September 23, 2013

John Fea, Why Study History?

In this introduction to the study of history, Fea gives a really clear outline of why the study of history is so important as a discipline and as a practice. The book seems aimed particularly at students embarking on the study of history, but its appeal will be far beyond that. Fea argues that the study of history can impart virtues that have broad application. In confronting the otherness of history, we learn to break outside our own context and perspective and appreciate the complexity of life, both in other times and in our own. We also learn to truly listen to others, instead of simply hearing what we expect to hear. Fea's introduction is intentionally from a Christian perspective, and he reflects both on how Christianity does (or does not) influence the study of history, but also on what the study of history can bring to the church. Much like Mark Noll, he calls for robust Christian engagement in scholarship and equally robust engagement with scholarship in the church. On the topic of providential history, he asserts that it is an "unhelpful category" for the study of history, cautioning that history shouldn't become a subcategory of theology. But he also grants that it is possible, as long as it is done with a humble "perhaps," lest God break in and say, "Well, actually, no." Fea also expresses hope that the study of history could be an important tool in moving past the culture wars and ascerbic political climate in the United States today. In learning to listen, in learning to see ourselves as part of a larger story, and learning to question our own views and assumptions instead of sealing ourselves off from any doubt or debate, a way forward could be opened: not a way to easy agreement but a route to real and genuine argument (instead of simply shouting down opponents) that could actually lead to changed minds and a transformed future. Fea's book is very readable, and is full of both hope and wisdom. Recommended. (I work for the company that publishes this book, but I did not work on this book, and my review expresses views that are strictly my own.)