Two thousands years removed from scene, when the Apostle Paul includes Asian Christians in the salutation to some of his epistles, it is easy to read with an ironic and chuckle, knowing that he is referring just to the Byzantine "East", and just for the next 500 years or so until the Middle East would be conquered and converted to Islam. We know that Christianity would only survive and thrive in the Roman west, becoming a European religion; after all, a majority of Americans can trace their roots to that geographic and religious locus.
And we would be wrong, as Jenkins reminds us here in his rediscovery of the early history of the spread and survival of Christianity in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Jenkins shows that Christianity has a mostly forgotten history in Egypt and Ethiopia to the south, and India, China, and even Japan to the east, and that it was successful in different languages, cultures and political systems until the 14th century, with remnants surviving in many places to the present day. These communities would be strong and large enough to lend creedence to the European legends of Prester John, the powerful and benevolent Christian king whose kingdom was always just off the edges of the known map.
Of course, we know that beginning with the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, and increasing with periods of political violence and reprisals in the 14th century, Christianity in these regions was existing in areas where it faced serious limits on growth and survival, and Jenkins tells how these events impacted those Christian communities.
Hugh Kennedy in The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In tells the story of the Islamic conquests, explaining its rapidity in part by its ability to accommodate and subsume conquered peoples and religions without violent reprisals and forced conversions--at first. Jenkins extends this history, pointing out how in those early years Christianity and Islam shared many ideas and even borrowed from each other in those areas where they were in close contact. He also carries the story forward over the next several centuries to the period in the 14th century when reprisals did become common, and offers some reasons for the hardening of Islam into a more directly anti-Christian theology.
Jenkins then generalizes from this history to talk about how and why any religious faith and practice dies or survives under periods of persecution. He also addresses the question of why God would allow such seemingly disastrous results in the history of His church after He has commanded the church to carry His name to the whole world, and promised to protect it. As he concludes, understanding God's role in the history of Christianity requires knowing the complete history (not just its history in European Christian political entities), and thinking in God's timing and standards of success (not our own).
When the author states that most people only view the history of the Church through a European prism, I plead guilty. Learning Church history in high school, I was never taught anything else, and when Nestorians were mentioned it was always in the context of heresy. Now I realize what a rich history I have been missing all of these years! I should mention, though, that when I was in my first (and only) year in the seminary we had a Mass conducted in Aramaic by a Maronite priest. … more
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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