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.


Anonymous said...

A.W. Pink comes to mind as well...

Ned O'Gorman said...


I've never posted a comment here before, but thought I would on this occasion since you are addressing the "prophetic" and I've thought quite a bit about it re historic Calvinism.

I'll just say that I am a bit confused about your understanding of the 'prophetic.'

1/ Isn't it the case that biblical prophesy is inherently eschatological--if you are suggesting that one "moves" from the prophetic to the more hopeful and humble eschatological mode, you've seemed to neglect the eschatological essence of biblical prophesy. Are you confusing "prophesy" with a kind of reactionary-ism (which comes in both progressive and conservative styles)?
2/ Wasn't the Protestant radical tradition as pragmatic and "realistic" as it was 'idealistic'? This is something that some contemporary conservative Calvinist-types seem to miss over and over re the 16th and 17th centuries. No more 'pragmatic' narrative in the world has existed than Bradford's account of the Mayflower Pilgrims: Faced with the shores of New England, which the Puritan voyagers had not anticipated hitting, and thus with a social crisis, given that their government grant was for Virginia rather than New England, they simply formed a new covenant. Bradford writes, "This [the formation of the Mayflower Compact] was occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall: that when they got ashore they would use their liberty, that none had power to command them, that patent being produced for Virginia, and not for New England, which belonged to another company, with which the Virginia company had nothing to do. And, further, it was believed by the leading men among the settlers that such a deed, drawn up by themselves, considering their present condition, would be as effective as any patent, and in some respects more so."
Calvinists, at their best, were as much concerned with 'making do' as they were with reform and revolution. And this 'making do' was not so they could keep an audience, but because of an eschatologically-rooted social confidence.

My 2 cents. Thanks for the reflection.

Ned O'Gorman

Anonymous said...

Hi Sean--Greg T here. Thanks for this post. Your instincts are absolutely right, I think. As is your manner.

If we imagine our public task as one primarily of deconstruction (the prophetic unmasking of hidden folly) two things can happen:

We become the seers who already know the lies that men tell themselves. Thus we have nothing to learn.

Others become fools, locked in the hamster wheel of repeated folly, oblivious to the "real truth" lurking behind what they think are actually their aspirations, worries, and sorrows.

And if this happens--if we become the powerful seers, and others become the weak fools--we cede the world to Nietzsche.

We do need to unmask, and we do need to wound. Alas, we do.

But we do so not so as to unmask the folly and to leave the world naked and ashamed. But in order to construct a more beautiful vision. This is our primary task.

To misunderstand this is, as you rightly suggest, not only to misunderstand the prophetic gift, but to misunderstand the nature or our public presence altogether.

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Ned:

I don't know if you quite got my point here. My point was more historigraphical--from what stance do historians do their work? In this regard, a prophetic mode would be one in which we always remain as the minority, looking through the pretensions of the powerful and ultimately becoming cyncial about historical figures and actors.

Hope that helps,

Sean Michael Lucas said...

As always, GT, helpful reflections. Thanks for stopping by. sml