It's quite fashionable to blame Christianity for nearly everything that has gone wrong in the last 2,000 years, says Jonathan Hill. In books from The Da Vinci Code to His Dark Materials, Christians are blamed for inspiring wars, terrorizing people, and fighting against advances in science and learning. But not only are many of those claims either false or greatly exaggerated, they also ignore the many beneficial influences of Christianity in Europe and around the world. What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us?is Hill's response to those who attack the faith. CT corresponded via e-mail with Hill, who is in Singapore working on his Ph.D. in philosophy.

As you say, Christianity has been blamed for intolerance, the Inquisition, the Crusades, slavery, and more. Are these fair accusations? If so, have Christians apologized and made amends?

These are fair accusations, at least to some extent. Of course, there's a lot of misunderstanding about these, too. For example, many people think that the Crusades were begun because the Pope didn't like the fact that Jerusalem was occupied by Muslims. In fact, it had been occupied by Muslims for centuries. The Crusades were a response to atrocities against Christian pilgrims by Muslims there. I've heard people claim that the Catholic church burned thousands of witches in the Middle Ages. Actually, there were very few executions of witches in the Middle Ages, and they were mostly done in early modern times by Protestants, not Catholics.

The Inquisition, similarly, was not always the sadistic institution that we associate with the Spanish church. In the Middle Ages, most inquisitors (usually Dominican friars) were quite fair-minded men who sought to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant. That's not to say that there weren't instances like the trial scene in The Name of the Rose, where everything the defendant says is twisted to become "evidence" of his heresy, but that was not the norm. Certainly, the Inquisition was an intrinsically intolerant institution—it was founded on the principle that heresy could not be allowed to flourish—but that was how people thought in the Middle Ages. They believed that heresy endangered the soul. It would make no more sense to be tolerant of heresy than it would to be tolerant of murder.

The Christian churches, like any other social institution, have a very complex history and make-up. Clearly, they've not been simply shining beacons of goodness, and I wouldn't wish to pretend that they have. But by the same token, they've not been simply terrible sources of evil either, and that's the impression that the book is meant to correct.

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You mention slavery, which is an excellent example. In antiquity, Christians apparently had no particular problem with slavery as an institution (it is implicitly endorsed in Paul's letter to Philemon, for example), although it became a common practice for rich Christians to free their slaves. After the fall of Rome, slavery remained very common throughout Europe, but Christians increasingly came to abhor the practice, and by the end of the first millennium, it had been outlawed throughout most of the continent. So we see Christians gradually coming to oppose what they recognized as a social ill.

In early modern times, the story was more complex. The Atlantic slave trade made the fortunes of many, including many Christians. Many of them reasoned that Africans weren't properly human, so it didn't matter what was done to them. We often hear that John Newton—the author of "Amazing Grace"—was a slaver before his conversion to evangelical Christianity; we don't often hear that he continued to work as a slaver and pocket the profits for long after his conversion, too. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many Christians argued that slavery was part of God's ordained natural order. The Church of England owned slaves on its Codrington Estates in the West Indies. Many could be recognized by the brand "Society"—showing they were the property of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Yet at the same time, some Christians protested against the practice. Pope Eugene IV had condemned slavery in the 1430s, and a century later Pope Paul III repeated the admonition, but unfortunately this meant little to most people in the American and African colonies.

Christians are and have been very diverse people. Those who enslaved the Native Americans and the Africans were Christians, or at least they claimed to be, and so too were those who campaigned against slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries until it was abolished. We can't brand all Christians slavers or hail them all as enlightened liberators. The story is more complicated than that, and so it is for all the problematic subjects mentioned and many more.

Were the Dark Ages actually a time of general stupidity?

If they were, I don't think they were any more so than modern times! I suspect that people in one age are no more or less stupid than those in another, although of course the level of education may be different. And certainly it wasn't very good in the Dark Ages. The fall of Rome left most of Western Europe without any secure political or social structures, and the lives of many people were like Hobbes's description of the natural human life—"poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Invasions, wars, and other upheavals would keep Western Europe in this state until the end of the first millennium, after which things began to improve for the next couple of centuries.

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People sometimes blame the church for this situation, which is extraordinary! On the contrary, the church was the main institution trying to fight the decline. The learning of antiquity was preserved not in secular schools but in monasteries, where monks not only read and copied ancient literature, but also wrote their own. Most of the works written during this period—whether philosophy, theology, science, or history—were inferior to those of antiquity (with a few exceptions, such as Isidore of Seville, Erigena, and Bede), but they provided the groundwork for the great scholarship and philosophy of the Middle Ages. This was still a time of great superstition, but many churchmen tried to fight this trend and encourage rational thought. Agobard of Lyons, for example, specialized in debunking "weather magicians" who claimed to be able to control the weather (for a fee!).

Socially, the church was the only stable institution in the lives of many people. Consider, for example, the city of Tours, where a Gallo-Roman nobleman named Gregory became bishop in 573. Between then and his death in 594, Tours passed under the political control of three kings. The city was devastated by war, its cathedral burned to the ground in 568. Luckily, Gregory took a firm hand of Tours. He not only rebuilt the cathedral, but also stood up for the people's rights against the shifting political powers, and seems to have administered his see with courage and justice.

Often, bishops were the closest thing a city had to a mayor or civil governor. This is one reason behind the rise in power of the papacy—the Pope was sometimes the only person available to run things in Rome. When Attilla the Hun invaded Italy in the fifth century, only Pope Leo I rode out to meet him and persuade him not to sack Rome. By the time we get to Gregory the Great in the late sixth century, the Pope was responsible not only for the spiritual welfare of the Romans, but also for feeding, policing, and protecting them, too. That wasn't because the popes had seized power—they had simply stepped in to fill the vacuum.

