A people's history of Christianity.
Denis R. Janz, general editor
Christian Origins. Edited by Richard Horsley. A People's History of Christianity 1. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2005. xv + 318 pp. $35.00 cloth.
Late Ancient Christianity. Edited by Virginia Burrus. A People's History of Christianity 2. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2005. xv + 318 pp. $35.00 cloth.
Byzantine Christianity. Edited by Derek Krueger. A People's History of Christianity 3. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2006. xv + 252 pp. $35.00 cloth.
Medieval Christianity. Edited by Daniel E. Bornstein. A People's History of Christianity 4. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2009. xviii + 409 pp. $35.00 cloth.
Reformation Christianity. Edited by Peter Matheson. A People's History of Christianity 5. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2007. xviii + 309 pp. $35.00 cloth.
Modern Christianity to 1900. Edited by Amanda Porterfield. A People's History of Christianity 6. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2007. xiv + 352 pp. $35.00 cloth.
Twentieth-Century Global Christianity. Edited by Mary Farrell Bednarowski. A People's History of Christianity 7. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2008. xx + 443 pp. $35.00 cloth.
The People's History of Christianity" represents a creative venture in historical synthesis. It is a series of seven volumes incorporating some ninety essays, and encompassing the whole sweep of Christian history from apostolic times to the present. The series has many strengths. The standard of writing is high throughout, with most authors striving to make their work accessible and readable, and contributors represent a broad cross section of the best scholars currently active in the history of Christian faith and practice. The series thus represents an important survey of the state of research and knowledge in the early twenty-first century, an important sample of what active scholars in the field are doing. Particularly rewarding in each volume are the introductions by the editors in charge of that particular era or topic, who must be congratulated heartily for their heroic efforts to synthesize issues and debates, and to explain historiographical problems. In every case, the volume editors supply an essential orientation.
Although it is difficult to imagine a specialist in a given period not being able to find something new or surprising in the relevant volume here, the series is consciously targeted at lay readers as well as scholars. Individual volumes are attractively presented, with well-chosen illustrations. The text also features many sidebars containing relevant quotations. These visual features help make the books accessible to students and general readers, who also can refer to the suggestions for further reading helpfully placed after each chapter. The series can be unhesitatingly recommended for anyone interested in discovering the state of the art in Christian history.
Having said so much that is positive, I must challenge some of the working assumptions on which the series was conceived. For one thing, what exactly makes this series distinct from other superficially similar ventures, such as the splendid Cambridge History of Christianity, that has appeared more or less simultaneously over the past five years or so? The two series show considerable overlap of theme and approach in their desire to expand the traditional boundaries of church history. So why a People's History? The clearest justification for the venture is presented by the general editor, Denis R. Janz:
It is church history, yes, but church history with a difference: "church," we insist, is not to be understood first and foremost as the hierarchical-institutional-bureaucratic corporation; rather, above all it is the laity, the ordinary faithful, the people. Their religious lives, their pious practices, their self-understandings as Christians, and the way all of this grew and changed over the last two millennia--this is the unexplored territory in which we are here setting foot. (I:xiii)
As Professor Janz says, the notion of people's history--history from below, grassroots history is anything but new within the historical profession and can be traced back at least a century. Yet, having said this, he remarks that "only quite recently has the discipline formerly called 'church history' and now more often 'the history of Christianity' begun to open itself up to this approach."
What has been studied almost exclusively until now is the religion of various elites, whether spiritual elites, intellectual elites, or power elites. Without a doubt, mystics and theologians, pastors, priests, bishops, and popes are worth studying. But at best they all together constitute perhaps 5 percent of all Christians over two millennia. What about the rest? Does not a balanced history of Christianity, not to mention our sense of historical justice, require that attention be paid to them? (I:xiv)
The series' goal is thus to seek out what can be known about the religious consciousness of "ordinary" believers.
A couple of problems come to mind here that affect our reading of several contributions to the collection. The idea of People's History is itself ambiguous. As Duke Ellington once remarked, all music must by definition be folk music, as he had never heard any musical compositions presented by horses. By the same token, all religious history is people's history, and no clear boundaries separate elites from The People. I would point, for instance, to a sizable number of mystics who were actually People--Margery Kempe being one celebrated example. As we will see, the problem of defining The People surfaces in a number of chapters in these volumes. Moreover, the stark division posited here between official and non-official religion is antiquated at best and simply unfounded at worst. It actually suggests a degree of distance from the literature that is puzzling.
