McKenzie observes–for the Christian–a consequence of historical analysis

“The serious study of history is always teaching us either humility or pride. We can’t study the past for long without encountering individuals who did or said or believed things that we now hold to be immoral, even evil. And when that happens, our hearts and minds will lead us down one of two paths: towards self-exaltation–“God, I thank you that I am not like other people”–or toward a deeper awareness of our need for grace–“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019, p. 99.

This ‘Skinning’ Was Aimed at Christ: Excerpt from The Vindicator, June 1947. 3 of 3

The first post presented the critic’s letter; the second Fuqua’s reply. Here I will comment, but I do not have much of a point to make. I do have questions and I guess that may be the point.

How the critic came by the May 1947 issue of The Vindicator is anyone’s guess. It seems obvious to me he is a combat veteran (of the European theater?) freshly back from overseas. Whether the critic is a regular reader especially incensed by the May issue, or a happenstance reader, appears to be an open question. Maybe his family or spouse attended one of the several Churches of Christ in the city or its environs. Who knows. We do not even know if he has a spouse. It seems the critic can recognize a “Church of Christ ballyhooing tabloid” when he sees it. I think may safely assume he read something, heard something, been somewhere, or talked to someone about something to be able to recognize such; how he comes to declare it “ballyhooing” is beyond our knowledge. Further, of all those possibilities, one wonders what else he has read that Fuqua’s May issue “takes the prize.”

We might infer he is interested in religious matters; he is certainly willing to engage those who edit religious papers. To what end? His own spiritual formation? To win an argument? To blow off some steam? Again, who knows? He is willing to play the Nazi card but he is unwilling to sign his name, that much we know. He might not be a regular reader of Vindicator. I think if he was he would have known that Fuqua would not relinquish his seat at the linotype so easily. I think he is blowing off steam, but beyond that, mysteries, hypotheses, and inferences.

One wonders how much mail comes across Fuqua’s editorial desk. Is this letter an anomaly? Is it one of a few, or several, or many? Just as we do not know quite what it was that set off the critic, we do not know quite why Fuqua publishes this letter. He seems certain the critic is a ‘Sectarian,’ at least that is where he camps out in reply. Fuqua is willing to stand behind what he writes even, or perhaps especially, when challenged.

I also presume the critic is neither member nor friend of the Churches of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. But it looks like he observes them and could regularly read Vindicator. I have not mined the paper for other instances of anonymous criticism so I cannot say how Fuqua responds to other such criticisms, signed or anonymous. I have tried to notice Nashville references when they appear. That is why I picked up on this exchange.

So what? So we have a reader on the ground somewhere in Nashville who observes Churches of Christ and their literature, and critiques them, anonymously. Fuqua responds: flatfooted and in clear, sometimes bold-faced, type. Fuqua is a true believer. He does not mince words, he does not pull punches, he does not hold back.

I wish I could hear him read this letter. We could learn from the tone of his voice. As it is, though, we create a voice for him in our heads, then read his words back to ourselves in the voice we created. We do the same for the critic’s letter.

The critic does not do much more than critique the manner of Fuqua’s delivery, so we really do not know for him what doctrine is at stake in this discussion. Fuqua presumes it has something to do with baptism. I think that is a fair inference, but we do not know, at least it is not totally clear to me. It would be helpful if the critic would come out and say as much. For all I know the spring of ’47 was a tough one for him and he is in the earliest stages of PTSD and E. C. Fuqua just happens to be the one straw that broke the camel’s back. Or he might be a solidly even-keeled man who has carefully read ECF for long enough and decided to speak plainly, albeit anonymously. Or he might be a jerk. Or he might a regular guy blowing off steam. We do not know and Fuqua does not mind. He speaks plainly, too, but at least he signs his name.

Lest I ramble, I close here. As I said, I do not have much of a point to make. My main task in this short series is to drag up something from the past and think some out loud about it. If we wish to understand the past we should set events in context. Maybe the first thing to do is get facts straight, such as we know them, and so much as we can know them. And then we can chew on the meaning of the past events. I think we ought to see what it might have meant to those who participated in the event: critic, Fuqua, and their readers. It is fine then to think about what, if anything, it means for those of who are late readers of this exchange. I’m not going down that road, though, at least not much.

