We had a great few days at a lovely Penn State conference center, hosted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) Synod of the Trinity. Thanks to those who helped us lug our heavy boxes and supplies for the bookstore. A whole lot of effort goes into setting up these book rooms, and it is really wonderful when strong hands and backs show up. Even though the time was short, it was well worth it, since this is our own denomination and region—our peeps, as somebody said–and we got connected and reconnected to many old friends. And sold some books. Nice.
What a joy it was for us was to once again cross paths with Diana Butler Bass. You may know her wonderful, thoughtful memoir, Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community (Jossey-Bass; $16.99), a faith story that tells about the various congregations of which she has been a part, as she travels through the American religious landscape. It ranks easily with other such memoirs (think Nora Gallagher or Kathleen Norris or Phylis Tickle) however it is distinctive because she is, after all, a scholar of American religious life, with a specialty in research on mainline denominational congregational health. She did the often-cited Lilly research on churches—published in summary form by the Alban Institute as Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Alban; $17.00)—so she knows how to hear and tell a congregation’s story. And, at our Presby Synod gathering, she did just that, weaving extraordinary examples of mainline churches that have grown into maturity and ministry by exploring specific practices. From these many stories of learned and shared practices—hospitality, say, or service, or habits of deepening, mystical prayer, or learning the “spirituality of the ordinary” where faith is taken into daily life, even the marketplace and work—she drew insights about how we might proceed as mainline churches with distinctive theologies and faith-styles and inherited traditions.
Her most famous book (making her a sought after speaker all over the world) is Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne; $14.99) which is exactly about how uniquely Christian practices can deepen and renew mainline churches. In a way, it is a more lively version of the Lily-funded research promoted at Alban, telling about the churches she visited and the people she met along the way. As she says early on in the book, she was tired of the commonplace myth (which she learned in her own master’s work, prior to getting her PhD in this stuff) that mainline churches and their centrist theology were out of touch with the 21st century and that only evangelicals, and, evangelical mega-churches, would be sustainable and growing. She was tired of the media only covering conservative evangelicals and televangelists, or the stories about the demise of the mainline denominations. Christianity for the Rest of Us shows how more ordinary Protestant churches, some with quite moderate theology, some with “progressive”, liberal theology, are learning to forge a faithful kind of discipleship that is neither fundamentalist nor blandly mediocre. Robust and serious Biblical and theological engagement by the community—discerning God’s vocation for that particular congregation—is a practice underneath and behind all other intentional practices. Knowing who we are in Christ (a common phrase she knew from her more evangelical days) is still the key question: what is God doing in our midst, and how might we discern where the Spirit is leading, shaping who we most deeply are and what we are to be about? Strength for the Journey narrates her story as she lived into those questions in the various churches she found herself involved in as a somewhat younger woman. Christianity for the Rest of Us wonderfully tells (as only a religious scholar and invested, attentive journalist like her could) about the congregations she listened to, studied, and complied research about over recent decades, and the 10 or so practices she heard about from them. This is certainly one of the great books within mainline religion in our generation, and I commend it to one and all—-agree with it or not, it is worth reading. Of course those within mainline denominations will most resonate with it (and take great hope from it) but I find that open-minded evangelicals also benefit from it and have really enjoyed it. It is good to read about other parts of the Body of Christ, and this fine book could dispel myths about mainline Protestants (even if it brings into focus essential differences between those with more liberal theology and those with more historic, traditional theology.) Being with her again reminded us just how much we appreciate her work.
This emphasis on how ordinary folks practice faith allowed her to make this major contribution to this field of the sociology of American church life, but also set her up to make a major contribution to the field closer to her work as historian. She has now given us one of the most interesting and helpful views of church history we have seen. It has been out in hardback for a year, and now is available in a paperback, which includes a discussion guide for book groups or adult ed classes. It is called A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (HarperOne; $14.95.)
Here is the simple explanation: each section tells of a reigning metaphor, a key image, that that particular era of church history tended to use. Of course this is a huge leap of imaginative scholarship, but it rings true, and she explains herself quite nicely in an opening chapter in each of those sections. (For instance, in the earliest days of Christian history, faith was seen as a “way.” During the reformation, faith was shaped by the image of “Word”) Out of this primary metaphor for faith, a certain kind of worship developed—practices of devotion, and a certain kind of life in the world—practices of ethics. Not to make it more simple than it is, the book basically reflects on five eras of church history, showing what the main image for God and faith was, and what kind of worship and service emerged out of that. How do we love God (worship practices) and serve God (ethical matters) if a certain view of faith was predominant?
