Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Diarmaid MacCullogh: A history of Christianity

MacCullogh's 1000-page offering is a story of the essential humanity of the church. He traces three thousand years of growth -- uncovering both Hebrew and Greek roots -- and inspects every forking branch, almost every leaf, the sorry and the sublime. His company is clear-eyed, coherent, at times waspish, at times even reverend as he describes with humanity the human extremes of skulduggery and saintliness.

His preference for the moderate left wing of the critical spectrum may bug conservatives, but they should stick with this book. Unlike many scholars, he knows the limitations of his subject and is capable of being sceptical about even his own scepticism. He rightly recognises the Resurrection as a singularity at the heart of the Christian story. Like the black hole assumed to be at the centre of the Milky Way, the whole Christian galaxy rotates around this single point; yet he knows this mysterious place cannot be explored with any tool in his historian's box.

McCullogh is a professed unbeliever in the truth of the Christian account; yet he describes it with wit and warmth, as well as a watchmaker's love of detail. He claims not to believe in Christ, yet can't leave alone the story of his followers, which he recognises is a story not all explicable to human minds. The beguiling result is a chequered story viewed in dappled light. A humane sceptic who can appreciate farce and isn't fazed by mystery is good company. My favourite, and for me the definitive, story-so-far of the Christian movement.

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