SEVEN WAYS CHRISTIAN HISTORY BENEFITS YOU

The essay below first appeared as a “daily update” from Christianity.com.  I thought it was worth calling to your attention.  The author, whom I don’t know personally, is an associate editor at the Gospel Coalition.  In referring to the value of “Christian History,” he has in mind church history or the history of Christianity.  For an argument about the value of history more broadly, consider reading my post on “A Christian Case for Studying History.”

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7 Ways Christian History Benefits You

Matt Smethurst

Christian history. Some of you already may be tempted to stop reading. History, after all, is a subject that can often feel distant, boring, irrelevant.

But I’m convinced you should care about the history of the church. In fact, I believe it’s essential. And for your good.

Christianity is a history-anchored faith. We don’t teach a set of abstract principles or philosophical ideas; we teach the truth of a historical event. As Francis Schaeffer liked to say, if you were there 2,000 years ago you could have run your hand down the cross and gotten a splinter. How silly would it for us to conclude, “Well, I believe Jesus lived and died and rose in historical time, and that without those historical events I’d be lost forever, but I don’t really care about history.”

Further, if you’re a Christian, then church history is your family history. Think about that. Studying church history is like opening a photo album and exploring your family heritage.

But Christian history isn’t just meaningful; it’s intensely practical, too. Here are seven ways that studying it benefits us.

1. It Instructs

First, Christian history instructs us, replacing our ignorance with truth. “To know nothing of what happened before you were born,” warned the ancient philosopher Cicero, “is to forever remain a child.” Learning history matures us by rooting us in reality—in what actually happened as opposed to what we assume must have happened or wish had happened.

The Christian church has a glorious yet checkered past. Just as the scriptural record of God’s people is a mixed bag—great feats of faith mingled with great falls into sin—so is the history of the people who have made up the church through the ages. Historians John Woodbridge and Frank James observe:

The history of the church reminds us that Christians can be culprits of foolishness as well as bold titans for truth. They can be egoistic and self-serving; they can be humble and generous. A single individual can embody conflicting traits. We may find it disconcerting to discover that our heroes are sometimes flawed. . . . [But] God works through sinners to accomplish his good purposes.

The study of Christian history serves an instructive, and therefore maturing, purpose.

2. It Exhilarates

Second, Christian history exhilarates. Yes, it can seem boring at times. And no doubt it can be taught boringly. When taught well, though, it involves the thrill of discovery—and that’s exciting. You get to meet people you’ve never seen and visit places you’ve never been, and can never go, since they no longer exist.
Exploring your spiritual heritage can be a thrilling adventure.

3. It Gives Perspective

Third, Christian history provides perspective, freeing us from the narrow perspectives and overwhelming demands of the urgent.

One historian aptly noted that history “must be our deliverer not only from the undue influence of other times, but from the undue influence of our own—from the tyranny of environment and the pressures of the air we breathe.”  An excessive focus on the present leads to historical and spiritual myopia. We need Christian history to expand our horizons.

Additionally, it can be easy to think that there was some golden age of doctrinal knowledge and Christian living long ago to which we must return. But this is an illusion. No era has known a level of Christian thought and practice that didn’t cry out for the King’s return.

4. It Illumines

Fourth, Christian history illumines. It sheds light on present trends and circumstances, thereby going a long way toward explaining why things are the way they are today.

The challenges facing us as Christians are rarely unique to our time. For example, if you’ve ever talked with a Mormon you may know that they deny Christ’s deity. He isn’t the Creator God, they say, but a created god—the highest creature, even. But this argument has been around since at least the third century, and a book like Athanasius’s On the Incarnation—written in response to this very issue—can illumine us on how to answer our Mormon friends.

5. It Inspires

Fifth, Christian history inspires. I imagine you know what it’s like to hear a story or watch a film about a historical figure and feel stirred. Reading biographies can be a particularly powerful source of inspiration. Whether learning of the heavenly-mindedness of Jonathan Edwards, the persistence of Adoniram Judson, the faith of George Mueller, or the conviction of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God has often used biographies in my life to encourage my soul and spark fresh devotion to Christ. . . .

In Scripture, rehearsing acts of faith in the past (Hebrews 11:1-40) is tethered to running with endurance in the present (Hebrews 12:1-2). Your King intends yesterday’s stories to inspire you in today’s race.

