Immediately before the Ascension, the last command of Christ to the Apostles was to “make disciples of all nations.” Ever since, at least until very recently, proselytizing has been a core goal of all Christians. This work has often not been easy. Christianity is always counter-cultural, opposed to the inherent dubious tendencies of mankind. Moreover, the history narrated in the Gospels is embedded in the world of first-century Palestine, and that world is starkly alien to most cultures that have been the target of conversion. Such challenges have been met in various ways by Christian missionaries, and by Christianizing conquerors. The Heliand, a ninth-century “gospel harmony” used to persuade the pagan Saxons defeated by Charlemagne to accept Christianity, was one such way.
When we think of Late Antiquity, we usually think of Rome, either its decline in the West or its continuation in the East. When we are feeling particularly adventurous, we may think of the Sassanid Persians, or ponder the stirrings of the Franks in the dark forests of Gaul. We usually don’t think of the farther reaches of the Red Sea—Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, and what are today the oil- and blood-soaked sands of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But in the several centuries after Christ, all these were very much part of the known world, if somewhat peripheral. The Throne of Adulis reconstructs, from fragmentary evidence, those centuries, through the prism of wars conducted across the Red Sea.
I often say that the Crusades were a high point of Western civilization. And they were, but they were also an example of flawed glory. Certainly, the goal of the Crusades was peerlessly laudable, and the virtues shown by Crusaders admirable. At the same time, the Holy Land Crusades illustrated key weaknesses of the West, and, after all, if nothing succeeds likes success, nothing fails like failure. In Roger Crowley’s The Accursed Tower all of this is on display, though Christian valor is probably the dominant theme, as it should be. In a sane society, the events of this book would be used for a blockbuster movie featuring the Christians as doomed heroes. Not in today’s society, to be sure, but maybe in tomorrow’s.
A Time to Die is a small gem of a book which works on two levels. On one level, it is a self-examination for the reader, offering him a glimpse of a very specific kind of life and thought, thereby helping him think about his own death. On another level, it is an examination of the decline of our civilization. The monasteries profiled, and the view of human life and death their monks embody, seem like small wooden lifeboats—tiny, fragile, and tossed on the sea of liquid modernity, mere fragments of the glorious past of French monasticism. But are they as fragile as they seem? Or, if the future turns upward, are they rather the vanguard, seeds of a new thing?
This book defies easy characterization. It is, to be sure, a biography of the last of the great German medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. But it vibrates with a subdued roar under the surface. By turns it is fierce, melodramatic, evocative, pitying, and electric. Maybe, in 1927, with Germany at its nadir, Ernst Kantorowicz was trying to channel the modern age of steel and thunder, translating it through the works of a long-dead megalomaniac king into a hoped-for new era. Or maybe he aimed to wake the ancient ghost of Frederick, stirring him from his long sleep in the Kyffhäuser Mountains. Either way, Kantorowicz did see reborn the German energies he thought should be reborn. But as with most summoned spirits, the rebirth did not advantage the summoner.
The Japanese author Shūsaku Endō is known primarily for his 1966 masterwork, Silence, about the persecution of Christians in mid-seventeenth-century Japan. The backdrop of Silence is the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion, a peasant rebellion crushed in 1638, which erupted in reaction to the vicious suppression of Christianity under the Tokugawa Shogunate, part of the turn of Japan inward. The Samurai focuses on events two decades prior, when Christianity was only partially suppressed, and the Shogunate still somewhat open to contacts with Europe. As with many of Endō’s works, The Samurai focuses on the internal struggles of its protagonists to live a Christian life in circumstances of extreme external and internal pressure and conflict.
New translations of the Bible, targeted at a broad audience and done by individuals, rather than committees, seem to be a growth industry. This book, a translation of the Gospel of Saint Mark, joins, among others, Sarah Ruden’s excellent recent work, The Face of Water, which offers both commentary on translation and translation itself, and David Bentley Hart’s 2018 translation of the entire New Testament. The author, Michael Pakaluk, has done an outstanding job of writing a translation that is not daunting, yet is very enlightening, and this is a book well worth reading.
This book, a massive study by two Israeli historians, aspires to answer why and how Turkey exterminated its Christian population in the thirty years between 1894 and 1924. Usually this extermination, or part of it, is referred to as the Armenian Genocide, except by the Turks, who to this day deny their crimes, and so don’t refer to it at all. That usual term is misleading, however. As Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi document exhaustively, the primary target was all Christians, and the primary goal religious cleansing of the Turkish nation. Proving this is the object of The Thirty-Year Genocide.
In recent months, I have talked a great deal about politics and current events. It is time to pivot, for a moment, and talk about something totally different—the eternal. This book is a detailed analysis of Eastern Orthodox views of Christ’s descent into Hades, a core yet obscure Christian doctrine found in both the Nicene Creed and the shorter Apostle’s Creed. It was recommended to me by a friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister, who knows of my particular interest in the areas of theology implicated by this doctrine. And, as expected, the book highlights areas of both commonality and difference among separate branches of Christianity.
I read this book, about the history of Spain under Muslim rule, hoping it would be less biased than Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, which I found to be too polemical in its criticism of Islamic domination. This book was closer to neutral, on the other side of neutral, but the author, Brian Catlos, has taken a fascinating period of history and made it boring. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s that he takes a kitchen sink approach that loses the reader in minutiae, with so many dramatis personae that there is no drama. Still, Kingdoms of Faith is useful as a reference work, and in addition, I think that the history recounted here has much to say about conversion of Muslims in lands reconquered by Christendom, past and future.