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The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died Hardcover – October 28, 2008
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For most of its history, "Christianity has been a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa and Asia." (3). Well into the 14th century, eastern Christian groups like the Nestorians and Jacobites spread deep into the Middle East and Central Asia, as far as China and India, where they produced a richness of Christian scholarship, mysticism and culture which was not widespread in Europe until much later. Today, we tend to think that of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia as inevitably Muslim. But a thousand years ago, despite the political success of Islam, Christianity appeared poised to continue as the dominant faith of these regions. This raises the question: what happened? It is here that Jenkins is most insightful. Politically, he points out how the coming of the Muslims probably appeared more as an "Arab conquest": one more in a string of empires under which the Christians could live. After all was not "the Church an anvil that has worn out many a hammer?" (207). It was several factors which produced a "new Muslim hostility" (134) through which these regions were decisively Islamized (and Dechristianized). Jenkins notes, for instance, the Mongol invasions, and also to the economic effects of "The Little Age" of the 12th and 13th centuries. Facing such threats, Muslims began to more actively persecute their Christian subjects and neighbors.
This was the "first stage" of decline. Here, Christians lost majority status and struggled against increasing discrimination. In the ongoing "second stage," things deteriorated further, to the extent that these churches "have ceased to exist altogether" (141). Facing the rise of Europe, Muslim regimes (like the Ottomans), and Muslim societies in general, engaged in persecution of Christians throughout the now increasingly "Muslim world." In fact, the word "genocide" was coined with reference to the anti-Christian purges against the Armenians and Syrians in the 20th century. Jenkins summarizes: "For all the reasons we can suggest for the...[Christian] decline...the largest single factor...was organized violence, whether in the form of massacre, expulsion, or forced migration" (141).
These are the main lines of Jenkins' study, but there are four areas that deserve further comment. First, Jenkins helpfully draws implications from his study for the work of scholars like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrmann, who have sought to rehabilitate early Gnostic writings as containing legitimate "alternative Christianities;" Christianities which were supposedly suppressed by the church. Jenkins, however, remains unconvinced: "The... conservatism of these [eastern] churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that the church...allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins" (88).
Second, recognizing the delicacy of the subject, Jenkins is generally successful in striking the balance between the violence and tolerance Islamic history. On one hand, he takes to task thinkers like Karen Armstrong who selectively accentuate the benevolent side of Islam. He writes, "It is astonishing...how readily the myth of Muslim tolerance has been accepted...the story...involves far more active persecution...than would be suggested by...believers in Islamic tolerance" (33, 99). On the other hand, he makes clear that the violence perpetrated by Muslims is similar to that perpetrated by other groups, including the church. Moreover, he makes clear that the many historical examples of Islamic tolerance, especially the "benevolent nature of Muslim rule during its first 6 centuries" (33), should not be overlooked. In this connection, Jenkins is also to be commended for showing how often there were non-religious factors that led to violence.
However, it is one thing to note such factors, but quite another to virtually exclude religious factors. Jenkins writes, "Nothing in Muslim scriptures makes...Islam more or less likely to engage in persecution...The scriptures of Islam include...fewer calls to blood-curdling violence than do their Christian and Jewish counterparts...Violence [derives] not from anything inherent in Islam..." (31, 242). In response, it must be pointed out that these undocumented assertions are not empirical findings as much as personal opinions. In fact, a good case can be made that the canonical texts of Islam have also done their part to contribute to Muslim violence (for example, see David Cook's Understanding Jihad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)). As for the "calls to blood-curdling violence" in the Hebrew Bible, the broad consensus among Christians is that these calls have been superseded by the non-violence of New Testament. In contrast, as Cook points out, there does not yet seem to be a comparable Muslim consensus.
Third, with tantalizing brevity, Jenkins deals with the impact of eastern churches on Islam (36-39, 173-206). The architecture of mosques, the "Muslim" style of prayer, the practice of Sufism, and many elements in the Qur'an itself may preserve "ghosts" of these churches. In fact, it was not initially Muslims, but largely eastern Christians (under eventual Muslim patronage) who preserved the intellectual heritage of the ancient world by translating it into Arabic: "Such were the Christian roots of the Arabic golden age" (19). Jenkins' study is quite helpful at this point since this is an under-explored field today. While Syrian and Arab Christians at the time of Islam's birth certainly saw the parallels, and while scholars from a century ago (largely ignored by Jenkins), wrote of the Christian influence on Islam, there seem to be fewer today exploring this nexus (though Jenkins mentions Christoph Luxenberg - p. 186). In light of this, Jenkins study usefully suggests that by studying Islamic origins, we can recover something of these ancient churches; and by studying these churches, we can recover something of Islam.
