Tag Archives: Beth Barton Schweiger


After a lazy Sunday afternoon watching Peyton Manning strike a blow for old geezers, I’m feeling much too “do-less” (my grandmother’s word) to grade papers, so I thought I’d share some scattered thoughts about the recent American Historical Association annual meeting that I attended two weeks ago in Atlanta. The AHA is the premier professional organization for academic historians, and typically four to five thousand of us show up for each year’s conference. We’re a raucous bunch—not. Actually, think of every stereotype of historians that comes to mind and then double them, and you’ll be on the right track.

I’ve never much enjoyed the AHA, to be honest. The sessions can be interesting, but as a concept they’ve never made sense to me. Believe it or not, historians read their professional conference papers word for word, which means that a typical AHA session involves a room of extraordinarily educated individuals (most of whom have PhDs) sitting around while someone reads to them. Given that we are literate, a cheaper and more efficient approach would be for all of the presenters to post their papers online. We could then read them at leisure from our laptops in coffee shops or while watching football on our couches, instead of having to travel across the country to have them read to us in a hotel conference room.

But that would defeat the real purpose of these gatherings, which is all about connecting with people: reuniting with old friends, making new acquaintances, giving “elevator pitches,” talking to publishers, impressing potential employers, interviewing and being interviewed, seeing and being seen. What happens in the formal academic sessions—in conference rooms with names like “Salon West” or “Grand Ballroom D”—is not quite a sideshow, but it’s close. The real work is done in the numerous receptions and banquets, the book exhibit and the hotel bar.

Which is another reason I’ve never much enjoyed the AHA. I hate to schmooze. I also hate the self-conscious isolation that comes with not schmoozing. Standing by myself in an academic reception reminds me too much of junior high (though without the fear of bodily harm). When our firstborn was fifteen months old, my wife and I traveled together to a historians’ convention in New Orleans and brought our daughter along. On the second night of the meeting, we stopped by a reception sponsored by my alma mater. The room was stuffy, loud, and crowded, with folks standing shoulder to shoulder, drinks and hors d’oeuvres in hand, while they shouted in each other’s ears about the historiographical contributions of their doctoral dissertations. In the hubbub our toddler managed to slip away from us, and I’ll never forget where we found her. She had somehow made her way through the forest of grown-up legs to the far side of the room. There she stood, pressed into the corner with her back to the crowd and her forehead against the wall. Many a time I’ve wanted to do the same thing.

My discomfort at these meetings is more than just a matter of temperament, however—the lonely-in-a-crowd feeling that an introvert in such a setting should expect. It comes also from a sense of not wholly belonging, from the palpable tension that washes over me between the values of my profession and the demands of my vocation. Professionally, I’m a member of the guild of PhD’ed historians at work in the Academy. Vocationally, I’m called generally to be a Christ follower, and more particularly (I believe) to serve the Church by helping her learn from history and remember the past faithfully. My profession and my vocation aren’t blatantly at odds—I’d have to abandon my profession if they were—but neither are they wholly complementary.

In her marvelous essay “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History,” Christian historian Beth Barton Schweiger observes that “professionalization” is a process of “narrowing allegiances and priorities in order to conform to the rigid standards of the guild.” Professionalization is particularly a problem for the Christian historian, she goes on to explain, because our profession practices “knowledge as power,” eschewing the “deeper purpose of historical knowledge . . . which is to serve the ends of love.” She drives home her point with a series of rhetorical questions:

Where is mercy at the American Historical Association? What form does justice take in the job register? Who considers love in the array of bloodless panels at professional meetings?

I take her basic point. Considered as a whole, Schweiger’s surely right that “the world of professional history does not reward charity or wisdom.” But that doesn’t prevent countless individuals from being agents of God’s grace amidst the striving for professional place and power. I know this for a fact, for I was the beneficiary at least a half dozen times in three days.

The last three years have been a time of prolonged trial in the McKenzie family, and my wife and I are chronically weary and often discouraged as a result. The last thing that I expected was that the AHA would be a respite, a time of encouragement and refreshment, but that’s exactly what happened. It began on the second night of the conference with the opportunity to find a quiet corner in the Hilton and talk for an hour with a former student of mine. This young man is the complete package—great mind, exemplary character, extraordinary determination—and yet he’s encountered a series of roadblocks that have left him discouraged. We talked freely, and I had the privilege of reminding him of God’s faithfulness and love, and he responded with genuine concern for my family and for me. I left encouraged by his caring, and grateful for the opportunity to teach in a setting where connections of such depth develop frequently.