Also startling is the notion that grassroots religious history is anything like as innovative as Professor Janz and some of his colleagues here suggest. We can illustrate this point from any number of periods, but, put simply, it has been a very long time indeed since historians confined their attention to the religious sensibilities of the top 5 percent of the population. At least since the nineteenth century, the study of popular heresy has been a major field within medieval history, and that perforce meant trying to determine the opinions of those ordinary men and women who joined the Lollards, Waldensians, or Cathars. If that does not constitute an attempt to write a People's History of Christianity, what does? And similar emphases have long dominated historical research and writing in later periods. When did historians of the Reformation last feel free to ignore the Radical Reformation, that unavoidable theme for anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Luther's life and work? The deeper we dig into the records of church courts and inquisitions, as scholars have been doing for more than a century, the more conscious we are of everyday religious behavior in the medieval and early modern eras.
In the English-speaking world, at least since the 1930s, the normal, mainstream focus of historical endeavor in seventeenth-century studies has been on the broad masses, whose religious sentiments allegedly surfaced in fringe movements like the Quakers, Ranters, and Diggers. By the 1960s, under the influence of the radical movements of that time, historians searched ever further afield in the religious undergrowth, as their quest for popular authenticity led them to devote wildly disproportionate attention to bizarre spiritual eccentrics like the Muggletonians, the flakiest of the flaky. Meanwhile, historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have long been fascinated by the role of those ordinary believers who formed the Methodist movement, which may or may not have saved England from a political revolution comparable to that which overwhelmed the French ancien regime. We are shortly to celebrate the centennial of that particular debate, which was initiated by French historian Elie Halevy before the First World War. Far from being a radical innovation of the contemporary avantgarde, a grassroots approach to Christian history was in fact the mainstream for most of the twentieth century and a fair chunk of the nineteenth.
To make that objection is not simply to nitpick at Professor Janz's laudable scholarly agenda. Rather, realizing these long antecedents must make us appreciate that we really have explored these particular territories in the past, and, on those previous visits to Terra Cognita, we made some errors and missteps that it would be wise not to repeat. Suppose, for instance, that we are trying to identify authentic popular religion. As we saw earlier, that effort led some distinguished scholars of seventeenth-century England to write at great length on marginal sects that barely had enough members to constitute a nut group. Conversely, historians paid far less attention to the real religious mainstream of England during that era, which was rather to be found in the large majority of the population who faithfully adhered to the established church and who never dabbled with spiritual eccentricity or sectarianism. In fact, their views tended to harmonize much more closely with those of the clergy, the "elites." Women, particularly, were notoriously conservative in their allegiances to older and more ritualistic forms of faith.
The scholarly problem, then as now, was that historians notionally aspire to study ordinary lived religion--People's Christianity--while in practice they tend to be attracted to the fringe and bizarre, to the innovative and radical, especially when such marginal thinkers and movements produce ideas that moderns find congenial. And the more we study the historically excluded and marginalized, the underdogs, the greater the risk we run of missing the ordinary lived religion of the vast majority of believers, who become the forgotten norm. This has long been a problem in historical writing, and in the present day a like problem affects our perceptions of emerging global Christianity. It is the eccentric prophetic and independent churches that attract the fieldwork and scholarship, rather than the sober mainstream congregations that we often take for granted.
We have here, indeed, a recurring dilemma in church history: how do we actually find authentic popular religion, in any era or region? Do we study the faith of the mainstream, which is relatively conservative and traditional-minded and which by definition has numbers on its side; or do we venture into the religious fringe, in the knowledge that it might exercise little or no broad influence? Do we address ourselves to the Great Church or to heresies, to establishment or dissent? Obviously, neither approach in itself supplies a full or adequate solution, as we must of necessity study both mainstream and fringe, always remembering that the two are invariably in dialogue with each other. Cults and sects are the laboratories of orthodoxy, and the harebrained extremism of one generation can become the mainstream faith of the next. But it can be difficult to remember that any worthwhile study needs to integrate both manifestations of religious activity.
With this caveat in mind, how do the various authors go about the task of understanding the religious lives of "the ordinary faithful, the people"? How, indeed, do they define this amorphous creature? In such a sizable collection of essays, it is impossible to list each and every contribution, nor will I attempt to single out the best examples of scholarship, but I will rather select representative studies.
Many authors in the collection seek to illuminate the lives of the marginalized and condemned, those groups whose views were classified as heretical. Undoubtedly, such essays have a place in this collection, especially when they are such thoughtful pieces as J. J. Buckley's account of the Mandaeans, whose theological roots may trace back to the first or second centuries, or Grado G. Merlo's piece on medieval Western "Heresy and Dissent." But how much space should editors allot to dissenters as opposed to established traditions?
It is in this area particularly where we discern the different stamp that each editor has placed on his or her volume, and how each has interpreted the mandate to observe matters from the grassroots, from below. On this spectrum, Richard Horsley's "Christian Origins" is much the furthest to the left in orientation, the most determined to present early Christianity as the voice of the dispossessed, with the greatest weight placed on the supposed role of slaves and peasants. Other volumes lean to more balanced perspectives of Christianity and its social role, with Derek Krueger's Byzantine volume as the churchiest, so to speak, in that its contributors make the greatest use of "establishment" sources from within the mainstream church. Significantly, this volume has the least to say about heretics and dissidents of any stripe, with even the Bogomils and other Dualists receiving short shrift. Other editors vary in their openness to established voices, but no later book veers as far as Horsley's toward a classic Friedrich Engels-eye view of the earliest Jesus movement as social insurgency. (That comment is not meant as an insult: Engels actually had shrewd things to say on the subject, and even some that were surprisingly witty.)
On other matters, the different volumes demonstrate much more consistency, so it really is possible to trace themes and issues across eras. If there is a single theme that surfaces again and again, it is that of lay piety, and the relationship between the official goals held by the church and the practical realities prevailing at the level of the street or the village square. Often, weary clergy had to browbeat and intimidate their parishioners to force them to conform to church standards. Much more worrying for clergy, though, were those eras--like the twelfth century and the early sixteenth--when laypeople themselves were avidly pursuing holiness as they conceived it and were anxious to ensure that their clergy conformed with them. Those were the eras ripe for schisms and heresies.
Inevitably, too, in light of modern historical scholarship, many authors devote their attention to women's matters and to issues of family and sexuality. The more scholars explore Christian history, the more astonishing it is that historians ever tried to ignore or underplay women's contributions at any point in that story. Through the various volumes of the People's History, through every era of church history, we repeatedly see examples of women's roles as spiritual leaders and innovators. Barbara Rossing shows how central "Prophets, Prophetic Movements, and the Voices of Women" were in many Christian communities in the earliest centuries, while Elizabeth A. Clark tells us about some female spiritual athletes of late antiquity in her "Asceticism, Class, and Gender." In the contemporary context, Mercy Amba Oduyoye analyzes the work of "African Women Theologians."
Other scholars meanwhile address the spiritual lives of "ordinary" women, usually as faithful members of the mainstream church of their day, and we can learn much by tracing the long continuities of women's religious practices through the centuries. Alice-Mary Talbot describes "The Devotional Life of Laywomen" in Byzantine society; Roberto Rusconi describes the confessional as a location for "Hearing Women's Sins" in the medieval and early modern west; Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks describes Reformation-era concepts of gender in "Women and Men, Together and Apart." For the modern era, we have Margaret Bendroth's study of "Gender and Twentieth-Century Christianity." Women's roles and perspectives also permeate many other chapters not explicitly addressing that theme.
Throughout these volumes, we often perceive the agenda of the Annales school of historical writing, which as far back as the 1920s urged the necessity of writing histories of such critical everyday themes as death and childhood, marriage and sexuality; of perceptions of time, nature, and space. In fact, such a list provides an approximation of the contents list of several of the People's History volumes, which use universal experiences as a means of understanding the thought-worlds of non-elite communities. Death, for instance, is a central theme running through the volumes, and not just the spectacular or heroic death of martyrs. We read here of "Death and Dying in Byzantium" (Nicholas Constas), of "Death and Burial in the European Middle Ages" (Bonnie Effros), and of "New Ways of Confronting Death" in early modernity (Carlos Eire).
Also derived from Annales is the interest in the history of childhood, a concept that really would have startled scholars prior to the early twentieth century: why on earth, they would have asked, must anyone waste time on something so self-evidently trivial? Yet as several authors explain here, not only has Christianity often shaped the concept and treatment of children, but a vast amount of time and effort on the part of the churches has gone into socializing the young--and concepts of childhood have altered radically through the centuries. In the early church context, Cornelia B. Horn explores "Children's Play as Social Ritual," while the Byzantine volume offers a study of "The Religious Lives of Children and Adolescents" (Peter Hatlie), and Karen E. Spierling discusses themes of "Baptism and Childhood" in the Reformation era. Together with the attention paid to women, such chapters contribute mightily to understanding the ordinary lay experience within the churches.
