What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

Getting the Band Back Together To Discuss the State of the Evangelical Mind

eac22-scandalI am happy to announce that in September I will be participating in a conference in Indianapolis titled “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections upon the Past, Prospects for the Future.

Here is a description from the conference website:

Evangelicalism, however one defines it, finds itself at the intersection of a host of crossroads.  After decades of relative prosperity in North America, the churches, universities, and seminaries that evangelicals cultivate, populate, and depend upon for leadership are wrestling with legal, social, and ultimately theological questions on a wide variety of fronts. 

For many, the financial challenges that compelled Christianity Today to close Books and Culture after twenty-one years were tangible expressions of those challenges.  Caught between fear and hope, some observers proposed the evangelical mind is now on the threshold of another “scandal.”  In contrast, others propose the opportunities for faithful intellectual engagement and witness are greater now than in recent history.    

This symposium offers a context in which participants can reflect upon that past but also think critically about the prospects for the future of the evangelical mind.  Those prospects will depend in many ways upon the influence of evangelical churches, universities, and seminaries.  What role then will each one of those institutions play?  What kinds of relationships will they need to share with one another?  What kinds of relationships will churches, universities, and seminaries need to forge with other institutions? 

By drawing upon the wisdom of the past, perhaps some of these questions might be best navigated by reflecting anew upon the common and respective purposes animating the church, the university, and the seminary.  Please consider joining us as we explore these questions at “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections upon the Past, Prospects for the Future,” on September 21-22, 2017.Confessing History Available for Pre-Order

I am even more excited to announce that I will be joining my old partners in crime, Jay Green (Covenant College) and Eric Miller (Geneva College), for a plenary panel titled “Mark Noll’s Scandal and the CCCU: A Tripartite Review.”  If you are a regular reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you will know that we co-edited Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.

(Our session was just added to the conference program. At the time I am writing this post it does not yet appear on the conference website.  The conference organizers at the Lumen Research Institute tell us that we will be presenting at 7:00pm on Thursday evening as the lead-up to Mark Noll’s plenary address).

The other conference speakers (in addition to Noll) are Jo Anne Lyon (Wesleyan Church), Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College), Lauren Winner (Duke Divinity School), and James K.A. Smith (Calvin College).  The conference will also honor former Books & Culture editor John Wilson.

I hope to see some of you in Indianapolis in September!


with Green (left and sporting the nice argyle sweater vest) and Miller (center)


Robert George: A Christian Scholar on the Spiritual Disciplines

Confessing History Available for Pre-OrderAs many of you know, I am very interested in the ways that my Christian faith informs what I do as a scholar, historian, and teacher.  Back in 2011 I joined my friends Jay Green and Eric Miller in editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. My book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past has a couple of chapters that reflect my interest in the integration of faith and history.

If I get a chance to continue writing about faith and the academic vocation I would like to explore the way that spiritual practices or spiritual “disciplines” might inform the work of Christian scholars. (Perhaps such a study might revive my own inconsistent efforts at engaging in these practices).

So much of the conversation on faith and scholarship, at least in the field of history, revolves around Christian epistemology, philosophy, or theology.  It is driven largely by those Christians who associate with the Reformed Protestant tradition.  In Confessing History we tried to push this conversation away from the epistemological questions long associated with what Douglas Sweeney has called the “Calvin School” of Christian historiography, and into the area of calling/vocation and practice.

It seems like there could be a third way of thinking about connecting faith with history. We know how Christian theology and philosophy inform the presuppositions of believing historians.  We are starting to learn, thanks to the authors in Confessing History, about how believing historians might practice their craft as scholars, teachers, and public scholars.   But we don’t have a lot of work on how things like prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines might influence our work.  (I discussed this a bit in Why Study History?, but a good place to start is A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods).

I was thus very encouraged and inspired today reading Kevin Spinale’s interview with Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals. George talks to Spinale about how the spiritual practices of his Catholic faith informs his work as a scholar, teaching, and public intellectual.

Here is just a small taste:

Prof. George, how do you pray?


Robert George

On my knees, the old-fashioned way—not always, but I do find that being on one’s knees in a posture of prayer facilitates trying to remove oneself from all of one’s cares and concerns. It’s valuable to remove oneself from one’s normal routines and put oneself in the presence of God for that conversation. So, to me the posture matters. Of course, one can’t always be on one’s knees.

