I find Christianity absolutely fascinating. Not in a patronising ‘look at those poor deluded fools and their strange beliefs’ kind of way, but because, to me, the whole thing seems so exotic, complex, oscillating, old, violent, important, influential, impassioned, bizarre. And as with anything so deep-rooted and wide-ranging, the history of the Christian peoples holds a great deal that resonates with our troubled times.
Christianity pervades every corner of art, literature, cinema, politics, life, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been both mystified and intrigued by the arcane people, events and ideas that populate the religion’s history. Augustine of Hippo. The Nicene Creed. Antioch and Tarsus. Heresy, apologists, gnosticism. What do these things mean?
Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity triumphantly succeeds in bringing the swirling, shifting story of Christian worship to life. It’s a vast, scholarly book, but completely gripping. Frequently funny – he has a lot of material to work with, let’s face it, these fellas have done some odd stuff – he manages to chart the interdependencies and sheer happenstance that explain Christianity’s evolution in a way that makes it comprehensible, if not always understandable.
In one chapter MacCulloch explains how, in the early centuries of Christianity, once communities of Christians had begun to grow to a size such that they could no longer be dismissed as just another marginal cult, they did little to endear themselves to their non-believing neighbours.
This was not because they lived austere lifestyles which made a painful contrast to a world of debauchery and luxury around them; [...] Nor was it because they indulged in much public proclamation of systematic soliciting of converts, in the manner of modern Evangelicals. [...] What really offended was the opposite: Christian secretiveness and obstinate separation into their own world.
They did this because they were convinced of the falsity of the other religions that were all around them, and were worried about their own faith being ‘polluted’ by others’ beliefs and observances. One of the particularly noticeable manifestations of separation was refusal to use public baths, which as MacCulloch rather coyly puts it may have meant that ‘Christians smelled less sweet than their non-Christian neighbours’. But, paradoxically, this insularity was one of the things that helped maintain a steady stream of converts: a kind of ‘maybe they’re keeping whatever they have to themselves because it’s so good’ effect, you might say.
The other factor that made Christianity so successful in attracting new adherents was the way they looked after their own, including the poor. As strange as this may seem today, one of the most important aspects of this community caring was providing a decent burial service for everyone – MacCulloch points out that this was a really big deal in the ancient world. And in the early days a bishop got no more pomp or privilege than a pauper when it came to being laid to rest.
Which brings us back to the world we live in today. The church is mentioned less frequently than social enterprises, mutuals and charities as an agent of the Big Society (although of course many charities are backed by organised religion). However religious individual politicians may be there’s still – usually – a right and proper aversion to mixing god and politics.
But with state funding falling away by the minute, and the church still the owner of valuable assets, it’s not hard to imagine that its role in supporting those left behind by the spending cuts will grow. On the one hand this may not be a bad thing: better to be the recipient of kind Christian charity than out on the streets. It would not be a good thing, however, if this version of the Big Society brought with it an increase in insularity, with small communities (whether religious or not, actually) looking after their own at the expense of linking with others.
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