From this, however, Jenkins perhaps too-predictably calls for "a closer dialogue between the sister faiths," (39) along with the suggestion that Christians should see Islam as "another form of divine revelation, one that complements but does not replace the Christian message" (258). While it is true that Jenkins' study uncovers "deep historical linkages" between the two faiths, it must be remembered that genuine dialogue will not emphasize these linkages alone. Genuine dialogue must also note (with irenic spirit) the central points at which the two faiths are quite un-complementary.
Finally, in his last chapter, Jenkins tiptoes into a theological consideration of the extermination of the eastern churches. If we can overlook his too-facile rejection of the biblical idea that the suffering of God's people may be due in part to God's judgment (252), we will find here much fertile ground for reflection. He is right to point out that, in contrast to unbiblical visions of a politically dominant Christianity, or a prosperity gospel, the New Testament teaches Christians to expect suffering. Jenkins' work is thus a call for the recovery of a cross-centered theology. As well, since the Bible harbors a "deep suspicion about the secular order" and underlines the "transience of human affairs" ("Even the Roman Empire was not to last forever," 260), Christians should see "the foolishness of associating faith with any particular state or social order" (262). Finally, Jenkins reminds us that in spite of everything, Christianity "is today the world's most numerous religion." Indeed, taking both the Bible and history as paradigms, Jenkins' study is a reminder that a theology of suffering must be held as preliminary to a theology of survival, and ultimately to a theology of resurrection.
To his credit, throughout the book, Jenkins does manage to make a number of interesting points. Early on, his descriptions of the spread of Eastern Christianity all the way to China and Japan, and his extensive quotations from now forgotten patriarchs of churches often considered heretical today (Nestorians, Jacobites) give vivid credence to his arguments. I was also very taken with his argument of how churches have to make there way "into the villages" in order to survive oppression. For example, the great St. Augustine once led a vibrant North African church from Carthage, yet his urban-oriented church could not survive the spread of Islam whereas the penetrating Coptic churches of Egypt still manage to hang on after over 1000 years of Islamic rule.
On the other hand, Jenkins' book suffers from nearly debilitating weaknesses. First, his prose is surprisingly dull for the story he is telling. His prose could also use some tightening, in the sense that he wanders around the world and among now forgotten religions and leaders with a casualness that can be difficult for those not already familiar with these rather obscure topics and people. Finally, his focus on the relationship between Christianity and Islam in the latter chapters is somewhat of a disappointment when he hints and more interesting thing in India, China and the Far East, which doesn't get equal treatment. Certainly, his focus on the controversial idea that Islam is nothing more than a perverted Christianity seems to serve no real purpose here, other than to try to give energy to a flagging story.
Ultimately, I liked very much the story Jenkins was trying to tell. The history of the lost Christian churches of Africa and Asia is one that deserves to be told, if for no other reason that to modify the Euro-centric ideas of Christianity we have now. I just wish he could have told it much better. Perhaps someone in the future will write a more focused, comprehensible version of this book. That is a book I'd be anxious to read.
(I do hesitate to use the word "sect," as it so often seems to connote "wayward minority." History is written by the winners - one can imagine a time when the number of Muslims in the world dwarfs the number of Catholics, with the latter being thought of as a heretical version of the True Faith.)
This book lifts Christianity's first-millennium center of mass and moves it a thousand miles to the ESE. It opened my eyes to the fact that Christianity was thriving in Central Asia and further east, including even a major presence in Japan, and for a very long time. Also, importantly, it makes obvious the overriding role that luck plays in the success or failure of the spread of religion. If the Mongols had adopted Christianity instead of Islam, the world would be a different place. (Rather, was it the Almighty's wish that the Mongols adopted Islam and not Christianity!?)
I must say that the author seemed to be awfully repetitive in the first fourth of the book, and I felt as though I was being hit over the head with a hammer. On the other hand, maybe that's not a bad thing, given the nature of the material.
Over all, this was a fairly well written and an absolutely fascinating read.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I suffered the myopia of a short sighted history before reading “The Lost History of Christianity”.