Is There a Christian Approach to History?



35 comments
By Mark Edwards

I've been spending alot of time lately with the good folks over at USIH.  Not only do they generate fascinating, substantive reflections on the art of history and a high level of sustained discussion, but they are also nice to me, which is nice (check out, for instance, this thoughtful review and critique of my book by Gene Zubovich, another "new light" in the field of American religious history).  One of the more stimulating USIH debates of late has concerned the impact of "ideology" in historical scholarship and teaching (see here then here).  Put simply, are personal convictions, political or otherwise, obstacles for the historian to overcome or resources that the historian should embrace?  How sympathetic should scholars be toward their subjects, especially those whose politics the scholar finds reprehensible?  Should the teacher seek to be "objective" before their students, presenting "all sides" of an issue and then "letting the student decide?"  Or, should instructors rather share openly their partisan preferences and/or operating principles?

These questions took a bit different turn for me when I started reading Confessing History (Notre Dame, 2010) for my historiography class.  The book is a collaborative effort by several members and fellow travelers of the Conference on Faith and History, including its editors Jay Green, John Fea, and Christopher Lasch biographer Eric Miller.  Since 1967, the CFH has concerned itself with primarily one question: What difference does being a Christian make to the study and practice of history?  I've heard the CFH referred to in private conversation as "the intellectual arm of the religious right."  Certainly, George Marsden's Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford, 1998), despite its huge popularity among the CFH and conservative Christian colleges, has been greeted with suspicion by those fearful that "integration of faith and learning" is theocratic code for "faith over learning."  But I'm not here to judge.  Instead, I want to commend  and recommend Confessing History essays for the questions they raise about ideology and history in general, as well as for their attempts to articulate a post-Marsden vision of Christian historiography.  The best academic conference I ever attended remains the 2002 CFH meeting at Huntington University.  For a young grad student, I (and fellow graduate and undergraduate students) marveled at the passionate seriousness and open confrontations of presenters trying to determine the ifs, hows, and whys of Christian scholarship.  Confessing History might not be able to take readers back to that moment, but 2002 is nevertheless written all over it.  In fact, one of the must-read essays is a revised version of Christopher Shannon's opening address of the 2002 meeting, "After Monographs," a merciless assault on Marsden's "Idea" (with Marsden in the room, mind you), on the state of Christian historiography, and on the post-Enlightenment historiographical/monographic tradition as a whole.  Here's a taste, if you dare:

It is my contention that in embracing naturalistic causality and the procedural norms of the historical profession, Christian historians merely trade in one providentialism for another.  Where Christian historians of old once looked for the hand of the Holy Spirit, the new-model Christian history follows the naturalist quest for historical agency.  The modern secular monograph tells us, with pius, mind-numbing regularity, that human beings, as individuals and groups, make history, but not under conditions of their own making.  Within the general framework of accommodation and resistance, secular historians remind us of the ironic disjunction between intended actions and unintended consequences, but insist on the primacy of action, whatever its consequences.  Historical actors are those people who manipulate, negotiate, and reshape their relations with each other and with nature in their effort to maximize their individual and collective autonomy from imposed constraints.  History, through a process of dialectical struggle, reveals the natural unfolding of a kind of instrumental individualism.  The producer ethic of the middle-class professional historian is written into the narrative structures of history.  It finds its most immediate material manifestation in the industrial production of history monographs (p. 172). 

For those interested in a concrete example of what Shannon is getting at, check out his review of Robert O. Self's All in the Family (Hill and Wang, 2012) at USIH.

I should add that Shannon's essay is hardly representative of the Confessing History collection.  The most compelling contribution to me is Beth Barton Schweiger's elegant meditation on the central role of love in historical practice (with honorable mentions to Lendol Calder and Thomas Albert Howard).        

35 comments:

Curtis J. Evans at: March 23, 2013 at 10:55 AM said...

Thanks, Mark. I hope to check this volume out. Although it is an older work and a bit narrower in terms of specific region (the South), I was reminded of some of the reflections in John Boles, "Autobiographical Reflections on Southern Religious History" (2001). I found this volume especially helpful because each essay was a mix of the influence of personal history and biography on historical writing and the very subjects one choose to write about, and a fascinating historiographical narrative of those who came before the author (sort of a look at one's sparring partners). They reminded me of James Baldwin's provocative claim that history exerts a kind of unconscious control over us in the present. For the most part, I did not find the essays in the Boles' collectioni to be polemical in any way, but quite thoughtful analyses of personal and regional history on one's style and approach to history. From what I can gather from your description, their essays seem a more productive approach than the "confessional" angle of some of the essays you describe (though I will suspend judgment on that point until I've read the works).

theitinerantmind at: March 23, 2013 at 1:06 PM said...

