Surveys of Christian history, regular and light

Published January 1, 2000

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by Gillian Lawson, is contained in The Story of Christianity, along with numerous other superb illustrations.

RECENT SURVEYS seem to show that for most people the new millennium has been about possible Y2K computer glitches, or an extra special end-of-century New Year’s blowout.

This, even though Christianity – the reason for the millennium – is today the predominant religion on four and a half of the world’s six continents, and claims a third of the population. As one of these books says, “it is, in historic reality, the one and only fully world religion.”

These books place Y2K in the context of 2,000 years of Christianity and its role in world history. One, with solid type unrelieved by a single picture, could be labelled “history regular;” the other, with sparkling text and lavish illustration, “history lite.” Both do a credible job with a mammoth subject, though both also seem more comfortable – and more effective – in the earlier periods of Christian history.

They root the story in the Old Testament and God’s promise to Abraham and its New Testament fulfillment, and follow its checkered and often chaotic progress through to millennia.

A World History of Christianity tries to redress what its editor perceives as the eurocentric bias found in many histories. This is more a textbook than popular history, though it is certainly accessible to the average reader.

It tries to portray the global dimension of Christianity over 2,000 years, recognizing the difficulty of doing so in a single volume by acknowledging that “important countries, whole areas, have been almost left out.” Reflecting the geographic diversity of the Christian story, there are extensive chapters on North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, India, China and its neighbours, Australia and the Pacific.

Each chapter focuses on what mattered most for the specific times and places covered, placing Christianity in the context of social, historical, theological and cultural themes. The less pleasant aspects of Christian history are covered in a balanced way, as are the triumphs.

Unlike many books where Canada is lumped in with the rest of North America, our Christian history is shown as distinctive from that of the U.S. There is a good section dealing with the formation of the United Church of Canada bringing together Methodists, some Presbyterians, and Congregationalists in 1925.

Footnotes are placed at the end of each chapter. There is a 35-page bibliography offering related reading under each chapter heading.

While each chapter makes a helpful contribution in itself, the book seems to lack overall cohesion. A final essay to pull everything together would have helped. There was the germ of one in the chapter on Western Europe, where many of the comments could have had a wider application, especially this: “faith, never universal, has been known to survive in even less promising conditions than those of the present.”

The Story of Christianity combines superb illustrations with lucid and readable text to convey the sweep of Christian history through 2,000 years. Though each could successfully stand alone, together they show powerfully why – for Christian and non-Christian alike – the Christian faith “has affected every sphere of life, from morality to politics, from art to literature, from science to philosophy.”

The co-authors are an Irish Roman Catholic priest and an American Protestant Evangelical historian and book publisher. Together they have produced a book that presents Christian history in all its diversity – in good times and bad – concerned not only with the leaders in each era, but for its role in the lives of ordinary people.

The Story of Christianity

A Celebration of 2,000 Years of Faith

by Michael Collins and Matthew A. Price

240 pages 9 x 12

hardcover, $35.00

Oxford University Press

0 1954 1496 9

A World History of Christianity

A Celebration of 2,000 Years of Faith

Ed. Adrian Hastings

594 pages

hardcover, $71.99


0 8028 2442 0

Contemporary quotations, maps, charts, photographs and works of art give an immediacy and relevance to the narrative. One of the most striking photographs is of the heelbone of a young first century man with the nail used in his crucifixion still protruding. The accompanying text gruesomely describes the violence of that method of execution.

As it traces the various stages of Christian history, the book also examines the development of doctrine through the centuries. Every page offers lavish illustrations, and there are small side articles highlighting interesting, curious, or useful aspects of the story. There is a helpful glossary of terms from all traditions, making the book useful for cross-denominational study by persons of high school age and up, together with a good index.

The controversies are treated, in the main, even-handedly, neither minimizing nor exaggerating their effects. The survey of the Reformation period – both from the Protestant side and its effect on the Roman Catholic Church, is especially helpful. The background article on the sale of indulgences – a key issue of the reformation – takes on new relevance with the recent publication of the Vatican’s latest catalogue of indulgences available today. On the other hand, the authors’ dismissive handling of the “three selfs” movement of Chinese Christianity perhaps reveals a convergence of right wing evangelical and papal attitudes toward the Chinese revolution of 50 years ago.

Stories of corruption and authoritarian repression, of wealth spent on soaring cathedrals instead of feeding the hungry, are balanced by those of Christian care for the poor, sick, homeless, and aged; by the fight against slavery, and the Christian belief in equality before God.

The closing chapter suggests that present controversies in the church stem less from the old Catholic-Protestant divide, but between liberal and conservative – where the like-minded find oneness across denominational lines rather than in their own historic church allegiances.

The common thread running through this presentation of the Christian story is the ability of the church repeatedly to correct itself. It is summed up in a quotation from Christian author G.K. Chesterton: “Christianity has died many times, and risen again.”

William Portman is book reviews editor of the Anglican Journal.


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