Saturday, 23 November 2013
Why Study History? by John Fea
Reflecting on the Importance of the Past
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013
What is history? Why bother studying it? John Fea has written this accessible and jargon-free book to address these questions. He helpfully focuses on “the pursuit of history as a vocation” (ix).
His aim is to provide a primer on the study of the past. Its intended audience is “Christian college students who are studying history” (ix), but it would be a shame if those were the only ones who read it.
Fea writes with wisdom and insight and provides a helpful introduction for history undergraduates and for those who would like to study history. Fea is a Professor of American history at Messiah College, he is also the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, and so it is inevitable that his illustrations draw from that country. This has the down-side of making it less accessible for those who study non-American history.
Particularly helpful was the discussion on providence and history. How are we to interpret history from a Christian perspective? Can we have a God-perspective on history? Some would claim to, Fea is more sceptical. God obviously intervenes in history, but can the historian be true to her calling and interpret events as God interventions? Fea believes in providence (p 67) but contra Steven Keillor, is sceptical about providential history. He looks at one contemporary popular providential history book, that of The Light and the Glory by Marshall and Manuel. These authors write a Christian history focused on the sovereignty of God (p 74). Fea maintains that “An appeal to providence in a historical narrative like that of the East River fog of 1776 fails to help us better understand what happened on that day, and one of the historian’s primary tasks is to aid our understanding of the past” (p 78). My concern is that this could lead to the historian practicing methodological naturalism but on the other hand the danger is that providence can become what is beneficial to the one describing it. (p 81) Fea is right though when he states that we need to approach history with a “sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a health does of humility, and a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand the Almighty’s plan for the nations" (p 81). Again to quote Fea: “historians are not in the business of studying God; they are in the business of studying humans” (p 85).
Providence, may not then be a useful tool for the historian but there are others that Fea reveals; these include: the idea that humans are created in the image of God; the reality of human sin; an incarnational approach to the past; the role of moral reflection in historical work. There is a good emphasis on the need for the historian not to preach or moralise.
As Fea states “the Christian church is in need of a history lesson”. He obviously has a passion for history, and this passion comes through. He also has a very high regard for history for him history is: “a discipline …the art of reconstructing the past .. the exciting task of interpretation” (p 3); “more about competing perceptions of the past event or life than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event of life” (p 16); “a discipline that requires interpretation, imagination, and even literary or artistic style” (p 29); “the glue that holds communities and nations together” (p 37); “like being swallowed up in an immense ocean or field and losing oneself in its midst” (p 60); “essential for producing the kind of informed citizen, with the necessary virtues and skills, needed for our society to thrive” (p 116). “Doing history is not unlike the kind of ‘disciplines’ we employ in our spiritual lives—disciplines that take the focus off of us and put it on God or others (p 132). History has the power to civilise us and to transform. Sometimes I think he overstates the case, but nevertheless he makes some excellent points.
The final chapter takes a look at what those with history degrees are doing now (adapted from here). History degrees obviously prepares people for a wide range of vocations. The epilogue is a heart-felt appeal for “historians who are willing to go into churches and listen to people” to the benefit of the historian and the church. To this end, in an appendix, he makes an appeal for a “Center for American history and a civil society”. I hope it comes to fruition.
This book will help all budding historians be better historians.
1. What Do Historians Do?
2. In Search of a Usable Past
3. The Past Is a Foreign Country
4. Providence and History
5. Christian Resources for the Study of the Past
6. History for a Civil Society
7. The Power to Transform
8. So What Can You Do with a History Major?
Epilogue: History and the Church
Appendix: A Proposal for the Center for American History and a Civil Society
For other resources on a Christian approach to history see here.