Tag Archives: World History

And Now For Something Completely Different. . .

30 Aug

Its August, a time (normally) for summer vacations and a slow news cycle. Not so this year, with a healthcare debate, town hall revolts, and the death of Ted Kennedy. I tire of the political brinkmanship and Hitlerisms. I mourn (figuratively, not literally) for Uncle Teddy, because he seems an irreplaceable loss. I may disagree with 90% of his politics, but TMK was principled and eloquent, a thinker and a patriot. I would take 50 of him in the Senate as opposed to 1 Tom Delay, and I’m on Delay’s team. It is a passing of an era, and there is a decided lack of statesmen left like him on either side. John McCain said after the 2008 campaign he would return to the Senate and be the Republican’s Lion. Disappointingly, that hasn’t happened. But more on that later.

So instead of another retread post of today’s national (Birfer Bad! Healthcare Good!) or local (where is Mickey Kearns?) politics, here is something completely different.

Dr. Philip Jenkins of Penn State has written a fascinating book: The Lost History of Christianity. You do not have to do be Christian, or particularly religious, to be entranced by history most of the world has forgotten.

Modern society, fast paced and in a constant state of flux, tends to lack introspection or perspective. Ironically, in a world where things constantly “change,” most of the world looks at the current situation today as “how its always been.” This is certainly true for the great religions of the world: Europe is (or was) Christian, the Middle East and South East Asia are Muslim, India is Hindu, etc. Where those areas intersect, war happens.

Jenkins throws that model on its head. There have been a spate of semi-popular books lately, like 1491 by Charles Mann, that seek to show you how “everything you thought you knew was wrong.” What Mann did for Native Americans, Jenkins has done for the spread of Christianity. Its not that Europe was the center of the Christian world. Its that it is the only piece left.

Jerusalem As the Center

Jenkins details how Christianity spread across the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and into China in the 600 years between the death of Jesus and the birth of Mohammed. Large Christian centers of learning were established not just in Carthage and Antioch, but Mosul, Basra, Herat (in modern Afghanistan) and Tangut (Tibet). Christians served as viziers and counselors to Arab sultans. Christian bishops debated Buddhism with Chinese mystics. There is even evidence that Nestorian hymn books served as the basis for some passages in the Koran. In short, for 1200 years, Europe was not the center of the Christian world, but a backwater.

What changed? The Crusades, a reaction to the Arab conquest of the Holy Land, may have been bad on Europe, but was a disaster for the Christians native to the area. The Mongols, prior to their thirteenth and fourteenth century conquests, were a mix of Muslims and Christians. But when they converted fully to Islam, Christians under their reign fared badly. When the Ottoman Turks consolidated their empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Christians were also rounded up and killed (partially as a reaction to threats from Russia and Western Europe – Christians were spies or worse). Of course, Muslims were not the only threat: the Catholic Church’s missionaries of the seventeenth century often tried to “convert” the Christians they found in Asia.

Despite all those challenges, tens of millions of Christians remained in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia in 1900. Copts, Chaldeans, Maronites, Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Syrians and Nestorians still retained enclaves. Remarkably, what truly made those areas nearly entirely Muslim, as we know them today, are actions taken in the last 100 years. The Turks massacred the Armenians in 1915 and Greek Orthodox in 1922, a genocide that still causes significant political rancor today when mentioned. The British formed the Iraqi state just in time for the killing of Assyrians and Chaldeans in 1933. The French formed Lebanon as a refuge for the Maronites, and we all know how that has turned out. In a final bit of under-reporting, the American invasion of Iraq has been devastating to the few Chaldeans still remaining in Iraq, with 80% – 90% of their population now dead or migrated from that country. 

Through all of this ugly history Jenkins remains fair, unbiased, and even handed; quite an accomplishment. He presents few heroes or saints in his tale of the faithful killing in the name of their religion. If you enjoy upsetting your worldview, and learning some history you probably missed in school, its worth a read.