I have been seeing this book recommended everywhere lately, perhaps because I follow John Fea's blog as well. I have generally tried to avoid the CFH, Marsden's Idea, and works like this in general because of the fear--not, I suspect, entirely irrational--that in many academic circles, to veer too far into this territory is to forfeit all credibility.

I may yet pick this one up.

Mark T. Edwards at: March 23, 2013 at 1:14 PM said...

Thanks, Curtis, for the Boles reference. Most of the CH essays are autobiographical, occasionally prescriptive, and rarely apologetic (Shannon being the notable exception). What's most striking is the diversity of responses, I think reflecting varying levels of comfort with the "full-time" nature of the full-time academic. Whether one agrees with, or even cares about, the CFH question, the essays offer something for everyone to reflect on.

Mark T. Edwards at: March 23, 2013 at 1:30 PM said...

Sorry, itinerantmind; I just published my response to Curtis when your comment popped up.

I don't think such "fear" is unwarranted. I think many people are turned off to the CFH project because of the fear of "abandoning objectivity," the fear that it serve some covert theocratic mission, or that its "confession" is too narrowly Reformed Protestant. I simply thought that, in the broader discussions I've been watching at USIH about the place of personal ideology in scholarship and teaching, the CH volume adds a twist on the conversation. Methodologically and, to a large extent, personally, I'm a pragmatist, which means I'm willing to listen creatively to confessional historians even if I hold pretty loosely to confessions myself.

Tom Van Dyke at: March 23, 2013 at 7:00 PM said...

Reading some of the briefs of the litigants, it all seems more a battle over "Christian" than "history," over the present more than the past.

And I don't quite understand who "Christian historians" aim to write for, except each other. To the larger academy, I'd expect adding "Christian" to "historian" would be like adding, I dunno, "one-armed" to "pianist."

Randall at: March 23, 2013 at 7:25 PM said...

Enjoyed the post. And this is a great book for anyone interested in the intersection of faith and history. A session on it at the 2010 CFH meeting in Oregon was a highlight.

I'm surprised, though, that the CFH would be referred to as "the intellectual arm of the religious right." Sounds like a wrecking ball being manned by the ghost of Chuck Colson.

A look at the journal Fides et Historia (full disclosure, I am associate editor) would, I think, banish the thought. Peruse recent and past issues of the journal. In the last few years these individuals have written essays and articles for FeH: Robert Orsi, Peggy Bendroth, Jon Roberts, David Hollinger, Wallace Best, Catherine Albanese, Lila Corwin Berman, Richard Lyman Bushman, Philip Jenkins, Eugene McCarraher, Grant Wacker, Anthea Butler, Bruce Kuklick, Mark Noll, and Dana Robert. And forthcoming issues will feature Molly Worthen, Darren Dochuk, Dan Williams, Hilde Løvdal, Kathryn Lofton, Axel Schafer, and Michelle Nickerson.

Not exactly Ralph Reed's God Squad.

Randall at: March 23, 2013 at 7:33 PM said...

And on the "one-armed pianist" thing. Fox News might have us think that Christians are outlawed in the academy. (And that students in history classes from coast to coast are being ordered to stomp on pictures of Jesus all day long.)

But that certainly doesn't square with reality. David Hempton, Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, is Dean of Harvard Divinity. Mark Noll won the National Humanities medal some years back and his books are not thought of as Bircher tracts. George Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards won the Bancroft Prize. Could go on...

Tom Van Dyke at: March 23, 2013 at 8:09 PM said...

Exactly my point, Randall, and I quite had you in mind--that a certain crew of "Christian historians" are in, the others not so much.

Noll and Marsden are tolerated by the larger establishment along the lines of "not bad for a one-armed pianist."

Christopher Shannon, or more to the point Christopher Dawson, who are less appealing to secular sensibilities, not so much.

And FTR, despite your invocation of Fox News @ moi, I'm not entirely sanguine with the concept of "Christian" historian in the first place, either the in or the out crowd.

http://suite101.com/article/christian-history-a291150

I happen to agree with Hollinger's analysis of contemporary American Christian history here

http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-06/culture-changers

but to me it's been plain that there are those like yourself whose real agenda is the fight over "Christian"--in your and his case, whacking the fundies.

