A People’s History of Christianity | Book Review
While much of the field of the History of Christianity (and indeed, history in general) focuses on the great people and ideas of the tradition or period being studied, the genre of “people’s history” seeks to raise awareness of the ways in which ordinary people have lived throughout time and space. Admirable as this project sounds, it is not without its problems. In my experience, many “people’s histories” tend to make significant assumptions concerning the materials they are handling, most notably that the great persons/doctrines of a tradition represent the elite (in this case, the upper class and/or clergy) and these persons and practices were neither accepted nor practiced by the everyday Christians. Such accounts thus tend to draw strong distinctions between the received history of doctrine and practice and “the way things really were,” claims which often seem based on conjecture rather than historical evidence. This is in contrast to a more balanced view which, while admitting that differing people often have distinct nuances to their faith and practice, nonetheless concludes that the great people and doctrines of the Christian Church are indeed great because they were affirmed by the community of the faithful comprising the Christian Church.
With this paradigm in mind, I must admit that I began reading A People’s History of Christianity: One Volume Student Edition (Denis R. Janz, Editor. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2014) with some skepticism. Upon engaging this volume, I found that despite its occasional slips into the rhetoric of “elite clergy versus everyone else,” the contributors nevertheless do an admirable job of offering balanced insights into the lives of everyday Christians throughout the history of the Church that shows their connections with the received Christian tradition. Whereas “standard Church history” will introduce students to the theology and writings of Augustine, a “people’s history” remains more interested in what parishioners listening to Augustine preach in Hippo would have actually believed and how they lived out their Christian faiths. This streamlined Student Edition offers selections from the larger seven-volume Fortress People’s History of Christianity, providing accessible and useful material for engaging a side of Christian faith that is often overlooked. Covering everything from the earliest Jesus Movement to the Twenty-First Century, Ancient Judea and Rome to Latin America and Africa, and topics ranging from baptism to power, this volume encompasses a plethora of materials worthy of study and reflection.
The first three chapters focus on Early Christianity, the next three on Medieval and Reformation Christianity, and the last five on modern forms of Christianity. Each of these chapters serves as a useful foray into the people’s lived faith, though some fit better with the received history of Christianity than others. For example, while Derek Krueger’s investigation of Byzantine Christianity fits well with the general picture one finds when studying Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire, Richard Horsley’s chapter on “Jesus Movements and the Renewal of Israel” is more at odds with some “traditional” scholarship. While the authors of each chapter seek to contextualize their discussions within the wider historical and religious frameworks of their period, I occasionally noted that a wider working knowledge of the topic or event being discussed problematized the claims being made. The overall presentation of this volume makes it well-suited for use in an introductory-level course, as there are numerous maps, illustrations, and sidebars which offer glimpses into primary sources and provide opportunities for intratextual explanations.
On the whole, I find interaction with “people’s history” in general to function as a useful tool for a more holistically informed perspective on historical events and developments. That is to say, we should always be willing to problematize our received histories based on actual historical insights from perspectives previously (or often) overlooked. This does not mean creating a revisionist history based on conjecture, but rather suggests a willingness to engage historical sources within their contexts. In this view, a “people’s history” represents an important voice to be heard while studying history; not a voice to undo with a word years of scholarship (or tradition), but as a voice which might offer important caveats or reminders for a historical project. Thus personally, while I would certainly be open to using certain readings from A People’s History of Christianity for an undergraduate-level course, this volume seems best employed as a supplementary work, rather than primary text, for a well-rounded introduction to the History of Christianity.
I received this work from Fortress Press as a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
Photo courtesy of Ancient Roman Art.