Saturday, April 7, 2012

Book Review: Jesus Wars

In Jesus Wars, Philip Jenkins casts some light on a dark corner of history that has always intrigued me: the years from 400-700 AD when the Roman empire fell, the Byzantine empire continued, the creeds solidified, and Islam began to rise. This period definitely isn't Medieval -- and it definitely isn't Roman. Yet important things happened, just with a theological focus that came later to seem pedantic and hair-splitting. Of all people, Philip Jenkins is uniquely qualified to comment on this because of his work studying the development of the church in the Global South (previously reviewed here!) and the history of the rise and loss of the Eastern churches (Nestorians and Jacobites) (also previously reviewed here). The result is worthwhile to read, but a few mild disappointments keep the book from being a great one despite its desperately needed subject matter.

Much of the disappointment is an inevitable part of the accuracy of what went on: It's definitely disappointing to find the church 400 years after Jesus acting just like the church 1400 years after Jesus! Physical coercion and/or the fate of one particular ruler played major roles more than once. The theological fights turned physical. But there is some justice here. Extreme physical coercion established a "One Nature" heresy ... for two years until the Council of Chalcedon established what in my opinion was a perfectly balanced statement of theology. The result from Chalcedon is in my opinion an undeniable high point, and thought heroes are few, Pope Leo strikes me as one in originating it.

Notice the "in my opinion"s of the previous paragraph. I wish there was more of that in this book. In the final chapter I finally started to get a clear view of what Jenkins thinks about all this, but up until then the book is objective and historical, which to me is a mistake. After all, the litany of names is associated with places and heritages, sure, but also with patterns of thought, and if (as the last chapter points out) the patterns of thought are the most important thing, why don't we know more about them? This leads to some confusion on my part. The "One Will" heresy, for example, is completely opaque to me, because I can read the Garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus prays "Not my will but Thine be done." Um, I can count them there, one, two wills. I KNOW there must be more to it but it didn't make the final cut. And I wish it did.

The role of contingency is a deep question (that motivated LOST, for example!). It even shows up in sources like the science news reporting on nickel's disappearance from the oceans long ago, but when discussion of chance and history shows up in these places, it's always taken for granted that everything-runs-on-chance and life-is-fragile-and-contingent-in-an-indifferent-universe and aren't-we-lucky-to-be-here et cetera. Until the last chapter, this book adopts the prevailing attitude on contingency that is indistinguishable from the scientist who took the nickel's disappearance as a sign that life is contingent on luck and chance, or that God DOES play dice with the universe. I think Jenkins does that as a show of "professionalism" but I was constantly wishing he would take more of a different tack, like G.K. Chesterton for example. I would love to combine the accuracy of Jenkins with the big-picture, opinionated slant of Chesterton. It would definitely be more fun to be able to argue with the author! But at the very least, this book is a start. Just be warned that for the most part it's BYOI: Bring Your Own (theological) Interpretation.

1 comment:

PNG said...

If you want an author who lets you know what he thinks and who you can argue with, try Paul Johnson's History of Christianity (or his History of the Jews or History of the English People.) He will give you things to think about (and likely disagree with.)