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.
My introduction to Flannery O’Connor happened later than for most others. While many became initiated to the writings of O’Connor in a college literature class, for me it was not until this past year. Perusing various audio books for my commute, I thought it was time to get acquainted with Flannery O’Connor.
What struck me first were the twisted yet relatable characters. Second, the themes of sin, redemption, faith, grace, etc., which lay as the foundation to O’Connor’s writings, had me constantly going back for more. Finally, her stories are the type that continually gnaw at you. Long after you stop reading, O’Connor’s words continue to work on you.
When it comes to the origins of the ecclesiastical offices, established scholarship has long held episkopos and presbyteros as synonymous terms describing the same office. F. C. Baur’s understanding was established as the classic position in 1835. This position has become the standard, articulated in specialist and non-specialist literature alike.
Revisionist work has challenged the consensus to a limited degree of success. However, such studies have either failed to provide convincing evidence for their case or lacked widespread reception. That is, until Stewart’s The Original Bishops.
A common placement of Gregory the Great (540-604) in his historical context has been to position him in the early stages of the medieval papacy. It has been argued that Gregory should be interpreted as the first medieval pope, initiating a trajectory which would develop over a number of centuries, and in many ways culminate in the Renaissance popes. As the first medieval pope, Gregory established the supremacy of Rome, laying the foundation for the institutional, political, and spiritual rule of the Roman Catholic Church.
In response to this assessment, recent scholarship has sought to better understand Gregory within his historical context. By bringing to light the continuity between Gregory and earlier periods of church history, it has been shown that the title of first medieval pope misidentifies Gregory in the wrong historical period. This is not simply a matter of semantics, but has great implications for the interpretation of Gregory’s theological, political, and literary endeavors as pope (590-604).
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.
Last week, a divided Supreme Court ruled to allow town boards to begin their sessions with prayer. Tellingly, both the majority and minority opinions, written by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagen, respectively, appealed to the founding fathers to support their views for and against prayer in town board meetings.
Appeals to history to support contemporary political opinions are not going away anytime soon. So what does America’s founding have to say about religion in the U.S. today? This question continues to be debated from our local schools to the highest levels of our government.
In considering this question, I’d like to engage two noteworthy discussions that seek to provide historical perspective on our nation’s founding: Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House, 2006)—which I listened to in its audiobook version—and John Fea’s Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2011). Both Meacham and Fea address the Christian America thesis, yet they approach the question from different angles.