Whenever I write about Christian history, I have a habit of writing with my former evangelical Christian self as my projected audience. It’s like I’m trying to save myself all over again from the frustration I experienced, especially in college, whenever I carried insights from my religion courses like small offerings into my Bible studies only to have them gently rejected.
That’s not to say my efforts weren’t appreciated. A couple years after I graduated, an old classmate asked me, “Are you still Christian?” When I responded, “I don’t think I am,” she said, “That’s too bad. You were my model of a thoughtful Christian.”
Maybe I linger with my old self, that thoughtful but naïve Christian, because of that conversation. Aren’t we all continuously responding to our old selves, justifying why we left them behind even as we use them as foils for our evolving identities? It doesn’t have to be that deep, of course. Sans analysis of any inner psychosis, there’s an obvious reason I write for her: I know she cared about Christian history. Her relationship with God was deepened by it. So was her sense of connection to the stories that had shaped her over her childhood. For a while at least, historical knowledge prevented spiritual burn-out. Sermons were becoming predictable and sometimes embarrassing, but books of early Christian history were guaranteed to offer nuances she had never heard from her small-town pastors, who, to be fair, had to worry about the repercussions of going too deep themselves.
That leads to another person I write for, the disillusioned member of the Christian alumni association, who delves into the history with a defensive goal in mind: “What did I miss, and how did I miss it? How can I respond to my relative/friend/former pastor when she or he asks why I wasn’t at church? What can be salvaged from what I’ve lost?” In those first days, months, and years after leaving, she’s the person who would drop her latest book onto the table with too much force and think, How could I have been so stupid? Or else, Why won’t you—my friend, my family, my enemy—at least hear me out on what I’ve learned? Christian history, for her, was a salve.
There’s a third person now, still in formation—the post-Christian. Immersed in an ocean of philosophies of life including but not limited to various forms of Christianity, lapsing only sporadically into old modes of thought but still sometimes lured to listen to Christian radio for nostalgic reasons, she reads Christian history with the sense that she is peering into an alien world. Like a good researcher, she senses the vastness of what she doesn’t know. Curiosity drives her, not personal salvation. Who were the people who wrote those texts? What did they think of themselves and the world around them? The sheer humanness of the texts bleeds through in a way it couldn’t when they were protected by a sacred sheen.
I remember and own each of these selves, who has cared about Christian history for different reasons over a lifetime, but these are hardly the only people who care. Who else do you see in the crowd?
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.