I enjoy reading close studies of particular figures and periods in church history. When well researched and well crafted, they are often rich with illuminating detail. But I also find it valuable to read broad surveys of the Christian story. Such volumes are difficult to pull off because they require enough knowledge of so many different eras for one to select fair and representative figures to show the story’s development. Yet again, when done well, such volumes can provide macrolevel clarity that otherwise gets lost in the proverbial trees.
In this vein, I recently read Martin Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (New York: Modern Library, 2007). I had dipped into parts of it before, but I wanted to read through the whole volume front to back. Marty is a highly respected church historian, and he packs his rendering of Christian history into a remarkably short 236 pages, making it one of the shorter and more accessible books on the full spectrum of church history available today.
Twenty years ago, Jill Lepore wrote a book on King Philip’s War that received the prestigious Bancroft Prize: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (Vintage Books, 1998). In her volume, Lepore treats this little-remembered but pivotal war in colonial America from the angle of language. The book still has value today, speaking as it does to both the acts and the annals of war, to both the perpetration of war and the perpetuation of its memory. At the same time, it also raises some questions about historical methodology that warrant consideration.
In Protestant circles, medieval Christianity typically represents the least understood period in church history. This is unfortunate. As those who profess belief in the unity of the church across both space and time, Protestants benefit from exploring the nature of Christianity in the Middle Ages, tracing continuities and discontinuities with what preceded and succeeded the period.
A recent treatment of Christianity in the Middle Ages is Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015; source: publisher). In Medieval Christianity, Professor Madigan of Harvard Divinity School offers a fresh historical account of Christianity in the medieval era, seeking to maintain several traditional themes in histories of the Middle Ages while making good on historical research that has furthered our understanding of the topic since R. W. Southern’s landmark 1970 volume, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. And he has done so with an intentionally narratival delivery (xix).
Pursuing an active life of the mind offers both intriguing possibilities and inevitable perils. The study of church history is no exception to this reality. Those who have engaged in the exploration of the past know what a fascinating world it holds and yet also the danger that an overwhelming mass of artifacts and writings might bury the historian.
In Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Eerdmans, 2014), Richard Mouw offers some perspective to those delving into intellectual endeavors. This short book of seventy-four pages includes nineteen “chapters”—perhaps better called “reflections”—on the work of scholarship. For busy evangelical professors, researchers, and doctoral students, this format offers an opportunity to steal away for a few minutes and think about the craft of scholarship.
I recently listened to Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (audiobook version; Vintage Civil War Library, 2014), and in following his account of this bloody battle, you can’t miss that it illustrates the role of contingency in historical study. That is, history is marked by asking the question, how would things have turned out differently if this or that event had not happened?
In the case of the battle at Gettysburg, the question often goes like this: what needed to happen in order for the Confederates to score a victory at Gettysburg? If only Stonewall Jackson had survived the friendly fire that wounded him two months earlier at Chancellorsville; if only J. E. B. Stuart hadn’t taken so long to get to Gettysburg and provide screening for Lee’s movements; if only Lieutenant General Dick Ewell had pressed forward on July 1 and taken cemetery hill; if only Lieutenant General James Longstreet had started his assaults on July 2 and 3 earlier in the day; if only George Pickett had received the cover he needed to conduct his charge; if only General Lee had pushed his generals to take more initiative or had backed away from a general engagement in early July to find better ground. If only.
Turkey, stuffing, family, freedom—all good things we associate with Thanksgiving. Yet as this national holiday approaches next week, many of us will remember a portrait of the Pilgrims that skews the actual people who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620.
In his book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (IVP Academic, 2013), Robert Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College busts a number of myths about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. For example, the Pilgrims doubtfully wore silver buckles and stark black garb, instead avoiding anything resembling jewelry and gladly donning bright-colored clothes, especially at a celebration feast. Their Thanksgiving dinner would have lacked any sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. Rather than turkeys, they likely ate ducks, geese, and possibly even eels. These austere figures were also wont to wash down the meal with beer.
Why study history? In typical historian fashion, John Fea shows that a one-word answer will not suffice. Just as history is full of complexity, so are the answers to this question.
But complexity should not scare us off. It is the complexity of history that makes it such a rich subject. In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker, 2013), Fea makes a compelling case for the value of studying history, and some of the answers may surprise the reader.