Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline. Peter Lang Religion and Theology List. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. 289pp. $38.95..
The narrative of Christianity’s growth from Jerusalem to Rome, from Western Europe to the United States, and from the United States to the rest of the world is one that is familiar, simple, and deeply flawed. Dyron Daughrity’s Church History is an effort to correct and complicate this oversimplified reconstruction of Christian history, a task which has occupied much of Daughrity’s previous scholarship. Scholars of religion and historians have known for decades that the characterization of Christianity as a Euro-American religion is incorrect, but recent demographic shifts that have made the Global South the heart of worldwide Christianity render this academic observation increasingly relevant for ministers, missionaries, and Christians at large. In response, Daughrity joins a growing number of authors who have rightly divined the need for an accessible introduction to church history that takes seriously the religion’s global past and present.
Daughrity argues that critical to a proper understanding of Christian history is an understanding not merely of what happened but of how people think about what happened. Accordingly, each chapter of his book corresponds to a major approach to thinking about church history. The first and most familiar of these is the chronological approach in which he divides his sweeping retelling of church history into seven largely conventional spans of time. Next, Daughrity offers a denominational approach by retelling separately the histories of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant veins of Christianity. His third chapter gives a sociological approach to religion, stressing moments of statistical growth or decline in Christian history. In chapter four, Daughrity employs a geographic approach to explore the distinctive history of Christianity in the eight “cultural blocks” of the world, paying special attention to the role of location in shaping regional beliefs and practices. Finally, using a biographical approach, Daughrity offers brief sketches of figures from each of the twenty-one centuries of Christian history, taking special care to include, alongside many traditional figures, the lives of important women, Christians from outside the standard Euro-American narrative, and non-Christians who have been critical in Christian history.
The emphasis on explaining church history as a discipline in addition to relaying the content of that history is key to what Daughrity believes his book offers. Consequently, he dedicates a significant portion of each chapter, before any actual history is given, to explaining the methods of each approach and exploring how each mode of thinking about history affects the way the narrative is structured. This useful focus has the unfortunate consequence, however, of making the history retold seem redundant at times. For example, readers are offered a history of recession and secularization as one of the seven chronological periods, as a key observation of the sociological approach, and as a distinctive feature of the Western Europe geographical region. Similarly, the discussion of the Orthodox as a denomination overlaps significantly with the history of Eastern Europe as a cultural block. Differences of emphasis exist as a result of the variety of approaches, but they are subtle and will not likely be satisfying to anyone who comes to Daughrity’s text looking for an introduction to church history.
Church History will be of most use to formal students of Christian history who are still in the early stages of their training, and the discussion questions offered at the end of each chapter suggest that the book was designed for a classroom setting. Daughrity does, however, make a number of observations that are helpful for Anglophone Christians trying to navigate the global religious marketplace. His analysis of Russian Orthodox reactions to post-Soviet evangelism is an important insight for anyone trying to repair the damage of the anti-Christian communist program in Eastern Europe. The focus on genocides against Christians as a key feature of the last century is tied intimately to the psyche of surviving communities in places like Armenia. The novel analyses of secularized Western Europe, Christianized Africa, and newly opened Asia invite readers to reconsider where the global mission fields are and who is tasked with evangelizing them. Recurring musings about what makes religions thrive or die invites a scientific perspective into longstanding questions about the means and efficacy of missions. Observations like these, intentionally applied to missions or not, appear constantly throughout the text.
Daughrity’s book offers very little to those who have a firm base of knowledge about church history and—as is the case with any survey so brief—much to quibble about. Yet for those new to the discipline, particularly those trying to grapple with indigenous Christianities about which they have no historical base of knowledge, Church History is an able tutor for thinking about global Christianity. As promised from the outset, Daughrity has crafted “readable, lively, and inviting” (xi) text for recent initiates into Christian history and has peppered it with interesting and obscure characters, exotic and forgotten places, and enough autobiographical asides from his own extensive travels to make it an engaging read from cover to cover.
Sean Patrick Webb
PhD Student, History
Texas Tech University