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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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On a Contemporary Martin Luther

Monday Musings” for Monday November 18, 2013

Volume III, No. 45/139


Paul Tillich, A Contemporary Martin Luther

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Our inbox runeth over. Incoming mail about Martin Luther’s birthday brought us unprecedented response requesting more on Luther. In compliance, we will schedule another “MM” on the occasion of Luther’s mortal anniversary, the week of February 18. Today I thought we ought to recognize some contemporary “Martin Luthers,” my favorite among them is Paul Tillich. But let me share a sample of the incoming mail:  A distinguished colleague and faithful reader of this space writes:  “Concerning grace–suspicious New Yorker, at breakfast in Southern Pines, pointing to white stuff on plate: what’s that! I didn’t order it & I won’t pay for it!Waitress: them’s grits–you don’t order ’em, you don’t pay for them. They’s like grace: they just comes.” I don’t believe Saint Paul or the formidable scholar of grace, Saint Augustine of Hippo, can parallel this…. Now to Paul Tillich.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was Harvard Professor of Systematic Theology. It must be noted that there are hundreds of professors at Harvard, but only five Harvard Professors. These coveted positions have been maintained throughout Harvard’s nearly 400 years of existence. Paul Tillich had the rank of Harvard Professor of Systematic Theology in Harvard Divinity School. His tenure as one of the five began in 1955. Tillich came to US at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr in 1947.  He had to learn English. Not only did he learn the language–he wrote nearly a million words in English. His many highly acclaimed books, many of them bestsellers in the world of academia, are published in English. He taught in New York Theological Seminary and Columbia University before joining Harvard.

A personal note:  I came to US as a student in 1955.  In my early days of college pre-med, while learning English, I was exposed to some of the Tillich’s writings. I especially enjoyed reading his book, History of Culture and Religion. It was an intoxicating work, emphasizing the universality of “personhood.” Three years later, after entering the George Washington University School of Medicine, I learned that Prof Tillich was to conduct a Saturday seminar on Systematic Theology. I wrote to him and to the Harvard University administration to get permission to audit the course. The privilege was granted. I further obtained permission to tape the lectures. The tape recorder in those days was the size of a suitcase. Bulky and unyielding, I lugged it to the Logan Airport in Boston every Saturday for 19 weeks. I attentively listened and taped the lectures. The Professor had a thick German accent, often unintelligible. But his thinking was clear and unencumbered.  Even though he wrote many books including his three volume Systematic Theology in English, I still believe he really never learned to think, speak and/or dream in English. I believe his English writings were translated German which attest to a brilliance and disciplined mind.

Paul’s career at Harvard ended in 1962 when he moved to the University of Chicago. His last volumes were written in Chicago. He died in 1965. The outstanding feature of his teachings and writings may be summarized as his attempt to correlate/connect and integrate. He called his theology “Method of Correlation”, espousing theology with existentialism, psychology psychological analysis sand biology. Tillich was a huge advocate of ontology and the state of being. He “connected” and “correlated” the philosophical positions of the four work horses of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), John Paul Sarte (1889-1976) , and Albert Camu (1913-1960); the art of the impressionist painters such as Monet, Manet and Pissarro; theologians of the Reformation era, such as Martin Luther (1483-1550) and his contemporary Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) known as the father of Christian Humanism (not to be mistaken with secular humanism); as well as pre-Christian philosophers and lovers of wisdom such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He correlated and connected all these exciting elements to achieve his ultimate goal of illuminating the landscape of theology. Paul Tillich was a great observer, connector and co-relater of human and Godly phenomena.

Finally, Tillich’s lifelong pursuit of philosophy and theology reveals that the central question of every philosophical inquiry always comes back to the question of being, ontology, or what it means to be, to exist, and to be a finite human. Here is a statement in his introduction to systematic theology:

“Theology formulated the questions and implied in human existence and formulate the answers implied in divine self manifesting ideas with the guidance in human existence. This is the circle which drives man to a point where questions and answers are not separated. The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based and are taken by systematic theology from the sources, through the medium, under the norm. Their content cannot be derived from questions that would come from an analysis of human existence. They are ‘spoken’ to human existence from beyond it, in a sense. Otherwise, they would not be answers, for the question is human existence itself.”

