Monday, 28 September 2009

People of the Book? Really?

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s new History of Christianity: the first Three Thousand years arrived in the post last Thursday. This is not a skimmer, and it certainly deserves a good day out to read it properly. This reading challenges our customary English-speaking Rome-Centric interpretation of Church history that has tended to ignore the lives of the majority of Christians, who actually lived in the East and had nothing to do with Rome or the partcular issues that marked out Western Christianity. For that reason alone the book is worth a read, let alone for its elegance, good humour, sure-footedness and clarity. Dipping in at a few points around which I have specialist knowledge, MacCulloch came up trumps every time. Overviews require profound understanding and broad reach, and in those terms this book is a phenomenal achievement.

MacCulloch locates the Bible historically in the Christian tradition, in a way that is true to the actual contents of the Bible. This challenges the slick and unreflective use of the adjective “Biblical” as a synonym for “Customary morality wot I like” that we sometimes encounter:
The Bible thus embodies not a tradition but many traditions. Self-styled “Traditionalists” often forget that the nature of tradition is not that of a humanly manufactured mechanical or architectural structure with a constant outline and form, but rather that of a plant, pulsing with life and continually changing shape while keeping the same ultimate identity. The Bible’s authority for Christians lies in the fact that they have a special relationship with it that can never be altered, like the relatinship of parent and child. This does not deny relationships with other books which may be both deep and long-lasting, and it does not necessarily make the parental relationship easy or pleasant. It is simply of a different kind, and can never be abrogated. Once we see this, much modern neurosis about the authority of the Bible can be laid aside. Maybe the Bible can be taken seriously rather than literally...

All the world faiths which have known long-term success have shown a remarkable capacity to mutate, and Christianity is no exception, which is why one underlying message of this history is its sheer variety. Many Christians do not like being reminded of Christianity’s capacity to develop, particularly those who are in charge of the various religious institutions which call themselves Churches, but that is the reality and has been from the beginning.
I am very much looking forward to the attendant TV series, but above all to some hours reading this book properly this autumn...

4 comments:

fibrefairy said...

ooh thanks for flagging this up :D I really enjoyed his Cranmer biog. and I think I'm going to treat myself to this one !

Ann said...

This looks great - I linked your blog on this book to the Education for Ministry network.

Erika Baker said...

I love this line!
"Maybe the Bible can be taken seriously rather than literally..."

Grandmère Mimi said...

I read The Reformtion by the same author and thought it was excellent. Apparently the book is not due out until Feb. 2010 in the US. I'll pre-order.

Many Christians do not like being reminded of Christianity’s capacity to develop, particularly those who are in charge of the various religious institutions which call themselves Churches, but that is the reality and has been from the beginning.

I like that.

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