish humour grew a little wearing after a time, as did the reliance on monochrome/polychrome, extrovert, and a few other favourite tropes…

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