Book Review: Confessing History

Book Review: Confessing History July 28, 2014

John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, eds. Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. (South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 2010).

A few years ago I witnessed an attempted revival at a university in suburban Virginia. A tall, lean young man with a short haircut and three days’ stubble stalked back and forth next to a table in front of the library. He called us to Christ and asked us if we feared sin, and the two teenagers tending the piles of tracts stacked on the table watched, mesmerized. The students were not so entranced. A small knot of them gathered a safe few steps away and lobbed village-atheist conundrums about the implausibility of Biblical miracles. The young preacher doggedly countered with appeals to faith. Before too long the students tired of the game and wandered off, but not before a boy wearing a backpack threw “Religion makes you stupid!” over his shoulder and hustled away. The crowd dispersed but I was curious, so I drifted closer to the evangelist. He asked me if I believed in Christ and we ended up talking about John Calvin and Augustine.

As I walked back to my car I thought about whether religion does in fact make you stupid. Would the boy with the backpack been convinced otherwise had he heard our conversation about several of the major figures of Western thought he, if he was anything like my students, undoubtedly struggled with in class? Possibly not, actually, because every other experience the students have at that (or any) university will train them to think in a certain way. The academy deals in a narrow range of human experience, that which is replicable or footnoteable. The evangelist on the quad and his backpacked interlocutor inhabited quite literally different worlds, with differing presumptions about what is possible and even rational.

For a generation, many Christians in academia and public life have sought to find ways to work around and within these rules in order to participate in the business of public life. Eric Miller, in his introduction to Confessing History, draws on the Catholic scholar Christopher Shannon’s essay to dub the most popular strategy “the Marsden settlement,” after historian George Marsden, who asserted in his landmark Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980) his belief that history is the venue for God’s work of human redemption – but also acknowledged that such faith could not be demonstrated within the parameters laid down by the academy. Scholars might believe in a divine presence in history, and this might shape their sensibilities and insights, but insofar as these things find their way into a Christian scholar’s work, they must be translated into the empirical language that dominates the university.

For most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first the Marsden settlement has governed the way American think about the proper role of religion. It should be kept private, it should not intervene in public debate, it should submit to the rule of reason. Politicians who violate the settlement, like Michele Bachmann, distress many Americans on a primal and instinctive level. Likewise, when George W. Bush confessed that he prayed about issues like the war in Iraq, it was treated as a controversial and unusual news story.  Here is the genealogy of the worldview of the boy with the backpack.

The authors of the essays in Confessing History, edited by three Protestant scholars, range in affiliation from evangelical to Orthodox to Roman Catholic. They are nearly uniform in appreciation for the Marsden settlement but also wish to expand the dialogue between religious belief and intellectual life in America. In the opening paragraphs of his introduction, Miller worries about the spiritual resources of a nation dominated by technocratic capitalism, and argues that it is the Christian academic’s duty to help expand the imaginative possibilities and moral depth of American life. That so frequently today the term “Christian” seems nothing but shorthand for a particular set of social policies is an indictment of the paucity of American cultural imagination as it is of any particular political faction; thus while the essays in this volume ask in particular how Christian historians may think of their profession in new ways, but more broadly how Christianity may contribute more vitally to American life.

The possibilities these authors offer are varied. They tend to orbit around two themes. First, over and over again, they invoke W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of “double-mindedness” or Augustine’s symbolic dual cities of God and man or simply observe outright, as Beth Barton Schweiger does, that “the similarity between the work of the historian and the vocation of the Christian: it is to live in two worlds, and to be at home in neither.” (64) The question is how to deal with the gap, and for many of these scholars, the answer is the collection’s second theme: Christianity’s ability to revitalize and focus human relationships.

For some of these authors, like Schweiger or Mark Schwein, a renewed focus on relationships makes the gap manageable and even productive. Schweiger argues that when applied to her profession the principle of relationship encourages her to conceive of knowledge as an opportunity for charity, rather than as a means to exercise power, whether in her writing or her classrooms. Schwein and Una Cadegan concur, maintaining that the humility the Christian faith teaches has made them more capable of the acts of sympathetic imagination required to grasp the foreign country of the past. John Fea’s essay recounts a skillful teacher’s management of his students’ growing unease as they found their flimsy heroic narratives of the Civil War falter when confronted with the war’s messy moral realities in the classroom. For Fea, his class’s ethical discussions exemplify the new dimensions that Christian inquiry can bring to technical work of historical discussion.

Others find the tension unmanageable and argue that Christian academics should attempt to transform the system rather than participate within it. Many like Christopher Shannon, Douglas Sweeney, and Lendol Calder blast academia’s obsession with publishing little-read book after little-read book. Such CV-building can be warped into the worst form of self-love. Instead they argue their religion demands that Christian academics find ways to use their profession to protect relationships rather than destroying them. Calder and Sweeney argue that Christian academics should spurn self-interested resume building and instead focus on the classroom, graduate students, and junior scholars who depend on the kindness of their elders. Shannon, for his part, condemns the academic publishing game for perpetuating the rule of technocracy that has sucked the moral imagination of Christianity out of American public life, and instead urges Christian academics to use the classroom and public forums to expose its limitations for what they are.

Some of the most provocative essays in the collection explore ways in which Christian scholars might step more boldly into the public square and call for cultural revitalization in religious language. The best of them offer practical ways that Christian means of understanding the world might transform American public life for the better. William Katerburg urges historians to write “useful history,” like the work of Howard Zinn in aim if not argument, history which prioritizes the needs of society for “meaning and purpose” and offers prospects for moral reformation. (116) Bradley Gundlach urges Christians to embrace vocal partnership with other cultural critics to combat the community killing vapidity of American consumerism. Meanwhile, Thomas Albert Howard, Jay Green and James LeGrand warn of errors Christians (and others) have too often made in public discourse – what Howard calls “epistemological overconfidence,” LeGrand “preaching from history.” and Green “reasoning from historical analogy.” All of these blunders reduce the complexity of the past into simple moral lessons too easily identified with present conundrums, and not only violate the sanctity of one’s relationship with the past, but betray the common good in the present.

The collection offers an uneasy portrait of Christians in America; aware of their difference but confident in their capacities to participate in both worlds. In his conclusion Wilfred McClay notes that Christians have too often followed secular Americans sure that science and technology will lead to never ending progress, and cautions Christians to remember that their most valuable intellectual possession may be its counternarrative to the one American culture has embraced. With every other author in the collection McClay believes Christianity offers valuable ideas too frequently overlooked in public conversations: that human achievements must be conditioned with humility, that humans are often tempted into selfishness and must be reminded to value relationships over material gain, that sin against others often pervades even the most heroic of human narratives. These are not stories that Americans, conditioned into a noisy patriotism or stubborn conviction about scientific infallibility may be happy to hear, but they are worth hearing.

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