I often pray when I am driving, for example, if I am alone. I like to pray with people, a lot, with friends—some of whom are Catholic, some of whom are not. I am happy to pray with just about anyone who wants to pray. But there is something special about—especially at the end of the day—being on one’s knees before God, in that posture and praying.

Is there a particular text or devotion that you ordinarily use to initiate or shape prayer?

That can vary extraordinarily widely. Sometimes it is petitionary prayer: something I am concerned about; something that I want to ask for God’s help with, assistance with, blessing upon. It might be a person; it might be a cause; or it might be an event. Often, I find myself praying for help in thinking things through, trying to discern what I am supposed to be doing.

It is difficult for me and I have to make an effort at this, but I try to remember the importance of prayers of praise in addition to petitionary prayer. That is something I have to discipline myself to do; otherwise I find myself always in the asking mode. It is very easy. I do not have to think much about petitionary prayer.

It is very easy if I feel or judge there to be a need—I find myself very easily moving into prayer to ask for God’s help with that need. But I recognize that it is very important to give God the praise he is due, and I have to discipline myself to remember to do that. It does not come as immediately or effortlessly as petitionary prayer.

I like the old-fashioned forms of prayer, although I do not restrict myself to them. The rosary is great—praying the rosary is valuable. The traditional forms of prayer that I was taught when I was a boy, what we Catholics call the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, I still say all those prayers—the guardian angel prayer, I still say all those prayers.

In part, I like these traditional prayers because of their simplicity. Jesus said that we are supposed to be childlike in our faith, and those prayers are prayers that are prayed by children as well as adults. We learned them as children, most of us, and they continue with us in our adult life. We should never regard ourselves as too sophisticated for these prayers. Saying those prayers is a help in maintaining the kind of faith that Jesus said we should have: the faith of those little children who were clamoring to get onto Jesus’s lap, whom the disciples were trying to shoo away—Jesus says, “No, no, no, let them come. … Your faith should be like their faith.” [Mark 10:13-16]

Read the entire interview here, including George’s thoughts on vocation, suffering, spiritual desolation, and Catholic higher education.

On the Danger of Historical Analogies

Trump and Hoover

Some are comparing Trump to Hoover

As I wrote this weekend, everyone is making them these days.  Historians (including myself on numerous occasions) are going public with analogies.  They usually go something like this: “This presidential election is exactly like the election of (insert year).” And then there is this one: “Donald Trump is the second coming of (insert name of historical figure–Jackson, Hitler, and Wallace seem to be the most popular).

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ian Beacock, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Stanford, reminds us that such analogies will never be perfect.

Here is a taste:

Many commentators appear to be searching for the Goldilocks explanation, the just-right historical comparison that makes sense of Trump’s position in American politics and forecasts his future. They won’t find it. While certain analogies are more persuasive or illuminating than others, none of them is ironclad. The 2016 election is sui generis.

Yet we should also consider whether so many past parallels are making it easier or more difficult for us to defend democracy. Do they help us identify and understand threats to the common weal? Or are they leading us astray? When are historical analogies justified, and what are they good for?

Appeals to history are wickedly hard to resist. For one thing, they’re almost always good politics. The most effective historical analogies condemn and canonize all at once, turning policy debates into morality plays and draping candidates with ersatz seriousness. (This is why Republicans have been so keen to frame President Obama as our generation’s Neville Chamberlain; it allows them to play Winston Churchill.) Historical comparisons also serve a more essential function by allowing human beings to safely encounter and organize a world in flux. Experience and previous categories help us evaluate new threats and opportunities while protecting us from information overload. History appears to tame epistemological chaos.

We know, of course, that historical parallels are crude and imperfect tools for making sense of the present. We make false comparisons on the basis of distorted information or neglected facts, warping the past (and present) to our particular ends. Or we forget that history, even if it rhymes, never does repeat itself. After all, individual decisions matter. And any particular compound of causes will ever exist only once, not least of all because our choices and alternatives are influenced by historical memory itself: our sense of what’s possible, the lessons we think we’ve learned.

The greatest civic danger, however, is complacency. Peddling certainty and solace, many historical analogies make beguiling but dangerous promises about what will happen next. When we compare Trump to George Wallace or Henry Ford, similar men who never became president, we feel worse about the Donald’s chances and better about ourselves. But historical analogies offer only the illusion of sense. And as they move things strange and shocking back to familiar terrain, as they reassure us that the past explains the present, many historical comparisons invite us to disengage. We know the script. We know how it ends. Instead of sparking our political imagination, the past can sometimes short-circuit it.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.  (Of course everything that I post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is worth your time!).

