The eminent Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey has produced yet another important work in his A Short History of Christianity. Blainey, who is well known for writing histories of movements and peoples that cover a long time period, has attempted to detail 2000 years of history in a mere 550 pages or so. Blainey delivers to the world of history a sober and welltold narrative of one of the most influential religions.
It may be argued that such a narrative history is not necessary, and that ‘we all know what happened anyway,’ and that Blainey would be better off using his historical skills to examine only one area of Christianity’s history in more detail. This view could not be more wrong. With modern history becoming increasingly disjointed, ideological and unconcerned with what actually happened, Blainey’s book could not be timelier.
He reminds us of some of the fundamentals that underpin Christian history. Within the first Christianity and Western Civilisation chapter Blainey dismisses the eccentric, unfounded but nonetheless popular view that Jesus probably did not, or might not have existed. As Blainey notes ‘my own conclusion is that, by the standard of the times, Jesus’ life was astonishingly documented,’ with four gospels recording his life and preaching and works by secular historians such as Tacitus and Josephus. Blainey gives an excellent picture of Jesus as a simple boy from Galilee who spreads a message of love and forgiveness that shocks, but also inspires. On the issue of his resurrection Blainey notes that although ‘the gospels give different accounts’ they ‘in spirit agree,’ and goes through some of the events that led his followers to believe in his resurrection (such as the tomb’s rock being rolled away and the visions of his disciples).
Blainey then quickly moves to the debates over Jesus’ resurrection and his divinity in the early church. Blainey provides a good antidote to the views of pop ‘historians’ such as Dan Brown and explains how the vast majority of Christians believed Jesus was the Son of God, but many differed in their exact formulation of that divinity. Was he always divine? Was he human but then ‘adopted’ by God as divine, or did Jesus only appear to be human and always was in fact an angel-like figure? While many modern historians might ridicule these debates as trivial, Blainey gives them the respect they deserve and acknowledges how important they were for early Christians.
All through his analysis, Blainey draws links between the rise of Christianity and Western Civilisation. The Christian emphasis on learning and theological precision led to the rise of the university and influenced the profoundly intellectual culture that Western Civilisation represents. The university, Blainey explains, arose out of cathedral schools, monasteries and colleges of learning that were set up and encouraged by the Catholic Church. This tradition would be continued long after the Catholic Church had lost influence after the protestant reformation and still is a hallmark of modern secular culture. It is a shame that secular inheritors too often forget to acknowledge the profoundly Christian roots of their society and educational institutions.
Blainey is at his best when describing the lives of some of the most influential Christians. He paints a vivid picture of St. Francis of Assisi and gives the reader an insight into the passion that drove Francis to give up all he had and live a life of poverty for the Christian God. Likewise Blainey’s portrait of John Wesley gives the reader a sense of the energy with which this protestant reformer sought to reform the Christians of his day. The subtle mind and theological insights of John Calvin and St. Thomas Aquinas are given ample treatment despite the brevity of the work. Blainey has an incredible talent for sifting through detail and giving us the most important aspects of a person.
The fight of many Christians against slavery is one of the proudest moments in its history, and is covered well by Blainey. Although Christianity initially accepted slavery as normal and to be tolerated (even though it was undesirable), more and more Christian reformers in the 18th century began to campaign against what they saw as an unforgiveable evil. In England campaigners such as William Wilburforce and T. Fowell Buxton successfully lobbied the English parliament to abolish slavery, and in 1833 they achieved this goal. France followed in 1848. It was Pope Paul III in Sublimus Dei in 1537 who declared the enslavement of indigenous people as unjust and contrary to the natural law.
Through his role as a historian, Blainey also presents a rather different view of the modern controversy over whether religion is ‘opposed’ to science. For centuries the Catholic priestly order, the Jesuits, had been at the forefront of scientific discovery, and just as Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species, the monk Gregor Mendel founded modern genetics in his monastery in Austria. The man who discovered the ‘big bang’ theory was also a Catholic priest. On evolution, Blainey explains that from most of the contemporary church leaders there was not much real hostility to evolution. The Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman quickly reconciled evolution with his Christian faith, and Frederick Temple, the archbishop of Canterbury, told his faithful adherents in 1896 not to worry about evolution’s criticisms but to accept them and rejoice in them. ‘I speak of evolution as a fact’. Although the philosophical debate over ‘science versus religion’ will continue, Blainey shows how the debate is more complex than the modern mind might think.
Christianity has been a force for 2000 years and shaped civilisation itself. Despite its decline in the western world it is rapidly expanding in the third world and Blainey sees Christianity thriving in the next few decades. This is partly due to Christianity’s astonishing ability to re-shape itself and to make itself relevant even in epochs that would prefer its extinction.
A Short History of Christianity is a very valuable contribution to our understanding of Christianity and its role in shaping Western Civilisation.