The Essential History of Christianity by the Rev. Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes is an engaging and informative book, ideally suited for Christians (and others) who want to understand more about the history of the religion. It covers two thousand years in concisely-written and easily-digestible chapters, honing in on what is important in any period. Institutions, politics, personalities, changes in theology, shifts in social order, are highlighted when necessary, and the result is a thoroughly readable book.
At some points the sheer weight of material means that the narrative can feel slightly hasty. When dealing with the sister-in-law of a particular chieftain, or the negotiations of a certain cleric, I sometimes felt I’d like more background, and to understand the story better. However, since that amounts to simply wanting Threlfall-Holmes to have written more for me to read, it is hardly much of a flaw in this volume. Her focus on mentioning particular people and places – even when she cannot afford the pages to give a case study or a character sketch – surely comes from her commitment to writing a history of a religion as it actually took place, not a vague account of abstract religious forces smoothing their way through the centuries. As she asserts in the introduction, the specifics of history have a particular value for Christians, who affirm a belief in an incarnate God.
One of the book’s major strengths is its usability: the introduction offers different ways for individuals and groups to approach it, as well as specific pathways, consisting of chapters to read for those interested in “Early Christian history”, “Modern Christian history”, “The history of the Church in and of England” and “Christian mission through history”. The emphasis on this volume as part of future Christian conversations and discussion groups (rather than as a repository of information or correct narrative) emphasizes Threlfall-Holmes’ focus on the central part exploring Christian history plays in understanding our own lives. It doesn’t seek to present the reader with a complete past, explained and ready-packaged, but to involve them in the ongoing activity of historical reflection and understanding.
At the end of each chapter are a few questions to provoke thought and reflection on the material covered. These will be useful aids to discussion in group contexts, but also raise some basic historiographical issues. Being asked “what impact do you think being an established church has today?” or “how important were the changes in the use and understanding of the Bible that took place in this period” forces the reader to consider their own assumptions. The shades of 1066 and All That hover in the background of so much church history written for non-specialist audiences.
Even if it is never stated that (for example) the Chalcedonian decision was A Good Thing, or the rise of the papacy produced Several Bad Kings, it’s easy to identify with certain groups in history, or to implicitly take sides. The questions Threlfall-Holmes poses insist that readers don’t do so accidentally, or as part of a Whiggish assumption that all history should lead comfortably to us.
Overall, The Essential History of Christianity is an accessible and informative book, and one which I’m sure I’ll be recommending to people in the future.
The Essential History of Christianity, by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, (London: SPCK, 2012.) £12.99, pbk. ISBN: 978-0281066421 I am grateful to the publishers for providing a review copy.