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More forgotten ways

19 December 2008

I studied church history at the University of Durham and the University of South Africa, and both had a very heavy Western bias.

In one sense one can blame St Luke for starting the trend in his Acts of the Apostles, which begins with a wide vision (Jerusalem, all Judaea and Samaria, the ends of the earth), but as the book progresses so the focus narrows until it is concentrated on one man, St Paul (the Johnny-come-lately of the apostles), reaching Rome, and talking of going on to Spain. The other apostles, and other parts of the world, drop off the radar.

And so it has been with the Western study of church history ever since. It has concentrated on the study of Christianity in Western Europe (and sometimes North America) to the exclusion of almost everything else.

In Durham the focus was on England, and even northern England. I suppose that isn’t surprising, with Durham Cathedral dominating the cityscape, with the bones of St Bede (the first English church historian) and St Cuthbert housed there.

And this approach does make sense, in a way. Up to the 12th century methods of mission varied very little from place to place. Monastic missionaries in England, in Ethiopia and in the forests of Russia used much the same methods. The details varied, of course, but the general pattern remained the same.

Where it breaks down, however, is with the advent of Western modernity. Western missionaries, shaped by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, adopted radically different methods and a different worldview, a different paradigm.

Two blogs I read have recently focused on the world and the church that the West forgot, and I recommend them for filling in the gaps in knowledge that those with a Western education may not even realise that they have.

Notes from a Common-place Book:

Philip Jenkins is a professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His 2002 publication of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity established him as something of an authority on the rise of evangelical Christianity in the Southern hemisphere. In recent years, any article that touched on the demographics of this phenomenon would invariably cite Jenkins. His current 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, may be something of a stretch, however. Jenkins penned an article, When Jesus Met Buddha, recently in The Boston Globe. If this article accurately represents the thrust of his latest book, then it would definitely be one to leave on the local bookstore shelf. From his website:

The Lost History of Christianity will change how we understand Christian and world history. Leading religion scholar Philip Jenkins reveals a vast Christian world to the east of the Roman Empire and how the earliest, most influential churches of the East—those that had the closest link to Jesus and the early church—died. In this paradigm-shifting book Jenkins recovers a lost history, showing how the center of Christianity for centuries used to be the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, extending as far as China. Without this lost history, we can’t understand Islam or the Middle East, especially Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Complete with maps, statistics, and fascinating stories and characters that no one in the media or the general public has ever heard of, The Lost History of Christianity will immerse the reader in a lost world that was once the heart of Christianity.

You mean there was Christianity in the East? Who knew? And someone needs to inform, I suppose, all those Syrian Orthodox, Maronite Catholics, Copts, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Assyrian, Thomasine Indian Christians et al that their Christianity is lost and–as Jenkins claims–dead. The fact that Jenkins, the media and/or the general public have never heard of these “fascinating stories and characters,” doesn’t mean that they were lost; ignored maybe by Western Europe, but hardly lost. If Jenkins is attempting to point out that Western Europe and the Americas have been Eurocentric in their religious orientation, then that is a valid, though hardly novel position. If, however, he is stating that the Christianity of the East were somehow “lost,” and now uncovered, then he is following a well-worn and delusional path. The irony here is that for all his outcry over Eurocentrism, Jenkins has his Western blinders firmly in place as he looks East. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a better example of overblown, relativistic sophistry than Jenkins’ piece in the Globe.

Read the rest in Notes from a Common-place Book: Lost Christianity? Or Simply Ignored?, whose author has also written many interesting descriptions of his own visits to churches in the Near and Middle East.

A second blog post dealing with the history that has been lost, forgotten or ignored by most Western Christians is CRUSHED BY INGSOC: Why do We Forget Byzantium?:

There are several areas of history I sometimes get a little annoyed that people know so little of. Partly, I guess, is that history is written by winners. The legatees of the legatees. But sadly, it often leads to a skewed perspective of history.

The main myth that really annoys me is the myth of the dark age. It’s a pernicious myth . The universal era of ignorance. It never happened, not in the way it is presented. The common perception is that with the fall of Rome in 486 AD, all knowledge was lost, Europe looted by ignorant thugs and then all knowledge lost as an ignorant church taught everybody the world was flat.

It’s a myth, of course, invented to suit Anglocentric perceptions. Because what actually happened with the fall of the Western Empire, was that Britain dropped out of European culture and was lost for a time. And only gradually came back. Britain went through a dark age, but it went through it alone. Scandinavia too, was in a dark age, but then, it had been in one before. It hadn’t been part of the classical world.

Over the last few years I’ve been teaching Church History and Missiology at the Alexandrian Catechetical School of South Africa, run by the Orthodox Archbishopric of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Among the textbooks I’ve used in teaching the course are two by John Foster: Church History I: the first advance and Church History II: setback and recovery. The series was sponsored and subsidised by the Theological Education Fund in response to requests from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and so they attempted, more than most Western textbooks, to be less Eurocentric. But the second book tends to become very Eurocentric towards the end, in the period 1000-1500.

Some Western church historians, such as Latourette, have attempted to give a more global (or as the Orthodox would say, ecumenical) view, but that doesn’t seem to have impinged much on the Western Christian consciousness. Perhaps if it had, Western Christians would have raised stronger objections to the efforts of George Bush and other Western politicians to eradicate Christianity in the lands of its birth and first growth.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 January 2009 4:55 pm

    Interesting and I’d be interested in your thoughts on the following article When Jesus met Buddha

  2. 2 January 2009 2:39 pm

    One thing I learned from C.S. Lewis, as well as studies of Medieval Judaism, was to jettison the idea of a “dark age” entirely. Dare I point out that some Orthodox I’ve met seem to believe that a dark age did happen in the West but not in the East? CRUSHED BY INGSOC is on the right track, though I wonder when the dark age was in Scandinavia. There was darkness before the light of Christ came (brought by sinners, of course), but there was a rich culture separate from Classical Civilization but by no means dark because of that, and also significant commercial and cultural interchange with Byzantium and Moscow, among others. I’m a Norwegian-American, by the way.

  3. 2 January 2009 9:21 pm

    P.S. I guess my reference to Moscow was anachronistic, but the Varangians (Eastbound Vikings) were a power in early Kiev and made it to Baghdad and many other Eastern places.

  4. 3 January 2009 7:31 am


    Ah, perhaps that’s how Yuletide made it to the Middle East before the Christians thought up Christmas, and the Christians copied it from those travelling Scandinavian salesmen!

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