Skylar Burris'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 07, 2008

bookshelves: christianity, unfinished

Most Westerners learn about Catholicism and Protestantism and, if they are more broadly educated, perhaps Eastern Orthodoxy, but most of us have a gaping hole in our knowledge of the history of Christianity that excludes the Church of the East, Christianity in its Nestorian, Jacobite (and other such, from the orthodox perspective, heretical) forms, a Christianity that at one time spanned over one-fourth of the Christian world, spreading throughout Asia and Africa from its centers in Iraq and Syria. Thus, I was very excited to read this book. . . at first.

It began well. I learned of the Eastern ventures of Christianity, which “mirrored, and exceeded, the much more celebrated missionary successes in Europe.” I discovered that the patriarch of the Church of the East “himself presided over nineteen metropolitans and eighty-five bishops.” I was reminded that it was these Christians who most deeply influenced Arab civilization: “It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy, and medicine…yet…this cultural achievement was usually Christian and Jewish rather than Muslim. It was Christians…who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world…and who transmitted it to centers like Baghdad and Damascus.”

But soon I saw where the author was going with his book, and he did not appear to be going down the path of merely filling the gaps in my historical knowledge. (In fact, his approach to the history seems somewhat meandering, long-winded, and disconnected.) Instead, he seemed to be going down the typical theologically liberal path of attempting to convince the reader that orthodox Chrisitanity has no more claim to orthodoxy than any other form of Christianity that has ever existed, and it only became “orthodox” through the elimination of rivals (although, in this version, the rivals admitedely aren’t eliminated only by orthodox persecuters but by Muslims, Buddhists, and Shintoists too).

This “uprooting created the Christianity that we commonly think of today as the true historical norm, but which in reality was the product of the elimination of alternative realities.” I can easily accept that Christianity was exceedingly diverse almost from its inception, and that a twist of history might have made some form more dominant than the orthodox form we know today or the East a more dominant center of Christianity than the West. (And today the West, as in Europe and America, is ceasing to be the dominante center, as Christianity again grows in Africa and Asia and now South America and weakens particularly in Europe.) But it does not therefore follow, as Jenkins implies, that Christianity has no "historical core" and that therefore no form of Christianity can reasonably claim to be more orthodox than any other form. Christianity, like any religion, began somewhere, and it did not begin in Baghdad, and it did not begin with Nestorianism or Monophytism. Because of the existence of a widespread and influential non-orthodox form of Christianity in the first one and a half millennium after the death of Christ, Jenkins concludes that no form of Chrisitanity can claim to be the most accurate form. This reasoning seems to me faulty: because someone exists who has an opinion that differs from mine, mine cannot be right, and therefore I cannot be free to maintain that mine is right. He spends more time with this argument and with his theories of why the Church of the East died than he does in actually relating what must be the very intriguing history of that church, a history I still yearn to read in a more organized, more interesting, less agenda-driven book.

I was also put-off by Jenkins over delicacy in his treatment of Islam. Though Jenkins concedes that Islam had quite a bit to do with the near elimination of ancient Christian communities in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East, he cannot concede that such and uprooting had anything to do with the theology of Islam or the violence of the Muslim conquerors. Christians who became Muslims became Muslims either for convenience or out of true belief, but never, it seems, at the point of a sword. Indeed, Jenkins avers, “Nothing in Muslim scriptures makes the faith of Islam any more or less likely to engage in persecution or forcible conversion than any other world religion.” Of course all religions have been guilty of persecution or conquest at some point in their histories. But it is a bit much to say that NOTHING in the Koran makes Islam ANY more likely to engage in persecution than ANY other world religion. I've read the scriptures of several religions, and this statement seems simply absurd to me.

I will have to find another book that provides a historical overview of the alternative forms of Christianity that existed in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East in the first millennium. At least this book has keyed me into the subject matter and made me realize that I should like to read the writings of some of the Nestorian patriarchs.

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Reading Progress

12/05/2010 page 31
10.0% "oooh...I'm not sure about this anymore."
03/13/2015 marked as: unfinished

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Linda (new)

Linda M Kallistos Ware is an excellent eastern theologian. He may be a source that could interest you. I don't know if he has written any history, though.

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