The view from somewhere smart

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSep 26, 2010 1:15 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

When it comes to scholarly explorations of religion and history it is very difficult to find works which I can recommend to casually interested friends. On the one hand you have very narrow monographs on a specific topic, for example the possible connection between Monothelitism and Maronite Christianity. Set next to these you have broadly written and engaging works of semi-scholarship with very strong viewpoints which operationally reinforce the preconceptions or biases of the audience. Karen Armstrong's body of work is an exemplar of this. Much of it is filled with fascinating detail, but she invariably shades the framing of the past so as to make it congenial to her religiously liberal Western audience. Armstrong's opposite in viewpoint would be Rodney Stark. A sociologist by training Starks' early work on religion always came with a large dollop of opinion, but it was sound in terms of scholarship. But of late he's moved in a far more polemical direction, exemplified by books such as God's Battalians: The Case for the Crusades. Starks' recent work can be compared to the more crass Afrocentric projects, they're long drawn out arguments which show that the greatest of human achievements necessarily come from the tradition which conservative Western Christians are singular modern representatives of (not just Western, Stark attempts to dismiss the intellectual achievements of Classical Greeks in The Victory of Reason; rather atrociously in my opinion). A strong viewpoint is not always a problem. The ideal of objectivity is often an illusion, and only produces a muddle. But in the case of both Stark and Armstrong's work if you are moderately familiar with their area of focus you can pick out many errors of omission and interpretation. Naturally these flaws in their reading of the literature are always in the direction of their conclusion of preference. If you have a thick network of background facts and frames into which you can inject data and analysis, bias need not be a problem. I am an atheist but I have no issue reading the New Testament for its historical and literary value, despite the fact that it has a clear viewpoint. But that viewpoint is very transparent and obvious to someone who does not share it. Much of popular historical writing has the problem that the audience is not aware of the bias and selectivity of the authors as they frame their arguments. Rodney Stark and Karen Armstrong have a much more fluent grasp of medieval history than the vast majority of their readers, so their obfuscations and distortions, conscious or not, will not be transparent to the audience. It is with all this said that I wholeheartedly recommend Philip Jenkins oeuvre to anyone who will listen. Jenkins' own perspective colors his scholarship, but he is frank and honest with the reader as to his sympathies, while at the same time correcting the enthusiasms of his "own side." This is far preferable to the illusion of the "view of from nowhere." Because his cards are on the table the lay audience can weight his assertions appropriately. Jenkins is an Episcopalian who has an affinity for the more traditionalist streams of Christian faith and practice coming out of what is now termed the "Global South." He is probably most well known for his lengthy exposition on this topic in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, though I personally find that his book on Europe, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis, more original. In his popular works Philip Jenkins writes in a manner which makes it clear that he is broadly in agreement with the claims of the Christian religion. There is no doubt in that. But he is also a man who can say something like this:

"Much to my surprise, the Islamic scriptures in the Quran were actually far less bloody and less violent than those in the Bible," Jenkins says. Jenkins is a professor at Penn State University and author of two books dealing with the issue: the recently published Jesus Wars, and Dark Passages , which has not been published but is already drawing controversy. Violence in the Quran, he and others say, is largely a defense against attack. "By the standards of the time, which is the 7th century A.D., the laws of war that are laid down by the Quran are actually reasonably humane," he says. "Then we turn to the Bible, and we actually find something that is for many people a real surprise. There is a specific kind of warfare laid down in the Bible which we can only call genocide." It is called herem, and it means total annihilation. Consider the Book of 1 Samuel, when God instructs King Saul to attack the Amalekites: "And utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them," God says through the prophet Samuel. "But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."

