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 theooze.tv.