That ‘chewing-on-the-meaning-of-it’ is what I mean when I use the term ‘history.’ ‘History’ is not the past event, the past is the past. ‘History’ is the reconstructed interpretation, rooted in recoverable facts about past events, about the meaning of those events. The past is something that happened; history is an explanation of it. So ‘history’ is not the past, it is a narrative explanation about the past. In this sense history is not something we ‘save’ or ‘preserve.’ Neither is the past. In a sense we cannot ‘save’ it…it is already past. We can investigate it, research it, learn about it. If by preserving and passing on knowledge about past events you mean ‘saving history’ then I’m with you. We can enlarge our understanding and sharpen our perception. We can seek new data, or revisit what we think we know, or rediscover what others have forgotten, buried, neglected, or somehow not chosen to remember. But our enlarged understanding does not change the past. An enlarged disciplined understanding can change our perceptions, but what happened cannot be changed (aside from a time machine). In this sense we cannot rewrite history, if by that we mean change past events. But our understanding is always subject to new information, better information, and subject to new methods of analysis. So in this way history is never really finished, and in fact we should expect understanding to be revised. We should want accuracy. New inaccuracy is no better than old inaccuracy. In this way we are always revising our understanding even if we are not committing that understanding to writing. Even if our ‘history’ is unwritten we are rewriting it. We might do so by choosing what to remember from or about the past, or how to frame and perpetuate our memory of it, but so long as we carry some memory forward we do so subject to limitations, frailties, and a mix of motives. But I digress, some.

This exchange in Vindicator illustrates that much of what we know is very close to what we don’t know. For every plausible answer, there are more questions. We could look further and perhaps that investigation will bring additional insight. But at some point we have to stop looking. Either we abandon it or write up what we think we know (or orally tell the story as best we can) and what we think it means. But even then I think is prudent to be honest about the limitations we face.

Further, but lastly and briefly, I think it is appropriate to speak plainly about what we think it meant and means. The more plain the speech the more imperative it is to be equally honest about our frailty and document our sources. Again, we should remain open to new information, but if we make claims and we desire to be honest and credible then we must cite sources and provide evidence for our claims. When I read strong claims I expect strong evidence.

This third installment is a little experiment in this kind of inquiry. Here I can ask questions out loud albeit with a pretty simple, limited example. And I did not really probe the doctrinal side of this question at all. Nor did I probe very far into the journalistic context. For example, there were others in Churches of Christ who in the very years prior to May 1947 advocated for a different kind of journalism than Fuqua’s. They advocated for just the sort of thing that Fuqua’s critic requested. But I did not set Fuqua deeply in any context. I just stayed with the exchange at hand and asked questions.

I hope to do this again when something else catches my eye.

Summary review of Robert McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians.

Steve Wolfgang posted a quote to his Facebook wall from Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019). I do not remember the quote (there are many good quotable snippets throughout the book). Whatever it was, it prompted me to acquire it. As a historian born out of season, I welcome every opportunity to learn the lay of the land for this craft. McKenzie helped me gain a conceptual framework by clarifying terms and usages and by pinpointing some areas of theory and practice I might want to pursue. That he does it in a way that is not intimidating is a significant plus. I suspect this book grew from the overflow of course lectures; if so Dr. McKenzie must be a skilled pedagogue.

I underscore born out of season. To address this, I am reading much these days about historiography and a habit I am forming, more and more so in earnest, is to summarize and reflect in longhand on paper about my reading. I have always been a note-taker and -gatherer. I have always drafted sermons by hand, and sometimes also typed. I always teach from hand-drafted notes; when I need to get a data point correct, there it is. And if I lose my place I can recover usually without anyone noticing. Superficialities aside, I have resumed long-hand drafting of research projects and now I am doing the same for deep reading. The conviction I have become rather settled in is that the act of writing in cursive, in longhand, with pencil on paper (preferably unlined) facilitates deeper comprehension of concepts, vocabulary. I think it also helps me understand sequence and pacing of argumentation. I have not combed the research in several years, but it seemed fairly well-established that hearing, speaking, and writing your notes combined for a sensible triumvirate that really boosted comprehension and retention. You might try it; it seems to work for me. Your mileage may vary. But enough of this.

I will summarize McKenzie’s little book in a series of posts, one per chapter. Nine chapters, plus appendix.

Paul Watson on passing on the tradition

“In this article I wish to raise and at least partially answer the question, how did Israel become and remain ‘the people of God’ from generation to generation? Theologically, of course, the answer is they were called into being and sustained by Yahweh’s grace. But on a more mundane level, how did the community maintain its identity from year to year, generation to generation, epoch to epoch?