"By the standards of the time" is critical. Much of the genocidal coloring of the Bible comes from the passages in the Hebrew Bible, a product of the late Bronze Age. In contrast the Koran is a product of a world where "higher religions" with formally developed ethical theories were waxing. The rhetoric of genocide as grand strategy was replaced with the implementation of genocide as a tactic of necessity. Similarly, the Book of Mormon reflects an understanding of archaeology totally in keeping with early 19th century America. Despite the fact that Philip Jenkins is a believing Christian who presumably accepts that the Christian religion is the true religion in some deep sense he does not tend to whitewash the history of Christianity or deny the virtues of other religions. This sort of epoché, stepping away from one's own normative preferences to assess the world as it is and was, is admirable and all too rare. It is alas especially rare in scholarship which is aimed toward the public. This does not mean that everything Philip Jenkins asserts in his books should be taken as Truth, but, it does tell you that he is making a sincere attempt at getting at the heart of what was and is, not what he would prefer it to have been or be. Jenkins' most recent book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, is a perfect exemplar of his strengths. It has a definite perspective, Jenkins does not hide his plain admiration for the lost Christian civilizations of the Middle East, but his partisanship does not compromise his integrity as a scholar. I believe that Philip Jenkins' identity as a Christian in the Anglican tradition may explain some of his sympathy toward the world of Middle Eastern Christendom. The ancient Christian traditions of the Middle East emphasize liturgy and continuity with the past, just as the Roman Catholic Church does, but traditionally rejected the supremacy of the Pope* (and before that the Emperor). Similarly, there is a strand in the Anglican Church which is also rooted in the historic traditions of the Christian religion going back to antiquity, and yet they too reject the claims of the Bishop of Rome to primacy. This is not purely a detached work of scholarship for Philip Jenkins, the narrative is delivered in a manner which makes clear his regret and sadness at the passing of the great Christian tradition of the East into marginality, and then oblivion. The Lost History of Christianity is a peculiar book insofar as it has two halves, and one of those halves is not that lost at all. The "lost" component is the history of what we term today Oriental Orthodoxy and the Church of the East, known in the West as the Monophysite and Nestorian traditions. More concretely these were the churches with rejected the theological tutelage of the Byzantine Empire, and so are not part of the Western Christian tradition even broadly understood. The Monophysite faction was dominant in the non-Greek portions of the Byzantine Empire before the rise of Islam, and today is represented by Christian minorities in Syria and Egypt, as well as the Armenian and Ethiopian churches. The Nestorian faction was for all practical purposes the Christian church as it emerged and evolved within the lands of the Sassanian dynasty of Persia, the Persian church (even if the majority of adherents were not ethnic Persians, but Syriac speakers who were resident in Mesopotamia). The first half of The Lost History of Christianity is a panoramic survey of these Eastern Christianities in the period between their separation from Byzantine Christian Orthodoxy and their final marginalization after the conquest of the Middle East by the Mongols. After the survey of the history of Christianities lost Jenkins jumps centuries into the future, and chronicles the unexpected death of the churches of the East. These are the years not so lost. The centuries between Mongols and the late Ottoman period are passed over, in large part because these were generations when the eastern sects kept a low profile and focused on survival. And survive they did, as Jenkins observes the reality that there were large and vibrant Christian communities from Egypt to Iraq in 1900, before the unforeseen catastrophes of the 20th century rendered many of them irrelevant or moribund.

Anyone who reads historical monographs would be well aware of the vital role that the Eastern traditions played in the spiritual life of the early Byzantine and Islamic polities. But as a rule this is not highlighted, or well understood, in histories written from a Western perspective. One aspect of The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization which I did not emphasize in my review is that the author seems to have a very weak grasp on the specific nature of religious pluralism in the early centuries of Islam. Part of the reason was that his real focus was on the late High Medieval and early early Renaissance era, but part of it was either ignorance or lack of interest in Eastern Christianity. This was evident to me in the fact that he repeatedly confused Monophysites for Nestorians, and didn't seem to have a good grasp of the dynamics of the various players in the religious "great game" of that era. There is a natural reason for this: Eastern Christianity was a cultural dead-end. Jenkins notes correctly that as Eastern Christianity shifted from being majority to minority status in the lands of Islam it went from being intellectually productive to totally moribund in the domain of the mind. In the early years of Western Christianity around 700 there were a series of Syrian popes. When Western Christians began to penetrate the Ottoman heartland in the 19th century they found that the Syriac clerisy was often illiterate and had become hereditary (going from uncle to nephew, as the elite clergy were still often expected to celibate). They had become historical footnotes. So why should we care? First, because the Eastern Christian tradition, and its rise and fall, give us a window into the waxing and waning of cultures and civilizations. Even granting the classical Islamic narrative whereby the religion exploded out of Arabia fully formed in the early to mid 7th century, Eastern Christians did not view the new dispensation as one which would in the end marginalize them. After all, they had experienced centuries of domination by an Imperial Roman (Byzantine) Christian Church which viewed them as heretics, but had persisted and flourished (perhaps only in Palestine was the Byzantine Orthodox Church the numerically preponderant in the non-Greek lands of the East). More recently in the decades before Islam much of the traditionally Byzantine Near East had been under Persian rule. Christianity remained the dominant religion of most of the lands under Muslim rule for at least two centuries after the Arab conquests at a minimum. The Patriarch of the Church of the East between 780 and 823, Timothy, presided over a Christian international network which stretched from the Euphrates to China! Timothy's missionaries were active in Central Asia, China, Tibet, and India. Mesopotamia was the heartland of his church, but most of the former Persian lands hard large Nestorian minorities, who remained in place while the Zoroastrians slowly disappeared. Jenkins makes the case that Timothy's Church of the East was the largest of his day, superior in numbers to the Western Church headed by the Bishop of Rome. Remember than in 800 much of Germany was only marginally Christianized, while Scandinavia and almost all of Eastern Europe remained fully pagan. In the days of Charlemagne the Western Christian Church had barely expanded beyond the former Roman Empire, having added Ireland and the regions of Germany closer to the old imperial limes (Charlemagne famously forcibly converted the continental Saxons to Christianity, at least nominally). In contrast the Church of the East had connections and tendrils far outside of the boundaries of the Abbasid Caliphate in which the Timothy was a major political player. Moving forward centuries the Mongols who conquered the Middle East in the 13th century had some Nestorian connections, due to the successful conversion of several tribes beyond the lands of Islam. The leader of the Mongol horde which sacked Baghdad, Hulagu, had a mother of the Nestorian faith. After centuries of decline since their preeminence in the early Abbasid period the Church of the East took heart in the rise of the Mongols, and the collapse of Islamic hegemony. The Christian connections, and even Christian affiliation, of the Mongol ruling elite opened up a possibility that after over five hundred years of Isle famic domination Christianity would come back to the fore as a religion of rulers in the former Persian lands. This was not to be, after a few decades of flirtation with Christianity and Buddhism, the Mongols of Mesopotamia and Iran opted for Islam. The window of tolerance was over, and the newly empowered Muslims put Christians back into the subordinate place that they'd had before the fall of the Abbasids. In fact they ground them down further in retribution for the perceived and real assistance that they'd provided the Mongols during their years when there had been a possibility for a new religious order. A simple lesson here is that pride cometh before the fall. In the first few Islamic centuries the center of the Christian world was arguably in the lands of Islam. These Christians had extended their reach beyond the domains of their Muslim overlords through a vigorous and conscious campaign of proselytization. For centuries their numerical heft within the Arab polity meant that the Muslim Caliphs would have to treat their religious officials with respect and due deference.

