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Good tidings - The Economist

Posted By Krishnakant Udavant (kkant@bom2.vsnl.net.in)
June 19, 1998

Title: Good tidings
Publication: The Economist
Date: June 19, 1998

By Richard Fletcher.
Henry Hott; 562 pages; $35. Harper Collins; =A325

Richard Fletcher's history is long, some will think overlong. His
rich style and generous outlay of examples, with a huge cast-
list, may leave the reader breathless. The exertion is
worthwhile. Here is history recorded with verve in a way many
will appreciate: essentially as a story, but one interspersed
with analysis, comment and a first-class eye for the telling

He shows how, in the early years of its existence, Christianity
was closely associated with romanitas and the geographical limits
of the Roman empire. its debt to its Roman origins was further
seen in the urban conditions in which the faith took root; it
took time to establish itself in the rural world, where its
advance would prove slow. it was not until Augustine of Hippo,
early in the fifth century AD, that its adherents came to
understand that they had a mission to develop the church outside
the empire and to bring Christ's message "to all nations".

In the seven centuries that followed, only the Europe of the
farthest north failed to accept Christian doctrines. Every method
of christianising populations was tried. if royalty and
aristocracy would accept the new beliefs, and thus give a lead,
so much the better. Equally, dramatic events, miracles,
victories in battle, even changes in the weather were used to
"prove" to the unbeliever the existence of the true God. More
slowly and less dramatically, but perhaps more effectively, the
new teachings travelled as trade expanded and princes sought
wives in other, often Christian lands. By the eighth and ninth
centuries, the growing church was a strong force for unity within
the Carolingian dominion, but at the cost of being seen as a kind
of tate-sponsored mission"-something which troubled Alcuin, a
great Englishman and servant of Charlemagne.

What might be demanded of converts to the new faith? Anything
less than complete renunciation of their customary religious
practices? As Mr Fletcher explains, opinions differed, but there
were always those who argued that to ask too much was to put the
process of conversion at risk.

How genuinely Christian, then, were many of those whose graves
have been revealed by archaeologists to contain more signs of
pagan burial customs (such as grave goods) than of Christian
ones? What did the "average" convert to Christianity understand
about its beliefs? And if he knew little about them, did it
really matter? Did his ignorance make him any less a Christian?
Those seeking to explore such profound questions could not ask
for a better guide than Mr Fletcher.

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