Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: The Lost History of Christianity

Religion and Ethics News Weekly (Review by J. Peter Pham)

The Lost History of Christianity
Philip Jenkins (Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of the Humanities in History and Religious Studies at Penn State University)
HarperOne, 2008

Had the author been satisfied with merely rendering accessible to a broader audience this fascinating, but little known, story, The Lost History of Christianity would nonetheless already constitute an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of the Middle East and Africa. For Jenkins, however, the historical narrative he assembled is but the foundation on which to pose several questions of considerable contemporary relevance.

Shifting focus from Mesopotamia to Africa, Jenkins considers the very different fates of the church in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa. In the sixth century, there were more than 500 bishops, successors of church fathers such as Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo, ministering in what today are Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia; barely two centuries later not one was left, their churches having vanished in the face of the Muslim invasion.

In contrast, in Egypt, which was conquered by the armies of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 640, not only did the Coptic church survive, but it continues, even today, to be the faith of at least 10 percent of the population. After discounting a number of explanations, Jenkins concludes that the key factor is “how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community, and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed.” Whereas the Latin church of North Africa was essentially a colonial faith, appealing mainly to urban elites, the Coptic clergy translated their doctrine and practices into the idioms readily grasped by ordinary people, both city dwellers and rural peasants. Thus, despite persecutions, the Copts survived and their patriarchate spread Christianity up the Nile, deep into Africa to Nubia in present-day northern Sudan, which remained a Christian kingdom into the 15th century, and to Ethiopia (which also had contact with Syriac Christians), where the local church remains in communion with the see of Alexandria to this day. The lesson Jenkins draws here—although some might well be discomfited by the terms with which he articulates it—is that “for churches as for businesses, failure often results from a lack of diversification, from attaching one’s fortunes too closely to one particular set of circumstances, political or social.”

See the above page for the full story.

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