Thoughts on A People’s History of Christianity

August 5, 2009

books / church

I have recently finished A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass, and want to share my thoughts on it. The book is divided into the following sections: The Way (100-500), The Cathedral (500-1450), The Word (1450-1650), The Quest (1650-1945), and The River (1945-Now). As I read the book, I noticed that I had very different opinions based on which section I was reading, so I want to divide my comments and thoughts in the same manner. This will be a long post.

Overall, I really recommend the book. I care deeply about church history, and love learning about those who followed the way of Jesus and what they have to say to us, and I want others to know these things as well. It is very important, both because of the cliche that we will repeat the past if we don’t remember it, and also because we have gone away from much of the better parts of the past.

Further, it is a beautiful thing that she tries to emphasize the “other side” of the story – the times in which the church has really lived the way of Jesus. She finds many people and movements that do this, and explains them well. I do strongly wish that she had included various people and groups in this discussion, and will mention these, but it is a beautiful goal to tell the “not-so-usual story.”

However, I am probably not necessarily in the target audience for this book. I don’t have a graduate education, but I did take a number of church history or theological history classes in undergrad, and have continued to read on these subjects since then, both on scholarly and popular levels. Clearly, this book is written for a popular audience without that prior experience, as it should be. The church can greatly benefit from this, so without further ado, here are my thoughts.

The Way (100-500)

I have always loved reading about the very early church, and this section was no exception. The book examines the early church and shows how much of it we have utterly left behind, from its realization that Christians existed as “resident aliens” and “settled migrants” in the Roman system and its ardent pacifism (to the extent that soldiers were not allowed to enlist or serve, and converts had to stop serving, in the army), to its hospitality to the poor, to its intentional communalism and rejection of wealth.

I was sad, but honestly not surprised, to see that the book totally ignores the miracles, charismatic gifts, and other things that characterized the early church along with pacifism and communalism. I have written before about the link that I see between these things, and the fact that they were all abandoned around the same time.

The Cathedral (500-1450)

Honestly, I felt like this section was the biggest stretch. While there is great material here, it often felt like there was a stretch being taken to find good things in Medieval Christianity. This is not to say that there weren’t good things in Medieval Christianity (the early days of various monastic movements, which she looks at), but it just seems like there is an attempt to cast more things in a good light than necessary or realistic.

For example: cathedrals and architecture, both physical and societal architecture. I find myself very torn in thoughts of church architecture. I love beautiful architecture, though I generally feel much more favorably toward non-religious architecture than I do toward religious versions. But still, I can appreciate the beauty of Gothic architectures as much as the next guy who loves dark music (and, of course, I believe the church has absolutely no business being an architect of societal structures, as it is designed to be the presence of an entirely different kingdom).

However, I strongly feel that many of the current church’s deep problems do indeed stem from this entrenchment of theology and spirituality in buildings, and its attempt to structure an entire society around itself. It is interesting to me that the book, while observing the beautiful theology and spirituality of these buildings, recounts the story of a French preacher who asked people to give up their buildings and relics and such, because they interfered with purity and simplicity of faith (which, certainly they do). He was promptly burned.

Do you see the issue here? There might indeed be a beautiful retelling of Scripture and theology present in architecture, but it obviously became an idol and destroyed most of what was good in the church.

In contrast, though, was Celtic Christianity during the same time period. The book alludes to just a couple of their values and practices, but usually without identifying them specifically as Celtic, which was almost always antithetical to the rest of the medieval church. I have deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity, and believe that it was among the only remnants of followers of the Way in the Middle Ages, and it’s hard to see it alongside things that I feel much more negatively about.

I also found a lot less written about the medieval mystics than I would have liked. Being a Pentecostal, I believe the mystics were among the few who preserved the charismatic and supernatural experience of the Spirit through the Middle Ages, and would have appreciated more writing about this. But there is some good material on people like Hildegard of Bingen and Francis of Assisi (not exactly a mystic, but certainly having mystical qualities).

The best part of this section, for me, was the material on the Beguines and the devotio moderna. I didn’t know anything about either of these, and found it wonderful to see the similarities between their practices and the various streams of new monasticism that are today emerging to serve the poor and live in the forgotten places of the Empire. These remnants, though they were incredibly small, made this section of the book for me.

Now, it’s certainly possible that all of this illustrates more of my bias against most of medieval Christianity than it does the book’s (perceived) glossing over of issues, but I have to throw that out there.

The Word (1450-1650)

This section examines the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. She examines the affect and power of words, at that time and flowing into today’s, in profound ways. In general this is a great thing – our culture has been shaped by the power of words and we have learned much about ourselves and God through this.

