Thoughts on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s ‘A History of Christianity’ — Episode 2

Detail from a painting by Guercino, circa 1626, depicting Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590—604) with later Catholic saints, Ignatius and Francis Xavier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Detail from a painting by Guercino, circa 1626, depicting Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590—604) with later Catholic saints, Ignatius and Francis Xavier. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Grace Dalton reflects on the second episode in the series on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity.

“Eighty years ago, my mother was a little girl…. One day she was out walking with my grandfather, devout,… Anglican;… [he] made it quite clear that he would be highly displeased if she even went inside a Roman Catholic church to look round.” Diarmaid MacCulloch’s anecdotal introduction to the second episode in his series on the history Christianity provides a touch of sentimentality and depth. We’re reminded of the acrimonious rift between Churches less than a century ago. He ponders, “That seems a world away now,” but perhaps ought to consider that it won’t for some viewers: notably those in Northern Ireland.

“How did a small Jewish sect from first century Palestine, which preached humility and the virtue of poverty, become the established religion of Western Europe, powerful, wealthy, and expecting unfailing obedience from the faithful?” MacCulloch asks. An insightful question, refreshingly highlighting the chasm between original Christianity and the later, misleading representation with which many non-Christians will be more familiar.

“It is remarkable that the first Christians persevered amidst the brutality inflicted upon them for their allegiance to Christ. Their endurance supports the case for the resurrection. Why does MacCulloch not take a moment to draw attention to the significance of this?”

Commencing his expedition, he rightly points out that it’s “very odd” that the centre of the Western Church is Rome, given its responsibility for Jesus’ death, and for subsequent centuries of severe persecution. He negligently makes no mention of how remarkable it is that the first Christians persevered amidst the brutality inflicted upon them for their allegiance to Christ. Given that he does speculate on thoughts and motives throughout his programmes, why does he not take a moment to draw attention to the significance of persecuted Christians in Rome refusing to deny Christ? Their endurance supports the case for the resurrection — perhaps they were willing to suffer, and even be martyred, because they’d heard ample testimony from Jesus’ eyewitnesses; or experienced His undeniable power in their hearts or through the apostles’ miracles. Why not renege following Christ to escape torture and death if His resurrection were but an unsubstantiable rumour?

Recounting the first generation of Christianity, MacCulloch fleetingly mentions the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans; the spread of Christianity south and east; Paul’s missions; and his martyrdom. Given the significance of these events, it seems neglectful to afford them a mere minute of the programme. He references the graves of Peter and Paul as lures for early Christians, and tells us that “at that stage, there was no hint that one of them would become the sole spiritual leader of the church” — why? Whether or not, at a point in the past, something seemed unlikely to happen is surely speculative; but I’d argue that what we read in the New Testament suggests that it in fact did seem probable that one of them would have become the Church’s ‘spiritual leader.’ For example: “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas [Peter],’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” (1 Corinthians 1:12); and Jesus’ statement that He will build His Church on Peter’s declaration of faith, imply precisely what MacCulloch describes as unforeseeable. Might he, in describing the beginning of Christianity as unfathomable, be adding to the notion that it was an inauthentic construction?

At Ostia (a port 12 miles south-west of Rome), he tells us of the initial Western community of Christians gathering “to share an idea which has seized millions across 2,000 years. Eternal salvation is open to anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.” I appreciate such a transparent statement of the Gospel. Though I wonder why he refers to “millions” rather than billions, and why no explanation is offered for the curious fact that those early Christians believed that they had witnessed, or spoken to others who had witnessed, the risen Christ. For the non-Christian majority(?) of viewers, this fundamental point ought to be conspicuously conveyed. “At the heart of their new faith was a ritual symbolising selfless love, sharing a meal…. breaking bread and drinking wine in thanksgiving for Jesus Christ,” he states. But there’s a glaring omission of any reference to the Last Supper, again potentially advancing the idea of Christianity as a construction lacking any foundation in actual events.

As McCulloch proceeds to discuss the early proliferation of Christianity into the Roman Empire, he claims that seeing images of crosses appearing “on walls and floors” would have frustrated traditionally minded Romans, who would have believed their gods to be offended. However, Rome’s polytheism would have rendered worship of Christ relatively inoffensive — rather, it was the Christians’ refusal to worship Roman gods in addition to Christ was controversial and led to much of Rome’s persecution of them.

“Stories spread that Christians actually drank blood during their ceremonies. Well, after all, that’s what they said they did…. Christian love feasts were said to be incestuous orgies.” It seems neglectful not to correct these misapprehensions. He describes, very briefly, what went on during the Great Persecution at the end of the third century. I can’t help but feel that a few more moments of discussion of this persecution could have been included — the barbarous atrocities endured by thousands of people[1] surely warrants more than several sentences? Our culture today, particularly across the pond, considers Christianity to be overly privileged, and whether or not that suspicion is accurate, it renders the brutality through which the first Christians persisted particularly pertinent.

