The Story of Christianity
An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith
David Bentley Hart (Quercus, 2007)
255 p. First reading.
Every so often I wander into the big box bookstores and peruse their discount tables. There is almost always a “Religion” section, containing a hodge-podge of books on lost gospels, alien abductions, salubrious crystals, and so forth. There is usually also a variety of picture books with titles like Great Stories of the Bible or Sacred Places. I found The Story of Christianity among them, and at first I passed it over, just as I pass over all the others. On a second look, however, I happened to glance at the author’s name, and my interest was kindled. David Bentley Hart is a distinguished Orthodox theologian, a superb essayist, and author of The Beauty of the Infinite, a virtuosic and widely praised exploration of Christian aesthetics. Needless to say, the book came home with me.
Simply to look at, the book is not substantially different from other books of the type. It is a coffee-table book, with roughly half of the page space taken up with photographs, sidebars, and timelines. It charts the history of Christianity from its beginnings down to the present day. The book covers all of the standard plot points in accounts of Christian history, with a greater emphasis on Hart’s own Orthodox tradition than one commonly finds. It discusses the early Church, the gnostics, the origins of Christian monasticism, the Church councils, the Crusades, the Renaissance and the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Galileo affair, and the martyrs of the twentieth-century, among many other topics. What sets this book apart from others like it is obviously Hart’s commentary; in such books the text is usually either dry and forgettable or sounds as though it has been translated by a computer from another language, but not here. Hart has a firm grasp of the theology and the history, and he expresses it with his usual eloquence.
I am familiar enough with Hart’s other writings to see that he brings some of his special interests to bear on the story he tells: the Resurrection’s challenge to ancient conceptions of justice, the depth and abiding value of the Cappadocian Fathers, the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, the spiritual poverty of modernity. Echoing in miniature the thoughts of his little book The Doors of the Sea, he argues that most contemporary debate on the problem of evil circles around the god of Enlightenment deism rather than the Christian God, and so poses little challenge to the historic, global faith.
And it is a global faith. Hart’s history casts a wide net, taking in not only the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant forms of Christianity, but also the numerous Christian communities — the Armenian, Ethiopian, and Nestorian — that are very ancient but were never part of “Christendom”. We tend to think of Christianity as a Western religion, but history reminds us that this is not so. The geographic center of Christianity until the 7th century was the Mediterranean basin, taking in north Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor. There have been Christian communities in Ethiopia and India since early times, and Nestorian Christians fleeing the Byzantine Empire took the faith well into Asia — which explains why Marco Polo kept running into them on his travels. When the New World was discovered, missionaries brought Christianity to those cultures — and often opposed rather than blessed the economic and military imperialism of the European powers that accompanied them. The Jesuits went as missionaries to Japan, and had good success until the government brutally suppressed the faith in the seventeenth century. Even today, when some are inclined to view Christianity as being in decline, the truth is just the opposite: it is growing faster than at any other time in its history, the general decline in the West more than compensated by enormous growth in Africa and Asia. There is a real sense, as Hart puts it, that even after 2000 years the Christian story is just beginning.