Thursday, 11 August 2011

A History of Christianity

Diarmaid MacCulloch's 'A History of Christianity' is a Big Book - over 1000 pages and by my reckoning about 480 words to a page. I began it on holiday (25th July to be precise) and have just finished it (16th September). I have rarely managed more than about 25 pages an hour, often less, so it represents at least 40 hours reading over 7 or 8 weeks. It wouldn't have been feasible at any other time of year.

MacCulloch describes himself as 'a candid friend of Christianity' from a strong Anglican background. His approach is not that of a believer; his references to the Bible are usually sceptical, treating it as a human document and sometimes as a species of propaganda (eg the book of Acts). Pluralism rules. He treats all forms of Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern, Coptic etc - and Mormonism too), as equal, and all religions as equal too (in terms of truth claims at least) as far as one can tell. King David was a murderous usurper. Jesus is (probably) merely human - MacCulloch explicitly follows the reconstruction of the life of Jesus by the 19th century German scholar D.F.Strauss. The effect of the preaching of Wesley and Whitefield is described as 'mass hysteria'. Events are given a reductionistic psychological, political or economic rationale; the idea of a supernatural providence or purpose is (of course) not canvassed.

Yet I have enjoyed reading it. On occasions I have paused to thank God for giving a man the ability to know and organise such a quantity of information - aware of how one struggles sometimes even to put a sermon or an essay together - so that it is extremely useful and (largely) interesting to read. It is excellently indexed and often helpfully cross-referenced within the text itself to help one refer to earlier or later mentions of the subject he is dealing with. It is, therefore, a valuable reference work.

Parts of it were hard-going. The labyrinthine political and ecclesiastical struggles of Byzantium and of Russian Orthodoxy and the papacy do not interest me much. At page 551 you come to the period leading up to the Reformation and at p. 604 to the Reformation itself. This is where it began to take off. Three times the author quotes or refers with approval to Warfield's dictum that the Reformation was the triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over his doctrine of the church. With some exceptions (such as the dreary twentieth century history of ecumenism)the last 400 pages have been more gripping than the first half of the book.

Jensen brothers in Sydney: take a bow. You get mentioned on page 1009, as leaders of an 'aggressive' style of Evangelicalism that wants to alter 'the direction of worldwide Anglicanism towards what it might have become in a more radical sixteenth-century English Reformation combined somewhat anachronistically with a campaigning style of evangelism borrowed from American revivalism.' Oh well.

I have learned a number of new (and often useless) facts; that 'chapel' comes from 'capella' , the name first of the short cloak that 'St' Martin of Tours gave to a beggar and then the name of the small buildings where this cloak was later displayed - and there's me thinking it was a non-Conformist word; that Freemasonry seems to have begun in 16th century Scotland - probably another Presbyterian split; that 'empiricism' comes from the name of a 3rd century scholar called Empiricus rediscovered in the 16th century; and that Napoleon made bees his emblem because decorative golden bees were found in the tomb of Childeric, the long dead father of the slightly less long dead Clovis.

How have I lived without knowing all this - and much more?

Particularly sobering (though not from his point of view) is MacCulloch's observation that in the modern world among many aspects of traditional Christianity to have been jettisoned without fuss, the most notable casualty has been Hell. It has dropped out of preaching and out of popular concern: there is, I think, some irony in the author's question, 'does this continent [Europe], arguably so far the world's most successfully balanced consumer society, need a Christian Heaven and Hell?' In theological terms he traces it back to F.D.Maurice and others in the nineteenth century so that the fires of hell 'hardly flicker at all now in worldwide televangelism'.

Significantly too our customs at death have changed: in 2000 70% of British funerals and 25% of American were cremations, from a base of nil in 1860. The scattering of ashes is becoming, says MacCulloch, a new personalised ritual for a secular society, one fireworks enthusiast using Roman candles to send his ashes into space, someone else using an unmanned satellite to send them even higher. 'Death is not so much distanced as sanitised or domesticated, made part of the spectrum of consumer choice in a consumer society...Changing attitudes to death and Hell mark a growth of this-worldly concerns in a large part of contemporary Christianity'.


1. It is a spiritually 'drying' experience reading a book of such scepticism - though MacCulloch is even handed, and is no doubt working by the canons of professional scholarship. But I was glad to be reading other more uplifting books at the same time. Constant reductionism is hard on the soul; not when one is reading a book about physics, football or the history of Greenland perhaps, but the history of the church from the secular perspective is particularly gruelling. I must read a Merle d'Aubigne next.

One has to ask though - how objective is such an approach? How can an unbiassed author dismiss the spiritual experience of, say, a miner converted in Bristol under the preaching of Wesley or Whitefield, as 'hysteria'? Surely objectivity demands that people's claims for their own experiences be taken with all seriousness unless proven absolutely bogus.

2. How much the history of Christianity is reflected in its art and architecture! And how much it is to do with ritual and liturgy. But then, spiritual Christianity cannot be measured; it leaves books but otherwise fewer incontrovertible traces, though in fact it is the salt of the earth. More of the good in society than we shall ever know has been due to the presence of the saints. Love to God and to one's neighbour and the countless words and actions (let alone thoughts) that demonstrate the existence of God are rarely accessible to the science of the historian.

3. Such a 'history of Christianity' is probably better called 'the history of the visible church' or of 'Christendom' (a term apparently first coined in 9th century England by a scribe trying to translate into English the concept of 'universal Christianity' in a work by by the fifth century scholar Orosius - useful eh?). Reading this history is a sobering education in what has been done in the name of Christ and of his church (including by those bearing the label Protestant and Reformed) - crusades, witch hunts, slavery for long before it was abolished and the financing of mission in China on the back of the opium trade. These are hackneyed criticisms (and MacCulloch is not out to 'do Christianity down' as he recounts these facts of history) but there is uncomfortable truth in them.

