One of my favorite projects in recent years reached fruition last December, when Baylor University Press published Faith and History, a devotional featuring reflections by 40-some members of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH). I know that many of you picked up a copy, and I’ve heard enough positive feedback to feel like we hit our mark, connecting biblical reflection to historical study in ways that felt meaningful to readers.
So I’m delighted to announce that today we’re launching a free, online sequel to that book: a series of further reflections at the CFH website that follow the Faith and History model, but focus on the themes of the season of Lent. For Ash Wednesday, I kicked things off with a meditation on how feeling ashes today — and hearing words about dust — remind me of the necessity and impossibility of what historians do. Here’s how I started:
In our original set of devotionals, Faith and History, I opened with a reflection on Genesis 1-2, considering what it might mean for historians to be good stewards of Creation. I suggested that we “till . . . and keep” the past (Gen. 2:15), a notion that often occurs to me when I walk into a library or archive, where the very aroma of aging books and papers reassures me that the past is never completely lost. Evidence and memory survive the passage of time, and so my work as a historian is possible.
But it turns out that “old book smell” itself hints at what we’re working against as students of the past. As paper, ink, glue, and binding material decompose, they release pungent chemicals called volatile organic compounds. The fragrance of history, then, is the odor of decay, an olfactory offshoot of what’s left of the past disintegrating into mere particles.
That echoes Genesis, too. For despite our best efforts to tend the history of God’s most amazing creatures, the next chapter in that book reminds us that human lives and what they leave behind are inevitably transient. “You are dust,” God tells Adam, “and to dust you shall return.”
You can read the full reflection at the CFH website. For Lent, we plan to post every Monday and Wednesday, with Tom Scott (Mercer University) and Regina Wenger (Baylor University) up next. (With contributors ranging from fellow department chairs like Tom and to grad students like Regina, plus high school teachers and pastors, I’m glad to say that this Lenten series will continue to showcase the diversity of historians in our conference.) Then when we reach Palm Sunday, we expect to share reflections each day of Holy Week.
May the words of our mouths (well, keyboards) and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to God and helpful to our neighbors, as we journey together through this season of contemplation and repentance into the resurrection dawn of Easter.