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Diana Butler Bass, A People's History of Christianity; The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 353pp.Diana Butler Bass, A People's History of Christianity; The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 353pp.

           Most history of Christianity has been written from the perspective of what Diana Butler Bass calls "Big-C Christianity." There are liberal and conservative versions of this narrative, she says, and in shorthand it runs something like this: "Christ, Constantine, Christendom, Calvin, and Christian America." In this version, Christianity is "an us-against-them morality tale of a suffering church that is vindicated by God through its global victory over other worldviews, religions, or political systems." This is a story of "schisms, crusades, inquisitions, and warfare," and in her mind it has lost its hold on the spiritual imaginations of many contemporary believers.

           Bass proposes a supplemental if not alternate narrative, one that she says is "generative" rather than militant. This is a story of "Great Command Christianity" based upon gospel texts like Luke 10:25-27 to love God through devotion and spirituality, and to love our neighbor through a social ethic that pursues justice. Bass's history insists that "lived Christianity" makes no sense as a magisterial narrative of a Big-C story, but rather is better remembered as "more like a collection of campfire tales" of those who have incarnated the Great Command. In fact, she believes (along with many others) that North American Christianity is now experiencing a renewal of just such a lived story, variously known as "emergent" or "progressive" Christianity that struggles mightily to move beyond standard paradigms of conservative-liberal denominationalism and their disagreements about propositional theology (cf. footnote 11, page 316). Whether this new narrative reduces the story to all ethical action and no theological plot is an open question.

           Readers can decide for themselves whether her black/white paradigm works. Any history that tries to retell 2,000 years of story in 300 pages faces challenges. I appreciated learning about many unnamed and unknown saints, most of them women, whose stories have been neglected, ignored, or lost because of standard narratives — Egeria, the Beguines, Hadewijch of Antwerp, to name just a few. But for the most part, these saints live and say the same sorts of things you hear from actors in the standard narrative (Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, etc.). Conversely, major elements of the Big-C version receive short shrift. There's nothing about the ecumenical councils, justification by faith is barely mentioned in her treatment of the Reformation, nothing to speak of about divergent views of baptism and the eucharist, or, for example, only a sentence or two about the Avignon or Babylonian Captivity of the papacy.

           The result is a highly stylized history that is not an end in itself but a means to an end; this is history with an avowed purpose. I kept sensing an ironic subtext here, that with Bass's new and improved narrative, there's an implicit claim that for the first time we can hear the story as it really and truly ought to be told, in its original simplicity and purity, and in contrast to the corrupted narratives that have heretofore ruled the day. She says as much on her last page, that "regular people often 'get it' better than the rich, the famous, and the powerful" (p. 310). Of course, such romantic nostalgia, complete with its own canon, is precisely the type of history that Bass wants to avoid and correct, but there's no question that her narrative claims to be on the side of the angels. True, there's always an "other side" to standard narratives that deserve our respect and attention. They should be recovered and retold, but not marginalized and also not romanticized.

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