6. It Humbles and Convicts

Sixth, Christian history humbles and convicts. As you explore the lives of your spiritual forebears, you’ll soon find you’re not as impressive as you thought.
Bethan Lloyd-Jones, wife of the great 20th-century preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones, once explained: “In order to understand my husband you must understand that he was first of all a man of prayer, and then an evangelist.”  Now ask yourself: if the person who knows you best were to share the secret to understanding you, would prayer and evangelism top their list?

7. It Fires Worship

Finally, studying Christian history fires worship. How could it not? It deepens our amazement at God’s unflinching faithfulness through the ages. We’re moved to praise him for saving, for preserving, and for using his people despite themselves.

Although Christian history is the study of the works of men and women, it’s ultimately the study of the work of God. It’s not Christians who have been building the church, after all; it’s Christ. I will build my church, he promised, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

Speaking of Jesus, few things showcase him like church history. We may think there are many heroes of the past, but in the final analysis there’s only one. The Lord Jesus is the only perfect Hero to which all of his imperfect followers point.

Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife Maghan have two children and live in Louisville, Kentucky, where they belong to Third Avenue Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK–THE HISTORIAN’S VOCATION

Hello, All!

I have been away for far too long.  Somehow, the beginning of a new school year always seems to catch me off guard, as if I didn’t see it coming.  I have been struggling to get on top of things–trying to find the emotional and physical energy for the new year–and was also away for part of last week paying a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas.  I was down there to tape an interview for “Family Life Today” on my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  It felt strange to be talking about Thanksgiving at the beginning of September, but I enjoyed the interview, and I also had the opportunity to experience some fine Arkansas cuisine–first at a restaurant named “Slim Chickens,” then at a swanky establishment called “The Whole Hog Cafe.”   Great beans and cole slaw.

At any rate, I’ve missed writing for you and hope to make more time for that from here on.  To get back into the swing of things, I thought I would share a favorite quote from my commonplace book.  My commonplace book is my “life thickener”–to use a phrase that I first heard from Mark Edmundson in his book Why Teach?  Writing in it helps me to slow down and reflect on enduring questions of calling and purpose, questions that are immensely important but too easily crowded out by the demands of daily life.

I like to re-read regularly the quotes that I have written down, especially at the beginning of each semester.  In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.”  In a figurative sense, my commonplace book embodies something like what Bonhoeffer was describing.  When I open its pages, I encounter numerous Christians who encourage me by reminding me of what is true.

Below is an example from someone you probably haven’t heard of unless you are an academic historian.  Arthur S. Link (1920-1998) was a long-time historian at Northwestern University and then at Princeton University, where he served for more than three decades.  During his lifetime, he was widely recognized as the leading authority on the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  He edited Wilson’s personal papers and also authored a five-volume biography on the president.  Overall, Link wrote some thirty books, and along the way he twice won the Bancroft Prize, which is essentially the “book-of-the-year” award given annually by the American Historical Association.   In 1984 he received the highest honor that a U. S. historian can receive by being elected president of the that organization.

Link was also a man of faith.  In 1962, he wrote a piece for the journal Theology Today titled “The Historian’s Vocation.”  As you read the excerpt below, try to imagine such a nationally prominent, Ivy League professor making a similar claim in 2014.  In context, Link is reflecting on the difference that belief in God makes for the historian’s sense of vocation.

The historian will no longer say with Descartes, “cogito, ergo sum” ["I think, therefore I am"].  He will now say “Deus est, ergo sum” ["God exists, therefore I am"], ergo creation, being, truth, history.  Think what this means to the historian in so vital a matter as his methodology.  It means that historical truth exists not in his imagination or because of his whim, but because God himself, the Creator of the universe, has brought human history into being and has himself lived in human history.  Man, a finite creature, can know and understand truth only partially, imperfectly, corruptly, it may be.  But by God’s grace he can at least honor, respect, and treasure it.  That is to say, the historian, while readily acknowledging that only God knows all historical truth, can now affirm, profess, and confess that he stands in the presence of something far greater than himself, something that gives meaning to his life and work.

P. S.  In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write that “Christians can survive only by supporting one another through the countless small acts through which we tell one another that we are not alone, that God is with us.”  Thanks to the many of you who responded to my last post with kindness and encouragement.  I appreciated it greatly.

