Stefana Dan Laing has recently published her book, Retrieving History: Memory and Identity Formation in the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2017). Laing is the assistant librarian at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Houston, TX) and has taught for HGST for a number of years. She has also taught at Houston Baptist University and Beeson Divinity School (Birmingham, AL). She earned her PhD at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in church history, with an emphasis on the first few centuries of the Church.
Laing’s book is not just an introduction to first five centuries of the Church; there have been plenty of them of late. Her point seems to be that here we are as Christ-believers in the 21st century and our identity is formed more by our culture than by our faith. She thinks, and I agree, that the Church has an identity crisis. We reflect more of the culture today than our own heritage. Culture today has a tendency to focus on who or what is trending. It is whatever is happening at the moment. She asks a great question: would the saints of the past be able to tell the difference between Church and theater?
She writes: “While Israel was admonished to ‘remember’ and to stand at the crossroad seeking out the ‘ancient paths,’ the church today is merely looking around rather than looking back.”
Laing’s book has a lot to do with memory. But you can’t remember what you didn’t know in the first place, so she helps us understand our past. She helps us to “retrieve history,” with its beauties, wonders, and warts. She has chapters on the martyrs, the saints, and what it means to write a history. History is more than “what happened,” as Laing delicately shows us.
Dr. Laing is not only concerned with the shape of the church in the second through fifth centuries (AD); she is deeply concerned with the shape of the Church today. She wants to help us through the current identity crisis by helping us know from where we have come. To borrow a line from “The Lion King” (and adapt it just a little): “We are more than what we have become.”
This is a book that can and ought to be on your reading list this summer. Not only do people like George Kalantzis, Bryan Litfin, and Paul Hartog recommend it. So do it. I can’t wait to really sink my teeth into it.