Monthly Archives: August 2014

REVIEWING THE “CHRISTIAN AMERICA” ARGUMENT

Today marks the second anniversary of Faith and American History.  I began this blog as an expression of an evolving sense of vocation.  In my very first post (“Why I am Writing”), I explained the decision to try my hand at a blog in this way:

God calls us, the late Frederick Buechner observed, to a life of service at the intersection of our heart’s passion and society’s need.  “The place God calls you to,” as he put it so eloquently, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.”  If Buechner’s definition is correct, then it would be accurate to say that I am starting this blog out of a sense of God’s calling.  I am a Christian by faith and an academic historian by vocation, and my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.

Nearly a hundred essays later, I can’t say that I have generated as much genuine conversation as I would have hoped for.  Comments have been pretty scarce, and I’m often left wondering whether my reflections are as useful to others as I wish them to be.  At the same time, you have helped me immensely by providing me with an audience to write for, and I am grateful.  My sense of calling has not weakened, and I look forward to continuing.

To mark the anniversary, I thought I would go back and identify the most popular essays that I have posted these past two years.  In doing so, I discovered that four of the top five share a common theme.  Each is a critique of an influential work by a popular Christian writer (or writers) about America’s religious heritage.  Three of these came out more than a year ago, at a time when many of you who now follow Faith and American History were not yet subscribers.

So here are links to the fours essays:

Light and the GloryIn the first essay–by far the most widely-read post I have ever shared–I reviewed the most popular Christian interpretation of U.S. history ever written.  (See Thoughts on The Light and the Glory.)   Together with the subsequent volumes From Sea to Shining Sea and Sounding Forth the Trumpet, the “God’s Plan for America” Trilogy by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel has sold nearly a million copies and has influenced two generations of American evangelicals.  It still figures prominently in Christian home school and private school curricula.

Christian ManifestoIn the second essay I focused on the historically oriented writings of the late Francis Schaeffer, particularly How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto.  From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, arguably no single individual did more than Schaeffer to encourage American evangelicals to take the life of the mind seriously.  This was an invaluable contribution.  And yet, as I do my best to explain in “How Should We Then Think About American History?”, Schaeffer fell into the trap that has consistently ensnared well-meaning Christian writing about America’s past.

Southern Slavery as It WasThe third essay turns to two living authors, Steven Wilkins and Doug Wilson.  Although not as well known as either Marshall and Manuel or Schaeffer, Wilkins and Wilson have been extremely influential in the home-school and classical Christian school movements.  Wilson, furthermore, has achieved a degree of national prominence, thanks especially to his well publicized debates with atheist Christopher Hitchens and by his recent authorship of the satirical novel Evangellyfish, which Christianity Today named the best work of fiction in 2012. Both Wilkins and Wilson lecture and write extensively on history.  Perhaps the most controversial work of these unabashedly controversial authors has been their 1996 booklet Southern Slavery As It Was.  I offer my two cents worth in “How Not to Argue Historically.”

Jefferson Lies IIThe final essay takes up the work of popular Christian author David Barton, focusing in particular on his 2012 book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.  The book’s numerous serious problems have been well documented, but in “What’s Really at Stake in the ‘Christian America’ Debate,” I add to a careful critique of the book’s argument my thoughts on how it reflects on the Gospel.

As you read (or re-read) these four pieces you should notice two recurring patterns:

First, although all of these authors meant well, they erred by linking their defense of Christianity with a particular historical argument about the American past.  In a sense, they unwittingly allowed the authority of Christian principles to depend on the veracity of their historical claims about America’s past.  This was not malevolent.  It was, however, tragically misguided.

Second, you’ll notice that none of the authors in question is a trained historian, and most of them were (or are) either full-time or part-time ministers.  It would be an exaggeration to say that we evangelicals learn American history primarily from our preachers, but there’s no doubt that the pulpit greatly informs our understanding of the past.

Why this is so is the sixty-four dollar question.  The pattern says something about the culture of American evangelicalism, surely.  We tend to be skeptical of authority and suspicious of intellectuals, and at times we can value charisma a lot more than credentials.  But I think it’s also an indictment on Christian academics like myself, for with a few exceptions, we have thought it was far more important to speak to the Academy than to the Church.  I’m sorry about that.

GLIMPSING HEAVEN FROM A PARK BENCH

I’ve written previously about the passage below from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

I love Lewis’s word picture of the “pleasant inn.”  The world is not our home–we are pilgrims en route to a better country–but the Lord in His kindness still gives us countless pleasures in this life, experiences of refreshing that strengthen us for the journey ahead.  These experiences don’t have to be expensive or exotic.  For me, one of the pleasant inns that most refreshes my soul is the simple act of reading a good book outdoors on a sunny day.  (You can add this to the list of reasons why my life’s story will never be made into an action movie.)

