Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Lost History of Christianity

Sometimes getting a new perspective can really help. When it comes to viewing the role and fate of Christianity in the world and in America, a new perspective would be very refreshing. Philip Jenkins once again provides a new point of view for Christianity in his recent work, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia - and How it Died.

That's right - a thousand years of Christianity in what is now a hot-bed of virulent Islamic activity. A thousand years of vibrant, intelligent, fruitful, expanding Christianity - and you barely now anything about it. For those of us that know something of church history - we can trace the beginning of our denomination, connect it to either the long history of the Catholic or Orthodox churches, or the Protestant Reformation (which was only about five hundred years ago). Imagine in another five hundred years all Christianity from Europe and North America pretty much wiped out.

Jenkins illuminates the rich diversity of the Middle Eastern Church, it's expansion into North Africa and the far reaches of Asia. It's an inspiring story. And then comes the descriptions of how it was undermined and annihilated. There are some key reasons for why the churches in these regions were destroyed, the main one being violent and ruthless extermination by Islamic forces - as well as other tribal warlords. But even with this kind of unrelenting persecution, there were some churches that still survived, even still to this day. Why?

There are lots of takeaways from the book with implications on how to view global Christianity as well as national Christianity. But here was a key for me: Christianity in North Africa disappeared when Islamic forces intruded because the faith was pretty much held by the urban elites, it never penetrated the many tribal villages in the outlying areas. When the invaders ransacked the city driving off the bishops and urban believers, the faith went with them.

However, in southern Egypt the Coptic Christians faced persecutions that didn't result in their dissipation. Monks of this faith worked tirelessly in serving the poor and establishing churches in many rural and distant villages. They translated the Scriptures and the church liturgy in such a way that the faith became a natural part of the regional life. So even though cities and bishops were distressed, the faith passed on to the next generation in the distant byways.

Other takeaways: the will to dominate and wield a sword goes a long way to changing world history. On a simplistic level, the Middle Eastern, African and Asian churches responded to Islamic swords with prayers. The swords prevailed. The European churches raised their shields and responded with Crusades. Their swords partially prevailed. Also: too strong of a tie between the church and the state usually ends poorly for the church, regardless of the fate of the state.

One more interesting thought that pertains to the study Anchor is doing with the book of Acts: the thousand year history that Jenkins traces is the legacy of the early church. We study Acts 2, we follow the trail of Peter and Paul through Jerusalem and to Antioch and eventually Rome. The church of Jerusalem spread west and north, but it also went south and east. Culturally, the early church we read about in Acts had great affinity with the many different tribes and regions of the East.

The irony: as we post-modern American suburbanites scan the pages of Acts for insights on how to lead our churches, we would refuse to emulate the natural development of that early church as it is recorded in history. The early church developed around patriarchs and metropolitans, around bishops and archbishops, around monks and monasteries. Fat chance we're going to copy that portion of the early church culture that is rooted in the story of Acts. But it is very interesting.

Read the book. For a revealing and provocative look at the history you never learned about the early church, you'll easily work your way through Jenkin's research. It's short, stimulating, and disturbing.

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