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On MacCulloch’s “Christianity, The First 3000 Years”

“Monday Musings” for Monday March 30, 2015
Volume V. No. 13/221


 A Special Book for Easter

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Christianity, The First 3000 Years
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
1184 pages

Happy Easter and joyous reading!


Faithful readers recall the review of Paul Johnson’s Book History of Christianity, 600 pages long, which we presented previously. In that book, the author has favoured Reformation, Martin Luther, and Protestantism. We now have another colossal work, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1184 pages, Christianity, The First 3,000 Years, in which one detects strong anti-Catholic bias.  However, undeniably, the book is a landmark in its field, astonishing in its range, compulsively readable, full of insight and points of interest for the general reader. It is not the over-illustrated coffee-table type book you might expect. The book is scholarly, dense, yet written in a readable and engaging style, but not as well written as Plato’s Republic or Edward Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The impressive volume provides an excellent overview of Christianity. It is most appropriate reading for Easter.

The book begins with Judaism and Greek philosophy, giving the background to the remarkable historical phenomenology of Christendom.  It is prodigious, thrilling, and gives the reader a master class of a history without leaving one’s chair. MacCulloch is to be congratulated for his accessible handling of so much complex and difficult material. This is a book generous in detail and sound in judgment. It fills the gaps that heretofore existed in history of religion.

The content

The book consists of seven parts. The first part is about “A Millennium of Beginnings” (1000 BCE-100CE).  In this part the history of the Greek beginnings, Rome and the coming of the Roman Empire are discussed.

In the second part Israel (100-1000 CE) is examined. The second part, “One Church, One Faith, One Lord?”, examines the lives of Jesus, Paul, Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation, and the Jewish Revolt and the End of Jerusalem, and finally the Imperial Church, Constantine and Papacy.

In part three, “Vanishing Futures: East and South (451-1500)”, a close examination of Asia and Africa, church fathers such as Saint Augustine of Hippo, emergence of Islam in 620 CE, the Church of China, Mongols and Islam in Africa are scrutinized.

Part four, “The Unpredictable Rise of Rome” (300-1300), the making of Latin Christianity, Latin Christendom and “The church of All People” are painstakingly dissected.

Part five, “The Imperial Faith” (451-1800), the emergence of the new Rome, Orthodoxy and the Russian Church are examined.

Part six “Western Christianity Dismembered” (1300-1800), Martin Luther, Reformation, Papal monarchy, Wittenberg and Luther’s 95 questions/theses, and other reformers are discussed.

Part seven, “God in the Dock”, (1492-present), the author examines the Age of Enlightenment, Judaism, Skepticism, and Deism, crowning the section with a more precise dissection and deeper understanding of the roots of religion in America’s deep south. It also gives the reader an understanding of evangelical fervor and culture wars. The book has 67 illustrations, maps and paintings. The text is 1014 pages, the alphabetically arranged notes are 89 pages, and 49 pages of index, plus introduction, totaling 1185 pages

The title of the book, Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, is fascinating if not intellectually challenging. We know that Christianity is only 2000 years old. Where does the author get 3000 years of Christianity? At first glance, the reader knows not whether the author is going to address 1000 BC to today or from the beginning of Christianity until one thousand years from now. Well, in this review I will attempt to answer that very question. The title refers to the former, one thousand years before Christ until today. The author skillfully documents that there was Christianity before Christ. There was a Socrates whom many historians and theologians including Soren Kierkegaard call Saint Socrates. As a matter of fact, Soren wrote his PhD thesis “On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates”.  Soren was a Socrates “groupie”!  We know that Socrates is exalted because of his reverential devotion to teaching enlightenment to his young students for which he was accused, tried and executed. MacCulloch’s “alternative” religious history, favoring the Catholic Church, holds that Christianity really began 3000 years ago. He asserts that before Christ there was a Jewish God, Yahweh, and a Greek God. There were prophets such as the Persian prophet Zarathustra and there were other prophets of the Old Testament Bible such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, etc., all of whom he calls precursors to Christianity which came on the scene 2000 years ago.

