The Christian Scholar as a Public Intellectual

by Chris Gehrz

Last week my personal blog welcomed its 300,000th visitor. While I started The Pietist Schoolman in June 2011 with very traditional scholarly goals in mind — thinking aloud about research, connecting with other scholars, refining my writing skills through regular practice — it has done much to reshape my vocation as a Christian scholar. Blogging has helped me learn to speak — and listen to — a broader public, to live out what Wheaton historian Tracy McKenzie calls the “dual vocation” of Christian historians: serving both the academy and the church.

Or as my fellow historian-blogger John Fea (Messiah College) argued last month:

evangelical intellectuals and scholars may be missing opportunities to speak to churchgoers on their own terms. This is a largely untapped audience for public intellectuals, but evangelicals will not just listen to anyone.  They are suspicious of secular voices and always will be. They will, however, be more open to listen to someone with evangelical credentials or someone who is one of them. We need more people to be “public intellectuals” in this world.

John does this as well as anyone I know: at his blog, on Twitter, and by contributing op-eds to print and digital media. But through Pietist Schoolman think I’ve been able to extend my work as a researching and teaching historian into a more public sphere, helping a wide array of fellow Christians (and non-Christians, to be sure) to think about faith, history, and higher education. To illustrate the breadth of my audience, I often point out two facts.

  • 20% of my readership lives outside of the United States.

  • Four of the top commenters at my blog are (1) our former colleague Roger Olson, (2) a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who’s also a lay preacher, (3) a member of my congregation, and (4) my mom.

(Truth be told, Mom would comment far more often — but she doesn’t want to embarrass me. Let’s move on…)

Now, blogging as often as I do is a massive time commitment even now that I’ve gone down from 7 times a week to 3-4, and so I rarely expect that I’m going to persuade colleagues that they ought to take this leap. Happy as I was to see our colleague Stina Busman Jost join the blogosphere recently, today let me describe another, easier way that I try to act as a kind of public intellectual. Here too, I’m on the same page as Fea:

When academic historians write and talk about using social media the conversation is always limited by the boundaries of the profession. Social media can help historians network. Social media can help historians share their work. Social media can help historians share resources (usually in the form of links) with other historians. All of this assumes that the people we follow or “friend,” and the people who follow and friend us, are all academic or professional historians.

My approach to social media has been different in the sense that I have not separated my professional life from certain aspects of my personal life. Yes, there should be boundaries between the two and I have tried to keep them.  But people who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will also have to deal with the occasional (or not so occasional) photo of my family, a post on the New York Mets, or the latest fan-boy commentary on Bruce Springsteen.  I tend to approach life in an integrated fashion–perhaps to a fault.

Likewise, I use my Facebook timeline primarily to share two things: (1) links to my blog posts; and (2) pictures of — or funny comments from — my kids. Hopefully, I give people a more fully fleshed-out model of who “academics” are. But at the same time, I have family, friends, former students, and fellow church members occasionally reading what I have to say about Christian colleges, Pietism, World War I, teaching, and other subjects that might otherwise stay within more narrowly academic boundaries.

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One Sunday morning an older member of our congregation leaned over to me before worship and said how much she appreciated seeing me on Facebook in my role as a father — and then proceeded to ask me about a recent blog post of mine, on human sexuality in Christian higher ed.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to start a blog that would supply you with links to share in this way, you could just post links to what’s in your RSS feed. You don’t have to be the creator of content so much as its curator. This is what I primarily do with Twitter and my blog’s Facebook page, where I share links and typically add nothing more than a question, sample quotation, or brief comment.

Just recognize that the conversation doesn’t flow in one direction. Knowing that his Facebook friends and Twitter followers are “conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, evangelical Christians and atheists, academics and aunts and uncles, Mets fans and Yankee fans, and everyone in-between,” Fea celebrates how social media helps him

to see what a diverse group of people are thinking about and how they are responding to the ever-changing world around them. The conversations that happen on social media–either on my sites or the sites of others–fuel my writing and provide me with ideas. Sometimes it is less about posting and more about sitting back and reading the posts of others.

Christopher Gehrz
Chris Gehrz is Professor of History and co-coordinator of Christianity and Western Culture (CWC) at Bethel University. He recently edited The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons and blogs regularly at www.pietistschoolman.com

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