WHY STUDY HISTORY?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. By John Fea. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. Ix + 182 pages.
I would expect that many people could give a quick and simple answer to the question posed by the title of this book by John Fea. They would say that there’s really no reason to study history. Who wants to live in the past when the future is much more enticing? Although many Christians have no interest in the past, such a view can be problematic at best. After all, the Christian faith is deeply rooted in history. Christians claim to follow a person who lived in history, a person who casts a large shadow over the intervening two centuries. For many people history is little more than a recitation of names and dates, often presented in a droning voice that lulls one to sleep. Besides, in an age where math and science are the keys to the future and tests are the gold standard, history rarely rates. As a historian who relishes the opportunity to experience the past, this perception that history is irrelevant and boring is disheartening. I count myself fortunate to have had as mentors historians such as Dennis Helsabeck and Jim Bradley, who loved their subject and made it not only interesting but allowed it to come alive.
The question before us, as posed by historian John Fea, is simple and yet the answer is richly textured. The book is brief, readable, and thoughtful. The first audience is prospect students of history, persons who are intrigued by history but wonder whether in this day and age there is value in pursuing the study of history. John doesn’t start with this concern, but he includes a closing chapter that offers vocational possibilities beyond becoming a history teacher (and a coach). That final chapter is important because parents want their children to find vocational success – and that includes my own son who is embarking on the final leg of his college career as a history/religion major.
Before taking us on a tour of vocational possibilities John Fea, Professor of History at Messiah College and author of Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, seeks to answer the question of why it’s important to understand the past. He starts by describing what historians do. Put simply, the discipline of history “is the art of reconstructing the past” (p. 3). Historians are tasked with describing and interpreting the past. That last piece is important, because simply recounting facts and figures, without a compelling interpretative narrative is rather worthless. Historians don’t make up the facts, but they have the opportunity and the responsibility to shape the narrative in a way that is artistic. Historians, therefore, are story tellers. Because historians are tasked with interpreting the past, historians will of necessity engage in revision. We often hear about “revisionist history.” Well, all history is revisionist.
Historians interpret the past, telling the story, revising it as necessary. They get a hearing in part because we seek something usable in the past. We look to the past to help us understand the present, and when we forget the past we tend to have problems with the present. Still, we’re intrigued by the stories of the past, which is why we visit historic landmarks and remember historic events such as the bicentennial of the country in 1976 or the current interest in the Civil War during this sesquicentennial. We look to history for inspiration, for an escape from the present, or to understand our roots. History helps us understand our identity. This is especially true for Christians, whose faith is deeply rooted in history. Although many professional historians focus their attention on the academy, Fea encourages historians to enter public life and interpret history for the public.
The past, however, even in its familiarity is, according to the author, a “foreign country.” The task of the historian is to understand the past in its own context – or at least that’s the way I was taught. We have a tendency to portray history in a developmental way that leads inevitably to the present. Historicism emerged as a response to what is known as the “Whig Interpretation” of history, a progressive interpretation of history that led in the early twentieth century to a glorification of the present. John helpfully describes the dangers and the possibilities of engaging the past in a responsible way, reminding us of the need for both empathy and humility. It is easy to critique past civilizations from a modern vantage point, but it’s more demanding to walk in the shoes of a person who lived in the past.
As a Christian historian, Fea believes that God is involved in history – thus he embraces the idea of divine providence. He does so, however, with both humility and discretion. The historian must embrace a degree of mystery. The word “perhaps” must be present in any attempt to reconstruct the hand of God in the course of history. Fea writes:
In the end the writer of providential history must resist the temptation to bow to the gods of modernity – goes who want to scientifically decipher the workings of the divine and claim to know, with a degree of Enlightenment certainty, the will of a sovereign God who created the modern world and will end it when he sees fit. Until then, we see through a glass darkly. (p. 83).
Fea is both open to and skeptical about providence, but he does believe that the Christian historian possesses certain resources that aid in the study of history. He begins with the imago dei. As bearers of the image of God, humans have a certain dignity that lends itself to the study of the human story. There is also the doctrine of sin that helps us understand human frailty. As Fea puts it – “A belief in the reality of sin should provide us with a healthy skepticism about movements in the past committed to utopian ends, unlimited progress, or idealistic solutions to the problems of this world.” It also helps better explain the human condition that is composed of “restlessness, the search for meaning, and the prideful ambition that has defined much of the past, especially in the modern era” (p. 91). The Christian historian also has the resource of an incarnational approach and an opportunity for moral reflection. Although historians are urged to be detached from their subjects and refrain from moral judgment (I will note here that I have been able to detach myself from the objects of much of my own research), but I understand and practice moral discernment when approaching history. When we approach injustice can we remain totally objective and neutral? My faith tells me that it’s impossible. I can understand how slavery developed in America, but I must as a Christian offer a word of moral judgment. But to do so requires humility, caution, and recognition that history is incredibly complex. After all, the main actors are human beings.
Getting back to the usability of history, Fea invites us to recognize the importance of history to civil society. Fea himself has engaged in public life as a historian of the early American republic, having written a wonderful response to the question of whether America was in its founding a Christian nation. In response to partisans on both sides, Fea demonstrated the complexity of reality. Democracy, Fea insists (rightly) requires an informed citizenry. Understanding our history is central to being informed, and Americans are woefully informed about our past. While we have been successful in educating people for a capitalist economy (at least until recently), we’ve not done near as well at providing the tools needed for being citizens of the nation. The study of history, for instance, can help heal us of our narcissistic culture. It can help dethrone us from our belief that we are the center of the universe. It can provide us with the tools necessary to hear and understand the other, enabling us to find reconciliation. Yes, there is a place for the “historian-activist,” a vocation that Fea himself has entered. As Fea puts it, if people seek to be “world-changers in the present, they need to immerse themselves in the study of the past” (p. 122). History, therefore, has the power to transform. As we learn from the historical narratives, we find resources that can bring transformation of our own lives and the communities in which we live.
All of this leads to the practical question – what can you do with a history major. Well, you might end up being a President or a rock star, a business leader or an athlete. The good news is that most employers aren’t as concerned with a prospective employee’s major as they are with hiring people of character, intellect, and an understanding of the world. History can provide the tools necessary for such callings. So don’t despair that the only thing you can do with a history degree is teach history. It’s a good thing since there aren’t that many jobs in the academy!
One place that history has a role is in the church. Fea devotes the epilogue to his argument that the church needs to understand history – not just church history, but history as a whole. Here’s a plug to seminaries looking to become more relevant – don’t axe your historians! He encourages academic historians to write not just for the academy, but for the general audience. With this in mind, Fea offers a proposal for the development of a “Center for American History and a Civil Society,” that is tasked with bringing the resources of history to a nation in a way that is transformative. Providing space for “conversations about the past can help bring an end to the shouting matches and can strengthen the church’s witness in the world” (p. 171).
Why study history? It has the power to transform lives. That seems reason enough!
As he did in his important response to the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation (Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction), John Fea offers us a thoughtful, readable, and challenging book. Whether you are seeking entry into the historical profession or not, this book offers the general reader an apology for the importance of historical study. He has provided a word to the church and to the broader community that healthy churches and healthy communities cannot exist in the context of historical amnesia. This is, therefore, a book for our times, for we do live in the midst of a period of historical amnesia that threatens the future. May we heed John Fea’s call to embrace the study of history – both professionally and as essential avocation.