Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Snap: Diana Butler Bass' "A People's History of Christianity"

From the June 2009 E-Block.


A summary way to describe this one would be that it is an emergent Christian version of books like Carroll and Shiflett's Christianity on Trial. While the subtitle ("The Other Side of the Story") may lead you to think it is actually written against some traditional historical view, it is apparently rather Bass' attempt to give the "other side" of the story that says that Christianity has spent too much time being hateful and intolerant. To the purpose of giving the other side of that story, Bass offers (in clusters according to historical eras) stories of Christians who did various charitable works in history. 

All well and good, perhaps, but while Bass' effort may be of some resemblance to works like Carroll and Shiflett's, the fine print (and the endorsement by McLaren) spoils the effect for the critical reader. As with many emergent efforts, you'd hardly know that Christianity lives and dies on the historical resurrection of Jesus. Without that, there's no solid basis for the acts of charity Bass highlights; true, some get by on a vague sense of serving Jesus, provided they agree to ignore the problem of history. Creed and act need to work together. Theologians have sometimes erred in dispensing with the latter; Bass and others of emergent mindset make the opposite mistake.

So it is that Bass is rather unthinking to include a Unitarian like Jefferson, who denied the Resurrection [234f], in her roster of heroes of Christianity. So it is that Bass misses the point of a T-shirt she saw which notes eg, that Jesus was intolerant of the Pharisees. Bass says she found this short "bizarrely impolite if not theologically shocking." [249] Yes, and....what of that? It remains true no matter how Bass feels about it, does it not?

Though she likely did not intend it this way, Bass' greatest use for apologists is that her work serves as a warning of what's in store for us as subjective, buffet-style spirituality takes a firmer hold on people's imaginations. Because faith becomes rooted in vague ideas of "inner vitality" [299] rather than acts in history, the end result will be believers (I do not say necessarily "Christians") with an impervious faith; impervious because it tackles problems by ruthlessly ignoring them and keeping believers too busy to ask questions. No one will be able to tell Bass' heroes with ideas that you can be a Muslim and a Christian simultaneously (!) that there's such a thing as the Law of Non-contradiction, because the emergent mindset has led them to ignore such problems. In this, it is very much like believers in the Zeitgeist movie, who have been insulated from contrary argumentation by assurance that contrary views and evidence are artifacts of the conspiracy against the truth, and therefore are not to be believed.

Be concerned that Bass' work is selling well -- and so will provide many readers with an incomplete picture of Christianity. Consider it another signpost on the road to a future post-Christian America.

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