Book Sale

Thursday 13 October 2022

The Lost History Of Christianity

You have probably heard the famous phrase, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." This phrase was coined by Tertullian, who originally phrased the statement this way: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed." That's some Spartan strength there. 

This statement is famous in the modern Church, and in my experience particularly in conservative evangelical circles. Evangelical Christians tend to hold an inner guilt about not being persecuted and punished for their faith, or having too much prosperity. Whether as a side effect of anti-western white privilege propaganda, or a misreading of the Bible, or a combination of both, evangelicals tend to view the suffering Church as inherently superior and Christians from poor countries as almost default saints. Their enshrinement of Tertullian's statement, quoted as it is above, as gospel truth feeds into this tendency. 

Evangelicals tend to forget that there are three explicitly persecuted churches out of seven in Revelation 2-3, Smyrna, Philadelphia and Pergamum and one of them is criticized for a dangerous tendency to apostasy; Pergamum. Persecution is not a guarantee of holiness, or spiritual growth. Anyone who has worked with immigrant Church plants can testify to this fact, that being from poor or persecuted countries does not necessarily make you more holy or saintly. Though, for some it does refine them. 

The fact is Christian churches can and do disappear under sustained persecution and poverty. The blood of the martyrs is not always the seed of exponential growth. The book that taught me this was Philip Jenkens The Lost History of Christianity. 

In this book Philip Jenkins explains the rich history of what we would today call Middle Eastern Christianity, but which in the past was golden age and patriarchal hub of Christian civilisation. What we think of today as Muslim lands were once the most significant Christian lands in the world. These lands were not only the birth place of Christianity, but a place where Christianity flourished for over a millennia. Many Christians know that Islam conquered parts of Christian Rome, but not many realize how entrenched Christianity was in the Middle East, the East, and North Africa. 

Indeed, you may not even realize that as late as the time of the crusades, Christians were still the majority population in lands like Syria, Palestine (Israel), and other parts of the near East. That's right, those Crusaders were in large measure liberating Christians from Muslim overlords, not stealing Muslim lands, as is often claimed. Though, the situation was more complex than that. 

Jenkins' book shows clearly that Christianity can be wiped out of a land, and has been, and is again in parts of the world today. Sometimes sustained persecution makes the blood of the martyrs, not the seed of the church, but the graveyard of true faith. 

The core lesson of Jenkins book is a look at the difference between the kind of Christianity that lasts, and that which does not. Why the Coptic churches of Egypt and Ethiopia are still strong today, whereas in parts of Asia and the Middle East Christianity has gone extinct. 

Considering the trajectory of the modern world, this book likely holds some important lessons for Western Christians, who seem to think tempting the persecutor to rise above them, makes them more virtuous. It doesn't. Losing the liberty our ancestors achieved for our faith, might have some side effects that sloganized western Christians do not expect. 

The book is a call for the endurance of the saints. 

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