Ten Questions for Diana Butler Bass on A People’s History of Christianity, (HarperOne, 2009).
What inspired you to write A People’s History of Christianity? What sparked your interest?
A conversation with a friend prompted the writing of A People’s History. About a dozen years ago, she quizzed me as to why I was still a Christian. Although I actually tried to avoid answering her, I eventually realized that I had remained a Christian largely because I am held in faith by history; the past provides me with spiritual memory and a community that exists through time. Many people, of course, reject Christianity on the basis of its history. Of course, Christians have committed a much historical mischief and done outright evil things. But that’s not the whole story. There’s much in the tradition to be both admirable and imitated. So, I decided to write “the other side of the story,” the sort of history that enables me to stay Christian.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
I hope people read the book and understand that spiritual amnesia in regards to history is dangerous for both faith communities and society. I heard Jon Meacham recently remark that “History is to a country what memory is to an individual.” Without history, we have no sense of identity or meaning. With no memory of those people I write about, Christians are cut off from both their selves and the wisdom of those who have gone before. I don’t think any faith community can afford that at this moment of global challenge and transformation.
Anything you had to leave out?
A People’s History covers 2000 years in 350 pages. Maybe it would be better to ask me what I left in.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Recently, my eleven-year-old daughter told one of her fifth grade Sunday school classmates that her mother had written a book on church history. He replied, “What’s that about? Killing Muslims and Jews?” That pretty well sums it up—most people think that Christian history is about wars, inquisitions, crusades, and a corrupt church. I don’t deny that—it would be impossible to—but many people have managed to live admirable lives despite Christianity’s institutional failings. And I write about those people. I’m a realist when it comes to history, and part of that is a realistic assessment of when Christianity has lived up to the teachings of its founder. A People’s History isn’t about war; it is about love of God and love of neighbor.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
The book is aimed at Western Christians, particularly mainline Protestants, social justice Roman Catholics, progressive and emergent evangelicals. But I hope it invites anyone who is might be willing to give Christianity a second look—those who are “spiritual-but-not-religious” and the “church alumni club.” And those who might be completely post-religious and just want to read a good story about interesting people in the past.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
I always want my readers—of my books, blogs, or articles—to say, “I’ve never really seen the world from that angle before.” It is more than information; I always hope to provide some transformative vision into life and the world. On the journey of reading, I want people to laugh, cry, agree, gasp, wonder, and get angry. Books, even non-fiction, should engage the full spectrum of emotion.
What alternate title would you give the book?
My original title was After Jesus: How Christians Loved God and Neighbor Through Church History. As I wrote, however, my editor noted that the manuscript very much had the “spirit” of Howard Zinn’s history about regular people and social justice. Thus, HarperOne re-titled it A People’s History of Christianity. I’m humbled by the comparison.
How do you feel about the cover?
It is orange.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
The DaVinci Code. Now, that’s a profitable reworking of Christian history. I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for my daughter’s college education. Seriously, I wish I could have written Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. It is one of those magisterial books about history that has become part of history. Books like that happen once in a generation. Sigh.
What’s your next book?
It is on a less-than cheerful subject—the decline of Christianity in the West. I’m wondering what forms Christianity will take, and what wisdom it will bear, as its hold on its ancestral homeland weakens. A People’s History is about Christianity’s past; the next book will be about its future.