Yesterday, I was invited to speak as part of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society’s annual Heritage Service in Ringgold, Md. As per my invitation, I discussed my growing interest in Brethren in Christ history.
My talk was one small part of a service that, as Brethren in Christ Historical Society president Emerson Lesher described in his invocation, seeks to help today’s church remember corporately our shared heritage. Held in the denomination’s oldest existent meeting house (dating back to 1871), the service is a very physical reminder of the centrality of community within historic Brethren in Christ belief and practice.
For the benefit of those readers who couldn’t be at the event, I’ve posted my talk after the jump.
I’ve been asked to talk today about my growing interest in Brethren in Christ history, and I’m happy to do so. Since I began to explore our history and heritage almost two years ago — first as a student in Dr. Morris Sider’s history course at Messiah College, and then later as an employee of the Brethren in Christ Church — I’ve developed a deep and abiding passion for the subject.
In particular, I want to talk today about story, because I believe that when we consider Brethren in Christ history as story, we get a glimpse of the subject’s enduring promise and enduring fascination — for me personally and, I hope, for all of us as part of this church community.
I think the great Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor hit the nail squarely on the head when she wrote that “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way. . . You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” O’Connor is describing an essential aspect of story: that it exists wholly within itself, that its meaning is inherent and cannot be separated from the narrative that develops it. It seems to me that such a notion — the idea of the immanence of story — has fueled the Brethren in Christ’s interest in their denominational history for more than thirty years. Think about it. Why, after almost a century, do we continue to tell the story of E.J. Swalm, bishop of the Canadian Church, and his courageous decision to be imprisoned rather than join the military during the First World War? We tell that story, I believe, because there is simply no other satisfying way to explain our doctrine of nonresistance. Sure, we could quote the doctrinal statements we’ve prepared on the subject. But what do such official declarations actually tell us about our ethic of peace, rooted in our understanding of Jesus Christ and demonstrated through acts of love, compassion, and faithful presence? I believe they tell much, much less than the story of Bishop Swalm.
To quote an old, familiar hymn, we Brethren in Christ love to tell the story. And that’s one of the reasons I love Brethren in Christ history. Because for as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by story. From Bible tales to fables, from Roald Dahl’s children’s books to William Faulkner’s epic novels, I have long been entranced by the power of narrative to convey complexity, ambiguity, beauty, and truth.
Now, as I turn toward greater involvement in the telling of Brethren in Christ history, I have the chance to — and the challenge of — conveying complexity, ambiguity, beauty, and truth in my study of our shared heritage.
Of course, in the academic discipline of history, minimizing the task of understanding the past by calling it a “story” is close to sacrilege. Astute historians jettisoned the idea of pure narrative history years ago, when they realized that such lazy scholarship threatens, among other things, to marginalize the voices of minorities — including religious minorities.
So when I suggest that I’ve come to appreciate our shared Brethren in Christ heritage because I love stories, what I’m trying to communicate is this: What I Iove about events like the heritage service, and about institutions like our Historical Society, is that we don’t stop at just telling stories about the past. We tell stories about the past because we believe they matter for the present.
Perhaps this is part of our theological DNA. In an article recently published by the magazine Christian History, Bethel Seminary professor Chris Armstrong argues that Pietists invented church history. That’s right: Those same seventeenth-century German Lutherans who imbued the early Brethren in Christ with a desire for heart-felt religion, also devised one of the longest-standing curricular staples in seminary education.
Here’s why. According to Armstrong, Pietists were “in search of a living orthodoxy” — a kind of experiential religious faith that was committed to being righteous and not just being right. That search led Pietists into urban centers, where they established orphanages, hospitals, and other inner-city ministries. That search led Pietists to devote themselves to cultivating a heart religion with a social conscience. And that search led them to invent church history.
As Armstrong has written:
[Pietists] discovered that when you turn from theological treatises to church history, you begin to see how theory has become practice in the lives of real people. Then when you return to do theology, you have gained a new angle on the task.
To see “how theory has become practice in the lives of real people”—that’s attractive to me. And it should, I think, be attractive to all of us. Coming as we do from a church tradition that incorporates various theological strands and shies away from doctrinaire treatises, we don’t have much of a base for our corporate life and thought. We have the Bible, of course, and we’ve long been committed to reading it, studying it, and allowing it to guide our ministry and worship. But all Christian traditions have the Bible. And, of course, we have the classic texts of the traditions that influenced us: Pietism’s Pia Desideria and Anabaptism’s Martyr’s Mirror, for example. But those aren’t really Brethren in Christ texts. So where do we find our theology-made-flesh?
We find it, I believe, in our stories. And over the last seventy-plus years—ever since Asa Climenhaga produced the first (but certainly not the most conclusive) history of the denomination—we’ve been working to understand how those stories give meaning to our continued life as the Brethren in Christ Church.
I could go on for a long time: I could recount a lot of stories from our past that have inspired me, stories of people like Frances Davidson and George Detweiler and C.N. Hostetter, Jr., and Mary Jane Long. I could do that. But for the sake of time, I’ll contain myself.
In closing, I want to share a quote from another celebrated American writer, the essayist Joan Didion. In her book White Album, Joan writes that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I think this has been true in the Brethren in Christ tradition. Here’s hoping that we continue telling our stories, just as we continue “to search for a living orthodoxy.” Thank you.