History for History-Phobes

By Elesha Coffman, associate editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

Hard as this is to believe, some people just do not like history. You may have experienced it yourself: A friend from church, or even your own 13-year-old daughter, spies a copy of Christian History on your coffee table and either ignores it completely or—horror of horrors—asks, "Why do you read that boring stuff?" Shocking, yes, but the all-too-common response from anyone inoculated against good history by years of bad social studies classes.

Timothy Paul Jones, a pastor and author with several educational titles to his name, has attempted to rectify this situation with Christian History Made Easy (Rose Publishing, 1999). In 12 short chapters he traces church history from AD 64 to the present, highlighting significant people, events, and ideas in a primarily narrative (and frequently humorous) style. His favorite history book is Dave Barry Slept Here, if that helps you get a handle on the tone.

While Jones's book is entertaining, its primary objective is to educate history-phobes and neophytes. The cover promises "13 Weeks to a Better Understanding of Church History" (12 chapters plus an introductory session), and the book contains many familiar elements of Sunday-school curriculum: a leader's guide, puzzles and worksheets, discussion questions, and review activities. Youth Sunday school or home school is probably the book's best usage, but the material could be adapted for an adult class or for very structured individual study.

On the one hand, the book's quick pace is one of its main strengths. For church history novices, one page on Nikolaus Zinzendorf is likely sufficient, and reading his story in a context including Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitfield fights the habit of picturing historical figures as separate exhibits in a vast museum. On the other hand, sweeping overviews tend to display a sometimes disturbing lack of nuance, and this one is no exception.

Because we just finished editing our forthcoming issue on Augustine (you subscribers should receive your copy in about three weeks), I read Jones' page on Augustine with particular interest. I was a little disappointed. Augustine is called the "finest early medieval theologian," even though he's considered an early church figure, and he's also called an "overseer" rather than a "bishop"—a choice I hope was made as an attempt at clarity instead of as a quiet attack on churches that use the title (Jones's background, incidentally, is Baptist). An off-hand comment about Ambrose's Alexandrian approach to preaching being "flawed" also threw me; this judgment comes out of nowhere, adds nothing to my understanding of Ambrose or Augustine, and reads as a high-handed criticism of something the author has made scant effort to explain.

There's a bit too much editorializing and spiritualizing throughout the book for my taste, but, that said, it's generally quite good. The Augustine section, for example, gives a lively account of his conversion, shows how his doctrine of original sin arose in response to Paul and Pelagius, and summarizes his main argument in City of God. Not bad for nine paragraphs.

* To find out more about the book and some companion curriculum resources, see http://chmadeeasy.homepage.com

Elesha can be reached at cheditor@ChristianityToday.com.