Occasionally someone asks me is there a book out there that gives the story of Christianity that I could read? It is a question that always makes my heart sing and sink at the same time. Sing as someone is wanting to learn more, sink as it is so hard to point them in the way of ‘a’ book. So I thought seeing I had the time I would listen to Christianity The First Three Thousand Years by Diamaid MacCulloch and see if this might be the one.
The first thing that will no doubt strike you as it did me is the title and thankfully it is the first thing that is tackled by the book. MacCulloch explains the religious, political and social norms of the powers and empires that had ruled the known world and how the development of any structured religion, not just Christianity can’t but help draw on certain pre-existing norms. If you are looking for a new take for your Trinity sermon next year, read the first couple of chapters and tell you congregations about the Egyptians and Greeks. Now you might be thinking it is sounding a bit dangerous, but no it is written in a way that does not prescribe but describe. MacCulloch is not Christian but he isn’t interested in knocking Christianity either, he is simply trying to tell the story of its first 3,000 years. I should say it listens well, how well it reads I can not state with certainty at this point, however MacCulloch is good at not using ‘churchy’ words that might distance or confuse a reader. He cleverly weaves the path of christianity and the rise and fall of states, he gently points out when the church has lost its way and applauds the church for that which it has got right. While starting in the lands which we find in the Bible as Christianity spreads around the world so does his history of it and I for one learnt stuff I never knew before.
It is a book for those who want to know the story of Christianity, not the story of faith, not even the story of Christ or of the church, but of the religion. I think some bits would be heavy going for those not interested, other parts might annoy you and make you groan in disappointment at the regurgitated brick bats as I did. On the whole, however, MacCulloch has in my view succeeding in providing a book that fits the bill – if you excuse it stops somewhat early, which I most certainly do as I think it would have then got messy and lost its readability value.
I was left with unsuspected ponderings once I had finished it. In some way I think MacCulloch, possibly unwittingly, points the church back towards our history to help with the questions we struggle with today. He doesn’t answer them, but maybe he gives us a new context in which to ask and ponder them in, or maybe not, I will have to ponder that further.
Would I recommend it, well I am not going to say that just yet, I want to actually read at least part of it first and see if it is as easy on the eyes and it was on the ears. So for now it is a definite maybe.