Last summer my favorite spot was beside a small lake near our home in Wheaton.  This summer I have broadened my horizons.  I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Riverwalk in Naperville, Illinois, about a half hour away.  The Riverwalk is a public park that runs along a branch of the DuPage River.  It boasts nearly two miles of walking trails; lots of artwork, flower beds, and fountains; covered bridges, a small lake, and a 160-foot-high carillon tower. It’s a gorgeous setting, and on weekday mornings it’s not even very crowded.  I love it.

If I have most of the day, I organize the occasion like one of the “progressive dinners” my church used to sponsor when I was young, changing locations with each “course.”  I normally begin near the “Dandelion Fountain,” reading there until too many kids show up or my rear end starts to feel numb.

The Dandelion Fountain at the Naperville Riverwalk

The Dandelion Fountain at the Naperville Riverwalk

From there I go across the river to a bench next to “Dick Tracy”–or more precisely, a nine-foot tall, 2,000-pound bronze sculpture of the old comic-strip detective.  (Yeah, I think it’s pretty weird, too, but it’s a little less weird if you know that one of the long-time contributors to the strip is a Naperville native.)  Detective Tracy stands a bit off the main walkway, and he and I often have the landing behind the town hall to ourselves.  I find him my ideal reading companion–reassuringly present but not too talkative.

Dick Tracy patrols the Naperville Riverwalk.

Dick Tracy patrols the Naperville Riverwalk.

I typically end up a couple of hundred yards away, on a bench near an old stone quarry that has been converted into a lake for paddleboats and kayaks.  If my time is limited, though, I start there, for it’s at the same time the most beautiful and the most secluded spot in the park.  My bench is in a little alcove several steps below the main walkway.  It is screened by bushes, and when I sit there I have a sense of solitude–or what passes for solitude in such an urban setting.

The Paddleboat Quarry in Naperville--not a bad place to read.

The Paddleboat Quarry in Naperville–not a bad place to read.

Friday morning before last I spent two glorious hours at the Paddleboat Quarry, lingering over a cinnamon and raisin bagel and the pages of Political Sermons of the Founding Era, vol. II.  It was 76 degrees (my smart phone told me so), the sky was relentlessly blue, there was a whisper of a breeze, and there was almost no one in sight.  It doesn’t get much better.  “Every good and perfect thing comes down from the Father,” the books of James tells us, and in my heart I was grateful.  But because I was pretty sure that this would be my last Riverwalk reading of the summer, I was also wistful, even a little sad.

Grateful but longing for more.  If I understand Lewis, I think that’s how it is with “pleasant inns.”  The experiences that he mentions are not merely respites from the stress and strains of life.  They re-energize us, giving us strength to continue the journey by granting a glimpse of what awaits us when our journey’s done.

That, I think, is what I experienced as I sat and read on that Riverwalk park bench: a glimpse of heaven.  I mean that literally, knowing full well that it may strike you as more than a little strange.  After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, my Wheaton colleague Wayne Martindale has concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.”  This is surely so, in large part, because of how comfortable our lives are.  In His kindness, God showers us with blessings meant to encourage us in our journeys: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings.  In our fallenness, we tend to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves.  This dulls our longing for God and causes us to rest our hearts in this world.

One of the ways to combat this tendency, I believe, is to cultivate greater mindfulness with regard to pleasant inns.  This means being more intentional about seeing the pleasant inns that God places along our path, recognizing them for what they are, and allowing ourselves to feel deeply the tension of pleasure and longing that they create.  Recently I’ve been trying to figure out what made my experience on the park bench a foretaste of heaven, and here are three features I’ve come up with:

First is the sensory component.  The physical surroundings matter.  After twenty-two years in Seattle, I never take sunshine for granted.  After four winters in Chicago, I treasure warmth as a rare commodity.  We will be embodied beings in heaven, and the combination of light and color and water and sound that summer morning played an important role.  It was luxurious, but also fleeting–for now.

More important was the element of contemplation that occupied my thoughts.  The reading I was engaged in was deeply satisfying, but it was not entertaining in the common sense of that word.  It was hard.  My goal was to be challenged and changed.  In Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, Mark William Roche reminds us that contemplation is an important way of drawing close to God.  Both Aristotle and Aquinas recognized that it as an activity that sets human beings apart from the rest of God’s creation.  Animals eat, sleep, work, mate, and even play, but as best we can tell, they don’t spend a lot of time wrestling with the meaning of the universe.  When we engage in contemplation, Roche observes, we engage in “the activity that most mirrors the divine.”

Finally, there was also an important aspect of communion in my park-bench experience.  I was reading 18th-century sermons, after all–figuratively entering into a conversation with Christians from another time–and in that sense I was participating in that fellowship of believers across the ages that the Apostles’ Creed refers to as the “communion of the saints.”

