Stephen Prothero’s newest book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter
., seeks to educate his audience on the basics of the major world religions. After his sketch of Islam, upon which I’m no expert, he turns to Christianity. If this chp represents his work, I’d say he gets a B. While he has a handle on some topics — like the diversity of Christianity in the world — there are others that baffle me. I’ll get to those in what follows, but first I want to admit something up front. I’m sketching this chp in light of what I think should be in a sketch of Christianity. So I have to talk a bit about what he didn’t write, and not just about what he did write — which is good and readable.
But, if you had to describe Christianity as a religion, what would be the top three topics you’d discuss? Would you include Mormonism as part of Christianity? (Would Mormons?) Which persons in the history of the Church would you say have to be mentioned?
Prothero sees Christianity as a religion of salvation (Islam as submission). Simple terms often go a long way if they are the right ones. I’d say his term “salvation” is a very good one. It needs some defining and nuancing, which he doesn’t do in a book like this, but salvation is a good descriptor of Christianity if you want to narrow it down to one term. Anyway, it’s good to describe how Christianity has presented what it has to offer to the world.
He thinks earliest Christianity was up for grabs — and here he doesn’t discuss the movement from Jesus through Paul and Peter to Nicea as cohesive, which is how Christians have always understood those years. He prefers the pluralism themes of Ehrman and others.
He also thinks Christianity is defined by what it believes over against Judaism and Islam’s emphasis on how one behaves. And for all his talk about this, there’s very little theological probing in this chp. Instead, he focuses on personal salvation (fair enough) and the facts about the diversity of Christianity (which we need). Still, while I like those two dimensions of his chp, more on the theology would help. And it would also help if he weren’t so casual and flippant about what Christians believe.
His avoidance of probing theology mysteriously, and I think a bit uncharitably to most Christians, who by his own admission care a great deal about orthodoxy, permits him to include Mormons in his sketch of Christianity. In this chp we could have had a sketch of Jesus’ vision, Paul’s theology, Peter’s theology, etc. … in other words, Christianity is a Bible-based theology and more on what the NT presents would help. I’m perhaps pushing him too much on what he didn’t write, but I’m doing this because he offers a sketch of Christianity … and I’m thinking about how that can be best done.
He emphasizes Story: the Story of Jesus, the Story of Jesus in human history and the Story of Jesus in the lives of individual Christians, all the while emphasize Christianity as a rescue religion and the theme of salvation.
Then we start getting the facts: 2.2 billion Christians, the Reformation as splitting the Church (and here has a minimum of theological sketch of the differences), the Lutherans, the Reformed, the Anglicans and the Anabaptists (more please). He could easily have had more on Eastern Orthodoxy, esp because of the number of Eastern Christians. A section on Mormonism, the Evangelical Century (19th), the Pentecostal (20th), Brown Christians (here he is referring to non whites more than Latin Americans, so he includes Asians and Latin Americans and Africans). He’s got a good grasp here on the Next Christendom themes. Then on Islam and Christianity and a brief on Christian mystics.