The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
Q & A
Q&A: The 'tender and unexpected story' of Christianity Mary Jacobs, Mar 13, 2009
For many people, the basic outline of the history of the Christian faith follows the “Big Cs”: Christ, Constantine, Christendom, Calvin, Christian America. Diana Butler Bass thinks the church needs another narrative, one that points contemporary Christians toward a “vital, hopeful, hospitable and open faith.”
She writes about that in her new book, A People’s History of Christianity (HarperOne, March 2009). She spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs.
You say that the “Big C” narrative has driven debate about Christianity, even from atheists like Sam Harris. How so? The “Big C” story is the popularized form of Christian history that’s available to most people. What’s intriguing is that it is basically a story of Manifest Destiny Christianity. The idea that Christianity started small, that it “wins” by getting bigger and ultimately triumphs by becoming the world’s largest religion. For some Christians, that story validates their faith. But others, including [atheist authors] Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, say, “Yes, Christianity triumphed, but at what expense? Look at all the terrible things that have been done in the name of this Jesus. This is not a story we want to be part of.”
You also talk about modern Christians having “spiritual amnesia.” What are we forgetting? By and large, we have forgotten what I would call the tender and unexpected story of Christianity. There are long, beautiful and almost lost stories of what I call “holy and humble rebellion,” where Christians actually did act like Christians. They didn’t put swords in their hands and cut off enemies’ heads to make their point, but they loved God and loved their neighbor, and they did it in dramatically beautiful ways, sometimes at great cost, in order to embody Jesus in the world. We’ve forgotten that Christianity is about gentle, unexpected, radical grace. That’s the story I try to tell historically. It’s not about winning.
You talked about experiencing this “spiritual amnesia” growing up in a Methodist congregation. The way that I learned about Wesley, for example, was with a one-hour session on John Wesley and the founding of Methodism in my confirmation class when I was 13 years old. I can actually remember what the pastor told us: that Wesley was an enthusiastic young man who walked around Oxford every day and prayed, and for some reason, from that, one of the world’s great faith traditions was born. I couldn’t figure out why! By the time I was 30, I knew a tremendous amount about Wesley and the Wesleyan tradition. But those stories came to me because of my own pursuing. My own faith tradition didn’t sit me down and teach me that part of my heritage. I’ve heard similar stories about Luther from Lutherans, and about Calvin from Presbyterians. So spiritual amnesia is not particular to Methodism.
Are there particular stories that Methodists need to remember to understand our identity and perhaps re-energize our faith? That’s a great question, and Methodists will have to answer it. I can’t sit outside and say, “These are the stories that you need to tell.” That’s going to have to be a conversation you all will have to have. But that’s what I’m trying to do from the bigger Christian perspective in the book: to ask, “What are some stories that we as Christians at this moment, in 2009, need to tell the world about our identity? And that we need in order to understand ourselves in a new way, to renew our sense of calling and vocation and love in the world?” So I was basically asking that same question about Christianity in America as a whole. I hope some will find this book as a model to explore their specific traditions more deeply. By the way there are a good number of Methodists in the book, and y’all look very good.
You pose the possibility that “the primary calling of the faith community is to remember.” Some might say, mainline Protestants are already too mired in our past, already doing too many things “the way we’ve always done them.” When people use tradition to mean “That’s the way we’ve always done it” as an excuse not to be innovative, all it does for me as a historian is reveal to me is that they know nothing about history. If you know history, you know that the historical process is all about change. We do not do things the same way that Augustine did, and we can never do them that way. But what we can do is take the essential wisdom of the past and translate them into our setting. That’s what tradition is: It’s a living thing.
It also invites us into the life of the sacred imagination. It asks us to experience and participate in the life of God and the body of Christ anew in every generation. So history is no excuse for not doing anything. In fact, understanding history will change you and change your church, and if it doesn’t, you don’t get it.
Jaroslav Pelikan, the great church historian who taught at Yale, said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Too many congregations have given themselves over to traditionalism, and have really lost their memory when it comes to tradition.
Define the term “generative Christianity,” which you coin in your book. I’m trying to get beyond simplistic categories of left versus right. I think that many associate my writing with progressive Christianity, and I’m comfortable enough with that term. But on the other hand, as soon as you say that, it sets up a dualism, that we’re against those “non-progressive Christians.” I don’t really like that. I don’t think those kinds of dualistic ways of thinking about these things are helpful right now. It’s killing our denominations and it’s killing our churches. With “generative,” I want to say that the Christian faith creates new possibilities for God’s love to be manifest when no such possibility seems to exist currently. It calls us back to being a resurrection people. Where there was death, new life came about.
In the book, you see that every time Christianity seemed to have reached a dead end, someone or some group of people came along and cast it anew, and said, “Hey, this is a way of life that is about love—love of God, love of neighbor.” In doing that they generated a new vision of Christian community. That’s the kind of thing that I’ve tried to do in the book. What does the future of Christianity really look like? Is it just who we vote for? Is it just a quarrel about gays and lesbians? Or is it about the healing of the world? We can walk into these next centuries with the passions and wisdom of our ancestors at our backs, and re-invent those passions so that our children and grandchildren will be proud to call themselves Christians. I want to push people past the stalemated divide of liberal/conservative to remind ourselves we’ve always been a people who are about birthing.