A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Storyby Diana Butler Bass
The Grassroots Movements That Preserved Jesus's Message of Social Justice for 2,000 Years and Their Impact on the Church Today
For too long, the history of Christianity has been told as the triumph of orthodox doctrine imposed through power. Now, historian Diana Butler Bass sheds new light on the surprising ways that many Christians/blockquote>
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The Grassroots Movements That Preserved Jesus's Message of Social Justice for 2,000 Years and Their Impact on the Church Today
For too long, the history of Christianity has been told as the triumph of orthodox doctrine imposed through power. Now, historian Diana Butler Bass sheds new light on the surprising ways that many Christians have refused to conform to a rigid church hierarchy and sought to recapture the radical implications of Jesus's life and message.
The Washington Post
In this panoramic view of two millennia of Christian history, Butler Bass (Christianity for the Rest of Us) attempts to give contemporary progressive (the author prefers the term "generative") Christians a sense of their family history, refracted through little known as well as famous men and women whose work within and outside the institutional church fueled sometimes "alternative" practices as they tried to follow Jesus the Prophet. "Without a sense of history, progressive Christianity remains unmoored," argues Butler Bass, a former columnist for the New York Times syndicate. Organized chronologically, each section of the book includes a chapter on religious observance and one on social justice, illuminating the author's conviction that authentic Christianity can be discovered in the practice of loving God and neighbor. Laced with stories from the author's own life and with contemporary examples of "generative Christianity," Butler Bass's version of Christian history includes familiar figures like the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa and lesser-known individuals like the 19th century American abolitionist Maria Stewart. Is this truly "the other side of the story," as the subtitle proclaims? It's definitely a start. (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
What an exciting book: a history, modeled somewhat after the methodology of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, that focuses "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." Columnist and teacher Bass (senior fellow, Cathedral Coll. of the Washington National Cathedral; Strength for the Journey), who has a Ph.D. in church history, calls this book's narratives "usable history, stories told for the purpose of strengthening community by deepening its spiritual practices and renewing its vision of social justice." She divides Christian history into five major parts: "The Way (100-500 C.E.)," "The Cathedral (500-1450)," "The Word (1450-1650)," "The Quest (1650-1950)," and "The River (1945-Now)." For each period, she discusses the embodiment of the titular theme, devotion, and ethics. These divisions emphasize what people, known and relatively unknown, actually did in worship and in attempting to live the Gospel. This easily read book encourages Christian activism, inclusivity, and transformed hope that can be lived. Highly recommended for seminary, public, and undergraduate libraries.
Carolyn M. Craft
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A People's History of Christianity
The Other Side of the Story
Christianity as a Way of Life
During the first round of research for my recent study of vital mainline Protestant churches, I sent my project associate, Joseph Stewart-Sicking, to Calvin Presbyterian Church in the small working-class town of Zelienople, Pennsylvania. Joe grew up Roman Catholic and became an Episcopalian as a student. He had never attended a Presbyterian service, much less spent a week observing the life of a Presbyterian congregation. Throughout the week he called in reports of how the people of Calvin Church—their lives and their spirituality—intrigued him.
When Joe returned to the office, I asked him, "What surprised you the most? What did you see or hear that you did not particularly expect?"
Joe thought for a moment and replied, "Gregory of Nyssa."
"What?" I asked.
"Gregory of Nyssa. Other early Christian theologians. And the desert fathers and mothers. Every time I asked them about their spiritual practices, they told me about church history."
Joe's response startled me. Not all Presbyterians are familiar with the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa. But there, in a modest church in a small western Pennsylvania town, folks had found spiritual friends from the early church, people whose ancient wisdom they embraced for today. Across the country renewing congregations like Calvin Church are becoming conversant with ancient Christian theologians, practices, and texts. From Jesus to St. Benedict in the sixth century, people are discovering the distant Christian past anew.
Back for the Future
Few periods of church history have captured as much popular attention as early Christianity. At my local bookstore the Christianity section is full of dozens of books about Jesus, the Gospels, Christianity and the Roman Empire, and ancient churches. I recently counted: other than contemporary issues, fewer than twenty books on those same shelves cover topics beyond Christianity's first four centuries. In addition, three shelves are devoted solely to what the bookstore manager tags as Hidden Histories: Gnosticism, the Gospel of Judas, and Mary Magdalene. Early Christianity is a publishing sensation.
Popular interest in ancient Christianity did not begin, however, with the current trend. Since Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus appeared in English in 1910, Protestants have actively pursued the question of who Jesus really was and what Jesus actually taught. Although a German theologian, Schweitzer introduced the notion to mainstream North American Protestants that somehow the original message of Jesus had been corrupted by later interpretations and that Christians must strip away the historical accretions to find the real Jesus.1
This notion meshed with romantic ideals of the day. Many people hoped that they could somehow recover the original purity and simplicity of the gospel and, by doing so, reform or recreate their churches.2 For a century scholarly Christianity has embarked on a quest backward. The ancient faith may be the best source to renew the present. During much of the last century the focus has been on Jesus and the first decades of the Christian movement, as in Schweitzer's Quest or more recently in the Jesus Seminar, with writers such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Parallel to the interest in Jesus, a new fascination with ancient worship and liturgy took shape, and the emphasis on the primitive church widened to include the first five centuries of Christianity, not only Jesus and his immediate followers.
