Bamber Gascoigne's The Christians attempts to give a popular overview of the historical continuum of Christianity by focusing on certain themes found in each Christian era.For the Middle Ages; his attention centers on the dichotomy between the glorious cathedral building and the darker side of "disease, superstition, a gnawing sense of guilt, fear of death and of damnation." The Christianizing and colonization of Central America as well as India and Japan in the 16th and early 17th centuries is seen as another dichotomy between peaceful adaption and assimilation and a ruthless conquest of souls. Gascoigne, much in the manner of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation , uses a combination of text and illustrations to render an impression of each era - the text is composed of specific historical events, anecdotes, quotations and personal reflections. However, Gascoigne unfortunately fails to generate a vivid sense of each era covered, yet alone an impression of what it might have been to be a Christian in those times or of the impact of the Christian worldview on Western Civilization.
Ignoring for the most part the distinction that Christians have always made between the temporal and spiritual words. Gascoinge dwells mostly on the temporal, on, as he says, "people, events and places rather than theory or theology" to make the history "more real." While what he has to say about the materialism and greed of the Crusaders, the abuses of the Papacy, the power plays of the Reformation, and the problems of the modern church is interesting, well put, and, alas, all too true, it is not the whole story. What is missing is the spirit that informs and renews each historical expression of Christianity. The most disappointing part of the book deals with the pre-Reformation period. In looking at Byzantium, for example, Gascoigne is more inclined to dwell on the pride of Justinian on entering his new magnificent church of Santa Sophia or on the rise of the iconoclasts, than on the nature and expression of Byzantine Christianity, its sense of hieratic divine mystery. Gascoigne's real sympathy seems to lie with the plainer approach of the post-Reformation to the Deity and the skepticism of the Enlightenment; here he is able to trace a convincing historical continuum of modern Christianity. Although much of the flesh of Christianity's basic history is here, the spirit is finally found wanting. (Morrow, $17.50)