An Early Report from the 2014 Conference on Faith and History Meeting

Life is good here in Malibu.  I am enjoying the sun and the ocean breeze.  The undergraduate conference is now over and I am awaiting the start of the main meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  Civil War historian Allen Guelzo will be speaking tonight.  In case you want to follow more closely, I (and many others) are tweeting at #cfh2014

Today I sat on a panel on whether or not we should be watching the History Channel, met for coffee with some folks, and saw my former advisee, Brooke Strayer, present her paper on the peace movement (or lack thereof) in the Brethren in Christ Church.  Here are some pics from the day:

Hanging out with Jay Green of Covenant College, Pepperdine 2014 program chair and incoming Vice President of the Conference on Faith and History
Brooke Strayer “waxes” eloquent from the Pepperdine Surfboard Museum
The Agoura Hills Sheraton must have an evangelical connection

My location as I write this post.  Life is good

"The Christian Century" Reviews "Why Study History?"

John Turner has written a generous review of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past at the website of The Christian Century magazine.  He reviews my book alongside Margaret Bendroth’s excellent, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering.  Here is a taste:

So what are Christians to do with the good advice from these two muses? They should follow Fea’s advice to examine aspects of the past that initially repel them. Fea tells of a student with progressive views who chose to write a thesis about Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Christian right. He also recounts the reactions of students who read the diaries and sermons of slaveholding American Christians. It is easier to devote ourselves to historical subjects that we like or imagine to be more like us. Fea reports that his students have cultivated their capacities for empathy and compassion and became “better Christians.” Such encounters, Fea maintains, remind us that we are “imperfect creatures in need of improvement and redemption.”

Bendroth’s book is perfect in size and scope for adult education classes. Participants might reflect on their religious heritage and how it has shaped their place in today’s church. As she notes,

remembering involves more than organizing anniversary celebrations, publishing yearbooks, or hanging pictures of the church choirs on the walls. Churches need congregants who will tell stories about the life of the church, music directors who will provide the context for the composition of beloved hymns, and ministers who will incorporate the congregation’s messy and complex history into sermons.

Tracy McKenzie on Faith and History

For those of you who have read Confessing History you may remember Tracy McKenzie’s essay “Don’t Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimensions of Our Dual Calling”. Tracy, the chair of the history department at Wheaton (IL) College, developed this theme more fully in his presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History and many of these same ideas inform his recent book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.

Over at McKenzie’s blog, “Faith and American History”, he is in the midst of what appears to be a multiple part series on thinking Christianly about the past. You can read his first two installments here and here, but in the meantime here is a taste:


But what if we expect more from the past than entertainment?  What if we want it to “do work,” to change something, to somehow make a difference?  This is the second broad category of motives for studying history, and if you’ll allow me, I want to subdivide it further into two subcategories.  When we study the past in search of historical knowledge that changes something, we can either have in mind change outside ourselves–in the world around us–or change insideourselves, in our very hearts.  These are not mutually exclusive–we could aspire to both–but my sense is that we almost never think of the latter.
So what would it look like to seek historical knowledge that might change the world around us? There are a range of possibilities.  In the worst case, such an approach might be self-interested and even manipulative.  I have previously written about the temptation we face to approach history merely as a source of ammunition, an arsenal of arguments that we can wield to persuade others to support our predetermined agendas.  At the opposite extreme, as “clisawork” pointed out, we might study the past with the most disinterested of motives, searching for clues about how to promote a more just world, bringing historical knowledge to bear  on behalf of the weak and marginalized.  Studying the past to understand the roots of racism or how best to combat discrimination might be one such example.

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.

American History, Christian Faith, and the Men of First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, Illinois

Techny Towers

This weekend, as some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I was in Evanston, IL where I was the speaker at the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston‘s men’s retreat.  The event was held Friday night and Saturday at Techny Towers Conference & Retreat Center in nearby Techny, IL.

