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Philip Jenkins

Downward, Outward, Later

A superb new history of Christianity.

Some of my best friends are classicists. Growing weary of the popular assumption that their supposedly tweedy profession involves only an obsessive retreading of the same few ancient texts, they have developed a convenient formula that outlines the modern changes in the discipline: downward, outward, later. As classicists and ancient historians delve deeper in the social strata, exploring the lot of the cast-off and marginalized, they also move toward the fringes of empire, and indeed into the barbarian lands beyond. And they concern themselves not just with golden ages but also with the long-neglected later years of decline and ruin, the years of tarnished silver, if not of pure dross. And in each of these new dimensions, classicists find themselves reinventing their subject, as they realize the paper thin walls that separate the study of Greece and Rome from the disciplines of social and gender history, anthropology and sociology, African and Asian studies.

Without apology, I will here be appropriating that dynamic three-word slogan to describe some important recent directions in the study of Christianity, in which the concerns and interests of the immediate present determine the questions we seek to ask of the past. Particularly over the past quarter century, the history of Christianity has moved enthusiastically downward, to focus on the lived experience of ordinary believers, no less than the great deeds of celebrated leaders. In more senses than one, it has also moved outward, recognizing that the Christian experience cannot be contained within denominations but must be explored to the margins of orthodoxy and beyond. And perhaps most important of all, it has expanded geographically, with a powerful emphasis on the global, non-Euro/American experience. Living in a world in which the most dramatic Christian growth occurs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, how could historians do otherwise? Finally, historians move later, both in the sense of discussing the roots of present-day conditions, but also of tracing the story of churches beyond the glories of their origin and heyday, into their twilight years.

To see contemporary scholarship of Christian history at its best, we need only turn to the new nine-volume Cambridge History of Christianity (chc), of which three are presently available, with the remaining volumes scheduled to appear over the next year or so. The scale of the enterprise inspires awe. Each volume contains about thirty separate essays by an enormous diversity of excellent scholars—in all, call it 270 chapters, making up more than 6,000 pages. This is, in short, a library rather than a mere series. So lengthy is the list of authors that it would be invidious to highlight just a few, but suffice it to say that the editors have chosen well, often very well indeed.1 The fact that so many contributors stem from the British Isles (or Commonwealth nations) does rather enhance the normal academic tendency to left and liberal perspectives, but political biases are generally under control.

The collection stands out from rivals by its sheer scale, which need not in itself be a virtue. Some would rank the 250 idiosyncratic pages of Charles Williams' Descent of the Dove as one of the finest histories of Christianity ever written. Yet the very generous space allotted to the chc does allow its contributors to achieve a breadth of coverage to which I can think of few equals. Based on the volumes available to date, we see that the chc is characterized above all by its quest for a universal vision, its determination not to write the story of Christianity solely as it appears from a European or North American perspective, while at the same time not neglecting those critical regions. Nor, crucially, is the perspective limited by denomination or faith tradition. There is a conspicuous, and highly successful, attempt to provide due attention to all the major traditions, to Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, not to mention—and this deserves real praise—the array of independent and prophetic churches that have been so important in African and Asian Christianity.

Throughout, authors do far more than simply write chronological sketches of their regions and periods, to write for instance about "Christianity in Germany 1815-1914." Each volume divides its materials into three broad sections, which provide an effective structure. The 19th-century volume, for instance, includes three sections: "Christianity and Modernity," "The Churches and National Identities," and "The Expansion of Christianity." Under "Christianity and Modernity," we find sections on themes such as science, literature, culture and the arts, not to mention theology, devotional styles, and popular religion. The "National Identities" section allows authors to address the relationship between church, politics and culture more closely, in chapters such as "Catholicism, Ireland, and the Irish diaspora" (Sheridan Gilley), "Christianity and the Creation of Germany" (Anthony J. Steinhoff) and "Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and the Religious Identities of the United Kingdom" (John Wolffe). Throughout the chc, the identification and development of themes is thoroughly successful.

