But never, never on a Sunday …

Published September 4, 2007

Two quite different books on the history of Christianity are the subject of this month’s review.

A Short History of Christianity, by Stephen Tomkins, lives up to its title. In 247 pages the author zips through 2,000 years of a complicated and convoluted story – roughly a page a decade. Tomkins writes “for all the people I know who don’t know the story and would enjoy it.” It is not a book for scholars, although the author is a PhD in church history, and if I remember my church history, seems to know his stuff.

But two of his three mentions of Canada – one about the 1926 Union of Church, and another dealing with the ordination of women to the priesthood in the United States and Canada – did give me pause. In two sentences I noted five errors of fact, albeit minor. The third mention was two not-very-flattering paragraphs about the “Toronto Blessing.”

Generally the book is an enjoyable romp. Tomkins has a light touch that frequently veers into jocularity, which one might expect from a contributing editor to the online humour magazine Ship of Fools, whose book is commended by Terry Jones, star and co-writer of Monty Python.

Brevity means that Tomkins touches the high and low points with few nods to the lives of ordinary Christians. Readers who know little about the history of Christianity will learn that we have been constantly embroiled in conflict since the beginning and there are no new conflicts – all have roots in the early centuries of church life. But it is refreshing to realize that conflicts that once were settled with the sword and the torch are now fought with sharp tongues and a fiery rhetoric (which sometimes makes one think of Samson slaying the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass).

Laity will enjoy this interesting stroll through the years. Clergy will find the book a useful reminder of what we have forgotten, although regretfully there is no mention of the so-called British heresy, Pelagianism. A short glossary and a good index will greatly aid the search for a nugget or two to slip into a sermon. Readers will enjoy the little historical gems tucked into the text, such as Charles Martel winning the Battle of Poitiers in 732, ending the advance of Islam into Europe, because he equipped his heavy cavalry with stirrups so they would be more difficult to unhorse. Perhaps less enjoyable, and certainly more startling, is the statistic that worldwide there are now 34,000 Christian denominations, of which 20,000 indigenous church groups with a membership of 60 million (principally in Africa) are not linked to any international denomination. This is a book that a publisher might describe as well-written for the semi-popular market, neither profound nor frothy.

Sunday, a more scholarly work written by Craig Harline, covers an even greater number of years, as is indicated by its subtitle A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl. Harline covers this span of time by first describing in a prologue the development and eventual Christianizing of Sun Day between 600 BC and AD 800. Central to this is a fascinating debate in the early church about the relationship of the Jewish Sabbath to Sun Day.

Harline then picks six periods in different locales, describing in each a typical Sunday in a village in the south of England around 1300; in a Reform town in the Dutch Republic in 1624; in Paris in the 1890s; in Belgium during the Great War; in London, between the World Wars: and in America from 1950 to the present. In each of these chapters he takes a slightly different approach, using material from a personal diary, historical works, fiction, and, in the later chapters, adding sociological and journalistic sources. As one might guess because Harline teaches history at Brigham Young University, the chapter on America has more social commentary. He puzzles over the anomaly that his country, which has the most wide-open Sunday of the industrial nations, also has the highest church attendance and concludes that it is so because shopping and sports have been sacralized in American culture.

Social history, which can be in the wrong hands a dreary recitation of statistics, comes alive in Sunday because the author gives it flesh and blood that makes one feel it is happening to real people.

It is an interesting “read,” but requires a bit of work, not because it is particularly profound, but because it is full of delightful tidbits, such as French fries were invented in Belgium and America’s Blue Laws once forbade mothers to kiss their children on Sunday. I wouldn’t recommend it for the beach, but it would be excellent for a chilly winter evening in front of the fire.

David Crawley is the retired archbishop of Kootenay and former metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon.


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