I may be wrong, but I don’t think we evangelicals give much thought to the temporal dimension of God’s church.  When it comes to our musings about heaven, we may acknowledge that the “sacred throng” that will gather around the throne will include representatives of “every kindred” and “every tribe,” as the hymn writer put it long ago.  But I don’t think it much dawns on us that the saints will represent a vast range of times as well as places.  The “communion of the saints” is a fellowship that spans centuries as well as cultures.  We forget that truth, in part, because we are “stranded in the present,” to use Margaret Bendroth’s haunting phrase.   What is worse, as Bendroth points out, we tend to think of people from the past as inferior to us, even as “not really real.”  In heaven we’ll see otherwise.

WHY CHOOSE THE LIBERAL ARTS?

Two weeks from today I will be manning a table at Wheaton College’s annual Academic Fair.  The doors to the gymnasium will open at 11:30 and a flood of new students and their parents will pour in.  They’ll roam from table to table, nervously introducing themselves and asking questions about the various academic majors and programs that the college has to offer.  For my colleagues and I, it’s a little like sweeps week on network television.  We do our best to make the history major sound glamorous, exciting, and life-transforming.  We present ourselves as brilliant (but humble), devout, charismatic, and endlessly entertaining.  We also shamelessly give away prizes.  Most popular are the history action figures: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander the Great, and (my favorite) Marine Antoinette, complete with severable head and a basket to catch it in.

Such premeditated distraction works, up to a point, but eventually the conversations take a serious turn.  The transformation usually begins with a nudge in the ribs from the nearest parent, or perhaps an urgently whispered “Ask him,” at which point the eighteen-year old across the table will clear her throat and politely inquire, “What can you do with a history degree?”

The answer, of course, is pretty much anything.  For many of my years at the University of Washington, I served  as the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of History.  One of the things that I did in that capacity was to administer a survey each year to our graduating majors (usually 200 or more), and one of the questions that I always asked our graduates involved their immediate and long-term career plans.  Their answers were instructive.

In any given year, typically a quarter to a third of our graduating seniors intended to become history teachers themselves, and a handful more hoped to enter closely related fields such as museum studies, archive management, and historical preservation.  But the large majority were headed down wholly different paths: in banking, financial planning, and insurance; in library science and computer science; in the national park service or the foreign service; in film production, law enforcement, and public affairs; in medicine, the ministry, or the military; in politics or the Peace Corps.  Others planned careers as journalists, attorneys, fire fighters, chefs, pilots, social workers, urban planners, and labor organizers.  I always thought that this was exactly as it should be.  History doesn’t provide technical preparation for a particular job, but rather broad thinking skills applicable to a myriad of jobs.

I typically share these findings with the students and parents at the Wheaton College Academic Fair, and I conclude by expressing my view that the study of history is far more than a gateway to a specific occupation; it is a stepping stone to lifelong learning.  As eloquent as that sounds, I don’t think it convinces many of my listeners.  The parents seem especially skeptical, a pattern that may have something to do with who is actually writing the tuition checks.  I totally get it.  College is expensive at best, and a private college like Wheaton requires enormous financial commitment and sacrifice.  Of course they want to believe that their money will be well spent before they fork over the cash.

RocheWhich is why I have prepared for this year’s Academic Fair by reading Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, by Mark William Roche.  Roche is an English professor by training, but when this book came out in 2010, he had just finished a lengthy stint as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.  I’ll be carrying crib notes from the book with me two weeks from now, I can assure you.  Roche offers a slew of statistics attesting to the economic viability of liberal arts degrees.  He cites numerous surveys of major employers who rank the ability to think critically and write and speak effectively as more important than technical expertise.  He quotes CEO after CEO in praise of the humanities, and reveals that students who major in the humanities (including history) have a higher acceptance rate into medical school than those in a more traditional “pre-med” discipline.

Yes, I’ll share some of these facts with my anxious listeners, but I wish that I wouldn’t have to.  This sort of pragmatic argument perpetuates an impoverished understanding of education that Christians need to be combating, not affirming.  At its richest, education is much more than vocational training.  Roche agrees.  He emphasizes the pragmatic benefits of the liberal arts because he is a realist, and he recognizes that we live in a culture that equates education with learning how to make a living rather than learning how to live.  (A recent survey of college freshmen ranks “being very well off financially” as their highest priority.)  Roche’s personal sense of calling is quite different, however.  Speaking as an educator to educators, he concludes Why Choose the Liberal Arts? with this stirring declaration:

 Our greatest challenge is not to help our students find a career that satisfies their specialized intellectual interests and capacities or their material needs and desires but to help them find a higher calling that allows them to gain meaning and to be both at home in the world as it is and active in the wider world as it should be, so that learning becomes service to wisdom and justice.

I totally get the “what can I do with a history degree” question.  It needs to be asked.  But I do wish that at least one time a parent would nudge her son or whisper in his ear, and the nervous eighteen-year old would clear his throat and ask, “How will studying history change who I am?”

That’s a conversation I can get excited about.