David Chidester begins Christianity, A Global History by indicating that he is an American working for a British publisher and was a professor of comparative religion at the University of Cape Town in South Africa long enough that he considers himself African. “This book was already global even before I started to write it,” he writes. That does not mean that Christian religious traditions do not display distinctive local features in different times and places. It does mean that its history cannot be told any more in a restricted Western way. An enormous shift has taken place. The Anglican communion in Britain counts 2 million believers, as it also does in Kenya, plus 18 million in Nigeria, and 8 million in Uganda, to mention only a small part of the world beyond the English mother church.
Three parts (Ancient Origins, Historical Transitions, Global Transformations) consisting of ten chapters each make this history of Christianity the entertaining and interesting book Chidester wanted it to be. His panoramic approach yields a picture of constant change and variety. He does not hesitate to enter the knotty problems of the Ancient Church as regards the interpretation of who Jesus was, either human or divine, or human and divine. This diversity of interpretations has caused difficulties and conflicts not only from a doctrinal point of view, but also because of its relation to the still influential political, social and economic power-plays of the Council of Nicea—organized, financed and settled by Constantine the Great—in 325. In a condensed but not oversimplified way, persons and opinions, attitudes and moral decisions are unraveled. We are told how the Good News was used to justify and condemn slavery, a class system, apartheid, and even the nuclear family.
The narrative is peppered with sometimes-unbelievable anecdotal stories about saints and sinners, mystics and heretics, reformers and traditionalists, monks and nuns, lay people and missionaries, and even Saint Guinefort, a dog venerated in France. Its most interesting theme remains, however, the way Christianity and the world interacted in modern history. The African prophetic welcoming of Christ, the Hindu Christian reception, the Cargo cult in Oceania, they all find—says the author—a place in the ongoing spread of God’s Wisdom among us. One of the most striking pictures in the book is the one in which Adolf Hitler shakes the hand of a Christian bishop. (The Protestant theologian Franklin H. Littell is quoted as noting: “The murder of six million Jews by baptized Christians raises the most insistent question about the credibility of Christianity.”) The author concludes by juxtaposing the self-declared prophet Sun Myung Moon and the preachers Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggert with Ronald Reagan, who said in 1971 that he was convinced Russia was the land of Gog—the evil power foreseen by the prophet Ezekiel.
The book is a magnificent read. The author claims for himself the prerogatives of a novelist, while making every effort to get the facts straight. He does not always succeed, but erroneous details fall away against the grand sweep of his work. It shows Christianity as a global force, and yet as not bound to any particular time or place. Christianity was and is everywhere and nowhere. Christianity seems able to be true to itself in a certain inconsistency because it remains based on a person, Jesus the Christ, and not on a doctrine cut in stone. This book changes our way of looking at Christianity, and offers us a way to tell its story in our own age. Try it out for yourself!
Many years ago, when I first met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he asked me what I did at the university. “Comparative religion,” I replied. “Ah, comparative religion,” he observed with a mischievous glint in his eye. “That is religion for the comparatively religious.” I laughed, even though I had heard that joke before and even though it is not particularly funny, especially if you have been working to develop a study of religion that is not about being religious, comparatively or otherwise, but is dedicated to creating a free, open space for the imaginative and disciplined exploration of religion in all its diversity.
—Christianity, a Global History