Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch

October 25, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Cristina Odone enjoys a vigorous and sometimes incendiary chronicle of Christianity that puts faith back centre stage

Earlier this month, the relics of St Thérèse de Lisieux drew more than 2,000 people to a church in London's posh and leafy Kensington, after touring all over the country. A few hundred feet from multimillionaire mansions and a Whole Foods gourmet emporium, men and women queued for hours in order to kiss, touch or press their foreheads against the casket containing bones from a 24-year-old nun's thigh and foot. While atheist commentators despaired at the gullible who venerated such "juju", Christian websites spoke of the consolation that worshipping relics has brought to millions down the ages. In the wake of the Black Death, for instance, acts of devotions such as self-flagellation and venerating Christ's blood became more common.

Populist spirituality weaves in and out of Christianity, a flesh-and-blood backdrop to grand intangibles. To chronicle the history of the church, the scholar needs to link the fervour of the traumatised survivors of the Black Death to the well-heeled residents of Kensington and Chelsea, showing how, despite theological rows and sectarian divisions, Christianity has survived as a magnificent continuum for more than 2,000 years.

Diarmaid MacCulloch makes abundantly clear in A History of Christianity that he would not join the queue to press his lips against the "Little Flower's" casket. Such pious exhibitionism embarrasses him. What he cherishes in his church is the gentle compromise, the decent and tolerant community that allows for diversity rather than centralised authority. It is an unthreatening vision of Christianity and an eminently Anglican one. It may not explain how BMW-driving bankers can drop to their knees on cold flagstones to venerate ancient French bones, but it does show the variety of traditions that make up a religion too long dismissed as monolithic.

This is a crucial contribution to today's religious debate. Contemporary critics have portrayed the Christian legacy as uniformly anti-rational and antediluvian; the enemy, this way, can be destroyed with a single blow. MacCulloch instead portrays a multi-dimensional movement, which, through the millennia, has acted as liberator and not just oppressor, intellectual driving force as well as censor. In a culture shaped more by Dawkins than Deuteronomy, this amounts to an act of iconoclasm. But for MacCulloch, "science is a very imprecise word", at its core exhibiting "no clash of purpose or intention with religion". True scientists, he explains, are philosophers bent as much on an examination of God's creation as any theologian. In today's world, this is an incendiary statement and it makes one long to organise a debate between MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford University, and Dawkins, former professor for the understanding of science.

If MacCulloch believes scientific inquiry examines God's material creation, he sees Christian studies as focusing on the issue of man's divinity: "How can a human being be God?" He introduces us to a variety of theologians whose wrestlings with this problem chart the evolution of Christian teaching: St Paul, Origen, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Karl Rahner. MacCulloch considers seriously and at great length the more important heresies and the more interesting splinter groups, from the Cathars to the Ethiopian Church.

He takes an often irreverent view of more orthodox elements. St Francis of Assisi is a maddening eccentric, Erasmus "wrote a great deal for effect and money and to curry favour", and John Henry Newman was given to "feline sarcasm", an accusation one could level at the author himself. His book is the better for it.

There is a wonderfully vivid vignette depicting fourth-century Syrian and Egyptian monks vying with one another like athletes to see who could withstand the grossest and most punishing living conditions. (St Jerome, MacCulloch writes cattily, tried his best to put them down by saying that Syrian monks were as much concerned for the dirtiness of their bodies as with the cleanliness of their souls.) And what of Protestant ministers who, during the Reformation, rejected clerical celibacy and "were soon in the habit of growing substantial beards to back up their theology"?

MacCulloch's idiosyncratic take goes beyond the characters in the Christian story to matters of real substance: the papacy is control freakery; latterday evangelicals are weird; the ancient Greeks influenced the church almost as much as the Old Testament did. These personal convictions are often persuasively argued and always heartfelt. When he writes of the present battle over homosexuality within the Anglican communion, MacCulloch, gay and Anglican, allows his dismay to ring in every word. His intimate involvement with the subject lends this history an emotional appeal usually absent from a scholarly work. It also allows for some peculiar foibles, such as the historian's puzzling emphases: why should we read more about the Jesuits than the Virgin Mary, less on Jesus's ministry than on John Wesley's? The effect risks distorting rather than illuminating aspects of Christianity.

Yet these flaws are easily diluted in more than 1,000 pages, spanning 3,000 years of global history that include mythological figures, forgotten rows, extravagant characters and splinter sects. The sheer breadth of MacCulloch's chronicle is almost subversive. At a time when Christianity, in the public arena, is dismissed as the poor relation to be shunted off to the sidelines, here is a huge, masterly chronicle that invites the church centre stage and celebrates its global influence and extraordinary vision.

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