Thursday, August 04, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF DIARMAID MACCULLOCH’S CHRISTIANITY THE FIRST THREE THOUSAND YEARS

This is a book I wanted very much to like, but, while it is worth reading, it proved disappointing in a number of respects.

The title alone is interesting - reflecting as it does the many ideas and beliefs of Greeks and Hebrews which became woven into Christianity – because it puts Christianity, quite properly, into a longer term, pre-Christian history rather than the naïve notion that Christianity arose suddenly, “out of whole cloth,” as it were, almost like something not of this world.

I had heard an interview with the author on CBC Radio, and he said several intriguing things. I especially liked his explanation of Jesus’s calling his follower, Peter, a rock, a concept which taken literally is one of the great assumptions of Roman Catholicism and its being headquartered in Rome, the legendary site of Peter’s martyrdom. The author said it was intended as sarcasm, and that idea immediately humanizes Jesus with a sense of humor.

After all, we all know from Sunday school classes of years ago that Peter had denied knowing Jesus, not just once but three times. Hardly the character you’d describe as a rock providing a secure foundation.

Someone who could offer that kind of anecdote had to be worth reading.

And there is much in the book readers will enjoy or from which they will learn.

I do think the vast scope of the task of summarizing efficiently three thousand years of developments somewhat eluded the author. My instincts said he gave too many words to some things and too few to others.

There are a great many names of relatively unimportant figures in this book which seem tossed in almost out of some desire for completeness. At the same time there are figures or events or movements which are treated in a cursory manner.

While some portions of the book provide a good read, others seem to drag, as though the author were only covering some territory he felt he must while not being interested in it or perhaps not having studied it enough to summarize more elegantly.

There are also matters of fact and emphasis which bothered me. For example, the French philosophes are treated in what I regard as a truly unbalanced manner. After all, the eighteenth century philosophers offered the greatest challenge and opposition to Christianity since perhaps Rome at the height of its persecutions.

I also thought there were aspects of the author’s discussion of the ancient Hebrews not agreeing with works I’ve read on the origins of the Hebrew people.

Nevertheless, it is a book worth reading, if one that is not consistently satisfying.

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