Books Etc.: MacCulloch’s History of Christianity

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009)

Whereas many large-scale historical surveys make tedious if not outright boring reading, especially for those who are familiar with the basic facts, MacCulloch’s exciting overview of the history of Christianity proves that it is possible to write such a history with a freshness that makes it almost a page turner, though the end of the story is long known. Or, perhaps, as indicated by the provocative subtitle, Christianity has not yet "revealed all its secrets" – with perhaps another three thousand years to come. It is this sense of wonder and amazement at many of the turns of Christian history, the awareness that other courses could have been taken, other centers could have emerged, which explains part of the attraction of MacCulloch’s style. In addition to this, a keen eye for unexpected connections between both contemporeneous and historically remote developments in Christianity, a deep awareness of the importance of song, literature, liturgy, art and architecture in understanding Christianity, as well as a completely natural inclusion of developments in Africa, Latin America and Asia, characterizes his work — undergirded by an up-to-date bibliography and reading list (of English studies). Christianity’s history is global, and, as MC rightly emphasizes, already from its earliest stages embraces completely different and partly contradictory systems of thought and practice – the first of "the first three thousand years" is Christianity’s ‘prehistory’ in the religious, cultural and political histories of Greece, Rome and Israel — breeding tensions that characterize Christianity until today.

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