Archive | History

A People’s History of Christianity | Diana Bulter Bass

The cover of Bass' A People's History of ChristianityHaving just finished Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, I can attest to the frustration Diana Bulter Bass expresses. The history of Christianity can feel like a tale of arguments, violence, crusades, inquisitions, and capitulation to power. It looks diametrically opposed to the actual life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

In A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Bulter Bass attempts to tell (as the subtitle suggests), the other side of the story. In her words:

I sidestep issues of orthodoxy and instead focus on the moments when Christian people really acted like Christians, when they took seriously the call of Jesus to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. (15)

The author accomplishes this by surveying (in wildly broad strokes) all eras of church history with special attention to how Christians exercised their devotion to God, their ethics to others.

Sounds good, right?

The truth is, despite the promise of the thesis, this book frustrated me. In the selection and interpretation of the stories, Diana Bulter Bass selectively expounded a version of Christianity that looks like her. Now, this is not a bad picture—I think it’s fair to call her a progressive, inclusive, emergent-minded Christ-follower. That said, mining the history of Christianity for anecdotes and lives that confirm your view, only to call it a “People’s History” implies that those who don’t conform to your image are somehow in a category other than “people”. Ironically, this is precisely what this history attempts to correct.

What the Jesus Seminar did with Jesus, Diana Bulter Bass has done with his followers. The great cloud of witnesses deserves to be taken on their own terms—warts and all.

—Diana Bulter Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

Christianity | Diarmaid MacCulloch

Christianity 3000 coverDiarmaid MacCulloch must be a walking encyclopedia. In Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, he has written a thousand page behemoth which covers (as the subtitle suggests), three millennia of human history.

I don’t exaggerate when I say “human history,” either. One of the things I realized during my reading of this book was that nothing happens without the influence of religion. Our cherished Western idea of  the “separation of church and state” is quite ridiculous when viewed either practically or historically.

MacCulloch starts, counter-intuitively, a thousand years before Christ. This was a wise move. It’s only when you understand the Jewish and Greek cultural background that you are able to situate the birth of Christianity accurately.

During the early years of Christianity, the church broke into three main groups, along language lines. The first group consisted of Semitic language speakers who spread south into Africa and east all the way to China. The rise of Islam effectively squashed this expression of the church. The two more familiar wings are the Greek speaking orthodox church and the Latin-flavoured Roman Catholic church. Of course, the Reformation is dealt with in detail as well. (In 2005, he published The Reformation: A History.)

The history of Christianity is also a history of politics. During the first three hundred years, it was the story of how Christ-followers defied and evaded political power. After Constantine, it was (tragically for me) the story of capitulation and power-mongering.

A book like this makes me wonder what will come next. Unlike more simplistic histories which treat the progression of culture and religion as inevitable, MacCulloch describes the various false starts and cut-off limbs which prove that history is anything but predictable.

This book is dense but readable. As you might expect, I found the subjects I was most knowledgeable about to be the most interesting to read. The areas I was weaker in seemed more difficult to understand. If you have a background in church history or theology, this book is worth the investment of your time.

—Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010).

Revelations | Elaine Pagels

The cover of Pagels' RevelationsFrustrated again.

I should know by now not to make assumptions based on the subtitle. When I read, “Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation,” I assumed Pagels would be exploring the politically subversive nature of John’s Revelation. Instead, I read a book about the reconstructed political factions of the early church that Pagels believes comes to light in John’s Revelation.

An example of this is her discussion of John’s message to Smyrna:

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan (Revelation 2:9 ESV).

Pagels suggests that John’s talking about Paul and his disciples here—those Gentile believers who claim to be included in the seed of Abraham but who eschew Jewish law.

Returning to her bread-and-butter, Pagels describes a conspiracy by who would later be called Orthodox Christians to suppress minority opinions and alternate writings. For her, John’s revelation is the only one which survived because the powerful could use it to increase their power.

While I do agree that many scriptural books have been horribly misused in the name of power against the aims of Jesus, I can’t give the alternate books the credit Pagels does. When I read (what remains of) alternate texts like the Secret Revelation of John, and the Gospel of Truth, I don’t see the sort of sort of scripture-soaked reflection I find in John’s Revelation.

Of course, given my theological viewpoint, I believe the Holy Spirit had a role in preserving the canon. If God could use tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar to accomplish his purpose, he could certainly use Constantine.

If you’re intrigued by Pagels’ thesis and have spent time reading scripture, I encourage you to read the apocryphal texts for yourself. Form your own opinion before turning to Pagels’ Revelations.

—Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012).

No god but God | Reza Aslan

The cover of Aslan's No god but GodI’ll admit it. My first taste of Reza Alsan came from this (hillariously sad) video. When I found his earlier book on “The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” in a local second hand bookstore, I had to pick it up.

No god but God lived up to every superlative the blurbers had to offer: wise, passionate, incisive, scholarly, engaging, precise, perceptive, thought-provoking, sympathetic, lively, and the list goes on! Aslan has written a clear and compelling account of Islam from the century before Muhammad to the British subway bombings.

Alsan emphasizes that the modern wave of Islamic terrorism is not primarily an act of radical Muslims against the Western world, but an attempt at purification of Islam from within! This violence, Aslan argues, is far from the vision of the egalitarian social justice prophet Muhammad.

