Book Review, Theology

Nick Page, ‘A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity’ (Review)

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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.

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Book Review

Anne Lamott, ‘Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith’ (Review)

I was introduced to Anne Lamott through her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Her beautifully transparent style and self-deprecating humour were truly endearing, filling the book with moments of profundity and laughter in equal measure. In reading, I was struck by several turns of phrase and references which made me question if Lamott might be a Christian. But then again, her lighthearted use of profanity and references to God as “She” made it clear that if so, she was no traditionalist. Thus when I spied her name on the spine of Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith while visiting Departure Café (now Husk) in East London, I figured it was well worth the 50p to ease my curiosity.

As the subtitle suggests, the work is a loosely organized group of reflections on life and faith. It begins with an overture describing Lamott’s journey towards conversion, from childhood exposure to Christian Science and teenage forays into atheism, through to becoming a secular Jew at university and eventually stumbling into church as an adult with a drinking problem. It was the music that drew her. Having become a regular back-seat attendee at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church (Marin, California), always leaving before the sermon, Lamott relates that a heart-wrenching abortion is what eventually led her to experience Jesus. While drowning the sadness with drink and pain killers, she became aware of a presence, a person in the room, so real that she turned the light on to look. She knew it was Jesus, but instantly exclaimed, “I would rather die” than become what most disgusted her liberal sensibilities: a Christian. But the presence pestered her, like “a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.” Finally, after a church service that was “so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape”, Lamott went home and surrendered. “F**k it: I quit,” she exhaled. “All right. You can come in.” This, she describes, was her “beautiful moment of conversion.”

From this point of departure, Lamott begins to share her thoughts, some written retrospectively, some ostensibly written in the moment, on the ways in which faith shapes her life. She shares her perspectives on raising a child, death, politics, forgiveness, money, grace, friendship, addiction, family, growing old, letting go and living with insecurities. She is a loveable mess, raising her son Sam alone, navigating life and describing her encounters with a sensitive, yet facetious eye. Her style is often touching and lovely, while making the reader laugh in the same breath. While the book’s progression is not logical and orderly, it seems to reflect the fractured way we experience life, wencouraging us to pause and take in the significance of small, seemingly insignificant moments.

Overall the book left me with a sense of warmness and appreciation for the grace of God and beauty of little things. Lamott certainly seems to write with her own principles in mind: “My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things” (Bird by Bird, 1994: 125). There was much to be encouraged by, most of all the feeling that God meets even those, or maybe especially those, who are hopeless and broken in this world. I felt for Lamott and appreciated her candour and vulnerability. I too want to join the ranks of writers like her that can bare their souls on the page and bring earth-tested wisdom, joy and warmth to their readers.

On the other hand, I was not left without a few uncomfortable and troubling questions. I, and many Christian readers I know, will be intrigued by Lamott’s conversion story and the hilariously irreverent way she describes such a profound moment. It had the ring of truth to it in God’s relentless hounding of this hurting woman. But it was the aftermath, the life lived in response to this pursuit, that raised questions for me. The query that most often was raised in my mind was, “How can a person who has truly met God continue to live in the way that Lamott describes?” For instance, she continues to sleep around as a single mother, struggles with addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs, and certainly has no change in vocabulary…ahem.

Are these just my nice, clean, ‘churchy’ behavioural expectations? Or can a certain level of change be expected to accompany the ‘new birth’ that Jesus talks about in John 3? What I am sure of is that the way God looks on our lives is quite different from our perspective. Many church people would not spend time with this woman. Jesus would have, certainly. And yet, would not the very presence of Jesus demanded a changed heart, manifested in changed habits of feeling, thought and action? Does not his presence with us today demand this from us?

I am reminded of the words of C. S Lewis in asking whether Christians become “nice people, or new men.” He argues, “If Christianity is true it ought to follow a) That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian. b) That any man that becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before” (Mere Christianity, book 4, ch. 10). By this reasoning, the proof of the effect of Christianity in the book is therefore whether Ms. Lamott is a better person than if she were not a Christian and a better person than she was before. I think it does. I do believe that the new life within must be evidenced by a new life without. But I also must admit that discipleship is a trajectory and not a fixed point. Like all living things, the test of life is growth, and no matter how nascent and frail this growth is, it is proof of vitality. It makes me uncomfortable and I know there is so much more to a life of freedom, wholeness and holiness. But I also know that God sees every indestructible seed that he has planted and knows perfectly well what oaks and cedars he will form out of them. For now, let each disciple fix their eyes on the Master and follow.

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