Given the very broad sweep of these volumes, then, we might well ask what unfortunate People have failed to make the cut. One odd and troubling omission is the wider global Christianity of Asia and Africa, at least outside the Christian heartlands of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean littoral. Ethiopia and Nubia receive virtually no attention in the first six volumes, and neither do regions like Mesopotamia (incredibly, given its importance), Armenia, or southern India. Nor is much attention paid to Christian missions into Central and Eastern Asia. Unfortunately, these absences are not made up in the seventh and final volume, which explicitly confines itself to "Twentieth-Century Global Christianity," without much sense of historical roots. This neglect is unfortunate because it suggests that the modem-day expansion of Christianity outside the Euro-American world is a radical new departure, rather than a resumption of an age-old reality. Missing the Middle Eastern story also means that we all but ignore the experience of Christians living under Muslim role, an experience that through much of the Middle Ages and beyond defined a very large portion of the world's Christians. Teofilo Ruiz offers a sound account of "Jews, Muslims and Christians" in the Middle Ages, but his focus is heavily on the Iberian peninsula, and he says little about (for instance) Egypt's Copts or Asia's numerous and widespread Nestorians, Jacobites, and Melkites. From such accounts, we would never guess that Christians still comprised a majority of most Middle Eastern countries at least three or four centuries after the rise of Islam. Even in a People's History, these teeming worlds of black, yellow, and brown Christians remain unexplored.
Another issue that comes to mind is just how far the authors have succeeded in diverting attention from "spiritual elites, intellectual elites, or power elites" and toward "the People." The answer is mixed, and reasonably so, because we simply can't understand the world of ordinary Christian believers except insofar as they absorbed and reflected the ideas of "mystics and theologians, pastors, priests, bishops, and popes" (I:xiv). Our long-standing attention to elites is not just a byproduct of available sources, a matter of who happened to leave behind the richest archival material to which scholars can turn for information. Elites mattered because people cared what they thought and often viewed them as heroes and role models. One nice example of the interplay between elite and non-elite Christians comes in Jaclyn Maxwell's exploration of Byzantine lay piety ca. 400, which she illustrates through the extensive sermons and homilies of John Chrysostom, an elite figure par excellence. She shows us not just what John thought people should do, but what they were actually doing and, more particularly--in his view--what they were doing wrong. When we read the chapter, we know more about John himself, but also about the ordinary faithful.
Actually, such accounts make us think of the limitations of the grassroots history. Yes, when we write from an elite perspective, we certainly omit much that is critically important about the lives of ordinary people. But conversely, a traditionally oriented account does include things that are absent in a grassroots or populist perspective or that are, at best, present only in the margins. For one thing, a People's History conceived on these lines says little about academic theology, nor about the impact of new kinds of Bible scholarship or translation. Surely, one might argue, what was being discussed in the ivory towers of Cambridge or Tubingen could have little impact on the "other 95 percent." Yet that elite scholarship always had a nasty habit of sneaking into popular discourse, as several authors here acknowledge. Any study of Reformation Christianity, for instance, must of necessity address the influence of the vernacular scriptures and, to a lesser extent, of vernacular liturgy and hymns. While no chapter explicitly addresses these matters, they pervade Elsie McKee's account of "The Emergence of Lay Theologies" and Peter Matheson's "The Language of the Common Folk."
In the Reformation volume and later books, the differences between elite and popular-oriented approaches shrinks steadily, as the People's History project approximates ever more closely to a conventional account of church life and development. By the time we get to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this series might not be spending much time on the workings of the church as a hierarchical-institutional-bureaucratic institution, but it is assuredly dealing with elite ideas and how they percolate down into the mass consciousness. This top-down theme is evident in the spread of secularization, the growing popular acceptance of science, and the general appropriation of skeptical approaches to Bible criticism: see especially Ronald Numbers's chapter on "Vulgar Science."
