Doing history “Christianly”

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 27th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A rough draft of history.

One of the things we like to say around here is: “journalism is the rough draft of history.”

But we’re doing more than just creating a record for the future. Our work is also rooted in the past.

Prior events provide context, meaning, and direction both for covering—and interpreting—the present.

REICHARD: But just as Christian journalism is different from its secular counterparts, so too is the practice of studying history. Paul Butler recently spoke to three historians about “Doing History Christianly.”

ESKRIDGE: One of the great things about history is that it is the study of everything.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Larry Eskridge is an independent historian. He used to study American evangelicals at Wheaton College.

ESKRIDGE: Every dimension of life that you could imagine, social, economic, military, political, religious, theological—it’s all history.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I am happy to join with you today with what will go down in history…

ESKRIDGE: Inevitably, if you want to understand the world in which you live, you need to have some context. History gives you a depth of perception… Being rooted in the past and having some sort of idea of the sweep of human history gives you a sense of perspective.

Eskridge says this is a key element for studying history Christianly. Humility brings perspective, which allows acknowledgement of one’s own shortcomings:

ESKRIDGE: I would say a Christian virtue, to some extent to be able to approach the job of writing history while trying to keep your own failings, your own short sighted experience and interpretation, in mind and in reign while you’re trying to do justice to the sources and the evidence that you’re working with.

REAGAN: We’re at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars. History will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose, did the least to prevent its happening.

Historians in the secular academy often study history with man at the center. 20th century Oxford professor Robin Collingwood famously wrote: “History is for human self-knowledge” but Christian historians have a different starting point.

SWEENEY: My name is Doug Sweeney and I’m professor of Church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Sweeney has written extensively on early modern Protestant thought and modern evangelical history.

SWEENEY: The things that we believe by faith and that we learned from the Bible, do play a role in shaping the way we think about what history is and where it’s going, how it works.

Sweeney says, as a Christian, he uses the same tools for studying history as anybody else, but he has an additional calling:

SWEENEY: God’s providence over history…and the ways in which God works supernaturally in people’s lives…that affect the way we do history and make the kind of history that we do different from the kind of history we would do if we were not people of faith.

THATCHER: Those three occasions deserve to be recalled, because they serve as lamps along a dark road which our people toured together…

KIDD: This is Thomas Kidd. I’m the Vardaman distinguished professor of history at Baylor University.

In 2014, Kidd published George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

KIDD: You know, there have been Christian books written about George Whitfield that have been entirely admiring, and I admire him too, but there are some significant problems with his biography, most obviously that he was not only a slave owner, but an advocate for the expansion of slavery.

This is a another commitment for the Christian historian: telling the truth, even when it’s unflattering.

KIDD: You just gotta be honest about people’s failings…Not necessarily harp on their failings or wag our fingers at them in a judgemental way, but to just be honest about the good and bad things that you find out about people when you’re researching them.

In fact, Kidd points out that the Bible itself models this:

KIDD: The Bible doesn’t try to cover up the sins of David and Peter and Paul. The Bible is very transparent about those kinds of things.

When the church can learn to both embrace what’s right and good from the past, and reject what’s wrong and false, it learns how to think more critically about its own time.

Larry Eskridge, author of God’s Forever Family, The Jesus People Movement in America.

ESKRIDGE: Sometimes when you look at your own particular strain of Christianity there’s some characters who were questionable and that’s a[n] exercise which can help you think a more Christianly, I’d say about your own situation and time.

JOHN F KENNEDY: We meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds…

For Douglas Sweeney, there’s a spiritual reality that also influences how he does history.

SWEENEY: I will live for eternity with some of the people I’m teaching about and writing about, and I’m answerable before the Lord for the way I interpret these people and their lives and I want to be found faithful in the end in the way that I did history.

Thomas Kidd adds that doing history Christianly also has a practical result.

KIDD: I mean, these are all people who have their imperfections and limitations just like I do. But they’re encouraging and ennobling and I think it’s really important, especially for Christians, to have that list of historical heroes, not who we look to for perfection, but who in their time made those kinds of great contributions as Christians. And they inevitably inspire us to think about what we can do today.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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