When I was a child my mom used to read me stories of Christian martyrs from an Anabaptist history book called Martyrs Mirror. As I have returned to these often gruesome stories at various stages of my life, I find in them an alternate version of church history that contrasts with the history taught in many churches and schools.
Similarly, in A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass has spun another alternate history of the church. Taking inspiration from Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States, which offers a new slant on U.S. history, Bass presents here a fresh version of church history that stands in contrast to the militant Christianity she calls “Big C” Christianity, in reference to the key elements of that history: Christ, Constantine, Christendom, Calvin, and Christian America.
Bass’s excellent introduction on the role of history in the church nicely frames the rest of the book. Here she focuses on the “spiritual amnesia” of the present age and calls the church instead to be a “community of memory.” The structure of the history Bass covers in the remainder of the book is a standard one, dividing the Christian era into five smaller periods: early Christianity, medieval Christianity, the Reformation, the modern era (1650-1950), and the contemporary era (after 1945).
The backbone of Bass’ history is the interwoven threads of spirituality and social justice. For each era of the church’s history, she groups the stories she tells into the categories of “devotion” and “ethics.” Of all the eras, the one whose history contrasts most sharply with “Big C” Christianity is the history of early Christianity—an age in which the persecution of Christians is largely incomprehensible to the triumphalism of mainstream church history. Bass’ chapters on the devotion and ethics of the early Christians are perhaps the strongest in the book. In the latter chapter on ethics, she tells stories that describe practices of hospitality, communalism, and peacemaking, which served to give early Christians an identity that stood in stark contrast to the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire.
BASS NOTES AT the book’s outset her decision to focus on Western Christianity. While I understand an author’s need to maintain a clear scope, that choice here is unfortunate. Not only are there powerful stories of Christian faithfulness from the Eastern and African traditions of Christianity, Bass doesn’t distinguish her history from the Western-ness of “Big C” Christianity, particularly with regard to questions about the relationship of the church to power.
Readers who are familiar with Zinn’s work or other writers’ histories might come to Bass’ book expecting to read church history from the perspective of the marginalized. Although Bass includes some of those stories, this is not a people’s history in the traditional sense. But one marginalized group whose stories are essential to Bass’ history is the faithful women of the church. From Perpetua and Hildegard of Bingen to the 19th-century African-American preacher Jarena Lee and Madeleine L’Engle, women—whose stories are largely unknown in “Big C” Christian history—play a key role in Bass’ alternate history.
Bass concludes that the history she tells here is ultimately one of hope. Having been immersed in the book’s stories of the faithful cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, we are energized to “go make church history.” A People’s History of Christianity is a crucial book for churches today because it reminds us of the supreme importance of history to our formation in the way of Christ. It also opens the gates of possibility to alternate histories of the church and implores us to enter this new, wild land of our past that we—in the prevailing spiritual amnesia of our times—have left unexplored.
Chris Smith is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community in Indiana-polis and senior editor of The Englewood Review of Books (www.englewoodreview. org).