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How Christianity Spread

ISSUE:  Spring 2000
The World History of Christianity. Edited by Adrian Hastings. Eerdmans. $45.00.

Writing a comprehensive yet digestible history of Christianity involves at least three obstacles. First, there is the sheer volume of information to be sifted through and synthesized. Second, there is some stiff competition with existing works that cover particular geographical areas. Third, some of these works already approach the book-is-just-too-thick barrier. In 1998 Eerdmans itself published Mark A.Noll’s fine but already lengthy A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, for example. A world history would seem to call for an even wordier product, yet a longer tome would likely alienate all but scholarly readers deeply committed to the subject. So the challenge is set for anyone hoping to write an appealing history of Christianity around the globe.

Others have tried. Many readers who spy this title on the bookstore shelf will immediately think of John McManners’ 1990 work The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, which is certainly difficult to surpass. Wisely, Adrian Hastings confronts this natural comparison at the outset. He explains that while excellent, the Oxford volume is too “Eurocentric” and “perhaps even too ecclesiocentric.” Although his work (which doesn’t include any illustrations) overlaps significantly with The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, it carries the ball farther principally through chapters on India, China, and Australia (we will have to wait for coverage of Antarctica). Hastings has filled a legitimate niche, for the same “too Eurocentric” criticism may apply to other attempts to tackle this subject, for example Vivian Green’s 1996 A New History of Christianity, Owen Chadwick’s colorful A History of Christianity,from 1995, and Roland Bainton’s still impressive The Horizon History of Christianity from 1964.

The work under consideration here, to continue with comparisons, bears a curious resemblance to The World Reacts to the Holocaust, ably edited by David Wyman and Charles Rosenzveig and published in 1997 by Johns Hopkins. Those collected essays discretely detail anti-Semitism in more than 20 countries and succeed in conveying a genuinely international perspective on what was largely a European phenomenon. Albeit indirectly, we learn about Christianity through glimpses of anti-Semitism in various places. Whereas the Holocaust work focused loosely on the decades from 1930—1950, Hastings’ history straddles two millennia.

Comparisons aside, it is extremely difficult to provide a brief overview of Christianity around the world without sacrificing precious substance, yet this volume largely succeeds. If you want to know how many Roman Catholic cardinals currently preside over India, you will be disappointed. If, however, you want to get a sense of how Christianity took root in India, you will not. Hastings organizes the volume according to territories and, when covering Europe, according to eras as well.

Hastings, the author of A History of English Christianity 1920-1990 and two histories of Christianity in Africa, leads his team quite well. He consistently avoids obscure references and skillfully summarizes entire critical studies in a few sentences (sometimes even just one). That we are left with the impression that each of the authors read all of the other essays before beginning his or her own (which would be impossible) attests to the energy and success of Hastings’ editing. To his personal credit, he manages to write without footnotes at all. While it is not the case that the footnotes of his other authors are laborious or excessive, still it remains impressive that he is capable of such concision.

Christianity differs from other world religions by virtue of the place of Jesus Christ in its theology. Roman Catholics and Protestants may disagree on many scores, but both groups give primacy to Jesus Christ and both groups embrace the New Testament (unlike Jews and Muslims, who share with Christians only reverence for the “Old Testament” or Hebrew Bible). Hastings gives us a sense of the vastness of his subject by observing that Christianity is “today the predominant religion in four and a half of the world’s six continents (Europe, North and South America, Australasia, Southern Africa).” Hastings judges Christianity “in historic reality, the one and only fully world religion.”

On broad categories, he is extremely useful. On detail, he sometimes struggles to hit the mean between too much and too little information. He talks of patriarchy, for example, but he doesn’t tell us what that (or a patriarch) is. He talks of “an early Catholicism” without giving us an idea of what that might be. Later, he tells us that monks set out on the path to perfection in the first centuries. “It is clear, for instance, that Augustine and his friends took it for granted that if they became committed Christians, they would also want to become monks.” Calvin didn’t come up with the same idea centuries later. What has become of that idea? Hastings almost makes celibacy seem the rule of Augustine’s day and perhaps succeeding centuries; a curious reader might want to use the index to research the evolution of thinking about celibacy (whose popularity is perhaps at an all-time low), but there is no entry in the index.

The early essays bring to life the missionary zeal of the first generations of Christians. These essays compel us to wonder throughout the rest of the volume why early followers of Jesus ached to spread their beliefs. Jesus, it seems, only saw himself as addressing other Jews. At one point in the New Testament a non-Jewish woman approaches Jesus and requests instruction. When he resists, she argues that even the dogs get to eat the scraps from the table of their master. Jesus accedes, but only because of her determination. Jesus never encouraged a “go forth and conquer” mentality, at least not explicitly. Jews differ from Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims in this regard, for Jews never systematically aimed to convert non-believers. (Here it must be said that the prophet Muhammad never tried to convert Jews or Christians to the religion of al-Lah, although he gladly accepted what he took to be sincere converts.) The occasionally brutal story of how and why Christianity spread is one at which many modern readers will wince.

A critical question, one which remains largely unanswered, is whether Christianity is everywhere the same, or even if it could possibly be. Hastings writes, “It is of the nature of Christianity to relate its beliefs to the culture and needs of every age, to be a translating community, rather than a fundamentalist one, confined to repeating the formulas of the past.” Although one cannot do everything in a single book, an epilogue devoted to this question might have been quite interesting. Other writers in other chapters bait us with this same question. Mary Heimann writes in the chapter on modern Christianity, “The very doctrine of pluralism held dangers for the unity of Christian faith, since the existence of alternative systems of thought tacitly challenged the notion that the truth was the same for all people and helped to erode both legal and social pressures to conform to any single variety of Christian practice.” Some of the most interesting recent work in the history of Western religions (Karen Armstrong’s balanced A History of God, Bruce Bawer’s partisan Stealing Jesus, and Regina Schwartz’s interesting but flawed The Curse of Cain) has sharply criticized as internally incoherent religious fundamentalism of various sorts. Hastings’s chapter on Latin America, sympathetic to native Indians as it is, makes us wonder whether Christianity would be considered a world religion today if so many people in previous centuries hadn’t been forced to conform.

The chief (and perhaps only) disappointment of the volume is the lack of an extensive index. In order for this work to be maximally useful, it should have an index at least as deep as McManners’. We find in Hastings’ index a reference to Bismarck, for example, but not to the Kulturkampf.If the influential German leader is important to the history of Christianity, it is because of the repressive measures he enforced through the Kulturkampf.

To its credit, this serious book consistently avoids an apologetic tone. That said, it is easy to imagine a true believer accusing Hastings of having conceded too much to the opposition. A reflective conclusion, however brief, really would be useful here. Are Christians on different continents more alike than unlike? What would the world look like now had Christianity never spread far but remained a small sect? Has Christianity in toto or on any particular continent been on balance good or bad? After having devoted such an enormous amount of energy to this work, you might think that Hastings, having earned our confidence by his scholarly cautiousness, would give us just a little hint as to what he thinks.

All in all, Hastings has skillfully gathered together the information any student of Western religions might reasonably be expected to have absorbed in order to qualify for a master’s degree. Beyond such readers, Christians curious about the spread of their faith will find here perhaps everything they might want generally to know about the creative and frankly surprising ways men and women have attempted to follow Jesus Christ.


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