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Looking at history in all its ambiguity

Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church. Ruth A. Tucker. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. 2011. Hardcover, $39.99, 512 pages.
As church history marches into the 21st century, we find Billy Graham on the final night of his final crusade, March 12, 2006, leading a parade of 16,000 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 2,000-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 Parade of Faith, her 500-page biographical pilgrimage through church history. In many ways, Parade of Faith is a remarkable book. First and foremost, because Tucker is willing to look at the good, the bad, and the ugliness of Christian history as she portrays many of the greats down through the ages.
While an undergraduate two decades ago, this reviewer was assigned to read From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. This book quickly became one of my all-time favorites, retaining a prized place on my bookshelves. As I look at my now aging copy, I am struck by the comments of one of the reviews on the back cover:
This is history at its best. … It is readable, informative, gripping, and above all honest. The author never covers up the weaknesses or criticisms of the subjects. We see these men and women as fallible and human in their failures as well as their successes. It is encouraging to see them not so much on a pedestal (as much missionary history and biography often presents them), but rather with mud on their feet and even ‘egg on the face’ at times, yet still being used by a sovereign and loving God.
This wonderful summation could be used to describe Parade of Faith as well.
Tucker remains one of my favorite authors. A few years into my ministry as a pastor of an aging, declining, inner-city, Lutheran church, I learned of another book written by Tucker. Left Behind in a Megachurch World: How God Works through Ordinary Churches was a literal God-send to me at the time, and has remained so ever since.
When I learned that Tucker had written a new book, Parade of Faith, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my copy. It did not disappoint. Despite being a busy pastor, and it being a busy time of the year, I could hardly put it down.

What if?

There are several features that stand out about Parade of Faith. Each chapter 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.

Actions have consequences that cannot be undone.

The organization of the book into sections with titles like “Everyday Life” are found in each chapter. In these sections Tucker gives us a peek into a facet of church history that is highly informative, but rarely touched upon. Tucker explores such topics as “Same Sex Love” in the reconstituted Roman Empire, “Crime and Punishment” during the Renaissance period, and “Sixteen Century Divorce.”
Parade of History would be an excellent addition to all church libraries. Christians of all denominations would do well to consider our spiritual ancestors. It would also serve as a great textbook for both college and seminary Christian history courses.
As a matter of fact, teaching such a course provided the context for the writing of Parade of Faith. In the preface Tucker writes:
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 19th-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.

The lives of the faithful over time

Throughout the book Tucker stops to consider the purpose of studying history, especially church history. In the opening remarks of her 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.”

Christians of all denominations would do well to consider our spiritual ancestors.

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 21st 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.”
Tucker covers such fascinating subjects as “Games, Sports and Leisure” in the Puritan culture, going so far as to describe their sex lives.
“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 shifted 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.’”
It is a rare Christian book that combines intellectual history with everyday, ordinary life. Parade of Faith is one of these.
Brian Scoles is pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church (LCMS) in St. Paul.

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