This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Lost History of Christianity

(Forgive me if this is posted twice.  Some kind of error....)

Philip Jenkins' new book, The Lost History of Christianity, chronicles much of the history of the church in Asia.  It is sobering because it tells a story of a very long decline of what was once a rich and vibrant tradition.  It reminded me of William Dalrymple's book, From the Holy Mountain, which is a tour of dying Christian cultures in west Asia.

As recently as a hundred years ago, there were strong Christian communities in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.  But now they are all but dead, due to a variety of causes.  These range from outright genocide, as with the Armenians in 1915, to systematic persecution as a result of wars, as in Iraq in the last decade.

In its prime, Christianity had missions, churches, and even metropolitan sees all the way into central China.  There were bishops in Tibet and India.  Most of these were of the non-Chalcedonian "Oriental Orthodox" traditions, to which little attention was paid by European scholars and ecclesiastics.  But these missions were strong, had venerable roots in the Middle Eastern cradle of Christianity, and constituted the majority of Christians in the world when evangelization in Europe had hardly begun.   

First, the book calls into question Tertullian's famous motto, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  In the cases of these churches the blood of the martyrs didn't buy them a future.  It appears to have swirled down the drain of extinction.  

Second, the reasons for the long, slow decline have a strong political component.  Christian communities were often identified with foreign powers, which incurred the hostility of the local States.  China and Japan expelled Christians for this reason.  Christians made alliances with the invading Mongols, which sparked a harsh reaction from their Islamic host States.  Many Christians were identified with Byzantium or Rome or European powers, and were oppressed as potential traitors in places where these were considered the enemy.

This identification with particular States and empires ought to give us pause.  Yes, it feels good to have the sponsorship of secular powers... but when these powers fall or lose influence, it leave the church vulnerable to attack by the ascendant adversaries of these powers.  

This is not an idle question even today.  To identify the church with any particular State or political system is extremely dangerous, and tends to backfire over time.  We need to be careful about making sure the church relates to its context and becomes indigenous, and is not simply the expression of imperialism.   

Finally, while Christianity may formerly die out in a particular place, its echoes and influences remain in the culture in different ways.  

The area in question, stretching from Egypt to China, is largely Islamic today.  On the one hand, Islam was initially cordial to Christians.  But intermittent and systematic persecution, sometimes extremely harsh, gradually wore down the churches.  More and more adherents were lost to conversion, emigration, or just plain slaughter.  (And when they had the means, Christians were not much more tolerant of Islam, it must be said.)

We American Christians do not view the world from the perspective of this kind of loss and defeat.  It is easy to talk about what an advance it is when aboriginal religions are overcome by a powerful Christianity.  But what about when Christianity is slowly ground into dust and replaced by another faith?

Christians from the Middle East are now becoming our neighbors.  Perhaps we can learn from them.  Often diaspora looks like disaster, but eventually may become the seed for new growth.  (Ask the Dalai Lama or Russian Orthodox.  See Acts 8:1b & 4.)

But I am reminded to keep in our consciousness the words of the Confession of 1967: "The church that identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Jesus Christ and betrays its calling" (9.45).  

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