Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Books Worth Reading (5): Christianity: A Very Short Introduction by Linda Woodhead

Linda Woodhead, Christianity: A Very Short Introduction 2nd ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

This book is neither a work of apologetics directed to non-Christians nor an exposition of the Christian faith written for insiders. It is a social, historical and cultural description of Christianity written for readers who are theologically uncommitted and culturally-  and/or  intellectually curious.  But it is, nevertheless, a book that the theologically-committed insider could find well-worth reading, precisely because it gives something of an outsider's perspective on this phenomenon we know as 'Christianity'.

Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University.  She is one of the most prominent and prolific sociologists writing on religion, especially on religion in the UK. As a sociologist she has particular ideological commitments shaped by that discipline, but that in no way devalues the book or lessens its value to a Christian reader. It is impossible to tell from this work her own relationship to the Christian faith (and this is a strength and not a weakness of the book)
Belonging to this particular OUP series, it is, obviously enough, a very short book: only 120 pages. It is divided into 6 chapters: (1) Jesus: the God-man; (2) Beliefs, rituals and narratives; (3) The spread of Christianity; (4) Church and Biblical Christianity; (5) Monastic and mystical Christianity; and (6) Christianity in the modern world. Then follows a Conclusion, a two-page chronology of the major events in Christianity's history, and the customary Suggestions for Further Reading.
She describes the first two chapters as introducing "the basic Christian repertoire" (1). It's an interesting phrase which offers a rather different framework than might, say, 'doctrines' or 'beliefs'.  Indeed, she uses it to identify what it is typical of Christianity across it doctrinal diversity. She refers to how "we can turn down the volume on such differences in order to introduce common themes in the Christian repertoire" (p.21).

It is of course, the person of Jesus and some basic beliefs about him which constitute the core of this 'repertoire'. She makes the fairly obvious point that the "canonical Jesus is far more influential than any 'real' Jesus who lies behind the gospels and inspires their portraits" (p.7). Because she is not writing for the theologically-committed, she can make this historical and cultural observation without having to enter contemporary theological debates about the relationship between Jesus and the gospels: "So far as history is concerned, it is the Jesus of the New Testament who has inspired more lives and worked more miracles than the elusive figure historians struggle to reconstruct" (p.7). The theologically committed will take comfort or discomfort from this depending on their views of the status of the 'biblical' or 'canonical' Jesus, but the theologically-neutral observation about the historically-influential Jesus, needs to be weighed in any attempt to find a more 'real' Jesus allegedly more germane to contemporary or culturally-specific interests.

Woodhead's sociological framework is perhaps most evident in her alertness to the connections between social conditions and the spread of Christianity over its 2000-year history. In this regard her brief overview is a helpful foil to the often romanticised and triumphant accounts of Christianity's expansion. For instance, she notes the pre-700AD limited eastward-spread of Christianity towards India and China and their existing religions. She then  contrasts this with the more successful westward spread during the same period. Of this contrast she notes: "Without political backing Christianity was unable to do more than win over small marginal social groups when other religions dominated a territory". On the other hand, the alliance between Christianity and power which accompanied Christianity's renewed attempts to move into those areas in the area of European colonisation did not necessarily lead to greater acceptance. If anything, it has been the "withdrawal of Western colonial powers [that] has led to greater opportunities for Christianity than before" (p. 54). In an important passage, she notes the alliance between certain forms of Christianity, globalisation, and the twentieth-century expansion of Christianity into the global south. Here she finds parallels with the spread of  Islam in the same areas during the same period. Her comments are worth quoting at some length.
In this post-colonial phase, Christianity has been more fully owned and adopted by people who were previously colonial subjects. Many parts of the southern hemisphere have witnessed the growth of new globally networked forms of Christianity, most notably the Pentecostal and Charismatic.... Since their rise has been contemporaneous with that of resurgent Islam, it is interesting to compare the two. Both have flourished in territories which were previously under western colonial control. Both have a globalizing tendency. Both represent indigenous movements of modernization. To be part of recent Islamic or Charismatic upsurges is to be part of global movements with the resources and sense of universal, triumphant purpose that entails. Individuals' horizons and sense of identity are raised from the local or even the national to the global level by belonging to these religions, and power is enhanced accordingly. Through membership one can lay hold of many of the benefits of modernity - including education, technology, and affluence - but without having to westernize. The best of both worlds (p. 54).
There are all sorts of interesting sparks to reflection here, not least the connection between faith, power, globalization and modernity. And the relation of this phenomenon to the attraction of earlier power-less forms of Christianity to 'small marginal groups' warrants considerable theological reflection. 
The expansion of Christianity during the previous century has, of course, taken many forms. Yet, for Woodhead,"[u]nderstanding this huge internal variety within Christianity is less important than understanding the religion's main fault lines" (p.57). To this end (and with a sociologist's nod to Ernst Troeltsch) she believes the diversity of Christianity can best be described in terms of what she designates as its four major types: church, biblical, mystical and monastic. Her descriptions of each of these types are highly illuminating. Perhaps just as illuminating is her suggestion that despite the recent expansion and diversification, none of the new manifestations of Christianity in Asia or Africa, for instance, has introduced any new basic type. Pentecostalism, Fundamentalism, and Charismatic Evangelicalism can still be classified by new four-fold typology, even if in different configurations (see p. 89). In other words, the expansion of Christianity in Asia and Africa is proceeding along trajectories which are generated by the basic reality that Christianity is and has been.
As she surveys the contemporary global phenomenon of Christianity, she does seem to suggest that there is one particularly decisive fault line which runs through and across all the different types of Christianity: "More than modern science, it is modern liberal values and a turn to subjective experience which have challenged and divided Christians" (p. 90). She also suggests that Liberal Christianity will have to come to terms with its own failed promise. At it origins, Liberal Christianity saw itself as part of the onward march of modern history which would sweep aside tyranny and "superstition, and replace them with more liberal political arrangements and more rational faith" (p. 97f). 'History', however, has pursued different paths and Liberal Christianity is largely being bypassed:  "Right up to the 1970s it seemed reasonable to think that Liberal Christianity would continue to dominate the Christian, especially Protestant world.... Despite the considerable success...by the end of the 20th century it was clear that confidence in its inevitable triumph had been misplaced" (p.98f). (This observation certainly warrants reflection within the UCA and other mainline protestant churches which have been deeply shaped by the traditions of liberal theology, but that's a task beyond this present post.)

As I noted above, although the book is written for the theologically uncommitted, I think that the theologically committed would find it well worth reading precisely to get a taste of how Christianity is presented when there is no grinding of the theological axes which (inevitably and often quite properly) preoccupy the churches. In that way the book could be a helpful change of pace for church discussion groups which might otherwise draw on typically internal resources to spark their discussions. In short: this book could serve such groups very well and help them get even just a hint of what Christianity looks like from the outside - across both time and place. I can't help but think that that would be a good thing.

(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)

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