Peril and Peace:Chronicles of the Ancient Church
History Lives, Volume 1
Mindy & Brandon Withrow
Christian Focus Publications, 2005
More than once, Haley and I have had the same experience. We see a book, we love the idea, and we think to ourselves somewhat fearfully, “I really hope this works.” Strangely enough, my own excitement about a book’s potential can actually keep me from reading it – because what if the author just didn’t pull it off? Better not to risk the disappointment.
That skittishness actually kept me from finishing this week’s book, Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church for over a year. Haley gave it to me last May right after my son was born, and it seemed like such a brilliant and necessary piece of theological kidlit – with so much potential to go terribly, horribly wrong. But at long last, I’m happy to report that this is a book well worth reading with middle-grade and early teenage readers. I wish something like this had been around when I was in middle school.
Briefly, this is the first book in Mindy and Brandon Withrow’s History Lives series. There are five volumes total, chronicling church history through the lives of major figures. In addition to the biographical chapters that tell the stories of the church Fathers, volume 1 includes short explanatory essays on the worship of the ancient church, the creeds, and the compilation of the biblical canon. The whole thing is written in breezy, action-packed prose – intended, I suppose, to make the ancient church figures more approachable.
I have to admit, I didn’t love that aspect of the book. While I admire the Withrows’ intention to show 21st-century readers their essential connectedness to the early church (which many of us tragically ignore), I highly doubt that Gregory of Nyssa ever described a Roman imperial prefect urging him to Arianism as a “bully!”
In fact, the church Fathers would likely have a hard time recognizing much of evangelical Christianity today – and as we encounter them, it’s worth preserving a sense of the distance between us. I think it’s valuable to keep in view both legitimate theological differences as well as (sadly) the theological shallowness foreign to the Fathers but so endemic to us. (Honestly: there were city-wide riots in Alexandria over the Arian controversy. When theological controversy erupts now, we just tweet at each other.)
That’s a minor quibble, though. These stories are a wonderful introduction to the giants of our faith. I read many of the martyr accounts during Holy Week and was incredibly moved by how these men and women literally staked their lives on a story we’ve somehow domesticated with fuzzy chicks and chocolate bunnies.
I didn’t learn much about church history – and certainly nothing before the Reformation – until I was in college. When I finally did, I found the faith I professed to be much richer, more complex, and frankly more interesting than I had ever suspected. The Withnows’ book is historically solid (just check the bibliography at the end!) and clearly animated by a love for the saints who have gone before. I think I won’t be waiting another year to read the next one.