This world of Christianities in 800 was no more in 1800. By then the faith was Europe, and Europe was the faith. Most of the Christianities had been lost, leaving Europe standing nearly alone, the Western Church sundered between the Catholics and Protestants, and the Eastern Roman Church having given rise to the Orthodox Christian churches of Eastern Europe. But it is here that Philip Jenkins brings us back to The Next Christendom: today Europe is no longer the faith, and the faith is no longer Europe. Western Christians are wont to assert that their religion is a compound, a Hebrew heart (revelation), Greek mind (theology), and Roman body (the institution of the Church). But Jenkins observes in The Lost History of Christianity that for much of the history of the religion the traditions of Oriental Orthodoxy and the Church of the East were more parsimonious in their application of Greek philosophical style and substance**, while Oriental Orthodoxy emerged in large part as an institutional counterpoint to the Roman state religion, and the Church of the East grew organically from the seedbed of the Persian Empire. The history of Eastern Christianity before its decline may offer us a window into the possibilities of the Christianity dominated by non-Europeans, at least numerically. As a non-Christian I do not take a deep interest in such topics, but I do know that Asian and African Christians in particular bring a new perspective as to the understanding of the necessary cultural preconditions of their religion. The Latin Church Father Tertullian once quipped, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" This may become more relevant in the near future, as non-European Christians challenge the cultural assumptions of a religion which has for 1,000 years been dominated by Europeans and people of European descent.

The second half of in The Lost History of Christianity deals with the death of the the Eastern churches in the last century. This is as Jenkins admits something of an exaggeration. Nearly 1 out of 10 Egyptians remains a Copt, an adherent of Egypt's Monophysite Christian tradition. The Ethiopian and Armenian Orthodox churches retain their central roles in the national identity of these peoples. Lebanon still has a robust Christian population, albeit one which is almost certainly a minority today. The true story of the death of Christianity in the East is in the former Persian lands, Iraq and Iran. In the early 20th century the Iraqi government engaged in a genocide to purge the nation of its Assyrian minority, those Christians who adhered to the tradition of the Church of the East of Timothy. Operationally they succeeded, as the Assyrian community is now almost wholly a Diaspora. This left the Chaldean Catholic Church, of which Tariq Aziz is a member, as the dominant Christian presence in Iraq. This Christian community comes out of the Church of the East, but aligned itself with the Roman Catholic Church during the Ottoman period. This seems a tendency within Eastern Christianity in its terminal phases: a susceptibility to being absorbed into the more robust Western Church. In any case, the American occupation of Iraq and the emergence of a democratic popular regime resulted in the decimation of the Chaldean Catholic community. Most now live in the West, Syria, or Jordan, fleeing Iraq because of their untenable position as a marginal player caught in the cross-fires of sectarian conflict.