I wasn't going to go into it so pointedly, but since you asked, there it is. The machinations seem quite naked to the outsider.

Randall at: March 23, 2013 at 8:43 PM said...

That's weird that you say that about Shannon, because another publication I edit, Historically Speaking, featured a forum with Shannon in which he made some pretty strident arguments and it produced a great debate. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/historically_speaking/toc/hsp.12.1.html

And according to your thesis, how would evangelical historian Tommy Kidd at Baylor fit in? His books have been very well received by the profession. He writes for World Magazine http://www.worldmag.com/writer/thomas_kidd/

Or how would John Fea fit? An evangelical whose book was a finalist for the prestigious George Washington Book Prize?

Or John Turner, who just published his bio of Brigham Young with Harvard Belknap?

Like the War Against Christmas, the War Against Christians doesn't exist. No one is stomping on pictures of Jesus.

Granted, there aren't very many professional historians who are separatist fundamentalists in the mold of Carl McIntire, and even fewer like Fred Swartz, or Billy James Hargis. . . But is that a great loss to the profession?

Randall at: March 23, 2013 at 8:50 PM said...

I'm surprised about the remark about "whacking the fundies," being 99.9% sure you've never read anything I've written in book or article form.

Tom Van Dyke at: March 23, 2013 at 9:28 PM said...

Oh, I got your number about your book just fine in our exchanges over @ Fea's, Randall.

;-)

And of course I'd read your essays here @ RiAH and your NYT op-ed humping your book as well.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/books/review/the-anointed-evangelical-truth-in-a-secular-age-by-randall-j-stephens-and-karl-w-giberson-book-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Coupled with your own half of our exchange @ Fea's, I think we covered the topic of you quite thoroughly.

Now that we understand each other, let's get to business:

Christopher Shannon is a good place to start. Yeah, I bet he got some bowels in an uproar! [I know the feeling, heh.] That was my point. That he's in the in-crowd like the author of "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" [which should be subtitled "there isn't much of one"] remains to be seen. If ever there was a sentiment congenial to the secular academy's, that's the one.

Tommy Kidd, that'll be an interesting one. What I do know is that the in-crowd lights up the internet every time David Barton takes a dump, but is completely uninterested in Kidd's appearances on Glenn Beck. Funny, huh? It's almost as though he doesn't exist.

Weird.

Frankly, I think there would be a lot fewer books like

http://www.amazon.com/Anointed-Evangelical-Truth-Secular-Age/dp/0674048180

if the fundies just kept to themselves and didn't vote Republican. But that's just an opinion, of course.

Like the War Against Christmas, the War Against Christians doesn't exist. No one is stomping on pictures of Jesus.

That was a joke, right? Google "Dr. Deandre Poole," and don't blame me if the only thing you find is on righty blogs and Fox News. It's somewhat related to my point as well. If a tree falls in the forest and only Fox News hears it, it didn't really fall.

No, I certainly don't withdraw that a lot of this "Christian" business is about Dem-Rep, gay marriage, taxing the rich, whathaveyou. Shannon's speaking of religion and faith, but his opponents aren't, [except for the occasional 2-Kingdoms type like DG Hart].

Moreover [and worse], the entire Marxian project has subsumed the historical method, the race-class-gender thing so much so that the study of history has been subsumed by sociology, anthropology, and "historiography," the history of doing history. There's so much "meta" that who/what/where/when has been subjectivized by why.

OTOH, I suppose there's not much room for yet another biography of Churchill.

If you can manage to squeeze in some religion in the discussion of "why" along with the Holy Trinity of race, class and gender, does that make you a "Christian" historian? Oh Jeez, I hope not. It should simply make you a good historian.

As always, Randall, best regards. I apologize for having too much fun with this, but I was just reading some Dawson and it's all too delicious not to. Cheers.

http://www.crisismagazine.com/2011/catholicism-and-the-bourgeois-mind

The question of the bourgeois involves a real issue which Christians cannot afford to shirk. For it is difficult to deny that there is a fundamental disharmony between bourgeois and Christian civilization and between the mind of the bourgeois and the mind of Christ.

