Thursday, February 16, 2012

How and Why Religions Live and Die

Philip Jenkin’s The Lost History of Christianity does everything a popular book on religious history should do: it takes our pedestrian notions about the history of a topic, in this case the Christian Church, and turns it on its ear.  The subtitle reveals the radical theme of the book: “The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia --- and How it Died.”  

Jenkins convincing shows how scholars have swallowed the prejudices of the western churches, (the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and the Orthodox Church) regarding the Churches of the East, all labeled heretical by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  Unlike the west, where Christian Churches were sponsored by states, the loose confederation of Churches in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa grew independent of the West or state sponsorship (with some exceptions), and for the first thousand years of Christianity, were intellectually and numerically more important than Western Christianity.
What we see as the inevitability of Western Christianity, Jenkins tells us, is nothing more than historical prejudice and hindsight.  Christianity started as a Middle Eastern religion, and lost its historical heart with the coming of Islam and the slow disintegration of Eastern churches.  This course was not inevitable.

Jenkins also takes some interesting shots at established popular writers of Christianity like Pagels and Armstrong.  It is interesting to see scholars who have done so much to undermine traditional notions of Christian origins get undermined themselves!

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