Monthly Archives: October 2015


Thanksgiving is less than four weeks away, but I’m not sure anyone has noticed. On the whole, Americans have long since forsaken the idea of a Thanksgiving season. Tomorrow is Halloween, and the Hallmark Channel officially begins its “Countdown to Christmas” movie schedule the very same night. (If you’re disinclined to watch something spooky, you can go ahead and shift into mistletoe mode by watching A Princess for Christmas or Hitched for the Holidays.) In sum, we now pretty much transition directly from the Halloween “season” to the Christmas season, and Thanksgiving Day itself has become more and more the equivalent of “Black Friday Eve.”

Even that’s not strictly correct anymore, as fewer and fewer national chains are waiting till Friday morning to open their doors. In a move that’s all too likely a portent of things to come, K-Mart recently announced that it will open at 6:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning and remain open for the next forty-two consecutive hours. In a masterpiece of Orwellian doublespeak, a senior executive for the corporation presented its blatantly opportunistic initiative as a disinterested expression of holiday spirit. “This holiday season is all about giving,” vice-president Leena Munjal rhapsodized, and “because many [customers] like to start shopping well before Black Friday, we’re excited to open our doors early on Thanksgiving and offer other early access opportunities for them to shop and save.” How generous. Munjal went on to thank the corporations’ thousands of minimum-wage “seasonal associates” who have “volunteered” to share part of their Thanksgiving serving this worthy cause. I hope none of them gets trampled to death.

Not all the Thanksgiving reports are depressing, however. Costco and Nordstrom have both announced that they will not open on Thanksgiving, and REI has gone even further in the right direction. Not only will the sporting goods and outdoor gear retailer be closed on Thanksgiving; earlier this week the company stunned the business world by announcing that it will be giving its employees a paid day off on Black Friday as well and is encouraging them to spend the day outdoors instead of at the mall.

Good for REI. Americans have not celebrated Thanksgiving primarily as a religious holiday for more than a century and a half. The first Thanksgiving Day college football game took place during Reconstruction, for goodness sake, and even as early as the Civil War religious writers were lamenting the secularization of the holiday. But while Americans in large numbers by the late-19th century were celebrating Thanksgiving by attending sporting events, dances, and plays, the day was still remarkably free of commercialism, much less the frenzied consumerism that now threatens to overwhelm it. I can’t speak to REI’s motives, but this looks like a welcome step in a healthy direction.

Just in case you’re like me and resent the way that we are now skipping over Thanksgiving entirely in our rush to open the Christmas shopping season, might I suggest that you read the following book as a good way to fight back against the craziness?

First Thanksgiving

OK, so this will undoubtedly appear as an act of Shameless Self-Promotion, but in all honesty, I wrote The First Thanksgiving in response to a sense of calling to be in conversation with the church about what it means to think Christianly about the past.  If that is something that you aspire to, consider picking it up or ordering it from Amazon.  If you would like to read a brief review of the book before forking over nearly $14 to add it to your library, Christian historian Jay Case of Malone University has written a wonderful synopsis on his blog, “The Circuit Reader,” and you can link to it here.


The Confederate battle flag is back in the news, this time down in Mississippi.  Mississippi is the only southern state that incorporates the Confederate symbol into its own state flag, and on Monday the interim chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Morris Stocks, ordered that the state flag no longer be flown over campus.  Stocks’ order came after the school’s student and faculty senates both passed resolutions calling for the state flag to come down.

The Mississippi state flag in front of the state capitol.

The Mississippi state flag in front of the state capitol.

Though I applaud the step, I winced to read the chancellor’s justification of his action.  Opting for diplomacy over candor, Stocks noted that the Confederate battle flag simply means different things to different individuals.  “The flag represents tradition and honor to some,” he observed.  “But to others, the flag means that some members of the Ole Miss family are not welcomed or valued.”

In sum, without any reference to the flag’s history, Stocks defended his decision on the grounds that some Ole Miss students, for unspecified personal reasons, found the flag offensive.  I fully understand why he would want to tread lightly.  Stocks is a newcomer to his post, he holds the position on an interim basis, and he has has every reason to suspect that popular support for the current version of the state flag is widespread across his state.  (More than two thirds of Mississippians opposed changing the flag in a state referendum in 2001.)

But in justifying the act as he did, Stocks gave critics of the decision no reason to view it as other than a surrender to political correctness.  That is exactly how Mississippi state Senator Chris McDaniel framed the new policy in a scathing statement.  “Universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, not cocoons designed for coddling the feelings of the perpetually offended,” McDaniel proclaimed on his official Facebook page.

