Having 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).