Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Fitting Conclusion

How does one begin to review a book such as this?  The Crisis of Christendom is the sixth and final volume of Dr. Warren Carroll's History of Christendom series.  Carroll began work on this book in 1975; when he passed away in 2011, his wife, Ann, edited it, and brought it to publication in 2013.  All told, the series took thirty-eight years to complete, longer than I have been alive.  This book is the capstone to a wonderful history series, the crowning achievement of a life well-lived.

And yet, the critic must criticize.  This book takes over where the previous volume left off.  Napoleon has been exiled to Saint Helena as an exhausted Europe prepares to make peace.  His volume concludes, more or less, with the death of Pope John Paul II (whom he rightly calls the Great) in 2005.  Covering two eventful centuries in a single volume is no mean feat.  On the whole, Carroll is successful, but, as Ann notes in the introduction, the latest installment is not as thorough as were the previous volumes.  This cannot be helped, but it is unfortunate all the same.

Carroll hits the important events both on the secular front—the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Communist Revolution—as well as both Vatican Councils.  He also instructively includes a section on Marian apparitions, which the secular history ignores completely, despite the wealth of evidence in favor of supernatural phenomenon.

In this vein, an appendix explores Principles for Writing Catholic History.  One could compare and contrast Carroll, the Catholic historian, with Paul Johnson, an historian who is Catholic, and one Carroll has repeatedly cited favorably throughout his series.  The former has no compunctions about chronicling the miraculous; the latter, although he is doubtless influenced by his faith, writes history that is more consistent with a secular narrative.  Although there are obvious advantages to Carroll's approach,  it must be granted that getting a secularist to read his history is a tough sell.  This is the regrettable reality in our secular age.

It is unclear to what extent this series is intended as a reference guide, rather than something to be read straight through--undoubtedly both.  The total series comes in at just over 4500 pages.  This is a fair amount of material, but those who neglect to read the series in its entirety are poorer for it.

The inclusion of a bibliography bears mentioning, helpful for either type of reader.  For many, a number of the events covered by Carroll will be new, or almost so.  Alternatively, the reader may wish for more information about a particular event.  The bibliography includes a short verdict by the historian, by way of assistance to the curious.   Wading through the thousands of volumes written about the last few centuries to find useful information is an almost herculean task, so this recommended reading list of sorts is an invaluable resource.

There's something else which I hesitate to add.  Carroll is an excellent writer.  The earlier volumes of his history read almost like novels, for, as he himself said, all good history is a story.  In the present book, the narrative flags at times, and the prose, though good, is less than stellar.  The historian's health had deteriorated in his later years; perhaps this is to blame.  It is uncharitable to fault him for his mortality; still, this book was less splendidly written than the previous installments.

But these are quibbles.  Warren Carroll has written a series that will be cherished by enthusiastic readers for many decades to come.  If it did not end as well as it began, well, neither did Christendom.    Carroll has fought the good fight, he has finished the course, he has kept the faith.  It is enough.

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