The McDaniels of the world are impervious to evidence, but Stocks’ statement would have been so much more effective if he had forthrightly challenged his fellow Mississippians to confront their past honestly.  Defenders of the flag portray its critics as hypersensitive malcontents looking for ways to tarnish a noble heritage. Rather than weakly acknowledging that flying the flag caused certain unidentified Ole Miss students to feel less “valued,” Stocks could have argued that history gives black Mississippians every logical reason to see the flag as an unalloyed symbol of racism.  The University of Mississippi’s decision to furl the flag isn’t political correctness run amok.  It’s a responsible acknowledgment of the past as a step toward a brighter future.


I have previously written on the historical context of the Confederate battle flag at great length.  You can these essays here, here, and here.


OK, so the Cubs didn’t win the world series, and that means we don’t have to accept the scriptwriters of Back to the Future part II as Hollywood’s version of Nostradamus.  But yesterday’s celebration of “Back to the Future Day” still has me thinking about efforts to predict the future.  One of my favorite thinkers from the nineteenth century was the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the classic Democracy in America.  In addition to a plethora of penetrating insights into the nature of American politics and culture as the United States was evolving into a democratic nation, Tocqueville also offered some uncanny predictions about America’s future.  I originally posted the essay below as part of a series on Tocqueville’s observations on American democracy. 


. . . Predicting the future is not something historians are comfortable with. If it’s a glimpse into the future that you’re after—and you don’t have a crystal ball—you would do far better to consult a social scientist. Professional historians, when they are true to their craft, rarely are willing to make predictions about the future. Social scientists (political scientists and economists, for example), do this all the time. Why the difference?

The difference is not primarily in the kind of evidence that they employ, nor is it the attention that they pay to the past. The key distinction lies in how they think about human behavior. Let’s compare economists and historians to make the point. Economists frequently look at historical evidence: data on trends in GNP, unemployment rates, consumer behavior, government spending, and the interrelationships between any and all of these. In this sense they are no different from historians. Their goal in consulting historical evidence, however, is to produce or refine a model—an overarching generalization—of how the economy functions. The simpler the model the more “elegant” it is.

Aided by one or more theories of human behavior, the economist looks for patterns in how men and women act, individually and collectively, with the goal of identifying predominant tendencies that both explain what has been and project what will be. If Congress raises the minimum wage, what does the historical evidence suggest will be the impact on employment? If the Federal Reserve Board lowers the discount rate, what will be the effect on business investment and the overall impact on GDP? See the pattern? The past is prologue. What has happened helps to predict what will be.

Historians, most of them anyway, believe that human behavior is far too complex to reduce to a few generalizations and think that social scientists tend to be guilty of oversimplification. This conviction, by the way, is why professional historians absolutely reject the (now) trite aphorism of the Spanish atheist Georges Santayana that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We believe that human behavior is far more complicated than the mechanistic repetition that the quote, almost always taken out of context, seems to imply. Against the maxim (and the countless politicians and pundits who repeat it), we believe that the value of studying the past is not that it helps us to predict the future, but that it equips us to face it more wisely.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

There are echoes of both the historian and the social scientist in Tocqueville’s study of American democracy. Let me give you two examples. On the one hand, like the historian, Tocqueville paid great attention to the particularities of the American setting, and his precise descriptions of American values and institutions have been valued by scholars ever since. On the other hand, like the social scientist, he clearly hoped that his careful observations of democracy in the United States would lead to transferable insights about democracy in general.

Again, like the historian, Tocqueville professed a healthy skepticism of predictions about the future. At one point in Democracy in America, he observed, “It is difficult enough for the human mind to trace some sort of great circle around the future, but within that circle chance plays a part that can never be grasped. In any vision of the future, chance always forms a blind spot which the mind’s eye can never penetrate.” And yet, like the social scientist, Tocqueville did believe that his careful observations about the past and present warranted at least modest speculation about the future. At times he missed the mark badly, but in several instances his educated guesses were uncannily on target. Here are two examples that struck me forcefully:

The first involves Tocqueville’s vision of America’s place in the future international balance of power. Writing in the 1830s, at a time when the U. S. Navy was miniscule, the young Frenchman predicted that the U. S. would “one day . . . become the leading naval power on the globe.” A century later that was true. Looking into the unknown, Tocqueville told his readers that the United States was destined to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean, an event that  transpired within a generation. Finally, he foretold that the day would come when the United States would be one of the two most powerful nations in the world. The other? Russia. “Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse,” he acknowledged. “Nevertheless, each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.” Can anyone say “Cold War”?

