Growing into a Christian Practice of History

Convocation Chapel, September 2011. Photo credit: Daniel Yu Photography.


Growing into a Christian Practice of History
(Or, How I Fell into History and What I Learned Along the Way)

Inaugural Lecture Marking Promotion to Professor of History
Ambrose University Convocation Chapel, September 8, 2011
Kyle Jantzen, PhD

I can’t really say how I fell into History. I’m not even sure when I first became interested in it. Maybe it was in the mid-1970s when my parents took me to see the film The Hiding Place, the story of Corrie Ten Boom and her Dutch family, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. I must have been all of ten years old—it was a little traumatic. Perhaps it was a few years later when my junior high teacher drew a diagram of Hadrian’s Wall on the chalkboard, then play-acted Roman legionaries sword-fighting, keeping the barbarian Scots up in the Highlands where they belonged. And it was probably by the time I read Robert K. Massie’s colossal biographies of various Russian tsars during my high school years. Of course I read those books while listening to the radio. Now, every time I hear the ‘80s band Men at Work, I think of Peter the Great!

But I didn’t enter university planning to become a historian. Actually, after a year at Bodenseehof, the Capernwray Bible Institute in Friedrichshafen, West Germany, I thought I would become a pastor or some other kind of church leader. So I enrolled in the University of Saskatchewan, planning to take lots of Greek and Hebrew language and prepare for seminary someday. I met my wife Colleen in Greek class, so that worked out well. But two things happened in my second year of university that altered my trajectory. For one, I started to see that I really couldn’t construct a university degree based solely on studying Greek and Hebrew. More importantly, though, I took my first history course, a six-credit survey of Western Civilization from the Renaissance to the Second World War, a course that lasted all year long. I still have my textbook from that course, and a file of notes, too. I pulled them out the other day for the first time since some of you were in diapers, and I found lots of interesting things. I found a thick stack of handwritten class notes, with lots of red underlining. (I guess I must have studied for the final exam after all!) I found a “to do” list that included finding out where my geography lab was to be held. (That seems a little ironic, not knowing where your geography lab is located!) I found that I didn’t footnote very well at first, and that I misspelled some very obvious terms from European history—words like “Protestant,” for instance. And I found, to my surprise, that the two major papers I wrote that year (21 pages each, plus endnotes, on a typewriter, no less!) were entitled, “Rivalries between Church and State in Western Europe during the Late Middle Ages” and “The Rise of the National Socialist Party in Relation to the Treaty of Versailles.” Those topics—church-state conflict and Nazi Germany—just happen to have grown into the two major themes of my historical career.

But of course I had no idea back then that this would happen. I hadn’t even decided to major in history when I wrote those papers. But that year, something changed for me. I found the stories of politics and wars and revolutions really interesting. And I began to understand that the events of the past actually shaped the world in which I was living. Maybe that was easier back in the days of the Cold War, when British spy novels, Olympics boycotts, and (not least) the ever-present danger of nuclear annihilation served as ongoing reminders that the world was divided between two great historic ideologies: capitalism and communism. I also began to understand that identity (personal identity, national identity, religious identity) was constructed out of the raw material of the individual and collective experiences of people—our histories. Some of my colleagues will remember watching the mini-series Roots: The Saga of an American Family, back when everyone watched the same stuff on TV (all eight episodes are in the top 100 most watched TV shows of all time). Controversially, Roots explored the experience of slavery and the way it had shaped blacks and whites in America. That, too, was part of my historical formation.

And as I immersed myself in history over the final two years of my BA degree (taking four history courses and Hebrew each semester), I studied Ancient Rome, the Crusades, Dante, nineteenth-century Europe, and Christian history too. I began to see how historians explained the world through stories. My professors (and the historians whose books I read) carefully outlined political and diplomatic developments, explaining the life-and-death struggles between monarchy and democracy or tracing the path along which the European powers tumbled into the First World War. They explained the impact of economics on world events. They analyzed the profoundly different lives of the upper and lower classes (and once in awhile, though not too often in those days, even assessed the unique experiences of women or the role of religion in society). As history students, we studied literature, music, and art, to learn how they mirrored the important ideas of their time. And we certainly studied the great minds of the past—indeed, I still teach about Machiavelli, Luther, and Marx, even as I learned about them years ago, because their ideas are still revolutionary. I remember how fun it was just to learn new things—the excitement from being “in the know” about the “important” people and events and ideas that formed the foundation of my society, of my world.

