Monday, 9 January 2012

The Problem of Christian Scholarship

At the AHA/ASCH conference in Chicago, I had the opportunity of listening to an interesting session by Mark Noll and other panelists on the Christian vocation. This seems to be a hot topic based on recent scholarship. I had been hearing a lot of buzz about a book by Randal Stephens and Karl W. Giberson entitled, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Harvard, 2011), and so while at the book exhibit, I purchased it and began leafing through the initial chapters while traveling back to Chattanooga.

I have read about 100 pages of the book so far and can now appreciate the attention that it has received. The introductory chapter points out the irony that many evangelicals would rather learn about science and history from psedo-scholars than established experts with PhDs from prestigious universities. I found the chapter on "The Amateur Christian Historian" particularly interesting, as it implicitly derides evangelicals for accepting the dubious claims of such influential figures as David Barton. While the authors are quick to praise historian Mark Noll, who publicly castigates current trends in providential history, it felt as if Stephens and Giberson were giving too much credit to secular scholarship. That is to say, the underlying message seemed to be: attempts to integrate faith and history should be avoided at all costs. To be fair, I need to finish reading the whole of the book to see if my impression remains the same.

The arguments in the first chapters reminded me of some of the issues raised in the recent book, Confessing History, edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. While appreciating the work of Marsden, Noll, Hatch and other great historians, some of the essayists complain that evangelical historians are being trained to eschew faith-based assumptions. In order to be accepted in the academy, and perhaps to secure a tenure-track post, must a budding scholar tuck away his or her faith and simply focus on writing good history?

My hope is that there is a via media that avoids the pitfalls of providential history while at the same time does not make historical writing irrelevant to practicing Christians. I abhor reading uncritical, so-called scholarship, but at the same time, I do not want to read or write books that would offer no spiritual nourishment for hungry readers, whether professional scholars or laypeople. It will be interesting to see which Christian historians emerge as the leaders after the Noll-Marsden-Hatch generation.


No comments: