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.
For example, we all know people who use (or abuse) history to gain political points or push their own agenda, (mis)shaping the past to fit their own desired aims. Fea uses David Barton as an example.
Barton has cultivated a significant following of people who have accepted his claim that America was founded as a Christian nation and that founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson were evangelical Christians. (For a complex historical engagement with that question, see Fea’s book, Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, and my review of that book.)
In response to efforts like Barton’s, Fea warns that “[t]oo much present-mindedness makes for bad history” (53). Instead, “[b]y trying to understand the past on its own terms, the historian treats it with integrity rather than manipulating it or superimposing his or her values on it to advance an agenda in the present” (52).
The irony is that, when we study history on its own terms, we find valuable benefits we would have otherwise missed. The strangeness of the past leads us outside our narrow view of the world to transform how we live in the present day.
Practicing good history, then, demands what “may be the hardest part of being a historian”: empathy, or “bracketing our own ways of seeing the world in order to see a strange world more clearly” (58–59). When we embrace the strangeness of the past, we find a paradoxical result, that “our engagement with the otherness of these lost worlds … prepares us well for life in the present” (63).
And this brings us to a key thrust of this work. Fea argues that greater historical literacy in the U.S. today will nurture the kind of values that make for a strong society—values like an appreciation for the common good and an ability to engage with those who are different from us.
While we will always have disagreements, we can learn civil ways to address each other. And by embracing this approach to the past, we can find guidance for the present—not by pushing a political agenda, but by learning how to engage with each other constructively. And that’s why Fea regularly tells his students that “if they want to be world-changers in the present, they need to immerse themselves in the study of the past” (121–122).
In Why Study History?, Fea offers a well-written, inviting, and fast-paced introduction to the study of history. He enriches his discussion with many historical examples, bringing to life not only the past but even the study of the past. He also approaches the topic from a Christian viewpoint, giving challenges particularly to Christian laypeople and Christian historians.
Because of his faith perspective, Fea must wrestle with the thorny topic of how providence relates to history. While affirming the doctrine of providence as a Christian, Fea argues that it serves as “an unhelpful category in the interpretation of the past,” largely because “[h]istory is more about the study of humans than it is about the study of God” (82).
This illuminating observation rightly pushes us to consider the difficulty facing Christians who want to explain God’s providence in human events because while God’s providence takes into account all sides of an event and all parties, human explanations of God’s providence tend to consider only their own side. For example, when two Christians are on opposite sides of a historical event as they were in the American Revolution, whose reading of the American victories is correct (78)?
Fea does well to encourage caution in reading history providentially. As a Christian historian myself, I lean toward this cautionary approach, especially resisting the mis-readings of history by providentialists who shape the story to promote a political agenda.
At the same time, I think it is helpful, even for Christian historians, to frame the discussion of providence and history in a particular light. While treading carefully, Christian historians can embrace “open history” (a view I think Fea would share), leaving a place for God’s providential work in history and recognizing the reality of a supernatural element in the past, even while avoiding simplistic appeals to providence that fail to take into account all sides of a story. This is tricky business, to be sure. But it is in this theological complexity that we find both light on human events and hope in God’s purposes.
One other note: Most of the examples Fea uses in his book come from American history. In an appendix he also features “A Proposal for the Center for American History and a Civil Society.” As an Americanist, Fea knows that history best, and for American readers—the presumed target audience—their familiarity with their own nation’s history will help them get into the subject more easily. So this book works best in an American context. But for a book titled, Why Study History?, one might expect a few more examples from Western history, if not world history.
If you want an engaging, lucid introduction to the study of history, I would highly recommend this volume. It should be used frequently in introductory history courses, and it also merits a wider readership outside the academy, challenging all kinds of people today to think historically. As Fea shows, historical study is good for us on many levels, and it is largely in the strangeness and complexity of history that we find a sharper view of the past and a more sensible guide for the future.