Christianity v. Christ: An Excerpt From A People’s History of Christianity

The following is an excerpt from A People’s History of Christianity (HarperOne, 2009).

The Usual Story

Christians assume they know their story, but in reality they have only vague notions of what happened after Jesus. Over the years student papers revealed a popular understanding of church history, admittedly not very sophisticated, but a story that still possesses some cultural resonance. The usual story is that of “Big-C” Christianity—Christ, Constantine, Christendom, Calvin, and Christian America.

The tale runs thus:

Jesus came to the earth to save us, but he founded the church instead. That church suffered under Roman persecution until the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. With its new status, the Christian religion spread throughout Europe, where popes and kings formed a society they called Christendom, which was run by the Catholic Church and was constantly threatened by Muslims, witches, and heretics. There were wars and inquisitions. When people had had enough, they rebelled and became Protestants, their main leader being John Calvin, who was a great theologian but a killjoy. Eventually Calvin’s heirs, the Puritans, left Europe to set up a Christian society in the New World. The United States of America then became the most important Christian nation in the world, a beacon of faith and democracy.

Big-C Christianity is militant Christianity. It is not necessary conservative religion, for there exist liberal versions of it as well. Rather, it is a theological disposition that interprets Christianity as 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. Militant Christianity tolerates (and often encourages) schisms, crusades, inquisitions, and warfare as means—metaphorical if not actual—to the righteous end of establishing God’s will on Earth.

Elements of this story form American public discourse; politicians and preachers regularly refer to it. It is, of course, a bastardization of an old storyline, a triumphal tale of Protestant superiority and Christian manifest destiny. Journalist Jeff Sharlet refers to this story as “providential history.” As far as I can discover, Cotton Mather composed the first version of it in 1702 as the Magnalia Christi Americana, or “The Great Deeds of Christ in America.” From then until now some form of this church history has informed American culture. Atheist Sam Harris and evangelical activist James Dobson both believe it, and they attack or defend Christianity on the basis of it. Many people have doubted and rejected Christianity on the basis of this story. In a very real way, the Big-C story has been Christian history.

Having learned a softer, more sophisticated version of it in seminary, I believed it too. So did my friend. As she challenged me, I began to wonder if there was a different story to tell. If I could have admitted it to her at the time, I would have said that the Big-C story angered me too. Was there another side to the story? What would Christianity look like from another perspective?

As I ruminated on this I realized that believing the usual story is one thing. In recent years, however, something else has happened. Many no longer remember. For vast numbers of people, including Christians, history has ceased to exist…

The Not-So-Usual Story

This book is about memory found and the ways in which Christian history tethers contemporary faith to ancient wisdom. However cloudy their memory, post-traditional people still hanker for spiritual inspiration; wanting to hear stories that strengthen our connection with God and with our neighbors.

The Big-C story, the tale of Western Christianity’s triumphal spread, has largely failed to speak to these contemporary longings. But that does not mean the Christian faith has failed. There exists a different story—one that people want to hear—of folks like themselves who struggled to live as Jesus told them to, loving God and doing right. It is not a militant story. Rather, it is a story of generative Christianity, a kind of faith that births new possibilities of God’s love into the world. Whereas militant Christianity triumphs over all, generative Christianity transforms the world through humble service to all. It is not about victory; it is about following Christ in order to seed human community with grace.

I think of this generative story as Great Command Christianity. In Luke 10:25–27, a lawyer approached Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and love your neighbor as yourself.” Immediately following this command, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the parable of a wounded man’s rescue by a stranger, as an example of saving faith. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus told the lawyer.

In these words from the Gospel of Luke begins A People’s History of Christianity. Jesus’s story is not only a good story, it is also the first step on a journey through Christian tradition, the history of Christian people who embrace the Great Command and follow Jesus’s instruction to “go and do likewise.” Unlike formalized church tradition, something that often appears as an approved list of what to believe and how to act, this is open-ended history. Great Command Christianity invites us to participate in a living tradition, to reconsider faith as a community of people who practice God’s love and mercy through time.

As such, A People’s History of Christianity makes two interrelated claims. First, lived Christianity cannot be understood in terms of the Big-C story; rather, it is best experienced as a community that remembers the ways in which Christian people have enacted the Great Command in different times and places. This history is less a magisterial narrative and more like a collection of campfire tales—discrete stories that embody Christian character, virtue, suffering, and commitment as people “go and do likewise.” Friends swapping stories.

The second, and maybe more surprising, claim is that after decades of struggle, moderate and liberal Christianity is experiencing an unexpected renewal in North America. Many people now refer to this energized cluster as “progressive” or “emerging” Christianity. I have come to think of it as beyond existing categories of conservative-moderate-liberal. Instead, I refer to it as generative Christianity. In congregations and as individuals, people have stumbled into meaningful spiritual practices and a renewed sense of social justice without knowing, perhaps, that these new discoveries have long histories in the Christian tradition. Without a sense of history, progressive Christianity remains unmoored, lacking the deep confidence that comes from being part of a community overtime. What progressive Christians need to understand is that “emerging” Christianity has a story. Their faith is not new; the generative faith of Great Command Christianity is a reemerging tradition that has always been the beating heart of Christian history.

To read more from A People’s History of Christianity, click here.

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