Later today I’ll be flying to southern California to join fellow members of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) at its biennial meeting, held this year on the lovely campus of Pepperdine University. Now, I’d be excited simply to exchange the weather of St. Paul, MN for that of Malibu, CA for a couple days, but since tomorrow’s forecast for those two places is identical (78 degrees, partly cloudy), I’ll focus this post on the intellectual and relational excitement that comes with participating in CFH.
It’s become my favorite professional society, and the one that has done the most to shape my professional development in the past six years. In particular, outgoing CFH president Tracy McKenzie had a profound impact on my understanding of vocation — here’s my same-night response to his 2012 CFH presidential address on the subject. But I’ve also got to befriend colleagues from around the country, and I always look forward to the plenary and concurrent sessions.
This year’s program is especially strong (and with its impressive number of papers on world Christianity, making me think I need to revise my comments from last November about CFH being too focused on the religious history of the West). It takes up the theme of “Christian Historians and Their Publics”:
Contemporary historians have a somewhat complicated relationship with “the public.” We long to have public audiences who will be challenged and shaped by our work, but most of us tend to produce highly specialized scholarship and write primarily for other scholars.
When we do address the public, our often myth-busting strategies can come across as patronizing, contemptuous, and even politically motivated. As historians, who are our “publics”? And what responsibilities, if any, do we owe them? Are there public venues for historical understanding that we should be exploring? Does our peculiar identity as Christians have any bearing on the publics we
address, what we have to say, or how we say it? Are there Christian ways of thinking about and doing public history? Is there a Christian public for our work as historians?
Unfortunately, my flight arrives too late for me to attend tonight’s opening address by Civil War historian Allen Guelzo, enticingly titled “Respectability: The Pursuit of a Historical Illusion.” I’ll pick things up Friday morning, likely starting with the early panel discussion of “Classroom as Public” and then facing a tough mid-morning choice among sessions on “Devotional Practices and Historical Study,” “Christian Faith and Public Memory,” and “Congregational History and Method” (chaired by fellow Pietist Schoolman Jared Burkholder).
After lunch and Colleen McDannell‘s plenary address on “Heritage Religion and the Mormons,” I’ll be part of an early Friday afternoon panel on — surprise! — “Christian Historians and Social Media,” featuring fellow bloggers John Fea (here’s his CFH preview), Paul Putz, and our convener, Jonathan Den Hartog. Join us at 2:15pm in the Smothers Theater. (I had hoped it was named for the TV comedy brothers, but… nope.)
As the afternoon ends, I’ll stick around the same venue for what’s sure to be a well-attended roundtable discussion on David Bebbington’s famous “quadrilateral” definition of evangelicalism — featuring Mark Noll and a response from… David Bebbington. Then the evening brings the conference banquet and the presidential address by John Wigger, “Reaching a Wider Audience.”
Saturday morning starts bright and early at 8am in Pepperdine’s Cultural Arts Center (room 301) for a panel on “The Role of Historians in Managing Institutional Change.” I’ll be moderating a discussion that includes three historians whose research, writing, and/or leadership roles make them ideal choices for this topic: Houghton College president Shirley Mullen, Grace College dean Mark Norris, and Sider Institute director Devin Manzullo-Thomas (who will no doubt be active on Twitter and have some reflections at his blog). Then I’ll end the morning enjoying a conversation between documentarian Chris Gilbert and Mark Noll on Gilbert’s forthcoming film about the pioneering Pietist missionary Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg. (Recently spotlighted in Christian Century, incidentally. Subscription required, alas.)
My flight back to the Twin Cities is early enough that I might need to skip Charles Marsh’s plenary “‘Spread Hilaritas’: Writing History out of a Higher Satisfaction” and the final concurrent session (where I’d have been drawn to a panel on “The Place of Mystery in Human Affairs” chaired by Don Yerxa, editor of the CFH journal Fides et Historia, and featuring a response from Books and Culture editor John Wilson).
If you happen to be attending CFH, please do say hello if you see a bespectacled, tieless, laptop-toting 6’3″ dude who clearly has not spent his summer in the Malibu sun. And for all my readers, I’ll no doubt be sharing some thoughts here during and/or after the conference.