78 of 104 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars
Finding the sensitive'n'inclusive elite, March 12, 2013
This review is from: A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Paperback)
Whatever this book is, it is not boring. Page after page you find an interesting mix of facts, personal anecdotes, and "spun" history. She must have intended the book for readers who know absolutely nothing about Christian history and would believe anything. I am not one of those readers.
Right away, we discover the book is fact-challenged. "Early commentators scarcely attacked Christian doctrines" (p 27). She never heard of Celsus, or the many other pagan critics who mocked Christian doctrine, not to mention the many Jewish critics? She is trying to make the case that "good" Christians never took doctrine seriously, but were focused on living the faith, while in fact the early Christians took both doctrine and morality seriously. She claims the name "Christian" means "little Christ" (p 35), a "fact" not mentioned by any other writer, ever. She writes lovingly of the early theologian Origen, who insisted on interpreting the Bible allegorically, not literally, and, as she repeatedly reminds the reader, anyone who reads the Bible literally is a fool. She praises the preacher John Chrysostom because she claims he saw "private property" as the root of all evils. She praises Martin of Tours because he gave up being a soldier and became a pacifist. Since early Christians called themselves "strangers" and "aliens," she insists that American Christians ought to encourage illegal immigration (p 75).
Notice a pattern? The real saints of the past were just like liberal Christians of today - like the author!
Her treatment of the Crusades is woefully inaccurate. "Christians and Muslims competed for both converts and territory on the battlefield" (p 123). Wrong! The two religions NEVER competed for converts. The Muslims advanced westward from their base in Arabia, conquered huge chunks of what had been the Christian Roman empire, and reduced the Christians to second-class citizenship - conquest, not conversion, was the goal. The Crusades were an attempt - violent, true - to recapture some of the land the Muslims had taken violently. The "hideous and inexcusable violence of the Crusades" was, she says, all the fault of Christians - never mentioning that the Crusades would never have occurred had Christian lands not been conquered by Muslims.
In this book, Muslims can do no wrong. She claims they lived alongside Jews and Christians in medieval Spain and got along harmoniously - well, it was "harmony" at the end of a sword, and Jews and Christians were heavily taxed to support the Muslim ruling class.
"Women could be burned as witches for inheriting their father's property or healing a sick child with herbs" (p 199). This "fact" about herbal healing was gleaned from The Da Vinci Code - a work of FICTION, but amazing how many Christian authors quote it like an encyclopedia.
According to her, Martin Luther taught that "a person must be free from the church or any authority telling him or her how to behave" (p 182). Absolutely untrue. Luther saw the Bible (which, Luther read literally, NOT allegorically) as the supreme authority for the Christian's life. After the Reformation, "Protestant women started to point out the inconsistency of male pastors proclaiming spiritual liberty from Roman Catholicism, yet still condemning women to silence in church" (p 253). She doesn't cite these women's writings because they don't exist - never did. And what exactly is the "inconsistency" she speaks of? The Protestants didn't break away from Catholicism over the issue of women clergy.
Pages 276-277, she raves about the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, particularly Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu "holy man" who made such an impression. She talks as if the Parliament was some kind of sacred breakthrough in Christian history, when in fact the people swooning over the swami were just a handful of upper-class women who dabbled in exotic religions as a hobby and were as likely to change religions as they were to change wardrobes.
When she gets to the past twenty years, her biases become crystal clear. Page 132, she blames Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq on evangelical leaders - as if Bush was a mere puppet. A sensitive friend tells her that Jerry Falwell said that "according to the Bible, the punishment for homosexuality was death by stoning" (294). Possibly true, but unless Falwell said "I approve doing that today" (he didn't), so what? She attacks James Dobson for criticizing a speech in which Obama took a slap at Christians by asking which Bible verses they took seriously--the Sermon on the Mount or Leviticus' law against eating shellfish. Page 293, she lists some of the big names in 20th century Christianity, but with the exception of C. S. Lewis, none would remotely fit the "conservative" category. (She conveniently overlooks the fact that Lewis did not share her disdain for doctrine - quite the contrary! Also, Lewis hated trendiness and adamantly opposed the ordination of women.) Did she think Billy Graham was a non-entity? She has made it clear that she dislikes Christians who try to convert others, but she couldn't even acknowledge that Graham's organization has many charitable ministries. She never once credits evangelicals or charismatics with doing anything - except oppressing women and minorities. She is the angry ex-evangelical distancing herself from conservative Christians, with that syrupy smirk that has become her trademark.
The cherry-picking and spinning of data is one problem. Bad writing is another. For example: "Enacting love was a critical aspect of experiencing love" (p 60). "A fractured vision of the cosmos leads to hopelessness and withdrawal from God's world; a connected vision empowers change" (p 132). "Far from excluding God from the world, a progressive vision invites God in" (p 270). (As if you could keep him out!) "Modernity came to a frightening end when the United States exploded two atomic bombs over Japan" (p 279). (How did that "end" modernity? Did people stop driving cars after that?) "Honoring the body signals human connection with God through Christ" (p 39). "Medieval marriage existed for the procreation of children" (p 189). (Medieval husbands and wives didn't ENJOY sex?) "Nature has become a stranger to us" (p 305). (How? We no longer breathe air?) "Unless you are human, Christianity is a pretty bad deal" (p 136).
While a student at Gordon-Conwell Seminary (evangelical) she had to "sneak" down to liberal Harvard Divinity School to see the gay Catholic writer Henri Nouwen. Did Gordon-Conwell have jackbooted thugs keeping an eye on students? The people in Nouwen's audiences were "black and white, male and female, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, gay and straight." How, pray tell, did she know by looking that any were liberal, conservative, gay, or straight? And obviously there were women at Gordon-Conwell, since she was there. Under Nouwen's spell, she learned that doctrine was unimportant, only that "faith and compassion came to the fore" (p 287). "We came together: all the diverse people in that room actually created a spiritual community" (287). How? Did the people ever see each other again afterward? For her "community" meant "we all felt good about being there."
To her, the existence of so many denominations is nothing but evidence of "bitter arguments between Christians over the basic tenets of their faith" (p 289). For someone who constantly harps on "diversity," she doesn't seem comfortable with a divided Christianity (and given the decline of her own denomination, the Episcopalians, in all her books she takes a lot of shots at evangelical churches, which are growing, often because they flee the liberal churches like hers).
The author assures us that, in the modern world, we can't believe in heaven. Everything Jesus taught about the "kingdom of heaven" in fact applies to social change, not the afterlife. She admits her faith, such as it is, is entirely this-worldly, and that politics is the only way to bring about salvation.
The book, supposedly a history, is also autobiography. "I taught at a Christian college." "I was speaking in Vancouver, British Columbia." "I first visited Chartres Cathedral." "I went to Duke Chapel." "In 1996 I covered the Republican National Convention." "In 1980 I attended a mission conference in Edinburgh, Scotland." And on and on. If this author ever writes her autobiography, it will probably be ten volumes. Her self-absorption explains why in the book she only looks at Christians who remind her of her own wonderful self. (When a liberal insists that "we need to read different perspectives," what she means is "people who think just like I do."
My favorite quote: "My history is not neat." True. Much of it is not even fact. When your goal is to heap praise on people like your own adorable self, facts become negotiable. The proper Bible verse to serve as this book's epigraph is from Jesus' parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, in which the self-congratulating Pharisee says, "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men."