Should Evangelical Historians Contend for Evangelical Identity?

One of the highlights of the 2016 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History was Jay Green’s presidential address, “Evangelical Historiography, Evangelical Identity, and the Spiritual Vision of History.” Like many of his predecessors, Jay offered an erudite, thought-provoking reflection on the past, present, and future of a professional society whose “primary goal is to encourage excellence in the theory and practice of history from the perspective of historic Christianity.”

Now that I’ve had the better part of a week to reflect on his comments, I thought I’d revisit a few of his points that I tweeted. (Here’s a collection of more tweets from throughout the conference.)

Jay started by placing the origins of CFH (almost half a century ago) within the context of two phenomena: the rise of identity politics within the academy, and the rise of a “new evangelical historiography” as pioneered by CFH members like Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter.

But he then observed a second wave of evangelical historiography, one that maintains the excellence of the earlier scholarship, broadens and deepens it, and yet is written by a younger generations of CFH members who (per an informal survey Jay conducted) have a more complicated relationship to contemporary evangelicalism.

I won’t say a lot about this portion of Jay’s talk, and instead recommend that you head over to The Anxious Bench, where my co-blogger John Turner offered his own reflections this morning. Like John, “I never felt alienated from the academy the way that prior generations of evangelical scholars did,” and while I too “feel less connected to rather than alienated from American evangelicalism… a sense of diminished connection is not the same thing as disavowal.”

But where does that leave John, me, and other younger CFH members who inherit the question that closed Jay’s address?

I suspect that, for many of those sitting in the audience, the answer is pretty easy: “No, good riddance.” Not every CFH member is an evangelical, and some, as Jay’s survey found, are truly alienated from evangelicalism (I heard from at least two Catholic converts during the conference) and would no doubt wish Christian historians to devote their energy to causes other than contending for it. Many in the “ambivalent” camp feel that way because they think that “evangelical” has become a meaningless category — or at least (as John put it) that the term “certainly obfuscates as much as it illumines.”

Jay Green
Here’s Jay, by the way – Covenant College
As many of you know, I’ve wavered on my own relationship to evangelicalism — all the more so because of the way that the evangelicals who look most like me have been so entangled with the Trump campaign. But I still have a hard time abandoning a Christian tradition that is much richer and more complicated than it may seem in 2016. Like many of the 2nd generation historians Jay surveyed, I struggle to reconcile my appreciation for historical evangelicalism with my feelings about the present-day version of the movement.

(If CFH is to take up evangelical identity, say at the 50th anniversary meeting in 2018, I think it would be interesting to invite a leading Catholic historian to give the keynote. “Catholic” is at least as conflicted a category as “evangelical,” yet there’s no shortage of historians from that tradition who have found a way to live in productive tension with it. But back to evangelicalism…)

Finally, while I didn’t hear it articulated quite so often as in the past two meetings, many of us in the 2nd (or perhaps 3rd) wave of CFH scholars continue to think that we ought to do more to recover what one of Jay’s predecessors called our “vocation to the church.” And if we’re to speak at least as much to Jerusalem as to Athens, then I don’t know how we can escape “evangelical.” After all, that word remains a meaningful descriptor for tens of millions of American Christians, and for many times that number beyond our shores.

Do we try to convince those Christ-followers that “evangelical” is meaningless, or is it possible that we might again find an honest but usable past that 21st century evangelicals would find both familiar and challenging?

If the latter, then let me make three completely non-original recommendations, strategies that are already being done better than I possibly could:

Carter & Porter (eds.), Turning Points in the History of Evangelicalism
Heath is also the co-editor of this collection forthcoming from Eerdmans, featuring a who’s who of historians of evangelicalism
1. Continue to tell a more complicated story of evangelicalism itself, one whose cast of characters is more diverse than the usual (white, male, middle class) suspects of the Great Awakenings and post-WWII neo-evangelicalism: women like Katharine Bushnell, the missionary and Bible scholar whose story has been told by Kristin Du Mez, and the self-disclosing megaministry leaders who were the subject of Kate Bowler’s Saturday morning address; the working class activists featured in Heath Carter’s Union Made and the rural “plainfolk evangelicals” that Tim Gloege contrasts with the suburban “corporate” type he’s been defining; the persons of color who now make up a quarter of American evangelicals and, as I’ve already argued at considerable length, the African, Asian, and Latin American evangelicals who are probably the future of the movement.

2. Connect evangelicals with other Christians: both their forerunners, like the Pietists I tend to prefer, and their mainline Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, Mormon, Anabaptist, Eastern Orthodox, indigenous, and other cousins who have been competitors, co-belligerents, critics, contrasts, cautionary tales, and contributors in the story of evangelicalism. (I’m encouraged here by the prominent roles played by non-evangelical institutions like Notre Dame and Duke in training this newest wave of evangelical historians.)

3. As teachers — in churches and in church-related colleges, universities, and seminaries — help evangelicals to think more historically. Whether or not the subject is evangelicalism itself, I believe that we can do much to help evangelicals recognize change over time, appreciate the importance of context, and become more comfortable with complexity. Not only might they have a more robust understanding of their individual and communal identities, but they might find it easier to live as citizens of an increasingly plural and post-Christian society.

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