I used to think only college students felt compelled to talk late into the night about questions like, "Who am I? Why am I studying this? Does my work even matter?" After attending the Conference on Faith and History meeting last weekend, however, I now know that professors have their own version of such academic angst: the post-presidential-address discussion.
Let me back up. The Conference on Faith and History is an organization of almost exclusively Protestant, and largely evangelical, historians who meet both on their own and in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. At the meetings the scholars hobnob and present papers, some of which are later published in the conference's journal, Fides et Historia. Founded in 1967 primarily as a haven for Christians who were getting the cold shoulder from their secular colleagues, the CFH fought for several years just to gain recognition from the AHA. Now it boasts some 500 members, including leading lights of the profession, and runs its journal in the black.
So far, so good. But the new CFH president, Bill Trollinger of the University of Dayton, presented some serious concerns in his address at the Friday night banquet.
First, the organization isn't exactly what you'd call "diverse." Of the 100-120 attendees (by my informal estimate), I was one of maybe six females and only about a dozen people under 30. One African-American graduate student constituted the group's racial diversity, and there was no discernable Catholic or Orthodox presence.
Second, CFH members tend to study only a very limited range of topics, American religious history being by far the most popular. Trollinger had counted up all the articles from Fides et Historia in the 1990s, and he found about 25 specifically on "faith and learning" or "Christianity and history," over 100 on church history topics, and only 4 on anything else. The conference exhibited the same imbalance—at every hour, one of the two concurrent sessions focused on an American issue, and I only heard one paper on a topic that was not explicitly religious.
Trollinger would like to see more diversity in the CFH's membership, even extending the "faith" qualification to Jewish and Muslim scholars. He also wants Christian historians to broaden their inquiries beyond religious figures and trends. His model of this broader approach is a text, written by two scholars from peace church traditions (Mennonite, Quaker), that examines American history through the lens of peace. Instead of emphasizing the patriotic glory of the Revolutionary War, for example, it focuses on non-violent protest and the arguments of the many forgotten loyalists.
A long and spirited discussion followed Trollinger's speech, and though I didn't stay for all of it, I picked up numerous references the next day. Two sessions I attended were lauded as examples of what the CFH should increase: one included a doctoral student presenting a paper on Catholic social thought, and another featured two papers about early modern Europe (one of these, on the role of dance in French popular culture, was the one I cited earlier as not being explicitly religious).
I also got the distinct impression from a few long-standing CFH members that the late-night discussion was mostly an opportunity for younger scholars to let off steam. Radical changes are not needed, the veteran thinking goes, and as a loosely organized, volunteer association, the CFH couldn't make those changes if it wanted to.
The question facing the CFH rests on what "Christian history" means. Does it mean only history written by Christians on Christian themes? Or does it include any history written by a Christian? What about history written by a non-Christian dealing with a Christian topic? And if all of these qualify, which should be preeminent? Good questions, to be sure, and ones that will continue to be bandied about on e-mail and in history departments nationwide. But if these folks are anywhere close to an answer by their 2002 meeting, I'll be shocked.
Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
Visit the Conference on Faith and History homepage.
Read the Conference on Faith and History journal, Fides et Historia.
Visit the American Historical Association, a group for professional historians.
The AHA will next meet for its annual convention January 4-7 in Boston.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
Case of the Missing Relic | A piece of Jesus' cross is stolen from a Toronto cathedral—or is it? (Oct. 20, 2000)
The Politicians' Patron | Is Thomas More a saintly model? (Oct. 13, 2000)
General Revelations | Reconsidering Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. (Oct. 6, 2000)
Olympia Revisited | Christianity and the Olympic Games were once competitors, but at other times have been on the same team. (Sept. 29, 2000)
Weighty Matters | Gwen Shamblin's teachings sound an awful lot like some in the early church—and not in a good way. (Sept. 22, 2000)
In Errancy | Want to know what's wrong with the Western church? Start with a list. (Sept. 15, 2000)
"Kill Them All" | The medieval church was deadly serious about eliminating 'heretical' Cathars. (Sept. 11, 2000)
All Together Now | What qualifies as an ecumenical council anyway? (Sept. 1, 2000)
Soviets, Schism, and Sabotage | How the government manipulated division in the Russian Orthodox Church. (Aug. 18, 2000)
Sacrifice at Sea | The story that wasn't in James Cameron's Titanic. (Aug. 11, 2000)
Colonial Soul | The Cross and The Tomahawk series examines our nation's past from many perspectives. (Aug. 4, 2000)
The Fifth Evangelist | Johann Sebastian Bach was a musician "who lived the Bible." (July 28, 2000)