Happy 2014 to everyone! I am writing from Washington, D. C., where I was attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, the largest professional association of historians in the United States. Imagine more than four thousand academic historians converging on one place–it’s scarier than a zombie movie. I still recall a conversation I had with my dad some twenty-six years ago as I was preparing to leave for my first AHA convention (it was held in Washington, D.C. that year also). I shared with my dad that I was nervous about it, and my accountant father did his best to coach me. “No need to be nervous,” he said. “Most of them won’t have any social skills either.” 🙂
I enjoyed this year’s meeting, especially a session sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History (an organization of Christian historians) on the topic “Re-Imagining the Practice of History.” I was privileged to give a paper alongside Professor Glenn Sanders of Oklahoma Baptist University, who shared some really challenging and creative ideas about how to incorporate Christian spiritual practices into the history classroom. We both benefited from commentary by Professor John Fea of Messiah College, who did a wonderful job of framing our papers to the audience and of offering constructive feedback. One of the main reasons that I have been drawn to the Conference on Faith and History is that I have found within its fellowship a context for exploring what it means to pursue my vocation faithfully, and this year’s session was a perfect example of that.
Unfortunately, the historically awful weather that is now sweeping across the midwest and east caused my flight back to Chicago to be cancelled, and so I find myself looking at at least another day and a half in D. C. It’s been too long since I last talked with you all, so I thought I would take the opportunity to catch up a bit.
From time to time I like to share recommendations of books that I think would be of interest to Christians interested in American history. I just finished one such book, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, by Margaret Bendroth. The author is a historian of American religion and the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts. I do not know her personally, but I have long admired her as a fine historian and a scholar of sincere religious faith. I ordered the book the moment it was released and began reading it on the plane from O’Hare to Dulles. It didn’t disappoint. Bendroth’s goal is not to offer a particular interpretation of history, but instead to make a case for the importance of history, especially to Christians. The book is short (132 pp.) and accessible; Bendroth has a real knack for illustrating her points with memorable illustrations or examples. I recommend the book heartily.
Rather than offer a blow-by-blow synopsis, I’ll just share briefly a few of Bendroth’s points that struck me forcefully. First, she effectively reminds us that Christianity is a historical faith. Both Christianity and Judaism are religions fundamentally based on remembrance of historical events, of God’s work in the arc of human history. Among other things, this means that “the past tense is essential to our language of faith.” (That’s one of the book’s many pithy phrases that I know I will be coming back to, as is her observation that, in severing ourselves from the past, most twenty-first-century Americans are “stranded in the present.”)
And yet, though we claim to adhere to a historical faith, we also tend to be dismissive of history. Bendroth spends much of her time trying to explain this paradox. Her explanation is multi-faceted, but two factors that she develops stand out to me. To begin with, she notes that modern Americans have come to take it for granted that the past is “inferior to the present.” (The key point is that this is an attribute of the modern mind. For most of world history, humans have not reflexively adopted this kind of chronological snobbery.) Commercials entice us with products that are “new and improved!”as if the phrase were one word. Our love affair (obsession?) with technology reinforces the mindset that equates change with progress.
With condescending charity we may view our ancestors as quaint–their peculiarities can be amusing, after all–but we will rarely believe that they have anything to say to us that we might need to hear. Given that 100 million people died in twentieth-century wars, that there are many more people in slavery today than were ever caught up in the transatlantic slave trade of the 1500s-1800s, and that global inequities in power and wealth are staggering, why are we so quick to believe that humanity is on an ever-ascending escalator? And yet, as Bendroth observes, “we assume that we are better than people who have lived before us.”
If we are inclined to think of people from the past as inferior to us, Bendroth also notes that we now find it easy to think of them as “not really real.” As late as the early-nineteenth century, most Americans lived in communities in which reminders of those who had gone before were everywhere. She cites many examples of this, but perhaps the most powerful was the practice of building cemeteries in church-yards. Generations of American Christians were tangibly reminded of the “cloud of witnesses” who had preceded them every Sunday as they entered their church buildings.
As an antidote to such dismissiveness, Bendroth calls us to a renewed appreciation of a concept embodied in the Apostles’ Creed, namely the “communion of the saints.” This ancient phrase (likely a part of the creed since the early 700s), reminds us that “all of God’s people–past, present, and future–form a single, interdependent whole.” Furthermore, she challenges us to love our brothers and sisters across the ages by taking them seriously enough to listen to them. Reminding us that Christianity across the ages has been, among other things, a “long conversation about the declaration that ‘Jesus is Lord,'” she challenges us to rejoin the conversation.
Not a bad resolution for the new year, it seems to me.