A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story
Review by Phil Blackburn on 2009-03-31
Diana Butler Bass' newest book, A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, is effective on several different levels. Bass is doing several simultaneous things in this book and all are achieved to one degree or another. Bass introduces her work with an exchange she had with a friend. The friend questioned Bass' commitment to Christianity succinctly with these words, "I don't have any trouble with Jesus. It's all the stuff that happened after Jesus that makes me mad." The book can then be read as a counter argument to this statement. Bass' first intent is to free the history of Christianity from the bloody wars and conflicts that often mar it in the eyes of critics and to introduce the saints who have carried Christianity into the modern world.
Bass divides her work into five eras, 100-500, 500-1450, 1450-1650, 1650-1945, 1945-now. It is obvious from these categories that Bass does not consider her history to be exhaustive, far from it. She sets out to introduce the reader to genuine people of faith through their own words. From the familiar, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, to the obscure, Elizabeth Hooton, Maria Stewart and F.D. Maurice, Bass plumbs the depths of Christian history to reveal a diverse host of church fathers and mothers whose personal faith shaped the Church and the world it inhabits. In the task of introducing the reader to many of the most influential historical figures in the Church she is wildly successful. She does not seek to attack the beliefs of her subjects but simply attempts to reveal their beliefs in their words.
By extracting the history of Christianity from its schisms, wars, heresies and purges she sets it into a much more inviting historical context. The use of historical figures in her hands allows the reader to enter Christian history through another door and see that the history of Christianity is a history of flesh-and-blood people who were faced with difficult challenges and decisions yet who sought to remain loyal to God. There are no popes here or crusaders but there are earnest reformers, mystics, pacifists and dreamers presented in their own words and contexts. By placing the history of Christianity in the hands of these people Bass has done well to reframe the conversations about its history.
It is also important to make a note of Bass' audience. She did not write this book for seminarians or scholars. Those who have an intimate knowledge of Church history will see gaping holes. The actual text is just over 300 pages thus making it clear she did not intend to be exhaustive. The eras are examined through the lenses of devotion and ethics and powerfully important political, cultural and military events are left unmentioned or barely referenced. Bass sees her audience as people who know little of Christian history and seeks merely to offer them an introduction to the two millennia of Christian history that has preceded them. Despite the book's omissions it does not seem that these readers are being presented with a sugar-coated history. Rather they are simply given a broad foundation which they might explore.
Further, as alluded to above, the history of the Church is made personal. The book is a story of people in relationship with God in wildly different ways. In this technique it would seem Bass has developed an important means for communicating both the history of the Church and the nature of Christianity itself...relationally. As postmodernity has deemphasized "Truth," personal experiences have been elevated. History and faith are thus made accessible through the personal stories revealed within and through these lives. The reader sees Christianity as something more than an institution but as a personal faith that effects people in their lives.
Finally, it should be noted that Bass has embraced a postmodern view of Christianity. She sees a multivalent Christianity as a good thing. She is not interested in using history to establish an orthodoxy, or orthopraxis for that matter, but instead seeks to offer a broad interpretation of what the Church is and can be. She writes, "Thus Christianity becomes a story of accumulated human experience of God that reveals a certain kind of wisdom in the world: To love God and love one's neighbor constitutes the good life." This is a broad definition of Christianity that will no doubt strike some as loose, however Bass is not interested in politics or Truth. She is very interested in the story of faith, as her words indicate, and the way the stories of human beings come together to tell the story of God. This is the final lesson that she hopes to leave with her reader and, again, she is successful.
Bass' book is commendable to anyone seeking an introduction to Christian history. It should be reiterated to any reader that her history here is shallow and not all encompassing, but the story she tells should lead the reader to a sympathetic and respectful understanding of the many Christians who have shaped this world and the Church. The book is intended for these people and they are likely to appreciate it.
For more about the author, visit: http://www.dianabutlerbass.com/