Faithful Is Successful: Interview with Howard Louthan

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ESN continues its series of interviews with authors of Faithful Is Successful, with Esther Harris interviewing Howard Louthan. You can read Esther’s previous post on Howard’s chapter in Faithful Is Successful hereIn fall 2015 Howard Louthan and his wife Andrea Sterk will be assuming new positions at the University of Minnesota. They both previously taught history at the University of Florida. Howard specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of Renaissance and Reformation Europe with a particular focus on religion. His most recent books include Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation (Cambridge, 2009) and an edited collection of essays Sacred History: Uses of the Christian Past in the Renaissance World (Oxford, 2012). Howard and Andrea have a family of three children. 

1. Esther: It was a pleasure to sense your clear vocational calling to history in your reflection. You say this ‘great love’ began as an undergraduate. Would you share with us if and how this scholarly love was fostered by your Christian faith back then?

Howard: I grew up in a very supportive Christian family in terms of learning. My parents worked hard to instill in us a real love for learning and perhaps most importantly a curiosity for the world around us. They were careful not to steer us in any one particular direction.

By the time I arrived at college I was open and excited for all sorts of fields of study. I, in fact, began university as a double chemistry/history major and did well in both my first year. It became increasingly clear to me, however, that though I was certainly proficient in chemistry, I was decidedly stronger in history. Though the former seemingly offered more practical job prospects than the latter, without hesitation I moved completely to history entering an honors track. At the time I felt I was taking something of a risk (even back then job prospects for college/university jobs in history were not good), but my family had stressed an approach to life where one explores the gifts that God has given us fearlessly.

Secondly, I had the good fortune of finding likeminded Christians who helped nurture that sense of vocation. There were four of us from different Christian traditions (Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical) who were both committed to faith and excited about the study of history. We interacted with each other intellectually. We formed a reading and discussion group and often took classes together. We also supported each other spiritually. Two of these friends led a Bible study and prayer group that I joined one year. We all went on to PhD programs and now have positions in the field. We continue to stay in touch. In fact, this spring I am on leave in Scotland, and one of these friends lives 10 minutes from where I am writing. He teaches here at the university of St Andrews. These relationships were critical when I was an undergraduate, and they continue to buoy me spiritually.

2. Esther: It is difficult not to feel pessimistic about the prospect of being a faithful spouse and parent amidst the all-consuming competitiveness of the academic marketplace. Despite your recognition that ‘Christians are not competing on a level playing field,’ do you have any examples of how following Christ has girded you as an historian and colleague?

Howard: I think it is precisely because the field is not level that Christians who take their identity seriously and see their job as a vocation have such a wonderful opportunity working in academics. Let me explain. The university is an incredibly competitive workplace filled with insecure people who frequently struggle with self-esteem problems. The basis of our intellectual work is criticism. We write articles and books, submit them to journals and presses and receive back a report of where we need to improve. In such an environment it is often hard to feel sure of oneself. For many of my colleagues, especially the most successful ones, their personal identity is their work. One encounters, then, a significant number of both narcissistic and insecure individuals in this profession. 

As believers, we obviously have a different set of values though admittedly it can be difficult to maintain them when immersed in this competitive environment ourselves. Our calling is outward, a movement away from self to others. Most obviously this can make a tremendous difference in how we interact and relate to students. In my two decades of teaching I have seen how keen both undergraduates and graduates are for genuine interaction with faculty. Over the years my wife and I have done a lot of entertaining at home for students. I have been surprised how infrequently undergraduates in particular have the opportunity to interact with their professors outside the classroom. It has been a great privilege to work with young people who are at such a critical stage of their lives. They ask big questions about life and their own future and are often eager to dialog with us.

3. Esther: You note the spiritual benefits of studying Reformation history, where you can encounter Christian thought in a different time and place. If there was a particular orthodoxy, vision, or approach to communal worship or mission practiced within evangelical circles then, that has since been largely forgotten by American evangelicalism, what would it be?

Howard: I have been very fortunate with my profession to be able to study the history of Christianity. My wife, also a historian, specializes in the early church and the world of Late Antiquity, especially Orthodox and Eastern Christianities. Between us we cover a fair swathe of Christian history. Though I still identify myself as a Protestant, I have come to love and appreciate so many aspects of different Christian traditions and through reading, prayer and worship have sought to incorporate them into my own spiritual life.