So I finished my BA in history in 1989, graduating together with my wife Colleen, and celebrating on a nine-week backpacking adventure all over Western Europe. I remember how excited I was to see the things that I had studied: the Habsburg Palace in Vienna, the British Museum in London (my wife cried there—she was a Classics major!), and the Louvre in Paris. And everywhere we went that summer of 1989, the news was buzzing about the opening of the border between Hungary and Austria, and Europe was alive with the hope that just maybe we were watching the Iron Curtain crumble before our very eyes. It was absolutely electric. So it wasn’t hard to find the motivation to return to the University of Saskatchewan to begin my MA program in history.

It was during this time that my Christian self and my history-student self began to bump into each other from time to time. On the one hand, just having a solid knowledge of Scripture, some basic theology, and my own personal experiences as a believer gave me an immense advantage over some of my pagan colleagues, when it came to understanding all manner of historical events and sources. The history of the Western world, I can assure you, is absolutely soaked with Christian ideas and imagery. And contrary to popular academic belief, being an insider can really help one understand these spiritual facets of history much more profoundly. On the other hand, of course, I experienced some friction along the way—academics, who so value rationality, often disparage Christianity. I don’t think I’ll ever forget one of my grad school colleagues who shook his head and muttered what a waste of a good mind it was that I was a Christian.

But I began to get fired up about the place of Christianity in history. Indeed, my MA thesis was a study of how the Protestant Reformation came into, and took over, the Swiss city of Basel. I wrote about the way in which the longing of the common people for the reform of their religious lives was intertwined with their longing for the reform of their political and economic environment. Freedom from the oppression of late medieval Catholicism was linked in their minds with freedom from the control of the oppressive oligarchy of rich merchants who ran their city. And I wrote about how the good people of Basel—those quiet, sturdy Swiss—felt so strongly about both religious and political reform, that they fought in pubs and fish markets, and gathered by the hundreds in angry night-time guild assemblies (the would-be-Protestants and the let’s-stay-Catholics meeting in large church halls just a few city blocks apart), until in February 1529, the advocates of reform pointed a cannon at the Basel city hall, then rioted, tearing religious images and relics from local churches, dragging a crucifix through the streets, and burning it all in a three-day bonfire.

The experience of writing my MA thesis changed me in several ways. I became increasingly interested in the process of historical change. It was one thing for Martin Luther to undergo his personal Reformation, and to formulate a revolutionary new theology (or at least to rediscover a revolutionary old theology). It was quite another for his ideas to spread among the masses, to gain support from the political elites, and to upset the entire social and political structure of Europe in the process. Wars were fought, boundaries redrawn, rulers toppled, bureaucracies established, family life altered, and universities founded—on and on we could go, describing the immense impact of the Protestant Reformation on Western society.

The other things I became very interested in at that time were probing the spiritual motivations of people in history and analyzing the historical behaviour of religious leaders. I had learned that Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers were not always the pious, enlightened guides we assume they were. Sometimes they were mean, or pig-headed, or rude, or even hypocritical. What could all this say to my own experience of Christianity, in the all-too-frequent disappointments that invariably mark local church life?I carried these ideas with me as I relocated my young family across Canada to Montreal, where I enrolled in a PhD program at McGill University. I well remember the long cross-country drive. Our daughter Elizabeth was just a baby, and when we stopped near Toronto for a break, I lifted her out of her car seat. She was so excited, smiling wide and vigorously pumping both arms and legs in the air as I held her up high. Historically-speaking, I relocated just as dramatically, fast-forwarding four hundred years ahead into the 1930s, where I began to investigate the role of the Protestant churches of Germany in the National Socialist regime of Adolf Hitler. Once again, I was less concerned with the words and actions of national leaders—men like Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more curious about the way in which the interaction between Nazism and Christianity impacted local church life—the experience of ordinary Germans. Naively, I assumed that Christians throughout Germany would quickly perceive the evils of Nazism and rush to resist it. Instead, I found a much more complex picture containing a fair bit of black, a little bit of white, and a whole lot of gray.

Perhaps a few examples will help me to explain. As I churned through hundreds of pages of German archival material—personal correspondence, parish newsletters, church communiqués, and theological papers—I found that virtually all the pastors I came across warmly embraced Nazism when it seized power in 1933. Some of them described Hitler as a miracle or a saviour sent by God to rescue Germany. Most of them believed that the Führer was calling them to participate with him in the national and spiritual renewal of Germany, and so they spent much of their time trying to figure out how their churches could best serve Hitler’s regime. Many pastors joined the pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement, trying to fuse Nazi ideology with Christianity to create a Germanic racial church.