Given my own interests, I naturally turned with greatest interest to the non-Western sections of the volumes, which are in every case deeply impressive. I have already stressed the "outward" character of the chc, which avowedly concerns itself with World Christianities. Every volume allots generous space to Christian history beyond Europe, and also to the Christian encounter with non-Christian religions. The global approach is evident in the regional analysis of Christian emergence in the first volume, Origins to Constantine, with the abundant materials on North Africa and Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia.

In the 19th-century volume, similarly, non-Western themes take up close to 200 pages, and could easily constitute a volume in their own right. (A modest proposal: who will dare publish the first History of Christianity that either omits Europe altogether, or reduces it to a footnote, as due revenge for generations of texts that were equally dismissive of the extra-European experience?) We have chapters on missions and the anti-slavery movement (Brian Stanley), on movements in East and Southeast Asia, in Oceania and the Middle East. And while much of the emphasis is naturally on Euro/American missions, the authors are keenly aware of the role of local peoples as co-creators of the new churches rather than mere recipients of European wisdom. By the end of the volume, with this truly global perspective, we are ready to read Brian Stanley's vision of the Christian world as it stood in 1914, and in retrospect, we can see how and why Christianity was going to grow and develop as it actually did, rather than as elite observers in Boston, Paris, or Berlin thought it should.

For all its breadth, the non-Western sections in the 1815-1914 volume are clearly an addition to a text that focuses chiefly on Europe. This is no longer true in the volume on the past century, in which the affairs of Africa and Asia are thoroughly and successfully integrated into the narrative. Instead of "Oh yes, and then there was Africa," global South conditions, achievements, and challenges are incorporated in each of this volume's three sections, on "Institutions and Movements," "Narratives of Change," and "Social and Cultural Impact." I am incidentally bemused that with this passionate interest in global affairs, Hugh McLeod can declare in his introduction that "the present volume is devoted entirely to Western Christianity, and to newer movements that grew out of Western Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." I suppose African, Indian, or Chinese Christianities can be seen in this way, in the sense that their roots tend to be Protestant or Catholic rather than Orthodox, but this comment seems perverse. Fortunately, this "Western" classification does not detract from the subsequent chapters.

While it is unfair to focus on any one volume of the chc, this modern one particularly explores fresh and strictly contemporary themes, which makes the coverage often fascinating. When we study great moments or trends in Christian history, such as the medieval monastic movements, or the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century, we have a fair idea of the shape that such narratives should take, and the obvious persons and incidents that demand discussion. A good writer can still surprise with a novel approach or a contrarian view, but the broad outline is largely established. That is not the case with the trends of the past century, where, in a sense, the standard historical narratives are still being created. Looking at this period, what for example are the key names and milestones that absolutely have to be covered in a 35-page section on "male and female" in Christianity since 1914, which includes sections on marriage and family (Adrian Thatcher), homosexuality (David Hilliard), patriarchy, and "the church as women's space" (Pirjo Markkola)? And before beginning that particular parlor game, remember that the answer has to be global in scale, outward as well as downward. Reasonable people will disagree about the decisions the editors have made about content, and sometimes of tone; but the attempts are still heroic. So are the introductions and conclusions of each volume, in which the respective editors tackle the essential if foolhardy task of assessing in just a few pages what were the trends that really mattered in their centuries or eras.

Reading such a brief outline of the content and approach of the chc, one might be tempted to ask how else such a task might be tackled. The thorough global emphasis can be seen as a new phenomenon, reflecting changes of the past few years, but surely one could not have created any credible attempt at a history of Christianity without so much movement downward and later, as well as outward? Actually, after reading these first volumes of chc, it is instructive to turn to some past Histories of Christianity; in making the comparison, I intend no disrespect to these earlier efforts.

One immediate predecessor is the somewhat misleadingly named Oxford History of the Christian Church, a series that contains some of the absolute classics of modern church history. In this august company, for instance, we find such books as J. M. Wallace-Hadrill's The Frankish Church, John McManners' Church And Society In Eighteenth-Century France, and Adrian Hastings' The Church in Africa, 1450-1950. Yet for all the (overwhelming) value of the individual contributions, they do not comprise a unified sequential history in anything like the way the chc does.

