Friday, March 21, 2008

Why Bother with Church History?

[This is from a forthcoming "blog interview, but I like what I wrote, so I thought I'd post it here.]

I tell my students that if I am simply there to give them names, dates, and places, then we are utterly wasting our time—that is not what history is about and that is not what I am there to do. (I always stop and say that because many of them will face ordination exams during which the only thing the examiner knows to test them on are names, dates, and places, I have to make sure they know them as well.) Rather, the reason we have church history in the theological curriculum is to help them understand issues related to Christian identity: indeed, church history is the story about how Christians are.

In order to get at issues of identity, one must investigate beliefs, practices, and stories (and I talk about this in my book, On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories [2006]). Most students come into my class convinced that the only period that is truly important for their Christian identity—for the beliefs, practices, and stories which shape them Christianly—is their own moment in time (and maybe, possibly, the generation prior). The Kool-aid I sell them to drink is that their identity is tied to the beliefs and practices of people who lived thousands of years before—what Ignatius or Polycarp or Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin wrote, taught, lived, and practiced shapes their Christian identity today.

The image I use to get this across is the family album. Each of us has family albums with pictures of aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins once removed on my mother’s side. There are stories about these peoples that embed beliefs and practices and that help them make sense. Some of these stories may be suppressed, or painful, or even forgotten, but they still shape us more than we know—they represent deep-seated ways of viewing the world that have impacted us in positive or negative ways. In order to ferret some of this out, we must investigate those pictures, find out those stories, check out those beliefs and practices—and in so doing, we learn a little bit better who we are and what God has for us to do in this moment and in our places today.

However, it is not simply possible to do what our ancestors before us did; to drive the car that Uncle Jim drove or view the world the way Aunt Maybelle did. For one thing, the movement of history doesn’t work that way; it is not possible to jump back upstream to a purer or more golden age, whether the 19th or 17th or 1st century. For another, we are in our own cultural moment or system in which our beliefs, practices, and stories are mixed up with our educational backgrounds, class differences, racial history, gender realities, geography, and much more. It is in our particular systems, in this moment, that the Word is to be enfleshed; and God has called us to do this, even with all the “limiting” factors of our particularity.

Sometimes there will be things that we do that contradict our glorious beliefs (one thinks here of proslavery defenses by orthodox Old School Presbyterian theologians); I call these “cultural blind spots.” Part of the reason we study history is to see these cultural blind spots in others or to have historical figures shine their light on our blind spots—either way, we see ourselves a little more clearly, see our flaws and our possibilities more realistically. And the result of historical thinking—the cash value, if you will, for the student—is wisdom and insight for life and ministry.

Above all, we come to learn that every time and every human being is flawed, broken, sinful—except for one: Jesus is the only hero. As a result, we can look at historical figures sympathetically (because they are sinful humans like us) and critically (because they are sinful humans like us); the good they teach ultimately is a reflection of Christ himself. And we can have some measure of hope—because if Jesus can use messed-up people and churches from the past, then he can certainly use us today. To me, this is a major value for teaching church history to future ministers—to gain wisdom and insight into the present, yes; but above all, to have hope: the same God who has shown himself in mighty deeds through broken clay pots in the past can and will do it again in the present in the future.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Historians in the Prophetic Mode

A few days ago, I got Carl Trueman's new collection of essays, Minority Report, which is (as with most of what he does) engaging, insightful, and frequently brilliant. One note that clearly is sounded throughout the collection, which deserves some comment, is that historians find their place within theological education, the academy, the life of the church, and the larger culture as those who unmask contemporary pretensions of all sorts in a prophetic style or mode.

Perhaps the essays in which this theme came most clearly through were two: one which placed the evangelical theologian Carl Henry in conversation with the postmodern philosopher Edward Said; another which observed that the historians' task was akin to being a ferret breeder on the fictional Watership Down. Especially in the Henry-Said essay, Trueman used Said to provide a critical voice who might help evangelicals look through the pretensions of the contemporary context in order to think much more critically and even prophetically about our times (through many of the essays was a subtext of criticism of the post-conservative theological aspirations of John Franke and his brood).

