History Of Christianity Neglects Human Element

December 23, 1990|By JIM CASTELLI

The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity.

Edited by John McManners.

Oxford University.

724 pages. $39.95; $45 after Jan. 1.

Oxford University Press describes its illustrated history of Christianity as "the most authoritative general history of Christianity ever published." It says, "The story of Christianity -- from its origins to the present day -- has never been so magnificently or comprehensively told."

Award-winning historian John McManners edited the volume, which is organized as a series of essaylike chapters written by a variety of scholars, most from Oxford.

Authoritative it may well be; comprehensive it certainly is. It begins with an account of the earliest Christians and contains a postscript noting the opening up of the churches in Eastern Europe after the mostly peaceful revolutions of 1989.

But "magnificently told" it is not.

On first glance, this looks like a coffee-table book. But a slightly closer look reveals that "The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity" is, in fact, a college textbook. (There are clues; the review copy includes a card asking readers in what grade level they intend to use the book).

As a textbook, the "Illustrated History" recalls some reviews of American history and civics texts published in the mid-1980s by educational and public interest groups. While those reviews sometimes differed in their evaluation of the texts' content, they tended to agree that they were pretty much unreadable.

That's certainly the case with this book. At one level, it is physically unreadable. It's full of pages of dense, unbroken text; a paragraph can fill almost a whole page. At another level, the writing itself is, for the most part, intellectually dense as well.

nTC This is a book that no college student should approach unless armed with a new pen, a couple of highlighters and a pot of fresh coffee.

The book's very comprehensiveness is largely responsible for its being so uninviting. For example, a key part of the book consists of chapters on the history of Christianity from 1800 to the present in Great Britain and Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe. But each chapter contains only about 30 to 40 pages, including illustrations -- that's about five years per page, too little space to allow the kind of detail that makes history come alive.

Reading "The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity" is a lot like looking at pictures of the Earth taken from space. It looks beautiful, and you can make out some clouds, oceans and

continents, but you have no idea what it looks like on the ground, or whether anyone really lives there.

Early on, the book makes the point that the survival of Christianity is what Mr. McManners calls "an astonishing success story." It's a story that stems from the faith and sacrifices of people, and it is people that are missing from this history -- at least from the text. In fact, the dissonance between the pictures and text in the "Illustrated History" is breathtaking.

The illustrations offer a broad and often moving panorama of the history of Christianity. They show the magnificent art and architecture inspired by faith -- the Durham Cathedral, the vibrancy of African and Latin American paintings and sculpture, the religious art of the Middle Ages.

In the sections on the modern age, there are photographs of people whose Christianity made a difference -- Archbishop Oscar Romero; Dorothy Day; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp; scores of nameless Europeans, Americans, Latin Americans, Africans and Asians celebrating their faith.

But people are missing from the text. When American historian Martin Marty begins the section on North America with a simple quote -- former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas' comment that "We are a religious people" -- it stands out dramatically because there are so few quotes in the book.

And, frankly, not everything in this "authoritative" book deserves to go unchallenged. There is a condescending attitude toward America by some of the authors who dismiss the American privatization of religion, implying that Christianity is more vital in other countries -- Britain, for example.

The "Illustrated History" does have some good points. The section on Christianity and Islam is good, as is the section on Christians during World War II. The book provides an important reminder that Christianity is not limited to the Christians in our own country, but is growing in size and influence in diverse cultures all over the world.

But, as a textbook, the "Illustrated History" is a good coffee-table book.

Mr. Castelli, an Evening Sun columnist, is co-author with George Gallup Jr. of "The People's Religion: American Faith in the '90s" (Macmillan).

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