Will the Real Rome Please Stand Up?
In many churches today Christians can be heard to remark that our world—the world of the twenty-first century—resembles the period of the early church more than any other time in history. Typically, they mean that Christianity is no longer the dominant way of organizing life in an increasingly secular and pluralistic West, that in most Western countries Christianity is institutionally on the wane and does not command the influence and privilege once accorded it.3 With some regularity many Western believers now speak of living in a post-Christian society. As a result Christians now find themselves members of one religion among many: Christians can no longer assume that their faith is the birthright religion of the majority, and that the faithful need to adopt a missionary vision in order for their churches to survive in religiously and culturally diverse societies.
Although many Christians think such comparisons are recent, thoughtful observers noted this change around the turn of the last century. "It is unlikely that Christianity will retain so nominally exclusive a sway as it has hitherto done in Western Europe," predicted Wellesley College professor Vida Scudder in 1912. "In all probability, the day of its conventional control is passing and will soon be forgotten." She continued:
The time will come when the Christian faith will have to fight for right of way among crowding antagonists as vigorously as in the times of Athanasius and Augustine. And in thoughts like these all genuine Christians must rejoice. Without the call to high adventure, the faith has never flourished.4
By comparing the situation to that of the early church, modern Christians remember the religious status of their ancient ancestors as outsiders in non-Christian Rome. Because they faced issues similar to those we face, they serve as guides for us.A People's History of Christianity
The Other Side of the Story. Copyright © by Diana Butler Bass. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books on American religion, including Christianity After Religion, Christianity for the Rest of Us, and A People's History of Christianity. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Duke University, has taught at the college and graduate level, and is currently an independent scholar. She was a columnist for the New York Times Syndicate, and blogs for the Huffington Post and the Washington Post on issues of religion, spirituality, and culture. Bass is a popular speaker at conferences, colleges and universities, and churches across North America. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, daughter, and dog. Her website is dianabutlerbass.com and she can be followed on Twitter at @dianabutlerbass.
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As an historian and theologian, I really appreciate this work of Diana Butler Bass. It is well researched and marvelously written and truly accessible even for those without a background in history or theology (though is challenging even for those in the fields.) The themes for the different historical periods are thought provoking and even inspirational. I recommend this book not only for church book clubs and discussion but also for those who might be intrigued by Christianity as an institution and are willing to look beyond the usual interpretations.
While there are a number of good parts to this book, it has a fatal flaw. The author can't seem to make up her mind if she is writing a history book or a political commentary. As such there are numerous occasions where there sudden diversion from both history and theology to take pot-shots at current political leaders. The most obvious example is where in a half page discussion about the origin of the "just war" theory she spends half of that denouncing former president Bush. She clearly has no use for the "conservative" Christian, but at the same time bemoans the lack of unity in Chritianity. Some parts of the book are very well done, but the reader should be aware of the author's biases.
This was a very enjoyable book to read. It was well written and I appreciated that it had a focus on the more positive history of Christianity. I especially enjoyed the early Christian history.
The original reason that I requested this book was its obvious allusion to Zinn; however, much to my initial dismay, I found the book was nothing like that. My expectation was that this book would be a detailed narrative of the history of “Christianity” as it has unfolded throughout the millennia told from the perspective of those that were victimized by “Christian” history, much like Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” documented the lives and experiences of those who suffered through America’s “manifest destiny.” I often feel like sometimes that component of the church’s collective history is down-played or ignored or considered part of the “manifest destiny” of the church by those within the church or it is the only thing associated with Christian history by those who see (sometimes justifiably) not a lot of good in “Christian” history when they look at the past two millennia. To that extent, I was initially disappointed. However, what I found was that this book is written about groups of people similarly overlooked, ignored or castigated. They faced similar persecutions by members of their own creed, were discriminated against due to ethnic differences or were martyred annihilated for their spiritual differences. They have been left out by those both who have strong-armed Christianity today and by those outside of the faith in their hold. Their stories must be told in order to gain a more perfect understanding of the History of Christianity. (I am not suggesting that some of the atrocities perpetuated by “Christian” leaders throughout the ages against their own kind carry nearly the same gravitas nor am I suggesting that those atrocities that were executed internal to the faith have the same global and trans-era ramifications. It is clear that those external expressions of religious contempt and persecution by those under the moniker of Christianity to those outside have negatively altered the state of the world and the world’s perception of Christians and, thus, Christ.) If, at any point in your life, you have found some irregularities in the branding of Christianity today and what you have observed of the life of Christ and have known on some intrinsic spiritual level, this book is for you. This book is a reflection of and on communities that have enacted the spiritual life of Christ to the world by way of charity, love, hospitality, goodness and care for the poor. They have lived in small and large towns, monasteries and cathedrals. And, while the wounds inflicted by Christians throughout the ages have left scars on this planet and its people, the works and lives of the subjects in this book provide the healing and comfort necessary to introduce a sick world to the goodness, grace, mercy, peace and reconciliation of God.