Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Short World History of Christianity (Robert Bruce Mullin) -- Review

A SHORT WORLD HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, Revised Edition. By Robert Bruce Mullin.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiv + 349 pages.

                The story of Christianity is incredibly complex.  It is a religion with roots in Judaism, but quickly evolved from those roots as it moved out across the globe engaging new contexts and cultures.   As it expanded the center moved from Jerusalem to Greco-Roman cities such as Antioch and Alexandria, which became centers of theological formulation in their own right.  We cannot forget Rome, though its influence came later.   While it quickly found a home in the Roman Empire, it also followed trade routes to lands as far off as China and India.  Eventually, as theological rivalries weakened the eastern heartland, the center would move west to Rome, France, Germany and Great Britain and north to Russia.  While vital churches emerged in places like Armenia, Persia, Ethiopia, and India – many the result of missionary efforts by churches deemed heretical by Constantinople and Rome – the later expansion of Christianity across the globe would come from Rome and the West.  First Catholic missions and much later Protestant ones, often following European colonizers.

                Telling this story can be daunting.   Historians such as Kenneth Scott Latourette have devoted thousands of pages telling the story.  In recent years we have witnessed the publication of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity, a wonderfully written comprehensive history that comes in at just over 1000 pages, and Diana Butler Bass’s A People’s History of Christianity, which offers a social history less focused on persons and doctrines and more on practices.   Robert Bruce Mullin, a professor of History and World Mission at General Theological Seminary (Episcopal), offers us a more concise narrative history (just over 300 pages) that hearkens back to that written a generation earlier by Martin Marty. This new volume is a revision of an earlier edition published in 2008 – a volume that I have not read.  According to the author, this new edition allowed him to correct errors in the first edition, and add a chapter on twenty-first century trends in world Christianity.  


This is a narrative history that takes us from Jesus and Jewish roots through the Pauline expansion and forward through history as the Christian faith spread across the globe, taking on new forms as it incarnated itself in new contexts.  Of course, in a book of three hundred pages, not every issue, doctrine, or person can be covered.  Since historians are people, with their own interests and biases, Mullin’s own interests and contexts help shape the narrative.  Mullin admits that this is not a truly global history, in that it does not give exhaustive coverage to all forms of Christianity, but it does begin with the assumption that Christianity has always been a global faith.  He writes:
The thesis of the book can be stated simply:  Christianity has passed through a series of interconnected phases.  Christianity was born in “globalization.” It took root in various environments, each of which left its mark on local Christian life and practice (p. xii).
This movement from one phase to another is the focus of the book.  Because the Western Church has dominated the story for much of the past millennium, it gets greater attention.  At the same time, Mullin is clear that this is not simply a Western religion – it is one that has taken root in and has been influenced by multiple contexts.  Because Mullin is interested in the way in which the religion moved out across the globe he is less interested in theology proper than he is in those moments and events that advanced the movement.  Theological issues get attention when they contribute to these developments.  Thus, Nicaea gets attention, but the later controversy that gets “resolved” at Chalcedon of Christ’s nature gets more due to the impact it has on the weakening of the Eastern Church, the growing influence of Rome, and the missionary ventures that occurred outside the Empire by Nestorian and Monophysite Christians who had been deemed heretical at Chalcedon.  Of course figures such as Constantine get attention, but so does a figure such as Charlemagne, 9th century Frankish King who did much to help organize and reform a moribund Catholic Church.  While the Emperors were key religious figures in the east, Popes get our attention due to their important contributions to the broader social and political affairs of the west.  In the east and in North Africa, theological controversies helped weaken those churches, making these regions to Islamic expansion, so that what had once been the Christian heartland would become by the 10th century the heartland of Islam. 

As the center of Christianity moved north and west, the papacy took on a position of power not seen elsewhere in Christendom.  The papacy filled a gap, binding Europe together.  In time, however, as new political powers emerged, especially in what is now France and later Germany pope and emperor would vie for power and influence.  Indeed, Western Christendom had its own Constantinian moment when Charlemagne took it upon himself to restructure both church and state, drawing together canon law and standardizing dating – with the use of the term Anno Domini (AD) being first used by him.  It was Charlemagne who helped standardize the use of the filioque in the creed, a usage that would help divide east and west.  While giving significant attention to medieval developments, the focus is not on theology. Aquinas gets his mention, but Scholasticism gets only a few paragraphs. Institutional developments and intrigue gets greater attention, perhaps necessarily so.