And it wasn’t only the pastors. As the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germans rushed back into their parish churches by the thousands —one rural district I studied showed an increase of 350 percent in the number of new church members from 1932-1933. Another showed an increase of 1800 percent—over five thousand new church members scattered across 39 rural parishes between 1933 and 1934. These people flocked to church primarily because Lutheranism was, for them, simply one more expression of their German nationalism, and so in 1933, it appeared very much as if National Socialism was the catalyst for Protestant church renewal.

Meanwhile, the theologians were busy teaching that the German racial community and the Nazi state were both expressions of God’s will, his created order, and that the message of the gospel (say, the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) did not apply to life on earth, but was rather an abstract spiritual notion reserved for heaven. Many pastors rejected the idea that the Jews were the people of God. They reinterpreted the command to love one’s neighbour as applying only within their racial in-group. They asserted that cultivating racial purity was obedience to God’s commands, and some of them even rejected the idea that Jesus was Jewish. One pastor I studied gave a talk to his colleagues, in which he asserted that the German churches had to “recognize the total claim of God in the total claim of the [Nazi] state.” Still another pastor compared the atoning value of the sacrificial death of Jesus to the value of the sacrificial death of members of the Nazi Party who had died in the struggle to achieve power in Germany.

These examples—and I have only begun to scratch the surface, for I could show you pictures of a church building in Berlin constructed and decorated with the goal of embodying the values of Nazism—these examples are profoundly disturbing. How could Christians have been so blind?

Of course there are positive examples too: pastors who asserted that the Christian church was not based on blood or race, or who asserted there was a lord above Adolf Hitler, or who baptized a Jewish woman, or who warned of the danger of Nazi brutality. Let me tell you about one such man: Pastor Julius von Jan of Oberlenningen, Württemberg, who did a very brave thing in the wake of the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, when the Nazi Party unleashed violent attacks against the Jews, destroying hundreds of synagogues, smashing up about 7500 Jewish businesses, and marching about 30,000 Jewish men off to concentration camps. The Sunday after Kristallnacht was the annual Protestant Day of Repentance, and von Jan preached a moving sermon based on the assigned Scripture for the day, Jeremiah 22:29: “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!” Referring to the pogrom, he began by lamenting “the many crimes here in Germany.” Then, he continued:

Here we have been repaid for the widespread break from God and Christ, for this organized anti-Christianity. Passions are unleashed; God’s commandments are despised; houses of worship that were holy for others have been burned down with impunity; the property of strangers robbed or destroyed. Men who served our German people faithfully and performed their duty conscientiously were thrown into the concentration camps simply because they belonged to another race.

This injustice may not be acknowledged from above—but the sound common sense of the people feels it distinctly, even if no one dares to speak about it. And we, as Christians, see how this injustice incriminates our people before God and must bring new punishments upon Germany…. What a person sows, so he will reap! Indeed, it is a dreadful seed of hatred that is now being sown. What a dreadful harvest will grow from it, if God does not grant us and our people the grace for honest repentance.[1]

Just days after preaching this sermon, von Jan was attacked by a band of hired thugs, who beat and tortured him, then dragged him off to jail. After four months of detainment, he was banished from Württemberg, then later tried and sentenced to sixteen months in prison. Julius von Jan spoke courageously on behalf of the Jews. He was, however, a rare exception. In fact, the leaders of his own church government never publicly condemned the attack perpetrated against him.

It’s this variability, this unpredictability about human behaviour that has fascinated me all these years, as I studied the Third Reich first as a grad student at McGill, then as an instructor at the University of Saskatchewan, and finally as a faculty member at Canadian Bible College and Canadian Theological Seminary.

As I began to teach in and be influenced by the Christian academic environment that is now Ambrose, I began to understand how profoundly what I believed about and experienced of Christianity meshed with what I studied in German church history. I saw with new eyes how deeply history attested to the fallenness of humanity, but also to the creativity of God and the potential for renewal or restoration in human affairs. Those ideas have profoundly shaped my courses on Nazism, on Antisemitism and the Holocaust, and on Historiography, and greatly influenced my personal faith as well. Thanks to the writings of another Christian Holocaust scholar, David Gushee, I’ve become captivated by the biblical image of the Kingdom of God, that realm in which God’s saving action and his personal rule are made good on the earth. This is the hope that appears in so many of the salvation passages in Isaiah, like the one in chapter 61:1-4, the passage that was just read to us. It is this text that Luke tells us that Jesus read from in the synagogue, after which he announced that he was its fulfilment. It’s as if he looked out at his Jewish family and community and said, “Right here, right now! Here is the Kingdom of God.”

