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.
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About the Author
Her bylines include The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN.com, Atlantic.com, USA Today, Huffington Post, Christian Century, and Sojourners. She has commented in the media widely including on CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, CBC, FOX, Sirius XM, TIME, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and in multiple global news outlets.
Her website is dianabutlerbass.com and she can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She writes a twice-weekly newsletter - The Cottage - which can be found on Substack.
Read an Excerpt
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.
What People are Saying About This
“With her customary lucidity and charm, this time in the mode of Howard Zinn’s historical populism, Diana Butler Bass gives us this splendid account of the grassroots movements that have kept alive the spirit and way of Jesus for 2,000 years . . . enjoyable and illuminating.”
“Butler Bass invites us into a deep conversation with the past which thrusts us into the future with hope. A must for Christians and seekers of all stripes...”
“Intelligent and sassy, honest and redemptive. ...a warning that if we don’t remember the blood-stained pages of the past, then we are doomed to repeat them., but also an invitation to participate in the next chapter of what it means to be the Church in this broken world.”
“...immediately accessible, helped along by frequent and shrewd linkages to contemporary counterpoints. This presentation includes lots of folk along the way who never made the ‘power lists.’ Readers will resonate with this inclusiveness and be grateful to Bass for making them fellow travelers in the on-going story.”
“...a compelling refresher course in our common religious heritage. Bass reacquaints the reader to 2000 years of Christian voices whose faith called for social justice and radical love. By rendering their wisdom accessible, the author encourages the reader to a devotional and ethical renewal that is exhilarating and challenging.”
“In this beautifully written history, Diana Butler Bass reveals the living, beating heart of love at the core of Christian faith.”
“It would be difficult to imagine anyone reading thi book without finding some new insight or inspiration, some new and unexpected testimony to the astonishing breadth of Christianity through the centuries.”
“...this book is so much more than a wonderful overview of Christian history. It is also a joyful apologetic for a ‘new kind of Christianity.’ I already gave away my copy, because I knew it would help salvage the faltering faith of a disillusioned friend.”
“The prose is sparkling and the insights are manifold.”
“A People’s History of Christianity is just that-a people’s history, describing the diversity of Christian thinking, ethics and practices over the centuries, and so important to the renewal of religious imagination today.”
“An excellent introduction to grass-roots renewal movements as well as to the various shapes that Christian spirituality has taken through the ages. ...necessary reading for any who may have thought that history is irrelevant for present-day living.”
“Diana Butler Bass presents a wide diversity of Christian experience in her gallop through two thousand years of history. The curious but hesitant reader who wonders whether Christianity just might have something in it for them will find that the answer is YES.”
“Charmingly written and refreshing to read, yet rich in details and thorough in its mapping of the major themes and events that have shaped the evolution of the Western Church, A People’s History is our story re-told with both clear-eyed affection and a scholar’s acumen.”
“Interesting, insightful, illuminating, and remarkably relevant.”