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Alister Chapman


A New Direction for Christian Historians?

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One of the worst kept secrets of the historical profession is what I am going to call Ambrose's Law, after American historian Stephen E. Ambrose. Ambrose's Law states that the more popular a historian is, the more other historians will criticize him or her. There is usually a good reason: Ambrose's chief crime was plagiarism, Joseph Ellis misled the press, David McCullough misquoted Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Schama barely noted the existence of Wales in his History of Britain. But these reasons are not the whole story.

Cynics would say Ambrose's Law is testament to professional envy. There's surely something to that. Then there are the perils of greater exposure that fame brings. (Other historians took aim at Ambrose long before the issue of plagiarism arose.) There are, however, more fundamental issues at stake, namely, can history that people actually enjoy reading or watching be respectable, accurate, and honest? Can popular history be good history? The question is about loyalty as much as anything: are these TV historians truly committed to what their guild values above all, careful study and truth-telling? Or have they sacrificed their integrity in order to pursue the wrong type of audience?

Confessing History suggests that there is a Christian version of Ambrose's Law, which the editors would probably call Marsden's Law. Their objects of concern are historians such as George Marsden and Mark Noll, who have won the respect of their profession. The worry is that by seeking success with that audience, Christian historians have failed to be sufficiently Christian. Again, the question is one of loyalty to one's fundamental commitments, but this time it is commitment to Christ that matters. One contributor to the book finds it "difficult to accept the ease with [which] colleagues at Christian colleges seem to regard the status, respectability, power and glory … that [come] with 'making it'" in academia, and wants "to figure out if the 'foolishness' of the Gospel … offers any insights into what a Christian intellectual might look like."

Confessing History begins with George Marsden, perhaps the most accomplished historian to come out of Christian collegedom in the last several decades. Marsden believes that Christian historians should study what all other historians do: what they can see in the historical record, and not what God might be doing behind the scenes. Eschewing providentialism, Marsden became a star, going on—after two decades at Calvin College—to teach at Duke Divinity School and then the University of Notre Dame. Many Christian historians took the same approach and did well.

But a younger generation are not sure this is the right path. In the introduction, Eric Miller summarizes their concerns in a series of questions:

Is something beyond the current consensus, as represented, for instance, in the work of George Marsden, possible? Is the mainstream historical profession truly the locus of the deepest wisdom and brightest hope for the practice of history? Have our lives as professional historians—and as middle-class professionals—become so straitjacketed that resistance to the status quo is futile? And what within the present moment holds most promise for the advance of a deeply Christian practice of history, whether through writing or teaching?

It would be too much to say that there is a new consensus among younger Christian historians, Miller goes on, but there is "at least a common inclination," which he describes as follows:

The modern search for explications of causality and agency through the analysis of "observable cultural forces" [Marsden's words] has proven to be an inadequate approach to the past for many in this generation of Christian historians, and, accordingly, an unsatisfying means to the fulfillment of our vocations. We seek instead to clothe history in rumination, conjecture, meditation, and judgment, all rooted in Christian visions of reality and all in the service of fostering moral intelligence and spiritual vigor in the communities we serve. Moreover, rather than turning to leading theorists of the modern academic disciplines alone for guidance, we find ourselves in consequential and intimate conversation with the work of theologians and philosophers, joining a tradition of reflection with ancient roots and one that continues strongly to this day, with or without the historical profession.

Two sections of the book put flesh on all this. The first is theoretical, and has five chapters that together present a call for Christian historians to care more about shaping their students and societies. Thomas Albert Howard seeks to marry history and virtue ethics, arguing that we should encourage students to face the moral questions raised by the past. William Katerberg makes a forceful argument for history that is useful for society. It should change students' hearts, not just the historiography. Michael Kugler surveys the histories written by David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Mary Wollstonecraft, Enlightenment figures who wrote with a sense of social purpose that belies their era's reputation for facts alone. Bradley J. Gundlach calls us to assimilate moral insights from the likes of Christopher Lasch, Robert Bellah, and Jackson Lears. Christopher Shannon advises an overhaul of almost everything, including the abandonment of "the futile effort to build a better monograph" and "a complete reorganization of the undergraduate history curriculum" that would emphasize memorization and historiography.

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