But we, like those who heard Jesus that day, live in a land in-between. The message of the Kingdom, as all our theologians will tell us, is the message of the “already” and the “not yet.” The Kingdom has come to us through the God-man Jesus, but the battle is not over, the victory is not complete. Jesus has not yet made all things new. It’s a perfect description of the world in which we live—the world whose history I study. The message of the Kingdom is not a pollyanna message of optimism, as if we could just wish all our problems away or visualize world peace into existence. Nor is it a message of hopeless cynicism, as if we humans are forever destined only to disappoint, betray, or inflict suffering and stupidity on each other. But even as it proclaims the future hope of Jesus’ salvation, the message of the Kingdom reminds us that there still are the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, and the prisoners. There still are things worth mourning, issues and people worth grieving over. There still are ashes, despair, ruined cities, and places long devastated.

It’s paradoxical, but studying the violence and injustice of Nazism, along with the predictable failures of Christians in the past (they were human, just as we, and subject to deception, as we are), though it sounds depressing, has actually reshaped my Christianity in a most positive way. Viewing those events through the lens of the Kingdom of God, I’ve become increasingly drawn into what we conveniently call social justice work, both locally where I live in High River and globally, through my support for education, development, and clergy training in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I find hope and motivation, even where things seem grim, when I remember the other side of the message of the Kingdom—that both now and one day, in Christ, there are and will be good news, healing, freedom, release, favour, and vengeance. There will be comfort, beauty, gladness, praise, solidity, rebuilding, and restoration.

And now I find I’m coming full circle. Just as questions about spiritual motivations in history and the actions of past Christian leaders led me into the study of the Protestant Reformation and then of Christianity in Nazi Germany, just as the study of Christians in Nazi Germany has reshaped my personal practice of Christianity, driving me into the full spectrum of Kingdom activity, so too my fervour for social justice is leading me into a fresh field of historical research. Recently, my global interest in human rights abuses and underdevelopment spurred me to create a new course on genocide, one of the grave evils of the modern world. And while I continue to investigate the nature of church-state relations not in Nazi Germany, I am now also doing the same in the DR Congo, where I want to contribute to a decline in corruption, a flourishing of education, and the strengthening of the church as a force for good. And so I’m starting some new research on Zaire, as it was known under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. I’m interested in why church leaders were so quick to celebrate Mobutu’s seizure of power in 1965, and what they thought about all the corruption of his regime, some of which tainted the church leaders themselves. I’m curious how Congolese Christians reacted when Mobutu’s “authenticity” policy promoted traditional African culture and religion over colonial imports (including Christianity itself), and what they thought when he struck down Christmas as a holiday and banned the use of Christian names.

So while I’m honoured and grateful to have been promoted to Full Professor, I feel more like I’m just beginning than that I’ve arrived. I need to learn more French so I can research Congolese history, and there are Belgian archives to visit and Congolese scholars with whom to collaborate. All in good time, I suppose.

For now, I thank God for the way he has led me to this place, for the way he has used the discipline of history and the Ambrose community to shape me, for the rich interaction of faith and history in my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach some of you students, and to research, with one foot in the tragedy of the world and one foot in the hope of the Kingdom.

Here the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer seem a fitting conclusion. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young German theologian who was arrested, imprisoned, and then executed for his resistance to the Nazi regime. While in prison, at Christmastime in 1942, he reflected on the work of those who, like him, had joined the conspiracy to kill Hitler and break the power of Nazism. He wrote:

Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and action, not in the first place by their own sufferings, but by the sufferings of their brothers and sisters, for whose sake Christ suffered. … There are people who regard it as frivolous, and some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future. They think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations. It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; in that case, we shall gladly stop working for a better future. But not before. [2]


[1]  Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews, trans. and ed. Victoria Barnett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 145.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years: A Letter to the Family and Conspirators,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rev. ed., ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 484-485.


2 thoughts on “Growing into a Christian Practice of History

  1. Kyle, I came across your web page and enjoyed reading this address. We have much in common! I look forward to the day we might have a beer together and talk more about history, Christian faith, and the roads we’ve traveled.

    1. Thanks, Lendol. We met once briefly at the CFH conference in Oklahoma some years ago, but I haven’t been back since. I plan to be at the next, and would be delighted to talk. I’ve really enjoyed your work on teaching practices.

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