An Interview with Doug Foster (July 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Joshua Jeffery

Douglas A. Foster of Abilene Christian University, author of Will the Cycle Be Unbroken? Churches of Christ Face the 21st Century (1994). Dr. Foster is Professor of Church History and Director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University, in Abilene, Texas. He has taught at ACU since 1991, and has also taught at Lipscomb University. Dr. Foster holds a PhD in Church History from Vanderbilt University, an M.A. in theology from Scarritt College, and a B.A. from Lipscomb University. He is one of the three editors of The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (2005), and is a General Editor for the forthcoming book, The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History, with D. Newell Williams and Paul M. Blowers. Dr. Foster has also written on occasion for Wineskins / New Wineskins, including three articles focused on unity.

Josh: What originally drove you and others to propose a new project on the Global History of the S-C Movement?

Dr. Foster: The editors of the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement — Paul Blowers, Newell Williams and myself — wrote a fairly extensive essay on the historiography of the movement (how we have seen and written our history in the past) for the beginning of the Encyclopedia as we were finishing that effort. The experience we had had creating and editing the Encyclopedia — a project in which people from around the world and from all parts of the SCM participated—led us to the conviction that the next major step in the writing of our history would be a jointly-written, global and inclusive one. Frankly, we were exhausted from the massive effort the Encyclopedia had required, and we assumed that someone within the next twenty years or so would come along and do this. It would certainly not be us.

However, within months of the publication of the Encyclopedia, Russ White, then publisher at Chalice Press, approached Newell Williams about such a project. He said it could not be done by one person, and he was skeptical that even the editors of the Encyclopedia would be able to do something so soon after that project. When Chalice pressed the matter, Newell, Paul Blowers and I met and drew up a proposal that involved considerable funding — which we thought would end the discussion, with us at least. However, when we presented the plan, Chalice and the Disciples of Christ Historical Society basically said, “When can you get started?”

We spent almost a year thinking through who would be asked to join the writing team, and eventually we secured the commitment of eleven other scholars from the global movement—from the UK, Latin America, Asia, two African American scholars, two historians of women’s history, as well as scholars from the three major streams of the North American movement. We spent a week together at the beginning creating a team—both academically and spiritually — and began crafting an outline and specific assignments. We spent two other weeks together over the next year and a half in worship, critique and editing of initial drafts, and re-framing the book. We wanted to tell stories that had not been told before, in ways that showed connections rather than assuming only differences. There were many struggles in how best to portray certain parts of the story, and difficult decisions concerning what to leave out—since it was simply impossible to tell everything. After all the sections originally commissioned were in, and after a couple of further conference calls with the writing team, Newell Williams and I spent the last two and a half years editing the manuscript into a coherent whole, with a uniform style (so that it is a narrative rather than a collection of essays — every chapter has as many as five contributors), locating holes and writing new sections, verifying details and checking sources, and finally identifying images (photos and maps) for the chapters. Our managing editor Scott Seay was also involved in the last two tasks.

 The study of history from a global perspective has been gaining popularity since the 1980’s. Has the development of world history as its own sub-field influenced this project?

Dr. Foster: Yes — all of the contributors are church historians, and many of us who are full-time professors have redesigned our church history courses—both at the undergraduate and graduate/seminary level to reflect the global realities of the church today, as well as recover some of the “Lost History” (to use Phillip Jenkins’s words) especially of non-Western Christianity that has not generally been part of church history survey courses. We can no longer act as though Western Christianity is the norm, or the only important part of the story of the church.

Josh: Is there any one historical episode in particular that has become your favorite since your work on this project has started?

