Thursday, 12 April 2012

Tom Holland on Islam, Christianity and empire

Tom Holland is the author of bestselling histories of the ancient and medieval world - Persian Fire (on the Greeks and the Persians), Rubicon (on the fall of the Roman republic), and Millennium (on what used to be called 'the Dark Ages'). His narratives manage to distil the best current scholarship while being compulsively readable.

His latest book is his most ambitious yet. Entitled In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, it situates the rise of Islam in the 7th century against the backdrop of plague, war and the dramatic emergence of an Arab empire. Instead of depicting a militaristic religion driving Arab expansion, Holland shows a new empire forging Islam in order to bolster its own authority. The result is a thoroughly revisionist take on early Islamic history, one that draws on specialist scholarship to undercut the official story.

Holland begins his book with a striking quotation from Salman Rushdie: 'The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammed, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time'.

Yet as Holland points out, the earliest surviving biography of Muhammed dates from the early 9th century, almost two centuries after his lifetime (traditionally dated AD 570-632). By contrast, our sources for the life of Jesus are much closer to the events in question. Paul's letters were largely written in the 50s, while the synoptic Gospels are usually dated to between the late 60s and the 80s of the first century. Indeed, a raft of recent scholarship, by figures like Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, Craig Evans, Craig Keener, J.P. Meier and N.T. Wright has made a compelling case for the historical credibility of the Gospel accounts. Rushdie may have got things the wrong way round.

Besides raising questions of historicity, Holland's book reflects the current vogue for studying the relationship between religion and empire. He suggests that Christianity and Islam were both powerfully shaped (or reshaped) by mighty emperors: Constantine (306-37) and Abd al-Malik (685-705). Indeed, on his account, the emperors emerge almost as the real founders of the two religions, putting Jesus and Muhammed 'in the shadow of the sword'. In the case of Christianity, at least, there is an irony here, since some recent New Testament scholars have been keen to uncover the allegedly anti-imperial thrust of early Christianity (e.g. N.T. Wright, J.D. Crossan and Kavin Rowe). Holland's point, however, is a persuasive one: late antiquity was not the exhausted fag end of the ancient world, it was an extraordinarily creative and formative era in which empire and monotheism were fused together. For good and ill, we are still living with the consequences. And in the end, he suggests, the greatest shapers of the future were not the emperors and caliphs, but the bishops who forged Christian doctrine, the rabbis who compiled the Talmud, and the scholars who established the Islamic tradition. As he concludes, 'the pen, it seems, is indeed mightier than the sword'.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation

Brad Gregory's new book on the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation is generating a fair bit of online discussion, and has already been reviewed in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Times Higher. It's a brave book. It breaks out of chronological and disciplinary comfort zones in a way that few historians dare in these days of ever increasing specialisation. It's brave in another way too. Historians are typically inclined to sidestep normative debates about the true, the good and the beautiful. Gregory does not. This is a moral (and theological) history of Western modernity, which ends with a call for the desecularization of the university. It's already being compared with two other bracing works by Catholic thinkers, Macintyre's After Virtue, and Taylor's A Secular Age.

Of course, Protestants are likely to have some significant reservations about aspects of the argument. For a thoughtful engagement along these lines see Dale van Kley's review in Books and Culture:

The book's homepage is here:

Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment

Over the past decade, Jonathan Israel has been remapping the Enlightenment in a massive trilogy of books published by OUP: Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and finally Democratic Enlightenment (2011). Together they amount to 2500 pages, and take us from Spinoza to the French Revolution, from the Americas to Greece and Eastern Europe, with fascinating chapters on European perceptions of China and India.

Reviewers have consistently praised Israel's extraordinary energy and resourcefulness, his facility in a variety of languages and his researches in dozens of archives. Yet many have also expressed serious misgivings about his vision of the Enlightenment. He discerns a three way struggle in the eighteenth-century between a materialist Radical Enlightenment, a compromised Moderate Enlightenment, and a traditionalist Counter-Enlightenment. Israel's sympathies lie wholeheartedly with the Radical version, and he aims to uncover the Enlightenment foundations of modern secularism and liberalism. But numerous reviewers have suggested that the analysis is far too schematic. Thinkers are assigned to ideological blocs, and each bloc is associated with a package of ideas or values. But on closer inspection, ideologies and alignments prove to be more complex, and Radical Enlightenment does not have all the best tunes.

The dispute is perhaps best followed through Israel's exchange with Samuel Moyn, following the latter's highly critical review in The Nation:

The current debate over the Enlightenment illustrates Croce's point that 'All history is contemporary history'. The issues debated in the eighteenth century have risen to the surface once again, above all the place of religion in public life. For all its faults, Israel's project does help us to understand how the Enlightenment has always been contested. Despite his affinity with the new atheists, his work reveals the persistent power of religion in Enlightenment Europe. He admits that secular materialists were only a radical fringe, nearly always outflanked and outnumbered by advocates of Christian Enlightenment or Counter-Enlightenment. These unresolved controversies of the eighteenth-century are being played out in the twenty-first.

