Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Best Books of 2006: History

I mentioned this book in a post some months back, and initially I was skeptical of the message of Voting About God in Early Church Councils, but author Ramsey MacMullen eventually won me over with his genuine interest in the Real People of the Church's Patristic heyday. I hadn't realized how much of the written record of local councils had been preserved before reading this book, and the efforts of MacMullen do a great deal to throw up a bridge between the present and this particular age.

When I point out MacMullen's effort, I should hasten to add that the book is not at all an effort to read, and this is to his great credit. I would almost say it is a page-turner, in spite of a great bulk of the material consisting in quotes made in obscure debates by obscure bishops in forgotten local councils.

The first several chapters lay out the social framework of the decision-making in the Patristic world. MacMullen highlights democracy, supernaturalism, the cognitive element and the violent element as of particular significance. There is a great deal to be learned in his presentation. At times the result isn't what many would consider edifying, if by 'edifying' we mean that all of the bishops at Nicea, for example, were expert theologians whose main objectives weren't ever self-interested. If anything, for me this unblinking look is vindication of events like the two Vatican councils against those who would try to nullify them on just such grounds.

MacMullen also is fascinating when explaining how such things as architecture and seating arrangements would affect the debates. Not everyone could hear everything, and not everyone spoke the Emperor's Greek, for example. This led to such normal human behavior as voting in blocs, based on the opinion of an esteemed or feared man. Ah, the Holy Spirit speaks through just such earthen vessels as we are!

The "Whad'ya know!" out-of breath style of writing won't be for everyone; though this, too eventually charmed me. MacMullen, to my taste, delights a bit too much in the violence imputed to Christians. He is taunting more pious historians, and in some cases they have brought in on themselves. Nevertheless, it would have improved the book for M to have reported incidents of bloodshed more objectively.

Another merit of the book: it runs a mere 118 pages. A great read!

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