A People's History of Christianity

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-10-08
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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For too long, the history of Christianity has been told as the triumph of orthodox doctrine imposed through power and hierarchy. In A People's History of Christianity, historian and religion expert Diana Butler Bass reveals an alternate history that includes a deep social ethic and far-reaching inclusivity: "the other side of the story" is not a modern phenomenon, but has always been practiced within the church. Butler Bass persuasively argues that corrective-even subversive-beliefs and practices have always been hallmarks of Christianity and are necessary to nourish communities of faith.In the same spirit as Howard Zinn's groundbreaking work The People's History of the United States, Butler Bass's A People's History of Christianity brings to life the movements, personalities, and spiritual disciplines that have always informed and ignited Christian worship and social activism.A People's History of Christianity authenticates the vital, emerging Christian movements of our time, providing the historical evidence that celebrates these movements as thoroughly Christian and faithful to the mission and message of Jesus.


A People's History of Christianity
The Other Side of the Story

Chapter One

Christianity as a Way of Life

During the first round of research for my recent study of vital mainline Protestant churches, I sent my project associate, Joseph Stewart-Sicking, to Calvin Presbyterian Church in the small working-class town of Zelienople, Pennsylvania. Joe grew up Roman Catholic and became an Episcopalian as a student. He had never attended a Presbyterian service, much less spent a week observing the life of a Presbyterian congregation. Throughout the week he called in reports of how the people of Calvin Church—their lives and their spirituality—intrigued him.

When Joe returned to the office, I asked him, "What surprised you the most? What did you see or hear that you did not particularly expect?"

Joe thought for a moment and replied, "Gregory of Nyssa."

"What?" I asked.

"Gregory of Nyssa. Other early Christian theologians. And the desert fathers and mothers. Every time I asked them about their spiritual practices, they told me about church history."

Joe's response startled me. Not all Presbyterians are familiar with the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa. But there, in a modest church in a small western Pennsylvania town, folks had found spiritual friends from the early church, people whose ancient wisdom they embraced for today. Across the country renewing congregations like Calvin Church are becoming conversant with ancient Christian theologians, practices, and texts. From Jesus to St. Benedict in the sixth century, people are discovering the distant Christian past anew.

Back for the Future

Few periods of church history have captured as much popular attention as early Christianity. At my local bookstore the Christianity section is full of dozens of books about Jesus, the Gospels, Christianity and the Roman Empire, and ancient churches. I recently counted: other than contemporary issues, fewer than twenty books on those same shelves cover topics beyond Christianity's first four centuries. In addition, three shelves are devoted solely to what the bookstore manager tags as Hidden Histories: Gnosticism, the Gospel of Judas, and Mary Magdalene. Early Christianity is a publishing sensation.

Popular interest in ancient Christianity did not begin, however, with the current trend. Since Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus appeared in English in 1910, Protestants have actively pursued the question of who Jesus really was and what Jesus actually taught. Although a German theologian, Schweitzer introduced the notion to mainstream North American Protestants that somehow the original message of Jesus had been corrupted by later interpretations and that Christians must strip away the historical accretions to find the real Jesus.1

This notion meshed with romantic ideals of the day. Many people hoped that they could somehow recover the original purity and simplicity of the gospel and, by doing so, reform or recreate their churches.2 For a century scholarly Christianity has embarked on a quest backward. The ancient faith may be the best source to renew the present. During much of the last century the focus has been on Jesus and the first decades of the Christian movement, as in Schweitzer's Quest or more recently in the Jesus Seminar, with writers such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Parallel to the interest in Jesus, a new fascination with ancient worship and liturgy took shape, and the emphasis on the primitive church widened to include the first five centuries of Christianity, not only Jesus and his immediate followers.

Will the Real Rome Please Stand Up?

In many churches today Christians can be heard to remark that our world—the world of the twenty-first century—resembles the period of the early church more than any other time in history. Typically, they mean that Christianity is no longer the dominant way of organizing life in an increasingly secular and pluralistic West, that in most Western countries Christianity is institutionally on the wane and does not command the influence and privilege once accorded it.3 With some regularity many Western believers now speak of living in a post-Christian society. As a result Christians now find themselves members of one religion among many: Christians can no longer assume that their faith is the birthright religion of the majority, and that the faithful need to adopt a missionary vision in order for their churches to survive in religiously and culturally diverse societies.

Although many Christians think such comparisons are recent, thoughtful observers noted this change around the turn of the last century. "It is unlikely that Christianity will retain so nominally exclusive a sway as it has hitherto done in Western Europe," predicted Wellesley College professor Vida Scudder in 1912. "In all probability, the day of its conventional control is passing and will soon be forgotten." She continued:

The time will come when the Christian faith will have to fight for right of way among crowding antagonists as vigorously as in the times of Athanasius and Augustine. And in thoughts like these all genuine Christians must rejoice. Without the call to high adventure, the faith has never flourished.4

By comparing the situation to that of the early church, modern Christians remember the religious status of their ancient ancestors as outsiders in non-Christian Rome. Because they faced issues similar to those we face, they serve as guides for us.

A People's History of Christianity
The Other Side of the Story
. Copyright © by Diana Butler Bass . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from People History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass, Bass D. Butler
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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