Philip Jenkins contends that in 1900 Christians formed at a minimum 10% of the population of the Fertile Crescent, while in much of eastern Anatolia Armenian Christians were a prominent presence. In 2000 the Armenians no longer were a presence in eastern Anatolia. Christians were ~5% of Jordan's population (30% in 1950), and are nearly gone from Iraq and Palestine. They are now a minority in Lebanon, whereas they had once been a solid majority. Some of this can be attributed to differential birthrates, as Christians tend to be more educated and Westernized, and so have smaller families. But the preponderance of the proportionate decline is probably due to emigration. There may be as many 10 million people of Arab descent in Brazil, almost all of Syrian and Lebanese Christian origin. There are substantial populations of Christian Arab provenance across Latin America, in France, and the United States. A quick back-of-the-envelope indicates to me that more Christian Arabs live in the New World than in the Middle East by at least a factor of two, and probably more (there are some ambiguities with identifying Arabs in the New World in part because many of them, such as Salma Hayek and Shakira, are of only part-Arab descent). With 10% of the population remaining Christian, Syria is probably the exception which proves a rule: the rise of populist nationalism in the Arab world has not been good for the region's ancient Christian communities. Syria is dominated by a family of Alawite origin. Jenkins introduces the possibility that the Alawites may be derived from the Gnostic Christian tradition, but all that really needs to be stated is that Alawite heterodoxy is such that the regime can not afford to tolerate exclusive Islamic chauvinism from its Sunni majority. In Dining with al-Qaeda the author observes that it is not uncommon in Syria that Christians have authority over Muslims in the bureaucracy, something which he asserts would be totally unheard of elsewhere in the Arab world excepting Lebanon, where they form a much larger and more powerful segment of the populace than in Syria. It is to Syria that Iraqi Christians tend to flee, and a large fraction of the world's Chaldean Catholics now calls Damascus home. The Lost History of Christianity shows that when history, power, and presence, are lost, one becomes invisible to the world. Though Western Christians were shocked and appalled at pogroms directed against their religious brethren in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, their interventions went only so far. The Ottomans did manage to extirpate the Armenian community from their lands. The Iraqi government did expel the Assyrians. More recently the Christians of Palestine and Israel have been caught between Jews and Muslims. Ironically Jenkins observes that Christian Palestinian radicals who were of Leftist orientation were seen as enemies by the West during the Cold War, a time when the United States in particular viewed an assertion of Islamic identity in Muslim lands as a bulwark against secular socialism. More recently the American hegemony over Iraq has witnessed the de facto ethnic cleansing of a Christian community whose roots date back to 1st century. It is a commonly told story that at some point in their life a Christian Arab in Jerusalem will encounter an evangelical Protestant from the Southern United States who is not well versed in the region's history, and finding out that they are a Christian, will inquire of the Arab when they converted to Christianity. Europe is still the faith, and the faith is still Europe. At least for some.

The story which Philip Jenkins tells is negative, positive, or neutral, depending on perspective. A Christian may see the decline into dhimmitude of the people who were once the root of the faith. A Muslim may see the spread among people who adhered to an imperfectly preserved revelation of true religion the genuine true religion. A Japanese Buddhist may view the change in religious culture as simply a sectarian and political matter in the history of an alien people. It is a tale of memories lost, and consigned to the dustbin of history. The great traditions of Eastern Christianity are dying, the liturgies, processions, and the public buildings. In northern Iraq the cistern of an ancient Christian monastery was being used as a latrine by the Republican Guard before the arrival of American troops. The Iraqis were literally shitting on their own past, as they were almost certainly mostly descendants of Syriac Christians. But that past was one that was lost to them, no longer claimed by them. And so it was that in ages past the ancestors of the Muslims who had been Christians had torn down or neglected the idols of Marduk for the Christ. Such is the way of the world, civilizations and cultures rise and fall, a fact reiterated repeatedly in The Lost History of Christianity. We live today on the cusp between ages, a time of demographic, cultural, and technological tumult. People are recreating their own past, reshaping their own present, and concocting fantastic futures. Philip Jenkins reminds us that cultural memory can be ephemeral, that even a thousand years may fade into imperceptibility. The values which we hold right, true, and proper, may simply be the fashion of the age. Our ideas may not echo down the generations, but hurtle toward oblivion. I do not know Philip Jenkins' personal beliefs in the details despite his professed adherence to Anglican Christianity, but his work is a sobering reminder to Christians who believe that the day is coming when all will bend the knee to their Lord that that day will not arrive at their pleasure. Their Lord works in mysterious ways, He giveth and He taketh. * Over the past few centuries many of the churches have come into the Roman Catholic fold, though retaining their ancient liturgies. ** One has to be be careful not to overdo this, and I would assert that Jenkins does do so in this section. Many Syrian Monophysites in particular were Greek speakers. Image Credits: Andres Arranz, Doug, Luke Ford, Wikimedia Commons

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.