“‘But Christian fortunes were about to change dramatically,’ narrates MacCulloch, taking the viewer forward into the reign of Constantine, who, ‘for reasons which lie buried forever in his mind, became convinced that the Christian God had helped him hack his way to power.’ Why evade any mention of the historically recorded reason: the sign of the cross appearing in the sky, recorded by Eusebius?”

“But Christian fortunes were about to change dramatically,” narrates MacCulloch, taking the viewer forward into the reign of Constantine, who, “for reasons which lie buried forever in his mind, became convinced that the Christian God had helped him hack his way to power.” Why evade any mention of the historically recorded reason: the sign of the cross appearing in the sky, as recorded by Eusebius? Obviously, MacCulloch and most viewers will dismiss the possibility of a supernatural vision, but it should nevertheless be mentioned that this is what was recorded in antiquity; “he saw with his own eyes in the heavens and a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces” (“with this sign, you shall win”).[2] Viewers should be afforded the opportunity to consider this well-established account themselves — described, as it is, as the claim of a contemporary historian. But instead, MacCulloch cynically inserts his own idea regarding Constantine’s conversion: “This was the God whose followers were still being persecuted by his rivals and that might have had something to do with it.”

Constantine, we’re told, set about transforming the empire, rooting out paganism. This is, however, an imbalanced simplification. His description portrays the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire as a sort of ‘erasure process’ enacted against pagans, but according to historian Peter Brown, the restrictions were modest, and individual pagans were not oppressed. Decreeing that polytheists may “celebrate the rites of an outmoded illusion,” Constantine in fact tolerated paganism.[3],[4] Historian Ramsay MacMullen writes that, though the construction of new temples was eventually banned, pagan temples were also protected from looting.

Visiting St Peter’s Basilica, MacCulloch describes St Peter’s promotion to a position of headship in Catholic tradition. His declaration that [it was believed that] “Rome knows best. The centre is what matters,” suggests that the Church was something cult-like in nature. Whether or not this is justified, it does align with the bias demonstrated elsewhere by MacCulloch; and he neglects the spiritual and communal aspects of the Church. He describes Pope Damasus as the first ‘pope’ in office (highly debateable), and explains that the See of Rome (‘Papacy’ if you like) was by now considered to be an apostolic succession from Peter. I’m perplexed, however, by his comment that, “I’ll stick my neck out and say that I don’t believe that Peter was bishop of Rome.” He says this as though the first generation of Christians in Rome in the 50’s A.D. would have been so organized as to have a bishop heading them, in the later, formal understanding of that word.[5] Surely it’s plausible that when Catholics refer to Peter as ‘bishop of Rome’ they simply mean that he was the primary leader of the first Christians there? Is MacCulloch sticking his neck out to misinform over what is merely semantics?

He proceeds to portray Damasus as particularly concerned with finery, describing the catacombs that he had restored as “a luxury mausoleum for the aristocratic members of his congregation in Rome” with “the best, most expensive imperial lettering you could get.” Yet these were merely a minor component of his work; no mention is afforded to the Council of Rome over which he presided, which was one of the fourth-century Councils to decide upon the canon of Scripture. Why has MacCulloch made a point of the Church’s supposed vanity, but neglected to mention a matter that’s fundamental to Christianity today and about which non-Christians often ask? And why frame the work of developing and inscribing martyrs’ tombs so cynically, just as he failed earlier to highlight the significance of Christians’ willingness to die for their faith?

At least he mentions the Vulgate, “a new translation of the Bible in fine classical Latin,” commissioned by Damasus to his secretary, Jerome, “whose work was so thorough and impressive that it’s been the approved Latin translation of the Bible ever since.” It’s regrettable that he doesn’t spend just a few moments more on describing the process undertaken in composing the Vulgate, given its enduring importance. We’re told that this development enabled the Western half of the empire to “not just to worship, but to think in Latin,” which is logical; then we’re told that, now, “The Catholic Church had friends in high places. Now a religion fit for gentlemen” — which it isn’t. If he’s going to paint the Church as élitist, could he not provide some explanation as to why this is?

“MacCulloch’s succinct descriptions of theological concepts are sometimes informative, yet they are also sometimes inaccurate and are often are constructed in a way that will seem off-putting to viewers unfamiliar with Christianity.”

