A Short History of Christianity
Geoffrey Blainey, Viking
Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey has provided with this book a clear and dependable history of Christianity.
This is not a scholar’s reference work but a very accessible, engagingly readable story. It combines organisational detail and theological controversies with the sense of what it was like to be a Christian in different contexts over 2,000 years. His history has a richly human quality without sentimentality or, for that matter, “side-taking” in the debates and conflicts reported.
Stories are always told from a perspective and so is this one. This is a history of Western Christianity, though with refreshingly frequent references to Eastern Christianity. The nods to the Orthodox churches, to Maronites, Copts and others, make a great improvement on earlier histories and serve as a reminder that Christianity is more diverse and more widely spread than the familiar Protestant/Catholic divide.
Nonetheless, this history has a European focus, with the weight of detail focusing on the West and, after the Reformation, on Protestant Christianity.
Blainey might argue that the weight of historical evidence supports this — until recently the majority of Christians lived in Europe or were of European origin.
The need for a book like this is enormous in an age when ignorance about religions and Christianity is rising to a point where meaningful discourse about religion, faith and belief is nearly impossible.
I recommend it to each and all. Those who are not Christian would benefit from this balanced and unvarnished account of a monumentally influential religion. Christians would benefit from what only a study of history can bring: a counter to the ignorance which predisposes us to repeat past errors.
Blainey’s history is descriptive. This allows readers, if they wish, to form their own judgments. Yes, the fortunes rise and fall again and again but there is little attribution of cause. Readers may discern patterns but Blainey’s history does not.
Nor is this history an account of current events. As a historian, Blainey is careful in his handling of current changes in the churches and the resurgence of the Eastern Church following the demise of communism. As told by Blainey, this interesting story is far from over and should provide great caution to those predicting the disappearance of Christianity due to secularisation.
I have read many histories of Christianity, both detailed accounts of specific periods and overall sketches. This one drives a confident line through the varying explanations and debates within the many competing accounts. Blainey’s account is not misleading; it is not hagiographic; nor does it preclude debate or suggest consensus where there is none.
I do have some quibbles.
First, Blainey decided to refer to Jesus the Christ as “Christ” throughout. I found this jarring. I would have preferred “Jesus”, especially in reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Second, one of the contrasts between the Roman and Eastern churches was not as developed as it might have been, even within the concision required by a “short” history.
The Greek title theotokos, bearer of God, is ascribed to Mary and continues to inform the attitude toward Mary in the East. However, the Latin translation, mater dei, mother of God, gives a very different dimension to this title, which is reflected in the Marian theology and devotion of the West.
Third, he maintains the image of Islam as spread by the sword, while the spread of Christianity — no less spread by the sword, cannon and imperial power — is described much more irenically.
If you want to know the story of (Western) Christianity, start here. Questions raised can be pursued elsewhere but there is much richness and enjoyable reading in these 600-plus pages.
A Short History of Christianity won second prize in the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year awards.
Gary D. Bouma is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Monash University, and UNESCO Chair in Interreligious and Intercultural Relations – Asia Pacific.