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2000 years of shaping the west

By Simon Smart - posted Monday, 2 July 2012

Plenty of people view retirement as a time to relax on the golf course, or to climb into a campervan for extended trips up the coast. Not so Geoffrey Blainey, the Australian historian and author of around 36 books. Powering into his eighties, Blainey has, by his own admission, taken on his hardest challenge yet, delivering his most recent work, A short history of Christianity.

Over ten years in the making, this is an ambitious project - the writer being faced with vast and unimaginably complex threads from which to weave a coherent narrative. In lesser hands it would be too much, but Blainey is a master of such ventures having successfully negotiated 'short histories' of Australia, the world and the 20th century.

Blainey felt he needed to explore the story of Christianity for the simple reason that he recognised it to be, for better or worse, the most important force in the world over the last 2000 years.


And he no doubt detected a broad interest in this subject. Christian history gets bad press these days - some would have us believe the whole thing has been one sorry tale piled upon another. The New Atheists have left their mark as purveyors of a historical caricature where Christian history is presented as unmitigated and relentless violence, oppression, narrow-mindedness and resistance to scientific progress.

Blainey is no apologist for Christianity - he doesn't gloss over the many failings and absurdities that form part of the narrative - but nor does he have any reason to deny Christianity's contribution to the world, which he sees as formidable.

Vast tracts of territory are covered here, and necessarily the author has had to be selective with the material. As such he will no doubt be fielding plenty of indignant emails, "What about Saint Coleman of Glendalough?" "Only two pages on Columbanus, and four on the Avignon Papacy? Scandalous!"

But Blainey hits all the key notes - the life of Jesus and the stunning growth of the faith in the first three centuries; early theological controversies and councils, the Church Fathers, the gradual takeover of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam and the Crusades; monasticism and papal corruption. The Reformation gets appropriately detailed treatment, along with the Great Awakenings, Enlightenment challenges to faith, and the place of religion in the shaping of the U.S.A. Perceived conflicts between science and faith reveal Blainey's scepticism that science has all the answers to life's impenetrable questions.

This is mostly a descriptive rather than analytical work, although Blainey allows himself some personal flourishes in assessing the impact of various characters and episodes. There is special concern for the social and political changes brought about by Christianity and its shifting and evolving nature. Any reader who gets through the 550 pages will be left with a clear sense of the role, the contribution and the possible future place of Christianity in the world.

Early in the 21st century it is clear that the church is struggling in the West. The former heartland of Europe is littered with empty churches. Even in Italy, a stronghold of the Catholic Church, only 25% of the population are regular attendees, and in Eastern Europe most people have no contact with the Church. Britain's once bustling and vibrant halls of worship are largely empty spaces of interest for tourists and history buffs but few else.


Yet Blainey sees not a dying out of Christianity, but a shift in its geographical centre. Latin America and Africa now hold the majority of Christian believers and the Church is thriving in these regions. This is true of both Catholic and Protestant faiths. According to Blainey, if Anglicans were arranged according to age, sex, and nationality the typical worshipper would be a 24 year old African woman living somewhere south of the Sahara. Enormous growth in places like China where many talk about a religious awakening and growth of house churches of perhaps 100 million people also speaks of the shifting centre of a vibrant faith. Essentially Blainey believes that rather than dying out, Christianity is set to continue to evolve and move, to decline and re-emerge just as it always has.

Blainey takes issue with the contemporary secularists and critics of religion with their blind faith in human nature and science to deliver us safely to our hoped - for destination. This author is too attuned to history to share such optimism, but rather sides with the Christian conception of the human person being uniquely precious, but also fallen, fallible and in great need of wisdom, forgiveness and redemption. He acknowledges the astonishing achievement of science but at the same time believes that science hasn't really touched the question of human nature. "The moon is more easily explored than is the typical mind and heart," he writes.

According to Blainey 2000 years of Christian history has shaped (and misshaped) so much of the modern world - morality and ethics, but also the calendar, social welfare, architecture, language and literature. It has been responsible for unprecedented care for the old, the sick, orphans and the poor. For centuries it was the main teacher of Europe and the founder of most of the early universities. It has at various times spurred and slowed the sciences and social sciences, had an impact on the public role of women, the status of the family and arguably the rise of both capitalism and socialism. Its contribution to the growth of modern democracy is widely accepted.

In summing up, Blainey reflects on how extraordinary it is that a man living 2000 years ago, who held no public office, owned no wealth, and travelled no more than a few days walk from his home could have exerted such influence on the world.

There has certainly been much to regret over the centuries, and as Blainey rightly says, Christianity has been responsible for far more wrongs than its first apostles could ever have imagined. But, ultimately, Blainey believes that faith to have achieved more for Western civilisation than any other factor and to have helped far more people than it has harmed. "So much of what seems admirable in the world today comes largely or partly from Christianity and the people who practiced it," he concludes. And rumours of Christianity's decline are greatly exaggerated. It's a faith that has repeatedly reinvented itself, and while no revival is permanent, neither has been any decline. Such a pattern, suggests Blainey, is likely to continue.

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This is a review of A short History of Christianity by Geoffrey Blainey (Viking, 2011)

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About the Author

Simon Smart is the Head of Research and Communications at the Centre for Public Christianity.

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