U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Secular Academic Homiletics 101

On Monday, David Hollinger delivered the inaugural Danforth Distinguished Lecture. Hollinger discussed his new book project, a study of the role that mainstream evangelical missionaries played in nudging a secularizing American culture from nationalistic provincialism to pluralistic cosmopolitanism.  On Tuesday, a panel of distinguished historians convened to appraise and critique his argument.  Jon Butler, Darren Dochuk, and Molly Worthen all presented prepared remarks responding to Hollinger’s lecture, and Hollinger delivered a prepared rejoinder. 

This is the basic format of a scholarly forum – a paper or written address circulated beforehand to commenters; the commenters’ responses circulated beforehand to the primary author and to one another; the chief author’s prepared rejoinder, not necessarily pre-circulated to the other participants but possibly previewed informally ahead of the appointed hour.  It is a conversation carried out first on the page, and then in person.

However, that “in person” component is not always present – academic journals often publish forums whose contributors never once gathered together in the same place to discuss the subject of inquiry.  Academic discourse can and often does take place without a face to face encounter between fellow scholars and their audience. The exigencies of live, real-time engagement of scholars with one another – the considerations and constraints of that kind of performativity – might shape the content of written texts in intentional or accidental ways.  But shape it they do – or shape it they should.  Indeed, one mark of professional acumen is how deliberately yet deftly a scholar not only adjusts for these influences but also puts them to good use in the service of his or her own argument.

At yesterday’s forum, both Jon Butler and Darren Dochuk delivered remarks that were exemplary not just for their conceptual clarity but also for their fine prose style.  Now, these phenomena are not unrelated.  But sometimes even those historians who are most keenly attuned to the value of our discipline’s plain speech tradition can indulge in the occasional burst of oversophisticated syntax.  By contrast, both Butler and Dochuk were calling upon Hollinger to re-think how he has theorized his argument, but they did so with empiricist grace. Butler suggested that a broader chronological inquiry, taking into account the history of the missiological enterprise from early modernity, would help shed light on questions of cause and condition and their relationship to one another. The apparently anomalous experience of 20th century liberal Protestant missionaries might in fact be continuities within a longer-term trend.  For his part, Dochuk argued with similar grace and clarity that Hollinger’s account was too smooth in some respects, eliding the epistemic ruptures within not just the liberal Protestant establishment as a whole but also within his individual subjects, while at the same time portraying liberal Protestantism as dynamic compared to the somewhat static foil of “Protestantism’s other camp,” conservative evangelicals.

There was nothing static about conservative American evangelical missions in Molly Worthen’s telling – nothing static about the evangelicals, and nothing static about how Worthen brought them to life.  Instead of delivering her remarks from her seat at the table, Worthen took the podium.  And then she took the room.  Her argument about the vitality and complexity of evangelical thinking about missiology was not only clear in her prose but mimetically instantiated in her delivery.  Molly Worthen didn’t just give a talk; she preached it, in the fullest and best sense of the word.  Everyone in that room, from the distinguished historians at the front to the junior scholars at the back, saw and heard in Worthen’s contribution a pitch-perfect match between style and substance, argument and audience.  She has studied Billy Graham, but she clearly could have schooled him too.  Like both Butler and Dochuk, Worthen brought a smart, strong challenge to Hollinger’s argument, and she delivered with clarity and confidence that gave listeners every confidence that she knew exactly what she was talking about.  That had to be a hard act to follow.

But David Hollinger also has a few homiletic tricks up his sleeve, not least of which is a keen instinct for when to step back from analytical language and achieve analytical means by narrative ends.  In other words, Hollinger knows how and when to tell a good story.  I have heard him speak now on five different occasions (tonight’s lecture will make it an even six), and each time I have been struck by how savvy he is in the use of the anecdote, whether it’s personal experience or petite histoire.

