Thursday, August 16, 2012

How Marco Polo alerted me to a knowledge gap about Christian history

Awhile back I decided that, for any book I had seen quoted time and time again throughout the years, I was going to track down the original primary source and read it. And so one day I found myself starting through a translation of Marco Polo's travels.

It was a fascinating read in its own right. Sure, some places were more story-like, and other places were on the technical side. For example, he did insist on giving information about travel times and exchange rates and local currency and such for each new place he mentioned. He wasn't writing only for entertainment; he had in mind that someone might want to repeat his journey and would need that kind of information. His descriptions of Asian lions and of "unicorns" (tigers and rhinos, from the descriptions) were entertaining for different reasons. In general. Polo had a sharp eye for detail.

For each new place that he visited, there was another thing he mentioned: how many Christian churches he found in each place, and of what variety. That was my first introduction to the fact that, back in his day, there were already Christian churches in the major cities in India, China, and the various places along the way. Many of them were Nestorian churches. (The term "Nestorian" is out of favor with their surviving remnants, apparently, but I'll keep it here because Polo did.)

I'm sure I'd gotten the impression that the Nestorians represented a heresy that was refuted and abandoned, and that by the year 500 (give or take a few) they were no longer around. I'm sure I hadn't known that they had split off and become a separate group that continued through the centuries with a large following -- and by "large", I mean "possibly rivaling that of the church of Rome," according to some sources, in those earlier centuries. I'm sure I never heard that they had an independent church structure, had set up a primary See in Baghdad parallel to the Catholic church's primary See in Rome, and had their own bishops and missionaries and monasteries over a sizable territory. I'm fairly sure my impression of the history of the area around Baghdad pictured that region of the world going straight from some pre-monotheistic religion to the Muslim conquests (or rather, to Islam; at the time I wasn't aware of the key role of jihad in the early spread of Islam, either). I'm sure my mental image of the spread of Christianity didn't expect established churches in Marco Polo's day anywhere outside Europe except North Africa or the Asian parts of Russia. The idea that were Christians in the Mongol empire was certainly news to me. (If I remember right, they even sent a fireproof covering to help protect the burial cloth of Christ -- possibly meaning the shroud of Turin -- after they heard its survival had been threatened by a fire.)

So it was while reading Marco Polo that I became aware that my picture of the history of the world had huge gaps in it. It took me by surprise because I was not bad at history as taught in school; I reliably aced the course in high school and in college. The knowledge gap was not a matter of something I had been taught and forgotten; it was more a matter of things that were never taught. It took me by surprise even more because it would have had to involve significant gaps in the material covered not only at every stage of public school, not only at the university, but even in the Sunday school materials we had on church history. How do so many different curricula all skip the same things?

I think that reading Marco Polo was a milestone for me -- not just as a great read and part of a growing love for primary source materials. It was also a wake-up call for whether the information handed down through approved channels is really doing an acceptable job in giving us the information we need about the world in which we live.

In the next post I intend to talk about some more eye-opening primary sources that also touch on Christian history, before I get into more of the implications.


Anam Cara said...

A FANTASTIC book is Lost to the West. I learned SO much in this book it was amazing. I confess I had a hard time reconciling dates I knew with the way the history was presented. I wish there had been a better time-line. But my son read the book and wrote one out for me for my second reading which went much better.

found here:

Martin LaBar said...

Interesting, for sure. Why did we ignore this? Ideology? Just not knowing?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

"Lost to the West" does look like a good read. Thanks for the tip. Though I'll admit I have about a bookshelf's worth of material on my wishlist, waiting for more free time to read it. This one looks fairly good, so I may prioritize it.

Hi Martin --

I wonder the same things. Why? How? But I hesitate to guess on the motives there; I'm at a loss.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF