Whenever you read history, you soon discover a lot about the person behind the history. I love reading Diarmaid MacCullough – he is incredibly knowledgeable and has a quick sense of humor. He writes with incredible detail, but his work feels accessible and not too dense. Of course, these are relative impressions – my wife would certainly feel that he’s too dense and this book weighs in at over one thousand pages.
It’s also good to be aware of what you are and aren’t going to get from this book. Particularly with religious history, there’s a question of whether it is better to be detached from the subject (i.e. A non-believer) or whether rejecting the truth claims of a religion is an obstacle to truly understanding its history.
Diarmaid MacCullough is not writing as a Christian – he describes himself as a friend of Christianity. He opines that to be a historian is to be a skeptic. True to this, he’s deeply skeptical about much of the Bible and occasionally forgets to include it in discussions about theology. Despite priding himself on his skepticism, ability to see past superficial narratives and his “politeness” in using self-designated terms for groups, he remains very attached to his Anglican background and appears unduly biased against certain Christian groups’ understandings of history.
Diarmaid becomes a little bound by his own traditions in places. He continually refers to the Catholic church as “the church that calls itself Catholic” and over and over calls the events that led to the Papacy in its modern forms accidents rather than maintaining a skeptic’s distance. His opinions on secularism outright favor churches that adapt by accepting the values of the culture – despite clear evidence in many of those countries that it is the “adaptive” churches that are rapidly shrinking and the “traditional” churches that continue to grow. Curiously, this also comes shortly after he reluctantly concludes that Christians bear a lot of responsibility for the events of the Holocaust, in which many of the churches did unfortunately accommodate to the culture instead of standing up for Christian morals. He confesses himself to have a great fondness for his Anglican tradition, and that clearly shows in the last pages of the book.
Being a theology major at school, there are points where I feel Diarmaid failed to include sufficient theological background to historical disagreements. For instance, Diarmaid seems to chalk the prevalence of images in Western Christianity to a re-numbering of the commandments and in Eastern to a legalistic slip around the law. Yet particularly in the Eastern tradition, a variety of other arguments from Scripture were advanced – including from the description of the Temple and the images made for it and the incarnation of Christ. These theological arguments are not discussed and leave the impression that East and West invented a straw man justification for their actions.
Additionally, when it comes to slavery, Diarmaid seems to view Christian rejection of slavery as a major innovation in Christianity. His comments do not take into account the actual place of slavery in Biblical times, and part of this is probably down to his skepticism of the Bible (which would not be shared by the people whom he was speaking of.) In the Bible, slavery was not based on race, and supposed to be a temporary state of affairs to pay off debt. There was even a regular year for the canceling of debts and freeing of slaves. Diarmaid regards this part of the Bible as something added later that he feels was certainly not practiced. Yet his view of this as an innovation seems inadvertently predicated on the people of this era sharing his opinion, which they did not.
Hopefully, the prior few paragraphs show a few of the ways in which Diarmaid’s views can cause the narrative to be deficient.
But, I loved this book! Why?
Every book has flaws, and I feel these ones are balanced out by the immense knowledge and sincere friendship of the author to the Christian narrative. He readily admits that Jesus’ followers thought he was God, and leaves a positive question mark over the Resurrection – which is as close as one can expect a non-Christian to come, since if he affirmed the Resurrection, he’d presumably become one. The scope, scale and detail of his work is without parallel in books that I have read. It takes a rare historian to take on and actually succeed at such an ambitious project.
Though he has ideas about where the church ought to go in the West that are not based on data but on his own biases, he writes as someone interested in seeing the success of Christianity in the modern world. He has an awareness of the explosive growth of Christianity outside of the West, and isn’t someone predicting, in spite of the evidence, the downfall of Christianity. In some cases, his opinions as an outsider, help Christians to ruefully laugh at themselves or re-evaluate historical circumstances that we tend to be biased about.
If we bear in mind that Diarmaid MacCullough can at most extend friendship to Christians, then this book is a valuable look at what parts of Christianity most enthrall a skeptic – as well as a deeply personal look at why at least one person (who probably well represents a class of educated modern skeptics) cannot accept the Christian faith. This book is a friendly but critical exploration of the efforts of faithful and not so faithful Christians to live out their faith. It is also a sweeping, though flawed, exploration of the history of Jesus’ work in the world through His followers. It may not inspire one to greater faith or understanding, but it does impart a lot of knowledge and inspire a mixture of Christian pride and humility.