Secularization revisited

The classic secularization paradigm has gone into decline over the past couple of decades. Many sociologists are no longer convinced that modernity is 'the engine dragging the gods into retirement' (as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke once put it). The current issue of the Historical Journal carries two historiographical reviews which further qualify modernist assumptions. The most ambitious and wide ranging is Jonathan Clark's essay, 'Secularization and modernization: the failure of a "grand narrative"'. Clark surveys a very wide range of historical research and is characteristically learned and provocative. Jeffrey Morris focusses on modern Britain in his piece on 'Secularization and religious experience'.

Both are worth reading alongside David Martin's latest book, The Future of Christianity (Ashgate, 2011). Martin was one of the earliest and most persistent critics of the traditional paradigm, but he has been careful to retain a modified theory of secularization, one that avoids strong teleology. He is wary of the bald claim that secularization has 'gone into reverse'. The book distils a lifetime of learning and reflection on topics like Pentecostalism, Eastern Europe, master narratives and religious violence.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Difficult Atheism, or Beyond the New Atheism

As many have pointed out, the New Atheism is remarkably old-fashioned. It shares the touching faith of 19thC 'infidels' that secular intellectuals can make a clean break with the religious past, erecting a new philosophy that owes nothing to faith and everything to Reason.

The New Atheists have made plenty of converts among the general reading public, but they are failing to convince secular intellectuals. We are seeing the emergence of more conflicted styles of atheism that frankly acknowledge the religious roots of modern thought. Examples abound. Germany's leading philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, has argued that many of the values of European liberal democracy have Christian sources. The English philosophers, John Gray and Simon Critchley, maintain that post-Enlightenment political ideals owe much to Christian doctrines like original sin, millennialism, providence. Within contemporary French philosophy, as Chris Watkins shows in his book, Difficult Atheism (2011), there is an ongoing debate about what a genuinely post-theological atheism would look like, or whether it's even possible. The literary critic, James Wood (who was raised among Anglican charismatics in Oxford) has written in the New Yorker that ‘What is needed is a theologically engaged atheism, that resembles disappointed belief.’ At a more populist level, writers like Alain de Botton are thinking about how to create Religion for Atheists (2012).

What separates these writers from the New Atheists is a strong sense of history - an appreciation that religion is a constitutive element of human cultures across history, and that it has continued to flow into the values of a 'secular' age. When atheists get history, they get religion.

Jaroslav Pelikan - A Portrait of the Christian as a Young Intellectual

Jaroslav Pelikan was arguably the greatest historian of Christian thought in the twentieth century. It's worth reading his commencement address at the University of Wittenberg in 1960 (and worth remembering that Wittenberg was then behind the Iron Curtain). He has some profound reflections on why Christians should have a Passion for Being, a Reverence for Language and an Enthusiasm for History:

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A New Direction for Christian Historians?

Over at Books and Culture, Alister Chapman has reviewed a recent book of essays on Christianity and the practice of history: John Fea, Jay Green, Eric Miller, eds, Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation (University of Notre Dame, 2009).

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

CHF Spring Conference: From 1662 to 2012

Our Spring Conference will be held on Monday 26 March 2012 at Gladstone's Library, Hawarden. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 ejection of Nonconformist ministers from the Church of England, so our theme is '350 Years of Nonconformist History'. The speakers are all contributing to the forthcoming T&T Clark Companion to Nonconformity. They will be addressing a number of major themes:

- The Denominations: John Briggs (Keele), Densil Morgan (Trinity St David)
- Church and State: John Coffey (Leicester), John Wolffe (Open University)
- Mission and the World: David Ceri Jones (Abersytwyth), David Jeremy (Manchester Met)
- Writing the History of Nonconformity: Densil Morgan and Robert Pope (Trinity St David)

For bookings, contact Prof John Wollfe, 3 Sunny Hill, Hendon, London, NW4 4LN, or email him at

The cost is £15 per head. Lunch can be paid for in the dining room. Accomodation is also available at the Library (£39/£54) - this includes breakfast and dinner.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Conference on Faith and History - 2012 Conference

Our sister organisation in North America, the Conference on Faith and History holds its 28th biennial conference in October 2012 at Gordon College, Massachusetts. The theme is 'Cultural Change and Adaptation'. Further details and the Call for Papers can be found here:

CHF and the Conference on Faith and History are keen to build closer connections, so participants from the UK would be very welcome at this conference.

The CFH publishes a refereed journal, Fides et Historia, with two issues per year. The most recent has a section on 'Reconciling the Historian's Craft and Religious Belief', with contributions from Brad Gregory, Mark Noll, David Hollinger, Anthea Butler and Bruce Kuklick. Jonathan Yeager has blogged about it here:

For more information about the Conference on Faith and History see its website:

Friday, 20 January 2012

Podcasts - Interviews with Bebbington, Larsen, Kidd

Al Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has a regular series of podcast conversations with leading public intellectuals, including Stanley Fish, Peter Berger, Steven Pinker and Roger Scruton. He has also interviewed historians like Andrew Roberts and Eric Foner, as well as scholars associated with CHF and the Conference on Faith and History: David Bebbington, Timothy Larsen and Thomas Kidd. It makes for intriguing listening, especially as the interviewees come from all over the ideological map.

To listen, go to 'Thinking in Public':