To Be a Historian Is To Speak over Gravesides

The title of this post has been running through mind for several months now. I’m still not sure I know what to do with that idea, but I’ve been sitting on it long enough. Time to think out loud and see if anything sticks.

Image of a cross casting a shadow on a grave
Michael Gaida/Pixabay

In a figurative sense, I stand by gravesides most of the time I teach classes, write articles and blog posts, and otherwise interpret the past with and for other people. Not just for social and cultural historian Beth Barton Schweiger, but for me and most others in our guild, “To write history, is… to make a relationship with the dead” (Confessing History, p. 61). We stand, like the poet Thomas Gray in his country church yard, where “all the air a solemn stillness holds” and the “rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”

Usually, Schweiger notes, these neighbors in the past are not people that we know personally. But as many of you know, twice in recent months I’ve had to speak a bit nearer to literal gravesides, about the lives of people with whom I already had relationships. In December, I wrote here about my friend Stacey Hunter Hecht, the day after she lost a year-long battle with breast cancer, and then the following week I joined three other colleagues in speaking at the memorial service we held at Bethel. Two months later, I found myself eulogizing GW Carlson, at a memorial service that I later said came “as close as the Baptists would get to a state funeral.”

While my involvement in those two events had more to do with my friendships with Stacey and GW than with my professional training, such commemoration has got me rethinking what it means to be a historian.

History as Tragedy

Most basically, it has reminded me that, to a significant extent, history is tragedy. To study mortals is to study incomplete lives. So history is full of beginnings without endings: unfinished projects, unrealized aspirations, deeds undone and words unsaid. Every story we tell has been cut short.

But I think the historian’s emotions tend to be more complicated than mere sadness. Our stories are often driven by miscalculation and unintended consequences, hubris and hamartia, so we narrate them with some degree of regret and disappointment. Perhaps even futility, knowing that we can do what we do to the very best of our ability and still not change what has happened. (And perhaps not prevent it from happening again.)

Historical Thinking is Critical – and Celebratory

All this helps me understand why the disciplined study of the past tends to enhance critical thinking skills. Dealing as they do with inherently flawed subjects, students of history quickly learn to unearth hidden assumptions, to detect discrepancies and contradictions, to deconstruct truth-claims…

But we run the risk of acting like the critics ridiculed by novelist Irwin Shaw: “…made by their dislikes, not by their enthusiasms.” We can forget that to think critically is also to appreciate.

Webster's definition of "appreciate"
How Webster’s defines “appreciate”

For an autobiographical, if not quite historical, example of such thinking, see Laura Turner’s reflection on growing up as the child of pastors serving evangelical megachurches. (Her parents are John and Nancy Ortberg.) It’s an honest appreciation of the complicated ways that her religious upbringing shaped her, written from a temporal distance that lends critical perspective. The evangelical church “has failed,” she concludes, “but I love it. It made me who I am.”

“It has failed, but I love it,” could be a tag line for much of the institutional history that I’ve written about my place of employment. And it sums up what it felt like to eulogize two of Bethel’s finest professors.

Like all of us, Stacey and GW fell short — and evaluated themselves more harshly than any historian ever would. But to revisit my memories of them — or, in GW’s case, to curate some historical artifacts that covered earlier decades of his life — was to love them again.

I more deeply understood the worth of people made in God’s image, and admired what they had done in service of God, knowing that no such labor is truly in vain. Or, to cite Webster’s final definition of “appreciate”: I learned to be grateful for them.

This, too, is what it means for historians to think critically.

History Builds Community

Before we recorded one of our podcasts this month, my co-author Mark Pattie, a Covenant pastor, had just come from a funeral. He mentioned that part of his preparation for those services is to spend time with the family in preceding days. He meets with them, he explained, not so much to console and counsel, but to be the listener whose questions invite mourning to turn to remembering. As family and friends share stories, Mark’s homily begins to take shape — and healing begins.

What Mark said helped crystallize a final takeaway from my experience of standing over graves:

My own personal remembering of fallen friends served as a catalyst for collective remembering. Doing something as simple, for example, as building a digital timeline of GW’s nearly fifty years at Bethel (or, while it was coming together, sharing old photos and campus paper articles via our department Facebook page) prompted faculty colleagues, former students, and others to share their own stories.

That certainly has implications for the role of historians within institutions. But even if we’re not writing or speaking about friends for friends, I think there’s a degree to which the work of history is meant to build communities — to help people who share a common present and future look back at their common past. And so historians help communities as small as colleges and as large as nations to grieve what’s incomplete and to lament what went awry, but also to appreciate that for which they should be grateful.

Or as the apostle Paul put it:”Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Rom 12:15)

(I don’t think he necessarily meant it to be applied in this direction, but thanks to Paul Putz for suggesting this verse as an important one for Christian historians… or to Ed Blum, whom Paul credited with the original suggestion.)

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