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In a letter of 1521, Martin Luther exhorted his fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon to "be a sinner and sin strongly, but have faith and rejoice in Christ even more strongly!" The antithesis is carefully couched, suggesting a subtle dynamic between the extremes of bold sinfulness and joyful faith as though in some indefinable way they fed upon one another (and perhaps they do). Luther's words convey that tremulous equipoise of irreconcilables which has characterised Christian belief from its beginnings. In his new, massive history of Christianity, the distinguished Reformation scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch balks at such robust paradoxes. Unreason — that "faith in things unseen" — leaves him queasy. It leads to beliefs he finds preposterous. Christianity intrigues him because he cannot understand "how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species". It inspires intolerance, bigotry, fanaticism and their murderous consequences. "For most of its existence," he writes, "Christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths." As if this weren't bad enough, it indulges in "gender-skewed language." 

Although MacCulloch purports to be writing a history for the general reader — his book was the basis for "a major BBC TV series" this autumn — his take on Christianity is highly tendentious. When he sticks to events, such as the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which provoked the first momentous schism in Christian history, or when he untangles obscure doctrinal disputes, ranging from the controversies incited by the Iconoclasts to the baffled modern clashes between genteel traditional Protestants and rowdy Pentecostals, he can be superb. His scope is enormous. His discussion of Christianity in Ethiopia is as thorough as his explorations of 19th-century American revivalist movements. And his attention to often disregarded detail is impressive. His affectionate references to devotional music, from the hymns of Charles Wesley to Negro spirituals to the old Roman Catholic service of Benediction, enliven his account. Unsurprisingly, as the author of the magisterial Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700, he is excellent on the rise of Protestantism and on the Catholic Counter-Reformation. But he's just as informed, and as informative, about recent developments, whether the Second Vatican Council or the Orthodox Church in post-Soviet Russia.

Unfortunately, despite its large ambition, this is a strangely timid book. MacCulloch seems haunted by the fear of giving offence. In his introduction, he discloses, "When I was young, my parents were insistent on the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people's opinions and I am saddened that these undramatic virtues have now been relabelled in an unfriendly spirit." The disclosure carries a distinct whiff of the sanctimonious. It forces MacCulloch to bizarre formulations. He rechristens the British Isles "the Atlantic Isles" because the usual term "no longer pleases all their inhabitants, particularly those in the Republic of Ireland". It doesn't trouble MacCulloch that other citizens of the British Isles may not be "pleased" to find their homeland so arbitrarily annulled. This weird presumptive grovelling is carried to new depths whenever MacCulloch encounters what he calls "the language of maleness". The most absurd instance comes when he rephrases an innocuous remark by his teacher, the late Sir Geoffrey Elton, and then appends an apologetic note in which he explains that "being of a certain generation and cast of mind, his remark was phrased in the singular and with a masculine reference". Such twisted protocols of etiquette have nothing to do with old-fashioned courtesy and respect. MacCulloch doesn't mind offending his male readers. His stance is really a smug proclamation of his own virtue.

Albrecht Dürer's depiction of the Turin Shroud

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