“Part, but certainly not all, of the answer to that question lies in the process of traditioning. By ‘traditioning’ I mean the handing on of both substance and the significance of the community’s beliefs and practices from older to younger, from the more experienced to the less experienced. [p. 5]

Watson then cites the language in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5 wherein Paul notes to the Corinthians that what he received, he also passed on to them. He continues,

“Paul is saying, in effect, ‘as I have been ‘traditioned,’ so I ‘traditioned’ you. Notice, too, that ‘tradition’ here is not the antonym for God’s commands. it is not being used in the negative sense of ‘the tradition of men’ (Mark 7:8) but in the positive sense of 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Thus Pual is saying in 1 Corinthians 15 that the tradition catches up and passes on the very heart of the Christian faith, viz., the death, burial and resurration of Jesus. Furthermore, this traditioning process did not originate with the early Christians. its roots go back to the Old testament, to which we now turn.” [p. 6]

Watson then demonstrates, from Deuteronomy 5 and 6 that whereas Yahweh’s initiative precedes his conveyance of obligations upon Israel to observe Torah, their obligation to keep Torah (and the tradition of is observation) derives its significance from that prior act. Why do we keep this law?, the children ask. Because God us brought out of Egypt, the elders respond. Watson notes the communal inclusion of successive generations in the Deuteronomy text, written and preserved for generations after the Exodus event. He notes also that, theologically, the indicative of God’s salvation precedes the imperative of human law-keeping. Watson titles then his next section as ‘The Tradition Interprets the Present.” Successive generations carry forward the story from the past by observing Torah and by reforming each generation with the defining act that constituted them into a people. Who are we? We are those whom God has saved!

He titles the following section “The Tradition Points to the Future” and cites the open-ended nature of the Deuteronomic history (Joshua-2Kings) and Luke-Acts. Both seem to end in a fashion that invites scrutiny of their purpose. Watson suggests both may have been written to those who faced an unknown and uncertain future.

“[Dtr and L-A] are each in a real sense unfinished histories. The former ends with the people of Israel in Exile, with their very existence as a people hanging in the balance. Acts ends with the apostle Paul awaiting trial in Rome, with the outcome of that trial and its implication for Paul and his apostolic career totally unknown. Various historical explanations have been advanced to account for the [p. 10] unfinished nature of these two works. Theologically, however, it seems clear that each has the future in view, as uncertain and precarious as that future might be, and that each is written not to encapsulate the past but to enable the communities of faith to face their respective futures. [p. 9-10]

–Paul L. Watson, “Passing on the Tradition,” Institute for Christian Studies Faculty Bulletin 4 (1983) 5-11.

James Duke reflects on traditio

“We must return to the genuine sense of the term tradition. Tradition is derived from the Latin verb, traditio. As a verb, it is an action term; it is dynamic. Traditio is not something which simply is or is not, it is something that is done or left undone. Traditio means to pass on, to hand over from one to another, to transmit. In the case of Christianity, traditio is to pass on the god news that Jesus is the Christ. Traditio, then, is a constant movement, always in process. How is that message passed on? By constantly telling and showing what it means to say that Jesus is Christ. Human words and human deeds must work out the meaning. The message gives rise to worshipping communities, committed individuals, social and cultural activities of diverse sorts. From the beginning traditio shows itself to be diverse, innovative, open-ended.

“Unless tradito is no more than sloganeering, the confession that Jesus is the Christ must be spelled out by words and deeds. We must express what our confession means. But our expression of the gospel is not the gospel itself; those expressions will necessarily change form age to age and situation to situation. The words and deeds appropriate to the fourth, sixteenth, or eighteenth centuries are by no means adequate to the needs of the present. So we search out what is to be passed on and what is to be discarded. Traditio is the process of sifting and searching. [p. 109]

“The true sense of traditio is endangered from two sides. One the one side it is endangered by traditionalism….Traditionalism occurs when some particular item which expressed the meaning of te gospel is taken to be indispensable to essential for Christinaity itself….

“The genuine sense of traditio, however, is endangered from the other side, that of traditionlessness. Traditionlessness is the substitute of some other message and some other resource for that of the gospel.

–James Duke, “Confessions of an Unrepentant Church Historian,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 12:4 (October 1977), 105-111.