The recent death of Reverend Billy Graham and the many diverse responses to it illustrated how inextricably Christianity has woven itself into the fabric of American history. How did this ancient religion grow from a loose group of individuals following an itinerant preacher into a massive movement with millions of followers? Three provocative new books examine the evolution of the Christian religion from its roots through the Middle Ages.
In The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Bart D. Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, Misquoting Jesus), a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, draws deeply on ancient documents and other research to tell the tale of how Christianity grew from a handful of followers to more than 30 million followers over four centuries. After Jesus’ death, this rag-tag group of illiterate peasants embraced a message of love and service, equality and community that challenged the dominant ideology of imperial Rome. Contrary to Roman teachings, under which there existed a clear hierarchy between classes of people, in Christianity no such hierarchies existed and everyone—master and slave, husband and wife, healthy and sick—was equal before God. As Ehrman points out, a core group of this early community preached this new message zealously, pointing out both to Jews and non-Jews the benefits of acknowledging the divinity of one God and properly worshipping this God. The development of early Christianity was never easy since various imperial groups persecuted Christians; yet in spite of such persecution, Christianity grew through word of mouth among family and friends. Eventually, Christianity was tolerated and then legalized by the Roman Empire. As Ehrman concludes in this stimulating book, Christianity took over the empire and radically altered the lives of those living in it by opening the doors of public policies to the poor, the sick and the outcasts as deserving members of society.
One leader of the early church, Paul of Tarsus, did even more to spread this new gospel of one God. In his monumental, meticulously detailed and elegant study, Paul: A Biography, N.T. Wright, Chair of New Testament and early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, presents a fascinating portrait of a man who went from persecuting Christians to being their biggest advocate. Since Paul tells most of his story in his letters, Wright carefully and closely reads these letters to illustrate that Paul combined the winsome with the rigorous to share his message. Wright points out that Paul’s deeply Jewish education provides the foundation for his vision of Christianity: to love one’s neighbor and to love the one God with all one’s heart, soul and might. Above all, Paul emphasizes the “family life of believers,” what he begins to call the church—a new kind of community in which “each worked for all and all for each.”
A NEW MESSAGE
By the Middle Ages, Paul’s message of a new community was lost in the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church, which focused inward to take care of itself. In the striking and compulsively readable Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within by Joel F. Harrington, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, the life of Eckhart (1260-1328), a Dominican friar who taught a message of the holiness of the individual that was inward and outward, is explored. Eckhart delivered a new teaching: by letting go of worldly things—even the image of God Himself—we prepare ourselves for an experience of the divine. Harrington examines Eckhart’s own process toward this teaching in the book’s four sections: “Letting Go of the World,” “Letting Go of God,” “Letting Go of the Self” and “Holding On to Religion.” For Eckhart, the experience of the divine means not withdrawal from the world, but a renewed energy to love and serve others. The divine spark within each of us, Eckhart teaches, links us to others and to creation. Harrington’s striking portrait of Eckhart illustrates the ways Eckhart’s teachings remain fresh even for today’s Christians.