379 Conversation with Diana Butler Bass on Reclaiming Spiritual Treasures in her New “A People’s History of Christianity”

istory will not tell us what to do, but will at least start us on the road to action of a different and more self-aware kind, action that is moral in a way it can’t be if we have no points of reference beyond what we have come to take for granted.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
(quoted in “A People’s History of Christianity”)

    Earlier this week, I was talking with a small group of educators — women representing various religious and cultural backgrounds — and I told them that one of the most powerful things we can do to light up our neighbors’ lives is: “Teach people how to make a friend across a boundary they don’t expect to cross.”
    The most important thing I can tell you about Diana Butler Bass’ new book, “A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story,” is that you’ll leave her book having made dozens of new friends across the chasms of history — friends who will light your spiritual pathway in directions you may not have expected.
    The title of Bass’ new book pays homage to the influential historian Howard Zinn. His famous 1980 book, “A People’s History of the United States,” recovered the stories of many Americans — and groups of Americans — whose stories were marginalized in traditional histories. Bass is a historian and educator herself and knows how to produce a 14-week course that jogs undergraduates quickly through 2,000 years of Christian history.
    This new book is not that kind of work.
    Rather, this new book is more of a manifesto about rediscovering and reclaiming spiritual gems long overlooked in Christian history. Or, as Diana herself puts it: “Exploring the past, we begin to understand our actions anew; we discover new spiritual possibilities for our lives.”

    You — as you read our online magazine today on this Internet page — already are a part of this same community of inquiry that Diana is trying to encourage in her new book. This is a book specifically about Christian history, although the interfaith significance of the book is obvious in correcting many misconceptions about the world’s single largest and most powerful faith.
    But don’t miss the catalytic energy between these covers. Millions of people already are reclaiming the treasures in their religious history. They’re discovering, for example, that Protestants may have been too quick to abandon ancient practices like fasting and fixed-hour prayer. They’re learning that figures like Methodism’s founder John Wesley actually had strong and prophetic messages about the importance of the natural world around us. They’re discovering often-overlooked moments of religious heroism — like those Muslims who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
    In this book, Diana is providing rich provisions for our journey. Her book also is a terrific choice for small-group discussion and study. (NOTE: You can click below on the Amazon link today and have a copy in your hands later this week.)


    DAVID: I’m amazed at the number of revisionist histories of Christianity hitting bookstores over the past year — many of them pointing out the most terrible abuses committed by this worldwide faith. You and I both agree that people should be honest about our religious history. But, your book argues that neither the all-good, inspirational stories of the past — nor the all-bad, broadsides against Christianity — are accurate.
    DIANA: Yes. There are lots of terrible things that happened in Christian history but there were lots of good things as well. Many people today are suffering from a kind of spiritual amnesia about all of it, especially the good parts. In this new book, I’m honest about the good and the bad, but what I hope people will find in reading this book is that they’ll close the book, at the end, and they’re realize that they suddenly have 50 new friends from Christian history that they never knew they had before.
    DAVID: How significant has Howard Zinn’s work been in your career as a scholar, historian and writer?
    DIANA: That’s an interesting question. I have a PhD in American religious history, so on a professional and academic level, I’ve had myriad classes on Western civilization and American history. I don’t remember when I first saw and read Zinn’s book but one thing that I was quite taken with in that book was his ability to recover stories that had gotten kind of fuzzy through the years. He did that and he was able to create a usable history that could motivate people to make constructive social change.
    His primary influence on me, I would say, is as an author of usable history. I don’t think history should sit on shelves in libraries. It should motivate people and inspire people. I feel passionately that history should give us the tools to help create a better world.

    DAVID: We should explain to readers of this Conversation that your book is not really a “History Book” in the sense that people think of thick textbooks from school. Your book is substantial at about 300 pages, but it’s quick and inspirational reading — plus, it keeps jumping back and forth between present-day concerns and chapters of history in our past. So, this is different even from Zinn’s approach to history, right?
    DIANA: Yes. I think there are two very big differences between what I am trying to do and what Zinn did. Those differences come out of the changes that have happened in American cultural and intellectual life in the last 30 years. When Zinn wrote his book initially he could assume that his readers had a certain base-line knowledge of history and that they knew how to make connections between their world and the older world they were reading about. He was writing to people who had deeper academic memory of our history – and now that is gone for the most part. It’s very difficult for people to read history today. They don’t often know how to read it. They find it boring or tedious or they don’t understand its conventions – and they don’t know what to do with it once they’ve read it.
    The challenge for any historian today is to write shorter and more accessible books and to point out directly the connections with readers’ lives. That was my two-fold challenge with Zinn’s style. I had to write a quicker narrative for an audience with a shorter attention span. And I knew that I had to draw the connections for people through history.