Hymns, too, offer another area where the elite/popular distinction fades to nonexistence. Throughout Christian history, hymns have offered a wonderful means of spreading doctrine and cementing group loyalty: they are the ultimate weapons of mass instruction. While Protestants delude themselves that they rely on biblical authority alone, in practice they are adherents of the Bible-and-hymnbook. The People's History often finds occasion to acknowledge the central importance of hymns and music, most explicitly in chapters on "Spirituals and the Quest for Freedom" (Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan) and "Evangelicalism in [Contemporary] North America" (Mark Noll and Ethan Saunders), but music appears elsewhere in accounts of vernacular religious culture. Although some hymns authentically sprang from folk culture, many others were the work of elite believers or clergy, of prolific figures like Martin Luther and Charles Wesley. Centuries-old European hymns still circulate around the globe, where they continue to reshape emerging global Christianity. Incidentally, hymns and the music of faith represent another curious lacuna in the volume on modem global Christianity. Without its extraordinarily rich music life, contemporary Christianity would have nothing like the upward trajectory that it is currently enjoying across Africa and Asia, where some claim we are living in the greatest age of Christian hymn-composition.
Looking at the People's History volumes together, it is not easy to make general observations about broad themes that run through the whole course of that story. We are after all dealing with some 2,400 pages of text, and each volume has its particular theme or approach. Yet with those qualifications in mind, some images and ideas do resurface time and again--some familiar to mainstream Euro-American believers, others less so. Some of these long continuities appear broadly Catholic in their character, others charismatic, although the two categories overlap at many points. I will focus on three issues that surface in different forms in every era and that are intimately linked to theories of sanctity and holiness: these are, respectively, the concept of sacred space; the role of healers and healing; and the idea of charismatic prophecy.
Sacred space represents one such persistent theme. However much later Protestants condemn shrines and pilgrimages, such institutions have throughout Christian history been profoundly important, whether with church blessing or without. People have always sought sanctity in particular locations, which are commonly associated with heroic forms of Christianity, with idealized ascetics and martyrs. This quest for sacred landscapes is apparent whether we are looking at Egypt in the fourth century, Germany in the sixteenth, or much of Catholic Latin America today. Even in Catholic Europe, in the early twenty-first century, Christian pilgrimage seems to be enjoying a continent-wide revival of striking proportions.
Equally persistent has been the search for healing in mind and body, the belief that Christ's promise of abundant life was not confined to mere spiritual health. The more we look at patterns of lived religion in the Christian past, the more parallels we see to the kind of charismatic or miracle-oriented faith that dominates emerging global Christianity. So potent has this healing theme been historically that its decline in quite modem times must be seen as a leading cause of secularization. The more Christian communities realized the physical, material causes of disease, the less interested they were in spiritual solutions, and the more easily they turned from the churches. From this perspective, the real detonators of European secularization were not so much Charles Darwin and Karl Marx as Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming. We might suggest a two-phase process here. At first, Euro-American Christians realized they could not turn to the churches for healing from cholera, influenza, or polio, but only gradually did they give up seeking spiritual solutions to their psychological ailments, to their compulsions and addictions. When churches could offer only the familiar resources of secular therapy and counseling, they finally abdicated the claim to offer healing of any kind, and their status and popularity declined accordingly. It remains to be seen whether global South churches will pursue a similar trajectory.
Also running through Christian history has been the prophetic impulse. Churches over the centuries have struggled to cope with prophets and visionaries and, in some eras, have been successful in appropriating them for the faith, giving them the status of saints and holy hermits. In others, such figures have been declared heretical and appear as the dreaded leaders of seditious or insurrectionary movements, like the military millenarians who were such an alarming feature of medieval and early modem Europe. Whether inside or outside the church, prophets and visionaries have constantly tested the limits of Christian doctrine, forcing Church authorities to decide on the finality of the revelation received in the Bible and the councils. Not just in modem times, churches have always had to confront claims that true spiritual authority is found in ecstasy as much as in sober reasoning. Christianity has always spawned its prophets, healers, and miracle-workers, and these have been central to the success of the faith.
This historical record helps us understand just why the most conspicuously successful forms of Christianity in the modem world are the pentecostal and charismatic churches, with their emphasis on direct access to the divine, through prophecies and healings, visions and dreams, and their tumultuous Spirit-filled worship style. Particularly in the global South, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, pentecostalism clearly represents the cutting edge of Christian expansion, and even the older mainstream churches have been forced to absorb its doctrines and practices. Although this charismatic Christianity is often seen as a new departure, a historical view shows that it is anything but new. When modem charismatics speak in tongues, when they offer healing, they are following in the footsteps of the most ancient churches--of People's Christianity, if we like. Perhaps, in our lifetimes, the People's History is coming full circle.
Pennsylvania State University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2009|
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