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Scholarly Inquiry: A Q&A with John Fea

By: admin - September 03, 2013

We’re thrilled to present the following Q&A with historian John Fea. Dr. Fea is Associate Professor of History and  Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He is the author and editor of several books, including The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), and Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), which he co-edited with Jay Green and Eric Miller. His latest book, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013) is scheduled to be released in two weeks. Dr. Fea is currently at work on two book projects—a religious history of the American Revolution and one on history and memory in the town of Greenwich, NJ. In addition to his scholarly output, John is a prodigious blogger, a tireless traveler and dynamic speaker (check out that list—chances are he’ll be in your general neck of the woods at some point), Bruce Springsteen devotee, avid sports fan, and 2010 inductee to the Montville High School (NJ) Hall of Fame. By nearly all accounts, he is also an incredibly nice guy.

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Fea!

1. Your forthcoming book, Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past considers in part “how history can deepen our spiritual lives.” Can you briefly summarize some of the ways you believe it can and does? And more generally speaking, what relationship does your academic training and professional scholarship have with your Christian faith? How have the two affected one another?

Too often the past is used to bludgeon our enemies.  It is used as part of brutal culture war campaigns that, from where I sit, do not look very Christian.  I start one of the chapters in Why Study History? chronicling the experience I had last year with Glenn Beck and his website The Blaze.  (You will have to read the book to learn more, although I am sure you can find something about it online). The quest for a useable past—what Bernard Bailyn called “indoctrination by historical example”—has resulted in a failure to recognize the powerful role that the study of history can play in strengthening our lives and our democracy.  Good historical thinking has the potential to bring reconciliation and civility.  This is a major theme in the second half of the book.

I would never say that the study of history is a replacement for the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and communities, but I do think it can make a modest contribution to our spiritual formation by teaching us to love God and love our neighbor.  I teach history as a form of public engagement with the dead.  (I borrow a great deal here from University of Virginia theologian Charles Mathewes).  When we enter the public sphere as Christians we encounter people who are different than us.  Rather than flee from these encounters into the safe havens of our religious worlds (where everyone is just like us), we need to be open to the possibility that such encounters can be occasions for spiritual transformation.  According to Mathewes, public engagement cultivates Christian character, purifies our souls, and prepares us for our heavenly home.  In the process of loving our neighbor—a practice that goes to the heart of civic life—we grow as Christians.  I think this kind of public theology can also be applied to our encounter with the past.  I want my students to learn how to love the dead—people from a “foreign country” who lived very, very different lives than they do.  This, of course, is not easy.  Loving our enemies never is.  But I am convinced that such an approach to the study of history can make us better people, better Christians.

Your second question is a big one.  I came to the study of history by accident. (Or perhaps it was providence).  I had originally planned to pursue a career in the ministry, but in seminary I found myself more attracted to church history and the Christian intellectual life than I did to the life as a pastor or missionary.  Rather than taking elective courses in church administration, preaching, or pastoral counseling, I took a lot of American religious history.  As a teenage convert to evangelicalism (from Roman Catholicism) I found these courses helped me to make sense of the strange evangelical subculture I had entered.  So I headed off to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D in American history.  The relationship between faith and my academic vocation has been nurtured by three communities.  The Conference on Faith and History has provided a place to discuss questions about history and the Christian faith.  Some of my best friends in the profession are part of this organization and we have collaborated on several projects together, including Confessing History.  During my two-year postdoctoral fellowship with the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and Arts at Valparaiso University I had the chance to do extensive reading in the field of faith-based higher education and the relationship between Christian faith and my discipline.  This was a transformative experience.  Finally, my twelve years of teaching Christian college students at Messiah College has forced me think deeply about how to connect the study of history with the Christian faith and the spiritual concerns of my students, most of who come from evangelical backgrounds.  My last three books: Confessing History, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, and Why Study History have been definitely shaped by my experience teaching Christian undergraduates at Messiah.

