Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tracy McKenzie on Faith and History

For those of you who have read Confessing History you may remember Tracy McKenzie's essay "Don't Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimensions of Our Dual Calling". Tracy, the chair of the history department at Wheaton (IL) College, developed this theme more fully in his presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History and many of these same ideas inform his recent book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.

Over at McKenzie's blog, "Faith and American History", he is in the midst of what appears to be a multiple part series on thinking Christianly about the past. You can read his first two installments here and here, but in the meantime here is a taste:


But what if we expect more from the past than entertainment?  What if we want it to “do work,” to change something, to somehow make a difference?  This is the second broad category of motives for studying history, and if you’ll allow me, I want to subdivide it further into two subcategories.  When we study the past in search of historical knowledge that changes something, we can either have in mind change outside ourselves–in the world around us–or change insideourselves, in our very hearts.  These are not mutually exclusive–we could aspire to both–but my sense is that we almost never think of the latter.
So what would it look like to seek historical knowledge that might change the world around us? There are a range of possibilities.  In the worst case, such an approach might be self-interested and even manipulative.  I have previously written about the temptation we face to approach history merely as a source of ammunition, an arsenal of arguments that we can wield to persuade others to support our predetermined agendas.  At the opposite extreme, as “clisawork” pointed out, we might study the past with the most disinterested of motives, searching for clues about how to promote a more just world, bringing historical knowledge to bear  on behalf of the weak and marginalized.  Studying the past to understand the roots of racism or how best to combat discrimination might be one such example.