Penn State and Baylor Professor Philip Jenkins has tackled in The Lost History of Christianity a subject which is missing from most Church History books I have read (which is a few). I am always nervous when I see titles implying a “lost” Christianity as it is nearly always a sensational look into how the early church was really gnostic and the early church fathers changed scripture. This is not that book
Most Church Histories look at the expansion of the Church into the Roman Empire, into Europe, America and then to the rest of the world. Jenkins takes an alternate view and looks at how Christianity developed in the East; in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, into India and China and also Africa. Essentially the area we know today as the 10/40 window. Perhaps the reason why this is ignored is because it was the “Nestorian” or Jacobite Church which spread into these areas predominantly. Nestorius was excommunicated in 431 for views which were later upheld by the Orthodox Council of Chalcedon and largely his excommunication was for political rather than theological reasons. His followers went east. As Jenkins shows however, there were already multitudes of believers to the east at this time. And 800 years after Christ while Europe was still barely Christian, the east was largely Christianized with many metropolitan sees overseeing millions of believers.
The reason most Church Histories do not explore the Church of the East is because there is an unspoken assumption that most approaches take which thinks that when Muslim forces took over key cities of the near east in the seventh century, they automatically became Islamized. As Jenkins explores, the truth is more that an Islamic hierarchy ruled largely Christian populations for many centuries. Not only that, but the assumption that much learning, in the forms of science, literature and maths came from Islamic sources is also debunked with many scholars being of Christian origin under Islamic rule.
Jenkins does provide excellent analysis for the interplay between the different people groups especially Muslims and Christians, showing how in the early days of Islam many of the leaders of the church simply saw Islam as a Christian Heresy, in much the same way that Arianism had been a few centuries earlier. It is interesting to note that much practice that we consider Islamic today is very similar to the Christian practice of many of the lands where Islam developed. His final analysis of the reason that Christianity died out in the Near East because of the close affiliation between state and religion and the loss of the various powers who endorsed Christianity to Arabic and Ottoman forces who promulgated Islam is indeed fascinating. Christianity in the west was therefore “saved” to a large degree because it was adopted by the state in the west.
However this brings me to my main criticism of the book (and for many other “church” histories for that matter). Jenkins is writing for a wide audience. His study is predominantly anthropological in nature. It is very easy for church histories to believe and report “Christendom” and disregard “Christianity”. The USA is anthropologically a “Christian” Nation. However as Gregory Boyd has so succinctly written, there is no such thing as a “Christian Nation” (with the possible exception of Jesus’ Kingdom when he returns to earth). Much of the Church of the East was anthropologically Christian and when it fell to Islamic forces it ceased to be. The saddening thing about the story of the book is that when “Christendom” fell in these areas over time the numbers of real believers also dropped. In summary the Lost History of Christianity is enlightening, depressing and instructive all at the same time and I would recommend it.