Thursday, 25 October 2012

A Short History of Christianity

I've been reading Professor Geoffrey Blainey's Short History of Christianity.    In its 553 pages, this book spans an immense amount of material relating to a complex subject, which Blainey deals with in his readable style.   There are no footnotes, but in the "sources" section he sets out the source for a number of his statements, typically about 20 per chapter.

In a work of this nature, inevitably some aspects will be of greater interest than others, and I found myself skimming some sections.   Perhaps I'll come back to these.  I found his treatment of Christ's life and the early years of the Church of particular interest, given that Blainey's approach is from a historian's perspective, as opposed to that of a religious scholar (as he makes clear in the preface).    Thus, he tells us at page 46 that the oldest book in the New Testament is Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians.  

Later on, he provides an insight into the influence of influential individuals (obviously including Luther and Calvin) and this leads us to an understanding of the development of the various orders and other groupings within Christianity, including the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits and the like, and later on the Methodists, Quakers, Mormons, Salvation Army and so on.  .

On the other hand,  although I am in no position to offer an authoritative comment, I was a little surprised to find that the Spanish Inquisition doesn't appear to receive much attention, compared with, for example, the development of Christianity in America. And I noticed one or two little errors, such as a reference to the Battle of Kosovo as having occurred in 1395 (page 230).  Any Serb could have told him it was 1389! 

One of Blainey's skills is the ability to relate particular issues to the broader picture, and to place things and events in context.   For example, he points out that the work of medieval and Renaissance artists was often intended to convey messages to people who were illiterate.   They could recognise Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the lily in the painting.   St Peter is recognised by the a set of keys that he carries - the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  St Mark is often shown in company with a lion. 

Similarly, his comments on developments over the last century or so, in the context of changes in society, are interesting, too, as are his observations on the current position of Christianity in today's world.

There are many other insights, such as the role of Sunday at various stages of history and the place of singing in church.   In short, there's a lot to absorb in this work. 

[Minor edits 27 October]

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