The greatest story Ted Byfield ever told

The founder of the Alberta Report looks at the first two thousand years of Christianity

The greatest story Byfield ever told

John Ulan/Epic Photography

It’s official: Ted Byfield, Alberta’s legendary conservative media entrepreneur, has completed the latest in the series of audacious, contrarian, financially tenuous projects that has defined his life. In the early ’60s, the Old Man, as he likes to be called, dropped out of newspapering to help found a series of traditionalist Anglican private schools. In the early ’70s, he started to miss journalism the way old soldiers hanker for combat, so he founded the newsmagazine that would become Alberta Report, the notorious but influential voice of Western dissent and orthodox Christian values.

He spent much of the ’90s editing and compiling an enormous, popular, illustrated history of Alberta, with the idea of providing the province’s overlapping, restless demographic waves with a shared narrative spine, a structure of story within which even those who arrived last week can find a niche. (That’s assuming they can find the books.) And now he has applied those lessons to the most ambitious task of all: a 12-volume history of the Christian faith from the Pentecost to the present, covering everything from the Crusades to Calvinism to the Cathars.

The series bears Ted’s personal stamp, partly because, as with many of his projects, Ted came to find that every bit of editing and writing he did himself was one less bit he had to budget for someone else to do. But he has been careful not to make it too polemical or idiosyncratic. Himself a member of an Eastern Orthodox denomination nowadays—capital-O Orthodoxy being an attractive refuge for high-churchish intellectuals who cannot swallow the notion of a Pope—he took advice throughout the production of the series from Catholic and Protestant scholars. Offshoots of the faith, from the Jesuits to Jehovah’s Witnesses, get a fair but frank hearing, and the books are at times startlingly candid about issues like slavery (a “brutal business” upon which Jesus remained mysteriously silent) and the early American republic (chapter heading: “The America that won independence could not be considered Christian”).

The goal, commercial as much as historical, has been to create an introduction to the history of Christianity that can be accommodated comfortably in any home and, ideally, in any school. As an unbelieving friend of Byfield, perhaps the last graduate of the old Alberta Report mafia, I am not well-placed to judge whether this is even possible. Perhaps the whole thing is destined to be devoured, termite-fashion, by theological nitpicking. But the full set is beautiful, both in its prose and its visuals, and its ambition is admirable. These are Books with a capital B.

In 2010, the Pew Forum gave Americans a quiz on religious knowledge and found that 45 per cent of self-described Catholics could not explain that the Eucharist is supposed to literally transform into the body of Christ; 53 per cent of Protestants, meanwhile, could not pinpoint just who Martin Luther might be. In view of data like these, it is fair to ask whether “Catholicism” and “Protestantism” even substantially exist anymore in the New World as sets of firm, binding-truth propositions. Increasingly, the labels seem mere cultural affiliations or habits, if they are even that. (One meets a fair number of strident “Catholics” who don’t see the business end of a Mass once a year.) Unbelievers are sometimes guilty of dismissing Christians as an undifferentiated mass of bloodless, vague salvation-shoppers, but the more time goes by, the more practical Christianity appears to resemble the idle caricature.

When Ted reads these words, he will feel the truth of that critique. At 84, he is as sharp in argument as ever, but his mood, I think, has taken a slight turn to the dark and apocalyptic. At a 2011 Alberta Report reunion, partly designed to celebrate the winding progress to power of the Reform party Byfield co-founded, he took the dais at the end of a sequence of young and admiring speakers and delivered a restless, leonine growl of frustration; his creation had “won” a place at the table for conservative economics and Western aspirations, but to Ted, as he made clear, all of this is so much trivia without a basis of Christian civilizational principles.

It is worth remembering that same-sex marriage was still more or less pie in the sky in the spring of 2003, when Alberta Report closed its doors; in the blink of an eye, it became an untouchable part of the Canadian political order, indeed, a point of chauvinistic national pride. That reflects the precipitous pace of secularization in Canada, the speed with which our social order is shifting to a foundation of liberal pluralism. So, too, does the rapid redefinition of the “Conservative” party as a protector of abortion, not only unregulated but tax-funded, to boot. The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years is Byfield’s answer, his grand gesture of defiance and recrimination. You can hear both the hope and the despair in that word “First.”

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh