Book Review: A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins

A Short History of Christianity is a fast-paced excursion through 2,000 years of Christian history. Written by British scholar Stephen Tomkins (Ph.D. London School of Theology), this book is more than a mere survey. It is a breathless flurry of panoramic history which offers fascinating minute detail in many situations, and glosses over or simply ignores key characters and issues in others. As the author points out, “We’re covering a decade a page, what did you expect” (p. 8)? He does, however, acknowledge that he has certain prejudices and interests which influence his decisions about what to include and omit.   

What is most telling are the themes that emerge in his treatment of Christian history. In most cases, I think he gets it right, although he seems slanted toward a negative retelling, highlighting the worst of the worst of what transpired. Though sobering, perhaps that is not such a bad thing. For starters, it is not as much of an idealistic story as most Christian might believe. A lot of bad behavior occurred. Murders. Genocide. Torture. Burnings (people at first, books later on after the invention of the printing press). Stuff like that. And it was about power, sex, and money. Well, not always publically. At various times and to varying degrees it was publically about heresy, authority, and liberty to worship according to one’s conscience. Politics mingled with church authority, sometimes at odds, other times in union. It was never pretty. It is never pretty.

A Short History of Christianity is not for the idealistic faint of heart.  I hope that my readers consider reading it simply to become educated about what has happened in history with a view toward not repeating the attitudes which lead to similarly destructive behaviors (even if more sedate and sanitized by 21st century standards of conduct). In recent decades there have been scandals related to sex, money and power. These have been revealed both in Roman Catholic and Evangelical traditions, as well as in mainline groups. They are nothing new. Yet, we in ordained leadership rarely seem to learn from our errors. That is, if history is any indication. This book can help startle us into repentance. For my part, I am heart-broken, but profoundly hopeful that new generations of authentic believers will live obediently to Christ throughout the nations as witnesses to his transformative power and saving hope.

In order to satiate the hypercontrolling rules of the FCC, I hereby declare that I purchased my copy of this book with my own funds.

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