How Christianity Spread

By Portmann, John | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

How Christianity Spread


Portmann, John, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Writing a comprehensive yet digestible history of Christianity involves at least three obstacles. First, there is the sheer volume of information to be sifted through and synthesized. Second, there is some stiff competition with existing works that cover particular geographical areas. Third, some of these works already approach the book-is-just-too-thick barrier. In 1998 Eerdmans itself published Mark A. Noll's fine but already lengthy A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, for example. A world history would seem to call for an even wordier product, yet a longer tome would likely alienate all but scholarly readers deeply committed to the subject. So the challenge is set for anyone hoping to write an appealing history of Christianity around the globe.

Others have tried. Many readers who spy this title on the bookstore shelf will immediately think of John McManners' 1990 work The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, which is certainly difficult to surpass. Wisely, Adrian Hastings confronts this natural comparison at the outset. He explains that while excellent, the Oxford volume is too "Eurocentric" and "perhaps even too ecclesiocentric." Although his work (which doesn't include any illustrations) overlaps significantly with The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, it carries the ball farther principally through chapters on India, China, and Australia (we will have to wait for coverage of Antarctica). Hastings has filled a legitimate niche, for the same "too Eurocentric" criticism may apply to other attempts to tackle this subject, for example Vivian Green's 1996 A New History of Christianity, Owen Chadwick's colorful A History of Christianity, from 1995, and Roland Bainton's still impressive The Horizon History of Christianity from 1964. .

The work under consideration here, to continue with comparisons, bears a curious resemblance to The World Reacts to the Holocaust, ably edited by David Wyman and Charles Rosenzveig and published in 1997 by Johns Hopkins. Those collected essays discretely detail anti-Semitism in more than 20 countries and succeed in conveying a genuinely international perspective on what was largely a European phenomenon. Albeit indirectly, we learn about Christianity through glimpses of anti-Semitism in various places. Whereas the Holocaust work focused loosely on the decades from 1930-1950, Hastings' history straddles two millennia.

Comparisons aside, it is extremely difficult to provide a brief overview of Christianity around the world without sacrificing precious substance, yet this volume largely succeeds. If you want to know how many Roman Catholic cardinals currently preside over India, you will be disappointed. If, however, you want to get a sense of how Christianity took root in India, you will not. Hastings organizes the volume according to territories and, when covering Europe, according to eras as well.

Hastings, the author of A History of English Christianity 19201990 and two histories of Christianity in Africa, leads his team quite well. He consistently avoids obscure references and skillfully summarizes entire critical studies in a few sentences (sometimes even just one). That we are left with the impression that each of the authors read all of the other essays before beginning his or her own (which would be impossible) attests to the energy and success of Hastings' editing. To his personal credit, he manages to write without footnotes at all. While it is not the case that the footnotes of his other authors are laborious or excessive, still it remains impressive that he is capable of such concision.

Christianity differs from other world religions by virtue of the place of Jesus Christ in its theology. Roman Catholics and Protestants may disagree on many scores, but both groups give primacy to Jesus Christ and both groups embrace the New Testament (unlike Jews and Muslims, who share with Christians only reverence for the "Old Testament" or Hebrew Bible).

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