Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins

The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins Book Review

Summary: At one point the church of the East was as strong, or stronger than the Church of the West, but then it started a slow decline under persecution.

Once again, with the recent comments by President Obama and the violence of ISIS, the crusades are back in the news. And it is again popular for the average person to pontificate about the history of something that they have not actually spent any time studying. Philip Jenkins is trying to solve that, or at least the problem of a lack of information.

The main focus of the The Lost History of Christianity is of the 1000 year history of the church of Asia and Africa from approximately the 4th to the 14th century.

The image on the cover is a stylized map of Jerusalem in the middle with the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa proceeding from it. At one point, there was far more balance in Christianity between the three continents than what is commonly understood today.

In the 4th century the great councils ruled on how to understand the divinity of Christ. The ‘winners’ of that fight we now call orthodox and the losers we call ‘heretics’.  But everyone did not simply adopt the creed. Much (but not all) of the Eastern church continued to identify with what we now call the Monophysite heresy. These Christians are now called Oriental Orthodox (as opposed to Eastern Orthodox who did accept Nicaea) or Nestorians. They believe that Jesus Christ has one nature, not two, and was wholly divine. Modern scholars do not find as much difference between the two camps as might be assumed and so Jenkins wants to keep the understanding of them as Christian on the table.

These Christians did not disappear in the 4th century after the Nicene Council, but continued to grow and expand into Asia and grew into fairly large communities of Christians in India and China in the 6th to the 8th centuries. But with the rise of Islam as a political power, these Christians became a minority faith among a political and religious Islam throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. There were periods of severe persecution, but it was not until the 13th century that these communities started to really crumble and it was not until the 19th and 20th century that there was a real demographic collapse of Christianity in Iran, Iraq and other central Asian communities.

Jenkins spends some time talking about Africa, but it is mostly Asia that he is focused on, in large part because Asia had huge Christian communities that lasted much longer than most of those in Africa.

Asian Christianity in the 6th and 7th centuries was as strong and more geographically spread out than Christianity in Europe. The first half of the book is focused on establishing the reality of this eastern church to modern readers that have ‘lost’ their memory. So there are lots of demographics and research and lists, which can be a bit dry. But Jenkins’ work here is reporting on something that is unique, I have read a number of world wide Christian history surveys and none have given this era much time, or have simply dismissed it as a heretical church without discussing it strengths.

The main part that I found interesting is the second half of the book, especially the last chapter where Jenkins details the declines of the churches and how ‘churches disappear under persecution’.  The most interesting part of this for me is why some regions of Christianity survived up to a thousand or more years under predominately Muslim rule and others only survived hundreds.  The main reasons seem to be:

1) Whether Christianity was fully embraced by the peasant populations or just the Elites. For instance in Carthage where Augustine was bishop, the church seems to have been mostly elites, the Roman colonists, with very little focus on the African populations around them.  While the Coptic Christianity of Egypt was more focused on the local population. Many of the saints of the Egyptian church did not speak Greek or Latin but only local languages and we only know them because the elites of the day translated their work into Greek or Latin (or more often, actually wrote it down for them).

2) Leadership mattered; networks of bishops that were self-sustaining and local kept Christianity longer. Especially if some part of that network extended outside of Muslim rule, or at least had a strong pocket of Christian influence or near self-sufficiency.

3) Other outside forces mattered. Sometimes it seems that outside forces were more important than the actual strength of their Christianity. For instance, around the world in the 13th century there was a more brutal persecution of minorities than in some other eras and Jenkins speculates that the climate change of the era left minority populations (regardless of religious affiliation) vulnerable, both because they were smaller groups and less able to provide during difficult times, but more importantly they were scapegoats that could be punished by the politically powerful.

Geography is another significant force. Open areas that have good trade routes were more likely to have invaders, while rural or mountain terrain is more likely to allow dissidents to live in peace or at least have somewhere to hide. The crypto-christians of Japan that existed until the mid 20th century after brutal persecution from the 17th century were all mountain dwellers.

4) The religious affiliation of governments mattered. Jenkins makes the good point that religions were primarily governmental and regional. So even though there were many areas, especially in Asia that had diverse religious makeup, governments were one religion or another. So when one government rose, the religious nature of that government spread, but when it fell that religion also declined. Jenkins hints that those that complain about the nature of post-Constintinian Christianity are not being realistic to the era and that growth of Christianity needed the safety of a state church. Christianity also suffered when it was viewed as the religion of outsiders. For instance, Mongol invaders used Christian advisers and actively sought out help from European Crusaders during later crusades to work a two front attack against Muslim empires. This inspired a large internal persecution of Nestorian Christians in the 13th century.

The other part of interest for me is what this study of the early church tells us about the Church as a whole. For one, organizational structures were episcopal throughout the whole of Christianity of the time (local churches bodies overseen through Bishops). Jenkins speculates that more diffuse leadership structures that seem more like modern Protestant church government might have been better sustained than some episcopal systems, but the modern protestant system of church government needs wide-spread education and literacy and a printing press that allows for many copies of the bible for personal reading and interpretation. That technology was simply unavailable during the 9th to the 13th centuries when much of the more extensive persecution under Muslim or Mongol rule started.

One of the problems of the isolated pockets of Christianity that survived under persecution is that it became more isolated, less Evangelical and less aware of Christianity outside of its own group. This is an inherently less healthy Christianity. The longer the sustained persecution, the more insular it became, until it was a community almost wholly focused on itself and distrustful of all outsiders.

I am not going to pretend that this book is scintillating. But it is interesting and Jenkins is remarkably even-handed. He is attempting to be fair to Islam, and spends a good bit of time talking about how Christianity and Islam influenced one another, without dismissing some of Islam’s (or Christianity’s) weaknesses. Jenkins tries to judge all sides by the culture of the time without suggesting that the changes in culture over time do not matter.

The Lost History of Christianity is a challenging book for the idea that martyrs are good for Christianity. Jenkins agrees that sometimes martyrdom has strengthened Christianity, but sometimes the persecution is just too sustained or carried out too long and the church will eventually break. Jenkin’s theological reflections of the meaning of persecution, martyrdom and the nature of the church were helpful, although challenging.

Good history like The Lost History of Christianity, and some of the better histories of the Crusades, I think are important for the modern world. Nothing is black and white and the more one knows about history the messier (but more real) things become.

The Lost History of Christianity by John Philip Jenkins Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook audiobook is discounted to $3.99 with the purchase of the kindle edition