Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (HarperOne, 2008)
In the modern era, Christianity has been viewed as a “western” religion. And in particular it has been almost seen as European and now “American.” This has profound implications. Perhaps we are almost taken in this direction because of the Book of Acts traces, for theological purposes, the movement of the church from Jerusalem to Rome. Because of our cultural leanings we think of Charlemagne, the Venerable Bede, Francis of Assisi, and St. Patrick when we think of Christian history.
Yet Jerusalem is closer to Tehran than it is to Rome. Travel in the east was just as common as it was in the Roman Empire. Believers went East as well as West. Here is some perspective, in the 5th century, Merv (the largest city in the world in the 12th century located in Central Asia) was a great center for Christian thought and mission activity. In A.D. 500 Christian theologians in Merv were translating Greek and Syriac works into the languages of Central and Eastern Asia. Another tidbit, between 640 and 740 there were 6 popes who derived from Syria (not Europe).
Most of this Eastern Christianity was not Roman Catholic. As Rabban Bar Sauma (i.e. 1290 A.D.) wrote “No one has been sent to us Orientals by the Pope. The holy apostles aforesaid taught us and we still hold today what they handed down to us.” About the time of Charlemagne, Timothy was Patriarch of the Church of the East in the city of Seleucia (now in Iraq). His church spread into India and even China. As Jenkins notes, “the church operated in multiple languages: in Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Soghdian, and Chinese, but not Latin, which scarcely mattered outside western Europe” (p. 11). Timothy wrote “in these days the Holy Spirit has anointed a metropolitan for the Turks, and we are preparing to consecrate another one for the Tibetans.” How many Christians know that in the 17th century there was a pogrom against Japanese Christians in which tens of thousands of them were slaughtered?
It is sort of unsettling to know that “much of what we today call the Islamic world was once Christian.” It is sobering to reflect on the fact that Eastern scholars had a level of learning in 800 that would not be matched in Europe for another 500 years. As Jenkins puts it rather poignantly “literally, only a very few western Christian scholars at the time would have known how to hold the manuscripts: which way was up?”
Throughout The Lost History of Christianity we learn not only the inspiring story of when Christianity was truly a global religion we are confronted with the historical reality that it died in many places. Persecutions from Hindus, Muslims, and sundry others along the way are part of the story. But Christianity survived in many of these hostile environments for centuries so why did it virtually become extinct in many places. Jenkins writes that a bunker mentality” arose among many, “As the Nestorians demonstrated, Christianity lost most of its vigor, and became the cultural badge of yet another hill tribe. It was insular and radically sectarian, and had little sense of connection with the wider Christian world, except insofar as transnational churches were seen as predatory rivals” (p. 240). Sectarianism was a hindrance to the survival, nay the flourishing, of the Christian faith.
Jenkins has become one of my favorite scholars in the last five or six years. His book is not a work of original scholarship. Rather what he has done is mine specialist research and has presented it in a lucid, even eloquent, testimony to a long forgotten story. The pluses of this book are in a sense its drawbacks too. It is brief being a mere 240 pages of text plus endnotes. But it is that brevity that it is its strength because folks might read it. In so doing we are reminded that Christianity thrived around the world before it ever “conquered” Europe and became a North Atlantic entity. We are reminded yet again of the unique Eastern flavor of Christianity that is so painfully lost in the West. Latin and Medieval concepts have taken such deep root in our collective psyche that real early Christianity often looks “weird.” But Latin as one Easterner wrote was “a barbarian and Scythian language” that was unfit for Christian use. We all have our biases don’t we!
There are, of course, areas where I do not agree with Jenkins. But as a whole this book is one that should be read by Christians everywhere. If Jenkins can help us have a broader and deeper grasp of who we are as part of the Christian story, and he can help us recover the sense of belonging to a faith that cannot be separated from the East, and he can help us see long forgotten sacrifices in the name of Yeshua then I can only thank God. This is a book you should read.