I couldn't help but smile in recognition from my own time at Westminster and especially from the impact of my own doktorvater there, D. G. Hart. As a student, Hart turned me on to a similarly helpful conversation partner, the early 20th century Baltimore journalist, H. L. Mencken. Urbane, witty, connected, insightful, and often brilliant, Mencken viewed his journalistic task as unmasking the pretensions of politicians and religious leaders, most of whom were mountebanks who would lie, cheat, and steal while smiling and selling the American hoi polli on the latest quack political or religious medicine. Of course, the greatest example of such pretensions were (southern) religious opposition to alcohol and evolution, two issues that Mencken particularly cared much about (and which would inspire [and fuel] some of his best writing, such as "The Sahara of the Bozart").

During my doctoral studies, Mencken provided me at least (and perhaps Hart, although I can't speak for him) an useful model of the historian's task--because, of course, Mencken was an idealist of sorts, passionate about the America he wished would exist. And so, by always issuing the "minority report" (also the title of one of Mencken's books), by always speaking in the prophetic mode, Mencken was actually pushing his readers toward his vision for American culture, politics, and even religion (an interesting example of the last was his obit for J. Gresham Machen, "Doctor Fundamentalis"; in the end, Mencken had more patience for Jefferson's Bible than for Machen's).

But a sad thing happened to Mencken (actually several sad things happened). Toward the end of his career, especially in the salad days of Roosevelt II (as he called FDR), his prophetic voice was no longer heard. His vision for America was no longer appropriate--one that depended upon "first rate" men (like Mencken himself) leading and the rest of the country following, upon seemingly Victorian values in morals, writing, and drama in a modernist age. And then, he suffered a deeply debilitating stroke, which left him unable to write the last seven years of his life. Angry with God, angry with others, his prophetic fuel turned inward; and Fred Hobson, his best biographer, could do nothing else but portray him as an angry, bitter man at his death.

Now, let me be clear here: by bringing Mencken to bear in thinking about Trueman's historical approach, I by no means want to suggest that his trajectory is similar to Mencken's. For one thing, Trueman's writing, while prophetic and hence idealistic, points toward a greater hope that is rooted in the grand realities of the Christian faith--the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus provides hope that all will be put to rights and even the follies of (Christian) human beings cannot prevent this. This was comfort that Mencken never had--a confirmed skeptic, he cut himself off from the one source that could have provided a larger vision and surer hope.

Having said that, I do wonder whether the prophetic mode or stance--whether as a journalist, philosopher, historian, theologian, or minister--is the best, long-term approach. Undoubtedly, there are times when those who exercise public leadership must sympathetically and critically unmask the pretensions of the age (or "rage, rage against the dying of the light" as Trueman, copping Dylan Thomas, put it); historians--because we are in the business of memory--are especially valuable for this. And of course, Calvinist historians bear a double burden, since we so clearly see how the capital T in "TULIP" plays out in the stories we tell. And yet, I wonder how the rest of our theological commitments as Christian historians play out as we tell our historical stories. For example, I wonder how our own eschatological commitments play out in writing historian. After all, it is not simply the secular historians or the dispensationalists or the American exceptionalists who have eschatologies--I have one as well, one that talks about a "blessed hope" that this earth will become the Kingdom of God and his Christ. How does that trajectory infuse hope into my historical writing?

In other words, I wonder whether historians (and ministers, theologians, journalists, and all the rest) need to recognize that we can't simply play "one string" as we tell our stories--if we stay in a prophetic mode, we may very well end up like Mencken, ignored, frustrated, cynical, and ultimately embittered because no one cares to listen to our prophecies any more. Or we could be like someone about whom I've written, Robert Lewis Dabney, who certainly felt this way. Observing to a colleague that his prophetic counsel was being ignored, Dabney felt that he had become “the Cassandra of Yankeedom, predestined to prophesy truth and never to be believed by her country until too late.”

