The problems of preaching through history

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Those who have taught hi story for a while have experienced both the good and the bad regarding how the public views their discipline. Positively, many people state that they enjoy at least certain topics or fields in history, which is regularly borne out by lists of best-selling books. And even those who don't view themselves as historians often have a hobby-whether music, art, science, cars, or sports- that itself has a history. Some fields of study are only truly appreciated and enjoyed by professionals, but not history. There's no human thought, word, or deed it does not touch. Yet there's another side of the public's relationship to the discipline of history, as well. At times, people become cool to history because it seems too academic and abstract. What they want, they sometimes say, is a history that's relevant, that teaches us lessons, that has an agenda, a history that in a sense preaches. Historians have long wrestled with this issue as they've considered both the benefits and the costs to being more deliberately and selfconsciously relevant. Recent years have seen greater numbers of both Christian historians and other Christian scholars whose work touches on history advocating scholarship that in various ways has a dominant moral agenda. Consider, for example, Charles Marsh. Marsh's experience growing up in the South within the white segregated church has led to him to reflect on race relations, social ethics, and the civil rights movement in a number of works that combine autobiography, history, and lived theology. In God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, he examines a group of people active during Mississippi's Freedom Summer of 1964. All were shaped by their Christian faith, but in wildly divergent ways, he argues. Responding to their Christian faith, some were led to fight racial oppression, others to join the Klan that was terrorizing African Americans, and still others to sit on the sidelines during this pivotal time. Marsh notes that those in the last group knew their Bible and sometimes said the right things, but they didn't act out their Christian faith. They failed to commit themselves to the goal of reconciliation between the races and so were hypocrites. This group, like the more virulent racists, came to frustrate Marsh as he did his research. His hope, he says, is that his book will help readers "make sense of Christianity's complicity in racism and violence" and eventually help bring about true reconciliation, a "time when whites and black together will reckon with their common humanity."1 Marsh's subsequent book, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, also uses accounts of the movement to critique those he accuses of having trivialized Christianity both then and now. Believing that white Christians have grown complacent, he tells them they shouldn't feel too proud about the successes of the civil rights movement in ending legalized segregation. Beyond this, there's a greater, profound goal rooted in the movement that still remains unrealized. "The nation has experienced precious little of repentance, reconciliation, and costly discipleship," he writes. Marsh's message, which combines history and calls for transformation, has inspired many readers and listeners both in the general public and in the Christian community. Marsh is a popular speaker at Christian college campuses, seminaries, and divinity schools, and Christianity Today recently included his The Beloved Community as one of its top five books on the civil rights era.2 Richard Hughes also would like to have his scholarship help us learn lessons, in this case, within the nation. His book Myths America Lives By argues that the American people have been misled by five powerful myths about their identity and history. The problem with these myths, Hughes suggests, is twofold. He argues that they have led to both moral blindness as well as a misunderstanding of America's past. He particularly hopes that readers would hear the voices of the oppressed in American history and, in response, bring about a "revolution of American values." Like Marsh's work, Hughes's book is in part a call to repentance for sins of the past, including Americans' assumptions about the goodness and fairness of their country's political economy. Picking up on this theme, one reviewer called Myths America Lives By "a wake-up call" that can "help Christians rethink their role and mission in American life."3 Marsh and Hughes work in the field of religious studies, in which history is combined with other disciplinary emphases, although their books are often listed under history. Moreover, some Christians whose central vocation is as historians-teachers, scholars, and writers-have also been asking recently whether history needs an agenda to make it a faithful and authentic vocation.4 And to the degree that traditional norms of history might interfere with this goal, they've advocated a distancing from the profession. Michael Kugler, influenced by theologians John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, has advocated a Christian history whose agenda would be to preach against idols prevalent today, what St. Paul in Ephesians refers to as the powers of this dark world. Christopher Shannon has suggested that Christian historians should refuse to adopt some of the standards of the mainstream academy, which he sees as capricious and restrictive, and rather try to make use of traditions and discourses distinct to Christianity. William Katerberg also calls Christian historians to reject disciplinary norms and habits, to be more forthrightly interdisciplinary, and to be resolutely activist in their work focused on critiquing the status quo.5. Copyright © 2010 by University of Notre Dame. All Rights Reserved.


Originally published as: Fea, J., Green, J., & Miller, E. (Eds.). (2010). Confessing history: Explorations in christian faith and the historian’s vocation. University of Notre Dame Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvpj7cx2

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