MacCulloch devotes considerable space to examine how Christianity has spread throughout the globe. He follows this spread, starting with the origins of the Hebrew Bible, tracing the three main religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, filling in often neglected accounts, including conversions and confrontations in Africa and Asia. He also explains the Crusades. Further, Mr. MacCulloch looks at the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the rise of the evangelical movement from its origins in Germany and England to the southern plains of America. In his book, MacCulloch explains that Christianity, one of the world’s great religions, has had an incalculable impact on human history. In a systematic manner, the author devotes several chapters to the main ideas and personalities of Christian history. As cited above, other chapters are given to the organization and spirituality of the church, and how Christianity has changed politics, sex, and human society. The author’s range of discussion spans from Palestine in the first century to India in the third; from Damascus to China in the seventh century; and from San Francisco to Korea in the twentieth.

Global History of Christianity

In my view this huge volume is the first truly global history of Christianity. This formidable compendium is the most comprehensive and up to date single volume work in English that presents the development of Christian history differently from any of its predecessors. The author shows how, after a semblance of unity in its earliest centuries, the Christian Church divided during the next 1400 years into three increasingly distanced parts, of which the western Church was by no means always the most important. He observes that at the end of the first eight centuries of Christian history, Baghdad might have seemed a more likely capital for worldwide Christianity than Rome. He concludes that all in all, Christianity is a landmark in the history of the faith that continues to shape the world.

It is comforting to have MacCulloch’s complementary history of the Christian Church.  MacDiarmid MacCulloch is a better writer than Paul Johnson, and his book is a lively and entertaining effort. On the downside, unfortunately, there is a strong anti-Catholic bias throughout his work which is even more disturbing than Johnson’s pro-Catholic stance. In fact, there are several passages in the book that almost give you the impression that MacCulloch must have been writing them with a permanent sneer on his face. In summary, if you are English and Protestant and believe that the best thing that happened to England was the Reformation, then you will probably love this book. If not, the author’s multiple biases and prejudices will probably grate on you. I consider the book a triumphantly executed achievement.

Strengths and weaknesses of this very impressive and comprehensive text are many. I have read Edward Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” starting in my native tongue of Farsi then in French and finally in English, many times. Gibbon’s English syntax is delicious reminding the reader of lyrical poetic writings of Plato in Republic. Well, I found the use of language in this book to be dry and matter of fact. The syntactic enjoyment is lacking! On the other hand I learned more about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire by reading this book, than reading Gibbon’s work. Another weak or prejudicial point is that I found references are lacking or outright non-existent. The scholarly world knows that the father of Skepticism is Al-Ghazali, (1058-1111), the Persian poet, theologian and philosopher. Yet in Part seven of the book, discussion of Skepticism, there is no mention of either Al-Ghazali or Al-Farabi (870-950).

Finally, to the members of my family and close friends who received this review in advance, I wrote “If you want a delicious book, a feast of a book, a sumptuous and exciting intellectual and spiritual banquet for you and for your family, this book is it!—especially if you read it along with Paul Johnson’s book either back to back or simultaneously—“  Another attraction the book has for me is that it is about the Bible, a book which I truly enjoy and admire. In a recent interview for a national magazine, the interviewer’s last question was

“If you were forced to live on a deserted island and were allowed to bring one book, one selection of music, and one piece of artwork, what would they be?”

Book     That book has not been written. It would be a book containing the genomic display of all the biblical (Old and New Testaments) characters including Christ. If it is not written by the time I am assigned to a deserted island, I will take pen and paper to write it myself. Nobel Laureate, Craig Venter, whose book I have reviewed in this space, has given us a taste of that venture. Since I have not written that book and it is not yet available, I guess I will settle for the Bible, an amazingly comprehensive and complex book.  For example, there are 114 references to King Cyrus of Persia alone in the Bible (see Isaiah 45 where Cyrus the Great is called Messiah).

Music:   Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece of transcendent theology, musical genius, bringing the message of hope, promise, possibility and redemption to all humans. I have already devoted space to dissecting this truly miraculous opus magnum.