REVIEWING THE “CHRISTIAN AMERICA” ARGUMENT

Today marks the second anniversary of Faith and American History.  I began this blog as an expression of an evolving sense of vocation.  In my very first post (“Why I am Writing”), I explained the decision to try my hand at a blog in this way:

God calls us, the late Frederick Buechner observed, to a life of service at the intersection of our heart’s passion and society’s need.  “The place God calls you to,” as he put it so eloquently, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.”  If Buechner’s definition is correct, then it would be accurate to say that I am starting this blog out of a sense of God’s calling.  I am a Christian by faith and an academic historian by vocation, and my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.

Nearly a hundred essays later, I can’t say that I have generated as much genuine conversation as I would have hoped for.  Comments have been pretty scarce, and I’m often left wondering whether my reflections are as useful to others as I wish them to be.  At the same time, you have helped me immensely by providing me with an audience to write for, and I am grateful.  My sense of calling has not weakened, and I look forward to continuing.

To mark the anniversary, I thought I would go back and identify the most popular essays that I have posted these past two years.  In doing so, I discovered that four of the top five share a common theme.  Each is a critique of an influential work by a popular Christian writer (or writers) about America’s religious heritage.  Three of these came out more than a year ago, at a time when many of you who now follow Faith and American History were not yet subscribers.

So here are links to the fours essays:

Light and the GloryIn the first essay–by far the most widely-read post I have ever shared–I reviewed the most popular Christian interpretation of U.S. history ever written.  (See Thoughts on The Light and the Glory.)   Together with the subsequent volumes From Sea to Shining Sea and Sounding Forth the Trumpet, the “God’s Plan for America” Trilogy by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel has sold nearly a million copies and has influenced two generations of American evangelicals.  It still figures prominently in Christian home school and private school curricula.

Christian ManifestoIn the second essay I focused on the historically oriented writings of the late Francis Schaeffer, particularly How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto.  From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, arguably no single individual did more than Schaeffer to encourage American evangelicals to take the life of the mind seriously.  This was an invaluable contribution.  And yet, as I do my best to explain in “How Should We Then Think About American History?”, Schaeffer fell into the trap that has consistently ensnared well-meaning Christian writing about America’s past.

Southern Slavery as It WasThe third essay turns to two living authors, Steven Wilkins and Doug Wilson.  Although not as well known as either Marshall and Manuel or Schaeffer, Wilkins and Wilson have been extremely influential in the home-school and classical Christian school movements.  Wilson, furthermore, has achieved a degree of national prominence, thanks especially to his well publicized debates with atheist Christopher Hitchens and by his recent authorship of the satirical novel Evangellyfish, which Christianity Today named the best work of fiction in 2012. Both Wilkins and Wilson lecture and write extensively on history.  Perhaps the most controversial work of these unabashedly controversial authors has been their 1996 booklet Southern Slavery As It Was.  I offer my two cents worth in “How Not to Argue Historically.”

Jefferson Lies IIThe final essay takes up the work of popular Christian author David Barton, focusing in particular on his 2012 book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.  The book’s numerous serious problems have been well documented, but in “What’s Really at Stake in the ‘Christian America’ Debate,” I add to a careful critique of the book’s argument my thoughts on how it reflects on the Gospel.

As you read (or re-read) these four pieces you should notice two recurring patterns:

First, although all of these authors meant well, they erred by linking their defense of Christianity with a particular historical argument about the American past.  In a sense, they unwittingly allowed the authority of Christian principles to depend on the veracity of their historical claims about America’s past.  This was not malevolent.  It was, however, tragically misguided.

Second, you’ll notice that none of the authors in question is a trained historian, and most of them were (or are) either full-time or part-time ministers.  It would be an exaggeration to say that we evangelicals learn American history primarily from our preachers, but there’s no doubt that the pulpit greatly informs our understanding of the past.

Why this is so is the sixty-four dollar question.  The pattern says something about the culture of American evangelicalism, surely.  We tend to be skeptical of authority and suspicious of intellectuals, and at times we can value charisma a lot more than credentials.  But I think it’s also an indictment on Christian academics like myself, for with a few exceptions, we have thought it was far more important to speak to the Academy than to the Church.  I’m sorry about that.

GLIMPSING HEAVEN FROM A PARK BENCH

I’ve written previously about the passage below from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

I love Lewis’s word picture of the “pleasant inn.”  The world is not our home–we are pilgrims en route to a better country–but the Lord in His kindness still gives us countless pleasures in this life, experiences of refreshing that strengthen us for the journey ahead.  These experiences don’t have to be expensive or exotic.  For me, one of the pleasant inns that most refreshes my soul is the simple act of reading a good book outdoors on a sunny day.  (You can add this to the list of reasons why my life’s story will never be made into an action movie.)

