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Review of the Zondervan Christian Travelers Guides from the Montreal Gazette 11 June 2001. For more information and to see the original go to the Montreal Gazette Home Page

Saturday 9 June 2001

Series reclaims Europe's Christian heritage
The Gazette

St. Swithin's day if thou dost rain
For 40 days it will remain
St. Swithin's day if thou be fair
For 40 days 'twill rain nae mair.

If this silly little ditty is right, it had better not be raining on July 15, or the rest of the summer will be pretty miserable.

Not that St. Swithin had much to do with the weather when he was alive. It was only in death that he got involved in making it rain.

Swithin, it seems, was a revered Saxon preacher who died in 862 and was buried - as he expressly requested - in a simple country grave. A century later, men more respectful of posterity than of his wishes moved his bones to the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. Swithin, according to local legends, was not pleased, and so it rained for 40 days until the new tomb was flooded.

In fact, the darned thing's still flooded most of the time. You can visit it only in summer, and often not even then.

All this information is in a delightful little book called the Christian Travelers Guide to Great Britain, which has quite a long section on Winchester Cathedral, one of the truly great English churches. It doesn't mention the 1960s pop song of the same name, but it does tell us about the varied luminaries who share the place with the sainted Swithin. They include the ungodly King Rufus (evil-tempered son of William the Conqueror) and the talented Jane Austen (sweet-tempered daughter of an Anglican clergyman).

The guide is one of four such books - with more on the way, I hope - edited by Irving Hexham, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary. The other three are guides to the great Christian sites of France, Italy and Germany.

It's Professor Hexham's contention that many visitors to Europe - maybe even most visitors to Europe - pay scant attention to the continent's Christian heritage.

And he might be right.

It's true that many tourists do manage to squeeze in a visit to Westminster Abbey between doing the modern paintings at the Tate and the more ancient horrors at the Tower, but very few of them bother with such gems as St. Mary de Castro Church in Leicester or the tiny chapel in Norwich that contains the cell of St. Julian, a 14th-century mystic of some note

And while great busloads of travelers do crowd into Assisi all summer long (and much of the fall and spring, as well), I suspect that many of them see the shrines of St. Francis as just stops on the road to the vineyards of Tuscany and the shops of Florence (not to mention the fleshpots of Rome).

Which is all rather a shame, because taking Christianity out of Europe is a little like trying to take the car chases out of an Arnie flick (or the Christian message out of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, which I understand is exactly what some addle-headed publisher is trying to do). Like it or not, the story of post-classical Europe is pretty much the story of Christianity.

These four books, published by Zondervan Publishing House, go a long way toward restoring a little balance to the picture. They don't have a lot of visual content - no pretty colour pictures or dazzling graphics - but they're packed with plenty of easy-to-get-at information on the monuments and the heroes of Christian Europe (as well as some of the villains).

There are, of course, long sections on such major Christian monuments as St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, Chartres in France and the great monasteries of Cluny, Clairveau and Citeaux.

But much of the books' charm lies in their explorations of lesser-known spots. They tell us, for example, where to find the tomb of John Duns Scotus, the great and greatly underappreciated Scottish theologian whose name gave us the word ''dunce.'' (It's in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Cologne.)

The book on France tells the too-often-forgotten story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mountain village where, in Vichy France, the brave and pacifist Huguenot pastor, Andre Trocme, persuaded his flock to hide hundreds of Jews from the Gestapo. (How they got away with this is still something of a mystery; what was going on was well known to everyone and, in fact, the Germans called the place that ''nest of Jews in Huguenot country.'')

The German book directs travelers to the very obscure settlement of Herrnhut, founded in 1722 by Moravian Christians fleeing persecution in Bohemia and the birthplace of the modern Protestant missionary movement.

The books are also useful for travelers who don't know their naves from their chancels or their ambulatories from their narthexes. There are thorough explanations with diagrams that explain the different parts of a medieval church. This is stuff that confuses even the devout, particularly devout Protestants, who jettisoned most of those terms some time in the 16th century. And, in fact, Professor Hexham, the editor of the series, is an Evangelical Protestant - I believe the vulgar expression is ''born-again Christian'' - so, not surprisingly, the books are particularly strong on the history of the Reformation.

He has much to say about John Knox (most of it complimentary, which can be difficult for an old Papist like myself to swallow) and he directs us to St. Mary's Church in Lutterworth, England, because the proto-Protestant preacher John Wycliffe was rector there from 1374 until his death in 1384. (When the Catholic authorities read what he'd been writing, they dug his corpse up and burned it at the stake.)

The Protestant bent is particularly evident in the book on Germany, which Professor Hexham helped to write as well as edit. This isn't surprising, of course. Germany was the birthplace of Martin Luther and the primary battlefield of the Reformation. So there's plenty of information on where Luther was born and died (Eisleben), where he lived as a student (Eisenach), where he debated John Eck (Leipzig) and where he defended his views before the Emperor Charles V (Worms).

Augsburg, where the Augsburg Confession was written, and Wittenberg, where Luther lit the fuse by nailing his 95 Theses to the cathedral door, both get lots of coverage. But the books are remarkably evenhanded. The pages are peppered with brief biographies of historical figures ranging from Karl Marx to Blaise Pascal. And Catholics come off quite well. There are admiring portraits of Georges Bernanos, the 20th-century Catholic writer, and St. Thomas a Beckett, the murdered archbishop of Canterbury.

Even John Ogilvie gets praised for his courage. He was the eldest son of a Calvinist family who reneged on his faith, fled to France, joined the Jesuits and returned to Scotland to minister secretly to the country's beleaguered Catholics. He was caught and tortured for months before he was finally hanged.

I have a few quibbles. There's no mention of Arbroath, at least, not that I could find, which any Scotsman will tell you is an unforgivable oversight. I know the monastery there is in ruins, but they're pretty spectacular ruins, and it was one of the most important sites in Scottish history. The monks of Arbroath helped Robert the Bruce and his barons write the Declaration of Arbroath, a document as important to Scotland as Magna Carta is to the English.

The books' glossaries don't always seem to be as accurate as they could be. They do make a valiant attempt to explain some of the thornier issues in Christian history. The question of ''justification by faith alone,'' for example, is outlined quite lucidly in two admirably brief paragraphs. But the explanation of Catholic indulgences - the issue that made Luther so angry - is less successful. It seems to confuse forgiveness for sins and remission of temporal punishment.

But these are minor points. The books would make splendid companions for anyone who wants to make a serious pilgrimage to the Christian sites of Europe. In the words of the great Catholic mystic Thomas a Kempis: ''Without the Way, there is no going; without the Truth, there is no knowing; without the Life,there is no living.''

- The Christian Travelers Guides are published by Zondervan Publishing House and cost $16.99 each. Click here to recommend this story to a friend. Do you have an opinion about this story? Share it with other readers in our Discussion Forums

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