The next morning was the breakfast reception of the Conference on Faith and History. Among several conversations that were uplifting, two stand out. First was the opportunity to talk with an older friend, a scholar of national reputation who, for reasons that I have never comprehended, has always jumped at the chance to help me whenever he can. He helped get me on my first professional panel twenty-six years ago, he’s given me feedback on manuscripts, and when I needed a professional reference when I was being considered for an opening at Wheaton, he wrote the longest letter of recommendation that I have ever laid eyes on, so laudatory that I could scarcely recognize the person he was writing about. Before we parted he reminded me that he prayed for my family regularly, and he asked for prayer for one of his grandchildren. I felt loved.

Before leaving I sat down beside another friend of long-standing, mainly to pat his arm and say “hi” before he had to leave. At this point the breakfast was ending and most of the CFH members were scattering for various academic sessions, but this loving man asked me how I was and, what is more, he really wanted to know. We talked for an hour and a half in the empty dining room while the hotel staff set up for the next event. He encouraged me professionally, getting excited about my academic projects as I described them, reminding me that my labor was not in vain. He encouraged me personally, as we shared about our families and our hopes and concerns for our adult children. I left that conversation feeling affirmed, and encouraged, and loved.

This litany will soon grow tedious unless I summarize. That afternoon I ran into a historian who has been praying for my family for the past couple of years, and I took the opportunity to share with him some of the ways that I see his prayers being answered. He wanted to hear more, and we talked and walked and shared for three quarters of an hour.

By prior arrangement, I then met with the man who taught the very first college history class I ever sat in, when I was a seventeen-year-old freshman at the University of Tennessee. Thirty-eight years later, this man who inspired me to pursue an academic career wanted to connect with me. As we sat in the Marriott lobby he told me what he had seen in me nearly four decades ago, and then he trusted me enough to talk about the son who had returned from Afghanistan with PTSD, and the sense of helplessness and sorrow that had turned his own heart toward God.

Finally, before catching the airport shuttle the next morning, I was able to grab breakfast with a wonderful historian who I’ve known since the 1990s. We hadn’t connected in several years, and after finding out how I was doing, he was transparent enough to share about a personal heartache as well as God’s subsequent kindness, and again I walked away encouraged.

Does the historical profession, as a profession, reward wisdom and charity? No, it doesn’t, but I found instances of both this year at the AHA, along with encouragement and kindness and grace. May God alone be praised.


I’m always on the outlook for metaphors that help us think more deeply about what history is and what historians do. But my quest is hardly systematic. There’s not enough time—not enough lifetimes—for that. I follow up leads that I stumble across and tips that my students give me. The latter can lead me into corners of the world of literature that I would never otherwise explore.

Science fiction is a case in point. I’ve never liked it, not even C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy, although at Wheaton we’re supposed to adore everything the man wrote. (I’m being facetious, although we do claim to own the wardrobe that inspired  The Chronicles of Narnia.) But recently one of my students recommended that I check out Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, and it was a good tip. The novel centers on a marvelous metaphor for a crucial role that historians can play.


I actually had to read two of Card’s novels. Before I could understand Speaker for the Dead, which contains the metaphor, I had to read its predecessor, Ender’s Game, for context. You may have seen the 2013 movie by the same name. It earned mixed reviews and bombed at the box office, but it follows the plot of the book reasonably well.

Here’s my two-minute synopsis of Ender’s Game, in case you need it. I promise I am not trying to make it sound sillier than it actually is: The setting is a century or so in the future, at a time when the world is still reeling from the attack of a race of insect-like beings called Buggers. (They’re called Formics in the movie). Although the Bugger invasion failed (after killing millions of humans), Earth’s leaders fear that these insect people will eventually come again and succeed. Enter Ender Wiggin, a child genius recruited by the military to save the human race.

After extensive training with other child prodigies, Ender is selected to travel to a distant planet for additional training on an especially sophisticated battle simulator, and he excels. He then learns to his horror (spoiler alert!) that his mentors have been manipulating him. Rather than taking part in a simulation, he has actually been engaged in a live battle. In fact, he has unwittingly orchestrated a preemptive counterstrike against the Bugger home planet that has apparently wiped out the only other known sentient race in the galaxy. The novel ends with Ender discovering one surviving Bugger queen pupa, who telepathically relates to him that the Buggers regretted their earlier attack of earth and posed no threat to humanity. Devastated by guilt, Ender resolves to devote his life to finding a new home where the Buggers can flourish again.

No, it’s not War and Peace, and if not for my student’s solemn assurance that it was worth it, I would never have continued on to Speaker for the Dead. But I did, and I am glad that I did. Early in the novel, set three thousand years in the future, we learn that after the Second Bugger War Ender abandoned the military for a different role. Adopting the pseudonym “Speaker for the Dead,” he used his conversations with the Bugger queen to tell the Buggers’ story and reveal the misunderstanding that led to their (apparent) extermination. Made a pariah on earth because of the part that he played in the genocide, Ender embraced his new identity as “Speaker for the Dead,” and for the past three millennia (I’m not even going to try to explain how this is supposedly possible) he has wandered across the galaxy at near light speed, going wherever someone requests his services.

