He begins with a history of the development of the many different strands of the Christian Church in the early centuries after Christ; much survived and much did not; much was consigned to the dustbin of history as heresy. Most Christian history has been written by those who won the various arguments, and by men who wanted, for all kinds of reasons, to exclude women. He raises the broader connections of the mutual influences of early Christianity and Islam on each other, in the Middle East where both faiths originated; he also reminds us that the area lay on the Silk Route, by which trade and ideas came from China and India to the West.
I liked his new perspectives on the Reformation (actually, he posits three: the iconoclasm of the ninth century, the renewal of the Western Church in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the one we all know about): Protestants, with their insistence on communal worship, left little space for the private, individual relationship with God; they also destroyed the places of silence (monasteries) and could not offer anything to replace them.
He considers silence from many angles: as evasion and avoidance, particularly of awkward moments in church history; as compromises that allowed all kinds of dissidents to hide and survive persecution and worse. Was there silence before the creation of the world (or the Big Bang)? Perhaps God is best characterised by silence…
Christianity has many things it has wanted to be silent about: Catholic priests abusing children, Christians failing to speak out against the slaughter of Jews during the Second World War, Christians supporting slavery through many centuries.
What I appreciated most about MacCulloch’s book is the recognition of the complexity of the issues, the recovering of so many topics that have been overlooked for so long, the questioning and the reflecting which he does in a very fair and balanced way, whilst shining a torch into so many dark corners. Silence is a very rare and increasingly precious thing in our bright and noisy world, and it is useful to slow down, to remember and appreciate it.