I gave four talks over the course of about 24 hours.  My goal was to get the men to examine the distance (or lack of distance), between American values and the Kingdom of God.  We discussed a variety of events, ideas, and movements that define the American past (immigration, slavery, abolitionism, democracy, individualism, ambition, consumerism, Protestantism) in light of biblical passages such as The Sermon on the Mount, the account of the early Christian Church in Acts 2, and St. Paul’s description of the kenosis in Philippians 2.  My last talk focused on Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

One of the things I enjoyed about the retreat was the small group discussion following each talk.  My group included a Northwestern University (and former Julliard) voice coach, a retired education professor at Northeastern Illinois University, a political scientist who teaches American government to Chinese students, a landscape designer and graphic artist, and a few businessmen.  Thanks to Steve, Ed, Larry, Jim, Gordon, and Wally for some great conversations. It is always good to talk about matters of faith and American history with such thoughtful people.

I learned a lot from the men at my table and the others I got a chance to meet during breaks and meals.  For example, my discussion with Andy about Augustine brought me back to things I had learned about the early Christian church but had not thought about in a long time.  Garth forced me to think harder about Acts 2 and the success or failure of the Plymouth colony. (He also had a brand new copy of the Virginia journal of Philip Vickers Fithian).  I had a great conversation with LeRoy about providence and George Washington.

I also want to thank Jim Wildencraft and Dwayne Dobscheutz for inviting me to speak.  They were gracious hosts.  I know that they took a chance inviting an American historian to speak at a church retreat.  It was also great to catch up with Barb Dobscheutz, an old church history classmate and a fine scholar of American religion.  I later learned that Barb was influential in bringing me to First Presbyterian Evanston.  Thanks.

Here are some pics:

This Weekend with the Men of First Presbyterian Church Evanston

First Presbyterian Evanston

This weekend I will be speaking at the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston (IL) men’s retreat. (We will be meeting at a retreat center in nearby Northbrook).  I am really looking forward to this opportunity to connect American history and Christian faith in a way that I hope will be meaningful to the men who will be in attendance.

I will be giving four talks in twenty-four hours.  Here are the titles:

“American History and the Kingdom of God”

“Benjamin Franklin’s Ambitions and Our Ambitions”

“The First Christian Community and the Making of the American Individual”

“‘With Malice Toward None, With Charity for All’: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.”

Nice Plug for "Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past"

Needless to say, I am ecstatic that Chris Gehrz of Bethel University has already penciled in my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past as a textbook for his Spring 2014 capstone senior seminar.  The book will be out in September, but you can pre-order a copy here.  I also hope to reveal the cover design sometime this week.  Stay tuned.

Here is a taste of Chris’s gracious post:

Our textbook orders for next fall are due this Friday, and I’m absolutely not prepared. But I can take some solace in the fact that I already know exactly what text I’ll be using in Spring 2014 for our department’s capstone Senior Seminar: Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, by friend-of-this-blog John Fea.

In 2012′s Senior Seminar I had students take turns presenting chapters from Confessing History, a collection of essays on Christianity and history that John co-edited, but after having taken a year off from sending him royalties, I’m even more excited about teaching through Why Study History? in 2014, since John says that book is aimed squarely at “Christian college students who are studying history” rather than the graduate students and older scholars for whom Confessing History was pitched. Here’s more of his description of the project:

I have deliberately made an effort to blend the theoretical and the practical in jargon-free, easily accessible prose.  So much of the scholarly work in historiography tends to be dense and impregnable to the undergraduate mind. While I have not avoided complex ideas at the intersection of history and theory, I have largely downplayed them in favor of an approach that students will find useful.  For example, I have devoted considerable attention to the way history can contribute to a healthy democratic society, how history can deepen our spiritual lives, and even how the study of history prepares one for a variety of careers and vocations in an ever-growing and expanding marketplace.

John reports that the book is due in September, but it’s available from Amazon for pre-order already (at a 30% discount).

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.

Jubilee Recap

Every Winter thousands of college students converge upon the Pittsburgh Convention Center for an event called Jubilee. (This year it shared the Convention Center with the Pittsburgh Auto Show). Jubilee is run by CCO (formerly the Coalition for Christian Outreach), an organization committed to helping undergraduates grow in their faith and think Christianly about their world.

This was my second visit to Jubilee.  The organizers asked me to offer a seminar on how Christians should approach the study of history.  I think they know that I will go anywhere to discuss the ideas found in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation and my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

On Friday night I attended the opening plenary session.  Someone from CCO convinced “Kid President” to send a video greeting to the conference-goers.  It was great.  Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds Books was honored for his faithful service to the CCO and Jubilee.  And Anthony Bradley of The Kings College gave a phenomenal talk on what it means to be created in the image of God.

