The Christian story and the world’s story

I can’t remember precisely when I fell in love with history, but it was surely in the first innings of my reading life.

Granted, this was easier in the days when history was written and taught as, well, history—meaning drama, heroes and villains, great arguments, wars and revolutions, and all that other dead white male stuff. I was fortunate in my third grade teacher, the estimable Sister Miriam Jude, SSND (then a postulant known as Sister Florence); she had sold World Book encyclopedias on the side during her days as a Philadelphia public school teacher, and talked my parents into buying a set. Thanks to the World Book, I was off to the historical races. Then there were Random House’s “Landmark Books,” wonderful history-for-young-readers, written by real historians, not overly dumbed-down, and costing something like $.95 or $1.25 for a hardback. I owned dozens, and read more than a few of them several times. Thus prepared, high school and college history were fun, not drudgery, and to this day, reading good narrative history is a never-failing pleasure.

History, that is, like Robert Bruce Mullin’s A Short World History of Christianity, recently published by Westminster John Knox Press. It is no easy business, getting two millennia of Christian history into 283 readable pages. But Professor Mullin has done the job, in a readable style that makes the fruits of his impressive ample scholarship available to a general audience.

Mullin is a master at sketching brief portraits of key figures in the Christian story. He neatly disentangles the great—and often daunting—trinitarian, christological, and mariological controversies of the first centuries in a thoroughly accessible way. Unlike many, perhaps most, historians of Christianity, he understands that the Christian contest with Islam has been a defining experience of Christian history, ever since the armies of Islam broke out of the Arabian peninsula and swept across what was, in the seventh century, one of the vital centers of the Christian world—North Africa. His description of the accomplishments of the often-deplored Middle Ages is both just and enlightening, as are his depictions of the Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the European wars of religion. His attention to the tremendous missionary expansion of Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries is a useful reminder, in this Pauline year, that great Christian missions didn’t stop with St. Paul—or St. Francis Xavier, for that matter.

What’s the relationship between the story told so well by Robert Bruce Mullin and the history I inhaled with those World Books? When history was taught properly, the sequence was usually organized by chapter headings that read something like “Ancient Civilizations,” “Greece and Rome,” “the Dark Ages,” the Middle Ages,” “Renaissance and Reformation,” “the Age of Reason,” “the Age of Revolution,” “the Age of Science,” “the Space Age,” or some such. From a Christian perspective, however, that is history read on its surface.

For there is another way to schematize the human story. Its chapter headings would run something like this: “Creation,” “Fall,” “Promise,” “Prophecy,” “Incarnation,” “Redemption,” “Sanctification,” “Proclamation,” “the Kingdom of God.” That story—the biblical story, if you will—does not, however, run parallel to the “real” story as taught in the history textbooks. The story that begins with “Creation” and culminates in “the Kingdom of God” is the human story, read in its proper depth and against its most ample horizon. For the central truth of history is that history is His-story: the story of God’s coming into time and our learning to take the same path that God takes toward the future.

In A Short World History of Christianity, Robert Bruce Mullin offers us, not a theological interpretation of history but a concise narrative of the Church’s life in the world—the Church’s life between “Redemption” and “the Kingdom of God.” To know that story is to see how, in specific personalities and communities, both the Spirit promised to the Church and the ancient enemy have been at work, shaping what the world regards as “history.” It’s a story every literate Catholic should know.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash