Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mandy McMichael Reports from the Meeting of the American Society of Church History

I am pleased to welcome Mandy McMichael to The Way of Improvement Leads Home family.  Mandy is Assistant Professor of Religion at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama and a former Grant Wacker student at Duke Divinity School.  She is working on a project, stemming from her Duke dissertation, on religion, the Miss America Pageant, and southern womanhood.  How cool is that?  And to top it all off, she even found a lanyard! I hope you enjoy her first post.  --JF

ASCH Session #5: “Doing History

Today I experienced a first: a standing room only crowd in an American Society of Church History (ASCH) session. I’ve attended full sessions before, but this one had an overflow of more than twenty people who got left in the hallway. Just as Jennifer Graber (presenting on behalf of David Steinmetz) noted that individuals in the midst of a historical event cannot know how it will turn out, Randall Balmer stopped her. Laughter erupted from the audience as we were informed that a bigger room was to be procured.

Finally settled into a larger – though still filled to capacity space – Jennifer Graber (University of Texas at Austin) began again. Steinmetz’s work challenged listeners to strive to accept historical events on their own terms. He offered several examples of what that might look like. To more fully understand the world which Luther inhabited, for instance, one should know Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Only when one immerses herself as completely as possible into the world she is studying can she begin to accept it and explain it on its own terms. This is, of course, not fully possible. Steinmetz thus surmises that translating past events as clearly as we can while being both sympathetic and honest is what constitutes “doing history.”

Catherine Brekus’s paper, “Who Makes History?: American Religious Historians and the Problem of Historical Agency,” was the most helpful to me. All three papers were fantastic, but hers hit on several issues that helped me understand my approach to “doing history.” As Erin already noted, “Brekus explored the possibilities and problems of individual agency, criticized by theorists who would argue that there is no self, only subjectivity, on the one hand, and proponents of ‘big history’ and ‘deep history,’ particularly Guldi and Armitage, for whom the extreme longue durée is the only appropriate way to study history and give it an impact in our contemporary world.” Brekus also argued for “microhistory” as the first step toward expanding the broad narrative, asking larger questions, and exploring the agency of marginalized groups. She closed by noting that Grant Wacker’s work provides a model for conceptualizing agency (as relational and not just individual), writing short term history, and proffering grand narratives.

David Hall’s paper explored his assumptions in two stories he’s found useful in his work on the Puritans: Elizabeth Knapp and Anne Hutchison. He pushed us to consider how we interrogate the stories we use to tell history. How do we determine their authenticity? Do we consider the multiple revisions they must have gone through before they got to us? Who else is mediating the story and is that important to recognize? In other words, he asked us to approach narratives and testimonies and our use of them with “self-critical scrutiny.” He concluded by noting his desire to continue using stories to tell history. Still, we must do so, he cautioned, aware of the “thin ice on which we skate.”

Peter Kaufman’s response elicited much laughter from the audience as he remarked, “Who makes history? We make history.” He interacted skillfully with the panelists’ ideas, using a poem by Robert Frost titled “Mending Wall” as a description of what it looks like to do historiography. We historians are that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” If historians are those who “make facts meaningful,” he concluded, “Grant, you give me a paradigm.”

Today I’ll be attending the luncheon in honor of Grant Wacker as well the panel celebrating his contributions to American Religious History, “Believing History.” I’ve heard (hilarious) snippets from Kate Bowler’s paper already so I know that the session will be just as brilliant as today’s panel.

P.S. I scored a lanyard. I’ll keep an eye out for more.