TWO QUITE different books on the history of Christianity are the subject of this month's review.
A Short History of Christianity, by Stephen Tomkins, lives up to its title. In 247 pages the author zips through 2,000 years of a complicated and convoluted story--roughly a page a decade. Tomkins writes "for all the people I know who don't know the story and would enjoy it." It is not a book for scholars, although the author is a PhD in church history, and if I remember my church history, seems to know his stuff.
But two of his three mentions of Canada--one about the 1926 Union of Church, and another dealing with the ordination of women to the priesthood in the United States and Canada--did give me pause. In two sentences I noted five errors of fact, albeit minor. The third mention was two not-very-flattering paragraphs about the "Toronto Blessing."
Generally the book is an enjoyable romp. Tomkins has a light touch that frequently veers into jocularity, which one might expect from a contributing editor to the online humour magazine Ship of Fools, whose book is commended by Terry Jones, star and co-writer of Monty Python.
Brevity means that Tomkins touches the high and low points with few nods to the lives of ordinary Christians. Readers who know little about the history of Christianity will learn that we have been constantly embroiled in conflict since the beginning and there are no new conflicts--all have roots in the early centuries of church life. But it is refreshing to realize that conflicts that once were settled with the sword and the torch are now fought with sharp tongues and a fiery rhetoric (which sometimes makes one think of Samson slaying the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass).
Laity will enjoy this interesting stroll through the years. Clergy will find the book a useful reminder of what we have forgotten, although regretfully there is no mention of the so-called British heresy, Pelagianism. A short glossary and a good index will greatly aid the search for a nugget or two to slip into a sermon. Readers will enjoy the little historical gems tucked into the text, such as Charles Martel winning the Battle of Poitiers in 732, ending the advance of Islam into Europe, because he equipped his heavy cavalry with stirrups so they would be more difficult to unhorse. Perhaps less enjoyable, and certainly more startling, is the statistic that worldwide there are now 34,000 Christian denominations, of which 20,000 indigenous church groups with a membership of 60 million (principally in Africa) are not linked to any international denomination. …