But first let us admit that it is no use hunting for the bourgeois. For we are all more or less bourgeois and our civilization is bourgeois from top to bottom. Hence there can be no question of treating the bourgeois in the orthodox communist fashion as a gang of antisocial reptiles who can be exterminated summarily by the revolutionary proletariat; for in order to “liquidate” the bourgeoisie modern society would have to “liquidate” itself.

This is where Marx went wrong...


Tom Van Dyke at: March 23, 2013 at 9:30 PM said...

Your NYT piece humping your book would of course be this one

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/18/opinion/the-evangelical-rejection-of-reason.html

Appy-ologies.

Randall at: March 23, 2013 at 9:47 PM said...

I'm sorry, I don't see historians' paying attention to race, class, and gender as some kind of vicious commie conspiracy. You say tomato, I say potato.

And thanks for confirming that you've never read anything I've published.

I still have a sneaking suspicion that you are The Onion cartoonist Kelly, with all of the conservative indignation, victimization, world-upside-down scenarios, etc. http://www.theonion.com/articles/june-28-2010,17689/

Mark T. Edwards at: March 23, 2013 at 9:57 PM said...

Hope you don't mind me interrupting, Tom, but I thought I'd offer a few words of clarification to Randall.

Thanks so much for your response, Randall; I don't think anyone vaguely familiar with Fides would accuse it of anti-intellectualism--except maybe that it my published me many years ago!

The "religious right" comment to me (no, I wasn't backdooring my own opinion) wasn't regarding Fides, but the CFH project in general, at least in 2002 when the comment was made. To me, it concerned the larger issue of "integration of faith and learning" which seemed to underlay CFH at least at that time. For many historians, integrationist language is ALWAYS theocratic code and thus, to them, relative to the Religious Right. I'm currently in an integrationist CCCU school, and thriving in it, but I'm also pretty free in how I "integrate," even to the point of questioning integrationist rhetoric alltogether. My students generally rank me pretty low on the "Christian role model" evaluation, maybe because I don't open class with prayer and play Green Day and Sex Pistols to explain the American Revolution. :)

I kind of lost touch with CFH after 2004--living in Arkansas will do that--and the CH volume was a recent refresher. In any case, the whole point of my post was to celebrate the good work done at USIH and to draw attention to the evolution of CFH as a historiographical resource.

Randall at: March 23, 2013 at 10:11 PM said...

Mark: I hear ya. Didn't mean to sound reactionary, snippy, or anything.

Just wanted to add my two cents.

I'd like to see some more real debates about the whole issue of integration. Hollinger, like Kuklick, was a good counter in a recent issue of Fides. Wrote Hollinger:

"The achieving of a community of scholars integrated and energized by shared research questions rather than by shared opinions about God, Jesus, et al, is cause for rejoicing. This community came together as the field of religious history was emancipated from the 'confessional,' 'in-group' presumption that Brad Gregory criticizes, even as he reasserts it at the end of his essay covered by a thin disguise. The mere recognition that religion continues to exist in the world, Gregory seems to assert, requires one to renounce the epistemic principles of modern scholarship and to allow for the possibility of supernatural causation. Religious history finally became open to all professional historians largely because we stopped thinking in just this way. . . .

If a preface declaring that one is, after all, a believing Catholic, or an ordained Methodist minister, or a born-again evangelical, serves in fact like a Surgeon General's warning, an assertion that a given historical event was somehow caused by a divine power is even more formidable. It works like the 'flame' that appears in some e-mail programs when the screen is about to display a message containing questionable language from someone claiming to admire you and inviting you to get to know them intimately. The delete command is always available. . . ."

Tom Van Dyke at: March 23, 2013 at 10:48 PM said...

I did read your op-ed when it was published, Randall, plus your RiAH stuff, so that's unfair. You said I never read an article by you. I showed I did. Plus I had 2 lengthy colloquies with you where you had all the chance in the world to make your case. Do not claim to be misunderstood.

http://www.philipvickersfithian.com/2011/09/anti-intellectual-populism-and.html

http://www.philipvickersfithian.com/2011/10/evangelical-rejection-of-reason.html

Which after much huffing and puffing, ended up at

RS: Do you know that people have different interpretations of the Bible?

TVD: Um, yeah, Randall. "Social gospel" politics or this new wave of gay-friendly theology are all valid in my book. That would be a necessary corollary in my pluralistic defense of the fundies here even if I have a personal contrary theological opinion. [Personal. Theological. Opinion. I condemn neither you or them. I have no dog in this fight.]

