Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lost History of Christianity

The Lost History of Christianity
- The Thousand-year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia
Philip Jenkins
(Oxford: Lion Publishing. 2008
New York: HarperCollins. 2008)

A Review by Richard Kew

I have gained much from Philip Jenkins' writing, and his latest book, The Lost History of Christianity, I have found to be as edifying as his earlier titles. This book is a surprisingly successful attempt to open up a Christian world that is little more than a ghost to most of us in the west.

Jenkins sets out to explore the rise and decline of the churches of Asia and the East over the last two millennia. While much of the hard data relating to these churches has long since disappeared, what evidence there is tells the story of a vibrant faith during most of the first millennium of the Christian story, followed by a steady decline that during the last hundred years or so has accelerated. Professor Jenkins fills out a story of which a few of us might be aware, by drawing upon the remaining shreds of evidence that have been left behind by these believers.

He wants us to know something of the history of a lost Christianity because “a society that today considers itself Christian might in a century or two have equal confidence in its complete identification with Islam, or radical secularism, or Buddhism, or some other religion not yet born. That caveat also applies to specific denominations...” (page 42). Jenkins ends his book by drawing out a selection conclusions for us to ponder in our time. These may not be rocket science, but they demand serious attention.

Philip Jenkins is one of those gifted intellects whose reading is encyclopedic, as is his capacity to absorb, organize, and synthesize the quantities of information he has been digesting. Perhaps one of the shortcomings of his earlier works has been a tendency to overwhelm the reader with so much data that the narrative gets so thick that it loses its vivacity, sometimes with the result that the case being made is swamped by the welter of facts and statistics backing it up. “The Lost History of Christianity,” perhaps because so much of the information pertaining to these eastern churches has been lost or deliberately destroyed, does not fall into this trap.

The result is 262 pages of riveting reading. For a long time now books seldom have the ability to keep me awake if I read them in bed before putting the light out: this was an exception. Oh, I don't want to give the impression that this book is under-researched and based on hunch and intuition, because there are a further 34 pages of endnotes!

We westerners read the story of the spread of Christianity with our perceptions molded by the Acts of the Apostles and our own geographic location. Whether we like it or not our viewpoint is shaped by the fact that our heritage is rooted in the European part of the Roman Empire and what followed it. The result is that we overlook the reality that missionaries headed out from Jerusalem after the Day of Pentecost to every point of the compass, not just westward. In fact, the eastward expansion of the Christian faith is nothing short of spectacular.

In large parts of western Europe the natives did not exactly fall over themselves to accept this new faith, while to the east extraordinary things were happening in the name of Christ. Just as the Roman roads aided the spread of the gospel in our direction, the Silk Road and other trade routes across central Asia enabled the message to move well beyond the borders of the Mediterranean world. If Roman stability assisted things in the west, those pioneers traveling eastward were dependent upon the power of the Persian Empire. And, “as in Europe, early followers of Jesus spread into a world already extensively colonized by Jews” (Page 53).

This glorious history has perhaps been overlooked because of our myopic (and sometimes fretful) focus on Europe, as well as those centuries further on, by the New World and those bits of the globe that were influenced by more recent European colonial ambitions. The churches in the east were sage and mature when those in the west were still trying to find their voice and their spiritual compass.

We may treasure some of the awe-inspiriting stories that brought the message to our part of the planet, but our limited horizons mean that we have never properly noticed the courageous mission to the east with its own set of heroes and martyrs. Within relatively few centuries the Gospel had penetrated Africa as far as Nubia and Ethiopia, as well as all the way from the Mediterranean to the heartland of China. I was amazed to learn of strong and established bishoprics in places as diverse as Tibet and Samarkand well before the end of the first millennium, and that these Christians developed cordial relationships with the pluralistic mishmash of religious traditions that they encountered.

The tale of the eastern church is the story of powerful centers of learning serving literally hundreds of dioceses networked across a landscape that we today think of as having been Islamic from the moment that Mohammed's followers came out of Arabia. Basra and Baghdad were major centers of Christian learning, with equally impressive focal points hundreds of miles further to the east. Christian mission was well established in Arabia, with strong churches led by forward-looking bishops in what was to become the heartland of Mohammad and modern Yemen. Indeed, Jenkins suggests the significant influence of these Christians upon the founders of Islam.

