I have lived in Cambridge for two years and have walked by the Round Church often on my trips through town. I decided to have a look inside. I was rather shocked by some of the claims made in the “The Cambridge Story Exhibition.”
Let me begin by stating that this is far from a story about Cambridge. Sure, there is a bit about the development of the city on each text panel but the overarching theme of the exhibition is to promote a rather bizarre version of the last 2000 years of human history – specifically that Christianity is responsible for the scientific advancement, educational development, political freedom, and human rights in Europe.
It wasn’t surprising to me that an historic site housed in a church and administrated by a charitable group called Christian Heritage would have a specific viewpoint or even that there would be a certain amount of emphasis on Christianity’s role through history. I tend to visit quite a few religious sites when I travel (and because much of my travelling has been done in Europe I have visited many Christian buildings – churches and cathedrals which are still operating as houses of worship). The Round Church represents the first time that I ever felt uncomfortable and unwelcome in such a space as a non-Christian.
I will let the text from the exhibition illustrate why:
We get the idea that this exhibition is going to be a bizarre experience when we read a text panel on feudalism, in which the author opines:
“The absence of further invasion of England is argued in defence of the system. But surely it could have been so different: a rural society without feudalism where everyone had a small farm protected by a citizen army – a farmers’ republic.”
(It is true, all of history could have been different if it had been different.)
When discussing the conversion of Europe, the author states:
“It is true that much superstition and violence remained but the new faith [Christianity] began to tame and civilise these barbaric tribesmen.”
A panel on the Scientific Revolution gives us our one and only academic citation from Joseph Needham’s 1969 book The Grand Titration. Is there no more recent scholarship in this area? I would also ask how the author extrapolates from a work on Chinese scientific advancement and applies this to Islamic scientific advancement with no consideration for the vastly different cultural contexts (especially with regards to religion which is the main point he is attempting to make).
The author really finds his voice when confronting more recent history. Here are but a few gems for your reading pleasure:
“When Europe abandoned Christianity as credulous and backward what did it replace it with? The darkness of Nazism and Communism. Was it not the cultures like the USA that retained their Christian foundations that preserved liberal democracy? And did not those same Christian values help in the recovery of post-war western Europe and in the undermining of communism in eastern Europe?”
This one appears in a section titled “Apostles of Secularism.” “Contemptuous of Christianity which they felt had been chaplain to the insanity in the trenches, they advocated a brave new world of tolerance and sexual freedom. Their ‘progressive’ agenda, when judged in the light of current dysfunctional liberalism, family breakdown and social unravelling, now looks less than convincing.”
“…is the West or the world equipped to face the future? In the West at least, the dominant cultural leitmotif is no longer Christianity, no longer even ‘modernist’ humanism (though some still think so) but ‘postmodernist’ relativism…Is this not the mantra of the blind leading the blind? How will we judge and contain the inevitable new technologies and shape human society? Can the Christian Gospel of personal salvation and cultural redemption, with so many centuries achievement to its credit, be so lightly cast aside?”
My main problem with this exhibition is not that the author wanted to explore Christianity’s role throughout history. It’s that he has done it so poorly. His personal viewpoints and personal feelings regarding secularism and other religions and cultures reduce this exhibition to a series of bizarre, under-researched ramblings. His understanding of history is laughably shallow or at least it would be if it wasn’t clear he genuinely believes what he has written. Feeble attempts at acknowledging some of Christianity’s darker sides throughout history do nothing to mitigate the problems with the author’s scholarship and understanding of the nuances of history.
There are many beautiful, ancient, and architecturally interesting buildings in Cambridge. There are many churches in Cambridge you can visit which are wonderful and welcoming of visitors of varying beliefs. Visit those places. I for one have not given up on progressive ideas such as tolerance – it is a shame the Round Church has.
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