Thursday, September 14, 2006

Snips from a New Book Review at Christianity Today

"Downward, Outward, Later
A superb new history of Christianity."
by Philip Jenkins
Many of the most important movements in Catholicism, including those with the closest resemblance to well-known Protestant trends, take the form of veneration of the Virgin Mary, who serves as a critical vehicle for Christian devotion in non-Protestant traditions. Throughout the 19th- and 20th-century volumes of the chc, we repeatedly see the changing figure of the Virgin as a focus for social and spiritual concerns in Catholic Europe—for resistance to modernity, skepticism, and secularism; for social activism; for anti-Communism; all trends that in Protestant nations would have been expressed in revivals or evangelistic movements. Marian devotion was also central to the Catholic missionary movement, and the acceptance of Catholic teachings in a global South nation was (and is) often signified by spectacular reports of Marian visions and apparitions. Traditional Protestant qualms about "Mary-worship" mean that these connections and parallels are often neglected. Any history of Christianity that fails to accord a central place to Mary is severely flawed.
In all periods of Christian history, women have occupied a critical role in the churches, if not formally as leaders, then as key activists and innovators. The mythology of the medieval church usually accompanies a vision of nearly total female exclusion from religious life before relatively modern times. Actually, one could write a reasonably accurate history of Christianity from its earliest days almost entirely in terms of women saints, prophets, mystics, hermits, heretics, pious laywomen, and social reformers.
Lord Acton was right: Religion really is the key to history. In his introduction to the 1815-1914 volume of chc, Sheridan Gilley states, a little too defensively, that even in the supposedly secular 19th century, religion played a critical role in state-making and politics, so that historians need make no apology for their interest in the topic. That is putting it mildly. The accounts of religion, nationalism, and cultural identity in this volume leave no doubt that religious loyalties played a central role in shaping European affairs, at least, through the 19th century and right up to—up to when? Surely, at least up to the late 1940s, when the Moral Rearmament sect held the reconciliation meetings that brought together former enemies from France and Germany, in the process laying the foundations for the new European Community. And when that union actually was formed in the 1950s, it chose as its flag a circle of twelve stars, that is, a traditional image of the Virgin Mary, patron of Europe, the woman clothed with the stars, though with the central figure removed to respect Protestant sensitivities. Has Europe truly lost its religious identity, or is it only passing through a temporary hiatus?
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