Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648, by Mark Greengrass. published November 2014.
First a confession: I didn’t read the entire book. I was slogging through the first 5 chapters while switching back and forth to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy to re-engage my mind. I am a history buff, and as such I thought I would find this nearly 700 page book more interesting than I did.
Or, that was the case until I decided to skip over Greengrass’ exploration of human migration, human replenishment, and the effects of climate change on the way these things took shape. There were some interesting portions as he delved into the lifestyle and political landscape that laid the framework for the 1517 religious upheaval which gripped and forever changed Christendom.
One of the marks of true reading is pushing through those parts of a tome that may be a little less exciting for the purpose of understanding the whole. I couldn’t go the distance with this author however, so after the first 5 chapters, I decided to just skip to the good part, at the halfway point, the tenth Chapter.
Chapter 10, titled Schism, describes and dissects the fallout of the Reformation. From this point I was completely engaged and found this book a wealth of historical information, well presented.
Most interesting to note was the fact that much of what is attribute to Luther’s intent seems far radical than his original intent, although there did come a point in his lifetime when he was resigned to the reality that there could be no reunification of the Church he originally set out to reform.
The portions that covered John Calvin and his influence on the church were also informative as Calvinism has been a long fascination of mine, one that has caused me no small bit of angst in years past. Once again, this author’s description of Calvin’s position is much more benign than that of the rigid determinists who have carried his mantle after his death:
For Calvin, predestination was not an invitation to anxiety about God’s justice but a full stop to speculation on the matter. To the question: ‘Am I saved?’ he replied that belonging to the Church and knowing Christ in one’s heart were signs of election. That was liberation from angst. There was no need to build an ark. The rest was about living with Christ in the world, a midst a conflictual maze of human passions. Chapter 11, p. 364
In later chapters he gets into the ensuing conflicts between Protestants and the Catholic church (some of which were violent), and living with the newly formed religious divisions. He also explores the encroaching influence of Islam as it grew in Ottoman lands to the east. Also contributing to Christendom’s demise was the separation of the close ties between the RCC and the heads of state. Charles V was the last Roman emperor to be crowned by a pope in 1530.
This book is, for all intents and purposes, a European history work. Even the use of the word Christendom is clearly referencing a distinct geographical region at a precise period of time in history rather than the universal church as we often use the term.
There is no doubt however, and the author makes it clear, the cultural stage and atmosphere had been set for Luther’s protest and attempts at reform. Luther was, if you will, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It was a heavy read for me at points, despite my being an enthusiastic student of history. All that said, I liked it well enough. I think it would have been a better book if didn’t read like a textbook at several points.