Confessions of a Lonely Christian Historian

Messiah

I think all of us who pursue a life of the mind are, to some degree, lonely people.  We live in the world of ideas.  We spend a lot of our time in isolation–reading, studying, thinking, writing. We tend to be introverts.  For those committed to independent thinking, the chance of being marginalized from this or that community only increases.

Recently I have read several things, heard several things, and have been in several conversations that have reinforced a sense of the professional and intellectual loneliness that I have experienced over the last several years.  At the risk of becoming overly confessional, self-indulgent, or dark, I thought I would mention them here.

I am sure some folks will appreciate my thoughts.  Others will deconstruct them in negative ways.  These are the risks I take every day when I write at this blog.  One day I feel that writing at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is an act of courage. The next day I wonder if what I have been doing here for the past eight years has been one big act of foolishness.

So here goes:

I am a first-generation college student and the son of working-class parents.  This means that I am constantly trying to live between the worlds of my uneducated extended family and my own advanced education.  This has been even harder since the election of Donald Trump.  It can get pretty lonely at times.

As a faculty member at a Christian college who tries to do good historical work and be a contributing member of my profession, I realize that my decision to devote the first half of my career to a place called “Messiah College” has raised red flags.  I will never know how my work as a professor at a Christian college has influenced the ways the profession has received me or my work, but I have no doubt that it has and it does.  I am sure that most of my historian colleagues do not have to explain as much as I do why they teach at the place where they teach.  As much as I honor and respect the work of historians, and try to participate in that work when I can, I will never feel part of the historical profession nor do I think I will ever be fully accepted within it.  This used to make me feel lonely, but the older I get the less I am bothered by it.

I am an evangelical Christian.  That comes with certain beliefs and ways of understanding the world that make me different from other historians and even different from other Christians at my institution, especially those in the humanities who tend to gravitate toward other Christian traditions.

I am a faculty member who wants to defend the traditional liberal arts, the discipline of history and its patterns of thinking, and the pursuit of a humanities education that transcends political and social agendas.  I am often criticized by those–many of whom teach humanities in my own institution–who see the goal of Christian college education differently.  I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues.  I wonder about my place in the mix.

I am a historian and Christian who is critical of conservative evangelicals and other right-wing attempts to blend Christian faith with political power or promote the idea of the United States as a Christian nation. My critique of the so-called “court evangelicals” makes me a bit of an outcast in my church community (although I feel this changing a bit) and perhaps raises some red flags among conservative colleagues at my institution.

I believe Christian colleges are doing a nice job of training people for our capitalist economy, but they are doing a poor job of investing in the preparation of people for life in a democracy. This means that I am viewed as suspect by most people in society and especially by those champions of pre-professional education who now dominate so many Christian colleges, including my own.

What makes this all so difficult is the fact that I have fellow-travelers and conversation partners in all of these areas.  And the same people who are fellow-travelers in one category will often part ways with me on other issues.  This, of course, is normal. I would not expect anything different.  I think all of us deal with this in some way, but I wonder if those of us who live a life of the mind experience such loneliness more than others. Finding common ground can be hard work.

29 thoughts on “Confessions of a Lonely Christian Historian

  1. Thanks for this John! I greatly appreciate and am encouraged by your writing. While my struggle with loneliness/solitude is different (I work in the IT field – though I love history – and am single), I’m grateful for your honesty and courageousness in sharing your thoughts.

    Like

  2. John: I really resonated with your article. Try being a Reformed, amillennal church librarian in a largely dispensational Bible church. Or someone who is passionate about books and reading outside just your areas of comfort, among a church that over the years has seen library usage decline, and interest in wide reading at a real low. I read the great books and send out book reviews on them, and load up the new book shelves each week, only to see a lot of apathy. The parlor for coffee and snacks attracts the crowds, while the library can be a lonely place. But I find soul-mates on twitter and on the blogs, where I find so many that are as passionate about books as I am. So maybe I should write, “Confessions of a Lonely Church Librarian”? So, man, I hear you.

