Monthly Archives: September 2014

Christian Historians and Social Media: Introductory Thoughts

Last week-end, 300 historians gathered at the gorgeous Malibu campus of Pepperdine University for the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. Although there was a great diversity of panels, the conference theme–which was addressed in a number of venues–focused on “Christian Historians and Their Publics.” The meeting helpfully asked about the many constituencies historians address: not only students and fellow academics, but also the broader public, addressed in a variety of ways. Inspired by that theme, I convened an outstanding panel on “Christian Historians and Social Media.” On the panel were three great exemplars of using social media for historical purposes: John Fea of Messiah College, Chris Gehrz of Bethel University, and Paul Putz of Baylor University. They offered some great thoughts about both the practice and purposes of using social media for historical purposes.

To demonstrate the value of social media, we thought we would practice what we preached, and share our thoughts on our blogs, thereby bringing in a much larger audience than the group which assembled in the Smothers Theater last Friday. Over the next week, we will be sharing all of our ideas in our separate venues.

Below, I offer the introduction to the panel. I was aiming to raise questions and frame the discussion, then step back to get some great feed-back from the panelists.

Tomorrow (Wednesday), John Fea will post at his Way of Improvement blog.

Thursday, we’ll hear from Chris Gehrz at his Pietist Schoolman blog.

Friday, Paul Putz will post his thoughts to his personal blog.

Then, next Monday, I’ll recap these ideas and work in a few more links for my post at the Religion in American History blog.

I invite readers to follow the whole conversation and to contribute to the comments sections of any of the blogs.


Pepperdine University, September 26, 2014

Roundtable: Christian Historians and Social Media

Hello. My name is Jonathan Den Hartog. I’m a professor of American History at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN (formerly Northwestern College). It’s my great pleasure to chair this session today.
As the CFH is meeting here at Pepperdine, we are considering the conference theme of “Christian Historians and Their Publics.” In thinking about this topic, it seemed to me that a topic on “Christian Historians and Social Media” would be especially useful. The presence of social media (blogs, facebook, twitter, instagram, and others) has exploded in the past decade. This growing phenomenon is a reality not only for us, but for our students in the classroom, our families, and the people we see weekly in our congregations. How ought we to approach this space of cultural activity?

Further, this development of history and social media is reshaping academic practice and perception. There is a growing conversation about what to do with social media in the academic historical realm. Our conversation today is thus part of a larger conversation going on in other venues. For example…
*Last September (a full year ago–practically ancient history!), Heather Cox Richardson appeared on the blog of the (now-suspended) Historical Society to ask, “Should Historians Use Twitter?” and argued in the affirmative.
*At the Organization of American Historians’ meeting last April, a panel considered, “Is Blogging Scholarship?”
*Similarly, at the American Historical Association this coming January, a panel will consider “Blogging and the Future of Scholarship.”
*But, if you miss that one, you can attend on the same week-end two panels sponsored by the American Society of Church History, with one entitled, “The Digital Humanities and the Study of Christianity in Late Antiquity: Reflections on a Disciplinary Intersection” and another entitled, “American Religion Online: How Digital Projects Can Change How We Teach, Research, and Interpret Religious History.”

Clearly, there is a conversation going on, that I believe we can add to.

To address these topics at the CFH, I thought it best to gather together some very smart guys who know a lot about social media, pose a few interesting questions, and then step out of the way.

So, how should we understand “Christian Historians and Social Media”? Today, as a panel, I hope we together can consider each part of our title–How and why to use social media? How to engage with historical topics with social media? And, what difference a Christian perspective and Christian faith might make for such usage? Do these, and should these terms fit together? Our discussion thus can be both descriptive (demonstrating how the tools have been used) and prescriptive (asking how the tools ought to be used).

Taking these general topics into consideration I think then raises a number of further questions.

First, they raise questions about the content of social media. What historical material gets presented and discussed? Does the medium (to channel Marshall McLuhan) shape the message?

Second, I wonder if there might be some virtues (of the Alasdair MacIntyre variety ) that would be appropriate for Christian historians using social media. What are the more excellent ways to exist on-line? In an interesting article, the philosopher Raymond VanArragon suggests the importance of two: prudence and openness. Prudence helps to know when and how to engage in important discussions–and often the anonymity of the internet is not that place. Openness, though, allows for a willingness to, at appropriate times and places, engage with and learn from those who are different. To my mind, VanArragon’s “openness” sounds a great deal like hospitality, which scholars even on this panel have connected to historical practice. Are there other virtues to nurture, especially for those creating content to go live to the internet?

On a third, related note, are there or should there be positive practices that can be used to express those virtues? As James K.A. Smith has pointed out, we are shaped by our cultural practices.  Can our beliefs still be embodied in practices on an internet that by its nature seeks to disembody us?

Fourth, how do we understand our publics? Circling back to the conference topic, who is the public “out there.” How do we relate to it with social media, and how does social media give us unique opportunities for connecting beyond our normal spheres?

Finally, I hope we can do a little reflection on the question of where we go from here? What’s next? What might the future hold? And in what directions should we faithfully push it?

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Teaching U.S. Religious History

This fall, one of my courses (as I pointed out below), is “U.S. Religious History,” which I sometimes refer to as “Religion in American History.” This is one of my favorite courses, and I’ve seen really great results come from the course. Students usually find themselves challenged, but I know the material sticks with them. (For instance, my students always find out who the Niebuhr brothers were. Oh, that’s H. Richard and Reinhold, in case you were wondering.)

I had a chance to reflect on my teaching content and methods this month over at the Religion in American History Blog. (hint: follow the link!)

Maybe you’ll want to pick up some of the books I mention. And maybe you’ll just have to encourage someone you know to come to Northwestern and take the course from me!

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