Once in a generation, a historian will redefine his field, producing a book that demands to be read and heard - a product of electrifying scholarship conveyed with commanding skill. Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity is such a book. Breathtaking in ambition, it ranges back to the origins of the Hebrew Bible and covers the world, following the three main strands of the Christian faith.
Christianity will teach modern listeners things that have been lost in time about how Jesus' message spread and how the New Testament was formed. We follow the Christian story to all corners of the globe, filling in often neglected accounts of conversions and confrontations in Africa and Asia. And we discover the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the rise of the evangelical movement from its origins in Germany and England. This audiobook encompasses all of intellectual history - we meet monks and crusaders, heretics and saints, slave traders and abolitionists, and discover Christianity's essential role in driving the enlightenment and the age of exploration, and shaping the course of World War I and World War II.
We are living in a time of tremendous religious awareness, when both believers and non-believers are deeply engaged by questions of religion and tradition, seeking to understand the violence sometimes perpetrated in the name of God. The son of an Anglican clergyman, MacCulloch writes with deep feeling about faith. His last book, The Reformation, was chosen by dozens of publications as Best Book of the Year and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. This awe-inspiring follow-up is a landmark new history of the faith that continues to shape the world.
©2010 Diamaid MacCulloch (P)2010 Gildan Media Corp
"Assuming no previous knowledge on the part of readers about Christian traditions, MacCulloch traces in breathtaking detail the often contentious arguments within Christianity for the past 3,000 years. His monumental achievement will not soon be surpassed." (Publishers Weekly)
"A work of exceptional breadth and subtlety." (Booklist)
I think it's interesting how folk from the more "conservative" side of the spectrum tend to call something "biased" if they don't agree. Rather, MacCulloch comes from a specific scholarly school in the study of religion. This is not a question of bias, but one of approach. I tended to disagree with him on some fine points, such as the bit in Corinthians where Paul allegedly instructs women not to speak, but also, in the same book, tells women that they need to cover their heads when they prophesy. MacCulloch just calls that an "unstable" contradiction where my understanding is that this might have been an interlineation by some copyist. So is MacCulloch biased? Of course he is, to the extent that we all approach the world from different world views. But generally, we just happen to disagree on that point.
Despite my occasional disagreements, I found the book ably written, giving me a lot to mull over. New material that I hadn't read before. That's always the glory of good writing. It's never a good thing to take in anything as "gospel truth." One should always read from a variety of sources, because there may be a new take on the subject that will also be compelling.
The reader, Walter Dixon, is really quite good. He reminded me of a good university professor, rather than a random audiobook reader. He was easy to listen to and never irritated me. I found that his reading kept me listening, while I walked, drove, and made dinner. I even tried to listen while doing some work work, but I kept getting distracted so had to turn it off.
I grew up on Golden Age Radio, and while I love to read, I typically consume more books via audio thanks to a job that lets me listen while I work. As an aspiring writer, I try to read a great deal of non-fiction in addition to a variety of fictional genres. I especially love history, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and old-style gothic horror.
Anyone who thoroughly enjoys Medieval and Renaissance history as I do can tell you that the history of Christianity is so bound up with it as to be inseparable. The thing is, a great many history books will give you only what's necessary specific to the topic at hand and very little else. Even books on the Crusades, which presumably center around religion, will leave the underlying faith as an accepted and understood issue, touching upon the heretical issues as they come up.
This book is specifically geared towards pretty much anyone who wants the details as well as the broad strokes. It covers the history of Christianity from the onset of Judaism as an offshoot of earlier traditions, Christianity's beginnings as an offshoot of that, and covers its evolution not just in Western Europe, but also in Greece, Russia, Africa, Korea, and all parts of the globe where the cross is held high. It goes even further as Islam splinters from that, and the history of the Middle Eastern faiths are examined as an intertwined whole. As it goes, the reader is given another portrait to absorb as the beliefs evolve in the various corners of the globe, across time and through politics or scholarly pursuits.
