One of the great things about being a professor is that you get a lot of free books. Publishers often send them out, looking for either review or (more importantly) adoption for use in classes. If you receive one in the mail, the tacit understanding is that you do something with it.
A few weeks ago I received a new Church history textbook by Ruth Tucker: Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church. Tucker is a historian and missiologist whose most well-known previous work is a history of missions entitled From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya.
As her title indicates, she utilizes the metaphor of a “parade” of Christian believers to tell the story of the Church. In many cases Tucker employs this biographical method to great effect. It allows her to focus upon the traditional “greats” like Ignatius of Antioch, Erasmus, Luther, and Barth while giving credence to lesser-known figures Katherine Zell, Mary Slessor, and Pandita Ramabai. Though the parade motif gets stretched a bit too far, it is a serviceable technique.
To tell all of Church history purely biographically can leave a lot of holes, however. While Tucker does give relatively adequate context–especially in the introductions to her various chapters–I find a lack of continuous narrative a little disconcerting, especially if readers have no other knowledge of the Church. There are gaps that ought to be filled in here…perhaps a second edition could address this.
Her specific stylistic choices are very interesting, and my feelings are mixed. Each chapter begins with a journal-style entry that personally and spiritually reflects upon a theme covered in the following chapter. I find this to be a warm way to introduce the story of faith. Tucker is an excellent and accessible writer, and her way of describing the historical course of the Church is captivating.
At the same time, her editorializing–tacit and explicit–is sometimes a little too much for me to handle. I understand that historians cannot be entirely devoid of bias or that we can ever hope to recall the past exactly as it happened, but at some level we ought to try. It doesn’t strike me as out of place when Tucker refers to the persecution of”sixteenth-century Anabaptists…[as] one of the most appalling chapters in church history.” What does bother me is that she concludes her thoughts by saying, “Shame. Shame. Shame.” Really? Really? This kind of normative finger-wagging statement seems a little beyond the pale.
The conclusion to each chapter are a series of counterfactual questions that ask “What if?” I know that some historians see this kind of speculation as foolish, but I’ve always enjoyed it…if done well. This is the problem here. For while the method is used to effect in asking insightful questions likes “What if Marcion’s claims had won the day?,” sometimes her queries are a little silly: “What if English kings had not persecuted Puritans?” If you’re going to ask that question, you might as well as why Puritan’s couldn’t fly. At their worst, her questions–like the monograph itself–can be a little preachy: “What if Zwingli has been attuned to the Sermon on the Mount and the cry of Katherine Zell for religious toleration and had allowed the Anabaptists to go their own way?” In other words, “what if Zwingli hadn’t been a jerk?” Not quite the stuff of academic history.
In aggregate, I like a lot of what Tucker is trying to accomplish in Parade of Faith. I really want to make use of something like it in my college courses. The biographical approach, her excellent use of storytelling, historical awareness, personal devotional reflections, and helpful counterfactuals set the book apart. Yet because of its flaws I would have a hard time using it as my sole textbook. For readability’s sake, it might have a place in religious high schools or church’s, but even there I wouldn’t want Tucker’s take to be the only one with which my learners engaged.
Once again, I guess, we default to Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity. Is this a Church historian’s one textbook?