The People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

A church historian seeks out the stories of committed Christians who, over the centuries, have lived their faith and helped keep their church alive.

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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.

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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 distress.

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 practices.

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.

Anthony, who lived for more than 100 years before being martyred, is considered the founder of desert monastic communities.

The early-church stories also speak of Christians who tended the sick during a devastating plague in Rome when others fled, “because they did not fear death,” and who exhibited a profound sense of hospitality in welcoming the stranger and sharing their goods with others.

In medieval Christianity, cathedrals became the “spiritual architecture” for the largely illiterate faithful. Yet, after barbarians sacked Rome, and Europe fell into disarray, the author writes, Christianity survived thanks to two men in particular, Benedict of Nursia and Pope Gregory the Great. Benedict wrote a handbook that defined community around humility, and Gregory renewed the church on Benedict’s principles, making the parish the center of community life.

“Arguably, Christianity would not have survived the fall of Rome without their innovative restructuring of church,” Butler Bass suggests.

When the printing press later made the Bible available to ordinary folks, the power of the Word sparked Luther’s Reformation and spawned new forms of preaching, singing, worshiping, and teaching. In local churches, people began to testify to God’s power in their own lives. Women like Katharina Schutz and Katharina Zell in Germany, courageously wrote pamphlets and preached under often-dangerous circumstances.

“The pamphleteers ... were the bloggers of the 16th century ... whose words shaped religious rebellion by challenging traditional authorities,” Butler Bass writes. “For Katharina, not to speak truth was to support error.”

Within each period, ordinary believers who imbibed Jesus’ teachings felt compelled to live them out in daily life, shaping new forms of worship and new movements that fitted their historical context. In modern times, for instance, Christians such as John Newton and Maria Stewart saw the import of eliminating slavery and addressing other ills such as poverty.

“A People’s History” pays tribute to Christianity’s dynamic nature, the ways in which, in the darkest hours, a new spark always seemed to light a flame of renewal. It depicts how Christians have sought insight and understanding to guide them in a dramatically changing world.

In that sense, this highly accessible history will encourage contemporary Christians to recognize that today’s challenges may be new but the struggle is the same, and is bound up in love.

This survey does skimp on any mention of healing, a central aspect of Jesus’ life and expectation of his followers, and ignores the healings by early and later church workers.

Butler Bass acknowledges that her examples are merely suggestive, not comprehensive.

“This history is less a magisterial narrative and more like a collection of campfire tales,” she says. Yet campfire tales can capture the imagination, and these stories should nourish those who are striving to live out their faith and to light a 21st-century flame that burns brightly.

“We are simultaneously like our ancestors and completely different from them,” the author says. “Thus Christianity becomes a story of accumulated human experience of God that reveals a certain kind of wisdom in the world: To love God and love one’s neighbor constitutes the good life.”

Jane Lampman is the Monitor’s religion reporter.

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