But it's not right to caricature my position with Joe the Plumber, Dr. Stephens. I have taken great pains not to caricature yours. Indeed, most of my objections are formal, to the structure and logic of yr thesis.


Plus ca change, Randall. Fox News, indeed.

Further, none of this was really about you, but you took it upon yourself to call me out. I hope you got what you came for.

As for attempting to move the discussion ahead on the posted topic and the locution of "Marxian Holy Trinity" of race-class-gender, I did the best I could to separate it from "commie." It is indeed a weltanschauung and a method, and for better or worse, has indeed largely subsumed "history" in the academy.

That we might wedge religion into the Marxian equation I thought was a modest plea, and begging the academy's mercy on anyone who does speak of religion---that they not be tagged "Christian" historian, a term I find suspect.

Except for Shannon and Dawson's type, mind you, which I dig because unlike the "Marsden Settlement," is unabashed theology/theism that makes no attempt to propitiate the gods of the academy.

My objection has always been to those who are neither fish nor fowl, proffering some bland gruel that the secular academy---and progressive politics---find quaint and unthreatening.

If not useful. Shannon and Dawson I like, even though I don't wish to enroll in their order.

BTW, re stomping Jesus and Deandre Poole, you sure stepped into that one bigtime.

A Florida college professor causing national outrage for requiring students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper, then put it on the floor and stomp on it, turns out also to be a top official in the local Democratic Party – the latest in a string of acute leadership embarrassments.

http://www.wnd.com/2013/03/dem-party-official-makes-students-stomp-on-jesus/#9WqcTvWPEzvYfsqU.99


A petty point, and I bring it up only because you misfired on it, but at this very moment we're seeing anecdote being defended here at RiAH as a way of doing history, yes?

Is this incident significant? Does this speak in a larger sense to the hostility to Christ and Christianity in the academy, and in the Democratic Party, which provably gets the lion's share of the unreligious and anti-religious vote?

If so, somebody could write a book about the arrogance of the academic establishment and use this as anecdotal evidence. They could call it, I dunno..."The Anointed?"

Randall at: March 23, 2013 at 11:04 PM said...

It's not significant, that incident. I alluded to it because I heard the ravings about it on AM shouting-head radio today and yesterday in a rental car. Ate up a good amount of El Rushbo's program. I'm sure that Concerned Women for America or the ACLJ will say it's like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. (Kind of amazing that you thought I accidentally stepped into it.)

Anyhow, thanks again for confirming that you've never read anything I've written in book or article form. You disagreed with an op-ed I co-authored. And you're judging my academic work not from my academic work. But that's par for your course. No biggie.

Just wanna say that your wild-eyed hyperboles are as astonishing as they are entertaining. Much like the Stan Kelly cartoons in The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/articles/editorial-cartoon-march-9-2009,12387/

Tom Van Dyke at: March 23, 2013 at 11:25 PM said...

Hope you don't mind me interrupting, Tom, but I thought I'd offer a few words of clarification to Randall.

I'm the one interrupting, Mark. it's your post. Props.

This is a very important topic, and I do sincerely understand religious yet intellectual types trying to wrest the public mantle of "Christianity" away from the other side.

The fundies are frigging embarrassing, with their biblical literalism, esp creationism.

OTOH, even Hollinger--to his credit--allows that theological [socio-political?] liberalism may quite be a "halfway house."

I think he might be citing the great William Wilberforce here, who explicitly called the theological fad of unitarianism a "halfway house" to infidelity.

Indeed, by 1850 or so, Ralph Waldo E and Theodore Parker, along with the aged William Ellery Channing, awarded what was once the Puritan church, which once had been Congregationalism, which became Christian Unitarianism [Jesus as Messiah, although not divine] to "free-thinking."

Today, its successor church, Unitarian Universalism [created by merger of those 2 disparate sects in 1961] owns many of those same New England churches, including the one where John, Abigail and John Quincy are buried in the basement. [Theism is optional in UUism, extra fee required to view the graves.]

Is Mark Nollism a halfway house, then, the "Marsden Settlement?"

That's Shannon's argument, and I don't think Hollinger is really disagreeing: the latter thinks that's not a bad thing but the former does.

Me, I find it all damned interesting, and my own ambition is to keep an accurate scorecard on all this Protestant stuff. 6-4-3 double play, that sort of thing. Should the historian aspire to be an umpire, or just the official scorer?

Randall at: March 24, 2013 at 6:52 AM said...