This book has given me a clear understanding of the historical roots of Islam along with its modern divisions—Sunni (orthodox), Shi’ism (followers of Ali), and the Sufi mystics.

I’ve learned from my own field of research that academics like to recast Jesus in their own image. While I don’t know enough about Islam to offer a well-informed opinion, I do get the impression that Aslan’s Muhammad looks a lot like Aslan himself—an egalitarian with a passion for social justice. While the violent wars that consumed the end of Muhammad’s life and plagued the generations to come are described, Aslan implies that they are deviations from the core person and message of the prophet himself.

I would recommend No god but God to anyone (of any faith) who seeks a scholarly yet readable account of the world’s second largest religion.

—Reza Aslan, No god but God (New York, NY: Random House, 2005, 2006).

Just a Minute More | Marsha Boulton

The cover of Boulton's Just a Minute MoreJust a Minute More is the third book in Boulton’s “Glimpses of our Great Canadian Heritage” series. (I have reviewed book one and book two earlier.) This final volume is the best of the trilogy.

The most significant difference between this book and the previous two are the length of her stories. Instead of three or four pages, the heroes and villains of this volume get six or seven. Perhaps this is because most of the famous characters in Canada’s history have already been written about. Whatever the reason, the extra pages made the people’s stories that much more compelling.

If you’re looking for a good series of bathroom-readers or a book to keep in your car for quick reading breaks, track these books down!

—Marsha Boulton, Just a Minute More: Glimpses of our Great Canadian Heritage (Toronto, ON: McArthur & Company, 1999).

Just Another Minute | Marsha Boulton

The cover of Boulton's Just Another MinuteJust Another Minute picks up right where Just a Minute left off. It’s the ultimate bathroom reader for Canadian history buffs. Like its predecessor, it’s filled with short 3 to 5 page essays loosely fitted into categories such as “Sports” and “Transportation and Communication”.

Since this is the second book in the Trilogy, many of the more famous Canadian icons have already been covered. Fortunately, the lesser-known characters have lives just as interesting as their more famous counterparts.

My one irritation with this book was the section entitled, “Herstory”. There are interesting stories of women as well as men in each of the five other categories. It seems somewhat pejorative to isolate these seven stories as “Herstory”. Perhaps this was the politically correct thing to do in 1997.

If you enjoyed Just a Minute, you’ll enjoy Just Another Minute.

—Marsha Boulton, Just Another Minute: More Glimpses of Our Great Canadian Heritage (Toronto, ON: Little, Brown and Company (Canada) Limited, 1997).

A Short History of Progress | Ronald Wright

The cover of A Short History of Progress by Ronald WrightMost of us take civilization for granted—Ronald Wright does not.

For Wright, civilization is a relatively recent experiment with devastating consequences in many of its forms. He centres his talks on four main societies that all self-destructed:

  1. Sumer
  2. Rome
  3. Maya
  4. Easter Island

Societies destroy themselves when they (seemingly inevitably) overuse their environmental assets. The societies which didn’t self-destruct (Egypt and China) only remained viable because of their special-case natural resources. China had an abnormal amount of topsoil which sustained their soil-degrading farming practices, while Egypt had the Nile which brought new resources from the South every season.

This is a stern warning to us since Western society is following all the societies that crashed before it. As the cynical graffiti says, “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up” (107).

Wright’s argument is solid, although his cavalier throw-away statements towards Judaism and Christianity are irritating. Take this example in his discussion about ancient Sumer (65):

Legends we know from the Hebrew Bible—the Garden of Eden, the Flood—appear in Gilgamesh in earlier forms, along with other tales deemed too racy, perhaps, for inclusion in the Pentateuch.

He’s half right—the Garden of Eden and the Flood do exist in earlier literary form in Gilgamesh. He wildly misunderstands the nature of the Pentateuch, though. Those ancient stories were rewritten as a polemic against the surrounding nation’s polytheistic milieu.

(Also, if Wright thinks Gilgamesh contains stories too racy for the Pentateuch, then he clearly hasn’t read the Pentateuch!)

Despite these minor irritations, A Short History of Progress is a highly readable ecological treatise. It deserves a wide reading today.

—Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Toronto, ON: Anansi Press, 2004).

Just a Minute | Marsha Boulton

The Cover of Just a Minute by Marsha BoultonThanks to Marsha Boulton, I’ve just been taught about (or reminded of) 71 stories that contribute to our Canadian culture.

Just a Minute is the ultimate Canadian bathroom reader. The stories cover a broad sweep of time (from 1000 to 1964) and are each treated in less than three pages. (Sometimes you can sneak two in at one … sitting.) Boulton covers topics like:

  • Laura Secord’s heroic journey
  • The largest manmade explosion prior to the atomic bomb
  • The first trans-Atlantic telegraph signal
  • The original of Canadian baseball
  • Grey Owl’s identity crisis

Due to the nature of a three page story, these sketches don’t go into depth, but that’s not the point. Reading Just a Minute is an interesting way to brush up on your Canadian trivia and bolster your Canadian pride.

—Marsha Boulton, Just a Minute: Glimpses of Our Great Canadian Heritage (Toronto, ON: McArthur & Company, 1994).

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