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So, did the Irish really save civilization?

Not quite, but they helped it a lot! In the early Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions, people were too busy trying to stay alive to spend time on scholarship and learning. Those areas that most escaped the disruption and war of the time were those that best preserved the learning of antiquity. Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire, and after Christianity was introduced there, monasteries appeared throughout the island, where monks preserved and meditated upon ancient learning. In fact, Ireland at this time had no real population centers—everyone lived in small villages—and the monasteries were the nearest things to towns. Quite apart from the monks, they housed farmers, grocers, metalsmiths, and all the other amenities of civilization. By the eighth and ninth centuries, Irish scholars were among the best in Europe, and many traveled to continental Europe. The court of Charlemagne, and even more of his son Louis the Pious, was dominated by Irish scholars—the most famous being the philosopher Erigena (whose name is simply Greek for "Irish"!).

But the Irish weren't the only ones doing this. Another major area of scholarship was Spain, which had survived the fall of Rome remarkably well. When the Visigoths invaded in the sixth century and set up an independent kingdom there, they preserved the old Roman social and political system as far as they could. Life here continued quite happily compared to much of the rest of Europe, and the kingdom boasted scholars and philosophers like Isidore of Seville (whose learning was so wide-ranging that today he is the unofficial patron saint of the internet!). When the Muslims invaded in the eighth century, they too kept the material and social infrastructure of the country largely intact, so Spain remained one of the most enlightened and advanced parts of Western Europe.

How has the Bible, through Christians, helped develop language and literature?

It's often said that Christianity is a "translating" religion—especially compared, say, to Islam. Muslims believe that the fact that the Qur'an is written in Arabic shows that there is something special about that language—the language of God—and so, although the Qur'an of course is translated into lots of languages, Muslims continue to speak Arabic and aim to study the Qur'an in its original language. Christianity isn't like that. The ideal of missionaries and others bringing the religion to new areas has always been to allow people to read the Bible and other important texts—such as the liturgy and other traditional prayers—in their own language. So in the first centuries of the church, the Bible was translated first into Latin and Syriac from the original Greek. (The first Christians read the Old Testament as well as the New in Greek, in a translation called the Septuagint, and many even believed that the moment of inspiration came when the Septuagint was written, not the Hebrew original!) Then it was translated into more exotic tongues, such as the languages of the Gothic barbarians, and later of the Slavs. But many of these languages had no written form. So the missionaries had to devise alphabets and writing styles for their converts before translating the Bible and other texts, and this was an enormous impetus to the development of new literary traditions. For example, the golden age of Armenian literature took off after the country became largely Christianized.

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We can see similar effects more recently, too. The modern forms of English, French, and especially German are hugely influenced by the great translations of the Bible that were made during the Reformation. The sheer literary quality of some of these translations meant that they continued to be read for centuries, affecting even everyday speech—how many common English sayings go back to the Authorised Version of 1611, for example, or even to the Tyndale translation before it? Even more strikingly, when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in the early 16th century, he had to decide what kind of German to translate it into—for there were many dialects. The version he chose, together with the alterations he made to it to make it as widely comprehensible as possible, set the standard for modern German.

Who was Matteo Ricci, and what were his contributions in China?

In an age of extraordinary people, Matteo Ricci was one of the most remarkable. Even today, if you ask a Chinese person to name a famous European from the past, they will as likely as not name Ricci. He was a 16th-century Italian Jesuit scholar who arrived in Macao—a Portuguese possession on the border of China—in 1582. He hoped to work as a missionary in China. The mission was run by another Jesuit, Ricci's former teacher Alessandro Valignano, who believed that Christian mission shouldn't be about striding up to the "natives," telling them their religion was wrong, and instructing them in a new one. He believed that missionaries should be sensitive to local culture and treat the local people with respect, on the basis that they too had valuable things to say.

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So when Ricci finally gained permission to enter China in 1583 (the Chinese authorities generally didn't allow Europeans to enter at this time) he went dressed as a Buddhist monk, speaking Chinese and presenting himself as a humble seeker after wisdom. He wasn't very successful at first (the people of the area he arrived in, near Canton, didn't speak the Chinese dialect he had learned in Macao, and they didn't much like Buddhist monks either), but he persevered and won the trust of the people. In particular, Ricci made many contacts at the imperial court, where people were greatly impressed by his humble approach and his interest in Chinese learning. The emperor himself liked the gifts that Ricci brought him (especially a clock and a harpsichord), and Ricci sought to find new ways to express the Christian faith that made sense to the Chinese. He not only translated various Christian texts into Chinese, but in 1603 also wrote a famous book (in Chinese) called The True Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven, which presented Christianity in the form of a philosophical discussion in the Neo-Confucian tradition. The book was very well received.

Ricci was the first great Jesuit missionary to China. Many more followed him and became closely involved in all kinds of scientific and cultural pursuits. Nicolas Trigault, for example, was one Jesuit missionary who arrived in China with 7,000 Western books, and who went on to write a book for Europeans who wanted to learn Chinese. Many other Jesuits worked at the astronomical bureau. They all believed that Chinese culture was not only worthwhile, but was also largely compatible with Christianity.

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What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? is available from and other book retailers.

More information is available from InterVarsity Press.

The Associated Press reviewed the book.