Tried-Fire-Story-Christianitys-Thousand/dp/0718018702/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1462892366&sr=1-1&keywords=william+bennett">Tried by Fire: The Story of Christianity’s First Thousand Years
William J. Bennett
(Thomas Nelson, 496 pages, 32.99)
For decades Bill Bennett has cobbled together books of significant value for a Western world gone increasingly barking mad. Whether writing about the lost art of virtue, morality, manhood, heroes, or America as the last best hope, Bennett’s books strive to remind us of what must endure. At a time when the modern university gleefully sets ablaze the sacred canon of Western civilization that has faithfully served humanity so long, Bennett’s works have commendably sought to salvage what secularists have eagerly sought to destroy.
The former Reagan secretary of education has long been a prominent conservative, and he is doing through his books what is the very essence of what a conservative does: preserve and conserve the best from the past; that is, the timeless ideals that must be remembered. My friend Herb Meyer, another important contributor to the Reagan era (who today is warning us why the world is so increasingly dangerous), likes to say that our biggest problem is that we’ve forgotten what we already knew. Bill Bennett knows what we need to know, and his books serve as a continual testimony to that project.
And, of course, as an educator first and foremost, whether at a college, at the Department of Education, or via his K-12 charter-school program, or behind a talk-show microphone, Bennett has written these books in a way for young and old alike — because we all need them. No one needs them more than the youth who aren’t learning these things in their public schools, and today’s teachers of the youth who likewise never learned them. Bennett’s books are of particularly great value for the vast and growing network of home-schoolers, one of the final bulwarks resisting the secular-progressive left’s merry takedown of Western civilization.
To that end, Bill Bennett’s latest book is not one that I expected, but that I thus should have expected, given his aforementioned body of work and purposes. I had first glimpsed only the short title, Tried by Fire, when I reflexively asked for a review copy. Once it came in the mail and had a closer look, I was thrilled by his newest undertaking. As the full title conveys, Bill Bennett has written Tried by Fire: The Story of Christianity’s First Thousand Years.
One of the first things you tend to do with a book like this is check the publisher, the notes, the length, and notice even the type size. A book like this can range from too superficial to too exhaustive. This book is honestly just right. It’s almost 500 pages long, which is surely one of Bennett’s longest works. The pages are not filled with colorful pictures, sidebars, pop-ups, and huge spaces in between lines of 14-point text. There are almost 50 pages of endnotes, plus a helpful glossary of alphabetical names of the major figures of Christianity covered in the timeline. Interestingly, and smartly, Bennett’s publisher for this one is Thomas Nelson, the Nashville-based evangelical house. Bennett himself is not an evangelical. He is a committed Roman Catholic with a rich understanding of his Church and its theology. The combination of the two — the evangelical house and the Catholic author — is hard to beat. They have teamed up for a book excellently written for both sides. Throughout the text, Bennett occasionally notes where Catholics and Protestants differ on a person or issue, and does so fairly and skillfully. He also makes the vital distinctions between theological information that is clearly Biblically sourced vs. details that comes from tradition or later historians or archeology. Thus, this book is ideal for both the homeschooling Catholic mom and the Calvinist mom, for St. Mary’s Catholic High School or for the classical Christian school in North Carolina started by a group of Baptists.
The scope of the book’s coverage is wide-ranging but never off the main target. Bennett looks at Peter, Paul, Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Origen, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, Constantine, Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Cyril and Methodius, Islam, Nicaea, the Great Schism, and more.
Bennett begins, fittingly, with Nero, the notorious first-century emperor who infamously was said to play the fiddle while Rome burned. Playing the fiddle wasn’t Nero’s only form of play. Bennett notes that Nero was known for his insatiable lust: “For fun, he would have innocent men and women bound to a stake. Nero himself, clad in the skin of some wild animal, then would spring forth from a cage and attack their private areas.”
Nero was the first great persecutor of Christians. Bennett notes Nero’s likewise accompanying insatiable taste for brutality. This first Great Purger, a model to the likes of other great tyrants from Diocletian to Stalin, literally had Christians fed to wild beasts, nailed to crosses, and set ablaze at night for illumination amid his empire’s darkness. He was, writes Bennett, “a man who gloried in his own violence, lust, and narcissism.”
And he was far from alone. Nero was merely one of many Christian haters and torturers and tormentors to come in the centuries henceforth. Indeed, it is painful to read so many of Bennett’s gory accounts of what our Christian forebears excruciatingly endured. It is the stuff that isn’t taught in our public schools today, where the only thing that American youth learn about “early” Christianity comes much later with the Inquisition and the idiotic nonsense they are spoon-fed about the Crusades.
This is not the place to summarize what Bennett lays out at length, but I’ll pay homage to one of my most-revered examples, the great Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius knew the early Disciples and Apostles, including no less than St. John himself (the Beloved Disciple). He was seized and transported to and martyred in Rome a few years after the turn of the first century. He was carried to his death with a sense not of foreboding but of joy. He jubilantly awaited the crown of martyrdom and his glorious opportunity to escape the bonds of this earthly hell and be united in paradise with his God in Heaven. Bennett quotes Ignatius’ epistle to the Romans as he was being shipped toward his death:
For my part, I am writing to all the churches and assuring them that I am truly in earnest about dying for God — if only you yourself put no obstacles in the way. I must implore you to do me no such untimely kindness; pray leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am His wheat, ground fine by the lions’ teeth to be made purest bread for Christ. Better still, incite the creatures to become a sepulchre for me; let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh, so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I fall asleep. When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus Christ’s disciple…. How I look forward to the real lions that have been got ready for me! All I pray is that I may find them swift … [that] they may devour me with all speed.
Ignatius welcomed martyrdom: “Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body — let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Christ!”
I highlight Ignatius of Antioch here because the people and place he left behind underscores Bennett’s thesis. Remember, as the New Testament itself states, that it was in Antioch that Christians were first called Christians. Antioch has invariably in more recent times been considered part of Syria or Turkey. Syria was one of Christianity’s pillars, even as ISIS now decapitates it. Ignatius’ home has itself been fed to wild beasts.
Alas, that is Bill Bennett’s central point. His book focuses on the first thousand years of Christianity, but he starts and ends with references to the persecution that rages against Christians today. Citing sources from the Pew Research Center to Pope Francis, he notes that there is actually “more Christian persecution now around the world than at any time in history.” The persecution ranges from the horrific brutality of the likes of ISIS to the softer forms of persecution in America and the West, where the harassment of Christians takes the form not of beheadings but lawsuits, fines, speech codes, boycotts, and sometimes imprisonment. The persecution in America is, of course, not nearly so painfully brutal as in the Middle East, but it is a form of discrimination nonetheless. Secular liberals will scoff at the comparison, as they merrily “progress” forward with their softer bigotry aimed at Christians who stand in the way of their redefinitions of marriage, family, sexuality, gender, and human nature.
Bill Bennett only alludes to this. It is not his focus. But what he has given us is indispensable: an excellent and readable synthesis of Christianity’s first thousand years, one awash in a difficult trial by fire.
I look with hope to what must be a follow-up effort for Bill Bennett in coming years: his chronicling of Christianity’s second thousand years.