Friday, July 24, 2009

Review: Diana Butler Bass, A People's History of Christianity

This is the first book review I'll be doing for The Ooze Viral Blog. The Ooze is a online resource for the emergent movement, and they've initiated this program to get book reviews of significant books out to catch the public attention. I'm grateful for a copy of Diana Butler Bass, A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), which I've been reading on my Thailand trip. Here's an Ooze video of an interview with the author.

What kind of book is this? (I'll indicate below that I think the title is misleading.) It isn't a typical church history, a record of doctrinal disputes, church councils, popes, and the like. Rather, two things really mark what Bass is about here.
  1. It's a book about practices. The author is a leading voice in the ongoing movement to define Christianity in terms of practicing the faith rather than doctrinal correctness. While Bass takes a chronological approach, her emphasis lies on how Christians have lived their faith: caring for the sick, creating songs, praying the rosary, and so forth.
  2. It's inspirational. By "inspirational," I mean that at times readers will feel inspired to follow the examples Bass provides. I also means that Bass intends to inspire. Almost every section begins with a vignette from contemporary life.
I'm grateful for this book, and I can readily imagine its use in local communities of faith. It's a valuable, insightful, distinctive book. Our churches are starving for a sense of their own heritage, and Bass provides a fresh menu for that hunger.

At the same time, I'm getting a little tired of books that have misleading or spectacular titles. A People's History suggests that the book will devote itself to the little people. And the subtitle, The Other Side of the Story suggests a book that counters the dominant narrative by taking the side of the little people over against the big people. (Bass cites Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which does precisely that, as an inspiration.) But for every discussion of caring for the sick or Perpetua's martyrdom, we encounter the familiar "big" names: Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Francis, Luther, Calvin. Things grow more populist as we enter the modern age because more sources are available to Bass. I think she intends to do what the title suggests, but the book isn't quite the "alternative" its title suggests.

Perhaps a different title would make the point? Something along the lines of Living the Faith: A History of Christian Practice? Any suggestion from me will sound a little hokey. What I'm saying is, people could easily pick up this book expecting to find a liberationist or counter-cultural narrative. Just the same, this is a valuable, inspirational, relevant history, one that will help ordinary Christians discover their heritage in empowering ways.

An additional thought. The arrangement of People's History revolves around a couple of dozen Christian practices. Study groups might use this format for an extended engagement with the book, which would profitably take several months.

1 comment:

Sterling said...

I read this book a few weeks ago, and I concur with your thoughts 100%. I especially liked the inspirational moments in the book. I also like the study guide included, which would be great for an Adult Bible Study or Sunday School Class. I would like to even use some of this with my confirmation class as well.