BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Master historian's book a delight to read
, February 18, 2012
A SHORT HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY
by Geoffrey Blainey
Hardcover: 618 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
Geoffrey Blainey is Australia’s pre-eminent popular historian. He is not “popular” in the sense of producing dumbed-down flag-waving pulp best-sellers, like the history of the Kokoda campaign that didn’t even mention the Owen Gun, but popular in the sense that his books are both scholarly and readily accessible to that beast much sought after by publishers, the general intelligent reader.
Some of the terms Blainey has coined for titles of his books, such as The Tyranny of Distance (1966) and The Rush That Never Ended (1963), have entered the Australian vernacular.
Blainey made his name as an economic historian. For him, there is much more to economic history than the fact that Australia’s current prosperity can be attributed to the happy accident that we have to be sitting on top of a pile of rocks other people happen to want. There are lots of other similar rocks elsewhere; but we are the ones who have had the gumption to find them, get them out of the ground and successfully load them onto ships.
How, then, should we assess Blainey’s latest work, A Short History of Christianity? Most definitely, it is not economic history. It might even be said to be, in management-speak, “outside his area of competence”. The inevitable comparison will be with British historian Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity (1977).
Johnson’s specialty is intellectual history. Blainey’s A Short History of Christianity, on the other hand, seems to be stimulated by that most commendable scholarly impulse, intellectual curiosity. One hopes we will see many more books from his pen; but as an established — indeed, revered — historian, Blainey perhaps feels it’s time for him to find answers to the questions he wants answered, rather than conform to the dictates of the arbiters of intellectual and cultural fashion.
Christianity in Australia is very different from what it was in Blainey’s youth. Blainey was brought up as a Methodist, the spiritual offspring of the great 18th-century English preacher, John Wesley. The Methodists had a not entirely deserved reputation as fun police. Wesley was an evangelist within the Anglican tradition, who frequently preached to crowds of 30,000 long before microphones were invented. Religion then was central to the life of the nation and public discourse.
Since then, the Methodists, the Congregationalists and part of the Presbyterian Church have amalgamated to form the Uniting Church. The Church of England has become the Anglican Church, with no formal link with the mother church apart from the Lambeth Conference, held every 10 years.
The Anglican Church’s contortions to be both “relevant” and Christian can be judged from the fact that one Melbourne bishop put out a media release abhorring the fact that Christmas was now commonly referred to as “the holidays”, while at the same time referring to the Three Wise Men as the “wise-ones”. Evidently, calling them “wise men” is not sufficiently politically correct.
The Melbourne diocese has also campaigned for the release of David Hicks from Guantanamo Bay and on behalf of the carbon tax, even going to the point of organising a demonstration “with an Anglican theme” against global warming. The Catholic Church — and notably its senior prelate, Cardinal George Pell — has maintained a degree of theological sanity and intellectual rigour uncommon in other denominations.
If Geoffrey Blainey has satisfied his curiosity about Christianity, has he satisfied ours? First, Blainey is a master storyteller. That’s what makes his books a delight to read. Second, he does not assume the reader has significant prior knowledge of Christianity.
Some omissions seem puzzling. The Book of Revelations, the last book of the New Testament, is hardly mentioned, yet it has stirred more millenarian and apocalyptic social movements than any other single book in the Bible.
Theology does not seem to be Blainey’s strong suit, but that is not entirely surprising. Not so long ago, theology faculties were the most competitive to enter and considered to be the most intellectually demanding in any university. Harvard University, for example, was founded to teach theology in the 17th century. Its famous business school, designed to churn out millionaires, is only just a century old. Today, however, theology faculties are frequently lacking in intellectual rigour and have fallen into postmodern dead ends.
For the average intelligent reader, it’s probably more beneficial to understand why the Cathars stirred genocidal rage in the church authorities and the particular environment in which the Cathars lived rather than dwell on the finer points of their theological differences with prevailing church dogmas.
A Short History of Christianity will satisfy the general intelligent non-specialist reader, for whom it is clearly intended. It is also likely to clear up the sort of niggling doubts that puzzle even regular churchgoers, because these same quibbles seem to puzzle Geoffrey Blainey too. In satisfying his curiosity, he’s also satisfying ours.