Back to Basics: What It Is Christian Historians Do

Over the last three weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with undergraduates about what it is that Christian historians do — and how, if at all, it’s different from what non-Christian historians do.

• To help my Intro to History students prepare to write a preliminary statement of what they think it means to “think Christianly and historically about the past,” I had them read excerpts from Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving (source of that Christianly/historically line) and John Fea’s Why Study History? and watch a filmed conversation between my colleague AnneMarie Kooistra and me.

• Meanwhile, I was having similar conversations with our Senior Seminar students, who read chapters from Jay Green’s Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. (And I briefly merged the two course conversations, sharing a few of those seniors’ responses to Green with the students in Intro, via that course’s blog. Check it out for yourself here.)

Tycho de Boer, David Sellnow, and AnneMarie Kooistra at MUHS 2016
For that roundtable discussion of academic freedom, AnneMarie was joined by Tycho de Boer (left, Saint Mary’s University) and David Sellnow (center, Martin Luther College) – Sam Mulberry

• Then over this past weekend Bethel hosted the third annual Minnesota Undergraduate History Symposium. While only a few presenters reflected directly on personal faith, I wanted my students to meet fellow history majors from a variety of church-related colleges. (We had schools from three separate Lutheran denominations, plus evangelical and Catholic institutions). Then I moderated a closing roundtable discussion of academic freedom within the context of religious higher education. (Here’s what AnneMarie said in her prepared remarks at that session: a reflection on teaching the history of gender and sexuality at a Christian college.)

I always come away from conversations like this finding new ways to think about old questions, and I hope that students find these discussions enlightening and fruitfully perplexing. But as that symposium concludes and I move on to new topics in the two courses, I wanted to strip away some of the complexity and identify what — in my mind — is most basic about any Christian approach to history.

This statement took the form of a prayer that I offered to open Saturday’s symposium. I thought I’d reprint it here, pausing at certain points to add a bit of explanation.

God of all, who called humanity to steward your creation – time as much as space – and called some of your children to the work of history…

I’ve spoken and written at much greater length about the idea that history is a kind of “stewardship of the past“; hopefully I’ll revisit that idea as I get some time to work on another book proposal. Here I’ll just say that we should start by underscoring that it’s significant that God created (and works within) time and “put a sense of past and future into [everyone’s] minds” (Eccl 3:11).

Green, Christian Historiography
I appreciate Jay’s concluding emphasis on history as a God-honoring calling: “Given the machinations and handwringing that so often attend questions about ‘the difference faith makes’ in doing history, these insights about vocation can be liberating to Christian historians. God honors the work of their hands, and they are free to direct their principal energies toward simply doing it well” (p. 155)

…We know that it’s hard work: evidence erodes, memories change, bias endures, and we soon reach the limits of our understanding and imagination. So thank you for the perseverance and patience of these students, as they’ve engaged in their research. Bless them today, calming their nerves and giving them peace. And help us as faculty to listen well, ask good questions, and share helpful feedback.

“[Y]et,” continued the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, “they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” So even those of us well-equipped to take up a particular calling to the sustained, disciplined study of the past are bound to struggle. (“History is impossible,” I’d reassured my students a few days before the symposium, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”) But the sheer difficulty of the work has its own benefits: it inculcates virtues that are otherwise easy to neglect; and by revealing our individual limitations, it reminds us how much we need God — and each other.

In all these things, may what we do glorify you and benefit our neighbors, including our neighbors across time. May we do justice to those who were oppressed; may we show kindness to those who knew too little love; and may we do all this in humility.

While much of the discussion about Christian history (among evangelical and Reformed Protestants, at least) has to do with integrating theological propositions and philosophical presuppositions, I don’t want to lose sight of three deeper ethical commitments, flowing out of the increasingly-familiar language of the prophet Micah and Jesus’ great commandment to love God and neighbor.

I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, by whose resurrection we do all this work not in fear or futility, but in hope. Amen.

And in Eastertide, if no other time, even historians ought to undertake our studies in active expectation, living (as one Pietist put it) “in Jesus Christ’s future.”

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