An unknown and possibly apocryphal Roman in the first centuries of the Christian Era is supposed to have exclaimed: “See how these Christians love one another!” Had he returned 1500 years later, he would doubtless have amended this to: “See how these Christians murder, torture, and imprison one another! And what they do to non-Christians! … ” Here our poor Roman would have spluttered, incoherent with indignation, then turned and trudged back to Limbo, grateful that he had never been blessed, or cursed, with what Brian Moynahan calls, respectfully but perhaps also a touch sardonically, “the Faith.”
The Faith is a chronicle rather than an interpretation. Moynahan has no new theories about the origin, development, or historic significance of Christianity. What he does have is a storytelling talent equal to his vast subject: twenty centuries teeming with color and passion. “The Faith” is a dense and vivid narrative of lust, greed, cruelty, ambition, fanaticism, revenge, and, in a few cases, wisdom and virtue. Its 35 fast-moving, action-packed chapters could well be (who knows? – perhaps even now are being) turned into the mother of all television specials.
“Who do men say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples (Mark, 8:28). This may be the most contentious question in Western history. (The correct answer, I think, is given in Hyam Maccoby’s “Revolution in Judaea” (1973).) Moynahan, for his part, does not speculate. He tells the Gospel story straight: Jesus was a prophet, but more than a prophet; a Jew who came to fulfill and transcend Judaism; the “son of God,” a phrase with many and very different meanings, then as now.
Institutionally, Christianity began with Saint Paul, whom Moynahan calls “the colossus of the Church, the most striking and powerful human being in its history.” An evangelical whirlwind, Paul turned a Jewish sect into a Mediterranean religion, tirelessly scolding, encouraging, and testifying to both believers and pagans. The Romans also did their part by destroying Jerusalem in 70 AD and scattering the rebellious Jews throughout the Empire.
The faith grew astonishingly fast in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, especially among the lower classes. It appears that the first Christians had little in common with today’s version: they were often pacifists, refusing to serve in the imperial army; and according to the Roman official Pliny the Younger, they would “bind themselves by an oath, not to commit adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a loan when demanded.” Roman persecution was fitful, but even at its fiercest was unavailing. The blood of martyrs, which flows copiously in the pages of “The Faith,” was indeed the seed of the Church.
But if that hallowed metaphor is true, it is also true that the favor of rulers has been the blight of the Church. The most fateful event in the history of Christianity (or perhaps the second-most, after the Reformation) was the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312. Toleration followed, then subsidies, then establishment as the official religion of the Empire. Constantine “introduced the Church to worldly power and wealth”; but in return he gained considerable influence, deposing bishops and interfering in doctrinal disputes.
Nearly two millennia later, it looks to have been a bad bargain for Christianity. “Worldly power and wealth” have been the Church’s bane. The extraordinary piety and heroism of the early, persecuted Church gradually faded (though kept alive in the new monastic communities). There continued to be saintly bishops and ascetics, like Augustine and Jerome. But the great temptations – to accumulate wealth and to use the power of the state against religious dissenters – that would eventually undermine Christendom now began to be felt.
The next dozen centuries are a history of continual warfare: against heretics, barbarians, Muslims, the Byzantine Empire, and culminating in the century of conflict between Catholics and Protestants that left Europe ravaged. Moynahan recounts these epic clashes brilliantly, with dramatic flair, theological understanding, a keen eye for gory details, and an ear for piquant quotations. Nevertheless, he is not a 21st-century Gibbon, intimating scornfully that religion is all sound and fury, signifying nothing except humanity’s inexhaustible capacity for superstitious folly. The official Church does come off very badly, it’s true – nearly all medieval and Renaissance popes, in particular, seem to have been either depraved or fanatical. But many Churchmen were devoted to art or learning, and some, notably among the mendicants and missionaries, were even holy.
Erasmus, for example, seems to have been as near to a perfectly civilized man as anyone else in history. Saint Francis of Assisi seems to have been as selfless and pure of heart. Countless good priests died tending their stricken flocks during the Great Plague (though almost as many bad priests fled, and so lived to sin another day). A few brave missionaries spoke out against the terrible atrocities committed by Spaniards in the New World; and some, like the Jesuits in Paraguay, died defending the Indians. Many English and American Protestant clergymen, to their everlasting credit, led the movement to abolish African slavery.
Moynahan brings the Christian story into our time with chapters on Russian Orthodoxy, Mormonism, evangelicalism, and Liberation Theology. A chapter on the churches versus totalitarianism strongly suggests that, now as in antiquity, Christianity is better off without the illusory advantages of state support. But although it has triumphantly survived Roman and Communist persecution, will Christianity survive Darwinism, consumerism, and the Pill? Moynahan, again, does not speculate.
If only to inculcate humility among Christians, “The Faith” should be required reading in all Christian schools and study groups. It should be read aloud from pulpits and on television or radio programs, and excerpted at great length in Christian magazines. It would do no harm if a papal encyclical or two were devoted to the book.
The Faith may even help comfort, by restoring a sense of historical perspective to, those Christians who are grievously worried by the current sexual-abuse scandals. After all, if the Church’s moral prestige has survived its cruel, centuries-long persecution of heretics and witches, its incitement of the devastatingly bloody medieval Crusades and early modern wars of religion, its association with the enslavement and massacre of Central and South American Indians, and its pusillanimous opposition to the genocide of the Jews, then surely it will survive the comparatively venial sin of covering up for a few erring priests?