Faith and History: The Story Behind the Book

In two weeks, Baylor University Press will officially release Faith and History, a devotional I edited with Beth Allison Barr that features contributions from forty-some Christian historians. Some of you (hi, Mom!) are even expecting to get pre-ordered copies before Thanksgiving.

So before anyone actually reads their copy of Faith and History, today seems like a good time to tell the story of how this book came to be. I’m not sure that even Beth knows how long it’s been gestating…

In fact, even after spending some time last week digging through my own files, I’m not totally certain when I first started writing up a proposal for a devotional that would reflect on a series of biblical texts in light of the discipline of history. It looks like it was the summer of 2015 when I finished the draft introduction and sample chapters for a book I tentatively called A Stretched People: How Studying the Past Transforms Christians Today. Here’s what I wrote by way of explaining my proposed title:

…I pray that this book might, in some small way, contribute to the renewal of the church, that group of people whom philosopher Jamie Smith says are “called to resist the presentism embedded in the tyranny of the contemporary… to be a people of memory.” If we are to be the body of a Christ who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8), then we need a spiritual formation that will make us into what Smith calls “a stretched people, citizens of a kingdom that is both older and newer than anything offered by ‘the contemporary.”

Smith, Desiring the KingdomIn that sense, the book reflected my burgeoning interest in spiritual formation and the spiritual disciplines. In that earliest introduction, I suggested that readers

approach this book via the discipline of study, what the great spiritual writer Richard Foster defines as “a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.” Like any of the disciplines, study “[aims] at replacing old destructive habits of thought with new life-giving habits”; it is a “means of God’s grace for the changing of our inner spirit.” Study seeks comprehension, but perhaps most importantly, it involves reflection, which “brings us to see things from God’s perspective. In reflection we come to understand not only our subject matter, but ourselves. Jesus speaks often of ears that do not hear and eyes that do not see. When we ponder the meaning of what we study, we come to hear and see in a new way.”

Willard, The Spirit of the DisciplinesFoster wrote primarily about the disciplined study of the Bible, which I always meant to be part of this book, But I also suggested that “the Word through whom ‘All things came into being’ (Jn 1:3) can be studied even beyond the written word of Scripture,” and quoted Dallas Willard’s definition of the discipline of study as a kind of striving “to see the Word of God at work in the lives of others, in the church, in history, and in nature.”

So I saw a connection between my personal desire for churches to reemphasize spiritual formation and my professional desire to encourage more Christians to think historically about the past. It occurred to me that history-as-devotional might have a unique appeal and effect:

Not only is the form familiar to many from their own spiritual practice, but its function underscores what’s actually my central argument: the study of the past is not only fascinating and enlightening, but spiritually formative — and indispensable to our identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps a book of that sort is especially timely. Lisa Clark Diller, who contributed one of our two reflections on the Book of Leviticus, told me last week that she’s excited for Faith and History precisely because she needs “some of the liturgical rooting and faithful comfort that this work provides to heal me/us in the light of the political climate we’ve been in.” (quoted with Lisa’s permission)

So when you read what’s been retitled Faith and History, I hope you’ll still recognize my founding goals of encouraging historical study as a means of spiritual formation. But after five years and some profoundly helpful rejections by other publishers, I’m glad that the finished version from Baylor differs in two ways from original vision for the book.

First, the book is sequenced in order of the biblical texts themselves.

Part of the Old Testament section in our table of contents…

Originally, my goal was to publish something more like our reader-written sequel to The Pietist Option, a series of daily Lenten reflections that bounced around the Bible according to the Revised Common Lectionary. I initially aspired to offer readers a weekly devotional in which each entry started with one of the lections for that time of year — perhaps adding some specific dates in the mix, such as birthdays of key figures or anniversaries of key events from church history.

There’s still a lot to like about that approach, which forces slower reading — for formation, rather than consuming information.

But the obvious pitfall of a lectionary-based approach is that the devotional would be tied to a certain calendar year. Now, as things worked out, we are publishing it in time for Advent, the first season of the church year. But there was no guarantee that would work out, and anyone who came to the book years or even months after publication would have quickly found themselves having to figure out how to reconcile the liturgical and secular calendars. It wouldn’t have rendered the devotional unusable, but it certainly would have felt clunky.

In any event, the switch in sequencing came after the more important change: one of authorship.

Originally, I wasn’t just going to edit the book and add two contributions (on Genesis 1-2 and Luke 1). I was going to write it all myself. In fact, I’d completely forgotten that my original sabbatical proposal for the fall of 2016 was that I’d draft what became Faith and History after I finished my share of The Pietist Option. Instead, I used that November-December to work on the proposal for what became Flying Solo, my forthcoming biography of Charles Lindbergh. (More news about that book coming soon!)

But as I prepared to participate in the 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, it struck me that a historical devotional would be far more interesting and appealing as a collective CFH effort: a chance to introduce my favorite professional society to a wider Christian audience. So I reached out to Beth, one of my co-bloggers at The Anxious Bench who was then starting her term as the society’s president. She helped facilitate my initial efforts to recruit contributors from the CFH membership and then agreed to serve as co-editor.

Unfortunately, CFH 2020 was postponed because of COVID-19. We’re hoping to convene at Baylor with just a year’s delay, in October 2021.

The book is vastly stronger for Beth’s participation and the support of our governing board, and I’m thrilled that the group of historians we’ve assembled reflects a cross-section of an organization that has grown — in numbers and diversity — as it finished its first half-century. Not just the evangelical and Reformed Christians who founded CFH, our roster includes Adventists, Anabaptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and (yes) Pietists. Though most are college and university professors, our writers include graduate students, high school teachers, an archivist, a seminary dean, and a college president. Almost 50% of them are women, including rising organizational leaders like Beth, Lisa, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Trisha Posey, and Elesha Cofffman (editor of Fides et Historia, the venerable CFH journal). I’m grateful that writers as well-published as Mark Noll, Grant Wacker, Joel Carpenter, John Fea, and John Turner took the time to share contributions, but I’m even happier that we could provide a platform for so many up-and-coming historians. (Next week I’ll share a Faith and History post at The Anxious Bench that recommends some follow-up readings from many of our contributors.)

If you’re interested in reading Faith and History — or giving it to friends and family as a Christmas gift — you can get it directly from the publisher, order it from Amazon or another online vendor, or request it from your favorite local bookseller.