Book Review ‘A Short History of Christianity’

My mate and guest blogger, Russell Morton, reviews A Short History Of Christianity by Professor Geoffrey Blainey, the runner-up in the 2012 Christian Book of the Year Awards:

A book written by a Melbourne academic described by writer for The Australian Nick Cater as Gadfly Geoffrey Blainey, Australia’s most prolific historian, has been awarded runner-up in the 2012 Christian Book of the Year as judged by an interdenominational panel of experts on behalf of SPCKA.

It is both stimulating and usefully challenging to encounter familiar historical material treated from an entirely different perspective from one’s own. A Short History Of Christianity is a book which not only provides just such a challenge and stimulus, but does both in a smoothly engaging style which makes it hard to put it down once you begin.

For Tasmanians, Blainey’s first book, The Peaks Of Lyell, published in 1954 when he was just 22, has been a kind of primer of colonial Tasmanian history, and his most recent book taken with the more than 30 other books he has penned together provide comprehensive commentary and analysis of Australian, and wider, history. His A Short History Of The World has been highly acclaimed. He is responsible for the expressions the tyranny of distance and the controversial black armband view of history.

A friend with some knowledge of the field judged the depth of the book as above Church History 101, and certainly for the average reader the book, despite its 170,000 words, is highly engaging, packed with fascinating detail.

I found myself wondering at a number of points what exactly is Blainey’s personal position in matters of faith. Known to have a Methodist background, he nevertheless compiles and interprets the record dispassionately from the perspective of a very practised, disinterested historian. It is, certainly, a book which avoids carping on the various negatives which some raise in any discussion of church history; indeed, Cater’s review says, almost ruefully, that Blainey comes to praise Christianity, not to bury it.

The book is packed with descriptions of individuals and their work, of movements within Christianity. Most impressively, the writer demonstrates deep understanding of the many theological issues which lie at the heart of so much of the controversy which the Christian church has experienced over the millennia since its inception.

However, for the true believer, this book is disconcerting and perhaps therein lies its usefulness to Christian people. Blainey’s big picture of a religious movement waxing and waning may well be very accurate as a description of a sociological phenomenon, but does God see it this way? This is not a question which a professional historian can ask, but cannot be avoided by the faithful. And the book seems to give equal weight to mainstream Christianity and its many sects, some such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons who are seen by orthodox Christians as so far from the ‘truth’. This sobering book is a short history of a lot more than I think of when I think of the history of the church.

But this is big picture stuff, a wonderful attempt to stand back and get as complete a view as can be managed within the scope of 550 pages. Blainey concludes,

“The debate about Christ’s message and influence will continue. Long after we are all dead and the twenty-first century is lost behind passing clouds, the fascination with him will persist; and many will still see him as triumphant.”

That is if he doesn’t wind up history first!

Watch and listen to an ABC “Big Ideas” address by Geoffrey Blainey about his book, here.  Also see page 3 of 6 at Awards for the Australian Christian Book of the Year 2012.

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