I don't see it all through the declension lens. But you could be right.

Janine Giordano at: March 24, 2013 at 1:59 PM said...

What a good conversation. I think it's worthwhile to raise the question of to what extension the "integration of faith and learning" project is connected with a conservative approach to making sense of history. I was at the CFH meetings in 2005 and 2007 (Oklahoma and Ohio) and honestly could understand someone reaching this conclusion by experiencing many of the panels at that time.

I won't go into details here, but I met quite a few panelists whose research definitely championed those subjects (white, males in particular) usually seen as imperialists/racists as heroes in another way. This is not to say that they were an arm of the Religious Right. I usually see the Religious Right as a political coalition, and these people were doing real, peer-reviewed research, so that accusation is still probably not entirely fair. But, I'd definitely not fault someone for understanding the CFH of the 2000s (at least) as conservative.

I think it's an open question, and a good question, to ask to what extent the pursuit of "Christian scholarship" in the way that Fea and others are doing it is an inherently conservative way of approaching history. I can see both sides.

Mark T. Edwards at: March 24, 2013 at 2:33 PM said...

Thanks so much for the firsthand observation, Janine. Might you explain a bit more what you mean by "conservative approach?" Does that mean providentialist? Elitist, in the sense of a narrowly conceived intellectual history? What I've been noticing of CFH members (including contributions to the CH volume) is their interest in/indebtedness to New Left communitarianism as carried forward by people like Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry. That's conservativism of a very different stripe than, say, Ralph Reed or even Rick Warren.

Janine Giordano at: March 24, 2013 at 7:35 PM said...

Well, as Fea elaborates so very articulately, each of us has different reasons for pursuing history research. My training in history derives from those considered "radical" in the 1960s and 70s. So, that's my bias in approaching these questions. I'm also a Christian, and study the history of Christianity, and consider myself a "Christian scholar." So, I speak from this perspective.

Among the CFH members I've met, some are providentialist, indeed. This approach does not necessarily problematize the victory of victors over the "victims." It is conservative in the sense that it does not challenge the status quo (as much as other approaches do).

Some are indeed most interested in the personal, political, and spiritual growth of "important" men and women in history and the flow of ideas among "important people." This approach is conservative in that it focuses our attention in historical causation on people in power, and does not usually challenge or problematize how they gained their (economic, social) power.

Many, many whom I've met also have a fondness for Jeffersonian "sustainable" and agrarian democracies (like Wendell Berry, as you say). I love how Darren Dochuk critiques this romanticism within our field (standing on the shoulders of a long line of Leftists). I suppose you could call the Wendell Berry- appreciators inheritors of the New Left communitarian traditions, but there are many other ways of seeing that, too. In some ways, this vision for justice romanticizes a kind of "herrenvolk" democracy.

To me, any approach to history that does not emphasize and problematize power relations is conservative. Power, of course, comes in the form of race and racism, wealth, gender, ability, and religion, but of course it takes other forms as well (rhetorical power, cultural power, etc). Critiquing those in power is, to me, what makes historians NOT conservative. Now, I have been called a "radical historian" for saying this. People have said that this is even an "obsession" with power.

And, it is fair to say that this "radical history" tradition is the tradition within which I was trained. But, I'd say that historians of my generation are not entirely the same as our predecessors, the trailblazers in the field. I'm not ONLY interested in power relations (especially those based in race, class and gender). My own work is a social history of ideas, and I'd say that many of us in my generation probably characterize their interests similarly.

So, I don't mean to go on here too long. I think this article might demonstrate a bit of what I would characterize as a more conservative than radical approach to history. I am not saying that these authors are by any means political conservatives. I do not believe they are at all. They are certainly NOT part of the Religious Right. In fact, they are deliberate critics thereof. But, as far as historiographical approach, I would characterize this posture toward Howard Zinn as conservative. Zinn's goal was to examine and critique how victors came into power over victims. I agree with Zinn that "you can't be neutral on a moving train;" to do anything less is to tacitly consent to the power relations that continue to comprise the status quo.

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/07/lies-the-debunkers-told-me-how-bad-history-books-win-us-over/260251/

Randall at: March 24, 2013 at 7:58 PM said...

Janine: Those are good points.

