“The Christian World” and Its Shortcomings

Martin Marty is, unquestionably, one of the giants in Christian scholarship and publishing. Consequently, and perhaps unfairly, there is a heightened level of expectation when consuming any of his work and, if that effort should prove lacking, an exaggerated sense of disappointment. Such was the case when I expectantly picked up his The Christian World: A Global History. Published as part of the Modern Library Chronicles, The Christian World is purposefully brief and its treatment deliberately shallow. Instead, the book sets out to give an overview of Christianity from the perspective of it’s global presence, purporting to correct a typically euro-centric reading of the majority of Christian history. Instead, Christianity for Marty is a narrative best seen through its various continental episodes by which he organizes the larger work (e.g. “The First Asian Episode,” “The Latin American Episode,” “The Second African Episode”).

Unfortunately, this methodology, which should be the primary draw for the work, manifests in ways more artificial than informative. Marty admits early on that when defining what is “Asian,” “African,” and “European” that he will be using modern continental distinctions. The problem with this approach is that the modern continents do not reflect the outlook of ancient peoples. In the Mediterranean world in particular, Marty’s segregation of the Roman empire into Asian, African, and European contingents proves nothing short of willful anachronism.

The initial chapter beyond Marty’s retelling of the Gospel is supposedly about Christianity in Asia, though in fact it focuses almost exclusively on the Levant and Asia minor. That the Levant is technically in Asia according to modern line drawers says nothing of its essential orientation at the time of Christ or the centuries that followed. It faced—ideologically, commercially, and politically—to the West, which is why the end of Paul’s earth, a fact which Marty earlier notes, was Spain and not China. Meanwhile, calling the Byzantine “episode” Asian only creates the impression of global focus. The majority of the “story” narrated is one included in Western-centric retellings and intimately involved, though he is loathe to mention it, interaction between Constantinople and Rome. The same is not true of Constantinople and any truly Asian Christian centers, great or small.

Unfortunately, the same complaint holds for the first African episode, which focuses on North Africa to the exclusion of the rest of the continent (in spite of a thriving Christian community in sub-Saharan Ethiopia). The central “African” figures are Tertullian and Augustine. Never mind that Tertullian spent most of his time indulging in Phrygian heresies and arguing with Rome about them, or that Augustine’s most influential teaching revolved around a British heretic. The story, rightly told, is a single Mediterranean episode, and any continental scheme to the contrary reflects, rather blatantly, a modern understanding of what it means to be global.

Marty realizes, if never fully admits, how problematic his scheme is, and he is forced to abandon it on several occasions. For example, having nowhere else to put them, most of the major late antique heresies find their way into a catalog of error in the first African chapter. The fact that Montanism and Manichaeism are Asian heresies, and Pelagianism and Novatianism European ones, does not warrant their removal to their respective chapters. Instead, through scholastic sleight of hand, Marty talks about them as imports to North Africa, never bothering to stress that they were equally if not more fully present in Europe or Asia as well. Perhaps most amusingly of all, Marty apologetically includes much of Eastern Europe in his first Asian chapter because to treat it where it technically belonged would be to put the European Orthodox in an episode with Rome rather than the with Constantinople. Then, in a radical about-face, all the Orthodox find themselves lumped into the second European episode “for convenience’ sake” and because they have “location and interests in Europe.” Had he been honest from the beginning, he would have made his divisions on the basis of where “interests” lay throughout the work.

Even as he moves into Latin, North American, and later Asian and African chapters where the focus is truly on continents and those continental divisions represent real cultural orientations, Marty’s system remains an overemphasized organizational tool rather than a means for enriching the readers understanding of Christianity. Very little effort is made to link what makes, for example, Asian Christianity Asia or European Christianity European beyond merely their locations. The exceptions here are with Latin American Christianity and modern African Christianity, which Marty gives the kind of local flare necessary to a better understanding of Christianity as a global movement. Unfortunately, Marty’s attempts to parrot this effort in North America fall into the old traps of too often artificially dividing the Atlantic world in the way he divided the Mediterranean one. The final Asian episode is the least fruitful, as the narrative told is less about Asian Christianity than about the failures of European Christianity in Asia. Even leaving aside that his tour of “all continents” neglects Oceania for all but one short paragraph near the end of the concluding chapter, there is a thriving indigenous Christianity in Asia that warrants further study.

The other major shortcoming of Marty’s work–which I hope I can treat more briefly–is his never very subtle apology for inclusivism as the cure to Christianity’s ills. In the Introduction, Marty has already begun, arguing that Christianity’s greatest atrocities have been committed where exclusivist claims exist. Christianity has been an agent of love, he insists, but when it isn’t, exclusivism is to blame. Assuming a causal relationship of necessity between exclusivism and evil misunderstands the connection. Exclusivism is only necessary for religion to function as a justification for evil. That it does not cause evil is evidenced by the persistence of evil even in the absence of religious exclusivism as a stated cause. Other exclusivist motives gladly take up the slack to justify what is ultimately a deeper impulse to evil: racial, national, and ideological exclusivism have all been marshaled to justify greater atrocities in the last century than religious exclusivism.

Of course, Marty never engages the issue that directly, preferring to let it hover beneath the surface, bubbling over in only slightly more subtle ways. His eulogistic praise of little known inclusivists like Bardesanes or the the “adventuresome” theologians after Vatican II who wanted to dialogue between Buddhists and Catholics until the fearful, censorious exclusivists silenced them. Marty contrasts Enlightenment figures who saw the “moral and humanitarian equivalence” of the Abrahamic faiths with “militant dogmatic Christians” who opposed them. He brings to the forefront as often as manageable and in the best light possible any movement which tended toward ecumenicism, inclusivism, or inter-faith dialogue. It is only in his concluding notes that he formally recognizes this bias, answering his own “so what” with a plea to allow interfaith dialogue to ameliorate conditions between rival religions. It is an interesting issue which warrants attention, but it is, nevertheless, grossly out of place in a condensed survey of Christian history. More to the point, the furtive way that Marty weaves it into the narrative, allowing it to color his reading of history only to pretend at the close that history has independently led the reader and writer both to a common conclusion, is, for lack of a more diplomatic and academic word, sleazy.

Yet, for all that, Marty’s The Christian World is not a bad book. As noted from the outset, many of the complaints arise from heightened expectations based on the author’s status. If the totally uninitiated reader picks up this text and reads it cover to cover–and it is a remarkably easy read, if a bit dull at times–he will emerge on the other side with substantially more hard data about Christian history. As a survey, there are better texts, ones not so hampered by the author’s political agenda or marriage to an artificial, often distracting, methodology. As a look at Christianity’s global character, it falls short in that it fails to recognize and study along real lines of cultural, political, and ideological distinction. The reader might have been better served–at least in this particular goal–by dropping the Mediterranean and Atlantic stories altogether, instead giving exclusive focus to India, Mongolia, Ethiopia, indigenous African and South American Pentecostalism, and Korea (among others). Of course, with its primary purpose being to survey all of Christian history, Marty clearly should instead have dropped the flawed methodology.

Though it may come as a shock, I do recommend Marty’s book, to a limited audience and for perhaps more venal reasons. For those who have no concept of Christian history or have only a rudimentary grasp of post-Reformation Protestant history, the book is an acceptable survey to begin with. There are others, certainly, but to have a scholar of Marty’s trustworthiness–and there are no grave errors in the book, other than interpretive ones (which are, of course, subjective)–as the author of a book that Amazon will let you have in hardcover for less than ten dollars (free shipping) is a blessing.

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