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This weekend I read with some interest a series of articles responding to the idea of the historian as activist. This topic was taken up at the Conference on Faith and History this spring, at which Kristen Kobes DuMez was a plenary speaker, along with John Fea, John Turner, and Jemar Tisby. Last Thursday Kevin DeYoung wrote a piece for WORLD Opinions in which he critiques the discourse among these historians, and argues that there is a fundamental problem with the “historian as activist” approach to the past.

In the final paragraphs of his article, DeYoung quotes Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden, who wrote in their 1989 book The Search for Christian America, “Once we begin with our own commitments, the selection of the facts to fit them is all too easy, the more so since selectivity is usually unconscious.” Noll, Hatch, and Marsden were confronting narratives and biases predominantly held by the Christian right, and DeYoung now argues the same can be said of the Christian left. We read onto history that which fits and supports our current narrative, and so “the past becomes just one more medium to convey positions which we already hold.” History as activism, he surmises, is an approach that “[visits] the past…looking to settle scores for the present.”

Now, it’s certainly true that we can use facts, stories, and our own interpretation of events to support a narrative. And such narrative twisting happens on both the left and right side of the political spectrum.

But the idea that we have to throw out our commitments in order to be truthful about both past and present is untenable and, I would argue, unbiblical. What matters is not whether we come at history with biases and commitments, but just what those biases and commitments are.

As I thought about these articles this weekend, I did so in the context of the sermon I was writing on Mary and her Magnificat. With thanks to Rolf Jacobsen, Alyce McKenzie and many others for their insights, I presented Mary as a prophet, singing her song of resistance and hope. Mary’s song, sung in the past-tense, is a recounting of the active faithfulness of God in history. Pastor David Lose writes, “Mary recognizes as she sings that she has already been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham. The past tense in this case doesn’t so much signify that everything Mary sings about has been accomplished, but rather that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption.”

Mary’s song is not unique in Scripture. The Bible is full of recitations of history, of the redemptive activity of God in the lives of his people. Joshua 24, Psalm 105, and Acts 7 are prime examples. And if we take these histories at face value, we are confronted by a God who scatters the proud, lifts up the humble, and fills the hungry with good things. The history presented by Mary in her song is an activist history – it is an historical account (with some poetic embellishment, to be sure) of God’s activity of justice, peace, and shalom.

To be a child of God and a follower of Jesus, then, is to be committed to this justice, peace, and shalom, in whatever vocation we hold. In her plenary address, DuMez quotes John Calvin, who in his Institutes reflects on the prophetic office Christians are called to: “proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for the captives, setting the oppressed free…” The study of history, says DuMez, helps us understand how to fulfill this prophetic office. “Knowledge of the past can convict us in the present, illuminate injustice past and present, and reveal the complexities of human cultures and societies, complicating our understanding of sin and our human plans for restoration.”

The Christian historian then, is, I believe, a de facto activist. Not looking at history with an aim to support his or her own agenda or to settle a score, but to better understand and call God’s people to a life of justice, peace, and shalom. And perhaps, through truth telling, to orient us to a life of faith.

DuMez notes in her address (the full recording of which is available on the Conference on Faith and History podcast, and I encourage you to take a listen) that one of the critiques she’s received about Jesus and John Wayne is the lack of hope found in the book. She owns that there’s not much in the history recounted in this book that is particularly hopeful. But, she adds, “I don’t look for hope in history… Perhaps looking for reason to hope in history is not the best way to approach this particular virtue. Rather, hope may instead be the virtue that compels us to do history. We can explore the darkest corners of the past only because we have faith and hope, which according to John Calvin belong together. Faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when his truth shall be manifested. Faith believes that he is our father, hope anticipates that he will ever show himself to be a father toward us.”

Her point is well taken. But I believe Mary’s song indicates we can look for hope in history. We can look for all the ways in which God has been father to us, all the times the hand of God has been present, all the whispers of shalom, and peace, and justice. We look to history to help us understand that which God has accomplished in time, thus strengthening our faith, and orienting our commitments.

As I drove to church on Sunday I was delighted when Frédéricka Petit-Homme, host of Choral Concert on CBC Music, introduced an upcoming piece – Bach’s Magnificat. But she misspoke in her introduction. She referred to the Magnificat as “a hymn to the virgin Mary.”

The Magnificat is, of course, a hymn of the virgin Mary. That preposition makes a big difference. Mary’s song lauds not the accomplishments of people, but sings praise to God, to the God who is active in history, who stepped into history and time in the person of Jesus Christ, who came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I’m a pastor, not an historian. I offer all of this with humility and deference to the experts. But as I mulled over these things this weekend I couldn’t help but think that perhaps one of the roles of the Christian historian is to help us get our prepositions right. To help us see that the study of history doesn’t pit us against one another, but calls us to live for one another, and that historical explorations of injustice and inequity don’t call us away from hope, but orient us to the one who is actively bringing about justice and love and mercy in this world, and who calls us to participate in his story of shalom. And if that’s history as activism, I’m here for it.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    “Getting our prepositions right.” Excellent. You are touching why the fight over “critical race theory” expresses the American soul and is a spiritual thing for American Civil religion–do we get to tell that history? And in Ottawa, Pierre Poilievre is watching.

  • RZ says:

    A very timely reflection and nicely articulated, Laura. A fight for control of the historical narrative is yet another platform for polarization (non-Shalom). A few thoughts to trigger more discussion:
    1. Hope is presumed for Christians but offeeing it as a pain-killer is not the first action step. Identifying what happened is the first step. And giving time for grieving and storming and reflecting as well. ( Don’t you think Mary protested initially, then wrote her song?)
    2. The historical narrative MUST be considered from the side of the conquered as well as the conquerors. Prophets warn us repeatedly about the entitled blindness of the conquerors. We must LISTEN to the stories of others if we are to observe accurate history.
    3. Kevin De Young is right that bias is part of our sinful incapacity, all of us. But telling the “right” history, winning, seizing control of the narrative, is not our ultimate goal. Shalom, mutual flourishing, balancing, covenanting, win/win-creating is what we are called to do.

  • Pamela Spiertz Adams says:

    Laura, I see Kristin DuMez’s book John Wayne and Jesus as a call to do what is right in the world where we have done injustice. Our lives should be looking for ways to uncover and correct these sinful actions that our nation and world have participated in. Seeing these sins and seeking to right them is the work of missionaries. pastors, teachers, merchants, professors, fire men and all of us. We should live in the hope of Jesus, not in the works of our sin filled hands. I agree with you.

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