As I read Beacock’s piece, I thought about Jay Green’s excellent essay “Public Reasoning by Historical Analogy in our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (U of Notre Press, 2010).  Green writes:

It’s not surprising that historical analogies are attractive, because they provide us with tools to Confessingunderstanding, anticipate, and control the shape of the present and the course of the future.  As we have seen, they are natural, necessary, even inevitable elements in our personal and social lives.  But these same otherwise helpful tools regularly warp, obfuscate, and undermine honest examinations of history, doing severe damage to the integrity of the past.  Visions of the present and future that we desperately want to believe too often urge us to remember the past quite selectively, and to use it narrowly to the strategic advantage of our own party, cause, and a priori convictions.  When this happens, appeals to historical analogy ironically impoverish public discourse by creating conceptual barriers between genuine historical awareness and moral inquiry about present realities.  So we are left with the difficult challenge of handling the powerful instrument of historical analogy in ways that both promote a genuines understanding of the past and shed needed light on the present, while resisting the urge to turn them into dangerous forms of propaganda.

AHA 2016: Day 3 Wrap-Up

It was a busy day in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

This morning I went to the Conference on Faith and History breakfast.  It was good to see old friends and make some new ones.  The conversations were so good that I stayed too long and missed the podcasting session I wanted to attend.

So I headed to the book exhibit.  While I was at the Oxford University Press booth I came across this.  I took a picture and posted it to the blog.  Tens of thousands of visits later (seriously), it has become the most popular post in the seven-year history of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. And it only took 12 hours!  Does this count as a post “going viral?”

Thanks Brendan Pietsch. I hope my post results in a lot of book sales for Dispensational Modernism.  I was a fan of this project when you work-shopped it in Louisville several years ago and I am an even bigger fan now.

I don’t like the layout of the book exhibit in the Atlanta Hilton.  There is no rhyme or reason to the layout of the booths, making it difficult to know whether you have covered the whole exhibit.  I had the same problem when the OAH was here a couple of years ago.

As I wrote earlier today, it was good to spend some time chatting with two former students–Jeff Erbig and Lucy Barnhouse.

I had big plans for attending Peggy Bendroth’s American Society of Church History presidential address, but my friend and co-editor Jay Green distracted me with some great conversation.  I haven’t seen Jay in a while, so it was good to catch up.

Jay is the Vice-President of the Conference on Faith and History.  He informed me that the CFH board elected me as program chair for the 2018 meeting at Calvin College.  I spent my entire time with Jay trying to get out of it.  (Only half-kidding). The last time I was program chair (Hope College–2004) I shared the responsibilities with Jay and Eric Miller.  It was hard work, but our book Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation came out of the collaboration.

So I guess you could say it was productive day despite the fact that I did not attend a single session.

Go Steelers!


Lilly Fellows Book Award: Call for Entries

I want to call your attention to this book prize for works that reflect on the intersection of academic life and Christian faith. Our book Confessing History: Explorations on the Historian’s Vocation (co-edited with Jay Green and Eric Miller) was a finalist in 2011.
The biennial Lilly Fellows Program Book Award honors an original and imaginative work from any academic discipline that best exemplifies the central ideas and principles animating the Lilly Fellows Program.  These include faith and learning in the Christian intellectual tradition, the vocation of teaching and scholarship, and the history, theory or practice of the university as the site of religious inquiry and culture.
Works considered for this year’s award address the historical or contemporary relation of Christian intellectual life and scholarship to the practice of teaching as a Christian vocation or to the past, present, and future of higher education.  Authors and editors cannot nominate their own works.  Single authored books or edited collections in any discipline published in 2011 to 2014 are eligible.
A Prize of $3000 will be awarded at the Lilly Fellows Program National Conference at Belmont University, October 9-11, 2015.
For more information about the LFP Book Award, including past winners, see our website (http://lillyfellows.org/GrantsPrizes/LFPBookAward.aspx).
The deadline for nominations is March 1, 2015.  

George Marsden Reviews "Confessing History"

I have been meaning to post this review of Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.  I think I speak for Jay Green and Eric Miller when I say that we are grateful to George Marsden, one of the greatest American religious historians of his generation and the winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Merle Curti Award, for this very kind review.  The review appeared in a Volume 44 of Fides et Historia and is not available online.