    Like

    • Thanks, Ron. I appreciate your thoughts here. The world of ideas can be a lonely one on a lot of different levels. I have heard from dozens of people who face the same issues in different ways–both Christian and non-Christian folks. Keep fighting the good fight!

      Like

  3. Your blog, social media, and books have benefited many people. I say this as a non-academic (corporate lawyer) Catholic who shares your love of history, religion, politics and Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always thought this is a powerful image from Machiavelli:

    When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study; and on the threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, which are covered with mud and mire, and I put on regal and curial robes; and dressed in a more appropriate manner I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men and am welcomed by them kindly, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born; and there I am not ashamed to speak to them, to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity, answer me; and for four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death: I become completely part of them.

    (Translation Anthony Grafton, A History of Reading in the West, 180.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I appreciate your honesty in this “confession.” As an evangelical who happens to be conservative in politics, I also know the feeling of loneliness within the historical profession. My advice is to stay true to your Christian convictions. As I have told you elsewhere, regardless of your political or social views, I consider your collected and on-going work a treasure.

    Like

  6. John, have you noticed — surely you have — that you have lots of reinforcement when it comes to POTUS? Sorry for not feeling your pain more. But your daily headlines suggest you are hardly alone.

    Like

  7. Amen. It is worth grieving here this predicament. And it is not unlike those of us at state institutions, though it is a bit easier there to ‘keep your head down and do good work.’ But overall this is a indictment on the church. We are hemmed in on all sides, increasingly alone, or hopeful to find a few other souls like us.

    Like

  8. The current partisan climate does not give much space to talk if you are not in either party. You are either considered a nut or deluded traitor. A pastor friend of mine, at a very conservative church (my parents) is having “voter’s regret” and took me aside to ask my professional opinion. Felt like a physician reviewing a serious pandemic that few even believes exists.

    Like

  9. I, too, feel this article defines a common state of mind for many, including extroverts and those outside the academy. I am a Catholic in my late sixties with an undergraduate degree in Theater Arts from a state university. I have worked in law enforcement and civil investigations most of my career. I have also done freelance writing on Christian and secular subjects. And yet this article resonates with me, and I suspect with many others of varied backgrounds and professions.

    Like

  10. This is a good post, however, you fail to mention that your family loves you very much and that your elder daughter is especially willing to discuss with you the issues you mention above whenever! 😊

    Like

  11. Press on my brother. Almost everything you say about yourself I could say about myself. (You have contributed far more to the profession than I.) The most important thing at the end of the day, since we are Christians first and foremost, is that we are fulfilling our calling. Every calling has its challenges and difficult, unappealing aspects. At the end of time, having fulfilled our calling – i.e. using the gifts we’ve been given to the best of our ability – is all that will matter.

    Like

  12. “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
    –Whitman

    Lovely and thoughtful post. Thank you.

    Like

  13. i have often thought the role of the historian is a melancholic occupation. The historian reminds people, especially in the US, that the history education they received in K-12 public schools has been heavily varnished to cover over the offenses of previous generations, the marginalized, the “un-american” and even the human frailty. The historian uncovers truth, or at least they should and for that reason, usually they are considered an outcast. “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

    Like

  14. That sounds fairly normal to me. I’m not an academic, but am married to an evangelical who went back to college at 50 to get his Ph.D. in Anthropology. He’s at a state university, so the conflicts are different, but not that different. I’m Eastern Orthodox, and ABD with an education in modern languages and linguistics. I work as a network security and privacy researcher, but the liberal arts background and education along with my faith make me the odd one out among the largely agnostic or atheist software and network engineers I work with.

    Of course, introverts often hide in a book too much, which also contributes to loneliness. Not everybody who disagrees with you rejects you because of it. 😉

    Like

  15. I think you are fighting the good fight. You may single handedly get me through my quals this fall. I have been inspired by your blog and your podcast. Because of who you are, you are adding to the American narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.