We can also consider the multivolume history of the Christian Church produced in the 1960s by the British firm of Penguin, with contributions by glittering scholars such as Owen and Henry Chadwick and Sir Richard Southern, each covering a specific period: Owen Chadwick, for instance, covered The Reformation, Gerald Cragg described The Church And The Age Of Reason, 1648-1789, Alec Vidler discussed The Church In An Age Of Revolution: 1789 To The Present Day. (In 1992, recognizing that Vidler's "present day" had by then receded well into the past, Penguin published a new volume by Owen Chadwick on The Christian Church in the Cold War.) Though none of these volumes paid much attention to non-Western developments, that lack was partially addressed by Stephen Neill's splendid  History of Christian Missions, which, for all the intense research undertaken on global matters since 1960, can still be mined profitably.

None of these volumes was anything less than excellent, but the contrast with the chc goes well beyond mere matters of scale. As noted, most of the books concentrated firmly on Europe, with occasional nods to the rogue colonies in North America, and British matters consistently received much more attention than they might have done. Also, for all the ecumenical intentions of the various authors, the Penguin series focused disproportionately on the familiar conflicts of Western Europe, so that the unwary reader ran the risk of concluding that church history was an affair of Protestant and Catholic, with the Orthodox floating somewhere in the wings. Moreover, they largely focused on great people and movements, so that to invert my slogan, they were inward and upward.

The contrast with the chc becomes most striking in the more recent Chadwick volume, which focuses on the experiences of the churches in the Cold War that persisted from 1945 to 1991, and says next to nothing about the experience of Christianity beyond the West. In this volume certainly, the Orthodox receive their full due. But when the history of Christianity comes to be written once more in fifty or a hundred years, is it plausible that Communism and its opponents will still occupy center stage in that account? By that time, it would be pleasant to think that Communism as a concept will demand the kind of explanatory footnote that we today accord to Gallicans and Jansenists. And when, in 2056 or so, some enterprising author publishes a hypothetical new history of 20th-century Christianity, will Europe really demand anything like as much space? Will liberal religion and ecumenism still be treated at such greater length than charismatic or Pentecostal trends? Pentecostalism, incidentally, is treated extensively, and thoughtfully, in the McLeod volume of the chc. And not only does "Eastern Christianity" receive full and fair treatment throughout, but the topic is the subject of an entire, still-unpublished volume.

At this point, we should say that the virtues of the chc reflect broader trends in the discipline, rather than just the good sense of an editorial board. Appearing alongside the chc is the ambitious new People's History of Christianity published by Augsburg Fortress. In its prospectus, this series explicitly aspires to move its theme in an aggressively "downward," populist, direction:

Until very recently, the story of Christianity through its first two millennia has focused almost exclusively on an elite made up of officials, leaders, religious professionals, and theologians. What invariably got lost in the telling was the religious consciousness and experience of "ordinary" Christians, the ninety-five percent who constituted the "laity." This majority—often illiterate, usually inarticulate, sometimes marginalized, and largely voiceless— are the focus of today's historians of Christianity, who are developing innovative ways of listening to them. A People's History of Christianity showcases this fresh venture, moving the piety, faith, and religious practice of the masses to center stage.

Under the editorship of Denis R. Janz, this series draws on contributions from over a hundred scholars of church history, many focusing on the everyday practices and beliefs of Christians through the centuries, their attitudes to food, family and sexuality, their daily customs and observance. Undoubtedly, the bottom-up approach is often overemphasized, most painfully with Richard Horsley's radicalized vision of the early Jesus Movement, but the authors are overcompensating for what they regard as the long dominance of élite-driven history.

Like the chc, too, these scholars have moved sufficiently far from the obsessive West European focus to devote a whole volume to the lived practices of Byzantine Christianity. The "outward" nature of the Fortress series is epitomized by the title of the (forthcoming) modern volume, Twentieth-Century Global Christianity.

