Terence's Reviews > The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died

The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins
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Dec 22, 08

bookshelves: religion-general, history-general, religion-christianity
Recommended to Terence by: New shelf at the library
Read in December, 2008

This is an interesting look at the eastern arm of the Christian church, which survived for a thousand years under non-Christian polities (largely Muslim) and, arguably, flourished up through the 14th century AD. Only because of the vagaries of history (or the inscrutable machinations of God, depending upon one's point of view) did Western and Orthodox Christianity survive, that survival feeding the myths that the heterodox sects were suppressed by the Romans and that there were no Christians of any number outside of the empire. In fact, there were any number of Christians outside of the empire and in those darks days when Western Europe lay under the hands of the "barbarians" and the Eastern Romans were busy just trying to survive the Saracen onslaught, they enjoyed a vibrant intellectual life and greatly influenced the early Islamic empire both politically and theologically. Beyond that, they managed to evangelize as far afield as China and were influential presences in some of the most surprising places - like the courts of Mongol conquerors and Indian rajahs. Beginning around AD 1300, give or take a few decades, these communities began to disappear; Jenkins chronicles their survival and offers some reasons for their eventual destruction. (They were not entirely exterminated in many cases, however, but the believers had to go underground and avoid the attention of the governing polity.)

This is a very slim volume (only 262 pages of text) for the amount of ground it covers (over a 1,000 years of history and lands stretching from Gibraltar to Japan) so the reader is often left hungry for more information for just about every era Jenkins touches upon, especially as to causes since Jenkins is quite good at recognizing the variety of events that nurtured or killed Christian communities. For example, the disappearance of the North African church after AD 700 involved no large scale massacres of believers or serious persecutions but by 800, it's as if Augustine and Tertullian had never existed. In contrast, the Coptic church in Egypt commanded the alliegiance of a large minority of the population for centuries. It was finally broken only after generations of discrimination, persecution and the occasional pogrom.

The chapters "How Faiths Die" and "The Mystery of Survival" are provocative examinations of how beliefs live and die. For the believer of any stripe, some of Jenkins' conclusions may be a bit uncomfortable: There is no guarantee that any religion will survive no matter how successful it may appear at a given moment and some religions that appear "dead" can rebound spectacularly (consider that in AD 800, no one would have predicted that Western Europe and Christianity would be the dominant culture and faith a thousand years later; based on political and intellectual success alone, it should have been Islam).

The chapter "Ghosts of Faith" is an equally provocative look at the eastern Christian roots or influences on Muslim practices and beliefs, particularly among the Sufis. Jenkins even brings up the extremely tendentious argument that the Quran derives from Syriac Christian liturgies and gospels. While I have no brief for any particular scripture, I should note that Jenkins does seem to go out of his way to emphasize, perhaps overemphasize, the Christian influences on Islam.

On the whole, though, Jenkins is very balanced in his treatment of the various religious traditions. He is, after all, chronicling Christian disasters and the "villains" are often Muslims but he's careful to point out that some "deaths" stemmed from non-religious causes and that every religion has been guilty of discrimination and massacre.

While not, perhaps, a "must read," Jenkins is a welcome and interesting look at yet another aspect of history largely ignored in our assessments of the past and especially apropos considering current relations between the self-proclaimed children of Israel and Ishmael.
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12/17/2008 page 68
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[Name Redacted By Goodreads Because Irrelevant to Review] The Christian influence is pretty inescapable when comparing the Surat Maryam to the Protoevangelion of James though...


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