2. In his address at the Conference on Faith and History last year, Tracy McKenzie urged Christian scholars to be more mindful of their “neighbors” within the Church and devote more time addressing them. You noted your enthusiastic support of this call at your blog, arguing that “sometimes historians speaking to church audiences must be willing to listen and converse before debunking and correcting false understandings of the past.” You teach at a Christian college; do you incorporate this approach into the classes you teach there as well (where I presume many of your students are Christians)?

As I mentioned above, Messiah College is a Christian college. It is very ecumenical when compared to other Christian colleges, but most of our students come from evangelical backgrounds.  As a result, my work, by default, serves the church.  I think it is easy for a Christian college professor to misuse his or her authority by trying to crush the political, historical, or theological views that first-year students bring with them to college.  Sadly, I have seen this happen too many times.  I think teaching requires meeting students where they are, and working from there.  This requires me to keep my mouth shut for a while and listen.

3. Shifting gears a bit now, where do you come down on the methodological question of “bracketing” one’s faith claims in producing religious scholarship? Can you speak to the development of a “believing history” among evangelical Christian historians more generally?

I think all historians, to some extent, must bracket their faith in order to write good history.  This is difficult, but it is necessary in order to tell a story about the past effectively and fairly.  I am not sure I like the term “believing history” because most critics think it is some kind of code for providential history, or the idea that the evangelical historian has some special insight into the work of God in the past.  In Why Study History? I write about the process of bracketing as if it were an ascetic discipline.  Bracketing our presuppositions forces us to listen to the historical actors on their terms, not our terms.

On the other hand, religious historians often wear different hats.  I write for both academic audiences and the church.  When I write for the church it is important that I identify myself as a Christian.  If I want to be effective in teaching the church about the benefits of historical thinking it certainly helps if I identify myself as one of them—an insider, so to speak.  This became abundantly clear to me when I was touring to promote Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  Evangelicals were more open to hearing what I had to say when they knew that I was a card-carrying member of their religious community and could speak their language on matters of faith.

4. It seems that in recent years Mormons and Christians of various sorts have made a concerted effort to engage in productive interfaith dialogue, and just within the past year or two, that effort has spilled over into the academy a bit, with Mormons beginning to present, for example, at the Conference on Faith and History. It seems to me that Mormon historians can learn a lot from their Protestant and Catholic peers in their efforts to discuss and engage questions concerning the intersections of faith and scholarship. What potential benefits, if any, do you see resulting from these dialogues and interactions? Any potential drawbacks?

I think these kinds of dialogues are wonderful and have the potential to be very productive.  Christian historians who are serious about engaging questions concerning the intersection of faith and scholarship need to hear more from Mormons on this subject.  I remember several years ago listening to Richard Bushman talking about this topic—I think it was at the meeting of the American Society of Church History, but I could be wrong—and finding many similarities between the way Christians and Mormons wrestle with this question.  I would love to sit down with a group of Mormon historians—perhaps during a retreat of some kind—and talk about this.  Let’s make it happen.

5. How has the Christian academy received the recent generation of Mormon scholarship, in general? In the past, scholars like Mark Noll and George Marsden have avoided the topic (though they have occasionally advised dissertations addressing Mormon history), which many Mormon scholars feel is a detriment to their larger synthetic works. More recently, scholars like Philip Jenkins and John Turner have not simply included Mormonism in larger analyses but taken on Mormon-centric research projects. Do you see this as a continuing trend?

This is a different question than the questions I have answered above.  It is more a question of content than it is a question of how to integrate faith and the discipline.  I am not a historian of Mormonism, so I cannot speak with any degree of authority on this subject.  I do think that Jenkins and Turner (and maybe Nathan Hatch when he was writing history) are exceptions.  Most Christian historians—especially evangelical Christians—will always find it more interesting to explore the history of their own faith traditions, so I am not sure we will see large numbers of Christians writing Mormon history (but there will always be some).  As far as survey textbooks go, it would be irresponsible not to talk about Mormonism in the context of the early republic.  However, I also wonder if the anti-Mormonism that has so defined Protestantism (and especially evangelicalism) over the years may have something to do with the fact that post-Joseph Smith (or maybe post-Brigham Young?) Mormonism seldom appears in surveys of American Christianity.  Just a thought.

