Thursday, January 08, 2009

Review: Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity

Jenkins’ book contains a number of fascinating aspects, and not all relate to the content. I’m not sure where, if any place, Jenkins wishes to place himself religiously, but his book certainly comes across as vaguely secularist, or at least a ‘suspended-judgment relativist’. This probably serves him well in writing a volume like this, but it does conjecture problems.

The first problem is one he himself raises – the theological question of how to ‘read’ these lost histories. If versions of Christianity flourished in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, one struggles to read their destruction as a sign of divine disfavour with heresy, at the same time as one reads their 1400 odd years of flourishing, which by the same measure would have to be divine grace. Jenkins unabashedly proceeds with a rather sociological/historical ‘limit’ of what ‘Christianity’ is, but it certainly raises some questions.

There are two things about Jenkins’ book that struck me abruptly as I read the first few chapters. The first is constant reference to Europe, for a negative contrast. Again and again it is “X, Y, Z happened in the East, while only A and B was happening back West. See, Europe is dislocated from its dominant-centre of theo-historical interpretation!”. This is fine as a rhetorical technique to engage the reader, but it wears a little thin. One may well disparage a Euro-centric view of Christianity, but that shouldn’t be used to dilute ‘Christian Europe’ or exalt ‘Non-European Christendom’.

Secondly, Jenkins plays coy with Islam. He helpfully attacks the prevalent modern trend to present the ‘tolerant’ face of Islam as being a dodge on history. In fact, he simultaneously attacks four notions: benevolently tolerant Islam, militant Islam, benevolently tolerant Christianity, and militant Christendom. On p43 he attacks the conventional negative stereotype of Christianity. The sense though, is that neither tolerance/violence is integral to either faith. If you’ve read my blog much, you’ll know that I strongly articulate a view that sees pacifist tolerance and non-violence as a dominant ethical feature of the Christian scriptures, and I would read militant Christianity as a departure from that. Vice versa, when I read the Quran, I am struck by the notes of militancy, and regard ‘tolerant’ Islam as a departure from that. You are free to disagree, but I think Jenkins’ non-engagement, while entirely appropriate for his history, is still something of a dodge on the question.

Those notes aside, Jenkins does a fine job in the opening chapters of portraying a vibrant, extensive, and flourishing Christianity, particularly throughout the Middle East, India, and Central Asia.

In chapter 4, Jenkins begins to do a marvellous popular-history. He depicts the events of the Mongol invasions, their general benevolence to Christianity, and then the subsequent reversals that begin to change the tone of the whole world – the Mongol advancement halted by an Islamic Egypt, the conversion of Mongol leaders to Islam, and a general growing intolerance of Christianity among Muslim states. Jenkins is very careful, and I appreciate this, to point out that major conflicts were often political and ethnic or tribal, rather than strictly religious. This is well-balanced with his description of growing persecution and destruction that is specifically religious. He is also quite even-handed in comparing the treatment of Christians in Muslim lands to the treatment of Jews and other minorities in Christian Europe.

Jenkins’ portrayal of the 14th century is of a growing age of politico-religious confrontation, of the devastation of Christianity in the Middle East and Asia, to the point of extinction really, and of increasing intolerance both in Muslim and Christian lands. Remarkably he points to climate change, the ‘little Ice Age’, and environmental factors as the common explanatory feature. Personally, I find this a little far-fetched. While I concur with the premise that widespread environmental changes can have far-reaching generational, societal and cultural impacts, I am far less persuaded by his application of this thesis to a tri-continental shift in religious tolerance. He could be right, but the evidence is slim. He could have, at least, flagged his suggestion as controversial (as he does elsewhere in speaking of Nestorian-Christian influence in the translation of Buddhist sutras into Chinese).

The latter sections of the book show Jenkins at his finest – a sweeping analysis and history of the rise, and decline, of Asian Christendom. His account of the decline of Christiandom under Islamic rule is insightful, and his details of the final demise of Christianity under 20th Century regimes is a chilling reminder of the swiftness of history and forgetfulness, and the precarious nature of both our own view of the past, and the things we take as givens. Jenkins then spends some time tracing the ‘ghosts’ - the traces that Asian and African Christianity has left in its wake.

Jenkins’ final chapter begins to offer some of the answers that one might have hoped for based on the questions raised out the outset. Sadly, they are far from satisfying. Noting the ‘peace’ that some Christian theologies have made with the independent existence of Judaism, he wonders if Christianity couldn’t make a similar accommodation to the realia of Islam’s existence. To this I simply have to say that I stand within, and intentionally so, a strand of Christianity that continues to argue that modern Judaism is not the proper heir of the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that Christianity is the true fulfillment. Similarly, a faithful allegiance to that position accords no accommodation for Islam. Of course, if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I regard the assimilation to statehood a tragic mistake of Christian discipleship, an avenue Jenkins at least raises.

Let me conclude this overly long review – Jenkins’ work is sweeping, brilliant, flawed, and a must-read. There’s plenty to argue over, both ideological and historical, but it’s a work that can’t be ignored, least of all by Christians. Read it. 3 stars.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died

2 comments: said...

Just reviewed Jenkins' book myself on my blog, Messianic Jewish Musings (link at end of comment).

I wanted to push back a little on your comment that Christianity, not "modern Judaism," is the true heir to the Hebrew Bible. There are a few problems logically and intellectually with such a statement. First, which "Christianity" do you mean? I'm not being coy here. It really matters. You seem a well-read person, so perhaps you are at least vaguely familiar with some Post-Holocaust Christian theology. If not, I recommend Soulen's God of Israel and Christian Theology.

My brief assessment: too many Christianities have removed themselves from the stream of the Hebrew Bible through supersessionism and allegorization. Meanwhile, in some ways "modern Judaism," as you put it, is often more faithful to the Hebrew Bible.

I am Messianic Jewish, so I benefit from both sides and have no grudge against either, nor an uncritical eye towards both.

Anyway, here is my review of Jenkins' book:

Derek Leman

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks Derek, I very much enjoyed your review, and reading around on your blog at large. If it helps, I very much concur with your thoughts on McKnight, Soulen, Canonical Meta-narrative and the like.

I don't have a proper answer for 'which Christianity is the 'true heir' to the Hebrew bible. I probably would want to reframe the question, at least to recognise that various strands of Christianity are more and less faithful in their readings of scripture and their own practices. That said, I do think there are boundaries and issues on which to say, "That's a core issue, cross this line and really you're not on the same team".

I haven't read Soulen, but I'll add it to my readin list.