In the end, I worry that if historians (or any of us) were to slip fully and finally into the mode of being Cassandra, whether the ancient prophet or more modern ones, we may end up being "right," but we will end up being the only ones who will know. In order to be heard over a long time, we should use our callings to provide not just correction, but also hope, which will allow us to speak longer, more lovingly, and in the end more truthfully to the Church which we (and Christ) love.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Post 400: Wendell Berry

A Berry poem from the Sabbath cycles:

The dark around us, come,
Let us meet here together,
Members one of another,
Here in our holy room,
Here on our little floor,
Here in the daylit sky,
Rejoicing mind and eye,
Rejoining known and knower,
Light, leaf, foot, hand, and wing,
Such order as we know,
One household, high and low,
And all the earth shall sing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Was the Doctor right after all?

Observing the crack up of the Anglican Communion and reading news that J. I. Packer is to be suspended from the Anglican Church of Canada, it raises the interesting historical question: was D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones right after all?

Those who read this blog and who are aware of the "Doctor's" life will remember that Lloyd-Jones, Packer, and John Stott had a major falling out in the late 1960s when Lloyd-Jones raised serious concerns about the direction of the Anglican church and suggested (well, it was stronger than that) that Christian ministers should leave the Anglican church because it was no longer a place hospitable to evangelicals. At the time, both Packer and Stott opposed Lloyd-Jones; the fracas led to the dividing of English evangelicalism (all this can be found in short compass in Iain Murray's Evangelicalism Divided or his biography of Lloyd-Jones).

One of the challenging questions for evangelicals in mainstream denominations is whether and when to separate from unbelief--how to discern what is a "first-order" issue; how to leave as a witness and with tears, not trumpets (in Francis Schaeffer's phrase); etc. These are particularly important questions for the Presbyterian tradition, which has seen its fair share of separation through the years (hence, the mocking label, "the split Ps").

Still, when one observes the trajectory of the Anglican Communion and the PC(USA) over the past 30 or 40 years, it seems clear that the agitating issue of today (ordination of non-celibate homosexuals) was a natural outgrowth of theological trajectories set a generation prior. If that is the case, then perhaps the Doctor was right after all--that there are appropriate times to separate from unbelief as a witness to theological truths and that this can be done without becoming warrior children, no matter what others might suggest.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Assist me to proclaim

Even though my area of specialization is the "modern" period, especially modern American religion, I've remained generally ignorant of the growing body of literature on the Methodists. Thanks to John Wigger, Dee Andrews, and David Hempton, we have a growing and solid body of scholarly literature of Methodism. However, there are not many scholarly and accessible biographies of the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley. Especially for the "lesser" known founder, Charles, there is now an excellent book to fit the bill, John R. Tyson's Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley.

Tyson paints well the attractive piety and winsome character of Charles, the younger brother and sometime junior partner of Wesleyan Methodism in the 18th century. Mining unpublished journals and the over 9,000 (!) hymns and poems, he is able to help readers access Charles' inner life. Often these hymns and poems connect to journaled events, placing both artifacts in context and illuminating the very human interactions that Charles had. He also does a great job describing the some tense partnership that Charles and John maintained for over 50 years of ministry, picturing the strengths and weaknesses that both brought to the developing Methodist movement.

I guess the thing that Tyson did well was to help me like Charles Wesley--I admired his piety (even where I disagreed with him theologically, especially in the chapter "The Poison of Calvin") and loved his hymnody (even when he used it to push his Arminianism); I wanted the Methodists to stay in the Anglican church (with Charles and against John) and disliked the "lay preachers" whom Charles disliked. To create this type of critical sympathy is a challenge for a biographer (as I found writing on Robert Lewis Dabney); Tyson pulls it off with great verve and excellent prose. To read this book was a joy and to be encouraged to love Wesley's God was a blessing.

"New" Gaffin Book

There is a "new" book by Richard Gaffin just out--the quotes around "new" are there because it is actually the reworking of a two-part article originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal in 1981. These articles, now titled God's Word in Servant-Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the Doctrine of Scripture, originally targeted the so-called Rogers/McKim thesis on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Now, they serve as a historical-theological corrective to other questions being raised on how the human and divine in Scripture relate and how incarnation and inspiration connect. On the back someone noted, "...Gaffin mines these stalwarts of the Reformed tradition for wisdom and insight in the inpsiration and inerrancy of Scripture...a must-read for pastors, students, theologians, and laymen alike!"

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


To find out about the word in the title and what it means in the light of God's calling on our lives, check out this great article by John Ortberg.