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Apologies, but no apologetics

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

23 September 2009

12:00 AM

23 September 2009

12:00 AM

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

Allen Lane, pp.1184, 35

This is a massive work, 1,132 pages long, not counting the index. This is partly because the author, Professor of the History of the Church, at Oxford, seems anxious to downgrade the importance and uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth in founding the religion which bears his name, and therefore deals first with the millennium which preceded his birth, tracing the roots of the religion in Greek and Hebrew culture. This takes up 73 pages, but is too cursory to be effective and should be skipped. The section on Jesus is not much more than 20 pages, and reflects all the most irritating aspects of modern Anglican New Testament criticism. The personality of Jesus never emerges, and one is left with the thought that if so little of it is true, what was all the fuss about? This section should be skipped too. There are also otiose appendices, giving the text of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, and chronological lists of the popes, the patriarchs of Constantinople and the archbishops of Canterbury. These take up 20 pages and add nothing to the value of the book. (On the other hand the source notes are often more interesting than the text, and the bibliography is thorough and up-to-date, the most useful part of the entire work.)

Once the author gets into his story with St Paul and the founding of the church, the narrative becomes more interesting and fruitful. The great strength of the book is that it covers, in sufficient but not oppressive detail, huge areas of Christian history which are dealt with cursorily in traditional accounts of the subject and are unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers. These include the evolution of the early Christian sects, the Eastern Church in its entirety, the rise of Orthodoxy in both the Greek world and Russia, and the special cases such as Bulgaria and what has become Serbia. Among other well-covered topics are the early history of Christianity in Poland, the conflicts in Transylvania (where the Professor writes eloquently of the parish churches he has visited), Armenia and the Caucasus, and the successes and failures of the faith in Asia. His analysis of why Christianity has taken root in Korea but made such a hash of things in India is perceptive. There is also an account of the 19th-century missions in Africa and the Pacific which is first-rate and full of insight.

Yet the book as a whole is dull, and a struggle to read. One reason is MacCulloch’s unwillingness to commit himself. He writes: ‘I come from a background in which the Church was a third-generation family business’ (note the word ‘business’, not ‘calling’). He adds: ‘I remember with affection what it was like to hold a dogmatic position on the statements of Christian belief.’ But he does not say what he believes now — whether, for instance, Jesus was the son of God, and rose from the dead, or if Christianity is the true faith. What he does say is: ‘I would now describe myself as a candid friend of Christianity.’ Many would find this insufferably condescending, and I would do myself if I were inclined to take the professor seriously.

The reason I find him essentially a comic figure is that, while obviously successful at his trade (and a great collector of literary prizes), he appears to be absolutely terrified of offending people, especially powerful groups who know how to use their muscle. Of course dons, especially Oxbridge ones, are so heavily supervised now in what and how they teach, that professors cannot be too careful, especially if they hold a chair in such a tricky and contentious subject as religious history. A don can now get into trouble merely for failing to answer the emails of students who attend his lectures. Then again, MacCulloch’s book is to accompany a television series on the subject, and the demands of the medium constitute an added dimension of worry and conformity to elitist fashion.

All the same, the professor seems to have a positive relish for current correctness in all its forms. Some of his PC antics were new to me. I did not know that the southern Irish, or those who claim to speak for them, object to the term ‘British Isles’. Well, they do, it seems. So the professor uses the term ‘Atlantic Islands’ or ‘Atlantic Archipelago’ instead, though he occasionally forgets, and on page 855 ‘the British Isles’ raise their incorrect heads. However, use of ‘Atlantic Islands’ obliges him in turn to apologise to the Spanish and Portuguese, who have such islands of their own. Indeed I do not know which gives the professor more pleasure, PC perfectionism or the apologies it entails.(The term he uses is ‘crave the indulgence’, a phrase which might have been coined by the Revd Obadiah Slope or even Uriah Heep.)

He uses the term ‘Miaphysites’ instead of ‘Monophysites’, and apologises for that too, I am not quite sure to whom. Again, he writes ‘Dyophysites’ instead of ‘Nestorians’. Another apology, the first any Nestorians must have received for some considerable time. When dealing with Peru, he insists on writing ‘Inka’, not ‘Inca’. So as not to offend the Jews, he uses the term ‘Tanakh’ instead of ‘Old Testament’. But Old Testament keeps cropping up, so he apologises for that, too. He obviously wants to coin another PC usage by referring to New Zealand as Aotearoa, its Maori name, but doesn’t quite dare. He does not tell us, however, that the Maoris were themselves colonists and exterminated the last aboriginal inhabitants of the islands as recently as the 16th century.

Indeed the professor is not always as straightforward as he likes to present himself. He obviously dislikes Erasmus, but does not come out with it. Instead he says he should be ‘the patron saint of networkers’. Another figure he views with hostility is Pope John Paul II, seeing him as a reactionary who reneged on Vatican II (not true, unfortunately). He does not quite dare to accuse John Paul of insincerity. Instead he calls him ‘a born actor’. Indeed, for a man so anxious not to offend (except over absolutely safe targets, like General Franco), the professor is often surprisingly irritating. He uses those dreadful American expressions ‘a slew of’, or ‘a raft of’, for ‘numerous’. He ticks off High Anglicans for their ‘camp mischief’. And, surely, in a history of Christianity, it is wrong to employ ‘backward-looking’ as a term of abuse.

Towards the end, perhaps wearying of his huge task, he lets the mask of objectivity and impersonality slip, and his book becomes almost autobiographical in places. His comic side takes over when he tries to blame American religious fundamentalism for the, to him, unconscionable US backing for Israel in the Middle East. All the same, this tome is a commendable effort. Christianity is a huge subject. MacCulloch tells us: ‘In 2009 it has more than two billion adherents, almost four times its numbers in 1900, a third of the world’s population, and more than half a billion more than its current nearest rival, Islam.’ These figures strike me as rather high. The professor quotes as his source the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.

Despite overcrowding, I shall keep this book on my shelves, for reference. But I can’t imagine anyone reading it for pleasure.

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