Few observers of this development seem to realize how precisely their experiences have unintentionally followed the prophetic advice offered by the influential business gurus C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart in their powerful book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. What they advised secular multinational corporations some years ago has in practice been adopted by the world's most successful churches. As they wrote in 1998, "The real source of market promise is not the wealthy few in the developing world, or even the emerging middle-income consumers: It is the billions of aspiring poor who are joining the market economy for the first time." Devise a strategy to reach those poor, they wrote, and companies will uncover the fortune lying in the seemingly unpromising social depths. Substitute the word "religious" for "market" in the sentence quoted, and that represents a fair description of the post-1950 history of Christianity. While many of the chc and Fortress contributors might be appalled to think they were testing or confirming the doctrines of management-speak, they can at least claim to have been the first to discover the fortune at the bottom of their particular pyramid.

The wealth on offer even in just the first three published volumes of the chc prohibits a detailed review. Let me rather offer some general reactions or impressions that emerge from this new history, and which I certainly will apply when reading other more specific studies in future. Some of the points may seem obvious, but nevertheless need restating. Others are significant precisely because they run contrary to received wisdom.

Much of the history of Christianity happens outside the familiar heartlands of Western Christendom, so that the modern shift away from the global North can be seen as a resumption of an older normality. Viewed on a global scale, we must be struck by the proliferation of free-standing churches across Africa and Asia, which reached its height during what Westerners call the early Middle Ages: these were the Jacobites and Nestorians, Copts and Ethiopians, Chaldeans and Thomas Christians. From this wider perspective, Christian history offers many critical turning points besides the familiar Protestant 1517. Equally weighty, and traumatic, are (for instance) 1260, the decisive defeat of Mongol forces in the Middle East; 1453, the fall of Constantinople; or 1683, the preservation of Central Europe from Turkish annexation. Churches in different parts of the world expanded or contracted in quite different ways, experienced quite different historical rhythms. While Western European Christians were beginning their historic early modern expansion, their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the Near east were beginning their prolonged Calvary of Ottoman rule. And just when the Armenians and other Christians of the Near East were slaughtered and expelled in the post-1915 decade, that was the precise time that Christianity began its epochal expansion in sub-Saharan Africa.

In all periods of Christian history, we find a wide range of institutional and cultural diversity. The idea of a diversity of doctrines and Christologies in ancient Christianity is familiar to anyone who has read one of the Gnostic gospels, to say nothing of The Da Vinci Code, but the growth of church power and orthodoxy after the time of Constantine certainly did not impose a kind of cultural straitjacket that was not removed until the Reformation. This point demands to be noted because of the common impression that in "the Middle Ages"—roughly, the era from 500 to 1500—the story of Christianity was that of a monolithic church that brooked no variations in doctrine. Apart from the obvious fact of the Eastern Orthodox churches, such a vision ignores the range of separate churches operating in Western and Central Europe during the later Middle Ages, including the Bohemian Hussites and Bosnian Dualists, not to mention the various national bodies adhering to one or another pope or antipope. And that takes no account of the millions of African and Asian Christians who knew nothing of Europe, still less of Rome. Finally, the suggestion that either Catholic or Orthodox churches effectively suppressed the popular religious practices of the ordinary folk would have called forth a mocking laugh from the parish clergy of any era from the 5th century through the 19th.

However much we talk of globalization today, Christian movements have always transcended political and cultural borders, as well as denominations. Examining movements or revivals in one society or nation usually involves missing a substantial part of the "real story." American historians are most familiar with this in the context of the great revival of the 18th century, which had its roots in central Europe but spread throughout the British Empire and American colonies. But people and movements have always traveled widely, their impact being modified by the circumstances of their host nations. Equally, Christian movements and trends often transcend the boundaries between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, though this fact is lost when movements are studied in isolation. In the 1670s, for instance, German Protestantism was transformed by the Pietist movement, which stressed personal devotion and heart-religion in a tradition that overemphasized clericalism and scholarship. At exactly the same time, Roman Catholic mystics elevated the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Protestant-Catholic parallels and connections emerge time and again in the chc volume on the 19th century, inevitably since the various countries were dealing with similar political issues in the aftermath of the European revolutions, and to varying degrees were experiencing modernization and industrialization. In response, Protestants, Catholics, and (later) Orthodox formulated innovative strategies and evolved similar responses—fideistic and devotional movements, missionary enthusiasm, calls for moral purity. The well-known feminization and domestication of Victorian Protestantism finds a close parallel in the complex of Marian devotions in contemporary Europe.