Confessing History is an exceptional collection that I recommend to anyone concerned with the vocation of a Christian historian.  Although the editors set up the volume as an effort by mostly younger scholars to go beyond the older generation, or “current consensus, as represented, for instance, in the work of George Marsden” (9), I see this “going beyond” as almost entirely helpful elaborations of themes of which I heartily approve.  I find relatively little in the volume with which to disagree (although in some instances authors contradict each other, thus sadly limiting my potential agreeability). In most cases the authors’ suggestions are ones that I wish I had made, or made more clearly, or practiced more adequately.

The main theme that ties many of these essays together grows out of the question of whether in our efforts to overcome marginalization in the mainstream academy we have become too beholden to professionalism.  As co-editor Eric Miller puts it in his introductory essay, “Was being peripheral to the secular academy itself a noble and worthy end? (8).  That seems to me to be a fair enough question. Specifically, does gaining success in the eyes of the mainstream profession require us to compromise the radical claims we are making when we say that experiencing the reality of the triune God should have a profound impact on everything else that we think and do?

Mark Schwehn, who has mentored some of these younger historians in such matters, states the case with his characteristic grace in arguing that Christians can improve on the standards of the profession by adding Christian virtues, such as charity and humility.  Thomas Albert Howard elaborates a similar point, arguing that virtue ethics ought to characterize Christians’ engagement with the profession.  He suggests that the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are still valuable guides for the life of the historian.  Bradley J. Gundlach adds that we can also benefit from the moral insights of the essential secular academy, and cites the work of Jackson Lears, Christopher Lasch, and Robert Bellah (less secular, I think) as examples.

Beth Barton Schweiger argues particularly strongly for a Christian ethical approach to history that is an alternative to the usual expectations of the profession.  Schweiger’s essay is also a model of how Christian reflections on doing history can benefit from being well informed theologically (a characteristic of many of the essay).  Rather than using knowledge as power, Schweiger argues, we should use it with charity.  We should love our historical subjects and treat them with generosity. The professional, however, does not reward charity or virtue, but treats knowledge as power and as the basis of promotion.  The emphasis on charity is a good one, and Schweiger illustrates how it might apply to the classroom.  In writing history, it seems to me, a similar emphasis might be put on loving one’s audience and trying to serve it though what one writes.  I agree with Schweiger entirely when she says we should flee careerism and embrace Christian vocation.  She aptly cites Miroslav Volf to the effect that Christians need to keep a distance from the professional culture, even while they do not leave it.

Most of the contributors make very helpful suggestions as to how we might maintain the priority of our Christian vocations while being in but not of the world of professional historians.  John Fea, for instance, describes how in teaching about Abraham Lincoln we have to first get students to take Lincoln seriously on his own terms (through techniques honed in the profession) and then we move on to our Christian evaluations  Lendol Calder reminds us that our professional assumptions can get in the way of loving our students and of thinking about their needs  Will Katerberg argues that the professional ideal of objectivity or detachment turns history into a commodity and that “historians should consider advocacy and utility to be legitimate scholarly professional concerns.” (113).  At the same time he emphasizes that we must balance such concerns with faithfulness to the sources and honest analysis so that we do not just use the past for our own agendas.  Una M. Cadegan offers a classic Roman Catholic sacramental way of dealing with this two-sidedness. The particularities of history that we study with the usual historical methods point to the glory of God and higher mysteries.  Thus an attitude of worship in doing history counters the disenchantment of the world characteristic of most of the profession.

All these (and others that I do not have the space to mention) are helpful insights that strike me as variations on the ancient Christian theme of commandeering “the spoils of Egypt” for Christian purposes.  Professional history involves a highly valuable and useful craft or set of skills.  A worthy Christian calling is that of the historian who practices that craft.  Doing that almost necessarily involves becoming associated with the contemporary academic profession of history, since a Ph.D. is the license almost necessary to do history for a living.  Like most things, the profession of history has some very good qualities and some not so good.  The tenure system that disproportionately rewards narrow specialization for advancement is particularly problematic  So are many of the ideologies and naturalistic epistemological assumptions that have been prevalent in the profession. Christians can learn many things by studying the standards of the profession, but they have to view them critically and to borrow from them selectively.

