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Chronicle of Christianity’s beauties, catastrophes

by Brian Moynahan
Doubleday, 806 pages, $40

Reviewed by TIM UNSWORTH

Every serious reader should be reading a half dozen books at a time. One of them should be a big and sweeping work that either probes an individual (David McCullough’s recent John Adams is a good example) or one that paints a panorama wide enough to embrace a faith or a philosophy over decades, centuries or millennia.

British author Brian Moynahan’s The Faith: A History of Christianity is just such a book. Give yourself at least a month or two to get through its 730 oversized pages. Or select a topic from its detailed 37-page index and get a capsule view of just where a person or movement fits in. In addition, a six-page bibliography offers several hundred resources, most of them of fairly recent origin.

This book is a keeper. One can simply pick a topic and find its place in the history of a religion now embraced by nearly 2 billion souls. The tome is clearly not exclusively Roman Catholic, hence the massive numbers.

Brian Moynahan is a Cambridge-educated historian who earned a double first degree in his field. He worked for many years as a foreign correspondent and European editor with London’s The Sunday Times. Thus, his prose is mercifully free of the sludge that often clogs academic treatises.

Church histories are often confined to Western Europe and the United States. Moynahan takes us to the other Americas, Asia and to Africa, where the latter continent is experiencing significant growth.

Try as one might, there remains a tendency to view these massive continents as mission territory, instead of groups of Third World nations that are emerging so rapidly that there are already rumors of a black, Asian or Latino pope. Just 40 years ago when Vatican II opened the windows, there were only 70 cardinals and just over half were Italian. Now, there are over 180 cardinals (nearly 135 are under 80 and have a vote for the next pope.) Only 24 of them are Italian. Latin America has 27; Africa and Asia have 13 each (although two died recently).

There are buckets of blood in these pages. It runs through most of the 35 chapters like water. In fairness, about equal amounts of blood -- perhaps more -- poured from the veins of Christians. The terrible irony is that, while saints strove to stop the ongoing holocausts, churchmen were slaughtering those outside the faith or those seen to be agnostics or heretics.

During the early centuries, Christians were martyred in droves. But the image of Christ, still found on walls, was that of a gentle shepherd. During and after Constantine, a canonized saint in the Eastern church, the depictions of Jesus gradually evolved into Christ as pantocrater (“ruler of all”), just as Constantine came to see himself. (Read another big book, James Carroll’s Sword of Constantine, for another angle on this contradiction.) Now, Jesus filled church domes, depicted as the arbiter of right and wrong. By the sixth century, Jesus could be interpreted as a Roman soldier. Before he died, Constantine declared dissent from his form of Christianity a criminal offense.

With the ascent of Constantine, the emperor became the comforter of the church. The pogroms ceased; “the beast nestled with the lamb”; mutual interest caused the faith to become entangled with mammon. It all had something to do with money, and gradually Constantine became regarded as equal to Christ himself. Once modest churches grew much larger and were lathered in beaten gold. The church could inherit money, and it wasn’t long before clerics were lingering around widows’ homes in the expectation of a bequest. Church ceremonies became marked by pomp. Christianity went from invitation to force-feeding. Christianity became the state religion. Christians, once opposed to all forms of government-related paganism, now became officials of government-related groups.

One could readily trace a line through the succeeding centuries and witness the joining of temporal and ecclesiastical power. The Inquisition, first outlined by Pope Alexander III in 1163, lasted until torture was banned in 1816. It has since been dressed in a theological fig leaf, and its spoor can be found in Vatican offices that deal with traces of alleged heresy.

Slavery is another example of the complex link between Christian masters and their owners. Early Christian masters were reluctant to convert their slaves lest this conversion cut into their profits. (Read St. Paul to Philemon and recall that some 19th-century American bishops and universities kept slaves, as did Washington and Jefferson.) It was all justified because, Francesco de la Cruz, a Dominican friar, wrote: “Blacks were justly captives by reason of the sins of their forefathers and that, because of that sin, God gave them their color.”

Through it all, another contradictory figure, Francis of Assisi, selected by Time magazine to be the most influential figure of the millennium, worked with his friars to bring Jesus to remote villages and prison cells, hospitals and schools. In time, the simple houses of the barefoot Franciscans became more elaborate. Conditions varied from austerity to riches; friars accompanied explorers to the New World where they witnessed Spanish and Portuguese soldiers dashing native children against the rocks. Meanwhile, the humble man who gave us the Christmas crib and the Stations of the Cross was canonized just two years after his death by a church that was still selling pardons.

So it went. Such conflicts have lasted until as recently as Pius XII, whose near silence over the Holocaust, in Moynahan’s words “was politically understandable yet morally indefensible.”

Given its length and breadth, this became a book of vignettes. But it is marvelously informative. Like Christianity itself, it is a chronicle of beauties and catastrophes, inspiration and vanities. At its heart, however, it remains the story of the resurrected Son of God.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003