Last summer my favorite spot was beside a small lake near our home in Wheaton.  This summer I have broadened my horizons.  I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Riverwalk in Naperville, Illinois, about a half hour away.  The Riverwalk is a public park that runs along a branch of the DuPage River.  It boasts nearly two miles of walking trails; lots of artwork, flower beds, and fountains; covered bridges, a small lake, and a 160-foot-high carillon tower. It’s a gorgeous setting, and on weekday mornings it’s not even very crowded.  I love it.

If I have most of the day, I organize the occasion like one of the “progressive dinners” my church used to sponsor when I was young, changing locations with each “course.”  I normally begin near the “Dandelion Fountain,” reading there until too many kids show up or my rear end starts to feel numb.

The Dandelion Fountain at the Naperville Riverwalk

The Dandelion Fountain at the Naperville Riverwalk

From there I go across the river to a bench next to “Dick Tracy”–or more precisely, a nine-foot tall, 2,000-pound bronze sculpture of the old comic-strip detective.  (Yeah, I think it’s pretty weird, too, but it’s a little less weird if you know that one of the long-time contributors to the strip is a Naperville native.)  Detective Tracy stands a bit off the main walkway, and he and I often have the landing behind the town hall to ourselves.  I find him my ideal reading companion–reassuringly present but not too talkative.

Dick Tracy patrols the Naperville Riverwalk.

Dick Tracy patrols the Naperville Riverwalk.

I typically end up a couple of hundred yards away, on a bench near an old stone quarry that has been converted into a lake for paddleboats and kayaks.  If my time is limited, though, I start there, for it’s at the same time the most beautiful and the most secluded spot in the park.  My bench is in a little alcove several steps below the main walkway.  It is screened by bushes, and when I sit there I have a sense of solitude–or what passes for solitude in such an urban setting.

The Paddleboat Quarry in Naperville--not a bad place to read.

The Paddleboat Quarry in Naperville–not a bad place to read.

Friday morning before last I spent two glorious hours at the Paddleboat Quarry, lingering over a cinnamon and raisin bagel and the pages of Political Sermons of the Founding Era, vol. II.  It was 76 degrees (my smart phone told me so), the sky was relentlessly blue, there was a whisper of a breeze, and there was almost no one in sight.  It doesn’t get much better.  “Every good and perfect thing comes down from the Father,” the books of James tells us, and in my heart I was grateful.  But because I was pretty sure that this would be my last Riverwalk reading of the summer, I was also wistful, even a little sad.

Grateful but longing for more.  If I understand Lewis, I think that’s how it is with “pleasant inns.”  The experiences that he mentions are not merely respites from the stress and strains of life.  They re-energize us, giving us strength to continue the journey by granting a glimpse of what awaits us when our journey’s done.

That, I think, is what I experienced as I sat and read on that Riverwalk park bench: a glimpse of heaven.  I mean that literally, knowing full well that it may strike you as more than a little strange.  After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, my Wheaton colleague Wayne Martindale has concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.”  This is surely so, in large part, because of how comfortable our lives are.  In His kindness, God showers us with blessings meant to encourage us in our journeys: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings.  In our fallenness, we tend to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves.  This dulls our longing for God and causes us to rest our hearts in this world.

One of the ways to combat this tendency, I believe, is to cultivate greater mindfulness with regard to pleasant inns.  This means being more intentional about seeing the pleasant inns that God places along our path, recognizing them for what they are, and allowing ourselves to feel deeply the tension of pleasure and longing that they create.  Recently I’ve been trying to figure out what made my experience on the park bench a foretaste of heaven, and here are three features I’ve come up with:

First is the sensory component.  The physical surroundings matter.  After twenty-two years in Seattle, I never take sunshine for granted.  After four winters in Chicago, I treasure warmth as a rare commodity.  We will be embodied beings in heaven, and the combination of light and color and water and sound that summer morning played an important role.  It was luxurious, but also fleeting–for now.

