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An outstanding survey by a gifted writer.,
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This review is from: The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (Hardcover)
Robert Louis Wilken's "The First Thousand" years is an exemplary survey of Christianity's first millenium. Wilken starts with the life of Jesus and follows an approach encyclopedically organized around topics and geography to close with the Christianization of the Slavs in the 10th Century. Along the way, he touches on chapters devoted to architecture, christological issues, the rise of Islam, music, China, India, Northern Europe, Justinian and Charlemagne.
That's a lot of ground to cover. Wilken is a wonderful prose stylist and his writing is graceful and informative. He also brings his own perspective to the survey and so we are treated to insights and topics that readers don't normaally get in usual surveys. For example, those familiar with Wilken's previous works will greet the discussions of Celsus [from The Christians as the Romans Saw Them] and the Cappodocian Fathers and Maximus the Confessor [from The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God] like they were renewing an acquaintance with old friends.
As a survey, Wilken does cover some familiar ground - and strangely he does repeat information provided under one topic when he moves to tangentially related topics - but by and large Wilken's choice of topics is new, particularly in the decision to give non-European Christianity the attention it deserves. Thus, Wilken does emphasize how much of the Christian heartland of the first thousand years was outside of Europe and how at the close of the first millenium, Christianity, which had spread throughout the Middle East and Persia and Egypt and North Africa, found itself under Muslim rule. Wilken also compares the Latin approach to spreading Christianity, which brought the high culture into the Latin language, with the Eastern approach, which invented new alphabets for new languages and translated the sacred texts into those languages. I filed away a bunch of different factoids, e.g., "Copt" is a corruption of "Aegypos," i.e., Egyptian, with the first and last syllable lopped off by the Arabic invaders; and, Charlemagne's theologians were opposed to the veneration of icons, and although they were brought around to agreeing that it was not idolatrous, the residual distrust of the practice is a reason why icons never really caught on in the West; and it was a Christian philosopher named Philoponus who first injected the notion of a latent inertia into Aristotle's physics. (See p. 254.) We also get a perspective on the slaughter of Christians in Jerusalem by Zoroastrian Persians and how the long tradition of Syriac-speaking Christians gave way to the even longer tradition of Arabic-speaking Christians (who in some Muslim countries may well be in their last days.)
Wilken is exceptionally good at introducing us to the characters that make up this history, and, like any good survey, the introduction can spark the imagination and interest to wander off any of a number of departure points. Wilken's simple explanation of the what was at issue in the Nestorian controversy is also worth the price of admission. One caveat I will note is that this book lacks footnotes. We don't know what sources Wilken is citing. This is a problem insofar as I would like to follow up on some of his quotations from learned authorities. This is the second book I've seen with that feature. Perhaps the notes are on some website, but I could not find a reference to them. I don't know if this is a new trend in scholarship, but for those of us who are interested in following up on the material, it is disconcerting.
On the other hand, a nice feature of the book is that it includes five or six pages of maps, a chronological chart with key names and events and some nice color photos. For what it's worth, Wilken's observations about architecture intrigued me so much that I was induced to locate websites with pictures of the great mosque in Cordoba and an interactive 360 degree "virtual tour" of the Hagia Sophia. I'm not much of an "architecture buff" but it was awe-inspiring to think, for example, that I was looking at a place where Justinian once walked.