The Week in Books 2008, No. 30

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, Oxford scholar Alister McGrath’s lengthy exploration of the phenomenon of Protestantism from the Reformation to the present, is wide-ranging and illuminating. At the center of McGrath’s assessment is his contention that the main idea of Protestantism, that each Christian can read and interpret the Bible, leads to a diversity and malleability impossible within the more centralized structures of Catholocism and Orthodoxy. McGrath traces the history of Protestantism as a variety of movements rather than as a single monolithic system, and thereby refutes a number of widely held misconceptions and stereotypes. He shows that “the situation is much more complex and nuanced, not to mention more interesting, than prevalent stereotypes suggest.”

Along the way, I learned a lot about the history of how different strains of Christianity developed, which greatly helped my understanding of how Christians can come to such radically divergent conclusions today, even while expressing the same core beliefs. I found myself remembering frustrating conversations with other Christians in which it felt like we were talking past each other rather than with each other, because although we were using the same vocabulary, we meant very different things by those words and concepts.

I’d recommend Christianity’s Dangerous Idea if you’re interested in church history, or, really, history in general because the impact of the ideas discussed in the book has touched every facet of life. The book is readable, but I will warn you that it’s dense and not something you’re likely to finish quickly or without thoughtfulness.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is a rambling and fairly interesting book about how ideas and concepts spread like epidemics and may be changed by seemingly inconsequential shifts in action, attitude, or perception. I felt that in some cases Gladwell didn’t do a good job defending his conclusions, and perhaps was guilty at some points of making the data fit his desired conclusion. That said, I thought the book was entertaining and instructive on some points, and certainly thought-provoking.

Note: I’ve recently gotten away from noting where I am in my Bible reading in these Week in Books posts, mostly because I keep notes about that in my paper journal, and it’s not like I was “reviewing” the Scriptures or anything. In response to a recent question from a reader, I generally try to get through the Bible at least once a year, by reading a few chapters of the Old Testament, a Psalm, a chapter from the Gospels and a chapter from the Epistles every day. Some days I get through more than others, so that plan generally works for me and gives me flexibility to study different things as they come up without having to stick to a rigid plan.

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