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12 Comments

  1. Thanks, Dr. Fea, for taking the time to thoughtfully answer our several questions. I look forward to reading your book (I’ve already browsed through some of what’s available via Amazon’s preview).

    There’s a gathering of LDS graduate students in religious studies, history, and the humanities held every other year called the Faith & Knowledge Conference. It was organized with the help of Richard Bushman and, so far as I can tell, serves a similar function as the Conference on Faith and History does fro Christian historians more generally (though on a much, much smaller scale). I’ve attended the past two conferences, and greatly enjoyed myself, but I’d love to see something happen where Mormon and Christian historians could engage one another more directly and learn from one another on this front.

    Thanks, again.

    Comment by Christopher — September 3, 2013 @ 8:28 am

  2. I second Christopher’s call to create a forum where Mormon and Christian historians can come together. As a committed Christian working on Mormonism, I often find the discussions of faith and scholarship a bit alien. What does it mean to work on a faith that is not your own? A discussion that was focused more on dialogue could be extremely helpful in clarifying my own thoughts.

    I love your term “public engagement with the dead.” My own interest in history is predicated on a desire to understand the dead and empathize with them. The term “public engagement” captures that beautifully.

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 3, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  3. Many thanks for this, John; lots to chew on. These are discussions Mormon historians of my generation have proven reticent to have, so it is important to lean on veterans from other faiths. As I’ve written elsewhere, I hope to see more of this in the future, and the dialogue between Mormon and Evangelical historians would be a great start.

    Comment by Ben P — September 3, 2013 @ 9:27 am

  4. Thanks, Dr. Fea. These are poignant reflections that leave a lot to chew on.

    Comment by David G. — September 3, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  5. Thanks, Dr. Fea. I think your suggestion of bracketing one’s faith as an ascetic discipline is spot on.

    Comment by Saskia — September 3, 2013 @ 10:30 am

  6. Excellent reading, thank you.

    Comment by Ben S — September 3, 2013 @ 11:12 am

  7. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Dr. Fea. I enjoy reading your blog and your takes on faith and history. We should find a way to have further engagements with evangelical and Mormon historians; members of the JI would certainly support such a retreat!

    Comment by J Stuart — September 3, 2013 @ 11:23 am

  8. Thanks, Dr. Fea. I appreciate the connection you make between public interaction and historical engagement. At times, it seems that we as historians more successfully sympathize with our historical subjects, people separated from us temporally and culturally, than we do with contemporaries who inhabit “foreign countries” politically and ideologically. Sometimes, I think, we feel like Emerson, who looked to the thoughts of past figures to make up for what he perceived as an absence of like minds among his contemporaries. Perhaps it’s easier to ignore or overlook differences when we control the conversation. As a proponent of the sympathetic approach to the past, I’m hoping to more fully follow your suggestion to apply this approach to our dealings with contemporaries.

    Comment by Jordan W. — September 3, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

  9. This is great. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — September 3, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

  10. […] source as one of ten by Christian historians that you should be reading?”, then check out this interview by the folks at another blog on that list, The Juvenile […]

    Pingback by John Fea in The Juvenile Instructor | The Pietist Schoolman — September 4, 2013 @ 7:01 am

  11. Thanks for your responses, Dr. Fea. Great to have your insights.

    Comment by Ryan T. — September 4, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

  12. What a great interview. Nice work, JI, and thanks to Dr. Fea for participating.

    Comment by BHodges — September 9, 2013 @ 4:47 pm