After the session I wandered through Byron’s book exhibit.  I chatted a bit with my old friend Bob Robinson about his new non-profit organization, (Re)Integrate (check it out).  I also bought a couple of books–Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books and Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

Much to my surprise, my history session on Saturday was packed with history majors, history buffs, and students who were just trying to make sense of how to get more out of their required history classes.  I discussed some of the theological resources available to history students of faith and how the study of the past can teach us virtues necessary for sustaining a more vibrant democratic society.

After my session, I went to see my friend, former groomsman, and Wheaton College theology professor Vince Bacote conduct a seminar on Christianity and politics.  Vince warned against letting a disgust over the culture wars deter participation in political life, especially at the local level.  It was a great session.

Due to responsibilities at home, I did not get a chance to attend the Saturday evening and Sunday morning sessions, but I am sure they were good.  The CCO puts on a real show each year in Pittsburgh.  Jubilee is a wonderful venue for college students to connect their faith to everyday life.  I hope I get to return one day.

Jubilee Bound

I will be doing a seminar on Christianity and historical thinking on Saturday at Jubilee, the annual youth event sponsored by the CCO.  If you are in Pittsburgh this weekend I invite you to come to the seminar on Saturday at 2:30pm in the Somerset West room at the Westin.  I will be sharing some thoughts from my forthcoming book, Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, Sept. 2013). 

If you can’t make it to the session, I hope to see you at Byron Borger’s book exhibit, where I know I will be spending a lot of time! (Check out Byron’s “Best Books of 2012” here and here and here).

Tracy McKenzie on Ross Douthat

Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the History Department at Wheaton College.  Check out his review of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics at his blog, “Faith and History.” 

What I especially appreciate about McKenzie’s review is his historical approach.  Here is a taste:

Bad Religion is essentially a lengthy interpretive essay about the changing contours of American religious belief since the middle of the last century.  Equally interesting to me, the book concludes with a chapter that touches on how Americans have remembered their past.  This latter may sound esoteric, but it is extremely relevant to any believer interested in what it means to think Christianly about history.  As I always stress when speaking to Christian audiences, “Christian history” is not just ransacking the past for evidence of Christian influence or for stories about Christian heroes.  More broadly, and far more importantly, any “Christian history” worthy of the name should involve the conscious application of Christian precepts to our study of the past in all its breadth and complexity….

…For my part, one of the most important Christian principles to keep in mind when studying the past involves what the Bible has to say about us.  My understanding of Christian theology tells me that ever since the Fall, human beings come into the world with two overriding desires: the desire for self-rule and the desire for self-gratification.  These twin drives are related, of course.  We want to rule ourselves in part because we are determined to please ourselves.  What this means when it comes to the study of history is that we will always struggle with the temptation to interpret the past in self-justifying ways.  Orthodox Christianity has also long pointed to our propensity to idolatry.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observed centuries ago that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”  In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone.  This need not be conscious.  It is so easy to intertwine our Christian faith with some other seemingly compatible allegiance—to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example—until the former becomes merely a means to promote the latter.  (In his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis called this heresy “Christianity And . . .”)  When it comes to thinking about the past, however, I think that this temptation to idolatry is most often manifested when we grapple with the relationship between our identity as Christians and our heritage as Americans. 

Here is where Douthat’s concluding chapter—titled “The City on the Hill”—is most relevant.  Douthat’s focus is on “the heresy that increasingly disfigures our politics, on the left and right alike: the heresy of American nationalism.”  Douthat’s choice of words is intentionally provocative, but he is not attacking a Christian patriotism that expresses gratitude for God’s blessings to our nation, an appreciation for figures from our past, or a conditional loyalty to our government.  He has in mind instead a constellation of values that, whether explicitly or implicitly, equates our nation with the new Israel, conceives of Americans as God’s “chosen people, or assigns to the United States a missionary role to the world that the Lord has reserved for his Church.”  You may or may not agree with his theological assessment, but as a historian I would assert that this form of nationalism has regularly distorted our understanding of the past.