    DAVID: I think the problem may run even deeper than you’re describing here. I talk to people all the time, now, who make it clear that they don’t even trust history anymore. Things have changed so much. Versions of history have changed so dramatically.
    DIANA: Many are arguing that we are unmoored today.
    The threads of memory and tradition that connected generations have been cut or are unraveling. This is particularly true in the West but it also is an issue in other parts of the world. The danger is that people can become merely tourists, traveling through the world with no memory of what came before us. There’s a French writer who talks about the spiritual amnesia of the West.
    That’s a very compelling image, because if we’re suffering from spiritual amnesia, I actually wonder as a Christian and as a person who is politically progressive, if our future is spiritual Alzheimer’s. Loss of memory is a deadly disease. We see it in parents and grandparents who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It’s not a funny issue. I don’t want to be part of a faith community that winds up in religious Alzheimer’s.
    I’m inviting people of faith — and people who might be interested in exploring faith — to read, to think, to talk and to begin to remember our past in a new way.

    DAVID: Examples of this process of spiritual rediscovery — of recovering gems from our past — are all around us. We published an interview with Tony Campolo
that’s still popular with readers in which Tony talks about his own amazement in rediscovering John Wesley’s teachings about the natural world.
    Frankly, if you look at important evangelical figures like Rob Bell and Shane Claiborne, I think a persuasive case can be made that they’re preaching the themes of John Wesley centuries after those themes first caught fire. You actually talk about Wesley early in your book and make this very point, right?
    DIANA: I’m amazed you’d ask me this question, because I was just at a conference where I did some work around Wesley. It was interesting to me that, even though there were Methodists at this conference, most of them knew little about him.
    My approach to recovering a figure in history begins with the assumption that it does us no good at all to think of these people as saints who never did anything out of line. When I approach Wesley’s life, I approach him as a person who had lots of fits and starts. He did some amazing things and he made some mistakes.
Contemporary historians are quick to point out his problems in relationships with women. There were broken love affairs. The extent of those love affairs we don’t know because but we do know there were lots of broken love affairs. We know that he and his wife didn’t have a good relationship. Here’s a person who did enormous good in the world and yet he was a person who struggled and didn’t do everything right. That’s one of the things I try to communicate: We’re looking back at really human stuff in history.
    But, given all of that, Wesley is a pivotal figure. He’s important because of the things he’s able to combine. He combines a very powerful sense of spiritual practices. He was deeply shaped by medieval Catholic prayer practices that had been carried through Anglicanism to him so his life was framed by a methodical sense of practice. Because he engaged in these things on a regular basis, they changed him and he taught those practices to others.
    Then, the other thing I find very compelling about him is that we have this great story of John Wesley who on his 80th birthday was walking through the snow in the north of England and he was giving away all of the money in his pockets to the poor. That was very much as Wesley always was — he could not hold onto a penny. He gave away everything he had. His hands were constantly open to the least of these.
    In both of those ways Wesley is a great model. Then there are other aspects of Wesley that we don’t consider enough. He was a real. He had a very ecumenical heart. He never wanted to start his own denomination. He was part of the Anglican Communion his whole life. He reached back toward Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. He was always interested in picking and choosing the best of everyone’s traditions and presenting that to the world.
    If we understand him properly, John Wesley was a person who is very worthy of emulation today.

    DAVID: To give readers a feel for some of the stories they’ll find in this book — let’s point out that you do, about halfway through the book, write a section about Christian reflections on our spiritual relationships with animals. You introduce us to St. Francis in a new way here and you introduce us to a contemporary thinker: Paul Waldau, an ethicist specializing in animal rights.
    DIANA: I got interested in this subject through meeting Paul Waldau. Paul was raised a Christian, a Roman Catholic and had basically rejected Christianity because of the whole tradition’s bad treatment of animals. As I talked with Paul, I said: “You know it hasn’t always been like that.”
    I said, “The whole tradition may not be friendly to animals but there are characters in our history who have very rich theologies on animals. I pointed him toward Celtic tradition that has an incredible tradition of seeing animals as divine actors in the world. Then, there’s the Franciscan tradition.”
    We need to begin pulling these threads through our tradition and, from Celtic and Franciscan traditions, we can weave that thread through later figures like Wesley. We begin to see that this has been a theme all along — a theme we can reclaim.
    DAVID: Many people are engaged in this process right now — and not just within Western Christianity.
Philip Jenkins’ new book about rediscovering the history of Christianity in the East and in Africa is a very important new contribution to this process, for example. And, we heartily encourage this process through ReadTheSpirit in all of the world’s faith traditions. We’re the publishers of Sharing Islam to showcase Muslim themes that are important for building stronger communities.
    I know that your book is written specifically about your area of expertise — Christian history of the West. But it’s clear from reading your book that it easily could be used in small community groups exploring religious diversity.

    DIANA: I hope people do read it in small groups.
    I am a Christian. I love the Christian path and I invite people to join me on the Christian path all the time. But God is very mysterious and there are many paths toward that end of God’s love.

    When people find other paths toward wholeness of love of God and love of neighbor there is no reason to redirect them. As a Christian, I find it enormously helpful in my own journey listen to my Jewish friends and Muslim friends and Buddhist friends and see how they practice their faith and how they do social justice.
    I am glad for the friendships that are possible among us.

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