If there is one subject in school that most students seem to neglect and scoff at, it is history. History classes are often dry and boring. Students often have a hard time seeing the contemporary importance and significance of the study of history. This is natural, especially in our fast-paced culture in the midst of growing technological advances. The past is not only becoming a boring subject in the minds of students, but it is becoming increasingly insignificant.
John Fea, associate professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA, has sought to put on full display the significance of the study of history. Fea is an evangelical historian who has written this book primarily for college students interested in pursuing an advanced study of history, but it is also a valuable work for the resurgence of historical consideration in the minds of Christians everywhere.
Fea’s book is divided into eight chapters where he discusses the role and work of historians, the profit of knowing the past, the alien nature of history, God’s hand in history, history’s benefit to modern society, and more. Fea is essentially giving a defense for why majoring in history is worthwhile. In the process of doing this, Fea explains what it is that a good historian does. In the first chapter, Fea gives an outline for the task of any worthwhile historian. He writes that a historian must be concerned with five C’s: change, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. Here he explains that though history can be known, it cannot also be properly understood.
Fea then moves to discuss the major reasons that many people study history. In chapter two, he gives a brief discussion and critique of some of these reasons, such as inspiration, escape from modern-day realities, the search for a role model, to advance a political position, and so forth. This discussion then moves to further critique of these problems in chapter three as Fea argues that when one studies history, he or she is entering into a foreign land where, in the words of Hartley, “they do things differently.” When this fact is forgotten, the past becomes distorted in the minds of those trying to study and understand it. In chapter four, Fea continues a discussion of such distortions when he writes that Christians in America “providentially” read into American history. When this happens the actual history of America becomes lost to what each individual would like it to be. As a result, America’s goodness is grossly over exaggerated, while the deficiencies are overlooked.
Despite these distortions from Christian historians, Fea writes in chapter five that history can be understood within a theological framework. In this chapter he shows how the image of God, the sin of man, and the birth of Christ influence how Christian historians view and understand the past.
In chapters six and seven, Fea draws some helpful applications. He brings his argument for the study of history home by showing how citizens concerned with history can impact society. Fea walks the fine line between bringing biases into understanding history and using history for the influence of society very gracefully. He does this by placing high emphasis on being historically conscious in modern society. By studying history in both truth and humility, Fea argues that it can be an invaluable tool for shaping modern society. Fea closes out Why Study History? by returning to history students in particular. He shows what students who major in history can do with this major.
Why Study History? carries many strengths and few weaknesses with it. This is a book that is highly relevant for not only history majors or Christians, but anyone seeking to impact society or understand history. One strength this book carries is the author’s honesty. Sometimes an expert in a particular field out of a desire to persuade readers to look into his field will lack honesty when it comes to his arguments. For example, it would have been easy for Fea to give Christian historians a pass within the scope of this book. However, he honestly critiques those in his own fold for distorting history. With winsome candor, Fea demonstrates the honesty it takes to properly study history.
Another strength is the book’s organization. While the final chapter is more narrow in its audience, the rest of the book teaches one step at a time, starting with an excellent foundation and then weaving through historical errors and corrections throughout. The question the title asks can in the end be easily answered for those who are already historians to those who doubt history’s modern significance.
The only weakness this book possesses is the strange shift in the reach of the audience. The entire book, though primarily geared toward history students, is very much accessible and helpful to any American citizen, and particularly any American Christian. However, in the final chapter, Fea returns to address only history majors. This may have been better served as an extra Appendix. Nevertheless, the chapter would be very helpful for history majors.
Why Study History? is a profoundly necessary book for evangelicals in America. While it is a natural and prideful tendency to only view modern society as significant or relevant, Fea helps change this line of thought by showing that when history is properly studied, its impact of modern society is mammoth.