Saturday, January 22, 2011

On "The Incredible History of God's True Church" by Ivor C. Fletcher ****

Fletcher's narrative is an alternative account of the history of Christianity. Instead of following the usual line of believers from the point of view of Catholicism and all of the various groups that descend from it, Fletcher posits that the church that Christ founded is actually a small group whose history is found in the footnotes of those major historical books--if at all. Catholic theology, he would say, derived largely from a combination of pagan influences and the faith that Christ taught. Meanwhile, most of the "pure" believers in Christ ended up going underground.

These believers tend to have certain ideas that mainstream Christianity would find heretical: nonbelief in the trinity, a belief in keeping the seventh day sabbath, and often a belief in celebrating the feast days as kept mostly by the Jewish people, as well as beliefs in immersive water baptism (not that common, apparently, during the Middle Ages). Among his claims are that it's conceivable, even probable, that Christ's apostles (including Paul) went to places like Britain, founding churches there centuries before the nation would be "Christianized" by Roman authorities. He follows the storyline back into alpine areas of Europe during the Middle Ages, where such heretics sometimes managed to escape notice by the Catholic Church (and sometimes, at pain of death, did not). And he follows the storyline as such thinkers make their way to the United States--and especially to the colony of Rhode Island. Fletcher, being British, has a lot more on the history of the British church than I'd read before; reading this makes me want to go back to an online text I'd read on the history of the twelve apostles and where they may have actually gone, which was also fascinating.

I enjoy reading history that doesn't take the mainline view for granted. Of course, the problem with almost any history text that does this--and with many a history text that goes into times and places about which we know little--is that the author has to rely somewhat on mythology and legend or on sources written by people whose agenda may not have been to tell the truth. And, given that Fletcher has his own agenda, there is the risk that "perhaps" clauses become "if" clauses, which then become the foundation for wild assertions that get farther and farther away from what likely happened. This happened often, for example, in several of the books--by other authors--I read last year regarding Paul, wherein the primary source even, at points, began to take a backseat to the writer's own ideas about who Paul was and what he actually did. I'm a bit more sympathetic with Fletcher, however, since my own views dovetail more closely with his--and since I am also one to view established history with a grain of skepticism. I do like a certain amount of conjecture in history writing--as long as it's not taken to the point that it begins to contradict the primary sources that have come down to us.

Unfortunately, this raises one of the big issues extent in Fletcher's text. While it is footnoted and does have a bibliography, the bibliography does not include publication information, making it difficult to track down the page numbers to which he's referring (which edition of the work is he citing?). Fortunately, in the online world, many of these sources are old enough that they are in the public domain and could likely be searched electronically for the given quote. Just as Fletcher's own book can be, since it's available for download or online reading here.

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