As you may know, most church history books look at the leaders, and, more so, the theological claims and ideas of the leaders. And so we have this very helpful and important tradition of studying doctrine, theology, church splits, heresy and such, as the way into the study of our family past. In this book—perhaps taking a cue from Howard Zinn’s important work showing the underside of history, the voices of the common folks and the underdogs—Butler Bass shows us how typical followers of Jesus did their thing—how and why they worshiped the way they did, and how and why they engaged the world around them, relating to their ne
ighbors, in the way they did. In certain parts this becomes nearly revolutionary, showing how folks came to seek the radical implications of Jesus’ call even in the midst of rigid church hierarchy. Even a bit more interesting in her historiography is her interest in telling the story of the church in ways other than through the lens of expansion, the imperial efforts, the spread of Christendom. Seekers will enjoy this, too—there is just a bit of subversive energy here, showing how these main images really did shape new and fresh practices that brought renewal and made a difference, as followers of Jesus resisted some of the corruption of the institutions.
Here is a short lecture where Diana tells of why we need to remember, and how knowing something about church history—viewed through lens of the “great command” of love, how grassroots folks humbly served, even when the religious institutions went wrong—is necessary and instructive for today.
This is, obviously, a huge and significant paradigm shift in how we understand church history. Bass obviously is a smart and knowing scholar, and this new way of construing how to do “church history” is itself a major thing (again, with an obvious nod to Zinn, RIP.) This alternative approach—how a predominant metaphor shaped practices, both of worship and work, spirituality and service—and how it transformed real folk, is so interesting and often helpful! Each metaphor of each era unlocks new vistas of faith and practice and while it is never bad to learn about the ideas of the past (the dogma and doctrine and church splits and innovations) it is also undeniable that this kind of study of church history can help us all live our faith more intentionally, bridging the gap between the field of church history and the daily discipleship with which we all struggle. A People’s History of Christianity is a gift, a scholarly romp through the ages that offers new insights, insights that can help us as we practice our own habits of subversive fidelity. I think it would make a wonderful study for nearly any educated adult group. I didn’t get to talk about it much at Synod school, but if I had the opportunity, I’d have foisted it on everybody. Maybe we’ll sell a few more here, now. I hope so. It is truly a rare and unique book, written by a top scholar who uses her academic gifts (not to mention her notable eloquence and charm) to build up God’s people.
In our headline, I mentioned two new approaches to the doing of church history. Yup, believe it or not, we are pleased to announce another new resource that we can truly say “there is nothing out there like this.” This is a brilliant idea, and I’m amazed it hasn’t been done before (or at least not done with this much elan.) This new book I’m building up to announcing is by two Lancaster friends, prolific author from Lancaster Bible College, theologian and bluesman Stephen J. Nichols and graphic designer Ned Bustard (known in H&M circles as the head of Square Halo Books whose titles on faith and art are so widely respected.) The unique approach? What innovation hasn’t been done before? A splendid kids book!
Yes, we are thrilled to announce the brand, brand new The Church History ABCs: Augustine and Twenty-five other Heroes of Faith (Crossway; $15.99.) This really is an ABC book, with full color, good rhymes, 26 characters from church history described and illustrated with remarkable insight and accuracy (and a cool guide in the back, with more details for parents or older youth.) I will tell you more about it soon, but just had to shout about it now. If you care at all about church history, and know any readers under the age of 10, this is a must-have gift-book. We are among the first to have it, although I’d seen the pages a while ago. It is truly a classy hoot—with wit and clarity and innovative art, offering children a picture of great Christian leaders of the past (Protestant, mostly, but a few Roman Catholic women and men included and a few very early folks, too, like .)
We will be having an book release party, getting autographs, having some out loud readings, refreshments and a few other nifty activities on July 7th (a Wednesday night.) Watch out here (and on facebook and twitter) for more info. Just know we are selling it soon, and if you want to wait until the 7th, we can even get ’em autographed for you. The Church History ABCs? It is at least the children’s book of the year. Maybe the book of the year. C is for cheers. B is for Buy it today! I is for I Am Not Kidding.
Here is a great blog offer, a special deal for our on-line friends. Let us know if we can ship you anything—it would be our great pleasure. Thanks.
any book mentioned
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