“What are we history professors for?” That’s the existential question asked by Rachel Wheeler in the current issue of Perspectives, the monthly magazine of the American Historical Association. Wheeler urged fellow Americanists, at least, to respond to white nationalism by offering students a different kind of national story. But she acknowledged that this was not a calling many modern-day historians are eager to accept. “Many of us have a vision of what a more just America would look like,” she writes, “but we shy away from painting that vision for our students.” For fear of lapsing into the “triumphalist boosterism of earlier historians and current nationalists,” she lamented that U.S. historians have generally left national history for others.
It’s an old debate, one renewed since the 2016 election. (For example, a month after Donald Trump’s victory, our friend John Fea urged fellow American historians not to “abandon a national narrative” for the sake of “identity politics.”) Mostly, I was struck that an essay subtitled “Finding a New ‘Vocation’ for Historians” was so full of religious language. While Wheeler assumes her audience rejects “MAGA fundamentalism,” she suspects that many are “agnostics or even atheists when it comes to America,” inclined to nothing more than “iconoclasm” or “deconstructing old myths.” Instead, she suggests a different model:
What if we envision our work as prophetic preachers of an American civil religion? This doesn’t require dramatic change, but simply a reframing of our thinking about what we’re already doing. Our lecterns are our pulpit and our lectures sermons, with the power to make congregants squirm in their pews at our country’s many sins, while also inspiring them with a vision of a better, more American America. Students are hungry, I believe, for exactly this sense of possibility. As the would-be keepers of America’s past, we owe it to our parishioners—our students—to help them imagine a future. Right now, I fear we often leave them straitjacketed by history. We dangle them over the pit of an American hellscape like Jonathan Edwards’s spider and preach of the indelible mark of our nation’s original sins, but we fail to offer the accompanying sermon that holds out hope of salvation.
Now, I’m a Christian historian who is an American, but not an Americanist. When I teach U.S. history, it’s only in the context of global narratives about war, diplomacy, and (soon) sports. So on that basis alone, I doubt that I’m called to offer students “a vision of a better, more American America.” And precisely because of my faith, I’m leery of preaching any nation’s “civil religion” — or thinking that any national history contains anything like “hope of salvation.”
But there is something to Wheeler’s assertion that “Our lecterns are our pulpit[s] and our lectures sermons.” Though perhaps not exactly in the way she meant, I do think that teaching is — and isn’t — like preaching.
I’ve been considering the similarities and differences since last fall, when our church hosted Karoline Lewis, preaching professor at Luther Seminary, for a three-part adult Sunday School series on the purpose and nature of preaching. Maybe it’s just that I ended up preaching so many sermons myself in 2018 despite having never attended seminary, but I found it fascinating to think about preaching from the point of view of someone who teaches preachers. I’ll just mention three of Lewis’ ideas that stood out as having clear resonance for teaching history:
Preaching is only part of the larger worship service
I do think there’s something central to the proclamation of the Word from the pulpit, but even someone as Protestant as me needs to acknowledge that the sermon is still only one part of worship. Done well, preaching reinforces or highlights themes from other elements, whether liturgy, music, prayer, sacraments, offering, or anything else. Conversely, the worst sermons I’ve heard have always been disconnected from whatever precedes and follows them.
Likewise, I think teachers are most effective when they remember that their class occupies a mere handful of minutes in the middle of any student’s day. However powerful you think your teaching is, keep in mind that the people in your “pews” are thinking about what has already happened and what’s looming before them. They’re hungry for the food they’re about to eat at lunch; they’re nervous about the test they’re going to take in some other teacher’s class. They’re reflecting on some other “sermon” from some other branch of the curriculum — or a competing vision they heard from a parent, coach, or cable news host. Or they’re just tired from lack of sleep, brokenhearted by the ending of a relationship, or overjoyed how a job interview or audition went.
If not to be distractions from your teaching, your students’ lives must be connected to it somehow.
Preaching is about context
Similarly, Lewis emphasized the importance of a good preacher exegeting not only the text before her, but the people listening to her. To do the work of interpretation, a preacher needs to know context — of the Scripture, but also of the congregation and the worlds where those people spend most of their time.
In order to interpret critically historical texts less perfect and less authoritative than the Bible, we historians teach our students about the importance of social, cultural, economic, intellectual, political, and other kinds of context. And just as good preachers — to tweak something Karl Barth supposedly said about prayer — preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another, so any history professor needs to teach about the past… without ignoring the present.
I think most of us already get that. But how attentive are we to the living context in front of us? Like a sermon, the effect of a lecture doesn’t depend solely on what’s said and how, but on what’s heard and how. Wheeler and her followers can “preach” all they want about a “better, more American America,” but that’s only as important as how the Americans sitting in front of them hear that “sermon.”
To a significant extent, that kind of context is bound to be unknowable. We only have so much time and insight, and we none of us reveal ourselves fully to one another. But just as a preacher will spend as much time getting to know her congregation as she does studying her text, so any history professor needs to take time to exegete her students — their hopes, dreams, sorrows, frustrations, abilities, challenges, etc.
Last week Sam Mulberry and I led a couple of discussions stemming from his documentary, Why We Teach. We started where that film starts, with a clip of some gifted teachers talking about the teachers who inspired them. The one constant theme in those stories is that a teacher took the time to get to know them, and what they most needed to hear at that time in their lives.
Preaching expands theological imagination
For now, let’s imagine that we’ve understood the contexts of our text and our students — and have a good sense of how our teaching fits into their lives beyond the classroom. What happens as a result of our teaching-preaching?
No doubt it depends on the student. Some are led to something like repentance or even conversion. Some are angry, or inspired. Some feel heard and seen; some feel accused. But I think the one thing that should happen to all of them is that their imagination has been expanded.
In Lewis’ class, she put the idea in terms of theology: the study of God. Faithful preaching (she resists adjectives like “good” or “effective,” since that’s up to the Holy Spirit) leads the sermon’s listener to think differently about a God who defies easy understanding. That’s what I told some of our J-term students in Paris… We had worshipped at the American Church, where the youth pastor preached on Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus, which ends with God telling him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” To help understand how Jesus — an illegitimate child of a carpenter in a backwater town — had been made to feel anything other than “beloved” to that point in his life, the preacher told the story of a transgendered youth who had been disowned by her father. I’m not sure my students felt comfortable with that analogy, but I told them that it was a prime example of how preaching can expand our theological imagination. (“If nothing else,” I added, “you’re still thinking about the sermon. How often has that happened at the megachurches you attend?”)
Except indirectly, I don’t think that what I do as a history professor leads my students to think anew about God… but as we study fellow humans through encounters with pasts that are both foreign and familiar, we might see humanity — others’ and our own — in new ways. We might indeed, like Jonathan Edwards, open the eyes of fellow sinners to “the fearful danger you are in.” Or help them to see a greater “sense of possibility” — in the life of the individual, or that of a community like a nation, or a church. If not theological imagination, perhaps history teaching can expand students’ anthropological imagination.
You can read Wheeler’s full essay in the April 2019 issue of Perspectives.