How much of it is truly 'Christianity' of course depends on defining terms. When one thinks of the countless lives touched by grace, and however feebly, lived out in praise of a gracious God , a book like this is not getting close to real Christianity. Behind the visible church there is the body of Christ, not of course completely dissociated from it, but neither by any means to be identified wholly with it.

4. Yet history is the story of God's providence. The great benefit of a book like this is the panoramic sweep both of time and space that it gives. Even what we might be tempted to call Christendom and worse has been decreed and guided by God. The story of the visible church has been under his control. He works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. All is ultimately to his perfect satisfaction and to the glory of his Son. We cannot be dismissive of what we do not like about 'church history'. It is still very much our story.

In the end we look from Christianity to Christ and to God. This book in essence sees religion as a human phenomenon. Thank God it is not merely that. There is a God and in a world that through the most religiously privileged people of that day crucified his Son, he is working his purposes out to their inevitably glorious conclusion.

The Abiding Presence

I am a fan of Hugh Martin (1822-85). He did not write a lot, as far as I am aware, but the works I have - 'The Atonement' , his commentary on Jonah and expositions on Simon Peter - have satisfied at every level.

Recently I purchased 'The Abiding Presence' (Christian Focus, 2009) and read it over my holiday. It is a remarkable book. His starting point is the conjunction of the presence of Jesus with his people (Matt 28:20 )and the existence of the gospels - the 'memoirs' of Christ ('the book of the generation of Jesus Christ' Matt 1:1').

He shows from John 14:16-26, 16:13-22 that the presence of the Spirit is the real presence of Christ.

'You may have his perfect and all sufficient biography; but without the Spirit of Jesus you cannot appreciate the life of Jesus; for you are not yourself quickened to live in the same spiritual world, or atmosphere and realm, with him.'

He expands on how the living presence brings the 'biography' to life, and illustrates from particular events in the gospels (the baptism, the temptations, the sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, and the cross)how these speak to us today through the abiding presence of Christ. The section on the 'perpetuity of the sacrifice' in relation to the cross is particularly helpful in showing how the cross, while being a 'once for all' sacrifice, has still a present efficacy for the believer.

There follow sections on the application of the principle to other parts of the New Testament, discussion of the twofold revelation of Christ (to us and in us) and a closing section on the presence of Christ in his people - its causes and consequences, and cautions concerning it.

A book that probably needs to be read more than once - but penetrating and full of insights.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Riots in London

'An orgy of rioting and looting' over four days in August, and 200 people arrested. This was how the 'Liverpool Daily Post' described the aftermath of the police strike in Liverpool in 1919. It did not take much, even directly after the Great War, to cause people to lose their inhibitions about stealing and violence - just the removal of the threat of being caught.

So these things are not new. I am not trying to sanitise the present troubles in our cities by relativising them, but a sense of perspective is helpful. OK - so there was no police strike this time, but a large part of the scale of the present riots has been because people suddenly realised that if they come out in enough force, the police are, at least initially, helpless. There is no fear of getting caught.

Nor are riots in London particularly a new thing. Read Peter Ackroyd's 'London: The Biography' or a similar history of London to see that the city has frequently exploded. We have seen it in our own time, though not on the same scale as this week. The city is like a simmering pot that occasionally only needs a slight disturbance to boil over, apparently unpredictably. How much anger is there below the surface? How thin is the veneer of control and respectability.

Nor can people take the easy option that some may be tempted to take and blame immigrant communities. London has been made up of immigrant communities for most of its history. All colours and races have been visible on our TV screens in the thick of the trouble.

Nor is it new in history. 'Before the age of the Caesars, the Senate could not keep order. Armed gangs terrorised the city of Rome and the normal processes of government were disrupted as rivals fought for power. Self-interest became more significant than social interest...Then, in desperation, the people accepted authoritarian government.' (Francis Schaeffer in 'How should we then live' chapter 1).

Mob rule is a funny thing. A common feature shared by many - often a sense of resentment, anger and hatred, coupled with greed - is suddenly ignited by a spark - in this case the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. Fanned by the modern phenomenon of 'social media' (though it used to happen without that) a mood of rebellion takes over. Fear of authority is reduced and disappears; the boundary of conscience is easily crossed as is the boundary of respect for law; the appetite takes over, the exhilarating focus on what can be done physically, for now the only boundary to action is what is physically possible. Anything that can be done is done. Shops can be looted with impunity, so - just do it.

Perhaps a new feature is the prominence of the young, though that is by no means necessarily novel. Yet a clergyman had a good point in a TV interview when he said (in terms) that if we have undermined the authority of parents at home and of teachers at school, and instilled in children the idea that they need not be told what to do, we can hardly complain when they go onto the streets and do not listen to anybody.

A certainty in all this is the spiritual absolutes. However novel or not the present experience of our cities is historically, it is the expression of sin which is lawlessness. The immediate manifestation may have new features, and elements of it may be explicable in terms of contemporary issues, but ultimately it is, like all sin, inexplicable and irrational.

It is, of course, nonetheless wrong for that. God's glory is challenged as authority is held in contempt; his laws are trampled on; love for him and one's neighbour are forgotten. Lament the spiritual state of a nation that behaves like this. Pray for his mercy, for his salvation to be made widely known. But do not falsely grieve over a supposed golden age when things were so very different.