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The True Face of Religion

Jenny Messenger

foerDiarmaid MacCulloch
A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
Allen Lane, 2009
1216 Pages
ISBN 978-0713998696

Diarmaid MacCulloch has a sensible approach to the cluster of contradictions that constitute religion. Speaking in Oxford about his latest tome, The History of Christianity, the esteemed Professor of the History of the Church championed religious diversity in both principle and practice.

Throughout the lecture, MacCulloch expressed distaste for the tidy-minded certainty of dogmatism. Although he has no particular attachment to any one version of religion, MacCulloch has respect for others who do—and problems with those who don’t. In response to questions about Richard Dawkins, for instance, he evinced a mixture of brief amusement and repugnance over the scientist’s disregard for a phenomenon which is so important to so many.

MacCulloch’s ecumenicism makes him the near-perfect man for his ambitious project. As its title suggests, The History of Christianity aims to do no less than detail the entire muddled history of that religion, beginning from the premise that God was made man in Jesus. This endeavour is a slog at 1,161 pages, but it does the many faces of Christianity justice.

For his short talk in Oxford, MacCulloch focused on the lesser known sects outside Christianity’s main groupings (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox): those who oppose the Chalcedonian definition, the refuseniks once the future of the religion. MacCulloch’s illumination of these “possibilities that flickered and disappeared” was particularly insightful, and although he did admit a slight tendency to romanticize what might have been, he did so with evidence.

MacCulloch also made an observation about the politics of Christianity, drawing a neat parallel between the slow revolution that led to divergence from the Bible’s tolerance for slavery and contemporary discussions of homosexuality. This pointed aside typified his natural, engaging style—a persona MacCulloch has no doubt honed hosting the BBC Four television series that is running in conjunction with his book. MacCulloch, it appears, is as adaptable as his subject matter in reaching the masses.

Despite this air of a thoroughly packaged deal, MacCulloch’s diversity comes across well in the end. Ultimately, he aims for fair representation rather than expression of personal belief, and succeeds.

Jenny Messenger is a second-year classics student at Worcester College, Oxford. She is an editor of ORbits.