Drawing Lines: A look at history as rhetoric

Recently, Brethren sociologist Carl Bowman opened a blog which provides a forum for further assessing the cultural landscape of the Church of the Brethren. As a historian, Bowman rightly champions both the documents of our past and the changes which come with time. As a social historian however, Bowman is equally clear that the narrative be based upon a preponderance of evidence. Thus, his work is not a story of great individuals nor the development of ideas. Rather, his narrative is one which attempts to describe the beliefs and practices of a people.

Before venturing much further, its necessary to say that Bowman is in good company. His style of research and narrative aspirations are shared by many a scholar who have appropriated anthropological methods for the study of the past. Any critique, then, must take his methodological assumptions as appropriate and necessary tools for historiography. Yet, all historians are subject to the same criticism when change is the operative assumption. Every student of the past must acknowledge change; practices shift, ideas evolve, and people inherit and adapt both. The past, then, is always somewhat alien to every observer whether they live in the archives or in cultural artifacts. The daunting task, then, is to take the unknown and make it known, making the alien recognizable. This requires equal attention to what has also remained the same. Such an awareness is essential in the sub-field of Church History when continuity is equally as important as change.

Attending to continuity and change is a delicate balance, and as such requires that the researcher draw lines. Some of these are lines of connection and some of these are lines in the sand. No matter the type, these lines mark out an understandable starting point. For Bowman’s monograph, Brethren Society, this foundation is Brethren of the 19th century. His unabashed starting point is evident in a recent series of exchanges on his blog.

While discussing church statements an inevitable reference to the Brethren dictum “no force in religion” surfaced in the comments. The historian of the 19th century soon reminded all the readers that such a doctrine was the work of modern thinkers and “was not the tradition of 18th and 19th century Brethren.” As a good historian, Bowman marked out the line in the sand which defined the changes which naturally occur over time.

The conversation soon focused on further demarcations. Can we consider lines of continuity between the ideas of early Radical Pietists who had influenced the first Brethren, the likes of which include Gottfried Arnold and Hochman von Hochenau? Or, is Brethren tradition necessarily limited to those who have claimed a spiritual home among the Schwarzenau Neu Taufer? How one answers such questions is dependent on those lines of separation and connection, that is in how the student of the past accounts for continuities and change.

Here again, Bowman drew the line of distinction clearly between historiography and theologizing: “Let’s just keep the difference between theology and history, and between Hochmann and what the Brethren embraced, clear.” Scott Holland, one of the conversation partners, quickly queried: “So, are you still, in the 21st century, identifying authentic Brethrenism as something either Old Order or something necessarily locked into an 18th century historical moment?”

Here is where I could no longer observe, and joined the conversation. Though my reply may appear as a critique of Bowman the historian, the scope of my response should be understood to include the theologian Holland. In sum, I responded to say that “both History and Theology are narrative arts in that they are constructed for the present.” In other words, theology makes claims about history and tradition just as history makes claims about the present. Holland’s responses championed an understanding of the past which drew lines of connection to the present while Bowman asserted lines in the sand defining the difference between then and now.

However, both claims are theological. More precisely they are both ethical in that they make claims about what ought to be. Here in lies the methodological shadow which most modern scholars avoid at all costs: the appearance of subjectivity. It also is the ground on which most of the humanities are based. Each student, knowingly or unknowingly, brings a vision for what ought to be. For Bowman, and for many historians including myself, there is a time which ought to be restored. For Holland, there are thinkers within the corpus of historical sources which ought to reshape our thinking now.

Whether by drawing lines in the sand showing in and out, then and now, or lines of connection showing influence and continuity, the contemporary thinker makes theological and ethical claims about what ought to be. When we deal with the practical matters of life as the Church, it is best to identify those assumptions about what ought to be. Otherwise, scholarly speech is but rhetoric designed to shape the outcome for a desired end. Ought we not then lay our cards on the table and name our desired outcome before we employ and invoke days long past?


Filed under Brethren History

2 responses to “Drawing Lines: A look at history as rhetoric

  1. You write, “Each student, knowingly or unknowingly, brings a vision for what ought to be. For Bowman, and for many historians including myself, there is a time which ought to be restored.”

    Your observation, which broadly applies to scholarship within the discipline of theology, may not apply equally to other disciplines.

    Those who have fully read my work (and especially those who know me personally) will recognize that there is no such restorative moment. The fact that a historian invokes the past to stretch our thinking about the present, or that s/he might point out the contrast between certain historical moments and our own, does not equate with the proposition that there is a particular “time which ought to be restored.” But maybe you overstate the case to remind us of the well-established point that all historical narrative is filtered by questions and perceptions originating in the present… and is therefore lacking pure objectivity and neutrality. If this is all that was intended, then it would probably be better to state it as such, rather than projecting the methods of theology upon historiography (and social science).

    • Joshua Brockway


      Though I think you are some what right that such a broad generalization does not relate to other disciplines, there are many who are highlighting the “value judgements” of the once objective scholar. Even this crazy debate about global warming is revealing how persons now assume a subjective position in the midst of the most empirical sciences. For those of us in the traditional disciplines of the humanities I think it is nearly impossible to narrate our findings without making judgements based on our vision or values. That seems, at least to me, not a question of a theological methodology but a question of the role of the subjective in scholarship- a kind of humanities and social science equivalent to the Heisenberg principle- the observer impacts the perception of the data. The more interesting debate for me would be whether or not the observer’s values are influencing the narrative or are influenced by the narrating (in philosophical terms a priori or a posteriori )

      As for your closing caution “then it would probably be better to state it as such, rather than projecting the methods of theology upon historiography (and social science).” I am not sure that the restorative moment is the best language here, but as I look at my own scholarship I do value the 4th and 5th centuries- not in a hope to restore them to now, but I see in them a wisdom to offer the contemporary church. That may be a little harder to argue for your work in Portrait since the narrative goal is different but I imagine Brethren Society had some impact on the way you see the 21st century CoB. When I think of Jim Lehman’s Old Brethren, he is clear in the opening that his draw to that age of the Brethren was in part an affinity for their way of being Church. I hear in some of your comments and writing, not so much a restorative desire, but a highlighting of the values of the pre-M.G. Brumbaugh CoB. As historians, which I think you are in Brethren Society, we select an epoch to guide our narrative focus in the present.


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