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Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Review: "Christianity - The First Three Thousand Years"

TITLE: CHRISTIANITY - the First Three Thousand Years
AUTHOR: Diarmaid MacCulloch
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Viking, 2009, (1161pp).

[This review is first published at YAPDATES here.]

If this book can be made into a film, it will be an epic. Comprehensive, scholarly, and thoroughly captivating, I cannot put this book down.

The Book
This is a book of history, in particular, the story of Christianity as told from the knowledge of an Oxford professor of the History of the Church. The author describes himself as a 'candid friend' of Christianity rather than a dogmatic believer of the Christian faith. At the same time, he does not actively assert the existence of God, positioning himself more like a seeker rather than a know-it-all.

His scholarly prowess is demonstrated in 7 parts, multiple illustrations and maps, an extensive chapter by chapter bibliography, over 1161 pages of content.  The title of each part of the book gives a useful summary to inform the reader where the author is going with his story-telling.

My Comments
For a book this large, and for a topic so wide, I am concerned that the telling of the story of Christianity will be biased. This is not necessarily a major problem in this book, though the reader ought to be aware of the single author perspective. No matter how unbiased one is, there is always a tendency to sway too much to one's own viewpoint. No one can truly be neutral. Note that the author states:
"I make no pronouncements as to whether Christianity, or indeed any religious belief, is 'true.' This is a necessary self-denying ordinance. Is Shakespeare's Hamlet 'true'?" (11)
While this does not mean he denies Christ, it does mean that he makes no commitment to whether it is true or not, except to say that the 'story' is true, being part of human history. Thus, MacCulloch maintains a scholarly perspective dealing with facts, without committing himself dogmatically to any position of religious faith.  While scholars may applaud such a move, some religious quarters may frown. I figure that the author intends this book to cater to a wider audience, and does not wish to alienate the non-Christian historian from using this book. Fair enough. This motive is further evidenced by MacCulloch's use of BCE and CE instead of the traditional BC and AD terminologies.

I like the way MacCulloch divides the history of Christianity into 7 parts.
  1. Part I - A Millennium of beginnings (1000 BCE - 100 CE)
  2. Part II - One Church, One Faith, One Lord? (4 BCE - 451 CE)
  3. Part III - Vanishing Futures: East and South (451 - 1500)
  4. Part IV - The Unpredictable Rise of Rome (300 - 1300)
  5. Part V - The Imperial Faith (451 - 1800)
  6. Part VI - Western Christianity Dismembered (1300 - 1800)
  7. Part VII - God in the Dock (1492 - present)
While most books on the history of Christianity focuses on the first 2000 years, from Christ's birth to the present, MacCulloch decides to make his book unique by dedicating a small part of the book to the 1000 years before Christ's incarnation. One would have thought that the book would have been divided equally among three milleniums. That is not to be. In terms of numbers, the first 1000 years before Christ is only about 53 pages, hardly 5% of the entire book. This makes the book looks more like any conventional Church history book that talks more about the period AFTER Christ, with only a brief mention of the first 1000 years. This is a disappointment. Maybe, the book ought to have been subtitled:

"Christianity - the first two thousand years + a short history before Christ"

Otherwise, readers may make one of two misunderstandings. Firstly, they may think that the book is equally distributed among the first 1000 years before Christ, and the next 2000 years after Christ was born. Secondly, they may mistakenly assume that it is about the 3000 years AFTER Christ was born, seeing the final millennium as some kind of a futuristic prophecy of the world of Christianity.

That said, I find this book having more strengths and weaknesses. The three things I like about this book is its comprehensiveness, its depth of research, and a captivating retelling of the story of Christianity. In terms of comprehensiveness, for a one-volume book, MacCulloch covers an impressive array of the Church, from East to West, from Europe to the Americas and Asia. In terms of Research, he provides not only a respectable collection of bibliography, he points the reader to a more detailed index online. He helpfully reminds us that while his book is lengthy, the history of Christianity is much more. The strongest part of this book is the author's ability to tell the whole story in a captivating manner.This keeps the reading interesting, and the reader interested.

I will not hesitate to recommend this as one of the key textbooks to use for teaching the history of Christianity.


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