Who can resist a book about heretics? I know I can’t. Therefore, when I spotted a copy of Jonathan Wright’s 2011 book Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church during one of my recent library visits I of course grabbed it. After letting the book sit unread for over a week I finally picked it up and starting reading it. It was then and only then that I learned that the book’s author, Jonathan Wright, is also the author of one of my favorite books from 2004, namely God’s Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue, and Power–A History of the Jesuits. With this revelation, my expectations were immediately raised and I eagerly dived into Wright’s book. But, in the end, were my expectations completely met? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. But that should not take too much away from Heretics, which is actually pretty good.
Of course, there’s a lot to like about Heretics. Taking a dialectical approach with his historical analysis, Wright intelligently and using accessible language argues that, if anything, Christianity should be indebted to history’s assorted and sundry heretical movements for “helping define, enliven and complicate” the religion and as a result of this process making it a stronger, more cohesive and better defined faith. Early heresies in the 4th and 5th centuries forced the young Church convene ecumenical councils which helped it formally define its stand concerning the paradoxical nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity. Perhaps the greatest heretical movement of all, the Reformation, after first splitting and then fragmenting the western Church, would force the Papacy to put the more corrupt and inefficient parts of its house in order. But after those decades of counter-reformation the end product would be a stronger and more dynamic Catholic Church, which in many aspects would reign securely in most parts of the world until the rise of secularism and nationalism in 19th century.
The most pleasant surprise associated with Wright’s book is its humor. Let’s face it, when you sit down to read a history of Christian heresy, you really don’t expect to encounter any humor. But with Heretics you do. To quote Meghan from the blog Medieval Bookworm, Wright’s book comes with “asides that made me laugh and had the people around me doubting I was actually reading a nonfiction book about religion.” Employing a writing style the New Yorker called “chatty”, Wright has definitely produced history of Church heresy that is anything but dry and boring.
But, why wasn’t I completely blown away? Hard to say. But I think unlike with his previous book God’s Soldiers, in which I thought he did a fantastic job telling the history of the Jesuits in a straightforward and no-nonsense kind of way, with Heretics maybe Wright labored a bit too long on a few points. It was only a few times, but when he did I thought it slowed his narrative down considerably. But then again, maybe I was just being impatient as a reader.
But Heretics has inspired me to read a few other books. I’ve been wanting to read Sean Martin’s short book The Cathars: The Most Successful Heresy of the Middle Ages ever since I saw a copy of it in the window of a local bookstore. And who knows, maybe Heretics will finally inspire me to read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2010 tome Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Only time will tell.