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Rumours of Christianity's demise greatly exaggerated

By Lyle Shelton - posted Wednesday, 4 January 2012

In an age of historical amnesia, it is easy to fall for glib catchphrases like 'religion poisons everything'.

But with the passing of Christopher Hitchens, who coined this phrase in the title of one of his books, a new history of Christianity provides historical context and nuance.

It undermines Hitchens' and other assumptions of the 'new atheists' about the contribution of the most influential religion of the past two millennia.


Following his Short History of the World and Short History of the 20th Century, Australia's greatest living historian, Geoffrey Blainey, tackles the Jesus sect in A Short History of Christianity (Penguin Books, 2011).

Like the previous works, this is accessible history to the layperson (no pun intended).

Blainey writes with perspective and deep understanding that doesn't shoe-horn people and events into the narrow prism within which we make moral judgements today.

For instance intolerance was not confined to the church in an age when precious truths were often defended with brutality.

Having just completed a century where atheist government killing and torture made the crusades and the inquisition look tame in comparison, balance and perspective is necessary before judgement is passed about whether or not Christianity is a moral evil, as the new atheists imply.

Rather than poisoning everything, even a casual glance at history shows it is more accurate to say that Christianity has been the great civilising influence in the face of barbarism, indifference to the sick and poor and in opposition to tyrants in the institutional church, nobility and state.


This is no whitewash of Christianity's blemishes but the conclusion Blainey makes is that its success has been its ability to constantly reinvent itself.

Indeed this is a theme that runs through the book as the 'centuries glide by'. Whether it was the monastic movement which preserved both theological and classical learning, Franciscan Friars with their vow of poverty challenging the opulence of the institutional church, or Luther, Wesley and other non-conformists calling Christians back to the basics of the faith there is a an ebb and flow which explains why Christianity maintains its place in the hearts of millions.

With today's focus on fault-finding, Blainey reminds us of many of the culture-defining contributions of Christianity.

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This is a review of A Short History of Christianity,  Geoffrey Blainey. (Penguin Books 2011)

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About the Author

Lyle Shelton is Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby based in Canberra.

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