Review of Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth A. Tucker
“As church history marches into the twenty-first century, we find Billy Graham on the final night of his final crusade, March 12, 2006, leading a parade of sixteen thousand followers from the vast New Orleans Arena to Bourbon Street to claim the infamous French Quarter for Christ. Riding a motor scooter, Graham serves as grand marshal, as Christians lift their voices singing, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ What a fitting climax to one man’s career and to a two-thousand-year parade of history! Problem is, the story is an Internet hoax. It is a reminder that even sacred history includes lies and urban legends.”
So writes historian Ruth Tucker near the end of her remarkable nearly five hundred-page biographical pilgrimage through Church history. She willingly looks at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Christian history as she portrays many of the greats from down through the ages.
As an undergraduate I was first introduced to Tucker’s writing through her From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, which quickly became one of my all-time favorites. A few years into my ministry as a pastor of an aging, declining, inner-city, Lutheran church, I discovered her Left Behind in a Megachurch World: How God Works through Ordinary Churches, which was a Godsend to me at the time and has remained so ever since.
Each chapter of her new Parade of Faith begins with a personal reflection by Tucker as she contemplates the era she is writing about. Each chapter ends with a short “What If?” section in which Tucker imagines what would have happened if, for example, Martin Luther had recanted at the Diet of Worms. In the “Everyday Life” portions found in each chapter, Tucker gives us a peek into a facet of church history that is highly informative but rarely touched upon. Tucker describes such topics as “Crime and Punishment” during the Renaissance period, “Sixteen Century Divorce,” and “Games, Sports, and Leisure” in Puritan culture, which includes a correction to the popular perception of their attitude toward sexuality: “In comparison to their religious predecessors, Puritans are not necessarily ‘puritanical’ on matters of sex. The Roman Catholic perspective on sex had developed from the teachings of the church fathers, essentially viewing it as an act of the flesh that is sinful except for procreation. This view was challenged by Reformers and Puritans, who shift the focus from procreation to companionship. Sexual intercourse is to be part of the very family life that glorifies God. Indeed, they censure the Catholics, who, according to William Perkins, ‘hold that the secret coming together of man and wife cannot be without sin unless it be done for procreation of children,’ insisting rather that sex is not only legitimate but is ‘meant to be exuberant.’ Married couples are encouraged to engage in lovemaking ‘with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.’”
Tucker reports that it was teaching church history courses that eventually gave rise to Parade of Faith. In the Preface, she explains: “One of the most memorable church history courses I ever taught was at Fuller Theological Seminary some two decades ago. In the front row was Rik Stevenson, the only African American in the class. The first to arrive and the last to walk out the door at the end of each session, he peppered me with questions. He was determined to make church history his own—so much so that before the short course ended, he traveled to Philadelphia to research the ministry of Charles Tindley, a nineteenth-century black megachurch minister. Our acquaintance blossomed into friendship, and now, after nearly two decades, we are both settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A local minister and professor, Rik often stops by to talk church history. His current field of research is the black church in Canada. But Rik sees all of church history as belonging to African Americans. Whether Thomas Aquinas or John Bunyan or Mary Slessor, he identifies with his spiritual forbearers and makes them his own. I do the same. I do not demand that the history of Christianity be a woman’s history in order to make it my own.”
Throughout the book Tucker pauses to consider the purpose of studying history, especially church history. In her opening remarks to the chapter on the Catholic Reformation, Tucker writes, “Real history is indeed complex, and we are tempted to simplify it with sentimental anecdotes of great heroes. The story of America’s first president, George Washington, is replete with morality tales, as are stories of the saints. And new versions of these tales are offered in this age of political correctness, especially when we project simple motives back into figures quite different from ourselves. From the apostle Paul and Augustine to Aquinas and Ignatius Loyola, we easily offer anachronistic constructs.”
Again, in the introduction to her chapter on trans-Atlantic awakenings, Tucker notes, “It is true that we learn more by analogy than by example when we look back over history—especially those of us who imagine that we would resonate with noted evangelicals of the past were they to be suddenly resurrected in the twenty-first century. Because our worldview is so much a part of us, we do not easily see it for what it is, and we sometimes imagine that our circumstances and our responses to circumstances would be similar to those who lived long ago. The main thing history offers us is the knowledge that actions have consequences that cannot be undone.”
Brian Scoles is Pastor at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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