Tocqueville’s forecast of the United States’ international power grew out of his appreciation of America’s vast natural resources and commercial vitality. His assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy led to a second prescient prediction. It appears in an extended footnote to a chapter on the likelihood that democratic governments will grow in power. It is so eerily accurate (in my opinion), that it is worth quoting at length:

Democratic ages are times of experiment, innovation, and adventure. There are always a lot of men engaged in some difficult or new undertaking which they pursue apart, unencumbered by assistants. Such men will freely admit the general principle that the power of the state should not interfere in private affairs, but as an exception, each one of them wants the state to help in the special matter with which he is preoccupied, and he wants to lead the government on to take action in his domain, though he would like to restrict it in every other direction.

As a multitude of people, all at the same moment, take this particular view about a great variety of different purposes, the sphere of the central government insensibly spreads in every direction, although every individual wants to restrict it. In this way the simple fact of its continuing existence increases the attributes of power of a democratic government. Time works on its side, and every accident is to its profit; the passions of individuals, in spite of themselves, promote it; and one can say that the older a democratic society, the more centralized will its government be.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.


Well, “Back to the Future Day” has come and gone, and the Chicago Cubs are not going to win the world series, again.  (Wait til next year!)  All the hoopla over the day’s arrival, however, got me to thinking about the role of serious historical study in anticipating the future, and this led me to reflect on Santayana’s famous and almost universally misunderstood observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The essay excerpted below was one of the first that I posted to this blog when I began it some three years ago. 

. . . Most Americans fall into one of three broad categories with regard to their attitudes about history.  The largest group dismisses the importance of the past and views history as irrelevant.  The second group, also large, trivializes the importance of the past and reduces it to a storehouse of quirky facts and amusing anecdotes.  Happily, I have met many Christians over the years—in churches, at Christian school functions, at home-schooling gatherings—who fall into a third category.  If the first and largest sees no value in history, and the second thinks its sole purpose is to entertain us, this third, smaller group believes that history can instruct us in some way, that it is a potential source of valuable insight.  The latter are kindred spirits, and so I mean no disrespect when I say that most of the individuals I have met in this third category have no very clear idea as to how history might enrich their lives.  That it should do so they have no doubt, but this is more an article of faith than a reasoned conviction. . . .

For years, I have regularly started each new course that I teach by asking the students on the first day what they might hope to glean from a serious study of the past, and for years in each class at least one brave soul will raise her hand and paraphrase what has to be the single best known quote about the value of history, Georges Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  How this single sentence from a resolutely atheistic Spanish-born philosopher evolved into an unassailable popular truth in America is a mystery.  Compounding the mystery is the fact that we almost always take the sentence out of context and impute a meaning to it miles from what the author intended.  Popularly interpreted, the quote becomes a claim about the value of history: the past is a repository of lessons about what does and doesn’t work in a given situation, and the society that is ignorant of these lessons will unfortunately (and unnecessarily) repeat the mistakes of the past.

Georges Santayana, 1863-1952

Georges Santayana (1863-1952)

In reality, Santayana wasn’t thinking about history at all.  Rather than making an observation about the value of history, he was proffering a philosophical principle about the nature of knowledge.  Writing in his 1905 treatise The Life of Reason, Santayana, almost in passing, shared the unexceptionable observation that the acquisition of knowledge is incremental.  If at the end of every day we were to forget everything that we had ever known, the limits of our knowledge would never move beyond what we could acquire, from scratch, in the span of twenty-four hours.  We would be perpetually like newborn babies, which was precisely Santayana’s point.  “When experience is not retained,” he wrote, “infancy is perpetual.”  His very next sentence—“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—was simply a fanciful way of voicing a mundane observation: intellectual growth is impossible without memory.  This is undeniably true, but it is a truism that doesn’t take us very far in our thinking about history.

Given how ubiquitous it is, it may surprise you to learn that almost no professional historian would agree with Santayana’s statement as it is popularly (mis)understood.  In The Landscape of History, for example, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis dismisses the claim as “fatuous.”  In her book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, British historian Margaret Macmillan describes Santayana’s pronouncement as “one of those overused dicta politicians and others offer up when they want to sound profound.” At bottom, almost all academic historians take for granted that human behavior is far too complex to be reduced to such a formulaic or mechanistic basis as “condemned to repeat it” seems to imply.

As Christians we can readily concur with them.  Our popular misreading of Santayana makes his dictum an echo of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who hoped that his History of the Peloponnesian Wars would be read by “those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past.”  Although as Christians we believe that there is a fundamental element of continuity in the human condition—namely, the perpetual need of fallen humanity for God’s grace and forgiveness—one of the consequences of the spread of Christianity was to challenge this ancient view of human history as cyclical.  Because we recognize Creation, Fall, and Redemption as central to the human story, we view history not as cyclical but linear.  History is a “story with a divine plot,” as C. S. Lewis put it—an unfolding, meaningful movement toward a divinely appointed culmination.


