Years ago on my way home from work while sitting on a light rail commuter train, the woman sitting next to me saw I was reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Originally published in 1980, by the time I was reading it the book had already achieved a kind of cult status, thanks to Zinn’s efforts to use the book as a readable and fascinating vehicle to promote what he saw as the neglected, forgotten and suppressed history of America: chiefly the political and social struggles of oppressed and/or marginalized individuals such as women, people of color, progressives, the poor and indigenous populations. Seeing me reading A People’s History of the United States, the woman immediately commented to me, “that’s an excellent book !”, elaborated on how much she liked it and before I knew it, rushed off the train as we arrived at her assumed stop. While I never saw her again, I always remembered how a book, especially a powerful one, can bridge the gap between two complete strangers.
So I guess it really shouldn’t be anyone’s surprise that when I saw the book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story sitting on the shelf at the public library I grabbed it with little hesitation. Written by Diane Butler Bass, an Episcopalian by affiliation who has taught at a number of institutions including UC Santa Barbara, Westmont College and Virginia Theological Seminary, A People’s History of Christianity much like its near namesake did 40 years ago with approachable language and style chronicles the forgotten history of those individuals and movements from outside the traditional power centers. And just like Zinn’s book, I liked it.
The book’s purpose is two-fold. According to Butler Bass, by chronicling 2000 plus years of the neglected underside of Christian history, she can show liberal Protestants, who might be lacking an overall knowledge of Church history, that their progressive and humanitarian actions are good and noble, and quite consistent with the actions of many Christians throughout history. For the conservatives, Butler Bass can challenge their reluctance to engage in progressive activities by showing them the same historical examples of Christians nobly following the Great Commandment to “love thy neighbor”.
To do this Butler Bass draws from the deep well of Church history, from the egalitarianism and charity of the persecuted early Church to the radical mystics and pietists of the Middle Ages. From the Reformation to America’s Great Awakening to the Abolitionist movement to the birth of liberal Protestantism’s “Social Gospel”, Diana Butler Bass chronicles the contributions of progressive and radical Christians and their efforts to build a better world.
While I did enjoy this book, much like Howard Zinn’s I would consider it less a history book and more a commentary on history, but at the same time a very worthy supplementary text to a more scholarly study of Church history. Speaking of religious history, in 2011 I plan on being quite immersed in it. As I write this Williston Walker’s classic A History of the Christian Church, Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, Karen Armstrong’s The Case For God and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years are all sitting next to each other on my desk waiting to be read. Hopefully, after it’s all said and done, A People’s History of Christianity will have served as a nice supplementary book to that above mentioned formidable quartet.