Studying Paul Tillich leaves us with more questions than answers, a state that sharpens curiosity and encourages one to be a more eager seeker. I believe Paul Tillich would have made a superb candidate for Meymandi Fellowship at the National Humanities Center.


*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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On the Church and Same Sex Union

Monday Musings for Monday March 25, 2013

Volume III, No. 12/116


A  Few Thoughts about the Church and Same Sex Union

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*


 (Editor’s Note:  Our inbox is full of requests for a ‘Musings’ about same sex marriage.  Here are a few thoughts.)

The history of growth of religious and secular institutions consistently shows that inclusion and assimilation of “converts” is the key to progress. Saint Augustine of Hippo, the brilliant scholar (354-430 AD) was a Manichean (a sect of Zoroastrianism). He was converted to Christianity at age 31. Earlier in the history of Christian Church, Saint Paul was a convert. It is agreed that without Paul there would be no Christian Church. On the secular side, without Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), an Italian boy who immigrated to France at the age of 14, working his way up to become the court composer to the “Sun King”, Louis XIV, there would be no French opera, no majestic French overture, no dotted rhythm, and no marshal and magisterial musical form, no ballet, and no Palais Garnier, which are uniquely Lully’s. Without Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), the accomplished linguist and librettist, we would not have many of the most beloved Mozart operas. Da Ponte was an Italian Jewish boy converted into Catholicism. He became an ordained priest, later immigrated to America to become the first chair, Department of Arts and Languages at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in 1820. The intellectual and artistic contributions of the uninitiated infuse us with curiosity and restlessness. Therefore, we should welcome those who do not think like us, or challenge our smugness and comfort.

Dissention and disagreement are not strangers to the Christian church. The split of apostolic succession in 1352, followed by the migration of the papacy to Avignon, southern France, is a good example. During that period there were many who claimed to be the Pope. In Avignon, the leadership of the church, while partying and having a good time, paid little attention to the people suffering from bubonic plague. It wiped out nearly eighty percent of Europe’s population. The people were wondering where were their religious leaders to save them from the plague.

Then there were the epoch making 1519 questions of Martin Luther, posted on the church door, ushering the reformation and the birth of Protestantism. And later there was the emergence of the counter-reformation which in essence gave birth to the baroque period. It gave us the stunning beauty, symmetry and sublime complexity of baroque music, art, and architecture. The beautiful music of Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann and others is the fruit of the baroque era. So, schism, dissent and revolution within the church, while unpleasant, have always been fruitful and consequential.

The epistemology, phenomenology and theology of Christian teachings offer profound and unique aspects. The teachings are flexible; they invite and nurture seekers and doubters. I believe as one who has been exposed to many religious teachings, the uniqueness of Christianity is the theology of possibility, and, of course, loveagape–, toleration (not tolerance)acceptanceinclusion and accommodation. I do not think that Christ as a person would exclude anyone from his house or his table, because of gender orientation or preference.

As a psychiatrist, I was involved in the panel sponsored by the American Psychiatric Association in 1972 that studied and de-classified homosexuality as a mental illness. Forty one years later through the powerful instruments of genomics and proteomics, we are learning that homosexuality carries a heavy load of genetic predisposition. In some instances, we even know the address and even the zip code of the strand of atavistic genes or polygenes that skulk the physiological architecture of humans. Therefore, the more one knows, the more tolerant and understanding one becomes. Unfortunately in the last 40 years, social science has not kept up with brain science in that regard.

I believe leaders of all religious institutions and Christian denominations ought to collect knowledge, information and intellectual input, and through the prism of history, transform them into wisdom. Wisdom takes patience, deliberation and deference. I am reminded of Fredrick Nietzsche (1844-1900), the German philosopher, who saw the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet (1838-1875), 21 times.  He said “every time I see Carmen I become more patient, wiser and a better philosopher.” We need to generate wisdom. Impulsive actions, impatience, arrogance, expedient political moves to gain gratification of narcissistic needs and power are not needed. All religious teachings behoove us to avoid those pitfalls. I also believe that the future of the institution of faith is in the children and the programs that nurture and produce a strong community. Any erosion or diminution of programs that ultimately injures and compromises that commitment is sinful. This is how I define sin.