The one exception to such critically selective approaches that characterize this volume is the essay by Christopher Shannon.  Rather than making distinctions between what is useful in the historical profession and what is not, Shannon equates the profession with all its worst vices.  That provides him with an either/or choice between a radical Roman Catholicism and working within the profession, which he identifies with adopting worldview naturalism and betraying any announced intention that faith must precede understanding.  This dichotomizing provides him with strong rhetorical weapons, but leaves him with only the bluntest analytical tools.  That leads him to some false conclusions  One I can speak to with authority is that he equates my views with those of Thomas Haskell and then concludes that “both see any kind of providentialism or confessional history as inviting a return to the barbarism of the Crusades and the Inquisition.”  (183).  I am not quite sure how to respond with charity to such a distortion that is so contrary to what I think and have written.  I will say that Shannon’s earlier rhetoric on this topic helped flag some important issues to which this volume provides some fine responses.  Helpfully, the editors follow Shannon’s essay with an excellent and balanced reflection on “preaching through history” by James LaGrand, which in effect both answers Shannon and helps set the record straight.

Among the most important reminders in this volume is that made by Robert Tracy McKenzie to “Don’t Forget the Church” and seconded by Douglas Sweeney concerning our vocation to the priesthood of believers.  A crucial question, especially regarding the writing of history, has to do with the audience and for Christians the church is their most natural audience.  I think McKenzie may underestimate how many professional historians write books, including some popular ones, for church audiences or who teach Sunday school.  But it is important to do these things.  Mark Noll, who is presented in this volume as part of the old guard, has been a model in serving the church. Most of his books, like his recent Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (2011), are written for church audiences and/or for Christian academics and classrooms  Others have been more monographic and have met the standards of the profession sufficiently for him also to be regarded as at the top of his field.  Even these have been more concerned about Christians’ behavior in the modern world than about any secular or professional cause. These books have, however, allowed him to extend his vocation to the mentoring of Ph.D students, a worthy professional enterprise.  If I may speak of my own case, since I am so often referenced in this volume, I have not done as well as Noll in writing books addressed just to Christian audiences.  But I have thought of my primary vocation as a historian serving the church, and most of my books have been addressed to church audiences as much as or more than they were for secular professional colleagues . I can easily understand that in my efforts in other books to explain Christian scholarship to the mainstream academy my views might seem to concessive.  And perhaps they are.  Perhaps in this post-secular age Christian scholars can be increasingly bold.  In any case it is a great and genuine pleasure to see a generation of Christian historians, of whom this book provides just a sampling, who are dedicated to improving this enterprise and to carrying it beyond what others of us have been able to do.

"Confessing History" at Covenant College

It’s Confessing History day here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Jay Green’s senior seminar at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA is reading Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.  The students took advantage of what looks to be a beautiful day in Georgia to get outside and show off their textbooks!  Some of these students seem extremely excited to read and discuss Confessing History.

"Confessing History" Editors Reunite

After my lecture tonight at Geneva College I got to hang out with these guys again.  Eric Miller is still teaching at Geneva and Jay Green came up from Georgia where he teaches at Covenant College. A few years ago we collaborated on a book called Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. Perhaps some of you have heard of it.  If you haven’t you need to get a copy.  It includes essays by Mark Schwehn (Valparaiso), Tracy McKenzie (Wheaton), Beth Barton Schweiger (Arkansas), Lendol Calder (Augustana), Wilfred McClay (University of Oklahoma), Mike Kugler (Northwestern College), Doug Sweeney (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Una Cadegan (University of Dayton), Christopher Shannon (Christendom College), Brad Gundlach (Trinity College), Jim LaGrand (Messiah College), Thomas Albert Howard (Gordon College), and Will Katerberg (Calvin College).

It’s been a while, but we picked up right where we left off.  Is another book in the works?  We will be hanging out until Saturday.  Anything could happen.