Dr. Foster: I don’t think there is just one. There have been several absolutely fascinating stories, like how African American leaders like Preston Taylor and Samuel R. Cassius boldly challenged the white racism in the movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s — a time when such boldness was truly dangerous. Or the founding of what is today a large Pentecostal denomination in Brazil by Virgil Smith, one of the early missionaries sent by Churches of Christ to that country in the early 1930s. The group is named the Pentecostal Church of Christ in Brazil and actually has some contact with Stone-Campbell churches in the country. Another powerful story is the way that Africans have moved into the chief leadership positions in countries where Stone-Campbell missionaries began work in the twentieth century — especially in the early Disciples work in Congo and the Churches of Christ in Ghana. But the stories of the growth of churches in India and other parts of Asia are also exciting. It is a massive story — much more so than we could tell in this book. We hope the book will open the door for further study and writing of more extensive histories of specific countries and efforts. <br><br>

Josh: Could you describe the process of editing and writing such a huge project?

Dr. Foster: It was huge, to say the least. Frankly, even the attempt to pull off such a project seems audacious and overly bold as I think about it now. We could not have carried it through, in my opinion, without taking the time to create a spiritual academic community with the fourteen writers. All were PhDs in church history or missions history — professionals of the highest credentials and scholarly integrity. We were from very different backgrounds, different parts of the world, different parts of the global Stone-Campbell Movement. So we took the time in our three week-long face-to-face meetings to spend hours in worship and spiritual formation together. We could see in each other “the face of Christ.” This bond carried us through some difficult discussions of precisely how to structure the book and tell the story with the highest academic integrity. Some scholars might worry that such a spiritual focus would compromise the academic integrity of what is supposed to be a critical history. We can let readers and historical critics judge that after the book is out—but we had ten expert historians, many not from the SCM, read and critique the penultimate draft of the manuscript. While they had many criticisms and suggestions for changes (many of which we made), the consensus was that this was a study of the highest academic quality.

On the other hand, as we say in the introduction and conclusion, (1) we are committed Christians who are scholars, academics, church historians. We do not shirk our scholarly task as historians by “explaining things away” with a “God caused that to happen,” we certainly see the hand of God in the story, and (2) we are painfully aware that this is an imperfect attempt to tell a complex and massive story. Even with multiple checks by editors, writers, outside readers, etc., we are sure there are some factual mistakes <br>that still linger in the text. Even with our multi-year work to make sure we had uncovered the most important stories of the global history, some will read it and say “How could they have left out X?!” History is not simply telling everything that happened. That is sheer impossibility. It is being relentless in researching and gathering information, testing sources, trying to make sense of the data collected, choosing how to tell the story and what to leave out—in other words it is a complex process, and not everyone will agree with how we have chosen to do it. Hopefully, it will serve the purpose of opening new worlds to students, scholars, Christians — both part of the SCM and those in others heritages—to see and be encouraged by this part of the story of how God has worked in the world through these people.

Josh: What bumps have you hit along the way?

Dr. Foster: There were some inevitable bumps — writers who were not able to complete assignments on time, differences over how to feature key stories that were not previously included in general histories, etc. I suppose the most significant discussion was over how to make sure the story of black Christians and churches in the North American Stone-Campbell Movement was made a central part of the main story — NOT a separate side story, implying it was not absolutely key to the whole book. We eventually decided to privilege the early story with a chapter devoted entirely to the beginnings of African American participation in the SCM. We did the same with the early story of women in the Movement. Afterward, however, that history became part of the main narrative.

Josh: If there was one thing you’d want your audience to take away from reading the Global History, what would it be?

Dr. Foster: That this Stone-Campbell Movement, with all its human flaws and diversity, has been an amazing conduit that God has used to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to millions of people around the globe. Sometimes people are ashamed of this heritage — and clearly we have some things to be ashamed about (as does every other Christian movement made up of human beings!), including our divisiveness and exclusive attitudes. Yet this is the story of how the Spirit of Christ has transformed people to be willing to stand up for Christian principles of justice and equality, to leave their comfortable homes and go to places that were unfamiliar and even dangerous because of their love for God and for people. God can use people whose hearts are turned toward him despite what we might deem poor understandings.

Josh: As you know, Richard Hughes and others have contributed some groundbreaking historiographical interpretations on the Churches of Christ over the last 15 years or so. Are these interpretations incorporated into the sections related to the Churches of Christ?

