I spent the last two days in Louisville participating in the Louisville Institute‘s Winter Conference–a gathering of scholars working on projects that have some relevance for the Christian church. It was a very eclectic group that included graduate students writing dissertations and established scholars. The disciplines ranged from religious studies to sociology to history. Interdisciplinarity (is that a word?) reigned supreme here.
Despite the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, a lot of time was spent discussing history and how the work of historians may or may not contribute to the church. There were many non-historians in the group who wanted the historians to say more about how their work was “relevant” to the contemporary needs of the church. I tried to push back a bit. Yes, relevance is important, but the non-historians in the group (especially some of the pastors) wanted the historians to be overtly explicit about how their work could help them in their ministries or solve some of the problems of the world. In other words, they wanted historians to be “prophetic” or use their books (or at least the prefaces or introductions of their books) to identify the exact way that the history of a particular period might relate to present concerns.
I loved these conversations, but I left somewhat disappointed about just how little most scholars know about what historians actually do. Many implied that history was useless unless it spoke directly to contemporary needs. In other words, a book about how churches responded to the Great Depression in the 1930s must make some direct connections to the how churches should respond to the current economic recession or it was not worth reading.
I tried to get non-historians and pastors to see that history was worthwhile regardless of whether or not the historian specifically related their work to the present. Anyone who reads this blog should be familiar with my argument here. I have preached this over and over again in the past two years. Or to put it differently, pastors and general readers can benefit from the work of historians AS HISTORIANS. There does not need to be special pleading to make the study of the past relevant to everyday life.
I leave Louisville exhilarated about the discussion of some great scholarship on religion and public life, but I also leave with a renewed sense of just how much historical thinking is, to cite Sam Wineburg, an “unnatural act.”
Stay tuned: I have one more post coming on this conference.