Many of the most important movements in Catholicism, including those with the closest resemblance to well-known Protestant trends, take the form of veneration of the Virgin Mary, who serves as a critical vehicle for Christian devotion in non-Protestant traditions. Throughout the 19th- and 20th-century volumes of the chc, we repeatedly see the changing figure of the Virgin as a focus for social and spiritual concerns in Catholic Europe—for resistance to modernity, skepticism, and secularism; for social activism; for anti-Communism; all trends that in Protestant nations would have been expressed in revivals or evangelistic movements. Marian devotion was also central to the Catholic missionary movement, and the acceptance of Catholic teachings in a global South nation was (and is) often signified by spectacular reports of Marian visions and apparitions. Traditional Protestant qualms about "Mary-worship" mean that these connections and parallels are often neglected. Any history of Christianity that fails to accord a central place to Mary is severely flawed.

Focusing on the great figures of Christian history and the movements that succeeded often means distorting the trends and ideas that would have been important at a particular time. The fact that an idea triumphed in the long run does not mean that this fate seemed inevitable or even probable at the time. Devoting attention to the great innovators often means that we neglect the ordinary lived practice of Christianity in particular societies, the folkways that in many cases would ultimately be condemned as heretical or even sub-Christian. Those most likely to be forgotten, or remembered in ignominy, are the middle-of-the-road Christians who try to live decent lives and accommodate as far as possible with the secular world, like the conventional Anglican or Lutheran clergy who had the misfortune to be denounced by fiery evangelicals or Catholic revivalists.  The conflicts of Christian history produce losers as well as winners, and the losers too deserve their place in historical memory.

In all periods of Christian history, women have occupied a critical role in the churches, if not formally as leaders, then as key activists and innovators. The mythology of the medieval church usually accompanies a vision of nearly total female exclusion from religious life before relatively modern times. Actually, one could write a reasonably accurate history of Christianity from its earliest days almost entirely in terms of women saints, prophets, mystics, hermits, heretics, pious laywomen, and social reformers. The index entries under "women" in the various chc volumes are misleading to the extent that the specific page references could easily be replaced with a simple passim.

The encounter with other religions is an ancient and recurrent fact of Christian history, and the process has had transforming effects on both Christianity itself and the non-Christian religions. We define ourselves by what we are not. The great world religions as we know them today were radically reshaped by encounters with missionary Christianity, which forced Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists to restructure and redefine their beliefs, often borrowing Christian techniques and worship styles. Thus Hinduism, for instance, became a more sharply defined scriptural religion, with the Bhagavad Gita as its equivalent of the New Testament. Meanwhile, Indian Muslims began organized missionary (da'wa) activity that continues to this day. Asian forms of Christianity have often been influenced by Buddhist and Confucian ideas and practices, just as Muslim moral stringency is often reflected in African churches. Religions do not exist in isolation, and never have.

Lord Acton was right: Religion really is the key to history. In his introduction to the 1815-1914 volume of chc, Sheridan Gilley states, a little too defensively, that even in the supposedly secular 19th century, religion played a critical role in state-making and politics, so that historians need make no apology for their interest in the topic. That is putting it mildly. The accounts of religion, nationalism, and cultural identity in this volume leave no doubt that religious loyalties played a central role in shaping European affairs, at least, through the 19th century and right up to—up to when? Surely, at least up to the late 1940s, when the Moral Rearmament sect held the reconciliation meetings that brought together former enemies from France and Germany, in the process laying the foundations for the new European Community. And when that union actually was formed in the 1950s, it chose as its flag a circle of twelve stars, that is, a traditional image of the Virgin Mary, patron of Europe, the woman clothed with the stars, though with the central figure removed to respect Protestant sensitivities. Has Europe truly lost its religious identity, or is it only passing through a temporary hiatus?

