Sunday, October 23, 2016

Book Review: A Short History of Christianity

Title: A Short History of Christianity

Author: Martin E. Marty

Author's web site:

Date: 1987

Publisher: Fortress

ISBN: 0-8006-1944-7

Length: 324 pages plus index

Quote: “I aim to stand at the distance which will make possible a book of less than four hundred pages.”

That’s what’s to love and what’s to hate about this book. Any “short history” that summarizes two thousand years in less than four hundred pages is by definition sketchy, leaving most of the interesting stories out.

Marty really tries, in this book, at least to touch all the bases as he dashes through the history of Christianity. Because U.S. citizens of my generation generally received such a pathetic grounding in world history—most of us got ten or twelve years of “social studies” blather with, if we persisted, maybe a one-term summary of the history of Western Europe and an occasional mention that Russia, China, Arabia, and Africa were known to exist before the year 1800—Marty may even be providing fresh new facts in his discussion of the Eastern Church, but he doesn’t discuss it much: “the weight of the account will again fall Westward, but we…balance this…with occasional Eastern prospects.”

John Hus gets a paragraph. Martin Luther gets a short chapter. The formation of a Church of England gets six pages, which, in view of its personal and political rather than theological origins, may be all that or more than it deserves. The formation of a Church of Scotland gets two paragraphs; if you happen to be a Presbyterian, you must remember to look up “Knox” rather than “Presbyterian” in the index, to find those. German Anabaptists get cursory, though respectful, mention here and there. “Holiness Movements” and the Great Awakening are briefly and blurrily noted under the general heading of Methodism, in two separate passages. Neither of those passages bothers to inform anyone who might not have already known that Shakers were different from Quakers; that Mormons (who don’t consider themselves part of the Protestant tradition) were a completely different group that formed, to some extent, in active competition with Seventh-Day Adventists (who do); that self-described “Holiness churches” still exist today. Present-time Apostolic, Pentecostal, or Holiness churches are lumped together with the “fundamentalist”  and “evangelical” Protestant movements.

In short, if you are a Protestant, what can be said about Marty’s discussion of your church is that he seems to be trying to write as an equally unsympathetic outsider looking in on the history of yours and all the other Protestant churches. His seems to be a typical Catholic view of Christianity as being more of a social/political movement that needs to emphasize “unity” to accumulate wealth and power, rather than a spiritual practice, a disciplined individual pursuit of truth.

As a first textbook for college classes studying the history of Christianity as an influence on social/political history, A Short History of Christianity is probably adequate: it presents a reasonably balanced and sequential arrangement of historical data, enough for the average undergraduate to absorb in three or four months.

As a book for Christians seeking historical perspective in understanding themselves, as groups…I wonder whether this book should be read together with Ellen White’s Great Controversy. The coldblooded quality of Marty’s history seems to me to need to be balanced by the feverish quality of White’s, because, although the history of Christianity needs to be studied in a detached historical way, this subject ought also to rouse Christians to a bit of fervor.

Marty is still alive and writing--eight books, plus many short writings, just since 1998!--so A Short History of Christianity is a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here, $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to either address at the very bottom of the screen, we'll send $1 per copy to Marty or a charity of his choice. (Yes, of course his favorite charity probably is not ours. Lots of writers' favorite charities are different from ours. This web site is about supporting writers.)