Christian Historiography: An Interview with Jay D. Green
Jay D. Green has served as Professor of History at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia since 1998. He is also Vice President of the Conference on Faith & History. His latest book, just released by Baylor Press, is Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. Green gives serious treatment to five “models for thinking and writing about the past in deliberately Christian ways.” Green gives more perspective on his book in this short interview.
Tell us about the book and why you decided to write about historiography.
The book represents a culmination of more than twenty years of thinking about and wrestling through my dual identity as a Christian believer and a student of history. While I’ve had a deep love of history since I was four or five years old, it wasn’t until I had nearly finished my B.A. that I began to see that history was more than simply a “basket of facts.” It was then that I began to discover the far more interesting “history of history” that stands behind every attempt to collect, analyze, and arrange the facts of past. My introduction to graduate-level explorations of historiography coincided with an equally serious effort on my part to think about how my own personal faith should inform (or was already unconsciously informing) the ways I read and interpreted the past. I entered graduate school in the early 1990s, when the postmodern turn in academic scholarship was reaching its zenith. Authorial identity, intent, and perspective—along with ever-present anxieties about objectivity—were matters of great concern, which fueled my interest in thinking about what might be meant by a “Christian interpretation of history.”
The opportunity I have had during the past decade to teach Historiography (required for our junior history majors) has given me a lively space to explore these questions alongside a yearly crop of bright Christian undergraduates, who have, by and large, enjoyed wrestling through these questions with me in class. The book took shape amid teaching this class as I’ve tried to help students understand the variety of meanings contemporary believers have attached to the idea of writing history from a Christian point of view.
What are some of the challenges of historical interpretation for Christian scholars? Are they distinct from the challenges faced by non-Christians?
The contemporary challenges of historical interpretation for Christians and non-Christians are in some ways identical. One of the legacies of the postmodern turn was its impact in urging historians to acknowledge and account for perspectivism. All who endeavors to collect, analyze, and write about the past does so in ways informed by personal concerns and commitments rooted in their social locations. And, indeed, Christians who write history—contending with their religious convictions and identities—must also consider their complementary identities rooted in nation, gender, race, and class.
But historical interpretation for Christian believers grows more complicated when confronting the ways that Christian ideals are both deeply historical (the time-bound witness of Scripture, narrative of salvation, unfolding of human experience) and profoundly transhistorical (the transcendent and fixed absolutes of Christian doctrine and the moral responsibilities of Christian discipleship, to say nothing of the unchangeable character of God himself). Christians who affirm traditional orthodoxy are unable to participate fully in historicizing and relativizing every dimension of human experience. Obligations to supernatural factors, to the fixed norms of biblical revelation, and to the mission of Christ’s Church all present unique challenges to the task of writing history for Christian believers.
The title of the book is Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. Explain these different versions and how you see them entering into scholarship today.
I explore ways that believing historians write history that 1) takes religion seriously, 2) is informed by background faith commitments, 3) engages in Christian moral analysis, 4) defends the truth of Christianity by demonstrating its successes in cultural formation, and 5) attempts to identify and trace God’s movement in the human drama. I anticipate some criticism of my use of the term “rival” in the subtitle due to the fact that these strategies for doing history Christianly are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Still, I believe that the five-part typology provides a helpful rubric for understanding the “lay of the land” among self-consciously Christian historians.
While I didn’t necessarily set out to organize the book in this way, it’s probably true that the chapters move from most to least acceptable strategies for writing history in formal academic settings. This is why the examples I give are almost exclusively academic in chapter one, almost exclusively non-academic by chapter five, and a varied mix of both in chapters two through four. One does not have to be a Christian to take religion seriously in history (though I argue that Christians will do so for unique reasons, often with distinct results). And taking this approach creates the least friction with university presses, tenure committees, and peer reviewers. By contrast, using history as a Christian apologetic, tracing God’s hand over time, and even offering moral critiques informed by faith have been met with much more skepticism within the modern university.
Do you find ways that these different approaches can be synthesized, or at least work together?
I conclude the book with a discussion of history as a Christian vocation, exploring the dual possibilities that conceiving of our work in this way may function either as a “catch all” category that encapsulates all versions of Christian historiography described in the book, or may actually be yet another approach to history exclusive of the other five. On one hand, history as a Christian vocation might be a generic way of speaking of the impulse to envision our work as believing historians in consciously Christian ways that may take on one or a combination of the approaches listed above. On the other, however, it could be that the theological idea of vocation might lead believing historians away from any of the five approaches described above. In this account, we are called simply to follow the rules of the academy toward doing quality work as defined by our guild. Perhaps, some might argue, being “good historians” is all that God asks of us, and doing so is all we should aspire to as “Christian historians.”