By the time of the Reformation Constantinople had fallen, and the thriving churches on the outside of the Empire had begun to fade. Ironically, there was the possibility of a Mongol adoption of Christianity, but history took them in a different direction. One of the major challenges to Christianity in the East came with Tamerlane, whose actions decimated the Christian communities of the east. 

As the narrative moves to the Reformation, Mullin helpfully reminds us that the Reformers emerged at a most auspicious time – as an emergent nationalism gave cover to new developments in Germany (Luther), Switzerland (Zwingli and Calvin), and then in the British Isles – Henry VIII (England) and John Knox (Scotland).   Of course, mention is made of the Anabaptists, who challenged these political alliances.  With an eye on the global nature of the faith, Mullin offers a look at the way Christianity began to move outward once again in the sixteenth century.  Roman Catholics moved first – to the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  Spain and Portugal were key contributors to this effort, as were the newly minted Jesuits, who helped push back Protestant expansion in places like France and Central Europe.  After the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Church took up the mantle of Orthodoxy, taking that faith eastward to Alaska and then down the west coast of North America.  Protestants took longer to get active but by the late eighteenth and on into the nineteenth century they too took up the cause of missions.  Thus, the religion had become a ghost of its earlier self just prior to the Reformation, now had taken on a global face, being established on all continents with the exception of Antarctica, which had no populace to evangelize.  It had also begun pushing back the advance of Islam, which had been on the march for about eight centuries. 

As this advancement took place, Mullin helpfully points out, it found greater success in regions like Africa and the Americas that lacked a long standing major religion – such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Shintoism.  In places like India, it had its greatest success among peoples on the margins – those outside the caste system.  At times it might catch the eye of political leaders as was true in places like Japan, but if those leaders lost power or influence, the church could easily fade. 

Turning back to the west, new challenges to Christendom emerged with the rise of the Enlightenment.  With the ascent of reason, and the challenges of historical research and scientific advancement, the power and authority of the religious establishments began to recede.  Ironically, the Nineteenth Century would be both a century of secular challenges and missionary expansion.

In the final two sections of the book, we examine the challenges of Modernity and both the challenges and possibilities of Postmodernism. As the narrative nears its end, it becomes clear that the center of the Christian world has begun to shift south.  Europe and North America continue to have influence, but they lack the vitality of churches in Africa and Latin America.  The same is true of South Korea, where Christianity barely had a foothold in 1900 (about 1% of the population), could count about 40% in 2010.  Korea has gone from being the recipient of western missionaries (primarily Presbyterian and Methodist) to a sending nation.   Sub-Saharan Africa has also become a key center of Christianity -- one that has proven a challenge to more liberal churches in the north, for its cultural conservatism has clashed with more liberal views on issues such as homosexuality.  While the churches of the global south and Asia are relatively young, they appear to be the future of the church. 

While Mullin understands that historians look at the past and are not inclined to be prognosticators, he does feel the need to point out trends.  These trends can quickly go in new directions as events transpire.  Thus, at the time that Mullin's book went to the publisher in 2013, Francis had just become Pope.  While Mullin could see that Francis's tone differed from his predecessor, he couldn’t be sure of the substance. Recent events have suggested that Francis hasn’t changed the tone and style, he has changed the conversation. 

As I noted at the beginning of the review, historians have to make difficult decisions about what to include and exclude from the story.  If I were to write the same history it might look different, though by and large he catches the major issues. One might differ on interpretation of events, doctrines, and actions, but in a general history like this you can't afford to go into detail, and thus nuance can be lost.

All in all, this is a very good narrative history of Christianity.  Because Christianity is influenced by events in history, it is wise for us to know that history, we should give thanks that we have thoughtful and informed interpreters like Robert Bruce Mullin – even if we might argue over details and interpretations.  My hope is that the readers of this book will be inspired to take up more expansive histories such as MacCulloch’s and that of Justo Gonzalez, as well as Diana Butler Bass’s history.  Perhaps the reader will also be inspired to follow tangents suggested by the narrative – perhaps exploring more deeply the churches that took root in India or liberation theology.  Yes, Christianity is ever changing and evolving, and history provides the vantage point to understand this truth.   

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