Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: Christianity, The First 3000 Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Part Two

October 7, 2011

Back in July, I wrote a post about this rich and complex book, and I have now finished it (yes, I know it took me a long time, but it’s a long book: more than 1000 pages of text). I continued to find the book astonishing, as much for MacCulloch’s facility with words and clarity of explanation as for the very interesting stories he tells so wittily. MacCulloch is enlightening on such topics as why the Church responded to Galileo the way it did. (MacCulloch describes it as the Church’s defensiveness after Martin Luther, and the fact that the trial took place in the midst of the Thirty Years War, “a destructive battle for the soul of central Europe between Catholic and Protestant, and a time when the Pope was feeling unusually vulnerable.”) I learned the answer to a question I had been wondering about since I read Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo books: the Papal States came into existence in the 8th century when the Frankish King Pippin (Charlemagne’s father) recaptured Byzantine lands from the Lombards and gave them to the Pope, to the fury of the Byzantines.

And that’s not all. MacCulloch convincingly argues that the Western Church hierarchy grew out of the Roman Empire’s bureaucracy:

One suspects that capable and energetic men who would previously have entered imperial service . . . now entered the Church as the main career option available to them . . . The Western Church has remained notable for the presence within its clerical ranks of a great many who are interested in clear rules and tidy filing systems . . . Western theology has been characterized by a tidy-mindedness which reflects the bureaucratic precision of the Latin language: not always to the benefit of its spirituality. (p. 320)

MacCulloch uses “men” here purposefully; elsewhere he discusses women religious figures, including witches, beguines and mystics as well as several administrative geniuses who founded convents and other communities for women. And remember, in reading this paragraph, that the Western Church did not seriously embrace celibacy for its clergy who were not monks until around the 12th century.

There are many more examples–descriptions of the minimal religiosity of the American Founding Fathers, the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church in concert with the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, or the heartbreaking description of the centuries of religious tolerance in Poland that was upended in the 19th century, with tragic results in the 20th. MacCulloch points out that there is no ending to his book; I will leave you with one more long quotation:

Throughout the world at the present day, the most easily heard tone in religion (not just Christianity) is of a generally angry conservatism. Why? I would hazard that the anger centres on a profound shift in gender roles which have traditionally been given a religious significance and validated by religious traditions. . . .It has been observed by sociologists of religion that the most extreme forms of conservatism to be found in modern world religions . . . are especially attractive to ‘literate but jobless, unmarried male youths marginalized and disenfranchised by the juggernaut of modernity’–in other words, those whom modernity has created, only to fail to offer them any worthwhile purpose. (p. 991)

This is a history for all of us. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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