American evangelicalism today by and large does not have a great breadth of vision. At times there is a shallowness that reflects the culture in which it is embedded. At times there is also a sense of hubris, a sense that ‘we have all the answers.’ American evangelicalism is such a powerful cultural phenomenon that has an impact worldwide. Evangelicals including myself need to realize to what extent our faith is an expression of a specific historical culture, how we are part of a particular historical moment, and then engage in that difficult task of distinguishing what is essential to our faith and that which is not necessarily bad (though some of it is) but simply part of a particular culture in which we all live. A good first step is looking to other Christian traditions and learning from them. We should not be idealistic about any one tradition in particular. They all obviously have flaws. Still learning from other traditions helps nurtures within us that most essential Christian virtue, humility.

4. Esther: In describing the Christian as a dissident, you make clear that our allegiance to a higher calling demands selfless action in the cause of His Kingdom. You exemplified this when you sacrificed a highly influential position at a top-20 university for two positions (for your wife and yourself) at a large state university. Do you have any more thoughts on ‘Christian as dissident’ in relation to the marginalization of women in the Academy?

Howard: Good question about being a dissident! Speaking broadly in the North American context, I believe the situation for women in academics has improved significantly. Women, in fact, constituted the bulk of new hires at my last job at the University of Florida over the past decade. It has been slower seeing them move up and occupy important administrative positions, but that is happening as well.

Where I am actually more concerned is the church. For about a year we went to a church attended by many university faculty (including the school’s new president) where my wife, who has a PhD in church history and several books to her name, would not have been allowed to teach Sunday School to males beyond high school age. There are a number of Christian traditions that continue to hold back women from exercising gifts of ministry God has given them.

We, as a Christian couple, have come to see ourselves as ‘dissidents’ in both church and university environments. Perhaps, though, the better metaphor in this case is a bridge. From my experience in the American South, I have seen my secular colleagues at the university view more conservative churches as bastions of right-wing political ideology while those in the aisles often view the university as a platform for a radically agnostic and liberal political and social agenda. There is a huge cultural gap between these the church and the university, and we are called to bridge it. Frankly, I have never felt completely home in either world. While my university friends need to learn to see nuance and diversity in the Christian tradition, those in the church have much to learn from the university. During our time at the University of Florida my wife and I collaborated with a local Christian Study Center to try to bridge these two worlds. We sponsored speakers who lectured both in a professional setting at the university and also to local church audiences. We met with Christian students regularly (both undergraduate and graduate) to help them think through issues of faith and vocation.

5. Esther: As a dual-career Christian couple, do you have any practical advice or encouragement for young Christian dual-career couples, seeking to live out their respective academic callings whilst perhaps being fearful of hard decisions down the track?

Howard: We obviously have been incredibly fortunate as we have able to secure regular positions for both of us at the same institution, indeed even in the same department.   Obviously, as we started out, we did not know the story would have such a happy ending. For other dual-career couples who are just beginning their professional life, let me highlight three issues to keep in mind.

Most importantly, the marriage and family is the highest priority. Do not be seduced by the profession, its allure and promise. At the end of the day, it is only a job. Our calling is to be faithful to God and to each other and that starts with our spouse and family. We decided to have children in graduate school and not wait until we were settled in ‘proper’ jobs.

Be flexible and pragmatic. At one point in our career we were willing to commute between states for a year as we waited to see what longer-term possibilities might develop. We were open to all sorts of possibilities and willing to work for all sorts of institutions, including one in the Bulgarian countryside that operated above a Chinese restaurant!

Be honest with each other and communicate clearly. What are your individual priorities? Do not disguise personal feelings through a false piety that cloaks your desires and longings through a type of ‘God-talk’ that does not honestly deal with deep-seated emotions. Discuss and pray through these issues honestly with your partner.


Image courtesy of Peter Kraayvanger at Pixabay.com. Astronomical clock at Prague Town Hall.


Note: An interview part of the Faithful is Successful series on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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Esther Harris

Esther Harris is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Sydney. Her PhD studies are focused on the political dimension of the Continental Reformers' ecclesiology, and its role in the emergence of republican thinking amongst sixteenth and seventeenth-century English Protestants. She is a committed follower of Christ and lives with her parents and twin-sister in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales.

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