Diarmaid MacCullough’s A History of Christianity

I missed reading this book when it was published in 2009, but what’s two years against the two millennia it covers? Actually MacCullough cheekily says that his book covers the first three thousand years of the history of Christianity, thereby allowing himself some coverage of the Greco-Roman and Jewish background, but his detailed treatment starts with the birth of Christ in 4 BCE and winds up, after just over a thousand pages, with the culture wars of the contemporary world. It’s the kind of book any historian would have been proud to have written, ambitious in its scope, thorough in its range, superb in the research that it rests on (having access to the libraries of Oxford must help in this regard!) and rich in its interpretations.

Some of the book’s strengths are in its organization. Just how is a historian of the whole of Christianity to make the minority Eastern tradition fit into the broader picture? It would have been a simple matter to have tacked it on as a series of addenda to chapters based on western topics, but MacCullough gives it separate coverage, and while this interferes with chronology, Muhammad appearing before Augustine, it has the great virtue of presenting Eastern history as something freestanding. His ability to see the big picture allows him to bring together things; we see the difficult relations between Bach and the Pietists. And no-one will fail to learn from the factual content. I had no idea that the word ‘Christianoi’ that was first applied to the followers of Christ in Antioch was originally a Latin, not a Greek word, just as the name of its early bishop, Ignatius, is of Latin origin, and it will be worth puzzling over the significance of this. The popes of the late middle ages who sought opinions on legal matters from the scholars of the Sorbonne had picked up the practice of looking to jurists for rulings from Islamic rulers (but just how would they have picked it up?) Rather than seeing the liberal tendencies of Anglicanism in contemporary South Africa that set it apart from Anglicans elsewhere on that continent as arising from its having more in common with North American Anglicanism, MacCullough points to its experience of apartheid and consequent sensitivity among South Africans to areas of social oppression. These things seem obvious when you think about them, but only after someone has pointed them out!

Against such strengths, criticism must be muted. There are a few factual slips, and some of the judgments seem misplaced, if they are not meant to be tongue in cheek; I don’t believe that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings forms a parallel to the Book of Mormon. The treatment of the most recent period must be provisional, and I suspect that the Second Vatican Council will come to be seen as having been less important than is suggested here, for two reasons. The society which the Council sought to approach in a spirit of aggiornamento, at such length, was itself starting to change very rapidly, making any rapprochement likely to date quickly; the partner in dialogue has moved from modern to post-modern. Similarly, and equally unforeseeably, as it turned out the 1960s were a watershed decade in the history of Christianity. Those days are now a long way away.

The stature of this book is such that its readers, however much they may already have known, will not only learn many things, but be prompted to think about things they thought they knew about in new ways. It is a very impressive achievement.

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