Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity, The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 1161pp.
Beginning as an obscure sect of first-century Judaism, with roots that reach back a thousand years earlier (and thus the book's sub-title), today Christianity is the world's largest religion. Today, observes Diarmaid MacCulloch on the last page of his panoramic sweep of those three thousand years, Christianity's main problems have to do with its success. In the last one hundred years it has grown almost fourfold, to two billion adherents, and so his book tells a story "that has no ending." But despite these successes, after reading a thousand pages it's hard not to agree with him that the story also contains "plenty of sobering messages for overconfidence" (1016).
MacCulloch tells the Christian story in all its staggering diversity, with attention paid not only to the Latin West (Catholic and Protestant) and Orthodox East, but also to the believers whose stories have been deliberately marginalized or conveniently forgotten — Syriac, non-Chalcedonian churches, both Miaphysite and Diophysite. The mission impulse of the earliest believers (for good and ill) is also a constant theme. In the year 635, for example, Bishop Alopen arrived in China to spread the Christian story (252–253, 267).
In telling the Christian story MacCulloch also raises important questions, for at the heart of Christianity there resides a deep paradox about a God who is transcendent and therefore unnameable, but also immanent and so deeply personal. He comes from a three-generation family of Anglican priests, and describes his years growing up in country parishes as "the happiest memories. . . I would now describe myself as a candid friend of Christianity" (11). Majestic in scope and meticulous in scholarship, MacCulloch has written the new gold standard for a one-volume history of Christianity. The 68 full color plates (of art, architecture, sculpture and photographs) and 100 pages of footnotes and bibliography "for further reading" are alone worth the price of the book. Although the book retails for $45, on Amazon you can purchase a new copy for under $25.