Monday, October 8, 2012

Conference on Faith and History Wrap-Up: Part One

I am back in the saddle after an uplifting weekend at Gordon College where I attended the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  I have a lot of thoughts about what I heard and experienced this weekend swirling around in my head, so I have decided to write about them in multiple posts.  Let's start with Tracy McKenzie's presidential address.

McKenzie has been on a very interesting academic journey.  For twenty-two years he was a member of the history department at the University of Washington.  During his tenure in Seattle he won teaching awards and held an endowed chair.  But as a Christian in the secular academy he was lonely.  As he described it, he was a "community of one."  He longed for opportunities to think and talk with others about how his faith might contribute to his intellectual life.  He eventually found such intellectual fellowship in the Conference on Faith and History and, a few years ago, left the University of Washington to accept the chairmanship of the history department at evangelical Wheaton College.

McKenzie's presidential address, "The Vocation of the Christian Historian," drew upon several of his essays on the relationship between faith and historical practice, including his piece "Don't Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimension of our Dual Calling" from our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation.  He challenged the audience to think about the historian's vocation in terms of community and the importance of loving God and neighbor.  Here he drew heavily on Beth Barton Schweiger's essay from Confessing History: "Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History."

How do historians love their neighbors?  Schweiger makes a strong case for loving our "neighbors" from the past who we encounter in our work as historians.  McKenzie did not disagree, but he took the "love of neighbor" in a different direction by challenging Christian historians to stop trying to model their academic pursuits and careers entirely on the standards of the profession and start thinking about how they might serve the church.

It was a powerful message--one that resonated greatly with some of my own thoughts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and my own sense of the historian's vocation.  After the lecture, a few people asked me what I thought about McKenzie's charge.  Here is the gist of what I said:

I could not agree more with McKenzie's call for Christian historians to serve the church.  This is why I have devoted a lot of my time to teaching churchgoers and laypersons about how to use history responsibly as Christians and citizens.  Academically trained historians must teach the church with care and sensitivity.  For example, they cannot go into an adult Sunday School class and start dropping historiographical bombs in an attempt to kill off cherished myths about the past.  Such a practice may be quite common at academic conferences and history graduate programs, but it will only alienate a church audience.  In fact, I would even argue that sometimes historians speaking to church audiences must be willing to listen and converse before debunking and correcting false understandings of the past.  They must gain trust by behaving more like a Christian than an academic.  I have found this approach absolutely essential (although I have often failed in applying it and have learned a lot of hard lessons), especially when speaking to a group of churchgoers whose knowledge of American history does not extend past David Barton or Peter Marshall.

I sensed a bit of a paradigm shift taking place at this year's CFH meeting.  (I will try to devote another post to this topic later in the week).  For years, CFHers have talked about Christian historians producing good scholarship and "getting a seat" at the academic table.  On Friday night McKenzie, a guy who has had a "seat at the table" for over two decades, turned that old paradigm on its head by challenging all of us to bring solid historical thinking to our churches and congregations.