It’s fascinating to see a sentence like “… the sixteenth-century reformers did not, as we do, divide words from works. For them, deeds without words were dead, and words without actions were moot.” I think it’s clear to all of us that this beginning didn’t last: the modern church left behinds its understanding of deeds and threw itself upon words, to its great detriment.

Many of us within the postmodern church, I think, have a danger of throwing ourselves upon deeds and leaving behind our understanding of words. This would be to our great detriment. Words possess power, and they indeed create reality.

In this section, again, there are examples of what I think is glossing over serious issues. For example, the “tight social controls over Protestant communities” employed by those such as Calvin. This discipline is defended as “a kind of spiritual control intended to curb human sin and to further virtues in society.” But seriously: Calvin’s execution of discipline involved murder, which in my eyes totally removes it from any defense from those who follow the way of Jesus, especially in a book that seeks to tell the other side of the story.

Most of us in the church have heard of how wonderful Calvin was without hearing of his murderous attempts to get rid of disagreement and his own ideas of heresy, and how wonderful Luther was, without knowing of his defense of the oppression of the poor and his anti-Semitism. Thankfully, the Anabaptists do get some attention in this chapter, as they sought more radical ways of life, but even they do not get the kind of attention I think they need, in light of their return to lives of pacifism and charismatic experience, which had been lost from most movements in the church for some time.

The Quest (1650-1945)

This section examines the continuation of modern Christianity, proceeding until Auschwitz and Hiroshima blew us into postmodernism. This one is much less chronological, but more thematic. It examines the various awakenings, from the Quakers to the Methodists, and then examines the Enlightment and the Romantics. It looks at the thoughts of George Fox and John Wesley, Albert Schweitzer and Thomas Jefferson, and then proceeds into the ecumenical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I was happy to see the words on the Quakers and Methodists, showing some of their radical natures in the ways they related to people and God, but I really expected the natural progression to the Pentecostals. In many ways, I believe (along with Phyllis Tickle) that Pentecostalism was among the forerunners of the end of modernism. But from its beginnings as a movement led by a son of former slaves in which the color line was washed away in the blood, and the church learned again what it meant to know the power of the Spirit, the biggest “other side of the story” that the church has experienced in the last hundred years is utterly ignored.

Continuing, there is some good material on the Enlightenment and the associated searches for the historical Jesus. I have always written these off as irrelevant reflections of scholars biased against the supernatural, and indeed I think the best of today’s scholarship has only confirmed this, but there were some things I had never known about Schweitzer, for example, and his real desire for the kingdom of God. Romanticism, again, offered many places through which to at least mention Pentecostalism, as the author mentions “a future church ‘more fervent, living, and soul-kindling,’ a vision of faith that would unify ‘Spirit and Matter’,” but again this is ignored.

Regardless, the search for the transcendant in Romanticism, in this section, leads into the ecumenical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement utterly failed, beginning in the liberal/fundamentalist divide of the rest of the 20th century, and continued failing in various impotent movements in the mid-20th century, so it is rarely viewed nicely these days. But it was fascinating for me to see some of its original hopes, and to see some of these hopes coming to real fruition today in the broader emerging church.

The best part of this section, for me, is on the ethics of the modern church. There are great words on the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement, the gender equality movements, and visions of intentional community and Christian socialism that existed at the time. But again, it is difficult to see the abolitionist movement mentioned without Charles Finney, who’s altar calls that today’s church uses without understanding them were originally used to recruit people to join the movement.

The River (1945-Now)

This last section examines the changes in the church that have gone alongside the development of postmodernism. There is great material on Henri Nouwen, and his exceptional appeal to people across all theological and cultural frameworks.

It continues, looking at the ways that contemporary Christian theology and spirituality have learned through fluid, river-like things like process and journey. The book ends looking at the river of justice that many of us are seeking, and refers to it as a universal hospitality.

This is a small, but beautiful section. It brings in interviews from a number of voices that are doing amazing things. But again, there is an obvious bias, as all of the voices are currently in mainline churches and denominations. This is fine, of course, as there is sometimes great beauty to be found in these places. But in looking to tell “the other side,” I think it again falls short by neglecting the Pentecostals, charismatics, and so on that she must have encountered at some point.

My conclusion

I think this is really the longest book review I’ve ever written. I again want to recommend the book. I do have some strong issues with it, and I have tried to show these, but there is also a lot to love. There is some great exposure given to many voices who are normally ignored in their pursuit of Jesus, and this is a beautiful thing.

To see other reviews, feel free to look at Viral Blogger reviews. You can also look inside the book.