Thoughts from CFH 2012: Saturday

CFH 2012 Biennial ConferenceBefore I get on a plane back to the Twin Cities, let me share some thoughts on the Saturday sessions from the 2012 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, plus some more general observations:

The early session featured three papers on “Christology in History: Three Perspectives from the Trenches.” All took off from the Christological emphases in Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, but also served to answer an important critique of that book by Nicholas Wolterstorff (one echoed — though not necessarily accepted — by the last presenter on the panel):

…what [Noll’s Christology] yields for history and natural science is mainly guidelines for thinking about the subject matter of the discipline rather than guidelines for engaging in the discipline. Of course, how we as Christian scholars think about the subject matter of our discipine [sic] is important; but I would say, and I am sure Noll agrees, that how we actually deal with that subject matter is at least as important.

All three papers offered reflections on how Christological themes like doubleness, contingency, particularity, and self-denial shape different kinds of historical practice. First, Mary Sanders (Oklahoma State) reflected on the challenges that confront graduate students — evoking many memories of my own feelings of insecurity and uncertainty during that period in my life. If only I’d known about CFH back then! Second, Susan Fletcher (Navigators) gave us some insight into the life of a public historian for a Christian organization whose leaders encourage a kind of providentialist approach to history that even Christian professionals in that field tend to view with wariness. Through her wide-ranging, thoroughly enjoyable talk, Fletcher exemplified the importance of communication stressed by Tracy McKenzie on Friday night — and underscored that CFH would do well to recruit more public historians. Finally, another Sooner State Sanders, Glenn (Oklahoma Baptist) focused on teaching, an area in which he’s long provided leadership within the CFH. Listening to him weave together reflections on narrative, emotion, virtue, and more reminded me that his chapter on teaching a Western Civ course sits on my desk, unread, along with the rest of Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, eds. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith.

Glenn was kind enough to join the nice-sized crowd at our session on “Pietism and Christian Colleges in the 20th and 21st Centuries.” Unfortunately, our friend Kurt Peterson (Loyola-Chicago) was unable to attend CFH, so our chair Tim Erdel (Bethel College) closed the session by reading Kurt’s paper on a seminal moment in the history of my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, when a fundamentalist ECC pastor, William Doughty, accused professors at North Park Seminary of abetting neo-orthodoxy (or worse, liberalism). In its response, the Covenant leadership and ministerium reemphasized the denomination’s distinctive blend of evangelical concern and theological liberty — all rooted, Kurt argued (persuasively, I tend to think as a scholar and Covenanter), in Pietism. The session started with Jared Burkholder (Grace College), who jumped off from Grace’s own history to suggest how Pietist concern for virtuous living might leaven the Reformed model of faith-learning integration more commonly found at evangelical schools. My own paper I previewed earlier this week and need not be rehashed here. Thanks to those who attended for being attentive listeners and, even better, eager questioners. (Special thanks to the gentleman who suggested that Jared and I were initiating a movement that he termed “muscular Pietism”! As Jared noted, “movement” might be a bit grand.)

Gordon Memorial Chapel
Gordon Memorial Chapel at Gordon College – Creative Commons (John Phelan)

Then the conference closed in Gordon Memorial Chapel (which reminded me of a newer, bigger, somewhat less austere version of the 18th century churches on New Haven Green that I visited once or twice in grad school). Mark Noll (already mentioned once in this post) presented a somewhat preliminary paper (in advance of a conference to be held next year — again at Gordon — on the Reformation) asking whether the Protestant principle of “Scripture alone” (sola Scriptura) had proven to be more of a blessing or a curse in the last five hundred years.

“Yes,” he concluded.

Then went on to give a talk that interwove 17th century Anglicanism, two Civil Wars, the health and wealth gospel as it’s being debated in Ghana, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and references to everyone from John Calvin to Max Lucado. I’m not sure if either would appreciate the comparison, but what I wrote recently about Eric Hobsbawm could certainly apply to Mark Noll: few historians are as capable of sketching grand historical narratives or coloring and shading them with details drawn from a wide range of sources.

