Friday, August 5, 2011

The Unprofessional Book Review: The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins (a Catholic-turned-Episcopalian) has a way of making my world feel like it is on the verge of turning upside down. When I read The Next Christendom back in college, I started to feel my America-centric view of the universe coming undone. Now, thanks to The Lost History of Christianity I'm starting to lose my European-centric view of the history of Christianity. This needed to happen, and it was a long time a-coming.

In the same way that Americans think that World War II started at D-Day, we western Christians tend to forget (thanks, in part, to the book of Acts) that the Gospel didn't just go northwest after Pentacost, but rather, it went in all directions. I remember being in a history class and being told, "The Apostle Thomas may have gone east to India, but nobody really knows for sure. It could all just be legend." And I contented myself that something happened in the East, but that it was all lost knowledge.

Enter The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia - and How It Died. Quite a mouthful, I know. Enter Jenkins' book, smacking me across the face and reminding me what an anglo-European-centered Christian that I am.

Come to find out, there was a Bishop of Babylon, there were Christians in China, there were Christians in India, and Christians and Muslims lived along side of each other and influenced each other quite a bit in the Middle East (both for good and for ill). He spends so much time laying out the history of the Eastern churches that it's almost humorous when, in the narrative, the Catholic missionaries get to China only to find that these people already knew about the virgin Mary and were highly suspicious of these Catholics' orthodoxy.

Near the end of the book, Jenkins discusses in great length the reality that Christianity has not always been a successful religion in worldly terms. He says that Christians are used to success and often repeat quotes such as "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," but Jenkins says that a lot of times, the blood of the martyrs was just the end of the church because they all got killed and everyone was too scared to follow Jesus. In one of his most insightful sections, Jenkins suggests that Christians need to develop a theology of failure in regard to missions. The reason is, according to Jenkins, that "The ruin of Christianity in a particular region might confound Christians who have long been accustomed to seeing the expansion of their faith as a fundamental expectation."
What if Christians do make disciples of all nations, but subsequently lose them or their descendants? How can we account for such devastating reversals as the annihilation of the church in North Africa, the crushing of Catholic missions in Asia, and, above all, the strangulation of the faith in the Middle East? Presumably, each of these failures happened regard less of countless fervent but unanswered prayers. In terms of its global reach, only in very modern times has Christianity resumed the span that it had achieved a thousand years ago. Christianization, obviously, is not an inevitable process, nor a one-way road.
Though Jenkins does offer several thoughtful answers, I couldn't help but wonder how a real dyed-in-the-wool post-millenial thinker who thinks that it is the Christian's duty to emphasize transforming the culture would deal with this book. See - the book is full of failure. Just full of it. On the one hand, we see a Christianity that is always spreading before the rise of Islam, and on the other hand we see a culturally transformative Islam that grabbed the Christian world by the throat and brought it to its knees by seizing political power. When Christians tried to play by the same game, Christians lost and their faith virtually disappeared from the Eastern world. The pragmatist within me believes that a healthy amillennial understanding of the present age vs. the age to come offers the best framework for making sense of suffering, loss, and extinction in terms of the history of far eastern Christianity.

Jenkins does make statements which some will find controversial. For example, he says that the Bible has more violent commands than does the Qur'an (using Jericho as an example) and does not spend a lot of time discussing it. He is mostly concerned that Christians see the log in their own scriptures and not think of Islam in strictly radical/fundamentalist/hateful terms. He also argues that many things which we associate with Islam were actually adapted from Christian traditions first. The foremost example is that of prostration. Today, Christians think that it was an originally Muslim practice to pray while fully prostrated across the ground. In reality, early Muslims found this practice humiliating but eventually adapted it to themselves. In essence, Jenkins says that if we'd gone back a thousand years, we would have seen a Christianity that looked a lot more like Islam (at least on the surface) than the European-looking Christianity we think of today.

For some as well, the decision to discuss Catholic, Protestant, Nestorian, Coptic, Western, and Eastern Orthodox all together as Christian may be controversial. In a sense, he is speaking of Christianity as more of a social phenomenon, though he does get theological in some places. The difficult question for me was, "How can the only Christianity which the eastern world knew for at least 500 years have been a damnable heretical Christian sect (the Nestorians)? There are no lazy answers to these questions.

In Jenkins' conclusions after reviewing all of the failures in the far east, he has a lesson to share.
Instead of seeking explanations for the loss of divine favor, Christians should rather stress the deep suspicion about the secular order that runs through the New Testament, where the faithful are repeatedly warned that they will live in a hostile world, and a transient one. Nowhere in that scripture are Christians offered any assurance that they will hold political power, or indeed that salvation is promised to descendants or to later members of a particular community.
Jenkins continues a little later, reminding us that all of the states which the Christians strove to become a part of or impose themselves upon eventually either killed them or assimilated them.
Looking at the sweep of Christian history, we are often reminded of this message of the transience of human affairs, and, based on that, of the foolishness of associating faith with any particular state or social order. Even the Roman Empire was not to exist forever.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, you've given me a lot to think about. Great post.


Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!