Eric Miller’s biography of American social historian Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time, examines how Lasch came to his penetrating analyses of America through his own alienation. Wikipedia sums up his career:
“Christopher (Kit) Lasch (June 1, 1932, Omaha, Nebraska – February 14, 1994, Pittsford, New York) was a well-known American historian, moralist, and social critic. Mentored by William Leuchtenburg at Columbia University, Lasch was a professor at the University of Rochester , who used history as a tool to awaken American society to the pervasiveness of consumer culture. Rather than invoke nostalgia, Lasch sought to create a historically informed social criticism that could teach Americans how to deal with rampant consumerism, proletarianization, and the culture of narcissism. His books, including The New Radicalism in America (1965), Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The True and Only Heaven (1991), became best-sellers. Lasch was always a critic of liberalism, and a historian of liberalism’s discontents. His political perspective shifted from being an outspoken leftist critic of Cold War liberalism to a self-styled populist moralist, denounced by feminists for his defense of the traditional family and hailed by conservatives.”
What this doesn’t say, and what Miller reveals in the biography, is that Lasch, the child of two politically progressive atheists, encountered the writings of Augustine and other Christian thinkers in university. This altered his perspectives on a lot of things, though it did not convert him to orthodox Christianity. His creed became a sort of “secular Calvinism,” to use Miller’s phrase. Continue reading
Another recent review in Religious Studies Reviews, on a biography of the founding figure behind modern-day Adventism:
GOD’S STRANGE WORK: WILLIAM MILLER AND THE END OF THE WORLD. By David L. Rowe. Foreword by Mark A. Noll. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008. Pp. xii + 249; plates. Paper, $24.00.
Rowe has given us the first critical biography of William Miller (1782 – 1849), father of Adventism. Though this is a biography and not a study of Adventism, it illumines the American evangelical obsession with the end-times. Rowe takes us through the particular mix of Baptist populism, deist rationalism, and evangelical pietism that led Miller to read his Bible intensively and find in it a clear end-time scheme revealed by a rational God who orders every part of the Biblical account so that even an uneducated layperson can understand it. Particularly revelatory are the important contribution to Miller’s thought of sentimentalism (Adventism is usually treated in rationalist categories) and the tension between Miller’s anti-Finneyite/anti-mission sympathies and his willingness to capitalize on his message’s ability to convert people. Rowe does tend to assume readers have prior knowledge of Adventist history, so this feels at points like an insider account. However, he uses psychological, economic, political, and other contextualizing insights to great effect. He also does not hesitate to call Miller out on such culpable traits as his passivity as leader and his fudging, in the face of opposition and prophetic set-backs, of earlier teachings. In the end, this has the feel of a historiography in progress—definitive in the sense not of articulating airtight interpretive formulations, but rather of being the most probing exploration of Miller to date.
Chris R. Armstrong
Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN
Now that I have your attention on the Blumhardts, here is the very first English translation of the standard German biography of the elder Blumhardt, Johann Christoph. This is the first in what will become a 10-book series edited by my colleague Christian Collins Winn.
The price-tag is aimed more at libraries than individuals, but it’s well worth looking up.
I hope to give it at least a quick read over the coming months and report back. Meanwhile, you might want to click the link above and then either pick it up or look for it through your local library system.
Was interviewed this morning by Alex McManus, formerly of Mosaic Church in L.A. and now of Kensington Community Church in Troy, MI and http://myimn.com/, on his BlogTalk Radio show about my book Patron Saints for Postmoderns. Click here for the audio.
Issue 79 of Christian History & Biography, titled The African Apostles: Black Evangelists in Africa, was one of the most challenging and rewarding for me to work on. As always, it immersed me in the literature of this topic. Here Collin Hansen and I share some of the best culled from the pile. If you get nothing else from this list, you owe it to yourself to click through to the first resource mentioned–the Dictionary of African Christian Biography. What an amazing set of accounts this is, of the little-known (in the West) pioneers of African Christianity, some of whom are still alive today:
Resources: Go Tell It!
Many are telling the continuing story of the African church. Here are some of the best renditions.
