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Butler Bass says her inspiration for her book A People's History of Christianity is Howard Zinn's A People's History Of The United States, a work well known for giving a new perspective. Zinn gives a social history, focusing on the experience of those whose voice is not often heard. She is an advocate of a liberal Christianity, which she calls generative Christianity. She is disappointed by the official history of the Christian Church, which she calls "Big C" Christianity -- it is the story of a church that perpetuates gender division, promotes war, and helps those in power keep their power. That's a side of her religion that she has little time for, and she even agrees with Christopher Hitchens in his judgment that "religion poisons everything," when that's read as a description of the main church. However, she argues that there's another side of the story to be told, and this is much more palatable. She still supports Christianity, especially inspired by the words of Jesus, which focuses on love. She argues that there is a history to progressive Christianity, and this is what she attempts to give with this book.
Yet the comparison with Zinn is problematic, because there's not much that is alternative about her history. Most of the people she writes about are reasonably central in standard histories, and most of them are men with power or social status. It there is an alternative history of Christianity to be told, this is not it. At most, it's a fairly standard history with a slightly different slant, focusing on aspects of people's ideas that don't always get much attention.
It is a patchwork approach divided into five historical periods: Early Christianity, 100-500; Medieval Christianity, 500-1450; Reformation Christianity, 1450-1650; Modern Christianity, 1650-1945; and Contemporary Christianity, 1945-now. Butler Bass writes about her own experience, scholars she knows, and modern events, and the tone of the book is conversational. There are 28 pages of notes (not included with the audiobook) and there is a Study Guide that is also available online. The unabridged audiobook is performed by Karen Saltus, who keeps up a good level of energy throughout, although I was never able to warm to her voice: you can a sample of her reading on the publisher's webpage for the book.
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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