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Jonathan Phillips: Holy Warriors; Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity

We need this reminder that Turkey, Armenia and Iraq had a large Christian presence until the early decades of the 20th Century. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the threat of occupation by European powers led to the brutal genocide of Christians in what had been one of the earliest centers of Christianity, Northern Mesopotamia and Armenia. This is an example of powers reacting badly in another stressful period, the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

We live in a similarly stressed period today. In the past, alignment of religion with state was the status quo, but today it is increasingly unthinkable. Is there an alternative to peace other than pursuing freedom of conscience, religious freedom and secular government in every nation including the Islamic countries? In my opinion, we would all benefit by recognizing Islam and Christianity are not in conflict today because they do not understand each other, this is the situation between all religious communities, and it has ever been this way.

I would not want to give the impression that the struggle between Islam and Christianity is the only or even the main topic of Lost History. The Church of the East was conversant with diverse nations, religions, and cultures. Jenkins provides translations of texts which would otherwise lie in some faraway library. Letters from a leader in one empire to another are fascinating and he gives examples of inter-faith dialogues we can hardly imagine. However, the lesson is clear: people of one faith not only need not fear being in dialogue with other religions, indeed it is a way forward, and Jenkins is very good at explicating that this is not done by watering down your own.

If there is a path to peace, it is more than likely to come by learning from our failures to appreciate the good in each other’s community and to realize the commonalities we share while not giving up anything authentic in our own. In doing this we can help inoculate our cultures from the demagoguery of greedy politicians and religious hooligans who play off the ignorance of the population (which in general has no interest in studying theological niceties).

If the West could arm itself with knowledge over its own religious history and its intercourse with Judaism and Islam, it would perhaps not have to supervise the shipments of so many other weapons. Books, not bombs may be the way to go. It would be wise if more statesmen would begin reading works by historians and Church historians to learn how to keep one eye on the past when thinking of the future.

Reviewed by Eric J. Swensson


Additional reading:

Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 262 pages, ISBN 9780801446214.

Habib Badr, ed., Christianity: A History in the Middle East, Middle East Council of Churches (World Council of Churches, 2006), 934 pages, ISBN 9782825414248.

Preview Holy Warriors online at:

Publisher’s page for The Lost History of Christianity:


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Category: Church History, Summer 2010

About the Author: Eric Jonas Swensson is an author, blogger, historian, and social media director. He was a pastor for 17 years before resigning to go overseas on the trip that became the basis for his book, A Year in Tyr (2011). His dissertation has been published as Kinderbeten: The Origin, Unfolding, and Interpretations of the Silesian Children's Prayer Revival (Wipf & Stock, 2010). Google+

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