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A People’s History of Christianity

I’m not sure I will be finishing this book. It’s not because it isn’t a good and worthy book to have and read. It’s because it isn’t the book I was looking for. There are too many books that are the books I’m looking for to read ones that someone else is looking for. You know?

In the introduction Diana Butler Bass acknowledges her indebtedness to Howard Zinn for the title and inspiration for the book. Zinn’s history is not meant to be objective and neither is hers. It chooses from an infinite number of facts and information to tell history from a particular perspective. Zinn tells the history of the United States from a populist perspective. That is what drives his narrative of history. Though Butler Bass has good intentions, her book comes off as more popular than populist.

Certainly she includes many neglected figures, particularly women. She draws out the social justice emphasis present throughout Christian history. She focuses on “moments when Christian people really acted like Christians,” using the dual lens of the Great Commandment, love God and love neighbor. While this is a helpful framework for structuring her book and organizing the narrative, it prevents her from really dealing with the historical question the way Zinn does in his book.

The historical question deals more with how and why we tell the story the way we do and providing an alternative narrative. The question must deal with other “histories” such as Stephen Neill’s History of Christianity or Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History. These are particular ways of understanding the history of Christianity and all the questions that a well-rounded reading of the history raises. Neill, for example, sees the history of Christianity as a linear progression of triumph in which Christianity spreads more and more and will eventually conquer the world. Walls, on the other hand, sees the history of Christianity in terms of its ultimate translatability. He tells the story in terms of Christianity’s ability to incarnate itself in all cultures and find itself at home, becoming not a colonizing but an indigenous force.

What I had hoped for in Bass’ book was another narrative, like Zinn’s, that told the history of Christianity from a populist perspective. How would that history be read differently as one of grassroots movements and people combatting the excesses and abuses of power, even within Christianity? That is the story I long to hear. The story I read in between the lines of triumphalism and contextualization. That is the story of an alternative story (kingdom if you must) infiltrating and permeating the world through people who believe and practice the radical self-giving love of Jesus to the poor, suffering and oppressed.

Don’t get me wrong. If the only Christian history you’ve had is from the top down and only includes names like Constantine, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley and Edwards, then you need to read this book. This is a good step toward a new reading of history for many people, but I’m not sure it deserves the title A People’s History.

That said… I hope she sells a million of them because more people need to rethink their understanding of history. It just isn’t radical enough for a mad farmer like me.

Here’s a good interview with Diana Butler Bass on

7 comments on “A People’s History of Christianity

  1. Thanks for this review. For what it is worth, authors have little control over titles and “People’s History” was not my first choice. I intended to write a popular history–not necessarily a populist one–that included a wider range of characters than is usually present in church history. My original title was “After Jesus: A History of Christian Devotion and Social Justice.”


  2. diana,

    thanks for stopping by my humble blog. i understand about publishing and what not.

    in a class on missional formation in seminary i made the comment at one point that someone needed to write A People’s History of Christianity a la Zinn. So my expectations for your book were based on that hope.

    that said, you’re contribution to rereading and rethinking (though for some it may be a first read) Christian history is very important. While I still hold out hope for someone to write an antidote to Stephen Neill and other’s triumphal narrative of Christian history, I’m thankful for your voice and others offering an alternative.

    i hope we can still be virtual friends.


  3. I do hope that you found my book humble–not triumphal. It is an alternative to manifest destiny sort of history, by emphasizing love. Perhaps you expected prophetic challenge and reform instead of self-giving–and often sacrificial–love as a corrective. It may well be that I have done as you suggest, but just not in the way you anticipated…?


  4. PS: I hope you’ll finish it. As the narrative goes along, you’re find more people whom you didn’t know–especially in the modern and contemporary sections!


  5. definitely not triumphal. you’re right it is an alternative, just not the one i anticipated. it is helpful to note the difference between a prophetic retelling of history (maybe what i expected) and one that centers on “self-giving–and often sacrificial–love” as the antidote.

    Zinn’s book reads like a history book (he’s a historian after all). I’m interested in a similar reading of specifically Christian history. This would still include major figures, as your book does, but be told from the perspective of people’s movements that challenge and critique the status quo of the Powers that Be and their interpretation/control of history and the gospel.

    I would love to see a complete history of Christianity that attempted to tell the story start to finish form the bottom up. i don’t think your book had the same goal in mind, though there was significant overlap, many of the same themes.

    i will definitely finish the book and gladly recommend it to others. sorry my review seems so negative even though i like the book.


  6. I appreciate your review, Lucas. And I don’t spend a lot of time engaging online reviews. But yours made me curious. I’d love to write a history as you suggest–but it is hard to imagine how that might happen. Zinn’s American history–300 years–took almost 700 pages. What would the whole history of Christianity–in every corner of the globe–take? The task is so daunting that it would be a magnum opus! Anyway, I tend to be more modest in my own historical ambitions. I’d consider it a great triumph if my words sparked an interest in history among those who think history is boring or unimportant for Christians–and a new interest might lead them to more study of the topic.

    I didn’t think you were negative–it is a good, honest, and thoughtful assessment. I’m just sorry that I couldn’t be *more* of Howard Zinn!


  7. Well, I don’t expect you to be more Zinn. I hope you continue to be more you, because I have appreciated and enjoyed everything I’ve read or heard from you.

    I do hope some ambitious historian would take on a the project of writing a history of Christianity to counter some of the triumphal histories out there. Some have written slices from different eras, but none that counter the sweep and scope of Neill’s book.

    I was already interested in history, but your words spur me on. so thanks again and keep up the good work.


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