I’m enjoying a beautiful few days at the stunning Pepperdine University campus overlooking the beaches of Malibu, California–a stunning location for the 2014 Conference on Faith and History (CFH) Biennial Meeting. This is my second CFH meeting, and it won’t be my last. The CFH goes back almost 50 years now, and was established as “a community of scholars exploring the relationship between Christian faith and history,” the goal of which is “to encourage excellence in the theory and practice of history from the perspective of historic Christianity.”
This purpose and goal was certainly evident in the excellent sessions I attended today, a number of which revolved around this year’s theme: “Christian Historians & Their Publics.” During the first session of the day, I attended a panel entitled “Classroom as Public,” in which three scholars grappled with their role as undergraduate history teachers. I was particularly taken with D. H. Dilbeck’s (Oklahoma Baptist College) paper, which reminded us that any university teaching involves moral formation–the question is only of what kind. Dilbeck asked the simple but powerful question: what kind of moral formation will take place in my classroom today? Drawing on the work of scholars like Arthur Holmes, Mark Schwehn, and Tracy McKenzie, Dilbeck used examples such as American slavery and the Rule of St. Benedict to explore ways to help students not only to historicize the past–that is, to understand it in its own terms, and not according to our current ideas and values–but also to morally evaluate past events, institutions, and ideas to understand their meanings for and messages to us today. On what grounds can we condemn slave holders in a morally relativistic world? If we do condemn them, on what grounds? Are there any timeless truths to be gleaned from the Rule of St. Benedict, or is it just so different that we can dismiss it as irrelevant to us?
During the second panel I attended, three historians and an archivist grappled with the relationship between “Christian Faith and Public Memory.” Here my favourite paper was that of Jay Green (Covenant College), who considered ways in which the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum could function as a site of secular devotion. Green’s question was simply: Why do we build or visit memorials to the dead? His answer was that, in an ever more secular society, such memorial spaces function as sites of civic remembrance and national healing–in short, sites of secular devotion. Indeed, memorial sites and museums are designed to turn visitors into pilgrims, reliving the tragic events that once took place at these places (such as the bombing of the federal government building in Oklahoma City). Events are ritualized and lessons taught–in the case of the Oklahoma City museum, much like the stations of the cross. While the events are tragic, the messages are ultimately hopeful. (This resonates with the new research I have begun on “evil places as sacred spaces.”)
In the afternoon, I attended another panel in which two historians and a graduate student engaged in a round table discussion on “Christian Historians and Social Media.” I was eager to attend this session, since the two historians presenting were Chris Gehrz and John Fea, both of whose blogs I follow. Each uses his blog(s) to communicate with diverse audiences: students, fellow historians, church members, institutional colleagues, and the broader public. Taken together, their blogs serve variously as places to think through new research ideas, to make the research process more transparent, to enhance or reflect on their teaching, to feature student writing, to interview alumni about their history training and its impact in their lives, to announce upcoming events, to generate discussion (and sales) about their current publications, to highlight new scholarship in their fields, and (most broadly) to shine light on their vocational lives as history professors. Much to the shagrin of other would-be bloggers in the audience, both Gehrz and Fea admitted that blogging took a great deal of time and was hard to sustain, though Fea made the point that the investment in time had more than paid off in terms of increased exposure, new academic opportunities, and even a little extra income from speaking engagements and writing projects.
The final session of the day was a highlight! Three historians–including Mark Noll (Notre Dame, and formerly of Wheaton College)–evaluated the “Quadrilateral” Thesis put forward 25 years ago by David Bebbington in his masterful study, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. Though it sounds esoteric, even students and many lay readers will know of the “Bebbington Quadrilatera,” which is simply the four-part definition of evangelicalism most widely used not only within academic circles but also by churches and Christian leaders. Simply put, for Bebbington, Evangelicalism is marked by biblicism (the Bible as the Christian’s authority), crucicentrism (the centrality of Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross), conversionism (the importance of the conversion experience), and activism (the mandate to share the gospel). Darren Dochuk (Washington University), Mark Noll, and Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) each challenged–or at least raised questions about–Bebbington’s definition.
Dochuk suggested no less than six potential additions to Bebbington’s list of four: an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, on fellowship, on eschatology, on sentiment, on pragmatism (modern methods), and on particular social or institutional places in which evangelicals tend to show up. In a warmly humorous paper, Noll challenged Bebbington’s Quadrilateral from a nominalist position. In other words, Noll (the self-described “splitter”) believes in evangelicals, but not the real existence of something called Evangelicalism, which lumps things together and oversimplifies the particulars of the past. His best line: “There is no such thing as Evangelicalism, and David Bebbington has written a wonderful book describing it.” Finally, Molly Worthen suggested the Quadrilateral might be too static, and proposed to define evangelicals as people anxious about three questions of authority: how to reconcile faith and reason, how to meet and come to know Jesus, and how to balance personal belief and public secularism.
Bebbington’s response, in which he graciously, whimsically, and concisely dealt with each of the points raised by the three interlocutors, was one of the finest academic presentations I’ve ever heard. So tight. Absolutely masterful. The fact that Bebbington can still stand by his definition of Evangelicalism 25 years after crafting it is a lasting testament to his skill as a historian.
All in all, an excellent and immensely stimulating day of academic conferencing!