Home > Spirituality > Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity

It sat precariously on the cistern in the loo from July to December, and a wee at a time (note to the girls: standing up is key here), it is done.

What a work. I know for myself – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cathedral-English-Cathedrals-World-That/dp/1841198412/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1294310921&sr=1-1 – how hard it is to synthesize a vast field, while remaining a good read. Yet my focus was a pindrop compared to his. How can anything that complex and log be such a page-turner? Yet I could almost read it again for all the new insights and fascinating stories I missed. Such as the Christian saint who results from an early co-option of the tales of the Buddha. Time and again, familiar events (such as the Second World War) look like an entirely new landscape when light is thrown on them from the unfamiliar angle of this one specific faith.

As one nears the ending, where he makes some resonatingly interesting points, especially about the possible future directions of liturgy (yes, happy clappy is liturgy too; and no, happy clappy doesn’t have to mean Fundo nonsense) and the impact of the Enlightenment, one realizes he, too has an agenda, a point of view. Sexual politics is one theme, for example; another is the uniqueness of the European tradition, or as he rightly calls it, state of mind; a tradition which has such a powerful relationship to the faith that dominated European culture from the late Roman to the late Industrial era. Indeed I don’t think he makes clear enough just how remarkable our current juncture is, faith-wise. Europeans today operate in a multi-faith and no-faith environment unmatched since the Romans; not just because of population change – ie migration from non-Christian cultures into Europe – but also because of the influence on ‘indigenous’ culture of those traditions, from Buddhism to Islam, and including newly-minted homespun faiths, often cut from the cloths of many others. This is a major contrast to the previous millenium or so, making is closer to some very distant ancestors than we realise (not just the Romans, but also, for example Britain at the time of the first Anglo-Saxon incursions: Christian, pagan, Empire cults, all mixed up and combining with major population shifts).

The only place I beg to disagree with him, however, comes in the first half of the book. The problem is that he sees the success of Christianity — still the largest religion on the planet — as entirely the result of a series of historical accidents, especially in its early centuries, before it had achieved any kind of hegemony. I don’t think it’s that simple. His reporting of current paleo-archaeological analysis of that elusive thing, the Historic Jesus of Nazareth, is fascinating, but he throws the baby out with the bath water when he says that all faiths have a ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’-type message. It’s not that it’s not true — it is. It’s also not that other faiths don’t have their own core, unique and powerful insights — Buddhism’s Wheel of Suffering, for example, or Islam’s approaches to the nature of G*d. It’s just that no other faith says: there is only one thing to remember, only one form of behaviour that is moral, and it’s love thy neighbour as thyself. That’s a simple, but powerful, contribution. Likewise, Christianity has been so successful in so many cultures over such a long period that there must be something in the essence of it that is persuasive, that meets real human needs. I don’t deny the significance of simple power politics here, and the coincidence of Christianity’s riding on the back of early Modern European expansion; nor that other great faiths don’t have their own equally persuasive Core Story. But I do think that Core Story is worthy of attention, and something unique about it, something inherent to the story itself, has a power that has contributed to its succcess. And that something is not just about a moral message. For a start, as he very eloquently emphasizes, there’s a certain flexibility, an unfixed-ness, that has helped aid success enormously. But there’s more: something in the story itself, the birth, the death of it: what I’m saying is that the success owes as much to the power of images, myths, stories as it does to abstract moral messages; and that those of us who find themselves friends of the faith, interpreters of its contribution, without quite being *of* it (except in the loosest sense), need to get to grips with whatever-it-is that is that faith’s unique contribution if we are to understand it, and faith, and indeed our condition and what can heal it.

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  1. January 6, 2011 at 11:30 am

    A friend gave me a DVD of the TV series – you’ve prompted me to watch it. Your closing sentences require reflection and debate. When I was watching the terrific dramatisation of the Nativity before Christmas, I was being haunted by the thought of, ‘Well, of course, it could be true.’ Now there’s a thought…

    Nothing ever quite hangs together enough to please a rational mind. I was reading last night that Peter the Lombard’s Sentences were written to try and harmonise the contradictions of the early Church Fathers. Seeking the truth in the material and intellectual worlds seems to be a hopeless quest: it’s the truth which can be known and understood by the heart which makes the changes, and that’s where the myths are so powerful.

  2. January 6, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Yes, that Nativity was just excellent. Wouldn’t it great to deal with his ministry, and (dare I suggest) Death-or-Otherwise, the same way.

    As for the closing sentences, I think I went into autopilot around then, writing what felt true in my fingertips at the time rather than what I might Consider True. Which is part of why I blog!

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