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The greatest story ever told - in one volume

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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.

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