Hugh Jordan, who taught me Old Testament in the 1960s, was convinced that Islam is actually a Christian heresy, a thesis with which Jenkins toys. “Even when Christianity has seemingly been eradicated, we find many traces of it on the cultural and religious landscape. A traveler in today's Middle East sees societies that are so overwhelmingly Muslim, and in some instances exclusively so. In many cases, though, those Muslims are the lineal descendants of communities that were once Christian, and that often maintained their Christian loyalties for a millennium or more. Even if the connection is not by blood, many other Muslims live in nations in which Christian influence was once predominant and shaped everyday life... Modern Christians or Muslims can scarcely denounce the practices of the other religion without in the process rejecting a substantial part of their own heritage” (Page 174-175).

Having made such a sweeping statement, Jenkins then sets about illustrating some of these factors, demonstrating how, for example, strands of Christian piety were translated into Islamic terms and have given substance to various traditions of the Muslim faith. For example, he ponders the possibility of a close link between Islamic devotional practices and the Jesus Prayer, as well as the manner in which the historic Ethiopian and Yemeni Christian approach to Lent gave shape to the Islamic season of Ramadan.

While Christianity may have rapidly collapsed before the advance of Islam in North Africa for particular set of social reasons, it did not crumble and fall when Muslim princes became the rulers of other lands. Even as Islam grew stronger, Christians remained at the core of society for centuries following. Even after the arrival of the Muslims there were courageous missionaries, extraordinary bishops, preachers, and teachers, as well as diplomats, monks, hermits, and daily heavenward focus of ancient liturgies. Jenkins asserts that very often the basis of the learning that gets attributed today solely to Islam during its intellectual heyday, was actually grounded in the scholarship of Christians in major centers like Baghdad – whether it be the study be mathematics and philosophy, or any of the other sciences.

One of the reasons we know little of this story is that at its core were churches whose theological niceties were scorned by the church catholic of the great Councils. For example, there is little doubt that some of the most dynamic missionaries of the first thousand years were the Nestorians, a group expelled as heretics after the Council of Ephesus in 431AD. Yet, Nestorius and his followers could well have been excommunicated as much because of a strong political undercurrent running against them as because they nuanced the nature of the Godhead slightly differently from the majority. However, when placing Nestorius and his crew beside some of the absurd theologies circulating within the churches today, they look like paragons of doctrinal virtue!

As Philip Jenkins draws together the threads of his research he makes some tentative suggestions about churches that once were and now are no longer, and upon which we would be wise to chew. He challenges us to ask various far-reaching questions about our own church and current Christian tradition. “The ruins of Christianity in a particular region might confound Christians who have long been accustomed to seeing the expansion of their faith as a fundamental expectation,” he writes, but asks us to see the long haul of the faith within the broader and over-arching providence of the God who is the Lord of history.

He wonders aloud how we might interpret the apparent disappearance of the faith from what was once its well-established heartland, and what this might have to do with winning the world for Jesus Christ. One brief illustration he draws attention to has fascinated me for several years. This is the “Back to Jerusalem” movement being prayed over and fostered by the growing Christian Church in contemporary China. Could it be that they have properly understood the panorama of the history of salvation when they think of themselves as God's chosen vessels called to take the faith back to Jerusalem from the east along the trade routs of that old Silk Road?

I would love to see a variety of authors write about various facets of this story, making them accessible to the general reader, and providing further insights into some of the broader observations that Jenkins makes. I suspect there is much food for thought for those of us living in post-Christian Europe, for example, as we explore precisely how the Christian churches were eclipsed in the east, how geopolitics played into the hands of the forces aligned against the churches, what precisely was the role of Islam and the rise of the Arabic language, and so forth.

I don't think that The Lost History of Christianity is a book that is likely to sit on my bookshelves gathering dust as so many other volumes do. I am sure that there are assertions that can and will be challenged by more serious scholars than myself, but I am also sure that with broad brush strokes Philip Jenkins has written something that will force us to ask and seek answers to some very difficult questions.