Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Why Bother with Southern Presbyterianism? No. 1

This thoughtful post got me thinking once again about this question. After all, I've spent a good chunk of my academic writing time on Robert Lewis Dabney; and for the past several years, I've been working on a history of twentieth-century conservative dissent in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the old southern Presbyterian church). Maybe I'm a little defensive, or feel the need to justify the time. But I ask the question: why bother with these southern Presbyterian stories?

Let me say to start that I don't write in order to repristinate the past or to write inspirational history. Anyone who has read my book on Dabney, for example, knows that I have deep ambivilances about him as a man, churchman, and theologian. I don't shy away from pointing out his sinful and tragic attitudes toward African Americans, his wrestling with his own masculinity and honor during the war, his ambitious manuevering to land his position at Union Seminary, or his tragic squandering of influence in the postbellum southern church. Anyone who has read my book should know that, in my mind, Dabney is not a hero and that I am not seeking to return to the "good ol' days."

Then again, that is not why I write history anyway. If we simply come to history for some sort of useable past that reifies the status quo or justifies deviation from that status quo, then we are doing historical work for lesser reasons. Hear me well: it is not wrong to make the past speak to the present; that is what the best historians do. Yet, as James Cobb put it well,
"When historians are drawn into the politics of identity [which is what I am really talking about--sml], they may unwittingly cease to be scholars who simply try to make the past speak to the present and become ventrioloquists who are intent on making it say what they think their audience wants to hear. In doing so, they run the risk both of misrepresenting the past and of confusing what their readers want to hear with what they may actually need to hear" (Cobb, Away Down South, 316).

All too often, people approach history seeking what they want to hear. In my mind, however, historians need to do their work in such a way that the message people need to hear, pleasant or unpleasant, reifying or justifying, is heard.

To come back to the basic question then--why bother studying southern Presbyterians?--I think the answer has to look something like this: I study southern Presbyterians in order to gain wisdom and insight into the way I am today and the way my church is. In a denomination where nearly 60% of his membership still resides in the eleven states of the old Confederacy, and in a denomination that has many who still view it as the continuation of the old PCUS, we need all the wisdom and insight we can get about the way we are (good and bad), the beliefs we hold dear, and the practices that continue to shape us.

But I also study southern Presbyterians because they remind me that theology never operates outside of cultural systems--whether you want to put that into terms of "cultural captivity" or "contextualization." And that means, I must come to all ideas and beliefs and practices with sharp questioning--how does this operate within the current cultural moment? What strengths does this present? What weaknesses does this offer? How will my future be affected by this? How does this reflect the longer-standing tradition of the church?

And so, our call in thinking historically about these things is not to rail against "southern Presbyterianism" as though it were some aberrant form of the Christian tradition (though, no doubt, there are aberrations, especially on racial issues, as this demonstrates). Nor is our call to defend "southern Presbyterianism" as though it embodied perfected Christianity handed down to us on golden plates (though, no doubt, there are numerous strengths, especially in its general faithfulness to the Westminster tradition).

Rather, the historical task is to study the past in order to uncover the stories--to discover the wisdom and receive the judgment--that we need to hear in this moment. And the stories we need to hear above all point us forward to the only real hero in the Big Story, Jesus himself, who takes our evil and works it together for our salvation.


Mark said...

I'm happy to instigate these reflections except that, if you thought I was disparaging the scholarly interest that led to what I hear is an excellent book on Dabney, and one I plan to read, then I plainly overshot. Actually, I shot in a direction I never intended.

I think there are a great many reasons to study Southern Presbyterianism (along with other periods). I would hate to have not had Garner's book and I would hate to have not read some of Dabney's work on God's indiscriminate proposals of mercy as well as his differences with Hodge over imputation and enlightenment.

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Mark: No, I wasn't attributing anything to you at all. I was thinking more about the general internet chatter re: southern Presbyterianism (which is largely negative) and pondering why in the world I spend so much of my time thinking and writing about them.

As much as anything, I suppose that I keep trying to say the same things re: the reason why we should study the church's history--the tradition is a source of wisdom and insight that helps us navigate the present by being more self-critical. As a church history professor, I guess I am trying to justify my own existence!

I also want you to know that I was utterly sincere about your post--I always find things you write thought-provoking, even when I might disagree. sml

barlow said...

I have a scholarly interest in the Puritans and like you, I ask myself all the time why I read/bother with them. But they are kind of like our tradition's monks, and their psychological insights are pretty compelling to me. Especially Baxter and Edwards. I appreciate your point about the usable past. One of the humbling things about reading "The Metaphysical Confederacy" was hearing about Thornwell's being an aesthete when it came to food, cigars, etc. He and I could probably have had a fruitful commiseration together about gluttony.

I saw a book at the library the other day about the puritans - it was written before Perry Miller made them cool to study again in academia. It was titled "The Unusable Past." (!) And just the other day on our local NPR station, James Marone was interviewed - he's a professor of political science at Brown. His book "Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History" repeats all the well worn canards about Puritans' equating material prosperity with election (a gross misunderstanding), and further he pounded on the doctrine of election mercilessly. Anyway, Max Weber is still with us and most of his children aren't as careful as even he was!

Sean Lucas said...

Thanks for these comments, barlow; I've enjoyed reading your blog and following you through grad school.

It is striking that you bring Edwards into the conversation, because he is the one American religious figure that doesn't appear to need justification. Peter Thusen once observed that JE was the "Great Mirror," into which all sorts of scholars from all sorts of disciplines could look in order to find "truth" (as well as "themselves").

But southerners are a harder sell for most of the academy. I say, most, because I've actually had a much better time talking about Dabney in the academy than in the church. For example, I've done Dabney papers at the Freeman Symposium at the Unviersity of Richmond and at ASCH and have been warmly received. But in the PCA, it is much tougher sledding.

I think it comes back to the whole issue of the "useable past" (which I think you've commented on below--I approved the post, but stopped here first!). In the PCA, where Dabney and other southerners are contested figures, there is a tendency to want to protect "turf" or "heroes." To try to see these figures "whole"--as flawed figures in our family albums, if you will--is a big part of what I am up to...sml