Blunder and enlightening

The Illustrated Guide to the Bible - A History of Christianity
December 15, 1995

Ignorance poses the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity. There is the crass ignorance of a frighteningly large number of people who do not even know the significance of Good Friday and Easter. There is the muddled ignorance of those who have absorbed some popular religious mythology without any real idea of its meaning or location in history. And at the other end of the scale, there is the hard-edged ignorance of those who are wedded to a single, narrow tradition and are unwilling to look beyond it.

When two distinguished theologians independently move into coffee-table format there is clearly some recognition of a gulf to be bridged. I am afraid these two books will not have much to say to those suffering from crass ignorance, but others will find a great deal to enlighten them. Neither book is a mere popularisation, but both are theologically interesting in their own right and deserve wide readership.

They are lavishly illustrated. Owen Chadwick's A History of Christianity has the larger and more splendid pictures. Indeed one of the aims of the book is to demonstrate the developing expression of Christians in art and architecture. In both books the pictures are well integrated with the text, and J. R. Porter's The Illustrated Guide to the Bible has some particularly helpful maps as well as many examples of illuminated manuscripts.

Chadwick's history is not quite what the title might lead one to expect. Instead of a conventional history centred on events, dates and persons, he presents a series of vignettes, almost in some instances meditations, on the growth of Christian culture. The book aims to convey the feel of Christian ideas and institutions and worship and, though divided into the six major chronological sections, moves freely across the centuries and the continents. A paragraph on bull fighting gives the general flavour: "The Moors of North Africa had the sport of fighting with bulls. When they conquered Spain they brought it with them and held fights in the old half-ruined circuses the Romans had left; and so it became the sport of Spain until the coming of football."

A comment on 16th-century Latin America encapsulates a theme that runs through the book. "The people had the outward signs of being faithful Catholics, though they still kept many of the old Indian ways of faith I The continent looked wonderfully Christian." Faith, whatever and however it was expressed, never entered a vacuum. Just as Christianity was profoundly Jewish in its beginnings, so in every age and culture it has drawn on other faiths, customs and philosophies and has tried, consciously or unconsciously, to build on what has felt natural to the people concerned.

Pagan prayers at many little shrines transmuted without too much difficulty into veneration at the shrines of martyrs. Bells were originally a Celtic usage and valued in the first instance as a protection against lightning and fire. The first real contacts with eastern religions were made possible through mutual respect for science and mathematics. The question then raised about how far the rituals and concepts of another faith could become proper vehicles for the Gospel are with us still.

Despite the fact that in the earliest centuries Christians showed curiously little interest in history, Christianity must stand or fall on its historical record and must face the truth that much of it is a catalogue of human sin, error and muddle. Self-satisfied certainty and claims to belong to the only authentic tradition are symptoms of historical blindness. Yet it is also true that the energy, devotion, creativity and goodness Christian faith has released, and the natural instincts and experiences it has hallowed, give hints of "the something more" that lies behind this story that has shaped our world so profoundly. It is part of Chadwick's achievement that in a wry and critical retelling of the story that exposes most of the warts there still shines through an underlying awareness that people living by it have genuinely been grappling with the eternal in the midst of time, and with purpose in the midst of chaos.

Porter's book presupposes a more dedicated readership. Like Chadwick he writes from a critical perspective that subtly reveals how the Bible itself arose out of the same mixture of human folly, opportunism, inspiration and reappropriation of ideas that was later to shape the history of the church.

The text is denser than Chadwick's and mostly consists of a paraphrase of the main biblical writings with interspersed comments and notes. It is possible to read it through without having to refer continually to the text of the Bible itself, but it could also be used for more detailed study, Bible in hand. There are useful summaries that give something of the historical and cultural background. What it lacks in comparison with Chadwick's book are the little asides that can suddenly illuminate some point of contemporary significance. It seems odd, for instance, to single out the obscure reference to "not boiling a kid in its mother's milk" in Exodus 23:19 simply to observe that it might be directed against some Canaanite rite, while not mentioning that it subsequently formed a cornerstone of Jewish dietary laws requiring a total separation between meals containing meat and those containing milk. There are some odd imbalances too. Two pages devoted to the three wise men contrast with half a page for Second Isaiah.

Will these books help to dispel ignorance? They are certainly attractive enough to excite the attention of those who might not normally pick up a theological work. They are also strikingly different from the depressingly familiar genre of popular Christian apologetics that trumpets certainties in realms where few exist. They are best described as highly accessible works of scholarship that should encourage a mature faith without belabouring their readers, and may help to set it within a thoroughly human context where the need for some vision transcending this world has become increasingly obvious.

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Lord Habgood recently retired from the archbishopric of York.

The Illustrated Guide to the Bible

Author - J. R. Porter
ISBN - 019 211660 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 208

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