US Intellectual Historians Tackle *Confessing History*

University of Texas-Dallas graduate student Mark Thompson has offered the most thorough review of our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation to date.  I think he captures the essence and schizophrenic nature of the volume.  It is a great review and I am thrilled that the good folks at US Intellectual History have chosen to post it.  I now have no doubt that sales of this volume will be brisk. In fact, I am sure that after I split my next royalty check with Jay and Eric I will be able to buy a few stocking stuffers for my kids this Christmas.  Heck, the cover “art” alone should boost sales. 🙂

At one point, Thompson writes:

While one can appreciate the desire by these Christian scholars to grapple with their life’s vocation, one underlying theme seems to echo Wilson’s dilemma while teaching in higher education: if one is a theist, when does one invoke God (or spirits) to explain events?  If  Confessing History is a tocsin for Christian-founded and –affiliated colleges, then it should have a positive impact on introducing faith-based institutions of higher education to a more rigorous analysis of history and causation.  However, when the goal is to attempt to bridge the gap between confessing and secular institutions, one wonders how the City of Supernaturalism and the City of Naturalism can ultimately merge into one city, although, that does not seem to be the objective for some of the authors.  To this reviewer, the complications involved by allowing supernatural evidence to guide (or even supplement) the professional community of inquirers are centered around how to identify which parts of past events were caused by supernatural intervention vs. human intervention. 

It seems that everyone who reads Confessing History seems to think that the book is somehow promoting a return to providential history.  While a few authors in the volume play with this idea, most of the authors would reject the kind of providential history that Thompson describes in the quote above.

Others–such as Dan Allosso in the comments section of review–thinks that Confessing History somehow “privileges” Christianity “in a way that culturally sensitive religious historians would never do.”  Allosso has not read the book so I will give him a pass on this one.  (I am glad that Allosso still “likes” me despite my apparent cultural insensitivity). But I don’t think any of the authors in Confessing History blatantly privilege Christianity as a system of interpretation that offers some special insight into the past.  (Perhaps the essays by Shannon and Miller could be read this way).

As one of the editors, I will also admit that Confessing History lacks any kind of central argument about the relationship of Christian faith and history.  Even the editors have serious disagreements. (I put all my cards on the table in my forthcoming [September] Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past). The only thing that holds the volume together is the fact that all of the authors are people of serious Christian faith who have thought deeply about how that faith bears (or in some cases does not bear) on their work as historians.  We also tried to offer an approach to this topic that deals more with “vocation” than with the epistemological questions often associated with the “world view” thinking of the Reformed tradition.

I also think that it is important to situate this book in the larger context of historians–Charles Bancroft, Herbert Butterfield, R.G. Collingwood, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Ron Wells, Arthur Link, Scott Latourette, C.T. McIntire, Nick Salvatore, the Calvin School, etc…–who have explored the relationship between Christian faith and historical practice. 

I am looking forward to following what has already proven to be fruitful conversation at U.S. Intellectual History.

Jay Green on *Confessing History*

My co-editor Jay Green has jumped into the conversation about our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation that was prompted by Mark Edwards’s post at Religion in American History, “Is There a Christian Approach to History?”  (You may recall that I responded to this post here.)

Here is Jay’s comment:

Thanks, Mark, for taking time to comment on our book. I am especially gratified that you draw connections between the 2002 Huntington meeting at CFH. All three of us co-editors see that gathering as a significant catalyst for whatever good has sprung from the Confessing History volume.

I am somewhat amused that anyone would see anything especially coherent about the CFH (as if there was a “CFH Project”), much less something especially dangerous or politically interested. In fact, it was a collective despair about the lack of anything like a vision for the CFH that allowed that 2002 Huntington meeting to fall into our laps.

For some backstory about how that came about, you may want to read Daryl Hart’s brief history of the CFH in the Ron Wells’s edited volume, History and the Christian Historian (1998). Along with Bill Trollinger’s 2000 presidential address. What Hart and Trollinger concluded, and we had long suspected, is that the CFH lost its way as an organization for believing historians of any kind to gather to think carefully about the meaning of faith for doing history. And CFH became a kind of bush league for historians of religion who happened to be Christians.

We put the 2002 (and 2004) meetings together with the specific intent of generating a conversation that would appeal to a believing historian studying any topic in any period. And we were pleased that there were so many who were likewise interested in this kind of discourse.

I’m not sure that these meetings had any substantial impact on the organization long term. Subsequent meetings seemed to drift back to predominantly religious history themes. But the Confessing History volume is a testament to the sort of conversation we’d been interested in having. And we hope we can continue to cultivate it both in and outside the CFH.

I am also a little mystified that anyone would see Confessing History as having some kind of clear “agenda.” The only real unanimity you’ll find in the book is that the questions are live and the conversation is worth having. One only need read Christopher Shannon and then turn to James LaGrand to see that we aren’t exactly speaking with one voice.

Thanks again, Mark, for taking time to bring some attention to the book.


