Christianity: A Global History

Article excerpt

Christianity: A Global History. By David Chidester. San Francisco: HarperSanFrandsco, 2000. x + 627 pp. $32.00 (cloth); $21.00 (paper).

As the title advertises, this book is an ambitious undertaking. David Chidester, a professor of comparative religion at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, has attempted to tell "the story of Christianity as a sweeping epic" over the past two millennia of its history and to ponder its global nature in view of a new millennium. His chronicle especially aims to understand Christianity as a religion born and formed out of other religions, existing in an environment of religious diversity and thus whose history is also that of other religions.

In setting about this account, Chidester has arranged his narrative in three parts. The first is entitled "Ancient Origins," in which he traces the primitive and patristic eras of the Christian church. The medieval and reformation periods are surveyed under the heading "Historical Transitions." The advent of European colonization of the New World introduces "Global Transformations," which proceeds to cover historical developments to the present. Throughout this triad, the author presents an impressive range of material and succeeds in many ways to provide a wide, comprehensive canvas of Christianity.

However, the author is strongly drawn to the simplistic characterization. The reader, for instance, is informed that the crusades became "the defining feature of a unified Christendom in the West," or the denial of Christ's presence in the eucharist was "the defining feature of heresy," and that in the celebration of the mass the Christian was reminded "that the death of Jesus had been caused by Jews." The Protestant reformation is described merely as "both theoretical and practical opposition to idolatry," and the counter-reformation forces of Trent are said to have cultivated a "spirituality of images" to combat heresy.

The author has chosen to approach his survey of Christianity "with the ethics of a novelist rather than with the ethics of a theologian." In his desire to make his story "interesting, entertaining, and fun," he is often absorbed with the obscure and the sensational. …