Dr. Foster: Yes — all of the writers are well aware of the historiography of the movement over the last century, and the interpretations of previous historians are sometimes addressed directly and at other times assumed with footnote references. The writers, however, explain their own historiographical assumptions that sometimes involve slight modifications of more recent ones, and at other times challenge earlier ideas. The introduction to the book is a historiographical survey that lays out the chief ways historians before this global history have treated the SCM.

Josh: Is there any specific interpretive framework you’ve used to present this new history? If so, could you describe it?

Dr. Foster: In addition to what I just mentioned, I would say that at one point in the discussion the writing team decided to focus on how the SCM manifested “spirituality” during its history. In other words, what did the churches of the Movement think it meant to be spiritual, and how did they act this out in their worship, theology, missions, etc. This is certainly part of the book, but I’m not sure that is the consistent interpretive framework for the entire book. In my opinion, the new interpretation is the global and inclusive approach itself. That is, the conscious effort to show how the SCM, despite diversity and even overt division, as a whole clearly continues to reflect commitments to key Christian beliefs and practices forged in its beginnings — baptism, Lord’s Supper, the importance of the church, the essential unity of Christ’s church, etc. In my opinion, even the chapters that look at the formation of Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ as separate identifiable bodies will show as never before our shared “DNA” so to speak, and that is evident in the chapters on the responses of the North American streams of the Movement to the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.

Josh: The writers of this new global history come from all three streams of the movement. Has the project brought this diverse group of people closer together? Do you see the book having the potential to bring together Christians from all three streams together?

Dr. Foster: Actually, the writers include people beyond the three major North American streams. Those precise divisions did not happen in other places around the globe where the SCM had been established early (UK, Australia, New Zealand, central and southern African nations, etc.), and were not manifested outside the US until we took those divisions there and planted them. There are stories of missionaries working together in countries around the world across the lines set back in North America. I hope that these accounts will lead to the telling of other such stories and to increased cooperation in taking the good news of Christ to those without it.

Josh: I understand you are working on a biography of Alexander Campbell. How is that going?

Dr. Foster: It has been fascinating tracing the religious formation of the Campbell family in Ireland, and how Thomas and Alexander’s move to the United States affected them so profoundly—culturally, religiously, politically, etc. I have much of the research done, but have been almost totally consumed by the global history project for the last three years and must now redirect my energies to completing the Campbell biography.

Josh: What made you choose the career path of Church Historian / Professor?

Dr. Foster: I always found teaching exhilarating—pursuing things I was curious and wanted to know more about, then being able to excite and intrigue others with the information. But I never dreamed I would be teaching church history until much later in my academic career. I had studied modern foreign languages in college, but studied three years of Hebrew and intended to do graduate work in Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern studies. When I began an MA in theology at Scarritt College in Nashville I was required to take a year of church history, which I was very unhappy about. My impression of history was that it was boring and useless (an impression gained in high school and college classes). The two church history teachers I had at Scarritt, however, were enthusiastic, provocative, innovative in their teaching methods, and opened to me a whole world of knowledge that was exciting and deeply meaningful. For the first time I realized at a deep level that “we” in Churches of Christ had a history — a heritage — that had shaped us in our attitudes, doctrines, practices, assumptions, etc. For the first time I saw us in a context, and saw other Christian bodies in their contexts as well. It literally turned my world around, and I determined that my PhD would be in church history, again with the enthusiasm I had always felt at learning things that were important, and passing them on to others so that we could grow together.

I am convinced that developing a “spiritual historical consciousness” is an extremely important part of our spiritual maturity. That simply means that you realize that we have a history, that you learn something about it, and you always ask the historical questions about what circumstances brought us to where we are. This is not “necessary for salvation” but is an important part of our spiritual maturity in my opinion, one that we have been gifted by God to do.

Josh: Do you have any advice for budding S-C Historians?

Dr. Foster: This field is rich and only barely tapped. There is so much more to do to tell the story of this amazing and complex movement. The writers and editors of the World History hope that it will be a spark for generations to come to plunge into that history, to nuance and expand on what we have said, to challenge us and uncover new exciting pieces of the narrative.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataDecember 7th, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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