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30 of 43 people found the following review helpful
Not bad if you overlook the gimmickry and one major omission
on September 10, 2010
I cannot be quite as generous as some of the other reviewers. Four stars for the church history, minus 2 for the gimmickry. I'll speak to that first, then follow with a couple of more substantive (if not deal-breaking) criticisms.
This is a great book on church history. But it's packaged as a book about "eternity." It's like a present wrapped for the wrong occasion. Frankly it seemed to me that the author went in search of a new twist on an old topic--that would sell. Indeed the title, "A Very Brief History of Eternity," does sound more exciting than "A Very Brief History of the Church" or of Christianity.
To pull off this rather gimmicky approach, the author repositions "eternity" as the main theme of Christianity, repeatedly harking back to his title by plugging in the word "eternity" at every possible opportunity, even where other words (such as "religion" or "afterlife") would have rung more true.
Christianity is no more all about eternity than an automobile is all about the steering wheel. Just as there are many necessary parts to a car, eternity may be considered a necessary part to our rescue (salvation wouldn't amount to much if it didn't last). But like the steering wheel, eternity is just one of the details. It's no more the central theme of Christianity than, say, resurrection. This is evidenced in part by the fact that humans would no doubt pine as much for just a mere couple of hundred extra years, if that were the promise, as they do for a trillion and more. Eternity is like: "But wait! There's more! Take salvation and we'll throw in eternity for free!"
Of course the details do more than just tag along--they are where the blood is drawn. But all those centuries of doctrinal fussing have been in service to the main theme, and any concept about "eternity" is conditioned on whether our promised salvation is real--which depends on our belief (or not) in the veracity of the biblical revelation, not on the reality of, or the nature of, eternity itself. It is far more likely that eternity can and will go on, than it is likely that we can somehow manage to be in it. Christianity is more about the process of achieving it, than it is about the reward. That's what the church has always been about, and that's what this record of its history is all about. So this strong focus on the nature and reality of eternity, per se, is distracting.
But if the devil is in the details, can't a book be about just one of those details in particular? Sure, if it doesn't seem contrived. But my copy of this book now sports an "Arrrgh!" in the margin everywhere it seemed the author inserted the word "eternity" gratuitously. Seriously, was the Reformation really a "reconfiguration of the eternal," for example? No, not in particular. It was a reconfiguration of **the path to salvation,** the mechanism of it (namely faith vs. works) and of **the role of the clergy.**
The author seems to be aware of the shakiness of this gimmicky repackaging for the purpose of sales appeal, for it seems, from the first pages, that he "doth protest too much" in pre-answering any criticism about that. It's like an apology in advance.
Nevertheless, it's still an excellent primer on church history and the church's approach to its primary theme, salvation--I loved this book for that. Church history was by far the most interesting part of the degree and graduate studies I took in religion 40 years ago. It was a pleasure getting reacquainted with Polycarp in this book, for example, an aging bishop in 156 A.D. who acquiesced to death by fire rather than accept any of the several opportunities offered him to reject his faith. Indeed the central 4 chapters of this book constitute a great introduction to the truly fascinating, unbelievable deeds and doctrines of the church over the centuries, including the mega-split resulting from the Reformation. If you've never sampled this slice of history, don't hesitate to treat yourself to this book or any of the other fine choices out there, such as the very readable ones by Roland Bainton.
I did appreciate the author's contemplation of eternity (wherever it didn't seem contrived). His report, for example, in layman's terms, on recent esoteric studies of eternity by astrophysicists was great--even if it was included only in support of the packaging twist. I was surprised to learn about the attosecond--and just when I thought nanoseconds were all the rage.
More on substance, one thing I couldn't relate to at all, which threatened to derail me from this book at the beginning, was the author's unwillingness to acknowledge that many do not share his horror and sense of meaninglessness at the thought of no life after death. Many, I among them, find life far more joyful and meaningful since coming to a personal realization that this life is almost certainly all there is. Unlike the author, my own behavior is not "determined in large measure by how I think about my eternal fate, day in and day out." For that to be the case, one would have to believe there is at least a reasonable chance of ever seeing life after death--which, given the lack of evidence, many do not. You can't love or hate or dread something that you cannot bring yourself to believe exists.
But the author has a personal, first-to-last-page "pervasive dread" of no afterlife, an "outrage," a something to "get angry thinking about." Millions of us don't carry that baggage. Frankly, when I see our brief time here called an "insult" or an "injustice," it strikes me as arrogant. It's like somebody gives you ten bucks and you feel insulted and angry because they didn't give you a trillion. Being angry over not having more--especially when there's nothing we can change about it--seems like a cruel, self-defeating displacement of joy. Are we not adjustable to new understandings? Surely the lack of this kind of handwringing by atheists, humanists and many agnostics deserved at least a nod in this book; but that would have conflicted with the notion that we're all living in constant consternation over whether we'll magically come back to life and live forever--which seems to be the setup for this book's approach.
Then there's Darwin.
What an odd omission that so little was mentioned of the single most important impact on Christian thought in modern times. Before Darwin, humans were made and put here. Created. Just as we are, essentially. Purpose, meaning and "soul" were easy concepts when that was all there was. A literal Genesis story and all it implied (eternity) could seem reasonable. But then, suddenly Darwin. Quite abruptly, we were no longer made and put here as is. Purpose, meaning and soul became, for the first time, subject to almost universal doubt of varying degree. Does a gnat have an eternal soul? Does a chimp? Did the Neanderthals? Where and how is the line drawn? If there's a God who went to the trouble of defining exactly who, in the continuum of specie development, gets a "soul," then why didn't he just create those people from scratch in the first place, as the biblical lore suggests?
Back to the to the automobile analogy: if a car no longer runs, what's the point in lamenting the loss of the steering wheel, in particular? Author Eire is the scholar, not me; so maybe he had a reason for not emphasizing evolution as a major turning point in the history of thought on... uh... "eternity," and giving it more attention.
Finally, some minutiae. (a) There were too many foreign words and phrases employed, mostly in the first parts of the book, which regular people can't understand from context with any precision. (b) I think Seventh-day Adventists are a better example than Jehovah's Witnesses, of a direct remnant of the Millerite movement; and they are more than twice the size in membership. (c) As a fan of Thomas Paine, I wish the author had specifically noted that he was not an atheist by any stretch (contrary to what Christians often suggest), but a Deist--a staunch believer in God without buying into any of the sacred texts or any religion. Payne barely preceded Darwin, and it is interesting to wonder whether Payne would have continued in his religionless belief in God as creator, after Darwin. It is similarly interesting to wonder whether the "new atheists" (Dawkins, Harris, et. al.), if writing PRE-Darwin, would have made their renunciation of the biblical record in defense of God's character (like Payne), rather than in support of atheism.
In summary, buy this book for the great substantive middle chapters that cover the church history. As a bonus, appreciate the author's frequent discussion of "eternity"--if you don't mind being distracted by it's frequent gratuitous insertion.