There once was an ancient Christian Church in the East, which was destroyed by the advance of Islam.
That is basically the story line of this book. And it’s not wrong, Islam is an expeditionary religion, like Christianity, and it’s challenging for these to co-exist. Especially before the advent of the modern “secular” state which is, allegedly (with all its positives and negatives) a state that does not choose sides in issues of faith. “Congress shall make no law” and other such statements.
Back in the day, faiths relied upon state support and vied aggressively (sometimes viciously) for the attentions of the sovereign.
I must admit I was somewhat disappointed by this book. There is something wondrous about the fact that, long before the Catholic Church had its power and way back before the Vikings and while Europeans were still poor peasants farming the ground there was a massive, organized, powerful church that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. In important places like Edessa and Samarkand there were monasteries and theology schools and guesthouses and traveling preachers. Icons and deep acts of contrition.
The Church of the East looked nothing like modern air-conditioned Baptist sanctuaries with their pews and their songbooks and their one-hour-long-on-the-dot services with a buffet at Golden Corral afterwards. It was more mystical; more full of ‘smells and bells’; repetition and sacred trances – it looked a lot like Islamic Sufism. It was expansive. It spoke Syriac and Armenian and Coptic. Edessa, the holy city, had centuries of monks go forth to preach. It was wealthy, which is why the Muslims targeted it. There are some sparks, some vestiges that can still be seen. Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai peninsula where they have been saying prayers for more than 1500 years.
The Eastern Church was buried for two reasons. The first, as the author goes into a lot, was the march of Islam. We in the West love to say things like “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” and “Persecution advances the faith” – we don’t like the idea that the church was wiped out by a rival religion and so fully destroyed that nobody has even heard of Nestorians or Monophysites; and know of Arius and Nestorius only in the context of ‘heresy’. Which brings me to my second point; we have forgotten the Church of the East because the Pope early on called their theology “heresy” and they were branded unfaithful, almost pagans, and they got what was coming to them. God’s judgment on improper theology.
Internecine theological debate is part of the Christianity. Are you pre-mil, or post-mil (or God forbid a-mil!)? Are you a dispensationalist or a covenant theologian? Do you believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation? Upon such arcane arguments real nasty fights are built. We wrote off the Church of the East, because their theology was weird and their worship was weirder. But they were probably closer to the early apostles than we are now – their thinking, their styles, their approach were derived directly from Jude and Thomas.
I am haunted by the Eastern Church, since my days discovering it in Armenia; sitting in the quiet old stone chapels that are 1700 years old listening to the liturgy and looking at the frescoes depicting Jesus and Mary, a Jesus I know so well and have seen all over the world, there in the faded two-dimensional art of the ancients. This book does not tell me who they were. I will have to keep looking.
“ This book does not tell me who they were. I will have to keep looking.”
…or writing. Please!