Alton Gansky. 30 Events that Shaped the Church: Learning from Scandal, Intrigue, War, and Revival. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015. 270 pp. $17.99.
Condensing more than 2,000 years of Christian history into less than 300 pages is daunting. Aligning the overview into a chronological selection of 30 events makes the task even more challenging. Alton Gansky, the novelist of such works as The Incumbent, has tackled this challenge in his new book, 30 Events that Shaped the Church: Learning from Scandal, Intrigue, War, and Revival—a follow-up to his recent 60 People Who Shaped the Church (Baker, 2014).
With any book of this sort, the looming question is always “Which events made the cut and which did were left outt?” In Gansky’s selection many of the usual suspects are included—the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Great Schism of 1054, the Protestant Reformation, and Vatican II. Some surprising inclusions are the early Baptist leader John Smyth, the Bill of Rights, and the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”
Gansky’s novel-writing skills are on full display throughout the work. Each chapter opens with a story, drawing the reader into the context of the event before describing the actors and how it unfolded. For those who think of history as mere dissemination of facts, dates, and numbers from teacher to student, this engaging narration is a welcome change.
Though historians don’t tend to agree on many finer points of history, when it comes to larger themes, trends, and events, it’s easier to find consensus. When examining the history of Christianity, certain events loom large, and Gansky picks up on several of them.
The book opens with Pentecost. This is a fitting event to start such a narrative, since it’s the beginning of the church proper in many ways. Pentecost (Acts 2) sets the tone both for the entire book of Acts and for the church’s expansion from a small Jerusalem sect to a global movement that today claims some 2 billion adherents.
As his chronology bounds forward Gansky picks up on key events like the conversion of Constantine in a chapter on the Edict of Milan, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea called by Constantine and held in 325, the Great Schism between East and West in 1054, and, of course, the Reformation. In narrating post-Reformation history he picks up on events such as the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic response the Reformation, the Great Awakening, and Vatican II—all of which are standard fare for Christian history overviews and would find agreement from many historians.
Many of Gansky’s post-Reformation choices, though, reveal his particular areas of interest. Events like John Smyth’s baptism in 1609, Bishop Ussher’s chronology, and the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible offer intriguing windows into how he views the history of Christianity.
Issues and Concerns
In my estimation, the events Gansky chooses to narrate raise some concerns. Granted, if any of us attempted this project, we’d be showing our cards too. The task would be monumental and nearly impossible given our limitations on multiple fronts. Moreover, it should be noted that Gansky doesn’t present these 30 events as the definitive list with which every Christian must agree.
That said, I have three main concerns. First, his choices reflect an American evangelical-centric view of Christian history. Second, several events could easily have been subsumed under one event, allowing space for others in the narrative. Third, the omission of the Pentecostal movement is striking.
1. American evangelical-centric view of history
When writing about the global church, one should either write with the global body of believers past and present in mind or narrow the scope of the book to events that shaped the church in one particular nation. Gansky commits significant space to events pertinent only to American evangelicals. For example, he includes entire chapters on the Bill of Rights, the Scofield Reference Bible, “The Fundamentals,” the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” the Jesus Movement, the Christian Right, and the New Atheism. One wonders how much our brothers and sisters in China, Nigeria, or Iran care about the historical significance of these selections.
The events featured appear to be of particular relevance not just to American evangelicals generally, but to those of a conservative, baptistic, perhaps dispensational-leaning type. In short, I fear Gansky perpetuates an American-focused understanding of church history that neglects the growth of the church throughout the world.
A second weakness is the seemingly arbitrary partition of certain events into several chapters. After a chapter on Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, for example, Gansky devotes four chapters to several sub-events related to the fundamentalist response to modernism in light of Darwin’s theories. Such events include the Scofield Bible, the publishing of “The Fundamentals” themselves, the Scopes trial, and the rise of neo-evangelicalism. In each of those chapters he outlines a response to the growing modernist tide in the wake of Darwin’s theories. I think he would have been better off combining them, thereby freeing up more space for other important events.
3. Omission of Pentecostalism
While it may seem a bit unfair to criticize an author for not including a particular event, one has to wonder about the omission of the Pentecostal revival from Gansky’s list. I think most church historians would agree that the Pentecostal revival was one of the most important events in Christian history since the Reformation. Beginning symbolically at Azusa Street in 1906, global Pentecostalism has reshaped Christianity around the world in little more than 100 years. In fact, various estimates suggest that Pentecostals now make up more than one-fourth of all Christians worldwide. They are the fastest-growing segment of Christianity in the world. Ignoring the roots of this movement is unfortunate.
Dip in Anywhere
30 Events that Shaped the Church is a quick read. Additionally, since each chapter stands on its own, readers can helpfully dip in anywhere without missing a continuous narrative.
Nevertheless, the book misses an opportunity to inform readers on the church’s global growth in the last 100 years.