The National Catholic Review
John W. OMalley

Every history of Christianity I am familiar with begins with the Gospels. Diarmaid MacCulloch begins a millennium before that with ancient Greece and Israel. That is the first feature that sets this book apart from its competitors and justifies its subtitle, “The First Three Thousand Years.” The second feature is the author’s stunning erudition. In the introduction, he describes the book as an attempt “to synthesize the current state of historical scholarship across the world.” That is quite a claim, especially for a subject as sprawling, complex and multicultural as the history of Christianity, but MacCulloch commands that vast literature as well as anybody I can imagine. Being an editor of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History has put him in the enviable situation of having every book of merit cross his desk. He seems to have devoured them all and gobbled up lots of articles for good measure.

Weighing in at three-and-a-half pounds in paperback and running to over 1,100 pages, Christianity is not for the fainthearted. Given its scope, small errors of fact are inevitable, but I ran across astoundingly few. MacCulloch’s judgment on events and personalities is obviously a more tangled issue. He states in the introduction that the book is a “personal statement,” an admission all honest historians must echo for whatever they write. Good historians realize that an autobiographical dimension colors their work. They try to use it in ways that enhance rather than vitiate their enterprise.

Raised in an Anglican country parish, the scion of three generations of pastors, MacCulloch at a certain point gave up his Christian faith. He describes himself, however, as “a candid friend of Christianity,” and in the main the book reflects his appreciation of his subject. His description of late-medieval Corpus Christi processions as “showing how the Church brought the love of Christ to every corner of Western life” is remarkable for judging so positively a phenomenon sometimes disdained, and it is an example of his friendship in operation.

But he of course has his bias. In general he shows more sympathy for the margins than for the mainstream. He is skeptical of “orthodoxy.” He nurses a decided, certainly not always unjustified, suspicion of ecclesiastical authority and occasionally succumbs to the hermeneutic dominant in religious history for the past several decades of reducing all exercise of such authority to greed for power. MacCulloch writes beautifully and with wit, but sometimes also with a detached irony that will not please everyone.

Let the reader, then, beware. Let the reader also be appreciative of a remarkable achievement. MacCulloch began his career as a specialist in the English Reformation but widened his perspective to produce the best general history of Christianity in that period currently on the shelves, The Reformation (2004).

Remarkable in the present book is the attention he gives to the Orthodox churches in their various forms and to the global impact of Christianity in both its Catholic and Protestant incarnations. He devotes a full (and extremely welcome) chapter to “Islam: The Great Realignment, 622-1500.” Put differently, he does a good job of breaking out of the Eurocentrism that characterizes so many general histories of Christianity.

All historians must make choices about what to include, what to omit and how much emphasis to give to different phenomena. For my taste he underplays the importance of Pope Stephen II’s recourse to King Pippin for aid against the Lombards. He gives shorter shrift to the Gregorian Reform than I would do, although he sees it as a factor in the great turning point in Western Christianity that took place in the 11th and 12th centuries. In his otherwise excellent treatment of Renaissance Humanism, he fails to mention the greatest impact the movement had on the West: its launching in a newly institutional form the style of student-centered education that until recently dominated wherever Christianity had established itself. And so forth.

Quibbles and qualifications like these do not detract from MacCulloch’s accomplishment but confirm what he is at pains to point out: Christianity is an enormously complex phenomenon. It is a religious tradition in which a few elements have persisted with striking consistency through different climes and cultures for centuries upon end, but in which diversity and mutations are equally striking. Paradox is at its heart. It is too big for simplistic formulae.

MacCulloch puts it well:

“Traditionalists” often forget that the nature of tradition is not that of a humanly manufactured mechanical or architectural structure with a constant outline and form, but rather that of a plant, pulsating with life and continually changing shape while keeping the same ultimate identity.

That is a timely observation. In my opinion one of the greatest problems in Catholicism today is ignorance of the tradition in its breadth and diversity, which results in a dangerously truncated view of what it means to be a “faithful” Catholic. Christianity is an excellent antidote for that scourge. Thank you, Dr. MacCulloch!

John W. O’Malley, S.J., is university professor in the department of theology at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.