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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Lost History of Christianity : The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia----and How It Died


Philip Jenkins has been writing about World Christianity for some time now and his message is both grim and encouraging. The Western “heartland” of Christianity (Europe and North America) is fading and dying while at the same time the faith of Jesus Christ is exploding in the Southern Hemisphere and East Asia. In his newest offering Jenkins chronicles the forgotten history of Christianity in what we call today the Middle-East. The History of Eastern Christianity is not so much forgotten as it has just been neglected in favor of the Western spiritual history which was built on the ruins of the Roman Empire and transformed a bunch of barbarian tribes into the Christendom which became the nations of Europe. But concurrent with the Western story is the equally interesting story of how Christianity flourished in places like Persia, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, Syria, Turkey, Arabia, Egypt and North Africa. These groups sent missionaries to places like China and India, long before the Jesuits and other western missionaries arrived. In terms of Bible translation and monasteries, the East was far ahead of Europe by every metric. It was a golden age of the Church where Christianity flourished in terms of numbers, influence, and architecture. Which begs the question, if things were so good, why has Christianity all but vanished in the Middle East in favor of Islam? There were a multitude of factors all related to the rise of Islam, but equally so there were demographic and political factors that also played into the long decline of the Christian community. In the case of North Africa, Christianity largely disappeared because it was the religion of expatriot Romans who fled when the region came under Muslim control. In many cases people converted to Islam not by force, but because they saw it as a new revelation from God and in its early years Muslim doctrine had a greater kinship to Judeo-Christian thought. I think the most sobering lesson Jenkins brings out in the book is that the Church of the East relied too heavily on its political alliances and married its liturgical forms to a prosperous economy that fell out underneath them. As most of us know friends and money can disappear in a night, but the mistake the Eastern church made was not acknowledging this and adjusting to the new reality they found themselves in. This is something we in the Western church of today would be wise to consider. Our reality has changed but to change with it seems to be a task we may be putting off for a day when it is too late.