Yesterday I received an unexpected boon in the mail: a hacked off, hilarious David Hollinger.
Since I will be reviewing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, editors) for this blog some time in the next few months, I ordered the latest volume of Fides et Historia: the journal of the Conference on Faith and History, which features a roundtable on the book.
I won’t be looking at that roundtable for a while. When I review a book, I never look at other reviews or author comments first. Chalk it up to the anxiety of influence, or the fear of inadvertent unoriginality of expression. It just seems best to arrive at my own sense of the book, based on my own reading alone, and write . But once I’m done writing my review, I like to “check my math” and see where (or whether) my take on the book fits in with other scholars’ views.
Instead, when my copy of Fides et Historia 43:2 arrived in the mail yesterday, I turned to David Hollinger’s piece (pp. 34-37), part of this volume’s featured forum, “Reconciling the Historian’s Craft and Religious Belief.”
Readers, I encourage you to beg, borrow or steal a copy of this journal and read Hollinger’s brief, brilliant scold of an essay.
I do not associate David Hollinger’s writing with the overuse of the exclamation point, but there are two in his title: “The Wrong Question! Please Change the Subject!” And the piece just gets better from there. Hollinger’s exasperation sounds by turns parental and prophetic, as he takes “confessing historians” to task for irresponsibly jeopardizing the fairly recently acquired “mainstream” status of American religious history within the secular academy.
“American academia now has, at long last, a robust, admirably interactive community of scholars working in the field of religious history,” Hollinger writes. “The members of this community can generally take each other’s books and articles for the knowledge they offer without getting distracted by what another scholar’s religious identity happens to be” (34). Calls from confessing historians to make space in the secular academy for “confessional” history are like so many snakes in this garden, and Hollinger proceeds to chase them into the sea.
He is responding primarily to Brad Gregory’s essay, “Historians’ Metaphysical Beliefs and the Writing of Confessional Histories” (9-17). Hollinger finds fault with Gregory’s piece for its (implicit) apologetic for the idea of supernatural causation as a valid explanatory framework for professional historians. “Religious history,” Hollinger scolds, “finally became open to all professional historians largely because we stopped thinking in just this way” (34).
What animates Hollinger’s animus toward this Bad Idea is in part the fact that he himself has had to struggle mightily within the discipline to define and defend the legitimacy and importance of American religious history for the secular academy. He and others have had to work against the notion that “the study of religion is only for those who believe in it.” Hollinger has spent a great deal of time and intellectual capital arguing “in forum after forum that historians will not understand the United States in the twentieth century until they confront religion head on” (35).
The biggest obstacle Hollinger has encountered in his project of encouraging the secular academy to take the history of religion seriously “is the perception that religious believers have fatally skewed the field with their apologetics” (35). Calls to “bring God into history” (37), however subtly articulated, do not help overcome that perception.
This is a fierce, funny essay, but the stakes are quite serious. History is hampered as a discipline if historians feel like they have to take the long way around to avoid talking about the place of religion in Americans’ lives. That’s a long detour, and there’s a lot of crucial insights that you’re going to miss if you don’t have a way of approaching the subject that is faithful to the canons of professional, secular history.
Now that historians seem to be headed down a more promising path, the last thing we need is to come face to face with an angel waving the flaming sword of providential appeals, blocking the way to the garden.