Book Reviews

The primary goal of the CHEF network is to be a blessing to “regular folks” by enriching their knowledge and appreciation of the history of Christianity.  One of the ways that I hope to accomplish this goal is by pointing you to resources out there that can teach you more about church history.

Consequently, one of the features of this website will be to provide reviews of popularly-published books that focus on church history, so that you can learn more via a format that many of us love — books!  I won’t deal in what are called “monographs” — books focused on one singular aspect of that history — but rather in volumes that take a much broader view.  Also, as needed, I may consider things that become pop culture “hits” (think of The Da Vinci Code from several years ago).  The books that currently have reviews are:

One note: although I am a scholar of Christian history, these reviews are not aimed at scholars.  As a result, I will always attempt to focus on things that will be of most help and interest to the interested “everyday folks” who visit the site.  As a part of this aim, I will conclude each review with a summary list of “pros” and “cons,” and I’ll also give a link to the publisher’s site for the book, if you want to hear more from the ones who made the book available.

Happy reading!  Thanks for being here!

Image credit: https://pixabay.com/

Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (4th edition)

Shelley Plain LanguageIn my review of Mark Noll’s Turning Points, I mentioned that that book is one of just a couple that I would recommend as a good first book to read about church history.  Another that would make that very short list, especially for evangelical readers, is Bruce Shelley‘s Church History in Plain Language.  I have taught from this book multiple times, and it has much to commend it, especially to an evangelical audience.

This book was first published in 1980 by Word Publishers (of Bible commentary fame) and now is produced by Thomas Nelson (who bought Word a while back).  From its first edition, the text seems to have represented Dr. Shelley‘s class notes.  This provenance manifests itself in two primary phenomena: the excellent story-telling approach that Shelley takes to his subject, and his rather idiosyncratic, laissez-faire approach to citation and quotations (more on both of these below).

In fact, for many readers it is Shelley‘s story-telling that is most attractive.  My students consistently report pleasure at this aspect of the book, as it helps them remember the characters that Shelley sketches so vividly.  Obviously, in an introductory textbook, one cannot tell all the stories, but Shelley does devote significant portions of chapters to such luminaries as Augustine, Pope Gregory I (“the Great”), Martin Luther, and John Wesley.  His descriptions truly jump off the page; in his hands, the people in question are not just two-dimensional characters, but instead they are full-bodied people that the reader can identify with.  It’s easy to imagine how these stories were originally an absorbing part of class lectures.

That said, it isn’t just people that he focuses on; there’s a nice balance of events and movements, too.  When you read the book, you learn a good bit about lots of different elements of church history, all of which can be augmented by further research into deeper specifics.  Given Shelley’s own personal commitments — he’s a conservative evangelical Protestant — it’s not surprising that there is more depth on the Protestant side than the Catholic; one example of this is that Shelley devotes a full chapter to each of the Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed, and Anglican branches of Protestantism.  But the Catholic story is not left aside; readers learn about 17th-century controversies, the 19th-century attitudes that led to the proclamation of the Pope’s infallibility, and the amazingly important council of the 20th century called Vatican II.

The fourth edition does represent something of a new stage in the book’s history.  Since Dr. Shelley died in 2010, his colleague R. L. Hatchett took over the latest version.  The modifications included a new foreword, some extra charts and figures to help comprehension, and a revamping of the last part of the book.  The final four chapters of the third edition became the last three chapters in fourth, and the changes are good.  One chapter is devoted to the mixed-up situation for Christians in the “West” (North America and Western Europe), and another is for how things look in the rest of the world, where Christianity is largely booming.  The final chapter tells some stories that illustrate those insights and dovetail nicely with the rest of the book.

The strangest thing about the book, as I noted above, is Shelley’s odd practice regarding quotations and citations.  He notes in his Prologue that he acquired thousands of quotations in his preparation for classes; he then says that he tries to cite his “major quotations” at the end of the book.  But wait!  Aren’t we supposed to cite ALL of our quotations?  Isn’t non-citation what we call “plagiarism”?  The answers, of course, are “yes.”  And in fact, I’ve found at least two places where he missed some quotations — whole paragraphs that come from one of the books that I know Shelley used, since he cites it elsewhere.  I may be naïve, but I don’t think that Shelley was trying to do something dishonest; sadly, he ends up doing so accidentally.  (By the way, this phenomenon is why I think he built the book from class notes; I assume quotations became part of those notes over time, and then they ended up in the book.)  (Also, in case you’re wondering, I have contacted Thomas Nelson about this issue, but multiple conversations have ended in silence on their end.)

So, to sum up, some pros and cons:

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Pros:

  • Very readable; easy to follow the writing and the story
  • Excellent breadth of coverage, from the 1st to the 21st centuries, including all branches of Christianity
  • Story-telling approach is very attractive; readers get a sense of the humanity of some important figures in church history
  • Helpful maps, timelines, sidebars, and charts
  • (For Protestant readers) An emphasis on the Protestant branch of Christianity

Cons:

  • Black-and-white copy is a bit old-fashioned; the lack of images is a disadvantage in our contemporary world that is so used to a plethora of pictures
  • A relative lack of depth on some of the more marginalized parts of Christianity, such as the Orthodox and other aspects of the “Christian east”
  • Difficulty in tracking down the sources of quotations and ideas; plagiarism can make the reader question the reliability of the narrative or presentation

Image credit: http://www.thomasnelson.com/church-history-in-plain-language

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Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (3rd edition)

9780801039966If someone were to ask me right now for one or two books to read, in order to get an overview of church history, one of the first things to come to my mind would be Mark Noll’s Turning Points.  Readers of the CHEF will not be surprised here, as I have thought enough of this book to create a curriculum for working through this book in a church education or book club context.