More important was the element of contemplation that occupied my thoughts.  The reading I was engaged in was deeply satisfying, but it was not entertaining in the common sense of that word.  It was hard.  My goal was to be challenged and changed.  In Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, Mark William Roche reminds us that contemplation is an important way of drawing close to God.  Both Aristotle and Aquinas recognized that it as an activity that sets human beings apart from the rest of God’s creation.  Animals eat, sleep, work, mate, and even play, but as best we can tell, they don’t spend a lot of time wrestling with the meaning of the universe.  When we engage in contemplation, Roche observes, we engage in “the activity that most mirrors the divine.”

Finally, there was also an important aspect of communion in my park-bench experience.  I was reading 18th-century sermons, after all–figuratively entering into a conversation with Christians from another time–and in that sense I was participating in that fellowship of believers across the ages that the Apostles’ Creed refers to as the “communion of the saints.”

I may be wrong, but I don’t think we evangelicals give much thought to the temporal dimension of God’s church.  When it comes to our musings about heaven, we may acknowledge that the “sacred throng” that will gather around the throne will include representatives of “every kindred” and “every tribe,” as the hymn writer put it long ago.  But I don’t think it much dawns on us that the saints will represent a vast range of times as well as places.  The “communion of the saints” is a fellowship that spans centuries as well as cultures.  We forget that truth, in part, because we are “stranded in the present,” to use Margaret Bendroth’s haunting phrase.   What is worse, as Bendroth points out, we tend to think of people from the past as inferior to us, even as “not really real.”  In heaven we’ll see otherwise.

WHY CHOOSE THE LIBERAL ARTS?

Two weeks from today I will be manning a table at Wheaton College’s annual Academic Fair.  The doors to the gymnasium will open at 11:30 and a flood of new students and their parents will pour in.  They’ll roam from table to table, nervously introducing themselves and asking questions about the various academic majors and programs that the college has to offer.  For my colleagues and I, it’s a little like sweeps week on network television.  We do our best to make the history major sound glamorous, exciting, and life-transforming.  We present ourselves as brilliant (but humble), devout, charismatic, and endlessly entertaining.  We also shamelessly give away prizes.  Most popular are the history action figures: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander the Great, and (my favorite) Marine Antoinette, complete with severable head and a basket to catch it in.

Such premeditated distraction works, up to a point, but eventually the conversations take a serious turn.  The transformation usually begins with a nudge in the ribs from the nearest parent, or perhaps an urgently whispered “Ask him,” at which point the eighteen-year old across the table will clear her throat and politely inquire, “What can you do with a history degree?”

The answer, of course, is pretty much anything.  For many of my years at the University of Washington, I served  as the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of History.  One of the things that I did in that capacity was to administer a survey each year to our graduating majors (usually 200 or more), and one of the questions that I always asked our graduates involved their immediate and long-term career plans.  Their answers were instructive.

In any given year, typically a quarter to a third of our graduating seniors intended to become history teachers themselves, and a handful more hoped to enter closely related fields such as museum studies, archive management, and historical preservation.  But the large majority were headed down wholly different paths: in banking, financial planning, and insurance; in library science and computer science; in the national park service or the foreign service; in film production, law enforcement, and public affairs; in medicine, the ministry, or the military; in politics or the Peace Corps.  Others planned careers as journalists, attorneys, fire fighters, chefs, pilots, social workers, urban planners, and labor organizers.  I always thought that this was exactly as it should be.  History doesn’t provide technical preparation for a particular job, but rather broad thinking skills applicable to a myriad of jobs.

I typically share these findings with the students and parents at the Wheaton College Academic Fair, and I conclude by expressing my view that the study of history is far more than a gateway to a specific occupation; it is a stepping stone to lifelong learning.  As eloquent as that sounds, I don’t think it convinces many of my listeners.  The parents seem especially skeptical, a pattern that may have something to do with who is actually writing the tuition checks.  I totally get it.  College is expensive at best, and a private college like Wheaton requires enormous financial commitment and sacrifice.  Of course they want to believe that their money will be well spent before they fork over the cash.

RocheWhich is why I have prepared for this year’s Academic Fair by reading Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, by Mark William Roche.  Roche is an English professor by training, but when this book came out in 2010, he had just finished a lengthy stint as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.  I’ll be carrying crib notes from the book with me two weeks from now, I can assure you.  Roche offers a slew of statistics attesting to the economic viability of liberal arts degrees.  He cites numerous surveys of major employers who rank the ability to think critically and write and speak effectively as more important than technical expertise.  He quotes CEO after CEO in praise of the humanities, and reveals that students who major in the humanities (including history) have a higher acceptance rate into medical school than those in a more traditional “pre-med” discipline.