As Card portrays him, the Speaker for the Dead is part funeral orator, part investigative reporter, but first and foremost, he is a historian. I don’t think Card ever uses the word, but that is Ender’s primary role. A character named Novinha explains that the job of the Speaker is to “discover the true causes and motives of the things that people did, and declare the truth of their lives after they were dead.” That’s not the only thing that a historian aspires to do, but surely it’s an important part.

Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” metaphor immediately struck me. It resonates with some of my favorite quotes regarding our obligation to the past: G. K. Chesterton’s plea that we listen to our ancestors and practice “the democracy of the dead.” Beth Schweiger’s observation that the goal of the historian is to “make a relationship with the dead.” David Harlan’s insistence that history should be “a conversation with the dead.”

It also evokes Wendell Berry’s lament that we often abuse our responsibility to the dead. “I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say,” the title character in Hannah Coulter tells us, thinking of her late husband who had died in WWII. “The dead are helpless,” she says. “The living must protect the dead.”

In his introduction to Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card reveals that he shares Hannah’s concern. “I grew dissatisfied with the way that we . . . revise the life of the dead,” he writes,” giving the dead “a story so different from their actual life that, in effect, we kill them all over again.” Card continues,

To understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story—what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know.

Unless you’re Ender Wiggins.

It’s not necessary to know all the plot details of Speaker for the Dead to follow Card’s metaphor. It’s enough to know that the novel centers on a call for Ender to Lusitania, not the WWI-era British passenger liner but a sparsely populated planet in a remote corner of the galaxy. There’s a small colony of Earth recently established there, as well as a tribe of another alien race that the humans call porquinhos—the first sentient beings that humans have encountered in three thousand years of space travel. (Humans are not alone in Card’s imagined universe, but it’s also not very crowded.) The plot follows two intertwined threads: Ender’s preparations to speak for one of the deceased colonists, and his efforts to help the colonists bridge the cultural chasm that divides them from their alien neighbors.

So here are four features that make the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” a useful metaphor for thinking about history and the historian. First, in his role as Speaker, Ender recognizes that his audience harbors a range of agendas. Some are merely curious or in search of entertainment. Some seek vindication or revenge. A few seek understanding. The metaphor calls us to consider what we really want when we consume history.

Second, Ender knows that truth about the past is complex. He hopes that his words will be a blessing; he is certain they will be controversial. As he shares his findings, some among his audience are thankful, some offended, some uncomfortable, some embarrassed. Because his role is to speak truth about the dead, he will challenge and convict as well as comfort.

Third, the Speaker’s ability to know the dead is the same aptitude that allows him to understand the porquinhos in the present. Card tells us that Ender is a successful Speaker because of “his ability to see events as someone else saw them.” This is why learning to think historically is one of the best ways to equip ourselves to transcend the cultural fault lines that divide our world today. Both require Ender’s gift of seeing the world through others’ eyes.

Fourth, Card makes clear that exercising that gift is impossible without love. “In history,” Beth Schweiger writes, “the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.” When Ender offends some of the Lusitanians in how he speaks for the dead, they have a ready explanation: he doesn’t respect them. Even those who concede the truth of what he says about the past question his motive. “It’s easy to tell the truth,” Novinha tells her daughter, “when you don’t love anybody.” But Card gives the last word to Novinha’s daughter, Ela, who insists that the Speaker loved the dead he has spoken for. “I think I know something, Mother,” she explains. “I think you can’t possibly know the truth about somebody unless you love them.”

No single metaphor can capture all that is involved when we try to understand, love, and learn from the past, but I think the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” can carry us a long ways. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, as well as any tips you might share about other metaphors you find useful.

Back with more soon.


In my last post I shared the plot of one of Stephen King’s lesser known works and asked whether it might contain a helpful metaphor for thinking about the concept of the past. King’s 1990 novella The Langoliers actually contains not one but two extended metaphors for the past. The first—we can call it Metaphor A—emerges when the surviving passengers of a jetliner that has inadvertently passed through a “time rip” arrive at Bangor Airport. Unwittingly having traveled fifteen minutes back in time, they enter a terminal that is still, gray, silent, and lifeless—a place of shadows but no substance.

