A View from the Lectern

Posted on September 16, 2018


As a historian, I have taught across a spectrum of the Latin American and American experiences. I have also taught the history of the Christian church over the past two decades since a colleague and I inherited a similar course from Vern Grosse who taught it for many years at UA.

I come at the history of Christianity, via the Lectern of the title to this column, from two distinct traditions, by no means incompatible but different in their approaches to truth, evidence and interpretations of that evidence. One is history and the other is Scripture. Neither is bound by the dry recitation of names, dates, and battles for example—boring history—nor by the recitation of Scripture or the reading of the Bible, often pedantic and equally boring in the wrong hands.

As we study the practice of Christianity over the ages it has seesawed between an almost mystical communion with the Holy Spirit to the dry and institutional forms of worship that resemble stodgy plays with little connection to the joyful, spiritual side of the faith.

We have gone from hair shirts and the lone hermits in the deserts of Egypt and Syria to Crusaders charging on magnificent war horses as they assaulted Jerusalem held by equally warlike Muslims, followers of the prophet Muhammed.

We have worshiped by chanting creeds amidst votive candles and choirs in the splendid cathedrals and cathedral-like buildings of the world to fervid followers being slain in the Spirit and talking in tongues.

Formal worship services of my generation were marked by suits and dresses; today worshipers sometimes resemble the patrons of bars on the Strip.

To characterize or type cast the history of Christian worship and Christian practices constitutes an exercise in futility. Many Christians worship and believe in part on human institutions—kind of lumped under the term canon law—while others reject any human accretions made to Scripture over the past two thousand years and govern their relationship to Jesus Christ based solely on Scripture, or the Word. We have such a variety of practitioners, from snake handlers to Popes, that I would be a bold, not to speak of foolish, person to teach that the history of the Christian church is a simple lesson in following Jesus Christ. We have burned heretics and loved on murderers in almost incomprehensible and contradictory fashions.

In truth, teaching the history of Christianity has informed and inspired me almost as much as a zingy sermon in church on Sunday that brought some lesson from Scripture home to me.

As an historian, I follow a simple rule: Find and examine the evidence, decide on its veracity, and then interpret it for your hearers and readers. The panorama we cover is huge, from the first presence of man on earth to now, thousands of years if you are a Christian (about six thousand from the Garden of Eve) or perhaps millions of years if you are a scientist, which does not exclude you from being a Christian as well. You just must be able to adjust to different evidence and different truths, one being basically natural, and the other spiritual.

Let me give you a simple example. Whose side was God on in the American Civil War? That will flex your ability to study man and his relationship to his Christian God, as well as how Scripture was invoked differently to defend a very human affair. Look up George Rable, a colleague of mine who wrote a book on the subject.

So, what is the only dependable truth? Teaching my classes on the history of Christianity has gradually persuaded me to that the only source of absolute truth is in Scripture. I know that sounds simple. But, alas, it isn’t.

It is man’s nature to interpret what s/he reads or sees. Just listen or watch today’s politicians. Truth, for them, seems to be infinitely malleable and adjustable to fit their interests.

The teachings of Jesus will also be debated until the cows come home.

But, you can just take “love your neighbor” in so many ways and then have to throw up your hands and conclude “he really means that!”

You may think of historians as dull, and pastors as even duller, but I know historians and pastors who can light a fire under and inside of you with truth, and, just as important, about your place here on earth, and the hereafter, whether you are seventeen or seventy-seven, or younger or older.

Published as “A view from the lectern,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018.