But I wonder what you would think of similar critiques of Zinn as in this very recent piece in the New Republic: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112574/howard-zinns-influential-mutilations-american-history

Or this one by Sam Wineburg: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/winter1213/wineburg.cfm

Or, even this earlier stinging critique by Michael Kazin in Dissent: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/howard-zinns-history-lessons

One of the main points of David Greenberg's TNR piece is that "Zinn never seems to have grasped that scholarship differs from more perishable forms of writing precisely in that it begins in a freedom to explore topics that may appear remote from today’s pressing concerns but that can still change our understanding of the world." And then: "the fatal flaw of Zinn’s historical work is the shallowness, indeed the fallaciousness, of his critique of scholarly detachment. Zinn rests satisfied with what strikes him as the scandalous revelation that claims of objectivity often mask ideological predilections. Imagine! And on the basis of this sophomoric insight, he renounces the ideals of objectivity and empirical responsibility, and makes the dubious leap to the notion that a historian need only lay his ideological cards on the table and tell whatever history he chooses."

It's the way he worked as a historian, I think, that's at issue. Not as much his politics.

And then there is HNN's 2012 poll "What is the Least Credible History Book in Print?" which placed Zinn at #2. http://hnn.us/articles/what-least-credible-history-book-print

Janine Giordano at: March 24, 2013 at 8:05 PM said...

And by the way, I do NOT see conservative historiographical approaches as bad by any means. There are tons of really really legitimate approaches to history, and I love that Fea and his fellow contributors recognize and celebrate this. I am a big fan of Fea's work at sorting out confessional approaches to history.

This book is several years old now, and I LOVE it. It compiled socio-religious motivations for historical work among some left leaning Catholic-ish historians.

http://www.amazon.com/Faith-Historian-Perspectives-Nick-Salvatore/dp/0252073827

Thank you for starting this conversation!!

Randall at: March 24, 2013 at 8:09 PM said...

I second that about the Salvatore volume. Someone should teach a class using those in tandem.

Janine Giordano at: March 24, 2013 at 8:43 PM said...

Randall, I've been thinking about those articles you post all week, especially in light of the History News Network article in response to Greenberg's piece. http://hnn.us/articles/rebutting-david-greenbergs-hit-job-howard-zinn

My short answer to all this is that I agree that there are legitimate critiques of Zinn's _People's History_ and his historiographical theory as he articulated it. The book and his theory are dated, even though I continue to appreciate all this work (and read it and would assign it today).

I know that Zinn articulated how and why objectivity is not really possible and therefore called historians to be very partisan and use their history to make change. But, I don't think most "radical historians" who were part of Zinn's generation ever really abandoned objectivity in their historiographical method. In fact, historians of this generation still use more charts, graphs, appendices, and other means of "objective" and statistical analysis than any other historians I know. They also still talk about history as a quest for "figuring out what happened" much more than other historians I've met. Everyone I've met in this field cares deeply about analyzing evidence fairly. We'd say that objectivity is impossible, but fair and honest evaluation of evidence is absolutely required.

The way I see it, Zinn was part of a generation that simply wanted to pull away the lie that objectivity is possible. They wanted everyone to be more conscious about the politics behind an historical narrative, and they were open about the politics behind their own. I find many things to appreciate about this.

On Zinn's _People's History_ in particular, a few things:

a)I think a lot of people say they don't like Zinn's _People's History_ but not all of them have actually read the whole thing carefully. I find that the first few chapters and last few chapters are much more dramatic and "one sided" than the middle chapters. I liked the middle chapters the best.

b) Zinn does openly write a history of good guys vs. bad guys. But, I think Zinn is just more explicit about this than other historians. Whose "regular people's version" of their historical research doesn't (on some level) do a history of good guys v. bad guys?

Zinn's _People's History_ was written for an audience of regular people, and so a lot of his thesis statements oversimplified the tremendous research that complicated each chapter.

I see this public desire for oversimplification as a problem that we all deal with as a field. Radical historians didn't oversimplify. (Have you ever read anything by David Montgomery?!!) It's the public that demands a neat , take-home story, and Zinn spoke into the vacuum of public history relating to new social history research.

Mark T. Edwards at: March 24, 2013 at 8:47 PM said...

Thanks so much for the definition, Janine, and for the Salvatore reference; now I'm really looking forward to your book! Also, I hope you'll post in the future more about about this; I have a bunch of questions about your understanding of conservative scholarship, but it probably demands a new or different vanue than a tired comments thread.

Mark T. Edwards at: March 24, 2013 at 8:50 PM said...

that's "venue," sorry. I'd be admiss, too, given how this post originated, to not add that Tim Lacy and USIH have done alot on Zinn recently and over the years.

