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An engaging look at Christianity’s lost history

"The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia - and How It Died" by Philip Jenkins. HarperOne (San Francisco, 2008). 315 pp., $26.95.

The Iraq War has brought the presence of Christians in what was once Mesopotamia and Babylon to global attention. However, what many do not recall is that these centers of the Christian faith were flourishing communities for centuries, with bishops, monasteries and universities, while Germany, Britain and France were still on the barbarian frontier.

Maps of early Christianity often center on the Mediterranean. However, some maps of the Middle Ages show Jerusalem at the center, with Beijing on the Asian right, Britain on the European left and the upper Nile Valley in Africa as the bottommost point, well before Poland and Scandinavia even appear as mission lands.

These ancient Persian and Syrian churches, which at one time rivaled the Latin- and Greek-speaking world in learning, missionary zeal and geographic extension, still exist and carry a significant heritage of our common 2,000 years of Gospel witness.

In 1984 Pope John Paul II and Syrian Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch (now resident in Damascus, and called in this volume the Jacobite Church) signed a common declaration on eucharistic sharing, based on agreements of the 1970s resolving disagreements on the nature and person of Christ dating from 451. In 1994 a similar declaration was made with the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East (called here Nestorian), formerly of Baghdad and Persia, now resident in Chicago. These ancient and living Christian communities have a rich history, which now becomes part of our Catholic heritage and our common future.

In "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia - and How It Died," Philip Jenkins provides an engaging volume, whose clarity of style and accessible narrative belies the carefully researched and detailed documentation that lies behind such a readable story.

He outlines the rise, heritage and expansion of these churches in the early centuries with centers attributed to the apostles. He describes their successful missionary activity as far as China, India and Indonesia, their rich literary and theological production, and their evangelization of whole cultures. He gives an engaging and differentiated view of the coming of Islam, its complex relations with its Jewish and Christian roots, and the variety of approaches it took to its Christian neighbors and subjects. Like Christian relationships with Jews in Europe, periods of toleration alternate with periods of persecution.

The author gives the lie to those who would characterize the Muslim faith as any more violent in its history than Christianity, or even biblical Judaism. Intolerance, violence and persecution are common characteristics of particular moments in all of the great world religions. Likewise, there are periods of peaceful coexistence and cultural interchange. He outlines the mutual support of the two and sometimes three communities at particular points in the story.

However, the common thread is the decline of many of these churches in their ancestral Christian homeland, and the extinction of some communities. What will also surprise some is that the final blow to many of these Christian communities came with the violence following World War I in Turkey and some other areas of the Middle East.

Jenkins also compares and contrasts the reasons for decline and the differences between some communities that went totally extinct, like Latin North Africa, and others that survived heartily, like Christian Spain before the reconquest of 1492 or the Coptic Orthodox Christians of Egypt.

The book, while descriptive and objective, ends with a series of provocative questions which challenge received Christian wisdom and secular oversimplifications. He explores in his last chapter what might be the foundation for a theology of Christian extinction, in the context of a doctrine of God, the church and providence, which attends as much to the vagaries of human history as to the successes of missionary endeavors.

This volume makes an engaging read for the general public and a useful resource for the historian of Christianity and the theologian exploring the doctrine of providence and God's action in human history.

Brother Gros is a professor of ecumenical and historical theology at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn., and a former staff member of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009