Yes, I’ll share some of these facts with my anxious listeners, but I wish that I wouldn’t have to.  This sort of pragmatic argument perpetuates an impoverished understanding of education that Christians need to be combating, not affirming.  At its richest, education is much more than vocational training.  Roche agrees.  He emphasizes the pragmatic benefits of the liberal arts because he is a realist, and he recognizes that we live in a culture that equates education with learning how to make a living rather than learning how to live.  (A recent survey of college freshmen ranks “being very well off financially” as their highest priority.)  Roche’s personal sense of calling is quite different, however.  Speaking as an educator to educators, he concludes Why Choose the Liberal Arts? with this stirring declaration:

 Our greatest challenge is not to help our students find a career that satisfies their specialized intellectual interests and capacities or their material needs and desires but to help them find a higher calling that allows them to gain meaning and to be both at home in the world as it is and active in the wider world as it should be, so that learning becomes service to wisdom and justice.

I totally get the “what can I do with a history degree” question.  It needs to be asked.  But I do wish that at least one time a parent would nudge her son or whisper in his ear, and the nervous eighteen-year old would clear his throat and ask, “How will studying history change who I am?”

That’s a conversation I can get excited about.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SEEING MORE CLEARLY WHOM WE SERVE

Sociologist Christian Smith–a believing scholar at Notre Dame, formerly at UNC–has spent most of his career systematically surveying American religious beliefs.  A prolific author, he is perhaps best known for his 2005 book (coauthored with Melinda L. Denton) Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Less well known outside academic circles is his 1998 study focused specifically on the values and beliefs of evangelical Christians in the U. S.–American Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving.

The book’s title nicely captures its main argument.  After undertaking extensive polling and conducting thousands of interviews, Smith and his team of researchers concluded that American evangelicals were thriving  in large part because they were embattled.  Evangelicalism was growing rapidly, in other words, “very much because of and not in spite of its confrontation with modern pluralism.”  Evangelicals see themselves as taking part in an ongoing struggle with an unbelieving culture, Smith found, and that sense of struggle has given evangelicalism much of its religious strength.

The sense of cultural struggle Smith alludes to has surely had its benefits for the life of the mind.  Most notably, as Smith points out, it has kept American evangelicals from either blandly blending into the secular mainstream or wholly withdrawing into fundamentalist ghettos.  That’s a good thing.  But when it comes to our engagement with the past, our sense of being engaged in a cultural struggle has been a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it has led countless believers to value the past, to believe that it is vitally important that American Christians not lose touch with their religious and national history.  Although we historians often bemoan our culture’s “chronological snobbery” and relentless present-mindedness, every time I attend a home-school gathering or speak to a private Christian school, I am reminded that there is an enormous population of American Christians who take history with the utmost seriousness.

On the other hand, the embattled mindset that Smith writes about has encouraged countless Christian leaders and thinkers to study the past with an agenda in mind.  The most influential contributors to the popular view that America was founded as a Christian nation are also among the most egregious practitioners of what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.

Although their intentions may be honorable, those who adopt this strategy are more interested in proving points and winning arguments than in gaining greater understanding of a complex past.  They know in advance what they want to find in their investigations, and they can already envision how their anticipated “discoveries” will reinforce values that they already hold.  I cannot overstate the costs of such an approach.  When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process. History loses its potential to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all. We learn nothing beyond what we already “know.

Conceiving the Christian CollegeHere is an extended quote from my commonplace book that calls Christians to a different standard.  The author is Duane Litfin, who for seventeen years (1993-2010) was president of my current institution, Wheaton College.  The passage is from his 2004 work Conceiving the Christian College.  In context, Litfin is exploring the possible motivations for Christian scholarship and challenging Christians engaged in the life of the mind “to see more fully whom we serve.”  Listen to what he has to say:

I am highly motivated to be about the business of cultivating our minds and our learning, but it seems to me that our first motives must be intrinsic rather than instrumental.  In other words, we must learn to love God with our minds, to use our artistic gifts for Christ, to embody him in serving our neighbor and our society.  But our primary motive for doing so must not be the transformation of our culture.  Our prime motive must be obedience to Jesus Christ.  Then, if the living Christ graciously chooses to use our efforts to mold our culture into more of what he wants it to be, we will be grateful.  On the other hand, if he does not so choose–and let us be clear about it, he does not always so choose–and the culture remains resistant, even hostile, to our Christian influence, we must not be cast down.  Our motivation is not dependent on the acceptance and approval of our culture; in the end we care preeminently about the approval of Jesus Christ.  Our goal is to love God with our minds, whether the culture comes to appreciate our efforts or not.

