Monday 22 January 2018

Review: A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Penguin, €45.50

John-Paul McCarthy

In David Milch's astonishing HBO series Deadwood, there is an episode about the murder and burial of Wild Bill Hickok.

An ebullient, if also mortally ill, Reverend Smith sends Bill back to Mother Earth via St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "St Paul tells us from one spirit are we all baptised into one body.

"He tells us: 'The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of thee.' Nay, much more those members of the body which seem to be more feeble ... and those members of the body which we think of as less honourable -- all are necessary."

The only thing that can unite a multiple killer like Wild Bill with a demented holy man is old Paul of Tarsus.

Here, piety and passion combine with just a hint of madness in a way that would please the Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of an enthralling new history of Christianity that shows an unusual sensitivity to these very themes.

Over the course of MacCulloch's 3,000-year story -- running to more than 1,000 pages, from Plato to Pope John Paul, and supplemented by a lavish companion series on the BBC -- he introduces us to the myriad incarnations of the Christian deity.

We meet the Pattern Man, who inspired Newton's physics, Bach's Passion and Handel's Messiah (performed for the first time, believe it or not, in a Dublin concert hall in 1742).

Other Christians saw God as the Man of Sorrows, the abandoned child and mob orator who fascinated Thomas Jefferson and Friedrich Nietzsche, and remains the central presence in Wesleyan hymns to this day.

Others saw a more ambivalent figure still. Theirs was not God the Father, who provided the emotional core of evangelical "religion of the heart", rather God the Judge, who told Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther that Adam's mistake disclosed the existence of some great aboriginal helplessness at the heart of the human condition.

For all the bliss of Dante or those perished 17th-Century Carolina slaves who found solace in the enslavement of the Jews, MacCulloch does not spare us from what medieval Christians simply called the Lord of Death.

He was the master of the Christian Crusades against Islam, the celestial dictator behind Cotton Mather's witch trials in New Salem, the pitiless deity whom Lincoln appealed to in his forlorn second inaugural address in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War, he who willed that war to continue until "all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword".

Sprawling books like MacCulloch's pose a unique challenge. His admirers know him best for his penetrating work on the theological divisions that led to the Reformation schisms.

But with this book, he has shown his readers that he can hold our attention over the long-haul as well.

Scholars write big books like this one for a variety of reasons. Some, like Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, see life beyond the pedantry of the academic journals.

Others, like the late John Burrow, want to plot the progress of an idea across a very wide terrain. (Burrow did this in his wonderful book A History of Histories, which was recently published in paperback by Penguin and is a bargain for less than €15.)

And others, again, just want to show off a little.

MacCulloch's book is a vibrant example of all three genres. As a child of a Suffolk rector and an openly gay man, he is an important influence in contemporary Anglican debates outside the academy.

He wants us to see that Christianity is as much a complete account of humanity in its own terms as it is a mere collection of injunctions and penalties.

And he wants to convey something of Christianity's profound cultural contributions in areas as diverse to the English language (think Cranmer's Prayer Book), art (think Bernini's amazing sculpture of St Theresa at the meridian point of orgasm) and history (he argues in a fascinating section that the Reformation divided the concept of time along with the concept of salvation).

Irish readers will find plenty to amuse them. The roots of the sexual neuroses inculcated by religion and interrogated with such clarity in the recent Ryan report are to be found in every decade of MacCulloch's epic trek, whether in the Gnostic hatred of the body, the chauvinism of the Council of Trent, the puritanical ideas of the Jansenists (the poet Patrick Kavanagh's sworn enemies) or in Pope Pius IX's attack on modern science in the 1860s.

MacCulloch has a soft spot for St Patrick, who was also a favourite of American slaves; they saw much to admire in the story of a man who also felt the indignity of the lash and the clank of a pirate's fetter.

He also notes WB Yeats' fascination with the notion of the "Eternal Evangel" to be found in the frenzied writings of the 13th-Century Cistercian Joachim of Fiore.

Some of MacCulloch's most lyrical prose is devoted to the popular Bible-reading tradition of William Tyndale, the proud tradition to which David Trimble doffed his cap during his elegant Nobel speech, where he reminded his audience that "the tradition from which I come, but by which I am not confined, produced the first vernacular Bible in the language of the common people, and contributed much to the scientific language of the enlightenment".

Every home should invest in a copy of this fine book. You won't finish it in a single session, but you will find yourself reading it for years to come.

John-Paul McCarthy is researching Gladstone's Irish policy at Exeter College, Oxford

Sunday Independent

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