If I had paid for this book, I would demand my money back. Not that it is in itself a bad book - parts of it are excellent - but it is not what its title proclaims. Christianity is a religion, a body of doctrine and the practices deriving from it, and it cannot be introduced without reference to such major themes as creation, redemption, sanctification, faith, judgment, salvation and eternal life. Yet not one of those words appears in the index. Even God gets only six entries in more than 400 pages, and four of those are to "God, female characterisations ascribed to".
The writing is on the wall from the start: Linda Woodhead tells us that for the past 12 years she has "studied and written about Christianity from within a faculty of social sciences in a university with a secular constitution". Of course. This introduction is not theology, but sociology; not an exposition of religion, but a history of its institutions and power structures. In other words, it is not an introduction to Christianity itself but, in the author's own words, "about Christianity's rise to power and its growth over two millennia (and) about Christianity's loss of influence in modern times".
As such, it is a very good read. The first half traces the rise of the Eastern and Western churches from marginal to central status, noting how the Roman Catholic Church allied itself with secular powers so that bishops, emperors and kings all benefited from the monarchical model of divine authority filtering down through the structures of Church and state to direct the lives of ordinary people. The secular arm had the sanction of military might; the Church had - and increasingly exercised - "the power of the keys", the right to grant or withhold forgiveness of sins upon Earth.
In England, the year 1215 is remembered chiefly for Magna Carta, but while King John was being forced to yield ground to the barons, Pope Innocent III was strengthening the Church's grip on the hearts and minds of all Europeans through the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council. Church attendance became compulsory, and every adult had to confess his or her sins to a priest at least once a year. Failure to comply denied you Communion in life and Christian burial in death.
There is a feminist subplot to Woodhead's main themes of power and influence. Unexpectedly, perhaps, she portrays the late Middle Ages as a time when "the feminine had never been more visible in Christianity". This claim is based on the popularity of Marian pilgrim sites such as Walsingham and the often daring devotional writings of women such as Mechtild of Magdeburg and Julian of Norwich, though one suspects these authors were less acclaimed then than they are now.
Against this background, the 16th-century Protestant Reformation is presented, in part, as a patriachal backlash, with its abolition of shrines and the emphasis on the Bible alone for spiritual sustenance. More fundamentally, the Reformation reflected and contributed to a shift in social and economic power in Europe.
The post-Reformation period has seen a rise in "confessional" religion, with branches of Christianity in permanent competition. Woodhead associates this situation with a surprising re-emphasis by Christians on a top-down, divinely sanctioned authority model, typical of a much earlier period, which has put all the churches today broadly on the political right.
Without this claim to power from on high, she concludes, Christianity would have little distinctive to offer in this democratic age.
Anthony Freeman is honorary assistant priest at Crediton Parish Church.
An Introduction to Christianity
Author - Linda Woodhead
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 437
Price - £45.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 521 45445 X and 78655 X