Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died

By Philip Jenkins, $32.95, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 314 pages hardcover.

“Our accepted chronology of the ancient church is wrong: ancient Semitic Christianity dies out not in the fourth century, but in the fourteenth century.” Thus Jenkins repeatedly challenges Anglo-American Christian Eurocentrism. He shows that Middle Eastern and Asian Christianity, largely Nestorian or Syriac, thrived culturally, theologically, and materially for centuries. The European believers were in the spiritual and intellectual backwater.

The Oriental Christians were much more orthodox than we have taken them to be. They rejected the gnosticism and apocryphal writings just as solidly as the Orthodox and Latins did, despite Elaine Pagels' claims to the contrary. The entire Christian family for centuries, in fact, was largely in sync.

The Middle Eastern and Asian landscape up to the fourteenth century in many areas was a spiritual landscape of monasteries, Christian shrines and pilgrimage routes, great learning centers, and ancient metropolitan sees. “Before Good King Wenceslas ruled a Christian Bohemia, Samarkand and Patna all achieved metropolitan status,” the author notes. One drawback to The Lost History of Christianity is the total lack of photos of once-Christian buildings, such as in Syria, and artwork from Cappadocia and other now-Muslim areas.

Oriental Christians used their spiritual wealth to spread the faith as far as China and perhaps even to Korea and Tibet. Throughout many lands, Christian and Buddhist monasteries stood side by side, while Christians read Buddhist scriptures and even helped translate some Buddhist writings into Chinese and other languages.

Countless such examples testify to a Christian culture much more advanced than the one in Europe until the Renaissance. Islam did not simply take over this deeply entrenched religious civilization. Instead, Jenkins points out that we have misread history by stressing difference and conflict over peace, tolerance, and influence.

The two religions theologically, spiritually, and culturally blended into each other to a surprising degree according to The Lost History of Christianity. Sufism was a way for Christian converts to more easily identify with the new religion, as this Islamic path emphasized saints and pilgrimage, and personal mystical spiritual experiences, much as Christianity did. In fact, many aspects of Islamic practice originated in Eastern Christianity, and Muslim converts from the older religion reinforced Christianity's influence on the new religion by continuing many of their previous practices.

As was also the case with Asian Christianity's relationship to Buddhism from time to time, religions were not as exclusionary as now. The old church buildings often became mosques, much as pre-Christian European pagan temples had become churches. Jenkins argues convincingly that Islam was in countless respects a continuation of previous, Christian practices; Syriac and Nestorian ghosts haunted the new religion for centuries.

Ironically, Oriental Christianity nourished Islam more than it did Greek or Latin Christianity. These latter two Christian groups all but ignored their brother Christian's existence. This has been a heavy loss to this day: “For a thousand years, Syriac Christians produced scholars and thinkers who could be set beside the best of their Greek and Latin contemporaries, and who shaped the emerging world of Islamic science and philosophy.”

Even now, who is aware of the eleventh-century “Syriac Renaissance,” and even what that means? In fact, Jenkins notes, “virtually all these works [from the period] are now lost,” sometimes due to Islamic belligerence, but also because of European and Byzantine indifference to aiding and learning from the Syriac Christians. This is doubly ironic because many Christian dissenters, persecuted in the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, had often left for the relative freedom of more eastern lands, including the various Islamic states.

The great strength of The Lost History of Christianity is Jenkin's refusal to whitewash the Islamic persecutions of the Oriental Christians, which reached high points in the globally miserable fourteenth and the European-expansionist nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the first instance, climate change led to crop failures throughout the known world. Coupled with the conversion to Islam of the warrior Mongols, the Christian communities stood little chance of surviving the pogroms despite being so deeply-entrenched. Jenkins could have offered more information on this sad piece of history.

While the Christian powers France, Britain, and Russia spent the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries carving out the Ottoman Empire, Muslim Turks and Arabs in that empire committed genocide against Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians, leaving very little of a once far-reaching culture.

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