Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation
University of Notre Dame Press, 2010
376 pp., $40.00
A New Direction for Christian Historians?
The second section addresses what it would mean for historians to do this in the communities to which they belong. John Fea describes a class he taught at Messiah College in which he and his students struggled to come to terms with the moral issues raised by the American Civil War. Lendol Calder's chapter tells the story of a mountaineering disaster to show how shoddy assumptions often lead to educational disasters, and calls us to work harder at our teaching and thereby love our students more. Jay Green wants Christian historians to use their understanding of the past to address the public, thereby taking on the role of society's conscience. Robert Tracy McKenzie urges historians to win the ear of their local churches, rather than speaking only in the academy. Douglas A. Sweeney's chapter challenges us to see colleagues not as competitors in the academic stakes but as people we are called to serve.
The book contains great learning, mature reflection, and (most of the time) plenty of humility and nuance. Every Christian historian should read this book. I found the emphasis on teaching especially refreshing. Much of the discussion about Christian scholarship has focused on how to be faithful in the wider academic community; this book recognizes that many Christian historians spend a lot of time in the classroom, and challenges them to use the past to encourage their students to pursue wisdom and righteousness. Yet by the end of the book I felt that the sum was less than its parts. Many chapters sparkled, but the attempt to advance a new direction for Christian historians did not.
For one, there are chapters that strike startlingly discordant notes. Mark Schwehn says he still believes that the quality of his scholarship "should only be determined by [his] professional peers." James B. LaGrand argues that "preaching through history" is "an unsatisfactory model of Christian history." There are also chapters that bear an uneasy relationship to the project as whole, namely those by Una M. Cadegan, Beth Barton Schweiger, and Wilfred M. McClay. A book with evenly balanced groups that disagree can be fascinating and rewarding, but this one, with a central thrust and a handful of outlying chapters, has an awkward feel.
Then there is the question of how new this new inclination is. Some of the engagement with postmodern thought is indeed new, but Christian historians have been committed to loving students and addressing society for a long time. In his chapter, Doug Sweeney pays tribute to an older scholar who did just this and yet elsewhere in the book falls foul of Marsden's Law. The book is dedicated to John D. Woodbridge, who taught all three editors church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and who cared deeply for his students and produced books for non-academic audiences. There is a long history to the argument over whether a Christian historian's first job is to move people or move the scholarly debate. Greater discussion of that history would have been useful.
There were times when I worried whether some authors were being fair to Marsden, Noll, and company. Katerberg is, giving Noll credit for work that has distinctly Christian aims. But people who read only parts of this book might conclude that the older generation of Christian historians were more interested in their guild than God. The evidence of their work suggests otherwise.
Earlier this summer I was having dinner in a pokey Chinese restaurant in Oxford with two colleagues. One belonged to George Marsden's generation, while the other was a similar age to the editors of this book. I had chatted with the younger one earlier in the week, and had heard him share a vision for scholarly work justifiable in terms of its usefulness to the church. Over dinner, however, the older scholar said that history had to be written with no eyes on the present. I don't think he knew that what he said was controversial at that table. But both colleagues believe they are serving God's good purposes. A few years ago, the same senior historian had told me of his hope that the books he writes will influence the church as teachers at theological colleges read his work and pass it on to future pastors. Just this spring, I heard of someone saying that Marsden's A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards was one of the most formative books he had read.