Randall at: March 24, 2013 at 8:58 PM said...

Well said. Many of these issues, I guess, would have to do with the audience for which he wrote.

Tom Van Dyke at: March 25, 2013 at 2:07 AM said...

Does that door swing both ways?

John Fea at: March 25, 2013 at 8:12 AM said...

Wow! I take the weekend off to watch a few basketball games and all hell breaks loose over our *Confessing History*! My head is spinning.

Actually, I am deeply gratified (as are Eric Miller and Jay Green) that our book is leading to this kind of conversation. I will try to get a post up over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home sometime soon.

Mark T. Edwards at: March 25, 2013 at 8:19 AM said...

Let that be a lesson, John: NEVER watch basketball. Everyone knows hockey is God's sport--at least hell freezes over there!

:)

John G. Turner at: March 25, 2013 at 6:45 PM said...

Sorry to veer off from the original (and very worthwhile) post on the Zinn tangent.

I used Zinn's book (in tandem with another introductory text from a rather opposite angle) at the University of South Alabama for five years.

My two main thoughts about People's History:

1) I love the fact that students will read it and enjoy discussing it. That in and of itself makes it a splendid book to assign.

2) My biggest criticism of People's History is that it fails as good history because it does not make much of an attempt to trace change over time.

I'm still grateful that Zinn once answered an email from my class in which he conceded a not insignificant error in his book. That basic humanity and lack of personal defensiveness makes up for a great deal.

Tom Van Dyke at: March 25, 2013 at 8:31 PM said...

I'm still grateful that Zinn once answered an email from my class in which he conceded a not insignificant error in his book. That basic humanity and lack of personal defensiveness makes up for a great deal.

W/all due respect, MarkT, no, it doesn't. Or shouldn't. Like that other fellow of our mutual acquaintance who walks his thesis all across the internet like a stage mother and punks anyone who squawks,

;-) heh heh

in the end there's only the merit of your work.

OTOH, Howard Zinn is no longer a[n] historian or mere human being, not just a politics: he is a church, with followers and evangels and everything.

http://zinnedproject.org/

He hath now passed into history or historiography or whatever folks call it, and so must be regarded as such.

So upon further review, I reckon like our considerations of any other religion or self-proclaimed prophet, we cannot examine Howard Zinn's truth claims any more than Howard Beale's or Father Coughlin's or Glenn Beck's---only Zinn's effect upon his times.

And times to come...

Howard Zinn hath passed into Religious History, god Rest His Soul. Howard Zinn is no longer a person, he is an -ism.

Jay at: March 26, 2013 at 3:00 PM said...

Thanks, Mark, for taking time to comment on our book. I am especially gratified that you draw connections between the 2002 Huntington meeting at CFH. All three of us co-editors see that gathering as a significant catalyst for whatever good has sprung from the Confessing History volume.

I am somewhat amused that anyone would see anything especially coherent about the CFH (as if there was a "CFH Project"), much less something especially dangerous or politically interested. In fact, it was a collective despair about the lack of anything like a vision for the CFH that allowed that 2002 Huntington meeting to fall into our laps.

For some backstory about how that came about, you may want to read Daryl Hart's brief history of the CFH in the Ron Well's edited volume, History and the Christian Historian (1998). Along with Bill Trollinger's 2000 presidential address. What Hart and Trollinger concluded, and we had long suspected, is that the CFH lost its way as an organization for believing historians of any kind to gather to think carefully about the meaning of faith for doing history. And CFH became a kind of bush league for historians of religion who happened to be Christians.

We put the 2002 (and 2004) meetings together with the specific intent of generating a conversation that would appeal to a believing historian studying any topic in any period. And we were pleased that there were so many who were likewise interested in this kind of discourse.

I'm not sure that these meetings had any substantial impact on the organization long term. Subsequent meetings seemed to drift back to predominantly religious history themes. But the Confessing History volume is a testament to the sort of conversation we'd been interested in having. And we hope we can continue to cultivate it both in and outside the CFH.

I am also a little mystified that anyone would see Confessing History as having some kind of clear "agenda." The only real unanimity you'll find in the book is that the questions are live and the conversation is worth having. One only need read Christopher Shannon and then turn to James LaGrand to see that we aren't exactly speaking with one voice.

Thanks again, Mark, for taking time to bring some attention to the book.

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