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

Article excerpt

A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. By Diana Butler Bass. New York: HarperOne, 2009. 353 pp. $25.99 (cloth).

In A People's History of Christianity Diana Butler Bass outlines a narrative of the Christian story she calls '"Big-C Christianity - Christ, Constantine, Christendom, Calvin, and Christian America" (p. 4). This narrative is convincingly presented as militant Christianity, which shapes the discussion as an "us-against-them morality tale" (p. 5). A People's History of Christianity is unashamedly directed at Western progressive Christians. Butler Bass seeks to provide a firm foundation for them in the history of the church by charting the issues progressive Christians tend to follow today (for example, in issues of social justice, care for creation, gender, and sexuality, among others) and telling the stories of historical figures and movements which have lived these out.

As a contrast to "'Big C Christianity," Butler Bass proposes "Great Command Christianity," a Christianity centered on living out the commandments quoted in Luke 10:25-27: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (p. 11). Buder Bass seeks to link the contemporary "generative faith" of this reemerging form of Christianity with the realization that it has always been at the heart of Christian faith. Although the issues this book deals with are the issues of justice with which progressive Christians concern themselves, it is not a polemical tome against conservative Christians. Butler Bass notes that liberal Christians have lost their devotional memory, while conservative Christians have lost their ethical memory. As Christianity is about memory and history, these losses do not bode well for the future of the church. It is in this light that Butler Bass seeks to find the memories and links between contemporary faith and past wisdom. These links are intended to provide an engaging form of devotional scholarship which can appeal to the progressive Christian, church insider and casual historian alike.

Butler Bass continues the recent trend in "peoples histories," a trajectory which embraces the role of historian as subjective being. In her introduction she articulates her motivations, influences, and hopes for the book, noting that in her efforts to connect history with contemporary church movements she seeks to share scholarly insights in a decentered manner. The aim of all this is to discern where the prophetic Jesus can be seen in the church that is his body. In this she succeeds, and we are well rewarded with rich stories that convey meaningful hope for the present without allowing us to indulge in nostalgia.

The book is divided into a series of five periods, each with several chapters, covering some two millennia of church history: Early Christianity, Medieval Christianity, Reformation Christianity, Modern Christianity, and Contemporary Christianity. …