Art:  Pietà, by Michelangelo.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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“Lincoln’s Melancholia”, a Review

Monday Musings for January 7, 2013

Volume III, No. 105

Abraham Lincoln:  A Book Review and Essay on Mental Health

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*


I recently saw the movie “Lincoln” starring the gifted actor Daniel Day Lewis.  For the occasion, I am offering the review of the book “Lincoln’s Melancholy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk, publisher Houghton Miflin Company:

When a publisher sends a book for review, I routinely cast an editorial “screening” glance to separate substance from fluff by noting the book’s proportion of text to notes, bibliography, and index.  A scholarly and substantial book usually carries an extensive set of notes and references for documentation of almost every line of the book.  A high volume of notes and an extensive bibliography assure the reader that the book is not fluff.   Such is Shenk’s remarkable book on Lincoln.  The title is misleading.  Although the book deals with Lincoln’s depression and melancholia, it is really a psychobiography of Lincoln a la Freud’s work on Leonard da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky.   Part of the book reads very much like Maynard Solomon’s biography of Mozart the review of which the faithful readers of this space recall from an earlier day.

But there is something unique about this book.  It is a book that seduces the reader.  I fell in love with the book, not with the subject, not with the author’s erudition and intellectual prowess, not with the brilliant syntax and craftsmanship of the composition, but with the book itself.  For me, an objective book reviewer engaged in this pursuit for more than 50 years, it is a rare phenomenon that the book itself becomes the object of love.

Well, the book has a prelude, and introduction and three parts with subsections dealing chronologically with Lincoln’s birth, growth, development, political maturation, education, religion, social interaction and finally death.  But first a word about the author.

Joshua Wolf Shenk is neither an academic historian nor a Lincoln specialist.  He is not of stature of famed Douglas Wilson, author of “Lincoln’s Sword” or Allen Guezlo, the internationally renowned leading Lincoln Scholar.  Readers might recognize Joshua from the pages of New Yorker, Harper, and Atlantic Monthly. He is referred to as an “Independent scholar.”  In this book, he shows command of psychopathology of depression, a good understanding of DSM IV (Diagnostic statistical Manuel IV) and a keen insight into human nature.  He seems to understand the comprehensive model of bio psychosocial dynamics in the genesis and evolution of mental illness.  But none of these explains why the book had a mesmeric effect on me.  I guess as a psychiatrist in my practice dealing with psychic trauma and life tragedies, it is comforting to see the story of a man like Lincoln, with incredible childhood depravity, adverse upbringing, having lived a life of domestic slavery, constant beating and emotional denigration and put down, pull himself out of psychological sewer, literally clean up, educate himself, and ultimately become the 16th President of the United states.  It is this subtle message reflective of Pauline theology of redemption, hope, love, faith, and possibilities that generated the uncommon mesmeric effect on me.

The Book starts with a startling chapter on Lincoln’s family history of mental illness.  His Uncle Tom Lincoln, according to court records had a “deranged mind.”  So did his parents.  Lincoln’s parents were born in Virginia and crossed the Appalachian Mountains and came to Kentucky in the late 18th century.  They married in 1806 and had three children, Sarah, born Feb 19, 1807; Abraham, born February 12, 1809; and his brother Thomas born in 1811.  They were all prone to deep depression.  Lincoln’s mother, Nancy. died on October 5, 1818.  She was about 35 years old.  Lincoln was nine.  Along the way, in addition to Lincoln’s mother, Lincoln lost his uncle and aunt.  His care was left to a twenty-year-old cousin, during the absence of Abe’s father who returned to Kentucky to court his second bride.  Lincoln was beaten, mistreated and abused during those years.  There are a lot of well documented accounts that Lincoln was self-taught.  As a child he read all the books he could find.  Tom Lincoln, Abe’s father, at some point started to oppose his son’s reading and education.  The relationship between father and son was conflicted and abusive; Tom Lincoln would beat young Abe mercilessly.  However, Lincoln continued to read and memorize and became very popular with his friends and fellow workers.  It is recorded that he was not sad and depressed during his teen years, because he had many friends and knew more than all of his friends put together.  He did not attend a university to learn law.  “I studied with nobody,” he said.  A lawyer named Lynn McNutty Greene wrote that “Abraham Lincoln was extremely ambitious.”  Greene remembered Lincoln telling him that all the folks seem to have good sense but none of them become distinguished, and he believed it was for him to become so.

