Christianity:A Global History
By David Chidester HarperSanFrancisco 627 pp., $32
Anyone who remembers wading through a college textbook that tried to contain the whole of Western European history can understand the effort required to tell the history of Christianity in one volume.
David Chidester divides his project into three roughly equal parts: the emergence of Christian doctrine and ritual from the time of Jesus up until the year 600; the practices and personages of both the Roman and Eastern Churches up through the time of the Reformation; and, finally, the spread of Christianity around the globe beginning at the time of Columbus.
Although the book is immensely readable, its vast compass and detail make it anything but a light read.
The cameo biographies of the scholars of the church (such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas), its mystics, as well as its heretics in the second section are some of the most useful parts of the book.
For instance, already in the 12th century, Abelard questioned the orthodox doctrine regarding the sacrificial death of Jesus. Instead, "Jesus Christ lived as the embodiment of perfect love in order to set a moral example for humanity to follow."
One sees how the intellectual awakening that occurred with the founding of the first universities set in motion a process that led to the Protestant Reformation four centuries later.
Chidester tells in some detail how the Russian Church, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, came to identify itself as the guardian of the Greek Orthodox faith. The bishop of Moscow, in 1492, "did not identify Ivan as the liberating emperor who would go to Constantinople. Instead, he proposed that Constantinople had already come to Moscow. Its religious authority, political power, and historical significance had already been symbolically transferred to the imperial capital of Russia." This helps explain the divine status with which the Russians came to view their emperors.
The spread of Christianity around the globe, covered in the final section, is not only about the missionaries who went out from Britain and America. Rather, it shows the ways in which indigenous peoples were already finding Christianity and assimilating its theology and rituals with some of their own.
The Liberian preacher, William Wade Harris, for instance, who considered himself a latter-day prophet, performed baptisms as a purification rite - among other things, to indicate a departure from one's old religious allegiances. "By rejecting the foreign missionaries' insistence on instruction before baptism, therefore, Harris denied the authority of European Christians to define the character of Christian beliefs and practices in the African continent."
Further, the section on "Hindu Christianity" tells how the father of modern India, Ram Mohan Roy, first became acquainted with the religion through going to the Unitarian Church in Calcutta. One wishes there was somewhere in this opus a discussion of the origins of Unitarianism, which had such a profound effect on the intellectual and spiritual life of America in the early 19th century. But Chidester has protected himself on this score, noting that "readers will find their own favorite omissions."
Chidester, who was educated in California, has spent much of his life in South Africa, where he is a professor of comparative religion at Cape Town University. A noted author of several books on religion, he was chosen to write this book partly because his adult experience has largely been outside the usual academic circles for studying Christianity.
As most historians would admit that no message gets delivered without coming through a filter, Chidester notes, "Christianity is a religion that has been thoroughly interreligious in its historical formation. Christianity has been shaped by contacts, relations, and exchanges that have taken place between and among religions."
To those who view some 20th- century manifestations of Christianity around the world as not being authentic Christianity, he has aimed to demonstrate that the religion has always been influenced by its time and place. In multi-denominational America, where there probably is no consensus as to what being "Christian" means, that proposition should find some resonance.
Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor in chief of the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society