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RECENT CHURCH HISTORY -- A SURVEY.

The Church in the Early Middle Ages. G.R. Evans. I.B. Tauris. [pounds sterling]19.50. xxiv + 202 pages. ISBN 978-1-84511-150-2. The Church in the Modern Age. Jeremy Morris.I.B. Tauris. [pounds sterling]19.50. xxxi + 224 pages. ISBN 978-1-84511-317-9. The Cambridge History of Christianity. Volume 2: Constantine to c. 600. Augustine Casiday and Frederick W. Norris, editors. Cambridge University Press. [pounds sterling]100.00 (US$195.00). xx + 758 pages. ISBN 978-0-521-81244-3. The Cambridge History of Christianity. Volume 6: Reform and Expansion 1500-1660. R. Po-Chia Hsia, editor. Cambridge University Press. [pounds sterling]100.00 (US$195.00). xxi + 749 pages. ISBN 978-0-521-81162-0. Dante and the Church: Literary and Historical Essays. Paolo Acquaviva and Jennifer Petrie, editors. Four Courts Press. [pounds sterling]50.00. 224 pages. ISBN 978-1-84682-026-7.

As Professor Evans writes in her Preface, the period from about 600 to about 1300 was decisive in the formation of Christian doctrine. It was also decisive in creating the 'institutional' Church that survived till the Reformation split it apart. It was decisive in its building programmes, leaving behind the basis of Europe's parochial buildings, monasteries and great cathedrals. Not surprisingly, and not inaccurately, G.R. Evans describes the Church as a 'sophisticated ecclesiastical "empire"'. This 'empire' had to cope first with pagans, then with a differing view of ecclesial authority from Eastern Christians, and then with the threat from Mohammed and his followers. How the Church coped and how it developed into the vast, complicated and powerful body it had become by 1300 are the questions answered in this very nicely written survey history. It is scholarly in its foundations without ever losing the narrative 'thrust'. The Church emerged as 'the driving force of civilization' in every aspect of European life and preserved the best not just of the Patristic period but of the Classical civilisation into which Christianity had been born.

In The Church in the Modern Age, Mr Morris writes the final volume in the I.B. Tauris History of the Christian Church. He makes an important point when he writes that part of the modern Church's dilemma is its 'loss of contact with the past on the part of those taking a stand on one side or another' of current debates. The social, let alone political, dominance described by Prof. Evans, has virtually disappeared in the Western world or at least in Britain and Europe. The power of the 'Religious Right' in the US shows that the Christian Church, or at least one manifestation of it, is still a force there. Mr Morris touches on all the great events of the 'modern era'-the loss of empire, the rise and fall of Communism, the erosion of Christianity in Europe and so on. However his over-riding aim has been to give readers, particularly those seeking an introduction to the subject, a narrative framework on which to present the important changes and developments within world Christianity since 1914. He has amassed a wide range of facts and his approach is balanced and fair. (One disagrees with his dismissal of fears of the Church of England's priesthood becoming 'feminised'. Recent statistical projections show this to be exactly what is happening.) He argues throughout that statistics, however valuable, must be used with the greatest of cares and that projections into the future remain, at heart, only guesses.

The two new releases in Cambridge's History of Christianity series cover two of the most formative and critical periods in the Church's history. The first volume covers what the editors call 'the "golden age" of patristic Christianity' when the Faith, made legally acceptable by Constantine, grew. Within that growth one had both the development of the idea of 'the Church' and of regional churches with varying interpretations and practices. It is right to describe the religion's growth as a 'transformation' but it was a multi-layered one which changed as the Empire changed. There were, in short, a variety of 'Christianities'. This many-faceted transformation is discussed in twenty-nine separate essays grouped into four parts. The first part looks at regional developments: Western, Germanic and Celtic, Greek, and finally, Early Asian and East African. The second part looks at the struggles between the Faith and other religions including Jews, pagans (divided into four geographic areas), and Manichaeans. There are also essays on the intellectual debate between Christians and pagans and, most interestingly, an essay by Rebecca Lyman on the development of the idea of heresy. The third part looks at the growth of a specifically Christian culture and society: the relation with classical literature, the role of bishops, synods, councils and church law and, the expanding role of the Church in politics. The final part looks at a wide range of Christian beliefs and practices: the Trinity, Christology, sin and salvation, saints, pastoral care, sexual teaching, the liturgy, scripture and so on. The range of topics is an indication of the volume's rich pickings.

The second volume, on the period from 1500 to 1660, looks at a period riven with controversy, disruption, war and bloodshed. The editor is keen not just to give a balanced view of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic response but to discuss themes that 'transcend the Protestant-Catholic divide' and to discuss Christianity outside divided Europe. This is an admirable approach. The book's sections on the Protestant challenge first discuss Luther and Lutheranism and then turn to the 'second Reformation', i.e. Zwingli and the Reformation south of the Empire and Geneva along with a look at Reformed theology and Protestant growth. Next come four essays on 'Catholic Renewal'--Trent, new religious orders for men and women and the development of the cult of saints. There are then five essays on attempts to resolve conflicts as well as to extirpate 'heresy' along with a most useful essay on Western Christianity's relations with Orthodoxy during this period, an aspect often overlooked. After this we have seven essays on the wider, social aspects: the visual arts, ritual, music, demonology, science, changes in clerical life and 'women and religious change'. Finally, to meet the editor's desire for a wider view, there are five essays on relations with other religions: Judaism, Andean Christianities, Mohammedism, the Chinese and, finally, Hinduism and Buddhism. Like the earlier version in this excellent series, we have here the events of this period discussed by scholars using the most up-to-date knowledge along with some innovative and challenging angles so often ignored by earlier discussions.

Our final title is also a collection, Dante and the Church: Literary and Historical Essays. Dante's importance in Christian literary history cannot be overstated but his views of the Church have also 'exercised scholars since the time of the early commentators'. The Reformation only added to the fun. The seven incisive essays included here were first delivered as lectures in University College, Dublin in 2001-2 and give us some of the latest thinking on the poet and his works. They touch on a wide range of topics: Dante's relations with Boniface VIII and the Jubilee; his treatment of the Franciscans; a further look at Boniface VIII, Dante and Jacopone da Todi; Dante's treatment of Purgatory; representations of the Church in the 'Heaven of the Sun'; a most interesting discussion of Dante's views of the Church and political thought in Monarchia; and, finally, how people have misread clerical and civic duty in Inferno XXIII.

Dr Munson is the Literary Editor of Contemporary Review and the author of various articles on church history and of The Nonconformists: In Search of a Lost Culture.
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Author:Munson, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Words:1251
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