It looks like our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation is making some waves.  There is now a Twitter hashtag called #confessinghistorians. If you want to see some graduate students (and a few others who seem to be endorsing the hashtag) attack our book, you may want to check it out. 

Here is a taste of what is happening over there:

  • A Confessing History author is called a “troll” and his essay in the volume is described as “the real ‘n’ word.”
  • Another tweeter claims that debates over our book currently occurring at Religion in American History and U.S. Intellectual History (see the comments section) are “amusing to watch.”
  • The first tweeter warns that “Confessing Historians” are going to “hound religious studies out of academe 4 ‘relativism.'”  (I am not sure how anyone could get such an idea from reading Confessing History).
  • I should also add that this same graduate student is going to “historicize the sh*t” out of us “and call it a day.”

It sounds like a few people (we will see if the number grows) do not like what we have done in Confessing History.  What is the source of such anger?  I think the practice of cursing at another author or haughtily mocking a group of scholars as “amusing” subjects of investigation is uncivil, unprofessional, and will not get one very far in the academic world.

Is the Conference on Faith and History the "Intellectual Arm of the Religious Right?"

I (and I think I speak for my co-editors, Jay Green and Eric Miller) am flattered by the attention our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation is receiving over at Religion in American History blog.  Here is a small taste of Mark Edwards’s review of the book:

The book is a collaborative effort by several members and fellow travelers of the Conference on Faith and History, including its editors Jay Green, John Fea, and Christopher Lasch biographer Eric Miller.  Since 1967, the CFH has concerned itself with primarily one question: What difference does being a Christian make to the study and practice of history?  I’ve heard the CFH referred to in private conversation as “the intellectual arm of the religious right.”  Certainly, George Marsden’s Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford, 1998), despite its huge popularity among the CFH and conservative Christian colleges, has been greeted with suspicion by those fearful that “integration of faith and learning” is theocratic code for “faith over learning.”  But I’m not here to judge.  Instead, I want to commend  and recommend Confessing History essays for the questions they raise about ideology and history in general, as well as for their attempts to articulate a post-Marsden vision of Christian historiography.  The best academic conference I ever attended remains the 2002 CFH meeting at Huntington University.  For a young grad student, I (and fellow graduate and undergraduate students) marveled at the passionate seriousness and open confrontations of presenters trying to determine the ifs, hows, and whys of Christian scholarship.  Confessing History might not be able to take readers back to that moment, but 2002 is nevertheless written all over it.  In fact, one of the must-read essays is a revised version of Christopher Shannon’s opening address of the 2002 meeting, “After Monographs,” a merciless assault on Marsden’s “Idea” (with Marsden in the room, mind you), on the state of Christian historiography, and on the post-Enlightenment historiographical/monographic tradition as a whole.

The post has prompted over 30 comments.  These comments raise a host of questions related to both Confessing History and the entire project of the Conference on Faith and History(I should probably add here that when we edited Confessing History we had no official endorsement or support from the Conference on Faith and History (CFH).  In other words, this is not a Conference on Faith and History publication, though it is true that many of the authors are either members of the Conference or have spoken at CFH gatherings. The editors of Confessing History worked together as co-program chairs for the 2004 CFH conference at Hope College and Jay Green was the program chair of the 2002 CFH conference in Huntington, IN, the one that Edwards mentions in his post).

To begin, I need to echo the concerns of some commentators who were a bit disturbed by the description of the Conference on Faith and History as “the intellectual arm of the religious right.” (To be clear, Edwards himself was not saying this, but he was passing along what he had heard about the CFH in private conversations). Whoever thinks that the CFH is connected in any way, shape, or form with the Religious Right–either officially or ideologically–does not know the CFH very well.  In fact, I would argue that one of the primary missions of the CFH is to counter the Religious Right’s view of history, especially when it comes to Christian nationalist interpretations of the American past or providentialist views of history.

Edwards clarifies his remark about the Religious Right in the comments section:

The “religious right” comment to me (no, I wasn’t backdooring my own opinion) wasn’t regarding Fides, but the CFH project in general, at least in 2002 when the comment was made. To me, it concerned the larger issue of “integration of faith and learning” which seemed to underlay CFH at least at that time. For many historians, integrationist language is ALWAYS theocratic code and thus, to them, relative to the Religious Right.

