I’m ever-so-slowly making my way through a truly massive tome: Christianity, the first three thousand years. It’s a brilliant and thorough (oh god, 1,200 pages of tiny type) history by a smart and snarky Oxford professor.
I highly recommend this book both to my agressive and combative atheist friends and to my sensible and intelligent Christian friends. Both groups fall all-too-easily into the mental trap of assuming that Christianity is a single, monolithic, straightforward faith. If that were the case, one could reasonably argue whether or not the Christian beliefs are accurate and useful – and perhaps accept or discard them wholesale.
The author does a great (and thorough!) job of detailing how religion has always been tied up with national, ethnic, linguistic, political, familial, and cultural identities. There is no “one true,” Christianity to be accepted or rejected wholesale.
The experience of religion has ebbed and flowed through the years. For many centuries, to say that a town or country became “Christian,” represented a political alliance struck at the highest levels between local rulers and itinerant bishops representing a massive, wealthy, foreign power. The current, highly personal experience of conversion is a relatively recent development requiring massive personal freedom, and echoing the very ancient pattern set by Paul of Tarsus. Christians have been killing Christians for as long as Christians have had settlements on desirable plots of land.
The author also does a wonderful job of setting aside issues of the historical truth of miraculous events. “Accounts differ,” is a favorite phrase … though he does take a subtle joy in detailing some of the sillier claims of the faithful:
Towards the end of the seventh century the monks of Fleury had mounted an expedition far into the south of Italy, to Monte Cassino, and there they clandestinely excavated the body of Benedict himself, plus the corpse of his even more shadowy sister and fellow religious, Scholastica. The consecrated raiding party bore they swag of bones back in triumph to the Loire, and there Benedictine monks still tend them in a crypt in their great church, to the continuing mortification of the Benedictines of Monte Cassino. Benedict had not put up any resistance to his abduction, so it was reasonable to suppose that he approved of it, and thus gave his formidable blessing to the whole people of Francia.
If we’re to have a serious discussion of either a religious or a-religious life and belief system – let’s do it from the basis of deep and specific knowledge – not hysterical edge cases.