In short, this is the most complete picture of Christianity that I've certainly ever encountered, and it's helped my understanding of history considerably. Special kudos not only to what it covers and why, but also how, as the outline for this book is nothing short of daunting. To cover this topic so completely is nothing short of a feat.
As one might expect, a history of this depth and magnitude will likely call into question the faith of a devout individual reading this book as not everything is as tradition holds to be true in our day and age, and as that tradition may vary depending on which sect you follow. I would challenge that the scholarly will find a great deal of wealth here, and the religiously-minded will be confronted with questions fundamental to their faith. How those questions are answered will ultimately be determined by individual willingness to see past the rigid and into the changing waters of history. Some are more readily accepting of this than others, obviously, everyone has to approach the question their own way. Being a hefty monster of a tome, however, this one is most definitely aimed at the serious scholar, regardless of the historical or spiritual approach.
MacCulloch uses a huge canvas for this book: all continents, all times, and (if there weren't so many of them) you could say all sects and denominations as well. The book is a remarkably good listen, considering the amount of detail it includes, a tribute to Walter Dixon's steady pace and his clear and pleasing voice. Because Christianity has been so tightly bound with the West for the last 2000 years, it becomes in places a "Western world history" as well.
One of the hardest areas of Christian history to grasp is the centuries-long debate about the nature of the Trinity, and its equally long-lasting partner, the debate about the exact nature of Christ. (Human? Divine? Both? If both, what percentage of each, and how mixed or not mixed?) It's a story of determined attempts to fashion a creed and equally determined attempts to resist credal formulations. MacCulloch navigates this territory well, giving plenty of time to each viewpoint and noting that many of the viewpoints, assumed by many Christians to be long dead, are in fact alive and thriving in one or another sect to the present day.
MacCulloch is writing as a friendly outsider, which pretty well sums up my position as a listener. His attempts to describe Christianity's romance with temporal power, and its frequent turning of a blind eye to social injustice, may offend some people. My own impression is that his account is balanced and largely non-judgemental. Highly recommended.
When I drive, I read... uhm listen. I like SciFi, Fantasy, some Detective and Espionage novels and Religion. Now and then I will also listen to something else.
If you think this is a sit-back-and-relax kind of book, you will be disappointed in it. It is not a book that you can listen in one go... but all that said, Diarmaid MacCulloch history of Christianity is probably one of the best works on its history.
Previous histories would focus on Western Christianity, MacCulloch includes the various forms of Eastern Christianity, orthodox and not so orthodox. This makes it probably one of the most complete histories in the last few decades.
One thing that does hinder when listening to the book is the conceptualising of the dates and eras. I think Audible can give some or other download that might help with it. MacCulloch also seem to make a few irritating sidelong remarks, about historical figures en situations, that made me wonder what the basis for these remarks are.
The person reading the book does a decent job of the whole. It is however important to remember that he is reading an academical work.
This book is meant for academics and people with a big interest in the history of Christianity and the Christiandom throughout the ages.
Avid reader until vision impairment set in. Now an avid listener!
I enjoyed the first few chapters about the early church, especially the analysis of Origen and Augustine's theology, and the effects of neo-Platonism on Christian thinking. After that, however, I lost interest for different reasons: while the chapters on the variants of the eastern church were too detailed and sometimes just plain dull, subsequent chapters on the medieval and especially the renaissance church seemed rushed and raised more questions than they answered. The author seems more concerned with the "what" than the "why," which isn't unusual for a historian, but I would have liked more explanation of, for example, why the ideas of Lutheran and reformed theologies were so appealing to people at the time. Unfortunately when the author does explain the appeal of ideas, he's frequently reductive, as when he tries to explain iconodulia as a result of the need for certainty and tangibility in troubled times. I guess it would be an impossible task to achieve in a one volume history, but I wish he'd given as much play to the importance of ideas in later chapters as he did in those concerning the early church.