I won’t attempt a full summary, but you can watch a video of the talk here:

We didn’t have the time, and I didn’t have the fortitude, for this question… But it did occur to me that at least a couple of the significant critiques of sola Scriptura discussed by Noll (from Brad Gregory and Christian Smith, both of whom see hyperpluralism as an inevitable, if accidental, result of the principle) rest on the notion that Protestants primarily encounter the Bible as individuals. Noll had good responses to this, but one that I wish he had discussed further was the Protestant tradition of reading Scripture in community. Understandably, we tend to connect dots between “Here I stand” Protestantism and modern individualism, but Protestants have long read the Bible together: in tight-knit Anabaptist communities that (for better and worse) did not permit purely individual interpretations; in Pietist small groups that bridged differences of class, confession, and (to some extent) gender; in the context of worship and hymn sings (and choral singing, for that matter); and within family units. And, as Philip Jenkins has noted about the Christians of what Noll termed the “majority world,” Protestants in Africa, Asia, and Latin America rarely read the Bible as isolated individuals.

Some general observations in closing:

  • While I’m grateful for new president Tracy McKenzie’s challenge to us on Friday night to rethink assumptions with which we’ve long since grown comfortable, I appreciated yet again that the Conference on Faith and History is one of the most vibrant professional societies in the academy. This is thanks in large part to longtime leaders like Ron Wells and Dick Pierard (both saluted on Friday night), hardworking and visionary officers, and other stalwarts who have invested so much in the development of CFH. But I was also struck by the diversity of ages present: it was good to talk to undergraduates from other colleges, and to graduate students, and to fellow junior faculty (if I can still claim that status for myself), and to senior professors who are much more approachable and generous with their time and advice than is often the rule in our guild.
  • Now, if we could keep working on some other kinds of diversity. Gender and ethnicity remain challenges, but I’m a bit more frustrated that so many panels are still focused on religious history. (I’m part of the problem this time, I’ll admit.) While the religious historians, to a person, drew skillfully on other fields, it’s dismaying that the CFH still can’t quite shake the perception that Christian historians primarily study Christianity. (One presenter called this the “double-oh,” as in a fellow, secular scholar realizing, “Oh, you’re a Christian!… Oh, you study religion.”)
  • One other pet peeve… I have little doubt that the vast majority of scholars present at these conferences have long since integrated technological innovations into their teaching and scholarship, but you wouldn’t know it from the way papers are still presented. In addition to my own, I think I saw one other paper accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, despite the fact that every room was set up for that now-basic teaching accessory. I also heard several papers that came off perfectly well without such accoutrements, but others would have benefited from even minimal supplements.
  • Twitter logoDespite this… I’m not a total technophile. Indeed, I was surprised just how much I enjoyed integrating Twitter into my own participation, since I did it quite hesitantly. The “Twittergate” debates about how to define the standards for conference tweeting are important, but using Twitter and other social media seem like ways to (a) let others listen in and (b) enrich the talks by pointing to further resources. Just check out #cfh2012 to relive the conference through the tweets of Devin Manzullo-Thomas, John Fea, and others.

Already looking forward to CFH 2014 at Pepperdine College in lovely Malibu, California!

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts from CFH 2012: Saturday

  1. Thank you for the kind words about our session! It was nice to meet you at CFH this year. Hope to see you again in Malibu!

  2. I would love to read Kurt Peterson’s paper on the Doughty controversy–it was a major point of discussion in our Covenant History class at NPTS taught by Dean Glenn Anderson. One of my student colleagues was a neighbor of Doughty and interviewed him (50 pages worth)about the incident for the class. Great phrase about the Covenant; a . . .”distinctive blend of evangelical concern and theologial liberty . . . rooted in Pietism.”

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