Kirk (Life in Poetry, 2014, etc.) offers readers a fast-paced, clearly narrated history of Christianity, beginning with Jewish tradition and moving quickly to recountings of the New Testament, Acts, and Epistles.
Although the extent of Kirk’s research is evident, he keeps his chronological narrative accessible to any level of reader interested in Christian history. However, in chapters broken into quick, almost telegraphic paragraphs, his overviews can be controversial: “Nothing in Jesus’ teaching can be regarded as unique to him,” he writes in a typically jolting passage. “Any highly intelligent Jewish young man had been taught to memorize sections of the books of our fathers.” Some of his summaries will strike even his most open-minded readers as a bit far-fetched: “Something of a role reversal took place in sexual orientation, between late adolescent John and Jesus. In his maturity John transformed Jesus into Holy Wisdom, forever feminine.” Nevertheless, the bulk of his synopses are straightforward and insightful, cutting through centuries of accumulated history and commentary with concision and a fair amount of subdued humor, as when he points out that the Roman Emperor Constantine was “a highly successful military genius, at a time when Christianity was still a pacifist religion,” then adding: “His saintliness is questionable.” In particular, Kirk details the complexities of rival medieval Christian theologies with admirable clarity. Major figures from Christian history are presented in their historical contexts, which Kirk often overlays with faith-based details calling out to his intended audience, as when he tells readers that St. Jerome “lived and worked, largely alone, in a cell close to the scene of the nativity in Bethlehem, where Almighty God had taken human form as a baby.” Kirk’s underlying contention is that “True religion engenders compassionate action,” and his concluding chapter, “Contemporary Christianity,” paints a picture of a matured and widespread family of religions intent on bettering the human condition. Generous black-and-white maps and timelines accompany the text.
An easily accessible overview of Christianity’s remarkable rise and spread.