AN ATHEIST’S HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FOUNDING

Earlier this month I had an opportunity to review a new book on the American founding for Christianity Today. The book is Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. The author, Matthew Stewart, is an independent writer, a philosopher by training, and an atheist by conviction. (If you missed the review, you can read it here.) Summarizing broadly, Nature’s God argues that the vision of the leading Founders was aggressively secular. Their worldview centered on a radical deism that was tantamount to atheism, and their ultimate objective was not freedom of religion but freedom from religion. What is more, their views were widely shared by common Americans in the revolutionary era.

Natures GodAlthough Stewart cloaks his argument in a 400-page narrative, the heart of his reasoning boils down to a simple syllogism: The ideas that matter in history are the ones that are true. Religious beliefs are, by definition, false. Ergo (philosophers say ergo a lot), religious beliefs couldn’t have mattered in the American founding. If lots of colonists back in ’76 thought otherwise, that’s because they weren’t as enlightened as the author. Too bad for them.

The thrust of my review was to call attention to Stewart’s a priori assumptions and to remind readers of historians’ quaint belief that historical assertions should be grounded in historical evidence. Stewart is correct to point out that the religious beliefs of many of the leading Founders were unorthodox, David Barton’s wish-dreams to the contrary notwithstanding. But Stewart errs badly in equating the views of the leading Founders with atheism, and he provides almost no evidence at all for his insistence that radical philosophy was widespread among the rank and file of colonial patriots.  In short, the emperor has no clothes.

I was under a strict word limitation in my review for CT, and there was quite a bit that I wanted to say that space didn’t allow. Before the buzz about the book fades completely—hopefully not too long from now—I thought I would share some thoughts that didn’t get into the formal review. Here are two somewhat lengthy additional reflections:

First, a great deal of what Stewart wants to do in Nature’s God is challenge the intellectual coherence of orthodox Christianity. Debates about the past are almost always debates about the present in disguise, and Stewart’s claims about the origins of the American Revolution are no exception. The author openly longs for the day when religious belief is wholly “confined to the private sphere, as a purely inward matter, where it is rendered harmless.” He recognizes that it’s easier to justify the banishment of faith from public life in 2014 if you can prove that it was irrelevant in 1776.

Yet for a study that is so determined to discredit orthodox Christianity, the author is curiously averse to engaging Christian scholars, whether historians or theologians. When it comes to the religious beliefs of the revolutionary generation, quite a number of Christian historians have anticipated much of Stewart’s findings, albeit with vastly greater nuance and balance, but you’d never know it from his account. And as for the teachings of Scripture and the elements of orthodoxy, Stewart’s strategy is to ignore theologians altogether and instead lampoon the purported beliefs of “the common religious consciousness.”

Stewart alludes to “the common religious consciousness” incessantly (on pages 72, 92, 131, 158, 173, 174, 322, 339, 370, 374, 387, 389, 397, 427, among other places).  When he tires of the phrase he ridicules instead “the common view of things,” “the religious conception,” “the common sense of the matter,” “conventional wisdom,” “the common conception,” “common intuition,” “common ideas about things,” “a common line of interpretation” and the “widely accepted view today.” The one thing that unifies every one of these references is that they lack even a single specific reference to supporting evidence. The “common religious consciousness” is simply Stewart’s rhetorical whipping boy.  It stands for whatever straw man he needs at the moment to make Christianity appear ludicrous.

Don’t get me wrong. At times Nature’s God is an impressively scholarly work. The end notes are ninety pages long, and Stewart can split hairs with the best of them in exploring the subtleties of Epicurean philosophy or the writings of Benedict de Spinoza. But when it comes to defining the Christianity he so detests, the book becomes appallingly unscholarly, even anti-intellectual. Christianity is simply whatever Stewart says it is. And that makes Stewart’s job of ridiculing it a lot easier. “Nice work, if you can get it,” as we like to say around the McKenzie household.

