Christianity: the Biography

2000 Years of Global History

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Ian J. Shaw
  • Nashville, TN: 
    , January
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ian Shaw has written a short but valuable history of global Christianity. His international vocation comes through clearly in his sensitivity to and knowledge of Christianity's spread throughout the whole world: East and West, North and South. 

The aim of Christianity: A Biography. 2000 Years of Global History is to outline "the major phases, developments, movements, and personalities in Christianity’s life story over two millennia"(1). This book "has a special concern for the story from the non-Western world"(1). The work is necessarily broad since it is an introductory text. However, Shaw accomplishes a lot in less than 300 pages. Not only are readers introduced to all the major movements and key persons in the spread of the church throughout the world, they are also given up-to-date research statistics on the numbers of Christians living in certain regions of the world at particular times. This information is often surprising and encouraging for Christian readers. The story is not always attractive, and Shaw doesn't shy away from the church's mistakes, but generally speaking, the story is remarkable in terms of the spread and positive influence of Christianity within a wide variety of people groups and historical periods. Readers will learn more about the churches in Russia, India, Latin America, and even Western Europe than one might learn in much larger volumes that focus mainly upon Western developments. Readers will also learn more about developments in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and other independent and spin-off groups than might be learned in a volume written strictly for one particular group. This work is truly a global and ecumenical history.

Shaw adopts the analogy of a human biography to tell the story of the church. This approach adds a level of charm and coherence to a story about its subject that emphasizes its living character. The church is made up of real people, in real places, facing real issues. Therefore the church is more like a living being than a mere static institution. The analogy also works in that Shaw doesn't press it too hard. The biography approach serves more as a structuring mechanism, and only features explicitly in the introductions to each chapter. This prevents the analogy from appearing too forced or artificial. 

I will offer this one critique of the book. Since the work is short, introductory, and comprehensive, many issues are covered perhaps too briefly. One might only get a line or two on rather significant figures or movements. Any specialist in a given area of church history will feel that not nearly enough is said about certain things. Shaw does his best to highlight the most significant moments with a page or two, but sometimes the information is too brief to even make enough sense to contribute to the overall story. The efforts to be both comprehensive and brief do not serve each other well at times. 

Aside from that, I would certainly recommend this text to students just beginning to study church history. Further study can develop the ideas mentioned too briefly in the text but they will get a good sense of the whole. I would also recommend it for those who have studied church history before but need a refresher. Or perhaps, if one learned the story from a more limited perspective—only Protestant, or Catholic, or only from a particular denomination's perspective—this book will expand those horizons. One can see very clearly, in large part given the broad approach Shaw employs, that Christianity has had a world-wide impact. By the end of the book one will see that "by early in the twenty-first century, Christianity had returned to what it originally was -- a global faith" (268).

Lastly, I think lay people who are not academics should read this for the encouragement it offers concerning a large and growing church that is able to face all sorts of obstacles and still flourish in almost any environment. It’s also a good source for learning from about church's mistakes as well. But overall, one will find a compelling story of a compelling community that is more diverse than just about any other community in human history. All academics will learn from this book. All Christians will be edified by it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Huggins is a research associate in religion at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ian J. Shaw is Associate International Director of the Langham Scholars Program and Honorary Fellow, School of Divinity, New College, University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Churches, Revolutions and Empires: 1789-1914High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the CityWilliam Gadsby; and The Greatest Is Charity.

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