In The Lost History of Christianity, noted historian Philip Jenkins argues that European Christianity was a late arrival to the party (Reviews, p. 61).
How does this new work relate to your acclaimed 2002 book, The Next Christendom, which argued that the locus of Christianity is shifting toward the southern hemisphere?
We talk a lot about the “coming” of global Christianity. But my point is that there is an earlier global Christianity that has been largely forgotten. An assumption would be that Christianity is a European-based religion that began in Palestine and spread West—the Discovery Channel model. My point is that, yes, Christianity was spreading west, but also east and south, and it remained very strong in Asia and Africa much longer than people think. If you look at the halfway point a thousand years ago, Christianity was probably stronger in Asia than in Europe. Christianity became European only by virtue of Europe being the only continent where it was not destroyed.
So this is what you mean by a “lost” history of Christianity?
We debated the title. My original title was How Christianity Dies, but many people pointed out that this doesn't catch the main point of the book. You have this rich and flourishing tradition, and it is destroyed. People rarely write about how a movement is destroyed, and that's a very interesting story.
What's the takeaway for a contemporary reader?
When you see religions that died in the past, you realize that a lot of today's fears of the death of Christianity are exaggerated or misplaced. But the other part of the story is that when religions die, they leave ghosts. Dead religions have a kind of shadow existence within their successor. The successor religions, notably Islam, actually inherit a huge amount from that older, dead Christianity. Of course, Christianity and Islam look totally different, but that's because we're comparing Western Christianity today. But if you look at an older Christianity in Asia, much is the same. People prostrated themselves, for instance.
On that note, you say in the book that early Christianity had a cooperative approach to pluralism.
Christianity has a huge older record of negotiating with other religions, from positions of weakness as well as ones of equality. My favorite story there is when the Indian Buddhist missionary arrived in the capital of China with a large trove of Buddhist scriptures, he didn't speak any of the local languages, and the only thing he could do was get the local Christian bishop there to translate. The Buddhist scriptures that found their way into China, and then were taken into Japan, were translated by a Christian. And on very old tombstones you can find a lotus cross symbol. So when I talk about Christianity being destroyed by other religions, I'm certainly not suggesting that all of these relations were hostile. There are long traditions of discussion and cooperation.