The Past Is Never Dead
Why Church History Matters in an Undergraduate Curriculum:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When William Faulkner wrote this line in his novel Requiem for a Nun, he conveyed the notion that history matters because the past actively resonates in and shapes the present. When it comes to education, though, students often don’t see the point of studying history, especially when they are convinced the present is what really matters. Dr. Carol Holcomb, professor of Christian Studies at UMHB, is quite familiar with these issues of past and present, both in her teaching and her scholarship. As a prolific scholar, she has numerous publications investigating topics of gender, race, and Baptist church history, so in a recent interview, UMHB Life asked her to discuss why church history matters in an undergraduate curriculum.
How do you address the question, “Is the past relevant?”
I like to start by examining three myths—myths that have clouded the debate about why history is important.
Myth 1: Since history has been used as a tool of power, then history is fundamentally unreliable. It is true that political regimes have used history to defend their various ideologies. But the reason tyrants write their own histories isn’t because history is irrelevant or unimportant; it is because history is so powerful. The narrative of the past shapes human identity and cultural self-understanding, so it is crucial that we struggle faithfully to narrate the past.
Myth 2: Since history cannot be known perfectly, it cannot be known at all. Postmodernists rightly challenged common assumptions that we can retell history exactly as it happened. We can’t. Most historians now agree that our understanding of the past is not perfect. Like an archeologist pieces together shards of pottery to restore a watering jar, so the historian uses the shards of history to reconstruct a recognizable past. It may not be perfect, but we can narrate the truth about the past.
Myth 3: We all do history. While the aims and methodologies of a theologian or church historian, for example, might be similar regarding history, they are distinct. Theology aims to tell the truth about God. Biblical Studies aim to tell the truth about the Bible. Philosophers attempt to tell the truth about what exists and why. Historians aim to tell the truth about the past. These tasks are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct.
Why is history vital to our understandings as human beings and as Christians?
First, history is central for our faith proclamation and our faith formation. Scholars have argued that our essential faith claim is a historical claim. Christ came to earth, was crucified and resurrected. God entered history. God didn’t hover above it. History matters.
Second, it forms our identity. History forms who we are. Historian Carter Lindberg gives a powerful image for this, saying, “History is to the community as the memory is to the person.” Our memory helps us define who we are in space and time. Similarly, for the Christian community, history helps us find our place. It helps us remember who we are and why we’re here. Memory is key to the identity of the church. It is history that tethers us; it anchors us in the present and allows us to interact in authentic ways with our own culture. It is history that allows us to identify what our narrative should be.
Finally, history forms our ethical commitments. Historical methodology is constantly challenging my own tendency to use history for ideological purposes in power. It is really tempting to pick out the story that you want to hear—to try to tell the story that makes your history look better. But I’m ethically bound by the discipline of church history to listen to all the voices from the past. I’m bound to follow where the trail of evidence leads and tell the entire story, warts and all. I’m also obligated by the historical method to resist making history a slave to the present, to resist sifting through history and keeping only those narratives that I believe are valuable to the church today. When we lose all that history, all that texture, then we lose a valuable resource to speak to our present situation.
What has been your experience teaching church history to college students, in particular?
Students come from all walks of life, and many of them don’t know the Bible at all when they come in. This changes the whole dynamic of the class because it opens up conversations that might not occur if every student had read the Old Testament many times. For this reason, I’m convinced you have to be physically present to do theological education, present in the room together. Jesus came in the flesh, and I think teaching is incarnational, especially in our disciplines. You have to be courteous and gracious, and live out the Gospel. And you have to hear someone else’s discovery and respond in the moment, in the flesh. That’s what’s so exciting about what we do.
Much of your research focuses on gender and race in Baptist church histories. Why is it important to discuss race and gender specifically?
It’s been one of our glaring blind spots, and I believe we have to talk about these issues. When I was in graduate school studying the women of the Woman’s Missionary Union—the Protestant missions organization for women—I would read letters of black and white women alike. I took the white women’s voices and overlaid the black women’s voices, and I discovered that doing so gave me a subtext to things that were being reported. I believe this subtext is important to acknowledge. It’s like you’ve been looking closely at a painting, and you’ve been focused on the individual dots. And then you back up and realize, “Wow, I needed to see it this way.” We aren’t telling the story of a perfect people, so why do we feel the need to leave the difficult stories out? The Bible doesn’t do it. It is in the ugliness that we see grace. You have to tell the whole story.