NOTE: This weekend I am away from home on a visit to my father, and I thought I would re-post an older essay while I was away.  I composed the reflection below almost exactly a year ago, inspired in part by a powerful chapel message from Wheaton College president Philip Ryken.  It remains deeply meaningful to me.  I hope you’ll find it of value.–RTM


When I began this blog, I promised to deliver essays that explored the intersection of Christian faith, the life of the mind, and the study of the past. This post will seem a little removed from that, but hang in there, and I think you’ll see a connection.

I had heard my younger daughter speak fondly of George Herbert before, but I knew almost nothing about him when I took my seat on the stage at Wheaton’s convocation this past August. “Convocation” is what we call the opening chapel service of the academic year. Wheaton has required chapel services three times a week, but the convocation is considerably more formal than these. The college’s two hundred or so faculty file into the chapel wearing caps and gowns, and it’s a stirring experience. The entire school is gathered under one roof—which I think is neat in and of itself—and the students and faculty sing an opening hymn while the chapel’s massive pipe organ makes the pews vibrate. Sometimes the relentless daily demands of my job cause me to lose sight of the eternal significance of my calling as a teacher. Never during convocation. When the organ is blasting away, and I look out on the student body for the first time since the summer’s hiatus, I regularly feel both delight and fear. I feel anew the wonder that God has called me to labor in this place, and I sense again—as if for the first time—the weight of responsibility that is part of the calling.

As moving as convocation can be, I rarely remember much about the speaker’s message. Perhaps I’m too caught up in my own reverie, or maybe I’m too self-conscious sitting up on the stage in medieval regalia that’s hot and itchy. But this year’s convocation was different. The speaker was Dr. Phillip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College. Dr. Ryken speaks about once a month in chapel during the academic year, and he typically addresses a single over-arching theme from autumn through spring. This year he will be bringing a series of messages on the theme “When Trouble Comes,” and he chose to introduce the series during convocation. (You can download Ryken’s message here.)

It took about ten seconds for him to get my attention.

“It was the spring semester of the academic year, and I was in trouble,” Dr. Ryken began.  “Over the course of long weeks that stretched into months, I fell deeper into discouragement, until eventually I wondered whether I had the will to live.  I’m talking about me–not somebody else–and I’m talking about last semester.”  A hush fell across the chapel.  For the next several minutes our president shared briefly about the personal, family, and job-related circumstances that had  brought him to a lower point, spiritually and psychologically, than he had ever known.

Discouragement does not begin to convey the state of mind that Dr. Ryken related.  Depression comes closer, but I think that despair more truly captures the darkness that enveloped him. My own family has been touched multiple times by something akin to what he was describing. My pulse quickened as Dr. Ryken began to share honestly about his struggles. Then my heart began to ache. Then I began to feel the rush of encouragement that comes when God reminds us that we are not alone.

In describing what his trial felt like, Ryken borrowed two lines from a poem that he had come to identify with. The author was George Herbert. The lines that had literally become Ryken’s testimony were these: “I live to show His power, who once did bring my joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing.”

These words impressed me deeply, and through blurry eyes I scrawled the phrase “griefs to sing” on my program and determined to locate the entire poem as soon as I could. When I got back to my office, a quick Google search took me to Herbert’s poem “Joseph’s Coat,” published in 1633. That same day I entered the entire poem into my commonplace book. I’ve shared it since with several family members and students, and I want to share it with you in a moment.

George Herbert (1599-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

George Herbert (1593-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

But first, a little context. George Herbert (1593-1633) was born into a powerful English family. His father held the aristocratic title “Lord of Cherbury” and sat in Parliament. The son, who was educated at Cambridge and became a favorite of James I, seemed destined to a life of wealth, prestige, and political prominence before he decided to take orders as an Anglican priest in his mid-thirties. For three years he labored as a country parson in a tiny parish southwest of London, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine. “Joseph’s Coat” is part of a collection of poems by Herbert that was published shortly after his death.

The poem begins with a set of seemingly contradictory statements:

Wounded I sing, tormented I indite,
Thrown down, I fall into a bed and rest:
Sorrow hath chang’d its note: such is his will,
Who changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.