It is appropriate to respectfully and faithfully observe the holy days before us, namely Passover which begins at sundown today; Good Friday, coming on March 29, and Easter on Sunday March 31.  All three occasions exemplify the gift of hope, love, possibility, redemption and grace.


*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 at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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On Christianity and Valentine’s Day

Monday Musings for February 11, 2013

Volume III, No. 6/106





By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Happy Valentine’s Day! For the etymology of the word Valentine a bit of history and reflection might be appropriate: Human sacrifice, self-sacrifice and martyrdom are not new. They go back to the Iron age when Virgil in his Book IV, dramatically depicted the departure of Aeneas for the Trojan war leading to Dido’s plunging a knife into her breast and sacrificing herself for the love of Aeneas.  And we know that during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-311 AD) Christians were caught and fed to the lions. Were those professed Christians who risked their lives and became dinner for the Emperor’s hungry lions on a suicide mission as are today’s fanatic suicide bombers of Islam?  A good question to reflect upon…The martyr sacrificed self. The fanatic bombers sacrifice self and kill innocent others.  That is murder…

Of course things got better for Christians after Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) converted to Christianity in 313 AD. The same persecuted Christians under Diocletian were now pampered and given cushiony jobs under Constantine. What a difference a mere 75 years make!
Well, There were three Saint Valentines and the one we westerners strongly identify with is the Saint Valentine of Rome who was a priest martyred in 269 AD by the orders of Diocletian. Some 200 years later Pope Gelasius I  (he was the pope when Saint Augustine ‘345-430 AD) became the Bishop of Hippo) decided to recognize Saint Valentine’s love and devotion for Christianity and established by papal order the Saint Valentine’s Day. It was not until Chaucer days (1345-1400) in the fourteenth century England when the feast of February 14 first became associated with romantic love, a pure Anglo invention.
For the past seven centuries the invention has served us well. Imagine the number of weddings that have been facilitated and children conceived by Saint Valentine.  Incidentally, Valentine from Latinvalentinus means valence, and the word value takes its roots from the same origin. The Meymandi household joins me in wishing a Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your precious families.

Love and Joy to All,

Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA

*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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Monday Musings for Monday December 24, 2012

Volume II, 42/94


Reflections on Trinity and Christian faith

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

The triadic nature of man plays a major role in our lives. We think in threes. The best writings almost always brings in three examples. Bhagavad Gita, the Holy Book of Hindus, speaks of rays of divinity enveloping us in groups of three.   In Quoran Majid, Surah 36,Ya-sin, Allah speaks of his bounties given to his people in bunches of three.  In deutero- Canonical literature to the number three is assigned “holiness” and “purity”. Saint Paul spoke of three most important things in life: Faith, Hope, and Love. Plato wrote extensively, especially in his book of Phaedo, acknowledged as the closest writing about God and Christ by a pagan who lived long before Christ (427-347 BC), about the trinity of the soul, beauty, and perfection of form. The famed Zoroastrian commandments is the triad: Good deed, Good word, and Good thought. The Sermon on the mount, an opus magnum of literature in any language, comes in sentences and pronouncements bunched in threes. The act of Love, the most important contribution of Christianity, “love your neighbor as you love yourself” requires the triad lover, the object, beloved, yourself, and/or your neighbour, and the act of love, all forcefully simulated in Christian theology as God, Son, and the Holy Spirit, three entities in a well integrated one, and not like three peas in a pod. In order to live a meaningful and altruistic life, humans are endowed with the triad of intellect, memory, and will.   In practical realm, there are a minimum of three legs to a tripod, and yes, the Holy Trinity, elaborately expressed in the Nicene Creed, 325 AD, speaks eloquently, elegantly, and definitively, of the nature of Trinity (see, I used three adverbs to describe the Creed).  So, the triadic and Trinitarian model is most relevant to our daily lives.

In our my personal lives, the triadic phenomenon plays a major role and continues its importance: today, December 24, is the natal anniversary of my most beloved friend and wife, Emily.  It is also the eve of the natal anniversary of the Lord.  It coincides with our wedding day which we celebrate every month and call it “Montheversary”.  A perfect and holy triad with its roots deeply fed by the joyful life giving running book of the Holy Trinity.

*The writer is a Distinguished Life Fellow American Psychiatric Association, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill.  He is the Founding Editor and Editor in chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012)

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