Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
JMAT 20:2 (Fall 2016) p. 144
Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. John Fea. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 182 pages. $19.99.
John Fea is an associate professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Rather than a historical study, Why Study History? is an examination of historiography—“a primer on the study of the past” (viii). Fea’s focus is upon “the pursuit of history as a vocation,” particularly from a Christian perspective (ix). Although the book’s full title is Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, Fea directly distinguishes “history” from “the past.” The “past” is simply what happened, and “history” is “the art of reconstructing the past” (3). In this sense, “While the past never changes, history changes all the time” (16).
According to Fea, historical narrative should be sensitive to the five C’s—“change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity” (6). Based upon Fea’s own descriptions, one could add further C’s—historical narrative should be cautious yet compelling (23, 25, 95). Academic history-writing is also communal, in that it is peer-reviewed and “must be written within a diverse community of historians who will expose our biases and correct our ‘wrong-headed’ assumptions and interpretations” (21). “The practice of deciphering what is a good story about the past, and what is not, comes through the historian’s willingness to work within a fellowship of other historians who are also interested in defending the past” (22). Furthermore, good history is also creative in character—it requires “interpretation, imagination, and even literary or artistic style” (29).
Fea insists that historical investigation requires the two crucial virtues of empathy and humility (58). In a humbling manner, “It makes us realize our own smallness in the vast course of human history” (60). Elsewhere, Fea focuses upon the virtue of hospitality within historical scholarship—welcoming the “other” (126, 131, 132). As L. P. Hartley quipped, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (quoted on p. 48). Therefore, study of the past requires an openness to what is foreign. “Doing history will require ‘intellectual hospitality,’ or
JMAT 20:2 (Fall 2016) p. 145
the willingness to engage the ideas of people from the past with humility” (131). Other virtues, including judiciousness, enlighten the historian’s path as well: “Christians who study the past must be prudent” (136). One would imagine that the virtue of honesty is also essential to the historical task, which Fea probably assumed as a “given” (cf. 133). The...
Click here to subscribe