Church History In 20 Minutes?

A doozy today, my friends.  It turns out that someone has decided to condense all of Church History down into a twenty-minute lecture.  Twenty minutes.  I was both shocked and amused when I read this…and I had to check it out.

You can find the material on the blog No Longer Be Children, where the author splits apart his minimal opus into four parts: Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Magisterial Reformation, and Anabaptism.  The blog’s stated goal is to pursue a “stable, mature Christian worldview,” which I have to somewhat question if you’re only going to spend twenty minutes talking about two thousand years of Church History.  But I digress.

A few caveats here: 1) the author indicates that he only tracks the development of the Church up through 1700 (yet somehow manages to get to Vatican II), 2) he has made the strategic decision to record his “lectures” by apparent use of a Bluetooth in his car with the windows rolled down, and 3) he seems to have a pathological desire to diminish what I’ve spent the last 9 years studying.

There are so many holes in this project that I can’t even begin to address most of them.  The project could have been done with a bit of humor, like The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), but it wasn’t.  As it is, it is just kind of sad.  Nevertheless, a few thoughts:

  • Anabaptists?  Why  whole five minutes on the Anabaptists?  Turns out the author of the blog comes out of the Mennonite movement, which explains some of this.  Nevertheless, their inclusion as a full quarter of the lectures seems completely out of place.
  • Why are we all white?  Christianities in parts of the world other than Europe–some of which did exist before 1700–seem to be wholly ignored.  At least a discussion of early missions or the settlement of Latin America or something should be included here.
  • The strange concentration of Church History to a length shorter than an episode of The Simpsons does raise the interesting spectre that all historians face: picking and choosing topics and sources to include or exclude  in our writing.  Just as thia blogger has tried to do, all historians must necessarily limit their scope.  In so doing, other narratives get left by the wayside.  The discarded narrative options (pre-Augustinian Christianity, the Crusades, the mystics) are easy to hear in this case, but they are present through historical writing.

  • Why do we tend to give the Reformation so much importance?  A full half of all this Church History is Reformation-oriented, even though only one quarter of the story of Christianity has been touched by it.  Once again, prejudices and expectations and the social and theological location of the historian plays a huge role in determining such emphases.  But in general, I think we do give too much emphasis to the Reformation in modern day Protestant retellings of history.
  • Though fatally flawed and unsuccessful on a number of counts, this abbreviated effort does highlight the need for narrative and cohesiveness in the historical enterprise.  History is about telling good stories, thinking deeply about those stories, and allowing them to permeate our understandings of the actors and situations of the past even as it opens doors to understanding in the present.  I’m going to say it again: historians need to be good storytellers.
  • Lastly, and most hauntingly, when listening to this perfunctory twenty minute discussion I find it amazing how little of it matters.  History matters immensely, but if we who are the guardians of it treat it as a science only and not an art or philosophy of existence, we miss having it count for much at all.  It can become, in the words of the cynic, “One damned thing after another.”

But I have to ask.  All my critiques notwithstanding,  what would your twenty minutes look like?

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7 comments on “Church History In 20 Minutes?

  1. brianegelston says:

    Well, I’m not sure that I could do it in 20 minutes, but I’ve taught Church History in a Sunday School format using the following periodization: the Apostolic Church (AD 30 to AD 100), the Early Church (to AD 313), the Imperial Church (to ca. AD 600), the Medieval Church (to AD 1453), the Reforming Church (to AD 1648), the Modern Church (to ca. AD 1970), and Today’s Church (1970-present). I start with the basic presupposition that the True Church has had a continuous, visible existence from the Apostolic era to the present, and use the narrative framework that the Church is always moving (geographically), the Church is always being challenged, and the Church is always interacting with the culture around it. I guess my main themes would be how the Church has migrated and expanded throughout history, how the Church has responded to the main challenges to its existence (Persecution from Above, as in the Roman Empire per-Constantine; Invasion from Without, as in barbarian invasions of Christendom and, especially, the rise of Islam; and Betrayal from Within, as in the rise of Liberal theology and accommodation with Modernism), and how the Church has sought innovative ways to make the Gospel accessible in a variety of cultural settings.

    I usually do spend a fair bit of time discussing the Reformation, primarily because most of the denominational diversity that people in America see and have questions about springs from this period. I think that the Reformation is also important because of the profound influence it has had on Western, and, by extension, world culture over the last few centuries. It’s shaped the culture that forms at least some of the context in which all Christians live and do ministry. But perhaps modern Protestant readings overemphasize the Reformation because of a tendency toward omphaloskepsis. In other words, perhaps we modern Protestants are more concerned with maintaining our traditions and institutions than with discerning God’s direction for us and following His leading.

  2. brianegelston says:

    Oops, that’s supposed to be “pre-Constantine”

  3. Brian,

    Thanks for this. Make no mistake, I echo the importance of the Reformation for the modern day. I do believe that in our teaching it deserves a larger place than Nominalism or Hildegard’s mystical theology. At the same time, I feel like it threatens to go beyond even its appropriate place as favored subject material. For instance, I will be teaching Church History II at my school next semester. I reviewed the syllabus from last year, and found that they spent something like 4 or 5 weeks on the Reformation (including 2 on Luther) in a 15 week semester. Too much, I think. Especially considering how much there is to cover in the last 150 years…developments which, ostensibly, have much more to do with the modern day than Luther/Calvin.

    In a church context, I think deference to the founders and those with whom we have theological touchstones is appropriate, however.

    • brianegelston says:

      Yeah, I’d think that two weeks should be plenty for the Reformation, with an elective course for those who want to go into more depth. The Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies of the early 20th century are arguably both more complex and more pertinent to modern church life. Of course, maybe I’m just privileging my own Master’s work here…

  4. Regarding the tracing of the “True Church,” I am familiar with this line of thought, especially in its Pentecostal/Charismatic variant. I’m too much of a historian rather than practical theologian to be entirely comfortable with this, however.

  5. brianegelston says:

    I think I use the “True Church” theme more broadly than some. I contend that the “True Church” can always be found within the visible, institutional Church, even if some of the things that said Church is doing aren’t entirely Biblical or faithful. I agree that we can’t successfully separate the wheat from the tares, especially not by using the tools of the historian’s trade. I use the concept of God preserving a ‘True Church’ as a presupposition to counter those who want to de-legitimize certain eras of church history. I’ve seen certain die-hard Protestants treat the entire medieval church as an exercise in corruption and apostasy, or some Pentecostals disregard any part of church history between the Apostolic era and Azusa Street revivals. Yeah, it’s a theological statement, but one that find valuable when trying to get the average church attender engaged with history.

  6. OK, I think I understand more now. I agree wholeheartedly with you about countering those who seek to delegitimize certain eras of CH.

    And at a certain level, we’re all making some kind of theological statement in offering comment on the history of Christianity…myself the “historian” included.

    Good stuff, my friend. I hope you are well.

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