A Short History of Christianity

Written by Geoffrey Blainey.

Published by Viking Press.

ISBN 9780670075249

Precis: Geoffrey Blainey, one of Australia's most accomplished and popular historians, takes us on a journey from the very beginnings of Christianity through to the current day. Looking at the development of the religion itself, as well as the social and economic forces that have influenced it, this book will include biographical details of many of the significant players in Christianity's rise and fall through the ages, including Francis of Assisi, Wesley, Whitefield and Bunyan. Written with Blainey's characteristic curiosity and story-telling skill, A Short History of Christianity reveals the impact Christianity has had on our spiritual beliefs and on the most significant events in our social and political history, and shows us how it grew to become a faith adopted in so many corners of the world.

Review by Roy Williams, 17  December 2011 in The Spectator Australia

Christianity has long since become unfashionable in Australia, and in some ‘well-educated’ circles is held in disdain. This is a very real problem, not least because there are 2.1 billion practising Christians in the world, and about four-fifths as many Muslims.

Putting to one side the ultimate question — whether Christianity is true — Australians’ increasing lack of interest in the whole subject skews our understanding of geopolitics and of our true place in the world.

Geoffrey Blainey knows this. In more than 600 pages he rarely mentions Australia. This is sobering because, as he says with justification, ‘Christianity probably has been the most important institution in the world in the last 2,000 years. It has achieved more for western civilisation than has any other factor.’

Many Australians would roll their eyes at that assertion, without quite realising why. This book is meant for them. ‘In writing it,’ Blainey says, ‘I had in mind a variety of general readers and also historians who work in other fields and have faint knowledge of Christian history.’

The lamentable truth is that his book will not be read by such people — at any rate, not nearly enough of them. It will find its main audience among serious Christians, some of whom will doubtless take issue with Blainey on various points. He’s alive to this challenge, admitting at the outset that his task is ‘perilous’ and that ‘much is omitted’.

Blainey writes, moreover, ‘as a historian not a theologian’. While this is a problem at times, it doesn’t detract from the book’s notable strengths.

One of them is Blainey’s remarkably eclectic knowledge. He convincingly explains how Christianity brought about, or contributed to, myriad features of modern life: private charities, skilled engineering, literacy, the work ethic, universities, global exploration and the abolition of slavery, to mention a few. He might have added the scientific method.

Even democracy itself, he reminds us, owes as much to Christianity as ancient Greece. He points to ‘the early Christian plea of Paul that all souls were of equal worth in the eyes of God’ — a reference to Galatians 3:28, among other immortal New Testament passages — and ‘that wing of early Protestantism that … gave real power to the congregation assembled each Sunday’.

Blainey is also very good when identifying key factors in the spread of Christianity. He scotches the twin canards that Jesus’ very existence is a myth (‘his life is astonishingly well documented’) and that the Gospels cannot be trusted because they differ in some details.

Somewhat disappointingly, if understandably, he skips over the evidence for the Resurrection itself. .(The subject is masterfully tackled in N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.) But there’s a solid section on the Pentecost, Paul and the work of the Apostles, and an illuminating discussion of the colossal impact of Constantine’s victory at Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. Likewise the Viking raids, the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 998 AD — which led to the Christianisation of Russia — and Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch exploration during and following the Renaissance.

Blainey also has a knack for drawing valid analogies. For example, he likens the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453: in both cases ‘the news was devastating’ for the West because ‘a [Christian] city that seemed unassailable was shown to be defenceless’.

Perhaps the book’s best feature is its ecumenicism. Blainey belongs to the English Non-Conformist tradition of John Wesley and George Fox, but he is scrupulously even-handed as regards major schisms and controversies within the Church.

Sad to say, among Australian Protestants in 2011 there are nasty strains of sectarianism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Blainey is not infected by any of them.

In particular, while he admires the aims and achievements of the Reformation, his treatment of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches is refreshingly generous.

He devotes some lively chapters to key monastic orders — the Benedictines, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits — and is respectful of several controversial doctrines, including the veneration of Mary, purgatory and transubstantiation. He praises a number of saints, Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa among them.

The embarrassing papacy of the Renaissance period and several earlier periods,’ he writes, ‘ha[s] been redeemed by the popes of the last 200 years … [M]ost were good and some were great human beings.’

Blainey is similarly balanced as regards Judaism and Islam. He displays a nuanced appreciation of the misdeeds — real, exaggerated and imaginary — of organised religion generally.

Christianity gets a bad rap on this score nowadays. As Blainey observes, ‘we forget that intolerance is normal, not abnormal, in the recorded history of truths held to be precious’. He points out that it was the Reformation, more than any other event in history, which gave rise to the phenomenon of religious toleration — indeed, toleration generally. A contributing factor in the French Revolution was that (Rome-based) Christianity had not been tolerant and adaptable enough.

The uniquely dreadful atrocities of the 20th century cannot primarily be ascribed to religion, let alone Christianity. True, as Blainey says, Christianity should not escape some indirect blame for the Holocaust (it was traditional for European Christians to blame Jewish leaders for the Crucifixion of Christ). But, at their core, Nazism and Communism — some would say free-market capitalism too — are atheistic creeds.

Blainey’s assessment of the second world war seems spot-on: ‘[it] was less an indictment of Christianity than a painful reminder of its basic message’. Human beings, left to their own devices and desires, have a near-infinite capacity for evil.

Roy Williams is the author of God, Actually (ABC Books, 2008; Monarch Books, 2009).