This American Christian Life
This American Christian Life
Toward the end of the first episode of People of Faith: Christianity in America (Vision Video), an attractive, nicely paced video series, several voices weigh in why Christians need to know their history.
One scholar says it's impossible to understand American history without an understanding of the nation's Christian history. Another suggests that it can lead to church renewal. A third says it helps us interpret Scripture, shape our mission, and appreciate God's grace. People of Faith serves most of these needs well.
The series—produced by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College (Illinois), with support from the Lilly Endowment—shows Christians engaged in public life during the European settlement, the founding of the nation, the Civil War, the 19th-century social reform movements, and the civil rights movement. Christian activity is portrayed as predominantly positive, though not entirely so. For example, the series points out that Christians made arguments both for and against slavery, and that Prohibition began as a public health crusade against a devastating social problem but quickly turned punitive and counterproductive. Subjects that Christians got mostly wrong, notably the treatment of Native Americans, are touched on lightly, if at all.
One episode profiles 10 American "saints," ranging from Jonathan Edwards and Charles Grandison Finney to Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and, curiously, Norman Vincent Peale. More broadly, the series tracks forces in American religious life—religious freedom, immigration, voluntarism, social reform—looking at pioneers in these areas as well as their modern-day offspring. These episodes present some heroes, a few cautionary tales, and much perspective on how Christians over the years have taken different stances toward the larger culture.
Clocking in at just three hours, the series necessarily omits much. This would be less of a complaint if all six episodes contributed equally to the stated series goal, to tell the story of how Christianity shaped U.S. life.
Episode four, covering mass media, is well done, but more focus on the production, reception, and interpretation of the Bible—or on missions—would have helped. Both of these subjects en-compass a longer, more complex history that made a much greater impact on American life.
Episode six, on the future of faith, feels disconnected from the rest of the series. It asks how Christians today should live out their faith in public, balance tradition and change, care for the environment, and promote a culture of life, among other questions. Most of the historians quoted in earlier episodes are missing here; instead we hear from a political philosopher, a sociologist, and a biologist.
This is a missed opportunity, because other episodes effectively link historical developments with current issues. There are connections between colonial competition and market-sensitive churches like Willow Creek, for example, and episode one draws those out. Perhaps if the series-ending questions had been posed as "What wisdom can Christians glean from the past as they face this issue?" the historians would have had more to say.
People of Faith comes with a discussion guide for groups. Portions could also be used in Christian high-school or college courses. I would be tempted to juxtapose this series and the 2010 PBS series God in America, which attended more to pluralism and progressive religion, both to give students a fuller picture of the country's religious past and to demonstrate how historical narratives shift depending on how they are framed. Overall, People of Faith is a worthy effort to make historical scholarship accessible and relevant to a wide audience.
Elesha Coffman is assistant professor of church history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.