Second, although Stewart would wince at the comparison, I kept thinking while reading Nature’s God that the book has a lot in common with the works of David Barton. A recurring theme in Barton’s “Christian America” interpretation is that the true history of America’s origins has been intentionally hidden by secularists who hate the truth. With almost perfect symmetry, Stewart argues that Christian apologists have “lobotomized” the more radical leaders of the Revolution and covered up the reality that they were religious heretics. From the founding all the way to our day, “there have been many attempts,” Stewart charges, “most of them misinformed, some shamelessly deceitful—to deny or emend this basic fact of American history.”

Like Barton, Stewart also contends that he has no agenda other than a zealous commitment to discover the truth. He claims that he was “eager to see what I might learn” from the writings of Barton, Tim LaHaye, Gary Demar, and company—a whopper if I’ve ever heard one—and he insists that he was repeatedly surprised by the conclusions that his unbiased examination of the evidence thrust upon him. As I followed Stewart’s description of his approach in the book’s preface, the image that came to mind was an academic version of Sgt. Joe Friday, the relentless Dragnet detective who followed the evidence wherever it led. Just the facts, ma’am.

The reality is much different.  Stewart–like Barton–approaches the past more like a defense attorney than a police detective.   His job is not to present the whole truth to the jury, but rather to make the strongest case that he can for his client.  To put it differently, Stewart–just like Barton–is focused more on scoring points in the culture wars than on wrestling with the complexities of the past.  Winning the argument trumps understanding the issues.

I’ll take the time to share one appalling example of this from Nature’s God.  In chapter two (titled “Pathologies of Freedom”), Stewart introduces the villain in his melodrama, namely the Protestant Christianity that was widespread in the American colonies in the aftermath of the Great Awakening.  His primary goal for the chapter is to demonstrate how utterly anti-intellectual Christianity was (and is).

To that end, Stewart frames the chapter in terms of a relentless struggle between science and religion.  The former is defined by an open-ended commitment to truth, the latter by narrow-minded bigotry and hostility to free inquiry.  Stewart begins the chapter with an anecdote involving Ethan Allen, the free-thinking backwoodsman who would go on to fame during the Revolution as leader of Vermont’s “Green Mountain Boys.”  In 1764 Allen was arrested in Salisbury, Connecticut for defying a town ordinance prohibiting the administration of smallpox vaccinations.  According to Stewart, the town’s council of “selectmen” had caved in to religious arguments that vaccination interfered with divine sovereignty.  In an end note buried 414 pages later, he acknowledges that “opinion on the subject of inoculation did not consistently divide along theological lines.”  But in the text he notes only that Allen’s arrest “could be seen as one of many collisions between religion and science.”

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

Having used the vignette to illustrate the supposed hostility between faith and reason, Stewart then devotes the heart of the chapter to an overview of the theology of the Great Awakening, focusing most of his attention on an extended character sketch of the famous preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards.  According to Stewart’s contemptuous caricature, Edwards fomented hate, taught “strikingly cruel doctrines,” and brainwashed his congregation into worshiping “an angry God who demands absolute humiliation upon pain of eternal damnation.”  What offends Stewart most is Edward’s purported war on reason.  His followers were sheep who succumbed to Edwards’ insistence on “absolute  submission,” on “obedience without sense or purpose.”  Finding no intellectually respectable grounds for Christian conviction, Stewart dismisses the Christianity of colonial America as a form of “madness.”

At this point, I could almost feel myself pulling for those brave colonial atheists who refused to shut off their brains even as waves of religious superstition rolled across the land.  But although Stewart’s prose is colorful and engaging, the author’s characterization of Edwards is more ignorant rant than serious scholarship.  Jonathan Edwards was one of the preeminent intellectuals of colonial America.  He read widely, thought deeply about literature and art and philosophy, and was throughout his life an advocate, not an opponent of science.  When he died prematurely in 1758, he had just assumed the presidency of one of the leading institutions of higher education in North America, Princeton College.  He was the last person to cast faith and reason as unalterable enemies.  That view belongs to Matthew Stewart, not Jonathan Edwards.

And the cause of Edwards’ premature death?  The point is hardly irrelevant to the chapter on colonial religion as Stewart frames it.  Edwards died from a smallpox inoculation, having concluded that the risk involved from being infected with a mild case of the disease was justified by the statistical likelihood of its efficacy.   Stewart never once hints at this fact.  He is either unaware of it–which is possible, though I find it unlikely–or the truth simply didn’t fit with his predetermined agenda to discredit the Christianity he so despises.