Collin Hansen & Chris Armstrong
When we study the history of the church in twentieth-century Africa, we come face to face with that most exciting, fluid, and sometimes confusing thing: history in the making. Many of the stories of African Christianity in this period are just now being told—or have yet to be told. That is why the first resource we are recommending in this issue is not a book but a website; the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, at http://www.dacb.org/. There you will find the stories of many Christian leaders from throughout African history, browsable by country or alphabetically. These are written by scholars, missionaries, and eyewitnesses. An occasionally uneven writing style does not diminish the importance of this record of the lives of Africa’s apostles, nor the fascination of the stories themselves. Continue reading
I followed up my “top ten reasons to read Christian history” for http://www.christianhistory.net with a list of suggested books to start with–not the dry, boring kind written by scholars, but the kind written by the people in the midst of the historical action: “primary sources” we call them. Here is that list, complete with working links both to pages where you can buy the books, and in some cases to free online versions:
Top Ten Christian History ‘Starter Books’
Get rooted in the Christian past with these riveting reads
Last week, we went way behind the news and gave our top ten reasons why—when today’s news seems more pressing than ever—we should read the history of the church at all.
Ten good reasons, however, are not enough, even with the best of intentions. With hundreds of thousands of books out there, we need to know where to start. Which is just what we’ve got this week: ten great Christian history “starter books.”
These are not books written by modern historians. They are that more exciting, though sometimes more difficult, thing—primary documents. Written by folks “on the ground,” right in the midst of events, these are the front line reports of the church through two millennia. And they make for riveting reading, unveiling in a fresh and compelling way what God has done for his people. Continue reading
I wrote this a while back–before entering my position as Associate Professor of Church History at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul. At that time, the Iraq war was still new news rather than old news. But some news never gets old–that’s church history. And I decided to offer the best ten reasons I could think of to immerse ourselves in that news:
Top Ten Reasons to Read Christian History
War’s reports deluge us every hour. Why should we read the “old news” of Christian history?
by Chris Armstrong
In a time of war, everything seems to hinge on The Now. But more than ever, it is really a time when we must be in touch with our history—especially, our sacred history.
But why? Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Patron Saints for Postmoderns, Resources for Radical Living
Tagged biography, C S Lewis, Christian history, church history, culture, denominations, heresy, martyrs, war
Bishop Athanasius, fresh from his triumphs in the Nicene attack against Arianism and his defeats and exiles at the hands of Arian-sympathizing emperors, just wanted to write a biography of his friend Antony. What he actually did was to invent the genre of hagiography and help spark the worldwide movement of Christian monasticism.
Fighting Demons In The Desert
How a book about one man’s radical quest for God helped to redefine Christian discipleship and launch the monastic movement.
The man acclaimed as “the father of monasticism” never dreamed of the huge impact he would have. But the new mode of discipleship he helped bring to birth in Egypt in the early 300s A.D. turned out to be one of the most momentous innovations in the church’s first thousand years.
The book that started it all
Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (298-373) was exiled five times from his beloved church at the hands of Arian-sympathizing emperors. In one of these exiles, the staunchly orthodox, diminutive firebrand fulfilled a long-time dream by traveling to the desert to share the life of the hermits there. During what became a lengthy ascetic sojourn, he wrote what historian Derwas Chitty correctly calls “the first great manifesto of the monastic ideal.” This was not some tidy, orderly rule of life, but rather a biography of the most gripping sort—of the best-known early monk and first “desert father,” Antony of Egypt (251-356). Continue reading
The stories of other Christians are vitally important to our spiritual lives. That, in fact, is why the discipline of church history was added to Protestant seminaries’ curricula. But how and when did this happen? I got to share this story with Bethel Seminary’s trustees and the readers of Christianity Today online a few years back:
When Theology Comes Alive
Living theology: that’s what the 17th-century Pietists wanted to see. And so they invented church history.
An earlier version of this essay was given by Dr. Chris Armstrong (associate professor of church history, Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, and senior editor, Christian History & Biography) as a talk to the trustees of Bethel University on May 5, 2005.
Dorothy Sayers, a 20th-century, Oxford-educated dramatist, novelist, and lay theologian, wrote to wake up her sleeping Anglican church. She saw people inside and outside of the churches of her day completely unaware of how radical and powerful the gospel really is. And so she wrote essays, stories, and dramas that made the gospel come alive for people. She had a phrase she liked to use when she encountered people who thought church doctrine—”dogma” as it is still sometimes called—was dull and irrelevant. She would say, “The dogma is the drama!”
I love that. The dogma is the drama. What Sayers was reminding us was that if we are falling asleep in church, it is because we have no idea what dynamite we are sitting on.
And as I always remind my students, a wonderful place to go to see what happens when the Gospel’s dynamite blows up in people’s lives is Christian history. I’ll put this idea in less violent form: Christian history is where theology comes to life. Continue reading
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged Bible, biography, Christian history, church history, Dorothy Sayers, early church, history, holiness movement, King David, Philip Spener, Pietists, Saints, scientific revolution, Scripture