If 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!
- 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
- 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
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