Saturday, December 18, 2010

Noted Review: Little-Known Christian History

Jenkins, Philip. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died. New York: HarperOne/HarperCollins, 2008. 315 Pages. Paper. $15.99. (LHP)

Stark, Rodney. God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. 276 Pages. Cloth. $24.99. (LHP)

Baylor University had a good football season. Both authors featured in this review teach at that university, and both feature little-known Christian history.

Our first book is also a first for QBR: it was recommended as a title to review by one of our long-time readers in the summer of 2009. It took a while for that requested book to be fulfilled by the publisher. Then, it waited longer than that on my personal reading stack. What is this book about?

The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins offers a revolutionary view of the history of the Christian church. Subtitled “The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died,” it explores the extinction of the earliest, most influential Christian churches of China, India, and the Middle East, which held the closest historical links to Jesus and were the dominant expression of Christianity throughout its first millennium. The remarkable true story of the demise of the institution that shaped both Asia and Christianity as we know them today, The Lost History of Christianity is a controversial and important work of religious scholarship that sounds a warning that must be heeded.

In this groundbreaking book, renowned religion scholar Philip Jenkins offers a lost history, revealing that, for centuries, Christianity's center was actually in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with significant communities extending as far as China. The Lost History of Christianity unveils a vast and forgotten network of the world's largest and most influential Christian churches that existed to the east of the Roman Empire. These churches and their leaders ruled the Middle East for centuries and became the chief administrators and academics in the new Muslim empire. The author recounts the shocking history of how these churches—those that had the closest link to Jesus and the early church—died. 

Jenkins takes a stand against current scholars who assert that variant, alternative Christianities disappeared in the fourth and fifth centuries on the heels of a newly formed hierarchy under Constantine, intent on crushing unorthodox views. In reality, Jenkins says, the largest churches in the world were the “heretics” who lost the orthodoxy battles. These so-called heretics were in fact the most influential Christian groups throughout Asia, and their influence lasted an additional one thousand years beyond their supposed demise. 

Jenkins offers a new lens through which to view our world today, including the current conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Without this lost history, we lack an important element for understanding our collective religious past. By understanding the forgotten catastrophe that befell Christianity, we can appreciate the surprising new births that are occurring in our own time, once again making Christianity a true world religion.

Philip Jenkins was born in Wales in 1952. He was educated at Clare College, in the University of Cambridge, where he took a prestigious “Double First” degree—that is, Double First Class Honors. In 1978, he obtained his doctorate in history, also from Cambridge. Since 1980, he has taught at Penn State University, and currently holds the rank of Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of the Humanities. He is also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion.

Though his original training was in early modern British history, he has since moved to studying a wide range of contemporary topics and issues, especially in the realm of religion.

Jenkins is a well-known commentator on religion, past and present. He has published 24 books, including The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South and God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis, The Lost History of Christianity and Jesus Wars (Oxford University Press).... (publisher's website)
Our readers deserve to know about the authors and context(s) of the books we review. 

Honestly, The Lost History of Christianity had me thinking deeply, reading it in small chunks over a week. (That's a long for me to take with just one book.) Why? It was new territory in an unique topic because of Jenkins' depth of detail. I had read about the early wide spread of Christianity in Africa, the continent of Asia, and the Middle East, but not with all the specific names and places attached.

Here's what I knew before: Many of these churches were Christian (in the wide sense of the term), and endured for a thousand years in territory unfriendly to Christ today. That said, very, very few of them would/could be in altar and pulpit fellowship with my home, The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. Martin Luther himself would be uncomfortable with their (in)complete confession of the person and work of Jesus Christ, and so would C. F. W. Walther.

I am NOT saying that these folks weren't Christian. They are/were more "Christian" than the "Gnostics" who tried pass themselves and their teachings off as Christianity. I will assert with the ancient fathers (and some modern scholars) that many, many of these bishops, pastors, leaders, writers, and lay Christians were too heavily influenced by Nestorianism (both Nestorius and his followers who even went beyond the teachings of their erring teacher) and not influenced enough by the Old Testament and New Testament witness.

Jenkins is to be commended for bringing this "lost history" to light. I do not know his Church affiliation, nor exactly how or if his personal beliefs color this book, but I need to take a moment to offer a note of concern. His work here describes the muddled beliefs of those he writes about as a "golden age." I simply cannot agree. Numbers do not guarantee orthodox Bible teaching.