Don’t get me wrong – Hollinger responded to the suggestions and critiques of his co-panelist with all due critical rigor.  He acknowledged the wisdom of Butler’s caution against short-range chronology and a restricted set of sources for the Protestant missionary experience.  Hollinger pushed back hard against Dochuk’s and Worthen’s arguments.  To Dochuk’s observation that even a pluralistic and cosmopolitan ex-missionary diaspora was nevertheless implicated in projects of nationalism and imperialism in the service of a hegemonic order, Hollinger countered with a sustained discussion of the ways that the liberal Protestant mission movement was sometimes able to productively destabilize gender hierarchies in both the “sending culture” and the cultures in which the missionaries had served.  Women’s presence and women’s work on the mission field helped pave the way, Hollinger argues, for a change in women’s status around the world.

Similarly, to Molly Worthen’s argument that evangelicals too had embraced cultural pluralism not instead of evangelism but as a means to that end, Hollinger countered with specific examples showing that evangelicals were late to the pluralist party and half-hearted about being there in the first place.  He asserted that, whatever its seeming similarities to the pluralist turn of liberal Protestantism, the sources he has read tend to reinforce rather than to challenge the idea that the evangelical story is significantly different from the ecumenical one.  A crucial piece of evidence he cited was the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, with its uncompromising absolutist language about the inerrancy of scripture and the exclusivity of salvation in Christ.

But Hollinger wasn’t going to end his rejoinder by citing a text to refute one single (if major) point of his friendly and constructive critics.  Instead, Hollinger – with a homiletic instinct that he has surely come by honestly as the son of a long line of ministers – ended with that great standby of Protestant preachers, a moving true story from the mission field.

Talk about a mimetic moment.  Here was Hollinger, who in this scholarly project is pressing for a re-evaluation of the cultural legacy of Protestant missions and a re-consideration of the ethical verdict the academy has rendered on this historic movement within the mainline Protestant churches – here he was, arguing for a more intellectually sympathetic historical account of the Protestant missionary legacy, and darned if he doesn’t deploy the very same technique the missionaries used to invite sympathy and understanding among the folks at home for the peoples among whom they worked.  It was a fascinating rhetorical choice.

Hollinger might have told the same story to conclude a written contribution to a published forum.  But it wouldn’t have worked in the same way.  The cadences of his delivery and the tone of his voice were mint — vintage homiletics, a classic mainline Protestant preacherly peroration best and most memorably delivered in person.  It was a very interesting bit of pastoral work from an unapologetically secular historian, and it underscored for me what each panelist’s delivery had already confirmed:  academic discourse among first-rate scholars is great on the page, but — damn! — it’s fun to see in person.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “To Dochuk’s observation that even a pluralistic and cosmopolitan ex-missionary diaspora was nevertheless implicated in projects of nationalism and imperialism in the service of a hegemonic order, Hollinger countered with a sustained discussion of the ways that the liberal Protestant mission movement was sometimes able to productively destabilize gender hierarchies in both the “sending culture” and the cultures in which the missionaries had served.”

    People still say “hegemonic order”?

  2. 1. The reference to “hegemonic order” is my own shorthand summary of one part of Dochuk’s argument, not a direct quote.

    2. I just said it, and — last I checked — I am a person.

    3. So, yeah, I guess people still say it. Perhaps there’s a more apt or more capacious shorthand term I could have used, but I figured that would have to do for a brief sketch of the gist of the discussion. If it’s not a correct or useful characterization, hopefully somebody else who was in attendance can suggest a better way of describing this part of the conversation.

  3. Another excellent report, L.D., that captures just how wonderful the forum was. Really respectful but serious give-and-take at its finest. I believe all the events were recorded and will be available in the upcoming weeks?

  4. Thanks for this very generous and perceptive post, LD! My only regret is that we ran out of time for Q&A.

  5. “So, yeah, I guess people still say it.”

    Back in the late 1980s, folk had become so thoroughly weary of it, Martin Marty proposed we simply say “the H-word.”

    But, what goes around comes around, I suppose. That, or people are feeling nostalgic for those halcyon days of the first Bush administration . . .

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