the lost history of christianity

Over the past few years I'd have to rate The Next Christendom (Philip Jenkins) as the book which has had the biggest impact on me. So when I saw The Lost History of Christianity (HarperCollins, 2008), it was ordered immediately and then read immediately. I have so many other things I am meant to be doing but I just had to get this post written!

In this book Jenkins makes a case for a forgotten (maybe even ignored) world. There is this popular misconception that the church became European a millenium earlier than it actually did. The centre of gravity only moved to Europe around 1500AD, not 500AD. And during those 1000 years it was thriving in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East - only moving to Europe by default when the church in these other regions was "destroyed so comprehensively that its memory is forgotten by all except academic specialists." (22) Jenkins writes to open up the work of the 'academic specialist' to a wider readership.

1. Some stray sentences from the book

"As late as the 11th century, Asia was still home to at least a third of the world's Christians, and perhaps a tenth of all Christians still lived in Africa - a figure that the continent would not reach again until the 1960s." (4)

"In terms of the number and splendour of its churches and monasteries, its vast scholarship and dazzling spirituality, Iraq was through the Middle Ages at least as much a cultural and spiritual heartland of Christianity as was France or Germany, or indeed Ireland." (6)

"The Christian impact on Islam was profound ... the severe self-denial of Ramadan was originally based on the Eastern practice of Lent." (37)

"For several centuries, Merv was one of the world's greatest Christian centers." (45 - located in southern Turkmenistan)

"Syria has a strong claim to be the source of Christian music." (48)

"Mosul - in Iraq - boasts the tombs of three biblical prophets: Obadiah, Nahum, and Jonah." (84)

"During the thirteenth century, the Muslim states suddenly found themselves under attack from a lethal enemy whose activities made the Western Crusades look like fleabites. The Mongol assault ... posed what was unquestionably the greatest threat ever to the existence of Islam." (120-121)

"Where the African church failed was in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of the cities ... and not sinking roots into the world of the native peoples." (229, unlike the Coptic church in Egypt)

"Persecuted churches could endure for centuries above the 2000 foot contour, but succumbed nearer to sea level." (248)

"The Christian faith has established itself in China on at least four occasions and the first three missions ended in ruin." (255)

"While the 1915-1925 period in the Middle East marked the extinction or ruin of ancient Christian communities, this was exactly the era in which the religion began its epochal growth in black Africa, arguably the most important event in Christian history since the Reformation." (261)

2. Some stray implications on my mind

If I was just starting a career in theological education (rather than finishing one) I'd be pressing for a revolution in the way Church History is taught. The story of what happens "beyond the old Roman borders" (46) needs to attract far more attention. Just because the book of Acts tends to move West (although the gospel reached Ethiopia before it reached Rome!) doesn't mean that there was no movement South and East. There was! The Dark Ages were not the Dark Ages everywhere. As John Stott is known to say 'every Christian needs to be a committed internationalist'. Well, let's start with the way we teach Church History.

Excavating this lost millenium makes what is happening around the world at the start of this third millenium just so exciting. "Far from being a daring innovation, the globalised character of modern Christianity is better seen as a resumption of an ancient reality." (40) The growth of the church in Asia and Africa and the Middle East takes on a whole new appearance for me after reading this book. So, let's see Jenkins' books as required reading in both history and mission courses.

Inter-faith relationships need to be reconsidered, particularly where Islam is involved. For centuries Christianity and Islam coexisted pretty well. Maybe it is still possible. This needs to be explored. But lets not be seduced by the stuff my kids bring back from school and university where there is this serious miscalculation which always pits Muslim tolerance against Christian bigotry in a manner that "beggars belief." (99) The Crusades are not the only event which occurred in the relationship. "The deeply rooted Christianity of Africa and Asia did not simply fade away through lack of zeal or theological confusion: it was crushed in a welter of warfare and persecution." (100)

I still find one of the enduring attractions of Christianity is its shifting geographical centres of gravity, its committment to indigenous languages and peoples and it being a religion where "many mainstreams once flowed." (27) It is that incarnational principle lived again and again down the centuries and across the time zones. It started with Jesus and it kept happening. There is no other faith like it. It is one of the central reasons why I am a Christian. "How deep a church planted its roots in a particular community and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed" (35) impacted whether it died or survived - with North Africa and Egypt being the stories of contrast here.

For the record, the other books of Philip Jenkins which I have are:

The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford University Press, 2006)

God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europes Religious Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2007)

The Next Christendom: Revised and Updated(Oxford University Press, 2007)

nice chatting



spirit2go team said…
Bevans book, Constants and Contexts, is an attempt to provide a church history that is non-Western.

Places like Fuller are using it in their mission history courses,

steve taylor
Paul said…
Thanks Steve - I was not aware of that title. I shall track it down.

Kiwi High Kemp's history of the church in Mongolia was the first time I heard about how the growth of the church in some of these areas is not brand new, but a reawakening of something that has been there before. I find it all so fascinating...
Heather said…
Just to let you know, you can now get this book out from Auckland Public Libraries. Call number 270.1 J47

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