A dust-up among the historians
The problem of the “historian as activist” approach to the past
To many outsiders, the field of history probably looks like a straightforward endeavor. Historians teach us about the people, the events, and the ideas of the past. Sounds simple, but once you start studying the past, you realize there is no one agreed-upon way to do history. In the last several years, this perennial difficulty has become especially pronounced within the guild of evangelical historians, “evangelicals” broadly understood.
A recent online kerfuffle helps illuminate this intra-evangelical debate. At the end of November, Jay Green, a professor of history at Covenant College, published a piece on “The New Shape of Christian Public Discourse” in which he tried to map public Christian voices across an X-axis that moves from “emancipationists” on the left and “civilizationalists” on the right, and across a Y-axis that moves from “minimalists” at the bottom to “maximalists” at the top. Like all meta-schemes, Green’s analysis isn’t perfect (as he readily acknowledges) but as a conversation starter, it introduces helpful categories.
What made Green’s analysis useful, and controversial, is that he named names (e.g., he put me in the “civilizational minimalist” category). Not surprisingly, some individuals did not agree with the quadrant they were assigned. In particular, Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University did not appreciate being placed in the “emancipatory maximalist” category. Her response to being put in the “illiberal” quadrant was (somewhat ironically, given the charge of illiberality), “Excuse me, but what the hell?”
Jay Green then responded by noting how much he admires writers Jemar Tisby, Beth Allison Barr, and Kristin Du Mez, how his essay should have been clearer, and how he is “very much a work-in-progress.” John Fea, as the executive editor of Current, admitted it was a mistake to have published Green’s piece in its original form. Fea also added that Green was right to apologize to Du Mez and that he (Fea) also wanted to affirm Du Mez’s liberality and apologize to her in public as he had already apologized in private.
Underlying this apology fest is an ongoing debate about the role of the Christian historian. In the latest issue of Fides et Historia (the journal of the Conference on Faith and History), there are three printed plenary addresses, all dealing with the topic of Christian historians as activists.
In his presidential address, John Fea describes how his own historical work has become more sermonic. While Fea tries to allow for different models, he sympathizes with those who see “Black bodies” in American streets, the presence of patriarchy in our churches, and the selfish refusal of Christians to listen to science, and they conclude that “Business as usual seems like just another form of silence in the face of injustice.”
In her address, Du Mez acknowledges that her book Jesus and John Wayne is activist history, but, in her estimation, so are historical books that support the status quo. “For decades,” she writes, “the pursuit of ‘Christian history’ has been dominated by white Protestant men.” Theirs was an activist history for the powerful, so why shouldn’t we have an activist history for the trampled and marginalized?
In a final plenary address, Jemar Tisby insists that the “historian as activist” debate is “very white-centered.” We all have biases, Tisby argues. The only question is whether we will be clear about them. “The question is about taking sides.” And as activists and advocates, historians are called to take sides.
What are we to make of this “historian as activist” debate? Two quick thoughts.
First, for as much as the Conference on Faith and History talks about inclusion and the free exchange of ideas, it is clear that the present leadership of the historical guild assumes conclusions on the left. Fea writes, “We in the CFH may not be a bunch of campus radicals, and some of us might have some mixed feelings about the agenda of the New Left or even the consensus Cold War liberals of the 1950s and 1960s.” Wait, only mixed feelings? Likewise, Tisby claims, “We are talking about issues that are pretty clear. Either masks work to reduce the virus spread or they don’t. Either the election was as legitimate as our elections ever are, or it was stolen. Either Black Lives Matter or they don’t.”
Besides the fact that the effectiveness of masking turned out to be far from clear, this is hardly a representative list of issues. Might the Bible actually be clearer about, say, abortion and gay “marriage” than about the effectiveness of masks? And when a calmly reasoned article like Green’s prompts so much handwringing and such a flurry of apologies, one can be forgiven for wondering how open the guild really is to dissenting opinions and critical interaction.
Second, the “historian as activist” approach sounds a lot like the scholarly approach that Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden—formal and informal mentors to so many in the current generation of historians—sought to supplant. In their book from the 1980s, The Search for Christian America, Noll, Hatch, and Marsden argued that “Once we begin with our own commitments, the selection of the facts to fit them is all too easy, the more so since selectivity is usually unconscious.”
The problem they saw on the right is now ever-present on the left. “Rather than offering genuine insight into our own times,” they wrote, “the past becomes just one more medium to convey positions which we already hold.” What we need instead, they insist (à la C.S. Lewis), is to open the windows to “the clean sea-breeze of the centuries.”
Wise words, and a better approach than visiting the past and looking to settle scores for the present.
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