The Lost History of Christianity will change how we understand Christian and world history. Leading religion scholar Philip Jenkins reveals a vast Christian world to the east of the Roman Empire and how the earliest, most influential churches of the East-those that had the closest link to Jesus and the early church-died. In this paradigm-shifting book, Jenkins recovers a lost history, showing how the center of Christianity for centuries used to be the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, extending as far as China.Without this lost history, we can't understand Islam or the Middle East, especially Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Complete with maps, statistics, and fascinating stories and characters that no one in the media or the general public has ever heard of, The Lost History of Christianity will immerse the listener in a lost world that was once the heart of Christianity.
Jenkins spends most of his time talking about Christianity in different parts of the Eastern world, instead of, as the subtitle hints, telling us “how it died.” This is much more a book, in fact, of how these communities flourished and lived side-by-side with people of other religions. We get vignettes of how, in the East, Christians lived next to Jews and especially Muslims for centuries. Around the thirteenth or fourteenth century, however, Muslims – who almost always were the power-holding elites in these regions – began to grow increasingly intolerant toward religious minorities. Why? Jenkins never really says. He offers a number of explanations, which I believe were meant to be the heart of the book, including the marginalization of certain languages, and the rise of a powerful, political Islam, but he never makes it seem like he is convinced of any of them.
I found this to be a confusing, or rather confused, book that wasn’t aware of what it wanted to say. It would have been much better with a different (sub)title, and a thesis – any thesis. Instead, the reader gets a mishmash that tries to convey the importance of Christianity in the East and to some extent succeeds. But if you want an explanation of why Christianity survived in the West, but was nearly totally decimated in the East, you won’t find much of an explanation here. I might suggest this to someone for whom the Christian East is a wholly new concept, but there are sure to be better resources out there than what this book has to offer.
Neither western nor eastern church history seems well known among Christians in the European-North American tradition, and particularly among Protestants, who have long emphasized the Bible as the highest authority and thus have largely ignored the lessons for their faith of the 2000 year global accumulation of Christian experiences. The result of this historical neglect is a tendency for European-North American Christians to regard current Christian expressions of faith as inevitably the best possible such expressions, the ones God intended all along to be true. When faced with a decline in the presence of Christians, whether by choice or by force, such a view of one's own tradition is severely challenged. It will help, thinks Jenkins, to reflect deeply on this historical rise and fall and re-rise of churches, and the reappearance of forms, and the connections between religious traditions, to make sense of one's own religious place in the world.
Christian communities have disappeared historically for two basic reasons: either by attrition, because local people found other traditions more attractive or convenient, or by coercion. The author supplies examples of both, with coercion receiving rather more attention.
Jenkins wants us to know in particular about the history of the Nestorian Church, or Syriac Christianity coming out of Mesopotamia, which for more than one thousand years covered large areas of the Middle East and Asia. At its height it well surpassed Christian movements in Europe in terms of numbers of adherents and levels of scholarship and liturgy. An observer of the time would not have predicted it would be this movement that would disappear and the European one that would grow. And the reasons that this did happen seem contingent on political and geographical developments rather than on points of theology or scripture. Although he uses Syriac Christianity as his dramatic centerpiece for the Christian disappearance phenomenon, he also points out the ways it has not disappeared -- he uses the term "ghosts"-- and the various ways in which Christian communities have survived in non-Christian areas, such as the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Church, and the Syriac Church in India, or where they have re-appeared, as in China and Japan.
The author concludes his book by drawing lessons for Christians about how to understand these phenomena and not become trapped in discouragement. He supplies valuable clues for how Christians might begin to reflect theologically on the history he describes, clues that are valuable in today's more pluralist religious settings. Although this book is written for Christians the author seems well aware that his interpretations could be applied equally well to Buddhists, Muslims, or members of any faith tradition.
There are some maps, but the book could use further such aids for the general educated reader. The notes are copious but a bibliography would be a helpful addition.
It is a dense, if short, book. Every line is packed with facts making it one of those books I couldn’t read at any great length. But Jenkins is correct that this is a part of Christian history that is overlooked by the vast majority of people, and it’s a shame. In 12 years of Catholic school I never learned this history. And if it’s not being taught there it can’t be being taught anywhere, save at the university level.
Contrary to other reviews here, this is hardly a screed against Islam. Jenkins goes out of his way to show that there were waves of tolerance and oppression by the Muslim conquerors of the formerly Christian lands. And for balance he repeatedly cites corresponding waves of oppression by Christians against European Jews. Religious oppression is nothing new to the world. And it will never end until the eschaton.
This book is, however, very much about Islam, because it was Islam that conquered the Middle East and northern Africa. This didn’t happen by accident. Some argue that Islam spread as a consequence of Arab conquests, and others that Islamic jihad was present from the beginning. Jenkins is in the former camp, and I disagree with him here, though it’s a qualified disagreement. The marriage of politics and faith has been part of Islam since its inception and it’s hard to argue that there wasn’t a religious motivation behind the Muslim conquests. Just because once the Christians were conquered they weren’t forcibly converted to Islam right away does not mean that wasn’t the ultimate goal. And that goal was largely achieved except for pockets of Christian hold outs such as the Coptics in Egypt.
This is not a religious book. Jenkins, a former Catholic (he’s some sort of non-evangelical Protestant now), is not out to make the argument that Christianity is true and will ultimately prevail. Of course, it will. Rather, his point is that there are ebbs and flows in religious dominance. For centuries, the Middle East was a Christian land. That may not always be the case. Africa was for centuries a tribal continent, but Christianity is booming across the continent now. China is now between five and ten percent Christian.
The Catholic Church often says that it thinks in terms of centuries. There’s no telling how the story of Christianity will continue to unravel over the coming centuries. But, to forget its early history will ensure that Christianity will have a much rougher road than if it can learn what went wrong and ensure that the faith is much deeper rooted so that the setback described by Jenkins don’t happen again.
Looses a star for political correctness, equating all forms of Christianity. Besides Reformed literature, a good antidote would be Jacques Ellul’s _La subversion du christianisme_ [The Subversion of Christianity].