Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review: Christianity's Dangerous Idea

I bought this book a couple of years ago and just haven’t got around to reading it until now. Truth be told I was a bit daunted by the thing! Nonetheless I found myself with nothing to read one day and had an eerie sense that the book was laughing at me, so I took a deep breath and delved into it. I’m glad I did!

So anyway, aside from being an intriguing title, what actually is “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea?” I’ll let Alister McGrath do the talking:

“The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. However, it ultimately proved uncontrollable, spawning developments that few at the time could have envisioned or predicted.”

This book is a history of the protestant revolution from the 16th century until now. This may sound pretty dry at first glance (and was another reason why I resisted reading it for so long!) but in fact I found it quite an exhilarating read. McGrath has done well to take a subject that could potentially be seriously boring, and tell a story that is both informative and exciting.

The book is divided into three parts, telling about the origination, manifestation and transformation of Protestantism. The first part is a broad-brush history of the birth of the movement right up until the 20th century. I found this section enormously helpful in highlighting how and why so many different denominations have sprung up, and summarising the key issues involved. My generation generally doesn’t seem to have much idea about all that stuff, and so this was a very handy reference to answer questions about why the diversity in churches we see today exists. McGrath was successful in generating a sense of excitement as the story of Protestantism built toward the present day, and even in these early pages he imparts a strong sense of the magnitude of the movement that Protestantism continues to be.

The second part goes back and fills in some details on certain elements of Protestantism, such as how it approaches the Bible, and its relationship with culture, the arts, science and so on. I found it a bit of a slog getting through this bit. It’ll make good reference material for sure, but for me it lacked the sense of drive and purpose that made the other sections so enjoyable.

Finally, the book finishes up with a more comprehensive look at the radical transformations that have happened since the dawn of the 20th century, in particular the rise of Pentecostalism and its potential impact on the future. I found this the most exciting section of the book, probably because it is most relevant to me. McGrath writes as one expecting monumental changes in the movement, and hence the world, within the next couple of generations, and this sense of excitement is contagious in the way he writes. I love big picture thinking, and this section definitely lays the foundations for a view of the world that is well grounded in the past, and expansive in its vision for the future.

Overall, the book is very well written and easy to read. A wee bit of prior understanding of the various facets of Protestantism would always be a bonus when reading something like this, but McGrath generally does a good job of keeping things pretty simple. Though not everyone’s cup of tea, if you want to know more about the general origins and issues facing Protestantism, you can’t go wrong with this book.

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