Monday, September 14, 2009

A People's History of Christianity

In addition to the misuse of apostrophes, I am annoyed by statements to the effect that "religion is responsible for more killings than anything else," or "religious people are nothing but sheep" or other vague, uninformed blanket statements. On the other hand, I find it equally frustrating to hear Protestants talk as though God was letting the Church coast into the depths of heresy for nearly 1600 years before Martin Luther and John Calvin came along and gave Catholicism an enema. Having been part of a "hipper-than-thou" congregation, I've also learned the folly of implying that one has "found the way to do church" like no one ever has before.

For all of these people, I recommend Diana Butler Bass's A People's History of Christianity.
Divided into five parts, the book highlights a number of grassroots moments in the history of the church, showing how Christians of each major period in Church history were trying to make sense of their faith. Each part is further subdivided into a repeating trinity: first, presenting the title "Christianity as..." followed by "A Way of Life," "Spiritual Architecture," "Living Words," "A Quest for Truth," and finally, "Navigation"; second, a meditation on how each period showed devotion to Christ based on their understanding of their faith, and third, how this affected Christian ethics of the time.

Butler-Bass begins by differentiating the history she is telling from other Christian histories by creating a difference between militant Christianity and generative Christianity:
"Whereas militant Christianity triumphs over all, generative Christianity transforms the world through humble service to all. It is not about victory; it is about following Christ in order to seed human community with grace." (11)
As anyone who frequents my blog will know, I dislike unfair polarizations such as spirituality vs. religion, which posits one as good, and the other bad, without being aware that from a sociological perspective, spirituality is religious - a better polemic would be organized religion vs. organic religion, or something like that. So I appreciate that Butler-Bass creates a fair polemic to base her argument upon.

Butler-Bass situates her history as the story behind emergent Christianity, which strikes me as a necessity, given that antagonists of emergent movements have rightly supposed the roots of emergent Christianity to be in medieval Christianity: while this is clearly a negative to the conservative detractors of emergent Christianity, Butler-Bass provides emergent adherents with a history, a story to contradict the perception that emergent churches are doing something solely hip and new. Movements without histories and traditions can find themselves adrift. Butler-Bass provides a basis for the tradition Leonard Sweet called the "anchor" of the church in Aqua Church: "What progressive Christianity needs to understand is that "emerging" Christianity has a story. Their faith is not new; the generative faith of Great Command Christianity is a reemerging tradition that has always been the beating heart of Christian history" (12).

Yet I think A People's History of Christianity is a book for all branches of Christianity, at least those who can stand some real ecumenism, not simply gestures towards it. What occurred to me in my reading was how necessary the reminder of how diverse the church is, and that this diversity is not wrong; an apostate church requires reformation, not rejection. It requires revolution, but not removal. The curse of the Protestant movement is that it has encouraged believers to reject their current church experience, remove themselves from it, and then begin to reform. The blessing of this, if we can find a way to reconciliation (which I am increasingly more cynical of with each passing year) we can exist in the beauty of this diversity.

A People's History chronicles how, over the history of the church, there have been diverse grass roots movements: some break off from the institutional church and start anew, some stay inside and seek to reform from within. We are reminded that there have been numerous forms of Christianity over the past 2000 years, and those movements, those eras, cannot be dismissed or applauded as unilaterally bad or good. In her section on the Middle Ages, Butler-Bass concedes the fact that few contemporary Christians draw analogies with the church of the Middle Ages, stating that it is "fashionable in some circles to deride the medieval church as part of "Christendom," a political arrangement that joined church and state in a hierarchy of power that compromised vital faith." And yet, she notes, there is renewed interest in certain aspects of Medieval Christianity, and while she admits the errors of the day, she also shows the side of medieval Christianity few history texts focus on, and relates the medieval people's need for visual texts to teach them the narrative of their faith. They had stained glass, we have video screens. Admirably, she doesn't reduce this comparison naively, supposing that we're just like the early Christians. Butler-Bass is a serious historian. Her goal is not to encourage nostalgia on the part of her readers, but to show how what is new has a precedent. After all, isn't it encouraging to find that the church has done what we are doing before, and that it spoke to the church in a similar way to how we see it speaking to congregations today?

If you are a student of church history, either amateur or professional, there will likely be familiar content here, but in addition to these well-known moments, such as the Protestant Reformation, there are many surprises: a town in Spain where Judaism, Islam, and Christianity coexisted peacefully; Harry Emerson Fosdick's idea that "faith made evolution make sense" (270); and the historical precedent for how "dispensationalism is not the only version of the Christian apocalyptic" which she sees as "essentially a hopeless vision of a hostile universe" (128). It is a delightfully accessible book which never stoops to dumbing down. It is like sitting in on a great lecture on Church history. If I'm ever at the Cathedral College of the Washington National Cathedral when Diana Butler Bass is speaking, I'm sneaking into a lecture.

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