In the Great Courses series, Peter Stearns tantalizingly titles his course, “A Brief History of the World.” In just eighteen hours, the listener or viewer can explore history from before civilizations formed through the classical and post-classical eras to the beginnings of the modern world down to our own day. With a 75-minute commute to a class I was teaching last semester, it didn’t take me long to burn through the history of the world.
Stearns approaches the topic from the angle of world history, describing history not from a Western viewpoint supplemented by exposure to the rest of the globe, but from a perspective of giving relatively equal treatment to all parts of the world.
The reviews of this course are decidedly mixed. Many love it, while others feel that Stearns omits key episodes or is too anti-Western. I agree that he could have given fuller treatment of topics like the rise of Christianity, but at the same time, I felt like Stearns sought hard to maintain balance in his discussions as he aimed at illustrating the differences between a world-history and a Western approach to the past.
Bearing those elements in mind, I think church historians can benefit from much of the material he introduces. First, historical work is always strengthened from awareness of broader contextual concerns. Exposure to the wide-ranging outlines of the past gives us a framework for exploring specifics and engaging historical questions.
This leads to a second matter. A world-history approach tends to focus on the forest rather than the trees. Stearns argues that too much history gets stuck in the trees and fails to take into account the larger patterns in the world or the contrasting patterns in different regions of the world at any given time. Stearns helpfully reminds us to step back from the details to see the bigger picture while not ignoring the trees outright.
That said, world history simply cannot spend the time on the details of history that history merits. Despite its benefits, we must value both surveys and situational studies. In the tension of both do we gain layers of historical understanding that contribute to a sharper picture of the past.
A third point: While world history forces us to move away from some details that close historical studies allow, it nonetheless provides benefits in comparisons and contacts. Comparing two different cultures from the same time period—such as classical China and classical Rome—reveals patterns of similarity and dissimilarity that help us understand both societies better.
Also, understanding how these different civilizations came in contact with each other shows how various contacts between groups had a significant influence on the development of cultures in different parts of the world. Contact represents a key shaping factor of world history, explaining the reality that humans change each other both by embracing and rejecting cultural, economic, and political elements in different groups they meet.
The impact of contact is visible, for example, in the history of North and South America, where cultures developed largely in isolation from Europe, Asia, and Africa. That isolation in large part led to the demise of vast populations in the Americas when significant contact finally occurred with the arrival of Europeans, who brought both superior military technology that the natives had no chance to imitate and diseases for which native populations lacked immunities. The lens of contacts helps us explain these historical occurrences.
On the whole, taking a broader view of world history enriches rather than detracts from the church historian’s study of the past, something that many religious historians have brought to our attention, such as Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom and Mark Noll in The New Shape of World Christianity.
On this blog, we hope to explore Christian history in its global expressions to help us explore patterns, similarities, contrasts, and influence through contacts. While we as historians are limited in how much we can explore and know, we find a fuller understanding of the past by contextualizing our study of church history in the history of the world.