In the life of an academic, some things get written but never see the light of day. I wrote the following while in grad school (at Duke University) as an entry into an essay contest for the InterVarsity conference “Taking Every Thought Captive,” held in Mundelein, Illinois, in Spring, 2000.
It didn’t win, and I moved on to other things. But it represents some of my excitement about the discipline of history, and some of my frustration with the ways evangelical laypeople and evangelical scholars were handling history. I would modify my opinions now about some of the things I say here, but my heart for the discipline of church history remains the same:
History, truth, and evangelicalism
Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom
This paper is a meditation on the uneasy relationship of evangelicals with the discipline of history—in particular, the history of the church. In it, I will address what historical inquiry and historical honesty can—and should not—mean to evangelicalism. In the end, I am suggesting that historiography must be pursued, at least by some, as a ministry to the church.
* * *
On April 20th, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Cassie Bernall was asked by a young man pointing a gun, “Do you believe in God?” As the book written by Cassie’s mother tells it, “She Said Yes.” And was shot to death. During the next few days, as a shocked nation sifted through the psychic rubble of the Columbine massacre, the news of Cassie’s stand for Christ spread swiftly. Youth groups across the country made the riveting account of her final act the theme of rallies and perorations. Cassie’s story—not only her martyrdom, but her conversion after a troubled youth marred by drugs, rebellion, and witchcraft—challenged thousands of teen-agers to commit or rededicate their lives to Christ. Within six months of her death, her mother’s book sold a quarter of a million copies.
Clearly, martyrdom holds a magnetic attraction for evangelicals. Adrift in modern lifestyles crammed with presumptive comforts and imperative conveniences, evangelicals need martyrs. And here was one, not only standing at our suburban doorstep, but bearing testimony—as it turned out—of a classic evangelical conversion from a life of visible sin and despair to one of vibrant faith.
Yet, a problem arose. Continue reading →