Tracing the mental status of Mr. Lincoln, one discovers that he was suicide prone.  At one time a neighbor, Mentor Graham, related that “Lincoln told me that he felt like committing suicide often.”  The neighbors and friends were compelled to keep watch and ward over him.  This was even more pronounced when Lincoln’s first love, a bright, pretty young woman, Anna Mayes Rutledge, with flowing blond hair and blue eyes became ill.  She died August 1835.  Lincoln was desperately in love with Anna.  He suffered his first bout of major depression after Anna’s death.  He had a second and more devastating bout of major depression in 1841.  The repeat episode of major depression was precipitated by many causes, among, them, breaking his engagement with Mary Todd, possibly “because of his affection for another woman.”  Again, his friends and relatives were fearful that Lincoln might commit suicide.  They removed guns and knives from his environ.

There is another set of assumptions that relates Lincoln’s depression to Marfan syndrome.  Marfan is an inherited genetic disorder that diminishes the strength of connective tissue from tendons to heart valves.  Persons afflicted with Marfan are tall, gangly, with hyperflexion of joints.  Marfan along with other connective tissue disorders such as Ehler-Danlos Syndrome are often associated with depression.  An aside: the famed magician virtuoso violinist Paganini who could produce those fabulous high notes on his instrument, by hyperflexion of his arm and fingers, had Ehler-Danlos Syndrome and for most of his life suffered from depression.  Robert Schumann who wished his fingers were like Paganini’s to do acrobatic on the keys, suffered from bipolar disorder.  He would put his fingers through painful stretch exercises to make them longer and more limber….

Back to Lincoln, I do know of several sources who have studied Lincoln’s connective tissue disease including the eminent researcher, Victor A. McKusick, professor of medical genetics at Johns Hopkins.  He along with other Lincoln scholars, including Gabor Borritt, Adam Borritt, Douglas Wilson and Allan Guelzo, collectively state that Lincoln did not have Marfan syndrome.

The second part of the book deals with the dynamics of Lincoln as a self-made man.  He won elections, made friends, and with his eloquence mesmerized his audience.  Lincoln continued to be ambitious, determined, and industrious.  He was a devoted Christian with flavors of “old school of Calvinism”, and “hard shell Baptism” running through his speeches, However, Lincoln was a pragmatist and had a keen sense of reality.  According to Allen Guelzo, the leading Lincoln scholar, Lincoln was a serious philosophical thinker who kept abreast of leading ideas of his time. An indication of his pragmatism, as an example, in 1846 he wrote “What I understand is called ‘the Doctrine of Necessity’, that is the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.”  It was John Stuart Mill who first used the phrase “Philosophical Necessity.”  The author quotes Herman Mellville Lincoln’s contemporary and fellow melancholic who suffered deep depression wrote “The in tensest light of reason and revelation combined cannot shed such blazing light upon deeper truths in man, as well sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom.  Utter darkness then is his light, and cat-like he instinctively sees all objects through a medium which is mere blindness to common vision.

Part three of the book deals with Lincoln’s Presidency and the fierce civil war which he fought with conviction and courage.  He was absolutely against the notion of United States splitting into two nations.  He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys, only one of who lived to maturity.   In 1858 Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for US Senate.  He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican Party nomination for President in 1860.  As President, he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. On January 1, 1863, he issued Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.  On Good Friday, April 14, 1865 Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South.

In his epilogue, the author states that he went to spend a weekend with the Association of Lincoln Presenters at the annual convention in Beckley, West Virginia.  Seeing all these men in black suits and stovepipe hats and beards shaved above the chin was an instructive experience.  However, he concludes that “it is a generic and inherent flaw of biography that in order to wrestle a figure, in this instance the formidable figure of Lincoln, onto the page, three dimensions get turned into two.”  However, I believe that the young scholar, Joshua Wolf Schenk has done an excellent job of painting a three dimensional picture of Lincoln. Bravo!

Finally, this book has one perhaps unintended but welcome social and political implication.  Here we have a politician, Lincoln, with depression genes atavistically skulking in his psychic space.  He had several major depressive episodes (nervous breakdowns in 19th century parlance) well known to the public.  Yet he rose to become President of this country.  I was thinking of the late Thomas Eagleton, the former US Senator from Missouri, and George McGovern’s Veep nominee on the 1972 Democratic ticket who had to withdraw because of history of depression.  It seems the public tolerance of mental illness has drastically decreased since 1841, Lincoln’s last episode of major Depression, to 1972 when it was discovered that Eagleton had treatment for depression.  Are we going backward?

*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. He is Emeritus, Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012)

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