Senior Sem Journal: What Christian Historians Can Learn from Non-Christians

This month students in our capstone course, Senior Seminar, have been reading through Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. Nine days ago we read chapters rethinking how Christians understand historical theories and methods.

In his contribution to the collection, American religious and intellectual historian Bradley Gundlach (Trinity International University) reflects on Christian historians “Assimilating the Moral Insights of the Secular Academy.” In particular, he discusses how he learned from secular cultural critics like Christopher Lasch and Robert Bellah both to critique his own evangelical heritage and to understand the limitations of modernity in American culture.

In his seminar journal entry for the week, Jon Steen (’12), also reports that he has learned much from non-Christians. As in his earlier posts in this series, Jon focuses on his experience last fall studying in Ghana. (His Senior Seminar research considers the role of Ghana’s founding president, Kwame Nkrumah, in the Cold War. Another entry in the series found him considering how Western and non-Western historians understand what it is they do.)

One of the unique things I got to experience in Ghana was being the only Christian in a group of seven students. One thing that made it unique was to go through the slave castles and have there be churches present. These churches are no longer in use today, but at the time of the slave trade they were. Although many Ghanaians do not make much of a connection to the church and the history of slavery, the students I travelled with did. To me, that was not Christianity, but to the other students that was the legacy of Christianity. Where I did not even consider the two to be synonymous, the rest of them saw it as very interconnected. This was revealing to me, for even though I was not responsible for any of that, I could still be connected to it. The group dialogued about it, and it was very interesting to me to be seen as the epitome of an oppressor: a white Christian male. I would never have thought about it otherwise, but that is how I can be viewed. Everyone was very civil when we talked, and they knew I was not a guilty party, but I still represented to them as the source to hundreds of years of pain and anguish.

I believe that Gundlach’s suggestion of learning from secular colleagues has plenty of merit. As Christians, we can tend to think that we have all the answers and the truth since we have the Bible. However, as was seen in my example, the spread of that truth has not always been conducted in the proper manner, and we today live with the legacy of that. Many students of history have seen the oppression that has come from the church and associated it with the modern church. But when Christians look at that history, knowing that it was not us, they presume that other people do not think that it was them either. But that legacy still exists, and our secular colleagues see it and they have trouble moving beyond some negative associations with Christianity. What we need to be doing is engaging in dialogue with our secular colleagues, as I did, and not try to convert them but simply discuss some of the misconceptions and problems people have with Christianity.

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