For those committed to Christianity as a way of life, these can
be disconcerting times. Membership is declining in many churches,
there are deep divisions over biblical interpretation, and
disenchanted young people seem to be either staying away or seeking
new forms of worship.
Others worry that there's a politicizing of the faith. It
sometimes seems that Christianity - along with all religion - is
being charged with many of the evils of human history. Some people
even ask, "How can you still be a Christian?"
It was that question - posed to her by a friend - that prompted
church historian Diana Butler Bass to write her latest book, The
People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.
In a refreshing look at 2,000 years of Christian history from the
bottom up, Butler Bass offers unique insights into the spirit has
stirred the hearts and minds of faithful people over the centuries
and brought renewal to Christianity during periods of upheaval and
When Christian history is written, it is usually "Big-C
Christianity," as Butler Bass calls it, a tale of Western
Christianity's triumphal spread - institutional struggles against
other religions and political systems, and, all too often, the use
of militant means to achieve perceived righteous ends.
Here, instead, the author has sought out the stories of
individuals in various eras who've struggled to live on the basis of
Jesus' teachings, by loving God and loving their neighbor. This she
calls "generative Christianity," a faith that transforms the world
through humble service: "It is not about victory; it is about
following Christ in order to seed human community with grace."
This exploration is crucial today, Butler Bass believes, because
so many contemporary Christians suffer not only from biblical
illiteracy, but also "spiritual amnesia." While Jesus' teachings may
speak to them personally, they are "unmoored" from a positive sense
of Christian history after Jesus. Witness the intense recent
interest in books about the years of the early church, and the
search for an "authentic" faith by exploring ancient spiritual
If Christianity is to be renewed and go on to flourish in the
future, the author contends, Christians must gain a sense of their
history that is meaningful and inspires hope.
A mainline Protestant who has taught Christian history and
authored several books, Butler Bass understands the implications of
the 20th-century split between those who hold to an inerrant Bible
and those who accept the complexities of historical scholarship,
between an evangelicalism that has prized personal piety and a
mainline church that pursued social justice.
To follow Jesus' "Great Command" - to love God and love one's
neighbor - she says, calls for both personal and social commitment.
"A People's History" seeks to help Western Christianity become
whole again. Presenting Christian history as five periods - The Way
(100-500), the Cathedral (500-1450), the Word (1450-1650), the Quest
(1650-1945), and the River (1945-present) - the book describes how
individuals in each period have defined their love of God through
forms of devotion and their love of neighbor through ethical action.
In the early church, for example, around 270, a wealthy young
Christian named Anthony was so struck by Jesus' words to the young
rich man in Matt. 19:21 (sell all your possessions, give to the poor
and come, follow me) that he disposed of all he owned and went into
the Egyptian desert to become close to God. …