To his credit, Alton Gansky doesn’t claim to have written an exhaustive book of personalities shaping the church. To his discredit, the list he narrowed down for 60 People Who Shaped the Church, with the exception of Fanny Crosby, is male and mostly white.
I wrestled with that observation from the minute I scanned the list of “people who shaped the church” in the table of contents through every minute I spent reading the mini biographies. Without a doubt, everyone in the book has earned a place as an influential Christian. And yes, a book “must have parameters” as Gansky apologizes in his Introduction. But does the male whiteness of this book have to do with author choice or the outcome of cultural and historical realities?
Certainly, women were active members of the early Christian church. They also lived during a time when their access to education and influence was limited. In several biographies, Gansky credits the mothers as shaping their young sons’ pursuit of church life. Without a doubt there have been leaders and innovators and thinkers and writers and martyrs on all the continents. And there will always be those quiet saints with gifts of prayer and faith who will be the unseen backbone of the church – and who will be honored in time. There have been many others of different backgrounds, female, and not European or American, who have shaped and influenced the current state of the Church. But to read this book, you wouldn’t know it.
Why Francis of Assisi and not Mother Theresa?
Why Constantine and not King Ezana?
Why William Wilberforce and not Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Why Diocletian and not Bloody Mary?
Why Dostoyevsky and not Flannery O’Connor?
What about Hildegard de Bingen? Anne Hutchinson? Rosalind Rinker?
Who are the movers and shakers of the Church in Asia, Africa, South America, Central America as Christianity spread?
These questions are not to say that the book is wrong or bad. I loved reading this book for the basic fact that it challenged me to consider these and other leaders of Christianity. I could not ask the questions without making at least a minor effort to Google names of female influences in the church and then continuing to search for leaders of Christianity in Asia, Africa, South America, and Central America. The result is that my leaning TBR tower has a few more books added to it that address these areas. I can’t fault a book for adding more reading to my life.
The men, and Fanny Crosby, who are included are deserving of notice. They should not be victims of “historical amnesia.” Gansky has compiled and written a book that is an engaging introductory read to church history – it whets the appetite – that demands further exploration by the readers. My concern is that people will read it and not dig deeper for the non-white-male people who have impacted change and shifted influence. Attention in the area of diversity would have enriched readers and cast our eyes around the world at the global presence of the church.
The people in Gansky’s list are rich and poor, sinners turned saints, schooled and unschooled, gritty and glamorous, ambitious and unintentional. They are monks and emperors and rebels and martyrs and scientists and thinkers and authors. They have sacrificed much, if not everything, and have contributed significantly to the Church. Further, Gansky’s style is approachable and conversational. As an introductory text it is a good read – as a comprehensive understanding of the Church it presents a rather lopsided picture.
But what reader do you know who can’t read and research to balance the picture? Gansky made his choices, and had to wrestle with his reasons, for 60 people who shaped the church – who would be on your list, and why? It’s harder than it sounds but a challenge I look forward to meeting.