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A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (2009)

by Diana Butler Bass

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Having just finished Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, I can attest to the frustration Diana Bulter Bass expresses. The history of Christianity can feel like a tale of arguments, violence, crusades, inquisitions, and capitulation to power. It looks diametrically opposed to the actual life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

In A People's History of Christianity, Diana Bulter Bass attempts to tell (as the subtitle suggests), the other side of the story. In her words:

[quote]I sidestep issues of orthodoxy and instead focus on the moments when Christian people really acted like Christians, when they took seriously the call of Jesus to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. (15)[/quote]

The author accomplishes this by surveying (in wildly broad strokes) all eras of church history with special attention to how Christians exercised their devotion to God, their ethics to others.

Sounds good, right?

The truth is, despite the promise of the thesis, this book frustrated me. In the selection and interpretation of the stories, Diana Bulter Bass selectively expounded a version of Christianity that looks like her. Now, this is not a bad picture—I think it's fair to call her a progressive, inclusive, emergent-minded Christ-follower. That said, mining the history of Christianity for anecdotes and lives that confirm your view, only to call it a "People's History" implies that those who don't conform to your image are somehow in a category other than "people". Ironically, this is precisely what this history attempts to correct.

What the Jesus Seminar did with Jesus, Diana Bulter Bass has done with his followers. The great cloud of witnesses deserves to be taken on their own terms—warts and all. ( )
  StephenBarkley | Jul 24, 2014 |
Diana Butler Bass’s A People’s History of Christianity is a resistance of the church history that use historical markers of wars, persecutions, and church bureaucracy. Those shouldn’t be the highlight of any properly-understood expression of Christianity, so why would we tell a history by those measurements? Instead, her history focuses on ordinary, extraordinary people. Christianity is retold from a framework of positive change effected as a result of Christianity – the kind and loving above-and-beyond throughout history.

On one hand, this makes for lovely and inspiring reading, a sort of less pious “lives of the saints” text. But on the other, by bracketing the darker parts of Christian history, I kind of lost the sense of just how fantastic and counter-cultural some acts of Christian charity were. This absence was solidified for me toward the end of the book, when Bass was writing about Christian involvement in housing Underground Railroad refugees – without the contrast provided by the recognition of actual danger for everyone involved, it becomes a laudatory passage of history on par with any other moment of hospitality, that’s all.

Bass once comments how Constantine’s adoption of Christianity took away the “paradox” of Christianity – Christians could now be “dual citizens” of Heaven and Rome both without conflict of interests. The initial paradox to which she was referring was Jesus’ riddles of the first shall be the last and so on – finding honor and worthiness in opposition to the hierarchical, materialistic, ostentatious, chauvinistic status quo, not playing its corrupt game to get to the top. I would’ve loved to have this retold Christianity tweaked to this end: rather than telling of acts of love alone, write of acts of love that represent prophetic critique of the system. Retain the danger and retain the grit, because Christianity would have never become what it has without it, but recognize people’s strength derived from faith has been a driving force of the positive social change that Christianity has historically effected. ( )
1 vote the_awesome_opossum | Jun 30, 2011 |
A very good history of the lesser known, though no less important or fascinating, figures and movements of Christianity, from the early church through today. ( )
  JRexV | Jan 20, 2011 |
In recent decades, historians have begun questioning common historical narratives for long-held biases, particularly those that favor the authority of males who governed, published writings, or both. Fearing that these texts not only overly favor social elites but also dismiss and overlook women and the lower classes, some have worked to explore this 'missing part' of history, a project that is often referred to as social history.

Social history has been prominent in recent accounts of American and European history; it has been influential, but less obvious, in recent historical studies of Christianity. Diana Butler Bass, a prolific writer trained in church history, has worked to address this omission with her recent volume "A People's History of Christianity." Drawing inspiration from Howard Zinn's popular "A People's History of the United States," she tries to develop a single narrative of the overlooked and underappreciated stories throughout Christian history.

Like Zinn in his book, though it is unclear if this was intentional or not, Butler Bass appears rather obsessed with her interests within the story, especially the role of women and the preservation and development of the theological principles eventually identified as "social justice" in the late 19th century. Also like Zinn, she is heavily focused on the United States; though she defends this as an attempt to tell a story of importance for her intended American audience, this is a bizarre choice in a history that attempts to tell of overlooked Christianity, given that so much of what is overlooked in traditional narratives has been Christianity outside of the Western world.

Despite these significant limitations, the book is highly readable and offers one narrative thread of Christian history that is especially informative for liberal American Christians in mainline Protestant denominations and some liberal Roman Catholics. Butler Bass is a skilled writer who strives to be accessible to a broad audience. Of note is the frequent use of modern (often autobiographical) anecdotes at the beginning of sections, serving to invite the reader into the historical context from modern experience.

The book is a quick read, with sections, equal in length, detailing four epochs in Christian history -- early (100-500), medieval (500-1450), reformational (1450-1650), and modern (1650-1945) -- with a brief concluding, and overly anecdotal, section on contemporary Christianity (in the US) since World War II. Butler Bass briefly introduces key figures and ideas, without lengthy biographical or theological sections, always singling out female writers for special attention.

Ultimately, though, the book is disappointing. If one is not a liberal mainline Protestant, one will likely cringe at some of Butler Bass' assertions which evidently match her theological beliefs but ignore entire theological points of view that are still widely held and influential. (Her persistent dismissive attitude toward the "Religious Right" is not only annoying, it is bad history even within the limited scope she has placed upon this volume.) If one 'doesn't know much about church history,' one will know only a little bit more after reading this book, and will be confused if anyone starts a conversation about controversies about Christology that led to the defining creeds developed in councils at Nicea and Chalcedon, and won't be able to say much about crucial thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, or Aquinas. And one will have no conception of the global influence of Christianity, particularly on the non-elites, for the past 2000 years. ( )
  ALincolnNut | Jan 10, 2011 |
This is a serious and well researched book that takes a different tack in documenting the history of Christianity by underplaying the big names and focussing on the individuals and movements who make up the church as a body. This kind of approach is long overdue. It will not show you so much where the great debates of the history of Christian doctrine took place - but there are other excellent books that cover those issues. Instead this book looks at stories so foten overlooked and untold, and yet without which the Church through the ages would have been very susbtantially impoverished. At times I almost felt like saying "what happened to the history of X" for some person X , as to me these people almost defined their age. Other times I thought "I wish she had mentioned Y" for some little remarked on person, Y, who would deserve a place in such a history. But what makes this book good is not its comprehensiveness - no People's History of Christianity could ever be comprehensive, as that is really the story of everyone who ever belonged to the Christian church. What makes this book powerful is the recognition that there are untold stories of a Christian church that has been known throughout the ages by the outworking of its call to love one another.

The author occasionally perhaps plays to a liberal bias. I think this is largely unintentional, and certainly not a strong criticism as she attempts to cover an evangelical history too. But whatever your theological position, this book is worth a read. ( )
  sirfurboy | Dec 12, 2009 |
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While bringing to life the movements, personalities, and spiritual disciplines that have always informed and ignited Christian worship and social activism, Butler Bass persuasively argues that corrective--even subversive--beliefs and practices have always been hallmarks of Christianity and are necessary to nourish communities of faith.… (more)

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