By way of contrast, he then endeavours to explain the doctrine of Original Sin. He asserts that this is something which anyone who is “in any sense a Western Christian… live[s] with… even if [they] fight against it.” I suspect that some Westerners who consider themselves Christians might disagree with this. What is genuinely irksome about this, is that it implies that a person’s state of sinfulness is determined by the theological proclamations of a scholar from the same hemisphere. In fact, the doctrine is believed by many Christians, and applied to all, with the crucial proviso that all are offered salvation from Original Sin. MacCulloch’s succinct descriptions of theological concepts are sometimes informative, yet they are also sometimes inaccurate and are often are constructed in a way that will seem off-putting to viewers unfamiliar with Christianity.

“Paul [the apostle] confronted [Augustine] with his own sin and told him that the only way to salvation was through purity of life.” This is misleading: Paul by no means teaches salvation through purity, but by grace through faith. In discussing Original Sin, MacCulloch neglects to explain the offer of grace made to all — “by grace you have been saved” — and portrays Christianity as a dismally bleak belief system. “It means that you and I are so corrupted by sin there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves from Hell.” This is both true, and why Christ came — which is reason for joyous hope. MacCulloch, then, is dipping into complex and controversial theological issues, without offering the nuance that would leave any viewers with any sympathy for Christianity. He’s also spouting his own interpretation, rather than quoting either Scripture or the writings of Augustine.

Additionally, MacCulloch suggests that sex is considered the root of sin, and we are each thus inherently affected as “sin is transmitted [via] the sexual act… maybe the modern West is so obsessed with good sex as the symbol of a fulfilled life, precisely because the Western Latin Church has been so long obsessed with bad sex as the root of human sin.” He mentions Adam and Eve’s disobedience but does not tell the audience what this was. Consequently, he leaves us with the impression that all of humanity is doomed because of sex, perpetuating the misunderstanding that many non-Christians have of Christianity being anti-sex and as judgemental of innocent people. Christianity does teach that original sin was born of Adam and Eve’s choice to do what they’d been told not to; and that we each choose to disobey also is how we know that we ourselves are sinful. Hence we are not condemned on the basis of our parents’ intimacy. The idea that our culture obsesses over sex because of the Church’s view of it sounds bizarre — it’s not, as he states “bad sex” that Christianity opposes, and “good sex” that culture obsesses over. Christianity speaks against sexual immorality, and it’s this which Western culture is increasingly supportive of. Culture does not obsess over sex because it follows from Christian heritage as MacCulloch implies; rather, as culture abandons Christianity, it increasingly worships sex. I wonder whether his words here are a reflection of his own feeling of being judged by the Church for his homosexuality?

Advancing further chronologically, he narrates the sacking of the Roman Church by barbarians during the fifth century onwards, and describes the Church as being at a crossroads. He suggests that the Church might have integrated with the Eastern Church, or with that of the barbarians; the former would in fact evolve into the Eastern Orthodox Church, whilst the latter problematically embraced Arianism. Arianism, he claims, made possible the mosaics that he now visits as he attends. Praising one which shows Jesus without a beard, he concludes that this shows a young Christ; whilst another mosaic nearby shows a bearded Christ that he deems older, surmising that they offer evidence that Arianism affirmed Jesus’ humanity. “So, the Arian Christ, like us, he grows older. He’s human.” He says this as if other branches of Christianity deny the humanity of Christ, but this is utterly fallacious; Jesus began His ministry at the age of 30, so was mature enough to be bearded at any point that artists might want to depict, and acknowledgement of His humanity is ubiquitous within orthodox Christianity.

“The Bible repeatedly directs us to confess our sin (e.g., James 5:16), but many viewers will be unfamiliar with these verses, and might be left wrongly believing that confession is a tradition invented centuries after Christ.”

He describes the spread of monasteries, and the deployment of a group of monks to Britain at the end of the sixth century, where Augustine (of Canterbury) hoped Christianity could be re-established following several centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule after the departure of the Romans. The English Church was inaugurated, with Canterbury Cathedral as its heart, and a link with the Church in Rome symbolised by the pallium (a liturgical garment). Intriguingly, he tells us that the British Isles were where the institution of Confession originated, whilst he visits a remote Irish island. Indeed, the practice of confessing one’s sins in private to a priest, followed by acceptance, satisfaction and reconciliation, as determined by tariffs in books of penitences, did begin in the Celtic Church. Yet I wonder if the way in which he explains this is excessively binary, giving the impression that confessing one’s sins was non-existent prior to British monasticism? The Bible repeatedly directs us to confess our sin (e.g., James 5:16), but many viewers will be unfamiliar with these verses, and might be left wrongly believing that confession is a tradition invented centuries after Christ. There were other variations of penance within the Catholic Church prior to this tariff system, and the practice developed beyond Britain after its export from the Isles. Additionally, his description of confession as “a new practice designed to cope with that sense of guilt and falling short that Christians call sin” is misleadingly cynical; repentance is not merely a self-esteem technique in which a Christian aims to address their discomfort, it is the action that a Christian truly believes will allow the relationship established between him/herself and God through Christ to be maintained and restored. He does, however, fleetingly attempt to explore the implications of Catholic attitudes to repentance, and calls attention to its role in the split of the Reformation.

Next to be introduced is Charlemagne, as the Holy Roman Emperor installed in A.D. 800 by Pope Leo III. It’s implied that he hoped to strengthen the Church against the young religion of Islam. Yet there seems to be no evidence of this as I browse writings on them, which furthers my concern that MacCulloch is voicing his own hypotheses and opinion as fact at points within the programme. Rather, it’s apparent from numerous sources that uprising against Pope Leo III was a fundamental factor in his crowning of Charlemagne; yet this goes unmentioned.

MacCulloch describes Charlemagne as “a man with a fetish for history [who] loved to wallow
in the hot pools of Aachen, pretending to be a Roman at the baths.”
But how is he to know that Charlemagne was “pretending to be a Roman”? Numerous sources refer to his enjoyment of swimming, but it seems bizarrely presumptuous to tell viewers that he was indulging his imagination — and is not his choice of the word “fetish” merely an attempt at attention grabbing?

He goes on to explain the split, the so-called Great Schism, between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church in 1054, and postulates that, “The big theme of Catholicism has come to be the centre.” He tells us Pope Gregory the Great, at the beginning of the seventh century, aspired to “micro-manage the fate of every soul in Europe.” Other sources concur in regard to Gregory’s action to centralise the Church’s leadership, but again MacCulloch appears to be ascribing a motive — to “micro manage souls” — without evidence. Could he not have offered a quote from a writer at the time, or Gregory himself, that would demonstrate this assertion? This matters because the perception that the Church seeks to control people is pervasive and damaging.

Also damaging is the reality of his next point: the rule of celibacy enforced upon clergy in the Western Church. “Gregory… wanted the best, the most disciplined and the most loyal clergy possible.” Given that this policy is widely believed to contribute to the issue of child abuse by clergy, one feels that MacCulloch should here take a moment to explain that the restriction is not Biblical. He might have mentioned Paul’s words to the Corinthians imploring those at risk of being overcome by lust to marry. One wonders why MacCulloch is so opposed to mentioning scripture.

“If institutional Christianity has not always (indeed, frequently hasn’t) lived up to the message of Christ, yet objectively this does not detract from the eternal fact that Christ Jesus is the Saviour of humanity, and remains the Person both most relevant to, and most needed by, a hurting world.”

“What emerged was a single Western Latin Catholic society unified by the Latin language and underpinned by a complex religious bureaucracy. … And what was it all for? Nothing less than making all society holy.” What does he mean by this? Is he asserting that the structuring of the Holy Roman Empire was designed by rulers wishing simply to advance holiness? The keenness felt by individuals in power for control will have been a substantial factor; can we really assume that a desire for holiness was a factor in the oppression that ensued?

He then goes on to assert that, though “the pope… thought he was or [would] like to be a universal monarch reigning over all the rulers of the Earth,… this was not just a greedy church grabbing power. It was also intended to offer… salvation.” Intended by whom? The Pope’s attempt to power grab was surely not borne of any belief on his part that such a power structure would somehow lead to more people being saved? We need to make some careful distinctions in our thinking. On the one hand, worshippers may have been led to believe that submitting to the Pope would enable their salvation; but that does not demonstrate that Church leadership themselves truly believed this.

In short: Whilst this episode in the series has much to interest the viewer who would like to know more about the history of Christianity, it is greatly to be pitied that what is so often the hypocrisy and failure of organized Christianity, MacCulloch presents as if this were authentic Christianity itself, as taught by Christ. My hope and prayer is that viewers will be enabled to see this, and to recognize that, if institutional Christianity has not always (indeed, frequently hasn’t) lived up to the message of Christ, yet objectively this does not detract from the eternal fact that Christ Jesus is the Saviour of humanity, and remains the Person both most relevant to, and most needed by, a hurting world.

“For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’”
Romans 2:24[6]

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] William H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 319.

[2] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1:28. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great#War_against_Maxentius

[3] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200—1000, Repr, The Making of Europe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 74.

[4] Codex Theodosianius 9.16.2. See https://infogalactic.com/info/Persecution_of_pagans_in_the_late_Roman_Empire#Ban_on_new_temples.2C_toleration_of_sacrifices

[5] On the word ‘bishop’. This word translates the Greek episkopos (ἐπίσκοπος, G1985), which is found many times in the New Testament. However, it is probably best translated as ‘overseer’ rather than as ‘bishop’ with all the historical baggage that that word carries. Compare Philippians 1:1 in both the Authorized Version and the English Standard Version.

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+2%3A24&version=ESVUK

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