A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story Diana Butler Bass
Who knows the story of our ancestors in the faith? What happened after Jesus? The time I have most often taught this is in confirmation. Church history, as it is usually called, is often condensed to 30 to 45 minutes or one class. Only the highlights are mentioned. Much is overlooked, neglected, or skipped. It isn’t easy sharing 2000 years of history in less than one hour. I selected this book from my library because I wanted to see how someone else would condense it. “Unlike formalized church tradition, something that often appears as an approved list of what to believe and how to act, this is an open-ended history. Great Command Christianity invites us to participate in a living tradition, to reconsider faith as a community of people who practice God’s love and mercy through time” (11-12). She describes her quest like this, “A People’s History is a scrapbook of traditions that may have been forgotten, mislaid, or misinterpreted, rearranged on a page to evoke memories of the Christian God. It is an attempt to find the history of the prophetic Jesus in the church, the Jesus who spoke for the poor and the oppressed, who broke bread with sinners, who wanted his followers to give up all and follow him, and who believed–even when dying on a cross–in a world of justice, beauty, and love” (16-17). She searched for people being Christians throughout history and shared their stories. The book is divided into sections by historical periods much the same periods you would find in a church history class.
This book was not what I hoped it would be. I wanted the words and lives of my ancestors in the faith to come alive. I wanted to be introduced to people I did not know and reintroduced to others I had forgotten. This book didn’t give me that feeling. Was the problem my expectations or this book? I do not know.
After reading “Early Church: Devotion”, I knew I wanted more stories. I wanted more quotes from that time. I realize these may be hard to come by, but I had hoped to hear their own words. “Jews and Muslims as Neighbors” beginning on page 122 is a reminder that we still have much to learn from the past. I loved “Inner Light” beginning on page 223. I am thankful for the Quakers who believed “women and men were equally enlightened by Christ” (225).
From this book I learned that Harriet Tubman was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland (where I live). This geographical connection peaks my interest in learning more about Harriet Tubman. This fulfilled a hope of the book for me, I wanted to want to learn more about some of my ancestors in the faith. I wasn’t expecting it to be Harriet Tubman, but I do believe with our geographical proximities she might be the person with whom I need to deepen my connection.
This book was a slow read for me. I love history and wanted this book to be a page-turner. Sadly, it was not. It contained so much great information. Overall, I’m glad I read it and I believe it is a good, short history of Christianity. It is hard for me to recommend to all readers because I fear that many people would not finish it. If you are teaching a church history class at your church, this is a good read for you. If you love church history, this is a good read for you.
In describing how the desert fathers and mother talked about prayer, “participation in God’s love, the activity that takes us out of ourselves, away from the familiar, and conforms us to the path of Christ” (48).
“Unlike almost every other contested idea in early Christianity, including the nature of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, the unanimous witness of the ancient fathers and mothers was that hospitality was the primary Christian virtue” (62). And the author believes that hospitality is lived out as we embody the story of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule.
I appreciated the connection she made between the Medieval Ages and today. “Medieval people lived in a culture filled with stories told in pictures rather than only in texts. Their sculptures and stained glass were akin to our video and Internet. Their stories unfolded in image and light, much as ours do. They lived in a performance culture, where gestures communicated spiritual and moral lessons. They escaped the mundane by embarking on pilgrimages that took them to the far reaches of their geographical and spiritual worlds” (89). Interesting how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.
“To the medieval people, church buildings expressed their spirituality–their visions, virtues, and dreams of God. Church buildings were the geography of paradise, the actual location where God’s reign of beauty and justice could be experienced here on earth. Buildings, and the arts and liturgies therein, demonstrated the mysterious interweavings of the worlds, the playful combination of this world and the one beyond. Holiness was translated into visible structures where people might see, touch, and feel the beauty of God. Medieval builders captured this sense, creating sacred spaces that were both spiritually unpredictable and theologically structured at the same time” (91).
“The Reformation serves as a historical example of theological dynamism, as “the word speaks again and again” in new social contexts. Christianity today is not about repeating formulas from the past. It cannot remain forever the same, because as Professor Whiteman said emphatically, “Christianity is the living world.”” (152).