JACKI LYDEN, host:
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When he was a young boy growing up in a rural rectory in East Anglia in England, Diarmaid MacCulloch's parents used to drive him around to look at churches. His father, one of a long line of Scottish Protestant Anglican ministers, didn't really encourage stops at Catholic churches. But we're always most interested in what's most forbidden. In the due course of time, MacCulloch grew up to be interested in the multiple ways in which Christianity has morphed, clashed, invented and re-invented itself.
He's professor of the history of the Church at Oxford University, and his new delightful and intriguing look at the Church, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years," ranges around the globe. MacCulloch is an unfailingly delightful companion on that journey, and he joins me now from the studios of BBC in Oxford. Welcome to the program, Diarmaid MacCulloch.
Professor DIARMAID MACCULLOCH (Oxford University, Author, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years"): Well, thank you very much. Lovely to be with you.
LYDEN: So, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years" - I was amused by that title because I thought either you're very optimistic, or you're taking us back to the millennium before Christ appears.
Prof. MACCULLOCH: Well, really, the main end is the previous thousand years before Jesus Christ came along because that's so important for Christianity. And it's really two different sets of thousand years. One of them is a Jewish thousand years, and the other is a Greek thousand years. And both those lie behind Christianity.
And what was so important to actually tell that story first is that these two cultures - Jewish culture, Greek culture - they got entirely different views of what God is. And then you get a man coming along who people regard as God -Jesus. And those people have a Jewish heritage and a Greek heritage. Well, which God? A Jewish God, Greek God? And so that fascinating clash seems to me to be a fundamental thing about Christianity, makes it a very unstable thing.
LYDEN: Christianity today, Dr. MacCulloch, is a huge religion, one-third of the world's 6 billion people. And for many of them, Christianity's viewed primarily as a Western faith. But you tell the story, as you just mentioned, the ancient Eastern churches and the Eastern influence on the church. Could you tell us about that?
Prof. MACCULLOCH: Yeah, sure. I wanted to tell the story in a sense the wrong way around but the right way around because the church should have been an Eastern religion. After all, Jesus spoke an Eastern language, Aramaic, which is a version of Syriac, which people still speak in parts of Syria today. And youd expect that to be the future.
And instead, the Christians who are alive today tend to be heirs of either the Greek part of the Roman empire or the Latin-speaking part of the Roman empire, and they're Catholics or Protestants. But those ancient churches, the churches which looked East, which went East, which went as far as China, I found that story fascinating. And when we did a TV series on the back of the book, I actually met these people and watched their liturgy going on in the language that Jesus spoke, and that's a really extraordinary touch with the past.
LYDEN: And Christians, of course, fled Jerusalem in 70 AD, after Christ's death, because of the Jewish revolt against Rome, right?
Prof. MACCULLOCH: Yes, they did, and that seems to me a huge turning point. If there was going to be a city for Christians, it would have been Jerusalem. But once Jerusalem had been destroyed and, I mean, the Jews had gone, the Christians had fled even before the Jews had rebelled against Rome, then somewhere else would have to be it. And the first candidates were not Rome or even the city which didn't exist then, Constantinople. It would be places like Damascus - or Baghdad could have been the center of Christianity rather than Rome.
LYDEN: Why wasn't it?
Prof. MACCULLOCH: Because in the end, Islam marginalized these Christianities. It's not persecution at all. Islam was not a persecuting faith, unlike Christianity in the West. But it's a matter for a few crucial decisions by certain rulers to become Muslim rather than Christian which really tipped the balance.
LYDEN: Well, speaking of rulers and tipping the balance and of persecuting faith, it's also ironic that Rome become the capital because of course, at first the Romans were putting to death those people who followed Christianity.
Prof. MACCULLOCH: Isn't it extraordinary? To make Rome the center of Christianity in the West seems to me an extraordinary turnabout. And I call that section of the book which deals with that process the unpredictable rise of Rome. There was nothing inevitable about the Roman papacy.
LYDEN: We are now in the middle of one of the greatest scandals that the Catholic Church has ever known. Does Christianity have a healthy future?
Prof. MACCULLOCH: Yes, I think it does precisely because the scandal has broken. Christianity claims to be a religion of truth, and truth will always come out in the end. And the proud will always fall, as Mary predicted in her song "The Magnificant." And I think we're seeing an example of that now in relation to the Catholic Church.
LYDEN: What about the Virgin Mary? Why is she so much more important to Catholics than to Protestants?
Prof. MACCULLOCH: The Virgin Mary really is an essential prop of the Christian faith because she is the human link between the divine and the human. It's part of the tragedy of the Reformation, it seems to me, that Mary was seen as the problem by Protestants. But you look at other parts in the Christian world: the Orthodox, the churches of the East - they don't have that problem with Mary. They don't have that history. And what they can see is this woman who is the vital link in the whole Christian story.
LYDEN: It really is fascinating to think of how Christianity has taken hold in some cultures and not in others, how it is received in different communities.
Prof. MACCULLOCH: Yes, and you never quite know what community is going to take up Christianity in what ways. That Japanese, for instance, have been remarkably resistant to Christianity of any sort. They like Christmas but not Christianity. Whereas the Koreans have taken to it hugely enthusiastically. And I think that's almost because the Japanese were impervious to it.
Christianity has become a badge of being Korean for many Koreans, and that could be Catholic Christianity or Protestant Christianity. And I think there are all sorts of different motives there. And among them, the most important one all the time is choice and dignity - the idea that if you choose, you are giving yourself dignity.
Often for people who don't have choices in their lives, that is the one thing which they can choose. They can choose to turn to Christ. And again and again, you find groups like African-Americans, people who were not given a choice, suddenly making a choice. And that, I think, is the power of so many different forms of Christianity.
LYDEN: Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at Oxford University. His new book is called "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years." There's also a DVD set from the BBC which is based on the book. Dr. MacCulloch joined us from the studios of the BBC in Oxford, England. Thanks very much.
Prof. MACCULLOCH: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
LYDEN: And you can read a history of Christianity's view of gender and sexuality, from Diarmaid MacCulloch's book, at our website, NPR.org.
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