Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History
Backhouse, Stephen. Zondervan Essential Companion to Christian History. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019. ISBN: 9780310599487. Paperback, 222 pages.
As a new addition to Zondervan’s Essential Companion series, this one focuses on church history, with each chapter covering one century in just a few pages. It’s a compact, very colorful glance at the major developments of the global church. Each chapter has a different color scheme (including a bottom corner bar, with headings and subheadings in that color), making it easy to distinguish where in the book you are, and each is full of charts, photos, maps, illustrations, and timelines (according to the front cover, 190 of them). Three different kinds of sidebars highlight people, events, and ideas, each with a consistent color background and symbol for easy recognition. Not just a western church history, it has a global perspective, highlighting aspects of the expansion of the church in Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as in Europe and N. America. It ends with an eight-page glossary. It’s a beautiful book.
So much for the positives. This is billed as an essential companion to church history, which would be partly accurate if read as a companion to a real church history textbook. On the one hand, it’s pretty broad in its global coverage, which is good, but with way too much detail that is clearly not “essential”. This is the kind of history book that puts students off of history to start with. Numerous names are mentioned that I’ve never heard of, even as a teacher of church history, and too many dates, places, and synods/councils to pay attention to. In addition, there are several fairly blatant mistakes, a number of the photos and illustrations don’t have anything to do with the text (one picture, supposedly of Ivan III of Russia (1440-1505) is clearly of a 19th, or possibly even a 20th c. military person), and the sidebars are so random it’s hard to know where to fit them into the chronology.
In addition, although it’s a pretty, very colorful, book, the format is actually hard to follow. The different levels of headings and subheadings are barely distinguishable, and there are headings for just about every paragraph. It makes me wonder if they think the readers aren’t smart enough to figure out what each paragraph is about. Also, the difference between the “ideas” sidebars and the “events” ones aren’t at all clear. Nowhere is there a legend that shows which symbol applies to which sidebar, so you have to guess, especially since it’s not always obvious what makes a particular entry fit either category. There is no introduction explaining the layout or approach of the book, other than the back cover, and the conclusion is inane (“While it will never be possible to tell the whole story of Christianity in all its detail, it is without a doubt true to say that the obstinate atheists who so troubled the governors of a past empire have come a long way.”). The titles all (with one exception. Why?) follow the “*** and ***” format, but it’s not clear from the text what the two items are and why they’re given to that century. Many could apply just about anywhere, and if they’re supposed to help you remember what went on during that century, they’re useless. (How does “Monks and Emperors” apply uniquely to the 8th century, or “Church and State” to the 15th?) The opening page of each chapter is overlaid on a photo or illustration, which makes many of those paragraphs visually hard to read.
I will take just one chapter to illustrate several of the features I find troubling. Chapter 6, “Centres and Margins: 500-600”, is 7 ½ pages long. It has sixteen paragraphs and twelve headings. (And why does a book published in the United States use British spelling? And only here, as far as I can determine.) There are six “people” sidebars, which include such characters as Recared, Himyarites, and Cosmas Indicopleutes, who seem to be better suited for a trivia game than as “essential”. Then there are two sidebars of what I presume are categorized as “events,” “Iona” and “The Rule of Benedict”. I’m not sure how any of those count as events.
A video series accompanies the book, but it’s worthless if you actually read the book, as it’s simply the author lecturing/reading the book to you. It adds nothing except a live voice. A lot could have been done to make it useful, but wasn’t.
Altogether, I came away wondering why Zondervan bothered. There are a number of much better Christian history texts out there right now, including Church History in Plain Language and Christianity: The Biography (which I heartily recommend; see my review in the Denver Journal, vol. 23-2020), both of which Zondervan publishes. I’m guessing they were just needing to fill the gap in their Essential Companion series. This one was mostly just frustrating.
Scott Klingsmith, PhD
Missiologist in Residence