by T Derrick Witherington
from Signs of the Times No. 67 - Oct 2017
For educators, it can be a big challenge to provide their students with a textbook about Christianity which is thorough, balanced, and capable of exciting imaginations. In many ways, Michael Molloy’s The Christian Experience: An Introduction to Christianity would accomplish this.
Its twelve chapters, while providing a comprehensive historical introduction to Christianity, accomplish this through an approach which is both narrative and imaginative.
These elements are evidenced in many ways, including through each chapter beginning with a short text (a ‘first encounter’) which introduces the topic to be discussed by plunging the reader into a situation which hints at what the content of the chapter will hold. For example, its seventh chapter, entitled, ‘Western Christianity in the Middle Ages,’ begins by asking the reader to imagine taking the train from Paris to Chartres, being led up to the imposing Gothic cathedral, entering and seeing its soaring arches and exquisite windows. This ‘first encounter’ ends with many thematic questions which lead seamlessly into the main body of the chapter where answers to them are provided.
The reader’s imagination is further stimulated by Molloy’s inclusion of the arts in each chapter. This is seamlessly melded together with the theme of the chapter – even in chapters which might not easily seem to invite such inclusion. For example, while the inclusion of J.S. Bach in a chapter on the Reformation (Chapter 8, ‘Reform and Renewal’) might seem more than obvious, the inclusion of Christmas lights as a way the contemporary ‘secular world will make its offering’ to the development of Christian-inspired and influenced art was both surprising and salient.
The various imaginative and artistic appropriations of Christianity help the reader both to appreciate the way that the Christian narrative has inspired the arts through the centuries as well as to open her up to potential future creative and imaginative engagements with the Christian tradition. It is this future engagement which, quoting Rowland Croucher, will be ‘shaped more by the visionary gifts of leaders’ who ‘play an essential role, sometimes unseen at the time’. Prophetic visionaries of a future Christianity will, through their creative engagements with the Christian tradition, ‘remind us of our commitments to faith, hope, and love’. Echoing Paul, Molloy believes that it is the ‘greatest of these,’ namely, love, which is the essence and ‘heart of Christianity’. Learning to witness to our commitment to the God who is love in contextually appropriate and newly imaginative ways is the best way for Christianity to compellingly move forward into a future which remains unknown.
Overall, the book is well organized, attractive, and user-friendly. While its depiction of Christian history IS balanced, it is clearly from a more Protestant than Catholic perspective. For example, while its treatment of Reformation-inspired music was thorough, I found its treatment of Baroque visual art and architecture was lacking in comparison. While Molloy admits that his ‘own experience of Christianity has led’ him into a ‘dark cloud,’ it might be helpful for his readers if Molloy indicated clearly the (post) confessional nature of this cloud. Furthermore, the book’s aim of using the arts to teach the story and essence of Christianity would have been greatly enhanced by the inclusion of a multimedia CD or online application where these media could be easily accessed for classroom use.
These very minor comments aside, the book offers a compelling introduction to Christianity and could be easily and fruitfully used in undergraduate theology or religious-studies programs.
T. Derrick Witherington is completing a dissertation on the theological methodology of Louis-Marie Chauvet at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. He is also the secretary of the research group, Theology in a Postmodern Context.