Jesus Christ said in three words what his followers must do: "Love one another." From that command and Jesus' other clear utterances, came a treasure trove of documents, denominations and traditions over the centuries, with competing claims to our consciences.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, brought up in a country rectory in East Anglia and now professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, has written a masterpiece of exposition, overview and analysis of what emanates from Jesus' command in "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years." Every page is clear and concise.
"Christianity" is a large book, because it describes "not only the main ideas and personalities of Christian history, its organization and spirituality, but how it has changed politics, sex, and human society." Christianity, the religion, has done its share of good for the world, as the author describes, but it has its dark side, too.
Christianity -- the religion -- had a "millennium of beginnings" from 1000 BCE to 100 CE, incorporated various traditions in Greece and Rome, with its emphasis on Hellenism and the Roman Empire, as well as Israel (c. 1000 BCE to 100 CE), dealing with the "people" and their land, their exile and afterward. The miracle is how, out of many contending groups for dominance, a small band of Christians arose and gained precedence.
So much bald description of Christianity's 3,000 years may be too much for some readers. I confess that it may almost be too much for me. However, like most valuable stories, it pays to endure, not necessarily to agree with all one reads, but for the pleasure of interacting with a magisterial point of view. MacCulloch's command of the broad picture and telling detail is profound.
He describes how Jesus, the God-man, was born, lived, died for humanity's sins and rose again. Along the way, the author notes that there have been many efforts to discredit the historical Jesus, but the effort does not work. Jesus' historical presence, he tells us, is a fact.
MacCulloch traces the shaping of the Church, as it eschewed alternative identities such as Gnosticism, which preached that the universe was created by imperfect gods; Marcionism, a form of dualism with higher and lower gods; Montanism, which stressed ecstatic prophesying and a chastity that forbade remarriage; and many other "heresies" over the centuries.
The author sorts out the divisions of the Church, East and West; outlines the progression of Islam, and what he characterizes as the "unpredictable rise of Rome," that is, the making of Latin Christianity, the Rome of the popes, and Augustine, the shaper of the Western Church.
Peter's charisma and Constantine's power were operative. As well, the Emperor Diocletian's reorganization of the Roman Empire, moving the imperial government out of Rome and to four other capitals, enabled the church to fill the vacuum of "secular power" in Rome with the Christian bishop.
MacCulloch sets a frame for our understanding what he calls "The Imperial Faith," with its shaping of orthodoxy and branching out in all directions. The church enveloped a Byzantine spirituality, undertaking missions to the West, Crusades, Orthodoxy triumphant and the view of Russia as the Third Rome, that is, the rise of a Russian society exemplary in Christian terms.
Alas, this was not to last. Western Christianity's break-up ran half a millennium, with dissenters such as Nominalists, Lollards and Hussites threatening to carry the day, to say nothing of Martin Luther, Anabaptists and Henry VIII. The list of challenges is very long.
The book's overview concludes with what the author calls "God in the Dock." In that context, the power of the Enlightenment is considered. Was it a friend or foe of the Church?
Europe's slow walk away from Christianity receives analysis, as do the "culture wars" from 1960 to the present.
Prime among these events are the Second Vatican Council: Was it half a revolution? Catholics, Protestants and various "liberations," including the concept of liberation theology and the Episcopal conference in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, are examined. South Korean Protestant liberation theology focused on Jesus as a friend of the poor. Leaders called it minjung theology.
MacCulloch writes, "the heart of all these movements was a meditation on the powerlessness of the crucified Christ, and on the paradox that this powerlessness was the basis for resurrection: freedom and transformation."
Lucy Beckett, a Cambridge-educated novelist, refers to this book as "a tour d'horizon of how things now are in Christian, semi-Christian and anti-Christian life worldwide."
It is this and more, the transit of history over the last three millennia with Jesus Christ, as the French Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, often said, as the alpha and omega, the starting and end-point.
Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Nardin Academy.
Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
1,132 pages, $40