Yet, this is a "Christian" history in the wide sense. No, these folks are/were not pagans, Hindus, nor Muslims. Their beliefs are part Christian and part....contrary to Scripture. They are/were not totally orthodox Christians. In the light of history, I will mourn the loss of believers, congregations, servants of the Word and also the loss of entire continents to other world religions. Yet, our Lord works in mysterious ways. I will rejoice that a more pure Word (and remnant of believers) was preserved in the West for the sake of "all nations," including the peoples of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

I will also briefly mention my objection to the author's faddish mention of "climate change" (135) and this: "From the tenth century onward, many prospective converts were attracted by the example of Muslim saints and sages, whose charismatic powers recalled those of earlier Christian saints. Nothing in Muslim scriptures makes the faith of Islam more or less likely to engage in persecution or forcible conversion than any other world religion" (31). I disagree with the author on the basis of just the first two suras of the Koran!

So, where does this leave us with Jenkins and The Lost History of Christianity? Here's my recommendation:
  1. Read the book because its subject matter is so unique. Find a copy in your library or get one from your favorite bookseller. Try this one out on an e-reader like a Nook or a Kindle. (I haven't made up my mind in the new "format wars," but will likely hold out for an iPad or a color Kindle.)
  2. By a copy of a great and reliable book on Christology, like The Two Natures of Christ by Martin Chemnitz, p. 191, et al, currently on sale!)
  3. Learn more about Nestorianism and other early Christian sects and how they differ in theology and practice from orthodox catholic (note the intentional small "o" and small "c") Christianity. You may also be edified and informed by the new book by Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr., The New Testament in His Blood, and his brief explanation of how Lutherans reject Nestorian Christology(, footnote 8, pp. 102-103).
  4. Ready for the hard part? Compare and contrast. Ask with Drs. Luther, Chemnitz, and Walther what Bible doctrines are at stake, what Nestorianism means taken to its logical conclusion, and how Nestorius (et al) fail to properly distinguish Law and Gospel. Discuss this with your pastor. Pastors, consider this for a deep study at Winkel conferences.
  5. Pray for the growth of biblical Christianity in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and among "all nations" and for the preservation of the Church especially under persecution.
  6. Learn more about this topic from Jenkins and other authors to help fill in the gaps of this "lost history."

I will look for other titles by Philip Jenkins to better understand his worldview on Christianity. I would describe my feeling toward him as an author in this way: He's a literary chef who uses some spices in my dish that I haven't discovered....yet.

As a reader and reviewer, I have more confidence in recommending Rodney Stark's book, God's Battalions.

In God's Battalions, award-winning author Rodney Stark takes on the long-held view that the Crusades were the first round of European colonialism, conducted for land, loot, and converts by barbarian Christians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. To the contrary, Stark argues that the Crusades were the first military response to unwarranted Muslim terrorist aggression.

Stark reviews the history of the seven major Crusades from 1095 to 1291, demonstrating that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations, centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West, and sudden attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, Stark argues that this had nothing to do with any elaborate design of the Christian world to convert all Muslims to Christianity by force of arms. Given current tensions in the Middle East and terrorist attacks around the world, Stark's views are a thought-provoking contribution to our understanding and are sure to spark debate.

Rodney Stark is the Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University. His thirty books on the history and sociology of religion include The Rise of Christianity; Cities of God; For the Glory of God, which won the 2004 Award of Merit for History/Biography from Christianity Today; Discovering God, which won the 2008 Award of Merit for Theology/Ethics from Christianity Today; and The Victory of Reason (publisher's website).

Ah, to dispel political correctness! It's better than coffee first thing in the morning. No, Christians and Christian leaders are never perfect, but they were justified in calling for a defensive war, one that had unintended consequences. 

Were there abuses? Yes. Some were theological. You may have heard about the seventy-two virgins promised to Muslims who die in battle propogating Islam. Did a Pope borrow part of a this idea from Islam?
Now the pope himself was assuring them that crusading would wash away all their sins...(117)
This false theology has most often been considered as works-righteousness, decried by Lutherans and evangelical Christians. The earlier book by Jenkins put in my mind the context of the ancient world and the "melting pot" of world religions and followers in flux.

The truth is hard to swallow after false "truths" have been taught for so long, but Stark is an engaging writer. Readers can resonate with his clear thinking, creative prose, and reliable research.

The thrust of the preceding chapters can be summarized very briefly. The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not the barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God's battalions (248).

Why did Ferdinand and Isabella have money to give Christopher Columbus? War surplus after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. Why did Charles V want external religious reunion among Roman Catholics and Lutherans? To fight the Turks at the gate of Vienna! Christ did not urge his followers to spread His Faith by the Sword. Mohammed did. The crusades were (at first) intended as defensive wars and Stark proves it.

HarperOne has dared to defy conventional wisdom with both The Lost History of Christianity and God's Battallions.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.