If you were to ask why this book in particular is one that I’d recommend, I’d have a lot to say.  First, it is very readable.  As a scholar myself, I know the challenges of writing for a “lay” audience — people who are interested in your material but don’t have the background to understand a lot of technical jargon.  Noll does an excellent job writing an accessible introduction to church history that doesn’t require a glossary.

Second, the book is not just text on a page.  Instead, there are several bonus features that can help all kinds of readers manage the material, like maps, charts, readings from primary sources, and bibliographies at the end of each chapter in case you want to learn more.  Also, to illuminate the event or time period from a more personal perspective, Noll begins each chapter with a Christian hymn that is connected with the event or period, and he concludes it with a prayer that is also germane to the topic.  Non-Christian readers may find these helpful for their historical value, but Christian readers will likely appreciate the spiritual connection that this framing device provides.

Finally (and I could list more, if you want, so just let me know), Noll’s method is especially useful for non-scholarly readers.  Education researchers tell us that experts have an easier time absorbing new material on a topic than do novices because they already have a framework about that topic, into which they can fit the new information.  Noll knows that lay readers likely don’t have that framework for church history — it’s why they’re reading the book!  So, in each chapter, in addition to discussing the event in question, he talks about the other events, people, and movements that led up to it (in other words, the background) and also the things that happened as a result of that event (the aftermath).   It’s hard for me to imagine a better way to help interested non-specialists to come to a greater knowledge of a set of historical topics.

There are a few things that one might wish for in a possible fourth edition of the book, as I note below in the “cons” section, but these may be more wishful thinking than anything else.  And besides, one of the virtues of a good introductory book is that it’s not too long.  If Noll and the publishers put in the things I mention below, the book will get longer and more expensive, which becomes counterproductive.

If you do choose to pick this book up, I hope it’s a blessing to you as it has been to me!

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Pros:

  • An excellent introduction to some of the major events, people, and movements of church history
  • Nice breadth of “coverage” in terms of chronology and concerning the most populous branches of the Christian family — there is material from the 1st century to the 21st, and he “covers” Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Catholicism
  • An exemplary method: background, the event itself, and then the aftermath
  • Helpful supplemental resources (maps, primary sources, bibliography, an index, study questions, etc.)
  • Has been “vetted” by lay audiences, as Noll notes in his introductory material

Cons:

  • Leaves out some important elements of church history (how could it not, since it’s an introduction?!?); some consideration of Islam would make sense for a contemporary audience
  • Does not consider some of the elements of history that are traditionally marginalized (women, non-Western/European Christianity, the Oriental Orthodox churches, etc.)
  • Images and maps are in grayscale when color might enliven the book

Image credit: http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/turning-points-3rd-edition/223385

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Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity (2nd edition)

Dowley IntroductionIn 1977, a small Christian publishing house in the United Kingdom (Lion Publishing) put out an introduction to the history of Christianity.  It was edited by a young scholar named Tim Dowley, and it included the work of many young and mid-career scholars, including my own colleague Everett Ferguson.  18 years later in 1995,  Fortress Press released the book in the United States, and then in 2013, the second edition appeared.  The contributors are now senior scholars (some even deceased), and their names are more well-known: James D. G. Dunn, Larry Hurtado, Alan Kreider, Ralph Martin, and James Packer, among others.

One of the basics of an introduction to (or survey of) church history is to “cover the material,” and this book does not disappoint.  It divides our 2,000 years into seven major periods and then discusses most of the important elements in those periods.  You’ll read about important Christian doctrines and teachers, Christian practices, the spread of Christianity through mission and immigration, and other staples of our story.

One of the best parts of this new edition will be the all-new visual elements.  There are 8 timelines, 35 full-color maps, and nearly 100 images that really enrich the text.  A second part of the book that will be helpful for a lot of folks is the set of “sidebars” — short insets into the main text that illuminate what’s in the chapter as a whole.  These often cover important groups and people, providing things like biographical info, important writings, and their significance for church history.  Just a few examples from the modern period: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., and C. S. Lewis.

A closer look at the content of the book reveals both strengths and weaknesses.  If you want a rather traditional presentation of Christian history — a focus that shifts toward Western Europe and the United States as history progresses — and an emphasis on how Christian teaching has developed over time, then this book is for you.  But if you want a more global focus, then I’d look elsewhere.  In terms of the modern church, if you want a good, solid summary of many aspects of the Reformation, this book delivers.  But if you want a book that includes the voices of various marginalized groups, then you’ll need to consider something else, as that is a weakness here.  One example of this omission: of the over 100 sidebars included in the book, only one has a woman as its focus.

All in all, this book has a lot to commend it — both the content and also the helps designed to assist in your understanding.  But that said, I find it most helpful to supplement this book with something that can fill in the gaps, especially geographically.

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Pros:

  • A solid presentation of traditional elements of church history, especially on Western Christianity and the development of Christian doctrine
  • Excellent blend of breadth of coverage with depth of knowledge
  • Reflects quality scholarship, produced by quality scholars
  • Good updates regarding Christianity in the last 100 years, including a greater degree of focus on the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements
  • Excellent “study helps” — a glossary, an index, maps, etc.

Cons:

  • Doesn’t take up some topics of newer interest, like Islam’s place in Christian history, the global spread of Christianity, and the voices of various groups that have been marginalized in our history
  • Has a rather uneven “presentation,” in that there are chapters as short as 3 pages, and some as long as 43 pages (!)
  • Possesses a similar inconsistency with regard to the focus of the chapters: some are extremely focused on a single topic, while others are very broad and generalized
  • Has some overlap in the content of the chapters — this is not surprising, but it does raise the question of what the editor was doing

Image credit: www.fortresspress.com

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