When I first thumbed through my Christmas-gifted copy of Nick Page’s book (2013, available here), I wondered what perspective the writer was coming from. It wasn’t immediately obvious whether he was a skeptic aiming to debunk Christianity based on the sins of the church, or whether it was a tongue-in-cheek, in-house reckoning of Christian history with the goal of bringing it a bit more down to earth. It turns out, I think, to be somewhat of a mix, as indeed the subtitle indicates: “a history of 2000 years of Saints, Sinners, Idiots and Divinely-inspired Troublemakers.” In an engaging and often hilarious style, Page writes from within the church, but certainly attempts to pen a sobering exposé of the church’s failures, bringing figures to light that have enjoyed too little recognition for their contributions to “true Christianity.” He also aims to form a picture of a simple faith that endures in the unsung, heroic masses despite the frequent moral corruption of the upper echelons of Church leadership.
Covering the period from the Resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem to the events of September 11th 2001 in New York City, Page undertakes what would be a mammoth task for any historian in trying to cover the incredibly long and diverse history of an incredibly varied and global movement. However, in order to focus somewhat, Page limits himself to the history of Christianity in the Mediterranean world and, largely, the Western European church. Spanning 429 pages, there is an impressive amount of material, offering a broad sketch that aims to deal with each period relatively equally rather than zooming in on typically emphasised issues and figures.
Page’s humorous style is the most attractive facet of the work. It’s not often I physically laugh out loud while reading works of history. The muted, dry tone of delivery leads to innumerable quote-worthy passages, such as this one about attitudes to sex:
“By the Middle Ages, there was hardly any legitimate opportunity for a bit of ‘it’. Around 585 the church rules that there should be neither rumpy nor pumpy for the forty day before Christmas. Nor for forty days before Easter. Nor the eight days after Pentecost. Nor on the nights before the great feast days of the church. Nor on Sundays. Or Wednesdays. Or Fridays. And not for thirty days after your wife gave birth to a boy, or forty days if she gave birth to a girl. Nor five days before Communion. By my calculations that means Christians of this period were allowed sex on second Thursdays in October.”
But although Page makes you laugh, the history he presents is coherent and brings to life the interconnectedness of traditions, events and beliefs. It is a fascinating read, making entertaining and enlightening work out of a genre that is often too dense except for serious study. By adopting a no-nonsense approach that refuses to explain away former evils, the author deftly straddles two audiences. Skeptics will learn that though the saints are indeed sinful, their faith and contributions to modern values highlight a robust underlying bedrock of truth at the core of Christianity. Committed Christians, on the other hand, will see that those same saints are more human and sinful than often portrayed and certainly unworthy as objects of hagiographic worship. But for either reader, what stands out is the simplicity and strength of Christ-centred faith that shines through the shortcomings. For Page, the Church was deeply corrupted by gaining its “official” status and joining hands with power. But Christ stands against the wiles of earthly power politics and rules a kingdom of the heart. The Church has often coerced the weak and excluded the undesirable. But Christ stands with the poor, downtrodden and oppressed. The Church has too often trusted in dead rituals and decaying relics. But Christ is the living presence behind the charade.
I sympathise with Page’s outlook and goals in this book. When I was thrown into a crisis of faith studying colonial history at UCL and learning of the many horrors committed in Christ’s name, it was only the purity and centrality of Jesus Christ that drew me back. If a person’s faith is in anything but Christ, whether the Church, or leaders, or virtue, it is to be pitied. So hopefully, for many readers, this work can help knock down the whitewashed edifices that often vie for our worship, and expose the true rock that faith must be founded on.
But I do think there are some shortcomings here that deserve attention. Firstly, it is tantalising to have absolutely no indication of sources or biographical information on the author. It left me as a reader not knowing how much stock to place in some of the conclusions that were put forward on topics that I know to be controversial. What qualifies Page to make the strong statements that he does? What does he base them on? It’s hard to know and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to glean such information. This is a main gripe for me on this book.
Secondly, while I appreciate that a work of this kind cannot be as detailed as might be desired at points, I wonder whether an excessive zeal for debunking the myth of “Great Men” has at times led Page into some questionable portrayals of key figures. While it is true that all giants have clay feet, and we should beware of glossing over our heroes’ humanity, I can’t help but feel that Page takes relish in knocking influential leaders down a peg or three, thus leading him at times to verge on misinterpretation and blithe dismissal of their ideas. While notable throughout the book, this is particularly true of Reformation figures. John Calvin, for instance, he characterises as a “fundamentally…unlikeable and cold human being” (p. 321). Luther was a “foul-mouthed, anti-Semitic bigot who would dissemble for the cause and who fell out with virtually all his friends” (p.323).
As a corollary to this, it seems Page falls somewhat into the post-modern trap of assuming that all orthodox theology, like history, is just the beliefs of the ‘winners.’ Heretics, therefore, seem to be portrayed simply as just misunderstood, left-field thinkers. While there is much to be said for the sincerity and good intentions of many that came to be known as heretics, and it was evil that some of these went to the stake (McGrath’s Heresy is good on this), Page does not sufficiently deal with why their beliefs were condemned. While some disputes were trivial and needlessly divisive, many others that Page glides over were fundamental to the nature of the gospel and do not deserve to be portrayed as unimportant or subjective. The way that ancient polemicist wrote about those condemned is undoubtedly harsh, especially to modern ears. But it is important to highlight that the early Church only condemned such beliefs after realising that their implications ended up denying the core of the gospel, most often the divinity and humanity of Christ.
Lastly, although Page’s praise of the simple faith of the unnamed masses is commendable, to some extent his decision to focus, quite traditionally, on European ecclesiastical history threatens to undermine his point. It is a nice notion, and the only one left when all the heroes have been torn down, but there is not much information about such people in this work. I would love to read a follow-up work from Page on a history of non-European Christianity, which could perhaps provide a better picture of this using a more social history approach.
In conclusion, I laughed and learned a lot from this “nearly infallible” work. Page’s history follows the example of the Bible in that it certainly does not gloss over the flaws in any of its central figures. God in Jesus Christ is the only true hero of the Bible and calls for our undivided trust and devotion. But the balance sometimes lacking here is that heroes of the faith do in fact exist (Hebrews 11) and the Bible is unabashed in reminding us to follow them. But only as they follow Christ. Despite the flaws and failures, from Abraham to Peter, the Bible shows that it is God’s grace in these lives that causes them to be exemplary. It is God’s ability to “draw straight lines with crooked sticks” that brings him greatest glory. This is the value of Christian history.