CFH 2014: Managing Change and a Pietist in India

This will be the last of my recaps from the 2014 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, as I had to leave Malibu before the Saturday afternoon plenary and concurrent sessions. But look for my presentation on blogging tomorrow, and then more posts next week as I continue to think through some of what I heard at CFH 2014.

Friday morning: “The Role of Historians in Managing Change”

The morning started at 8:00 with a roundtable discussion that I was chairing, so it didn’t seem appropriate to live-tweet anything more than this pre-panel photo:

From left to right, that’s:

  • Devin Manzullo-Thomas — director of the Sider Institute of Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College and also a key figure in the Brethren in Christ Historical Society
  • Mark Norris — history professor and dean of arts and sciences at Grace College and Seminary
  • Shirley Mullen — president of Houghton College (and former president of CFH)

Here’s a taste of my opening remarks:

Of course, no institution is static, but most of those that we serve seem to be going through something more turbulent; words like restructuring and disruption are commonplaces. So this panel is set up to explore how historians interact with a particular kind of public: the fellow constituents of institutions going through seasons of change.

I think we wrestled with the right verb for the roundtable title: do historians help “manage” change? At times perhaps they “lead” change, or “advocate” for it; at others, they no doubt do best to “resist” change. But I think the key is that the verb is active, and not necessarily focused on the traditional activities of scholars. We are not solely interested in how historians record change or interpret its causes and effects some time later — though such actions themselves might offer historians some degree of agency and influence in a season of change.

But historians occupy a variety of positions in which they have the opportunity to help shape the processes by which institutions change: as individual stake-holders who can speak into debates; as thought-leaders, given heed because of their knowledge and wisdom; and, at varying levels, as decision-makers with some degree of power and influence stemming from administrative positions or roles within task forces and committees.

So our overriding questions are these: What role can and should historians play in helping their institutions manage change? Can historians help decision-makers understand the nature of change over time, or continuity over time? Might they play a part in sorting out the difference between change that serves the mission of the institution, and change that is little more than bandwagon-hopping?

I was happy with the panel we’d assembled going into the session (and with our turnout, more than respectable given the early start time and the fact that we were up against a session on Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory), but I was happily surprised just how rich our conversation was. A brief sketch:

Shirley reflected on her experience not only as Houghton president, but professor and provost at Westmont College. She was struck that historians often have a great deal of trust within such institutions, and thus considerable space in which to shape the story of the institution. (Her story of a colleague at Westmont who took it on himself to interview his colleagues during an economic downturn reminds me of my friend Sam Mulberry’s Autobiography podcast.) Shirley suggested seven C’s that sum up the contributions historians can make in institutional seasons of change. I expected her to touch on historians’ comfort with complexity and our sensitivity to change over time and context, but other points on her list gave me something new to think about: e.g., her observation that historians are often quite creative, and that they have the ability to construct narratives of hope. (By the time the rest of us in the room got our hands on it, her list of C’s had virtually doubled in length!)

Devin drew on his training as a public historian and his experience serving the publics of the Brethren in Christ Church to offer a somewhat different perspective — albeit one that still emphasized the role of historians in muddying waters that some audiences would wish to keep clear (e.g., religious groups’ desire for “pristine” pasts — cf. the Friday afternoon address on “heritage religion“). As an example of his work, Devin shared the Born-Again Brethren website that he had helped to develop.

Born-Again Brethren site headerMark mentioned his administrative roles at Grace — e.g., in helping shape a general education revision — but focused his remarks on the experience (not one he sought out) of writing an institutional history of the college and seminary. He reflected on the challenge of digging into difficult chapters in Grace’s history, and wrestling with problematic figures whose influence endures but who seem out of step with the institution’s present.

(Incidentally, that history — co-edited with my co-blogger Jared Burkholder — should be out before too long. Here’s the first line of my endorsement: “This is the best kind of institutional history: at once celebratory and critical, addressed to a particular community and yet also participating in larger scholarly conversations.” And one of its forewords was written by… Shirley Mullen.)

I’ll stop here, since I actually mean to develop my comments and at least one of the ensuing discussions into a post next week. But I’m grateful to Devin for organizing the session, to him and the other panelists for offering us such rich food for thought, and to those who attended for sharing their own insights.

Friday late morning: “Why India Celebrates (but the West Forgot) Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg”

Before leaving for LAX, I had the chance to catch a Mark Noll-hosted screening of Beyond Empires, a new documentary film on the German Pietist whose work in Tranquebar, India inaugurated Protestant missions nearly two centuries after Luther’s reformation began:

Produced by Australian filmmaker Christopher Gilbert, in collaboration with historian Daniel Jeyaraj, the documentary makes abundantly clear that while the name of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg is largely forgotten by Western Christians who may feel unease with the history of missions, he is celebrated in India — particularly among the Tamil population to whom he ministered in the early 18th century.

I was wondering how Pietism would be portrayed in the film (particularly after Noll’s introduction mistakenly labeled Ziegenbalg as a “Moravian” — he studied at Halle with A.H. Francke and died before the Moravians arrived at Zinzendorf’s estate), but Ziegenbalg’s Pietism was emphasized by both the Indian and European historians interviewed:

Of course, Ziegenbalg was an important figure in the missions section of our 2011 collection, The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, featured in chapters by Christoffer Grundmann and Dick Pierard, the CFH mainstay who attended the session. And one observation in the film made me think of another chapter from that section of Pietist Impulse:

Of course, given the recurring discussion at this conference about the distinction between heritage and history, I found myself wondering if the film would ignore some of the inconvenient aspects of Pietist history.

Fortunately, Gilbert wasn’t afraid of messiness. While Ziegenbalg himself came off as a saintly figure, the film took note of how the Tranquebar mission also revealed some limitations of both Halle and Radical Pietism:

Thanks again to Jay Green and the other organizers of CFH 2014. It was a tremendous conference, and has me more excited than ever to be a part of this society.

<<Read the previous recap in this series

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