“Whoever closes his eyes to the past becomes blind to the present.” – Louis Bickford
Reviewer: Nwachukwu Egbunike
The story of the Son of Man, who broke human history into two – before (BC) and after (AD) – is not just a matter of intellectual introspection but above all the history of salvation. Tons of literature abounds on His-story and the reality of the religion Christ founded, yet many have sadly left Africa at the margin. It was therefore elating to read Christianity: A Concise History (Kraft Books Ltd, Ibadan/ 2010). The author, David Jowitt – a historian and professor of English language – uncovers the history of Christianity from the global perspective, yet chronicles the continent’s side with solipsism; not as an appendage but as an organic part of the story.
Man is the only member of the kingdom Animalia that is amazingly good at regurgitating history. Munoz in his book on tradition was daring to state that the difference between men and lower animals was not just rationality but tradition. Only men transmit a living memory of the past and present to their offspring. Being also wired to be religious, Christians then have a duty to study their religion. Asides the gift of faith, it is essential that believers and non-believers alike have an intellectual grasp of Christianity.
Christianity: A Concise History has fifteen chapters: the Ancient World; Life and Teachings of Jesus; the New Testament Church; the Age of Persecution and from Constantine to Chalcedo. It continues with the Rise of Christendom; the Mediaeval Church – High and Late Middle Ages. Before delving into the Age of Reason, the book tackles both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. The last four chapters discusses: Western Christianity in the 19th Century; the Early 20th Century and the Contemporary Era.
Africa has been sadly referred as the Dark Continent because of “Europeans’ ignorance of the interior” (p. 221). Nonetheless, that “Africa turned out to embrace the Gospel as it did,” Jowitt insists, “must be counted as the greatest miracles of Christian history.” I must add that even a more profound wonder is that Africa not only exports missionaries to Europe and America, but takes the lead in the re-evangelisation of the West.
Samuel Ajayi Crowther stands shoulders tall in the CMS mission to West Africa. Taking advantage of the adventure of Mungo Park and the Lander Brothers, two CMS missionaries set sail for the Niger in 1841. Hope Waddell leading the Scottish Presbyterians found a home in Calabar. In the east, Crowther and John Taylor of the CMS established in 1857, the first mission in Igboland.
Mid 19th century, the Catholic mission came back on a second missionary journey to West Africa, with Fr Francis Libermann – a French convert from Judaism leading the pack. In Nigeria, the Society for African Mission (SMA) arrived in Lagos. The mission field of Nigeria was partitioned by Rome as follows: the “SMA should operate in the area west of the Niger, the Holy Ghost Fathers (CSSp) east of it” (p. 225). The CSSp arrived Onitsha in 1885 and prominent among them – “a builder of many schools, was Fr (later Bishop) Joseph Shanahan” p. 225.
It is not surprising that Jowitt starts Christianity: A Concise History with annals of the Ancient World – the Greeks, Romans and Hebrews. Particularly striking is the account of the Jewish people the ‘elder brothers’ or ‘fathers’ of Christians. Benedict XVI, in Light of the World, however prefers the latter expression because in the Jewish mindset, the elder brother is the one that is rejected. Remember Esau and Jacob? And as Scott Hann, an American theologian explains, the Covenant of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New.
The history of Christianity is necessarily a pilgrimage of the Catholic Church. Jowitt asserts that, “the study of Christian history supports a Catholic understanding of the divinely sanctioned role of the Catholic Church in proclaiming the Gospel. It will be regrettable if this statement caused some readers to stop reading forthwith.” For being politically incorrect, Jowitt merits praise. John Henry Newman – Englishman and recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI – was however more blunt; “to be deep in history is to cease to be protestant.” Nonetheless, an unbiased study of voyage of the Christian religion objectively supports the authors claim. Besides, faith and reason should not contradict each other since they both proceed from God.
Yet it has been a tough and torturous ride: an odyssey that is littered with both mystery and misery. What Igboaja captures in his book as saints and sinners. The history of the Christianity however points to one logical fact, if the Church were not divinely inspired it would have ceased to exist. Not so much due to enemies without but most times, from those within her bosom.
The flow of time either etches or erases memory. However, this ability does not necessary morph to the ability to learn from events gone by. If that were so, then Mathew Kukah would have no business admonishing Nigerians – “not to fail to remember” in his work on the Oputa Panel. As such Jowitt has fulfilled his greatest wish in writing Christianity: A Concise History, which is the “conviction that Christians ought to know something of the history of their religion.”
Nonetheless, it is startling that the author should swing from Her Majesty’s to American English. Perhaps the book editor should have done a better job. Nonetheless, this minor flaw does not diminish the profundity of Jowitt’s Christianity: A Concise History. It is simply a stunning précis that captures the human but divine texture of the Christian experience.