Whenever James Bratt missed school as a child due to illness, he would read through his father’s history and geography books to pass the time. This innocent fascination quickly developed into a passion. “History is just kind of in our blood,” Bratt said, as his father was a middle school history and Bible teacher, and his mother completed a history degree from Calvin.
Bratt followed his parents’ footsteps by graduating from Calvin in 1971 with a degree in history. He then attended Yale University immediately after to complete his PhD in American intellectual religious history and the history of immigration.
He was inspired to study the historical roots of Americans, the fruits of which he believes have become very problematic, in order to discern other ways of doing things. “The culture has resources to critique its own errors, and that’s part of my job as a historian. The first words of the gospel are ‘repent,’ and I think that’s what a historian of the Christian faith [focuses on],” he said.
Although he didn’t plan on coming back to teach at Calvin, he taught nine years at the University of Pittsburg in the religious studies department and then returned to Calvin to teach from 1987 through the spring of 2015.
“I had no desire to work at a ‘knowledge corporation,’” Bratt said. “[Calvin is] a community where [we] are pursuing not just our fields but a higher question of how this all fits into the Christian tradition, and how we can play a part in renewing that tradition. When any tradition gets stuck, it’s dead--the dead faith of living people. What you want it to be is the living faith of dead people.”
Although retired from his career, Bratt will continue pursuing his vocation in renewing tradition as a historian and writer. This fall, Bratt began teaching university level U.S. History in Xiamen, China, for 10 months. He has enough book material to last at least this decade, so he’ll be working on his writing as well.
“Some people say that all historians, whatever they write, are writing their autobiography,” he said. “ And, in a deflected way, that’s true; you spend precious hours, precious years, of your time working on a question. I’m fairly typical in writing about what really matters to me personally.”
In addition to his future teaching and writing opportunities, Bratt will be trying to use his Lake Michigan cottage as a “child-magnet” for his four children living in Pennsylvania, Texas, California and China.
Bratt wants to remind the Calvin community, “We’re not just in the knowledge business, we’re in the wisdom business; not how to make a living, but how to live a life, and that’s tested down the road.”