Maybe to those who want an overview. It's certainly a jumping off place for further reading.
I liked the chapters on the early church. There's a feel in those chapters for how compelling the new theology must have seemed to its early adherents and teachers. I also enjoyed hearing about the application of Platonist ideas to scriptural interpretation and to the development of theology.
Hasn't the BBC already done this?
The narrator deserves a lot of credit for his stamina and for the majority of times his pronunciation of foreign terms was correct. A few quibbles about the ancient Greek, but altogether an excellent job. I hope he got a lengthy vacation after narrating this work.
OK. I'm only 3/4 of the way through this epic read, but what a fascinating story.
There are many "aha!" moments when you get a sudden insight into why the church (or churches in their various forms) - and society in general - is the way it is today. I find this actually makes christianity in all its various forms more accessible and understandable.
If there is a pattern in the history of the church and christianity, it seems to parallel secular society: good ideas and rulers rise to the top, give way to corruption and abuse over generations, leading to reformations and revolutions. And so it goes...
A timely reminder to me to keep going back to the bible as the main source of Christianity, and a warning to be wary of dodgy translations (such as the russian sect that, due to the misinterpretation of one word, castrated themselves).
I find the author to be genuinely sensitive to the beliefs, and the history and motives behind the traditions, of christianity. The book is instructive, informative and entertaining.
Awesome, epic read.
This is a monumental book which surprises with its depth and breadth of coverage. Nothing is left untouched. The story is told well. One chapter pulls you to the next. The narrator is good, but he mispronounces some esoteric words. Perhaps I'm being picky, but I find it a little disturbing to hear "Thessoloniki" mispronounced especially when I lived there, and its not just Greek city names that get flawed narrations. However, this is a small price to pay for the best history of Christianity ever written. A must read for every Christian and non-Christian. You will fully understand this religion's impact on world history and often wish that this mighty faith had taken some less violent turns. However, every turn and development is in this book and explained in detail. You will understand Christianity and the world as never before when you are done.
MacCullough has managed to present a long, and exhaustively complex story in an interesting and clearly understandable manner. He treats his subject matter respectfully, focusing strictly on the historical record and not taking a religious stand. Walter Dixon, the narrator, does a good job as well reading clearly and briskly, not getting bogged down in sometimes hugely complicated text.
Letting the rest of the world go by
I have no background in the subject matter and found the book incredibly difficult to follow since he's constantly throwing out terms that are new to me. Soon as I understood one theological school of thought he'd throw another one at the listener, and by that time I would be completely confused and wonder what the point he was trying to make in the first place.
I think the book is probably a fairly good history, but a listener must have some kind of religious background to fully appreciate the discussion points brought up by this thorough history on a topic for which I still know almost nothing about.
This is one of the few attempts I have seen so far to take on the whole of Christian history, or at least a bigger chunk of it that is normally offered in a review of the history of Christianity. In doing this the book includes the winners and loosers in the heresey battles, offering us an expansive perspective on Christianity that is illuminating and insightful. For presenting this broad perspective I give the author much credit.
The problem in doing this is that the interesting details of history seem to get short changed on occasions. For example, when he touches on the late middle ages, a period of time about which I have a fairly detailed knowledge, I found his presentation superficial and often frustrating. I assume that it the cost of trying to cover as broad a swath of history as 3000 years. Getting through the material is also a mammoth undertaking. At forty plus hours I was able to work through to the Reformation but simply bogged down at that point from sheer exhaustion and needed to take a break from the book, eventually returning.
The narrator is adequate. He has his quirks of pronounciation but is tolerable.
The author presents the book as a work of history and not as a work of apologetics for any particular tradition within Christianity. In that he seems to succeed fairly well. He offers his opinion on occasion as an aside, which is the right of any author, as long as he makes it clear that that is what he is doing.
In summary, I find the book a good overview of the history of Christianity; though perhaps more a reference work than beach or vacation reading. I recommend it with the cautions mentioned in this review.
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