Friday, 8 May 2020

Book review: A Short History of Christianity, Geoffrey Blainey (2011)

I bought this book sometime in or after December 2012, I see from the price sticker ($49) on the back of the dustjacket. I had, in fact, read part of it on an earlier occasion than the one that prompted the record you are currently reading but, for some reason, I didn’t then complete it (I know all this only because one of the volume’s early pages is dog-eared).

I don’t know why I stopped reading back then, but it might have disappointed me due to evidence in the public sphere of that same cast of mind that made me, two years ago, give up reading another of the author’s books – 1988’s ‘The Great Seesaw’ – which, it seemed to me, had a load of ideological bias. Possibly the reception accorded to his 1988 book suggested to Blainey the topic of this one. He seems to like to work in terms of the longue durĂ©e (the broad expanse of history).

‘A Short History of Christianity’ is the better book and though I had some quibbles with it, in general it was, for me, a very rewarding read.

It must be hard to be a public intellectual to sit on the right, politically speaking, as the majority of your brethren would naturally be agin ye. In his 2011 book Blainey demonstrates a remarkable ability to curb what one imagines must exist in his heart as an urge to display – like the gold used for the cross on the dustjacket – a certain triumphalism, but from the outset the book is factual and low-key, a relief for the secular reader.  While the final word is “triumphant”, the tactile, plain paper of that part of the dustjacket that is not covered with gold foil, as well as the rough appearance of the foil – it looks like strokes made with a brush, something imperfect and contingent –  give an impression of nuance and complexity. And though the book has 60 pages of notes and bibliography, it is concise, with agile and efficient prose. This author is also humble: to write over 250,000 words on a subject and label the result a “short” book must surely rank among the more remarkable understatements of publishing.

It’s hard, though, to argue with his decision as his subject is, he notes in his final pages, massive. He attempts to cover every stage in the religion’s progress, from the earliest times to the present. Reading, I was impressed by his ability to distil what must have been years’ worth of research into concise and elegant sentences and paragraphs. For the most part, they are as unadorned as the inside of a Lutheran church, so you infrequently feel overburdened or compelled to resist, and he must have made a conscious decision in this regard when he set to writing the thing.


But there are ideas, inserted into the matrix of stories, that express aspects of the author’s personality, such as one, on page 200, about the Dominican order of monks, many of whom were responsible for aspects of the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than passing over the fact of the monks’ complicity in human rights abuses, Blainey adds a comment to the effect that intolerance is ubiquitous – in all eras, not just the Renaissance – and that it would be unfair to single out the Dominicans for censure because of a fact that, in itself, is easily verified. It’s a small detail for me to mention but it points to other facts: those surrounding Blainey’s own life. It’s an index to how his tussles in public with various other intellectuals, and with parts of the community, over issues that he either raised or otherwise engaged with, affected the course of his own life.

His argumentative streak appears from time to time, mostly at the end of the book where he is summing up, but also in other places, for example on page 533, where he ascribes youth suicide to attention-seeking, and appears to label it, in his personal ledger of grievances, another by-product of the decline of religion in the West. Blainey is dogged, but then, as his tale shows, argument resides at the heart of Christianity, wherein opposing positions, firmly held, lead to synthesis, making way for new works of art, new institutions, and even new communities.

He is mindful also of how Christianity has been viewed at different times, dismissing, for example, 20th century historians who found ways to redeem from ignominy the Crusades. But Blainey is slow to note, at the point where he makes an account of the birth of Protestantism, the role that a sense of nationalism played in England and in what was then known as Bohemia in the late Middle Ages. It preceded, by over a century, acts of Luther and his cohort, and so the Reformation didn’t start, as Blainey avers, in German-speaking countries. He also waits (until page 267, again when discussing events of the early 16th century) to talk about the influence of a related theme – the use of the vernacular for literature. It had long before been embodied in the “dolce stil novo” (“new, sweet style”) emerging in parts of Italy and France. Much earlier, in fact as early as the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

I did learn, on the other hand, that Purgatory was a recent innovation when Dante included it as a dramatic locus in his ‘Commedia’. The author is conscious of a modern predisposition, one that Dante would have understood, to value art as highly as ideas. The relationship between ideas and their expression has always been complex. In discussing iconoclasm at the time of the Protestant Reformation, Blainey passes over the subject quickly, almost without comment, and leaves the reader to imbue words he uses with his or her own feelings, but he waxes lyrical when describing baroque architecture and innovations in artistic practice in predominantly Catholic countries in the 16th century. One might find time and occasion to regret Protestants’ destruction of so many artefacts but, equally, one might value the fact that new religious practices encouraged people to internalise the scriptures through such innovations as vernacular translations of the Bible and through the notion of a personal relationship with God.

This chapter in the story reminds the reader of the importance of diversity, where one body in a space is able to knock against another, and so change its course. As in a game of billiards. Such diversity might, as much as Christianity itself, lie at the root of Europe’s success, but to speculate in this fashion requires stepping outside the scope of this book, which makes no overt claim on the reader’s sympathies other than when the author remarks, when occasion demands a summary, how ideas have changed over time.


In his final chapter, Blainey explicates this theme. He notes elsewhere how small differences in opinion that marked as unique a denomination or sect seem trifling to us, today, and this is an entirely fair observation. Whether the wine of the Eucharist – a term that, itself, most people won’t understand without some form of explanation – is drunk by parishioners or by priests, or by both, appears, to most of us now, a matter of no importance but, at the time when such things were disputed in public, people often fought to protect their right to drink such wine or, conversely, to stop others from drinking it.

In retrospect, the differences between a Catholic and a Baptist appear small but this wasn’t always the case. Likewise, what one person thinks, now, about any number of ideas will, in the future, appear to be of no account. And vice versa; things that we don’t concern ourselves with today will be of great importance four generations hence.

One thing about Christianity that seems unlikely to change is its mutability. In each age as knowledge progresses past various milestones, men and women respond by adapting the Bible to new contingencies. Witness the rise of Pentecostalism in Los Angeles in the 1950s or the invention by Americans affiliated with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA; an organisation founded in the 19th century in Britain) of basketball and volleyball. Often the inspiration for reform comes from studying the past. A novelty in one generation can influence people, in a different branch of the tree and at a later date, to behave in different ways and, by their conduct, to engender change. Blainey’s contribution to this ongoing debate is worthwhile, and might, itself, have arisen in his mind in response to the success of the post-war counterculture, to which he had (as I have already mentioned) found reason to personally object. He returns to this subject in the book but doesn’t dwell on it at the expense of his chosen topic. Though what better way to sustain one’s own beliefs than by questioning their deepest root …

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