The second metaphor—Metaphor B—appears soon thereafter, when King has a horde of vicious monsters devour the pale remnants of the past, leaving in their wake only nothingness. As I read them, Metaphor A evokes a past that can be visited with effort (sort of like a foreign country), albeit one that is lifeless and mute until the historian reanimates it and gives it voice. Metaphor B seems to go further. It describes a past that it would be inconceivable to visit because it has simply ceased to exist.

A scene from the 1995 TV miniseries based on King's novella. The Langoliers are consuming the pale remnants of the past, leaving utter nothingness when thy are through.

A scene from the 1995 TV miniseries based on King’s novella. The Langoliers are consuming the pale remnants of the past, leaving utter nothingness behind them..

I’m still wrestling with both metaphors, still going back and forth about their usefulness, and still interested in any thoughts you might have. In the meantime, I want to respond to a couple of good comments that have come in from readers who appear troubled by Metaphor B, and perhaps even more so by my comment that it correctly “hammers home the truth that the past is dead and gone.”

Pamela and Gary make strikingly similar observations. Pamela notes that the symbols of the past are “still alive within us;” Gary maintains that the past “is well and alive in each one of us.” Pamela writes that the past is “a part of who we are”; Gary alludes to “who we are because of the past.” Implicitly, both Pamela and Gary take their stand with William Faulkner, who once famously declared that “the past is never dead.” (In a lesser known passage that I like even better, Faulkner also wrote that “yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.”)

Boiled down, Metaphor B doesn’t work for Pamela and Gary (as it would not have worked for Faulkner) because the idea of a past that is “dead and gone” evokes a past that is wholly inconsequential to the present, a past that leaves no mark on our lives today. If that’s how the rest of you interpret the metaphor then I’ll abandon it immediately, because that’s the last message I’d ever want to convey.

Our lives are profoundly influenced by what has gone before us; that’s what makes our cultural obsession with the present so debilitating and so frustrating. Perhaps I should have written something like “The past is gone for good,” and left “dead” out of it. (Would that have made a meaningful difference to the message?) But I’m not quite ready to concede that to say the past is “dead and gone” is the same as pronouncing it irrelevant and meaningless.

Consider this example: My grandfather was one of the most significant people in my life as I was growing up. He lived in my home town, I saw him almost every day until I went away to college, and it is but a slight exaggeration to say that he helped raise me. I cherish his memory, I’m fond of telling his story (at age nineteen he began teaching grades 1-8 in a one-room Appalachian schoolhouse), and to this day I carry in my Bible a picture of the two of us on his back porch when I was in graduate school and he was in his late 90s. I also know that his influence on me is undeniable. I inherited his sense of vocation and likely his temperament as well. His positive influence over the first thirty years of my life helps to explain who I am today.

And yet, my grandfather has been dead nearly a quarter-century. Must I deny this in order to acknowledge his continuing influence on my life? Before you say it, I know that one way out of the dilemma is the Hallmark-movie sentiment that my grandfather really isn’t dead as long as he is a part of me and all whose lives he touched. (Digression here: No disrespect to anyone, but I’ve always despised this cliche. I suspect it’s a comforting figure of speech embraced by a culture that no longer really believes in the immortality of the soul but recoils from the implications.)

This expression may be harmless enough at funerals or on a sympathy card, but when we apply it to the past it’s misleading. In particular, by asserting that the past is “alive,” we lose a crucial distinction between the thing itself and our memory of the thing. In so doing, I fear we perpetuate the common misconception that the historian studies the past directly, which leads in turn to the erroneous conclusion that “history” and “the past” are synonymous. History is not the past itself but the remembered past, to quote historian John Lukacs, a distinction that is critical to thinking historically. Whatever its shortcomings, King’s Metaphor B keeps us from forgetting this crucial difference.

I can think of one other possible advantage to Metaphor B: Thinking of the past as dead may also serve to remind us that the people from the past that we are trying to get to know are also (in most instances) dead as well. As Christian historian Beth Schweiger writes, the goal of the historian is “to see and to know the dead,” even to “make a relationship with the dead.” Think for a minute about what this conveys. Faulkner’s sense of the past as “never dead” calls attention to its power; Schweiger’s reminder that the historian works almost exclusively with the dead evokes a past that is vulnerable, even helpless. How could the latter be true? When it comes to historical memory, the dead are always at the mercy of the living. Their ability to define the meaning of their lives ended at the grave. How they are remembered, why they are remembered, whether they are remembered is all up to the living, at least until Judgment Day.

Perhaps in the end we have to hold these two ostensibly contradictory understandings in tension with each other. Part of the historian’s job is to help the present see the powerful influence of the dead upon the living; a different part is to be a speaker for the dead, lest the past fade into oblivion.

Those are my two cents, at least for now. And if you recognized in the last sentence the title of a novel by Orson Scott Card, you know where I’m headed next.

Back soon.