I think Edwards is correct when he writes that the CFH has a long history of “integrationist” thinking that has come largely from the Reformed tradition. But the organization has also become much more open in recent years.  For example, in the last decade, two CFH presidents did not come from the so-called “faith and integration” school of history.  Shirley Mullin is a Wesleyan and Doug Sweeney is a Lutheran, a Christian tradition that has offered a compelling critique of Kuyperian style integration.

Having said that, I don’t think that historians who embrace an “integration of faith and learning” model should be viewed as automatically connected to the Religious Right, a largely political force in American life.  In fact, a good number of “integration of faith and learning” historians are Democrats.

Many of the founders of the Conference on Faith and History were Democrats who were disgusted with the way the leaders of the Religious Right–Jerry Falwell, David Marshal and Peter Manuel, Tim LaHaye, and Francis Schaeffer–were hijacking American history to serve political ends.

Finally, anyone who reads Confessing History knows that a deliberate attempt was made to offer diverse perspectives on how to connect faith to the historical task.  Most of these perspectives move us beyond the “integration of faith and learning” model and toward a new paradigm focused less on epistemology and more on “vocation.”  Even Calvin College’s Wil Katerberg’s essay takes us in this direction. 

I want to pick up on Janine Giordano Drake’s thoughts about “conservative” history in another post, because I think that they are important.  I also want to address theitinerantmind’s comment (supported by Edwards) that to embrace the CFH project means that one has to forfeit “‘academic credibility.”  Stay tuned.

The Historical Vocation. The Historical Profession

Great post here from Chris Gehrz at Pietist Schoolman.  He writes about his faculty promotion paper on the vocation of the Christian historian and draws on some pretty good stuff, including my colleague Richard Hughes’s The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, Tertullian’s “Athens and Jerusalem” tension, Frederick Buechner’s writings on vocation, William Cronon‘s Perspectives essays published during his tenure as president of the AHA, and Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.

Here is a taste:

…it’s good to be a member of a profession that sets expectations for one’s training and work. The American Historical Association isn’t exactly a magisterium, but the collective (if sometimes cacophonous) voice of my fellow AHA members is one I ought not ignore.

But at the same time, participation in such professional communities can, I wrote, “tune our ears to hear voices other than those of our own gladness or the world’s deepest need.” In particular, the professionalization of the historical discipline has led us to the point where (in the words of recent AHA president Richard Cronon, quoted as much as anyone in my essay) “historians too often regard teaching as a distraction, as when we complain ‘I just can’t find enough time for my work’—implying that teaching isn’t part of that work and in fact competes with the ‘real’ work of research” (“And Gladly Teach,” [AHA] Perspectives, December 2012). As I argued at a couple of points in my essay, this shift towards the primacy of research (and that defined very narrowly — more to come) is an observable change over time. For example, Mark Schwehn (in his own unpacking of the “‘real’ work of research” complaint in ch. 1 of Exiles from Eden) points to a debate within late 19th and early 20th century German academe, between those who defended the older ideal of Bildung (which emphasized education as the formation of character) and Max Weber’s Wissenschaft (which emphasized the scholarly activity of producing knowledge — and cared less for how it was transmitted).

I wish I knew Chris and his work when I was co-editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s VocationI would have definitely asked him to write an essay for the volume.

The Lilly Fellows Book Award

The biennial Lilly Fellows Program Book Award honors an original and imaginative work from any academic discipline that best exemplifies the central ideas and principles animating the Lilly Fellows Program.  These include faith and learning in the Christian intellectual tradition, the vocation of teaching and scholarship, and the history, theory or practice of the university as the site of religious inquiry and culture. 

Works considered for this year’s award addressed the historical or contemporary relation of Christian intellectual life and scholarship to the practice of teaching as a Christian vocation or to the past, present, and future of higher education.  Authors and editors cannot nominate their own works.

Single authored books or edited collections in any discipline published in 2009 to 2012 are eligible.

Single authored books or edited collections in any discipline, published in 2009 to 2012, are


A Prize of $3000 was awarded at the Lilly Fellows Program National Conference at the University of Scranton, October 17-20, 2013.    

The committee will receive nominations of academic faculty, clergy, and others. Authors or

editors cannot nominate their own works.

The deadline for nominations is March 1, 2013.

To download a copy of the 2013 LFP Book Award announcement, click here.  To see past winners, click here.

For further information, please contact the Lilly Fellows Program. For more information on the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, click here.