BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Have you ever felt that trombone music would lighten the mood at funerals? You’re not alone. So did Count Zinzendorf of Saxony, a Lutheran holy man who, in the mid-18th century, felt he had to leave his young church to help reform it. Only 200 years old, the Lutheran sect had already become too dour and doctrinaire, he thought. So he founded a village of pious craftsmen and musicians on the edge of Bohemia. They worshipped seven days a week, like monks, and they became known as the Moravians. The sect they founded still survives, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s sprawling Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is filled with delights like this one, but it is by no means a collection of minutiea. It has what philosophers used to call, imposingly, an architectonic plan. In fact McCulloch draws together such long, storied phases of Christianity into a single history, it begs to be read in a single sitting, an impossible task. It’s 1,000 pages long, plus notes and illustrations. MacCulloch’s history takes such an extended effort to digest, I think many readers might come away, as I did, with a less unified sense of Christianity’s whole history than is promised.
In execution, MacCulloch is admirably fair-minded (to a fault, some readers might think). He winningly explains why the doctrinal disputes of the late classical and early medieval periods, such as the trinity and incarnation, were not as trivial as hindsight makes them. He treats the crusades about as objectively as one thinks they ought to be treated, focusing mostly on their impact on the church’s trajectory rather than the monstrous events themselves. We know hardly anything from MacCulloch of what Torquamada’s Inquisition was like, only that it happened and it was infamous. The Enlightenment arose, not in blatant opposition to Christianity, MacCulloch argues, but in synthesis with leading churchmen’s healthy skepticism.
Paul, Augustine, and Luther are the towering protagonists in MacCulloch’s history. Just about any pillar of Christian thought or enduring doctrinal dispute has reference to the ideas they worked out about sin, grace, and what it means to belong to the church.
With the gift of a novelist, McCulloch develops one particular theme that emerges as a deep tragedy, indeed a crying shame–the creeping extinction of the Syriac Church. The Syriac Church traces its existence back, uninterrupted, to the first generation of Jesus’s disciples. Alone among the world’s surviving Christians, they can claim that their forbears drew the original contours of Christian doctrine and worship and set the cornerstone for the church. But they are disappearing now.
The Syriacs live along an arc rising from the northern Levant toward the triborder area of modern-day Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. For centuries, they were quietly marginalized by the competition among Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow to be Christianity’s leading power center. Today they are actively persecuted, by (in ascending order of barbarity) the Turkish state, Kurdish militant groups hoping to build a state among the ruins of the Syrian civil war, and the jihadists of ISIL.
I suppose it is the mark of a good history book that it leaves the reader wanting to know more. Indeed, this is how MacCulloch left me, curious about the Syriacs’ failure to capture the sympathy (or even attention) of today’s more powerful Christian sects; curious about the life and times of Jan Hus, the bohemian monk whose rebellion against Rome pre-dated Luther’s by a full century; curious about the level of violence in the Thirty Years War (the worst in western history); curious about the rise of Pentacostal Evangelicalism in America and its seeming imperviousness to modernity. Ah, but there will be time for those things, God willing.