A review of Stuart Coulton’s, Hitting the Holy Road: A Guided Tour of Christian History from the Early Church to the Reformation.
This great survey of Church history has a new and interesting twist compared to others in that genre, such as those reviewed recently in my “The Lessons of History” review article in Churchman 125.3 (2011). This book focuses on place as a way in to the history. Each chapter begins in the present day with a short eyewitness guide to a place of importance in the story to be told, such as the catacombs in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Iona, Cluny, Assisi, and Wittenberg. The reader can imagine the author there amongst the ‘gruff’ attendants and ‘dodgy tour guides’, as he then moves on to recount the history of the place and its context.
At times it feels as if this approach may work better on a TV screen than on paper, but often there are some good lessons to be drawn from the approach, as when he contrasts the Christian art in the Roman catacombs with the dominance of images of Mary in Rome today. There are helpful timelines in each chapter, and side-bars on some fascinating tangential issues. There is also much Aussie humour as we hit the holy road: recounting the last words of Julian the Apostate, Coulton writes, “Julian died fighting the Persians in 363… [According to Theodoret] he died… saying, ‘Thou hast won, O Galilean!’ In reality he probably said, ‘Aarrgh!’”
There are several black and white photos in the book, but many of them are too dark and dingy to be of much use in illustrating the story, and I am not sure why we are treated to a picture of the fourth hole of the Iona golf course (Aussie humour again?). There is a missionary emphasis in several places, and each chapter ends with some useful reflections on the history and its lessons for us in today’s church. These are stimulating, though perhaps not always as critical as they might be (he is too positive about Francis of Assisi for example), and I also wondered if we might have had more on ordinary church life rather than just monasteries, universities, and palaces. Yet there is little reason to dissent from the learned commentator who writes on the back cover that this travel guide history is “challenging and stimulating… enjoyable and immensely rewarding.” It is a shame it does not cover the last four hundred years, but perhaps that leaves room for a sequel?
This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).