If Christian America is a Problem, Why not Christian Scholarship?

Tracy McKenzie makes sense in his build up to criticism of David Barton:

. . . when the debate that we’re drawn into concerns the nature of the religious beliefs of the nation’s founders, there is something more important at stake than historical accuracy or our personal character. In assessing whether our nation’s founders were Christian, we’re inevitably saying something as well about the Christian faith and Christ himself. Stephen Nichols makes this point marvelously in his book Jesus: Made in America. As Nichols puts it, when we exaggerate the degree to which the founders were Christian, we not only “do injustice to the past and to the true thought of the founders,” but we also do “injustice to Christianity and the true picture of Jesus.”

I have long thought that the same point applies to those who promote Christian scholarship (and this has cost me in certain Christian scholarly circles where neo-Calvinists were once legion). Rightly construed, you can plausibly argue that scholars who study Scripture or dogma are doing something Christian because their very subject is Christ and because to understand the claims of their subjects properly they need the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But why is the study of U.S. history Christian? Because the scholar is Christian? Because the institution that employs her is Christian? Because the U.S. is Christian?

The U.S. and the scholars who study the nation are part of general revelation. They don’t rely upon the Bible, Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit (in a gracious way) or the church to do their work.

So, when scholars who study general revelation try to call their scholarship Christian, are they not guilty of doing precisely what McKenzie sees in David Barton?

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16 thoughts on “If Christian America is a Problem, Why not Christian Scholarship?

  1. and this has cost me in certain Christian scholarly circles where neo-Calvinists were once legion

    I’m with you here, D.

    Stand by your principles, man, good stuff from that perspective..

    But this sounds rough, so I’m just acknowledging is all.

    It always helps that I’m big on 2k as you are. Hence my high fives all the time.

    I’ll be thinking more on this, because as usual, there’s lots to think about. (all about) I am a padawan.

    Take care.

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  2. “As Nichols puts it, when we exaggerate the degree to which the founders were Christian, we not only “do injustice to the past and to the true thought of the founders,” but we also do “injustice to Christianity and the true picture of Jesus.”

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  3. D.G. – and this has cost me in certain Christian scholarly circles where neo-Calvinists were once legion

    Erik – I noticed that recipes from Darryl & Ann Hart were conspicuously absent from the Calvin College Faculty Cookbook.

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  4. I’m reading Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity. Right off the bat he says that although he’s Catholic he’s going to say a lot of things that many Catholics won’t like, and it’s tough s**t if they don’t like it. Now that’s a Christian historian a/k/a, a truthful historian.

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  5. Erik, if you want a riot, try Shaw’s American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

    That’s one I’m working through, among many books.

    Dg mentions this one on occasion, it’s how I found out about it.

    It’s how I’m learning.

    Peace.

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  6. All I would ask of a Christian scholar is that they are not knee-jerk anti-Christian, which is the posture of too many irreligious scholars. The best scholars are the ones that can maintain a high degree of objectivity in spite of their personal beliefs or inclinations. The best scholars, journalists, attorneys, etc. are people who you have no idea what they personally believe.

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  7. Here’s a gem from McKenzie:

    “There is a cost to using history primarily as a weapon. Rather than facilitating our understanding, it actually gets in our way, making it harder–not easier–to see the past rightly. Complex answers don’t fare well in public debates, even when they’re true. One of my favorite observations on this point comes from the pen of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French visitor to the United States who related his observations in the classic Democracy in America. Tocqueville concluded, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” Tocqueville nailed it. Simple, appealing answers are always preferable when your goal is to win the battle for public opinion.

    Beyond distorting our vision, what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach also commonly feeds our pride. Self-righteousness is often one of its first fruits. After triumphantly “discovering” what we had predetermined to find, we applaud our superior understanding, congratulate ourselves on our disinterested commitment to truth, and condemn our opponents for their blindness and bias.”

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  8. I don’t know. I drive a Japanese car and just the other day I had a hankerin’ for sushi. They could be connected which raises a serious question. How many Christians have to build my car in order for it to have a sanctifying affect on me?

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  9. You guys should read Molly Worthen’s book, “Apostles of Reason.” She is tough in her critiques of conservative evangelical scholarship in the past fifty years–but spot on. A quote I just ran across this morning: “The irony was that in their smorgasbord approach to non-Protestant tradition, in their individualistic rejection of the rules of any one church in favor of a free run of the so-called church universal, in their repudiation of American nationalism in favor of cosmopolitanism, young evangelicals were being quintessentially evangelical and stereotypically American, doing as they pleased according to no authority but their own.” Zing!

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  10. “But why is the study of U.S. history Christian?”

    Why was the Soviet newspaper called “Pravda”? Was there “Christian” history before evangelicals became politically cohesive? Idk, but it seems like a question worth asking.

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  11. Erik Charter
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
    Here’s a gem from McKenzie:

    “There is a cost to using history primarily as a weapon. Rather than facilitating our understanding, it actually gets in our way, making it harder–not easier–to see the past rightly. Complex answers don’t fare well in public debates, even when they’re true. One of my favorite observations on this point comes from the pen of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French visitor to the United States who related his observations in the classic Democracy in America. Tocqueville concluded, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” Tocqueville nailed it.

    Good one, thanks Erik.

    Like

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