Christians have often lived as persecuted minorities or majorities. Though popular Christian memory often associates the concept of persecution and martyrdom with pre-Constantinian times, many other periods have been marked by violence at the hand of other religions, or of secular authorities. Though the twentieth century undoubtedly ranks as the bloodiest era, others that stand out include the Muslim persecutions of the 14th century and the revolutionary violence at the end of the 18th century. Incidentally, one of the few embarrassing spots in the chc is Dianne Kirby's chapter on the Cold War (Vol. 9, pp. 294-97), which gives the impression that Communist persecutions in postwar Europe existed largely in the minds of Western propagandists.

Churches age and die. Anyone familiar with Christian history has read accounts of the planting, growth, and development of churches; but how many know accounts of the decline or extinction of Christian communities or institutions? Yet such events have certainly occurred, in North Africa in the early Middle Ages, and in much of the Near East in the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes the collapse is the direct result of persecution, but Christian churches also perish when societies change, when for instance cities fade, and the churches have failed to sink deep roots in the neighboring countryside. One interesting theme of the 20th-century volume of the chc is the decline and (apparently) imminent ruin of European Christianity, which is discussed by Hugh McLeod himself but which also occurs in several other chapters.

In most historical periods, mission and evangelism are central activities of the churches, so that Christian societies are usually involved with the process of absorbing and inculturating new believers, while being transformed by them in the process. Christianity has not always expanded through its history, and there have been times such as the late Middle Ages when the faith has only barely held on in the face of advances from other faiths. Yet the story of mission long predates the 19th century, and is much more than just a Protestant story. I heartily look forward to the volume on Eastern Christianity and the story of those churches that lived and died by perpetual mission.

The best indicator that Christianity is about to experience a vast expansion is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days. Arguably the worst single moment in the history of West European Christianity occurred around 1798, with the Catholic Church under severe persecution in much of Europe and skeptical, deist, and Unitarian movements in the ascendant across the Atlantic world. That particular trough also turned into an excellent foundation, from which various groups built the great missionary movement of the 19th century, the second evangelical revival, and the Catholic devotional revolution. Nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands, and that they urgently need to make up these losses further afield, whether outward (overseas) or downward (among the previously neglected lost sheep at home). Quite possibly, the current sense of doom surrounding European Christianity will drive a comparable movement in the near future. Resurrection is not just a fundamental doctrine of Christianity, it is a historical model that explains the religion's structure and development.

Let me pay both the editors and authors of the chc a great compliment. After reading their work, we are so much better acquainted with the perennial issues of Christian history that we can ask far more searching questions than hitherto. In fact, we are now equipped to see how the work could have been done better, how the writers could have framed their project more effectively and explored their topics more comprehensively. Or that at least would be the response of the ungrateful reader. The more sensible response would be to acknowledge the real and lasting qualities of a magisterial enterprise.

1. In the interests of fairness, I should point out that R. Po-chia Hsia (Ronnie Hsia), editor of one of the chc volumes, is a colleague of mine in Penn State?s History department.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The New Faces Of Christianity: Believing The Bible in the Global South (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).

Books already published in the Cambridge History of Christianity:

Margaret M. Mitchell and Frances M. Young, eds., Origins to Constantine (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

Sheridan Gilley and Brian Stanley, eds., World Christianities 1815-1914 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).

Hugh McLeod, ed., World Christianities 1914-2000 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

Forthcoming volumes in the Cambridge series:

Winrich Lohr, ed., Constantine to c.600 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

Thomas F.X. Noble and Julia M.H. Smith, eds., Early Medieval Christianity, c.600-c.1100 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

Miri Rubin and Walter P. Simons, eds., Christianity in Western Europe, c.1000-c.1500 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

Michael Angold, ed., Eastern Christianity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

R. Po-chia Hsia, ed., Reform and Expansion 1500-1660 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

Stewart J. Brown and Timothy Tackett, eds., Cambridge History of Christianity: Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution 1660-1815 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

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