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Friday, May 2, 2014

"60 People Who Shaped the Church" (Alton Gansky)

TITLE: 60 People Who Shaped the Church: Learning from Sinners, Saints, Rogues, and Heroes
AUTHOR: Alton Gansky
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014, (320 pages).

At bookstores all over the world, especially in North America, self-help sections continue to be major draws for people wanting some tips on how to live better. Good bookstores will have a special section about biographies and personal memoirs. Imagine having sixty books in one easy to leaf over binder. This is exactly what Alton Gansky had done for us, choosing saints and significant figures through history, who have shaped the formation of the Church in some way. One of the best ways to teach history is to tell stories. Gansky, author of 24 novels and 8 non-fiction books has chosen to tell the story of 60 "sinners, saints, rogues, and heroes" of the Church.

He begins with the Apostle Peter, his early life and subsequent ministry, and how his contributions have been positively matched by the Apostle Paul in the spreading of the gospel. Besides Peter and Paul, he also highlights the powerful lives of other martyrs like Polycarp and Justin Martyr. Broadly speaking, one can frame the sixty people through four periods of time.

  • Period 1 (0-500)
  • Period 2 (501-1000)
  • Period 3 (1001-1500)
  • Period 4 (1501 - present)
Period 1 comprises of the martyrs, the theological battles against gnosticism, the religious and political mergers that commenced during the reign of Constantine, and the growing influence of the bishops and doctors of the church such as Athanasius, Augustine, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, to name a few. These movers and shakers fought heresy, elevated the preaching of the Word, defended Orthodoxy, and paved the way for the flowering movement of Medieval spirituality at the end of the sixth century. Period 2 is relatively quiet, with only one "Venerable Bede" who is described as a historian and theologian. Bede's contribution is to raise the level of religious scholarship, even introducing the commonly accepted dates of BC and AD.

Period 3 is the pre-Reformation stage, with significant figures such as Anselm, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, John Wycliffe, and the astronomer, Copernicus. These people shaped the Church through helping to propagate the availability of the Bible for the masses, and how the Christian life can be lived in our daily lives. It is also a period that prepares the Church for the coming Reformation and the Dark Ages. 

When readers arrive at Period 4, there will be a lot more familiar names from Wesley to Whitefield, Pascak to Newton, Wilberforce to Carey, hymn writer Fanny Crosby, pastoral writings of Oswald Chambers, novelists like Dostoyevsky and TS Eliot, philosophers like CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, and evangelists like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.

So What?

Let me offer five observations of this mini-biography of these sixty people. Firstly, the book is Period 4-heavy. With more than half the book dedicated to individuals from the Reformation to the modern evangelical world, I think this book ought to be retitled to reflect this. Instead of going so far back to Peter and Paul in the first century, why not just bring in 60 characters from the years 1500 to the present. I am certain there are many to choose from. Secondly, I find Period 2's lack of individuals rather disturbing. Maybe, it is like the proverbial calm before the storm. What about the Islamic conquests of Europe and the religious wars fought during the seventh century? Where is Charlemagne? What about the significance of All Saints Day? These are some of the snippets of significant events happening in Period 2. Thirdly, this book is overly ambitious that it loses its cutting edge. Granted it is trying to give us a sweep of history through the lives of sixty people. Yet, there is a sense of an anti-climactic end toward the end of each character that leaves readers wanting more. In this regard, perhaps it would have been better to include some resources at the end of each chapter, for those who want to read more about the person. Fourthly, I am curious about why only sixty people. Why not 50 or 25, and so on? Understandably, any number chosen would have prompted the same question as well. It would be useful for the author to at least say something about the choice of the number, as well as his criteria for choosing the sixty people. Finally, let me give a few scattered observations. I appreciate the table of contents, which includes a short overview of each person to be described. This annotation doubles up as an index for readers to use as a reference guide as well. What about pictures and diagrams? Surely, each person merits a photo or a sketch of how he or she looks like.

All in all, the effort by the author to bring together sixty significant characters is commendable. However, for reasons above, I think Gansky could have just focused on less with more.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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