I enjoy reading close studies of particular figures and periods in church history. When well researched and well crafted, they are often rich with illuminating detail. But I also find it valuable to read broad surveys of the Christian story. Such volumes are difficult to pull off because they require enough knowledge of so many different eras for one to select fair and representative figures to show the story’s development. Yet again, when done well, such volumes can provide macrolevel clarity that otherwise gets lost in the proverbial trees.
In this vein, I recently read Martin Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (New York: Modern Library, 2007). I had dipped into parts of it before, but I wanted to read through the whole volume front to back. Marty is a highly respected church historian, and he packs his rendering of Christian history into a remarkably short 236 pages, making it one of the shorter and more accessible books on the full spectrum of church history available today.
The distinctive feature of Marty’s book is its geographical theme. He uses continental geography to shape his telling of the Christian story, splitting it into ten chapters based largely on location. He deals with two Asian episodes, two African episodes, two European episodes, a Latin American episode, and a North American episode. These are bookended by a chapter on Jewish beginnings and an epilogue of sorts on “unfinished episodes.”
Marty’s global awareness of Christianity is what is most appealing about this book. While many think of Christianity as a historically European religion, and perhaps today as a North American religion, Marty shows how it was first an Asian story, and then the movement grew significantly in Africa as it was growing in Europe. And he demonstrates how Christianity has become global—especially in the face of an emaciated European Christianity today. In other words, without minimizing the important European and North American theaters in Christian history, Marty rightly broadens our perspective to see how it has had elements developing in important ways on multiple continents around the world from its earliest days.
Taking this episodic approach does have drawbacks. Calling these epochs “episodes” seems a bit arbitrary and overly simplistic, something Marty acknowledges (74). More important, Marty’s approach prioritizes geographical over chronological organization. By trying to maintain strict geographical boundaries for each episode, he has to cover some of the same periods multiple times in different chapters. That can obscure the view of the diverse happenings around the globe at any given time, and readers can miss correlations between those events. Marty seeks to be sensitive to such concerns, but when one chooses an organizing principle, one must necessarily make some sacrifices, as here. Illustrative of this point is that Marty feels compelled, because of the nature of events described, to interrupt his “second European episode” with an “intercursus” on the Eastern church as Eurasian (120–23).
In The Christian World: A Global History, Marty provides many nuggets of insight. For example, he notes that the first public church building was likely in Edessa, northeast of Antioch (32). And the first officially Christian state may have been Armenia (33). During the early centuries of Christianity, while Rome was still officially pagan, the emperors who were the most effective rulers were also typically the worst persecutors (54). Also, contrary to popular perception, Europe as a center of Christianity actually “developed late” in comparison to eastern Asia and northern Africa (74). And in the early twentieth century, Soviet persecution of Christians was one of the worst in church history (122). These examples illustrate the smattering of insights available in Marty’s volume.
As for his treatment of historical events, Marty aims for balance. To his credit, he certainly is not hagiographical. No Christian should desire to tell the story of Christianity in only glowing terms. Thus, one of Marty’s themes is the Christian violence done toward Jews over the past two millennia. He also highlights the “tension and contradiction” of violence and mercy in expressions of Christianity (17). That such blots have marked Christianity’s history cannot be denied, and we are best helped in being honest about them, not pretending they didn’t happen.
As another example of balance, when discussing European missionaries to Africa, Marty describes how some were corrupt, “in effect chaplains to the imperialists who justified brutal policies”; their “cruelty and hypocrisy” have been recounted by many Africans (192). At the same time, without downplaying the problems with these missionaries, Marty underscores what many Africans also say, that “more of these agents of Christianity,” even with their racial superiority complexes, “were genuinely moved by their own vision of faith in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ” (192). This illustrates the principle that Marty lays down elsewhere in his book that sympathizers should not romanticize the past, even as nonsympathizers should not exaggerate it (116).
While Marty steers clear of hagiography, he at times veers too far, in my view, toward skepticism. And this seems to be out of a desire to satisfy the demands of secular scholars. For example, when speaking of Docetists and Gnostics, Marty puts “heresies” in quotes “to respect critics of orthodoxy who remind readers that history gets written by winners, and there were plenty of near-winners and bare losers in this time of definition [in the second century]” (56). Such statements remind us that there is no such thing as “bare history”; history is always interpreted and analyzed, which demands that readers be discerning.
Bearing that in mind, my greatest criticism for the book falls on Marty’s treatment of Jesus and the rise of Christianity in chapter 1. There he speaks of “nonliteralist Christians” who “do not believe or need” the virgin birth (6). This statement underscores a challenge in writing Christian history: Who should be included and excluded in the Christian account? Marty is fairly broad in his definition, though many believers would find the label he describes as “nonliteralist Christians” an oxymoron.
More concerning to Christians are some of Marty’s statements about Jesus and the gospel. For example, he says, “Few aspects of [Jesus’s] teaching were original” (7), and Marty remarks that the Gospels present Jesus in “sometimes contradictory images” (8). He makes a point that the Jews were “understandably disgusted and infuriated” at the message of Paul and other Christians. Such statements will be met with curious looks from believers, who recognize that Jesus brought new revelation in his person; that as divine, Jesus always perfectly harmonized all he said and did; and that even if Jews were “understandably” repulsed by the message of the gospel, that doesn’t make such resistance good for their souls if the gospel message is true.
(On this last point, there is no excuse for the history of Christian violence against Jews—all Christians should repudiate such mistreatment. At the same time, early Christians preached the gospel message about Jesus to Jews because they believed it to be true—and speaking the truth is an admirable act of love.)
With some analysis of Marty’s approach to his topic, readers can gain much from his book. To be sure, there are more skeptical accounts of the Christian past than Marty’s, even as there are overly positive accounts as well. Marty’s book gives opportunity to consider how historians go about their task and how one might pursue a faithful telling of Christian history, one that avoids hagiography but is written from a place of faith in Christ. Some scholars will view that as an impossibility. I disagree. The eyes of faith are not necessarily blinders; they can actually illuminate the study of church history in a way that skeptical eyes cannot.
Readers looking for insights into global Christianity will not be disappointed with Marty’s book. He ably covers much territory in a manageably sized volume, which gives readers a helpful—and global—overview of the Christian story that is hard to get elsewhere. Even where Christians may resist some of Marty’s analysis, such topics can launch fruitful discussion about the nature of doing history with its attendant challenges. This volume shouldn’t be the only book one reads on Christian history, but read alongside others, The Christian World: A Global History offers a valuable foray into the global Christian past.