Monday, 17 December 2012

Book Review - A short history of Christianity by Geoffrey Blainey

A short history of Christianity by Geoffrey Blainey

Melbourne : Viking, 2011    ISBN 9780670075249

Geoffrey Blainey needs no introduction to any half-serious student of Australian History. From his first book about mining in Tasmania (The peaks of Lyell) through to the classic The tyranny of distance, and to his more recent worldwide bestseller A short history of the World, Blainey has over the last 50 years produced a body of work that is as imposing as it is diverse.

Following his success with A short history of the World, it seems the mavens at Penguin have decided to milk a success for all it's worth, for since  then Blainey has produced the work under review and A short history of the Twentieth Century.....when you're onto a good thing.....

Blainey was born in 1930, the son of a Methodist Minister, and this fact reveals something about the structure of A short history of Christianity. In some ways, Blainey has set himself an impossible task; to compress a 2,000 year old world-wide phenomenon into 550 pages.

Written in a gentle but probing style, the first part of the book covers the life of Jesus. Blainey points out that, by the standards of the day, there is much documentary evidence to show that Jesus did in fact exist and have a following. He moves quickly on to talk of St. Paul and his work in beginning the process of creating a Church, while noting that doctrinal problems coursed through early Christianity, with Arius and Pelagius getting some space in the text. Then the rise of the Benedictines and other monks leads into part two, which covers the Crusaders, the Cathars, the further development of liturgy, and Pope vs. Anti-Pope. Part three takes us through the Reformation and Renaissance, and the last part of the book looks at religion in the new and modern world.

So, fairly comprehensive, and yet, there are sizable gaps in coverage. The Orthodox Church, in its many and varied shapes, hardly gets a look-in; this book is very much centred on a Western European view of Christianity. The split between Rome and the East is covered, but from then on in the book the Eastern Rites are mentioned only briefly, and more to emphasize their role in nationalism than perhaps in religion.

The other surprising lack is much discussion of the Roman Catholic Church, once Blainey comes to the Reformation era. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and (briefly) Hus enter the story, and the Roman Catholics tend to disappear. Much space is set aside for many of the Protestant groups and sects that flourished during the Reformation, but, it seemed to this reader, not enough space is given to describe how the Roman Church reacted to this incursion into their "space" - if we took this book on face value, it would seem that nothing much happened in the Roman Catholic world between about 1520 and World War I.

The other thing to state about this book is that is more a history of the activities of those who called themselves Christian, and the political implications of changes and rifts than any deep insight into the spirituality of any of the doctrine discussed. While the son of a Minister, Blainey has described himself as partly religious, more culturally than with any great belief, and this shows in the book - he certainly doesn't deny the validity of any Christian beliefs, but neither does he support them.

One of the strengths of this work, as in much of Blainey's writings, is that he is always at pains to avoid projecting the views of today into the past - very useful in a book such as this, to try to help the reader understand why something that seems crazy in this day-and-age was seen as perfectly sensible 400 years ago.

Overall Blainey's view of Christianity is positive; on balance he thinks more good than harm has come from the activities of people who feel Christ's calling. This book is easy to read, and while I can't recommend it as the only book you need to read to understand the history of Christianity, it's perhaps not a bad place to start.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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