The image here, as I understand it, is one of opposites. The writer has been dealing with a great trial of some sort, a trial so severe that he speaks of being “wounded,” “tormented,” and “thrown down.” And yet this great pain has been leavened with joy. It is a divine gift, Herbert understands, attributable only to the one who “changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.” It is a joy so powerful and life-giving that Herbert can now sing despite his wounds, compose poetry (this is the meaning of “indite”) amid his torment, and find peace and rest while being thrown down.

Herbert continues, referring to God,

For well he knows, if but one grief and smart
Among my many had his full career,
Sure it would carry with it ev’n my heart,
And both would runne until they found a biere
To fetch the body; both being due to grief.
But he hath spoil’d the race; and given to anguish
One of Joyes coats, ticing it with relief
To linger in me, and together languish.

Herbert reveals that “many” griefs have weighed him down, and he is convinced that if even one of these had been given full sway he could never have survived the assault. (Is there a veiled allusion here to the attraction of suicide?) Undiluted, Herbert’s grief would have been unbearable. Absent the mercy of God, it would have triumphed, prompting body and soul to long for death, literally propelling both to run toward the grave. (A biere was a wooden platform that the dead were placed on before burial.) And yet God in his mercy did intervene. But He hath spoiled the race—this is probably my favorite phrase in the poem. God sends joy as a balm to the writer’s anguish.

I find it significant that Herbert does not write that his anguish disappears. This is about a million miles away from happy-clappy-your-best-life-now theology. The joy that Herbert writes about brings relief and revives hope. But nowhere does Herbert suggest that God has completely eliminated his suffering. In a sense, God has done something more amazing. He has empowered him to live victoriously in the midst of his trial.

Which brings us to Herbert’s concluding declaration:

I live to show his power, who once did bring
My joyes to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

I review these words regularly, and I am praying that Herbert’s declaration will also become the testimony of someone very dear to me. Herbert’s words encourage me greatly, for they testify to “the God who does wonders” (Psalm 77:14). In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged.” As followers of Christ, Bonhoeffer writes, we are to “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”

Unfortunately, as Margaret Bendroth notes in her wonderful little book, The Spiritual Discipline of Remembering, most of us live “stranded in the present.”  (You can read my review here.)  We may refer to the “communion of the saints” when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, but we shut ourselves off almost entirely from the Church across the ages. George Herbert penned “Joseph’s Coat” nearly four centuries ago. I went into a national chain Christian bookstore recently, and apart from a couple of books by C. S. Lewis, I didn’t find a single work more than twenty years old.

Yes, we are stranded in the present, and our lives are poorer for it.

St. Andrew's Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.

St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.


Today is my fifty-fifth birthday. I was resolved to focus my mind on business as usual, but when I walked into my office this morning I found sitting on my desk chair a large manila envelope, and in the envelope I found a tribute from a former student now living on the east coast. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you need encouragement until you receive it. I instantly felt a clutch in my throat as I read his words, and my heart welled in gratitude: Thank you, Father. The Scripture tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above,” and this was a perfect gift. I’ve had a spring in my step all day.

But this encouraging act has also convicted me, and so I would like to offer a tribute of my own to two of my former teachers. I don’t use that term lightly, by the way. In his essay “Like Captured Fireflies,” John Steinbeck underscores what a blessing it is to encounter an authentic teacher. In this briefest of reflections, the author relates how his eleven-year-old son once came to him, despondent at the prospect of spending the prime of his life imprisoned in school. “It’s terrible,” the father sympathized, “and I’m not going to try to tell you it isn’t. But I can tell you this—if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher, and that is a wonderful thing.”

Are true teachers really that rare? Steinbeck explains, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” Steinbeck claimed to have encountered three in his own schooling, different from his other instructors because of three qualities: they loved what they were doing, they inspired in him “a burning desire to know,” and they made the truth “beautiful and very precious.”

I’ve had at least two teachers that meet these demanding criteria, and each blessed me at a crucial juncture in my life. The first was Mrs. Gloria Henderson, my junior high social studies teacher. More than forty years have passed since I sat in her classroom, but I still can feel the excitement and energy that she brought into our midst. She was in her thirties when we first met—young, passionate, and opinionated. I’ve heard it said that to teach is to love something publicly, and Mrs. Henderson taught me history in precisely that way—by loving it infectiously. It wasn’t the discrete facts that stuck in my mind but the unstated premise that framed our every class session: the past was real, stocked with amazing stories and remarkable figures that could change our lives forever. I was hooked.

But Mrs. Henderson didn’t only love history, she loved me. When we first met I was overwhelmed by the awful realities of adolescence. Twelve years old, I had no idea where I fit in the junior-high universe. I was short, overweight, near-sighted, and got good grades—a combination that maximized my misery daily. She either sensed or observed the isolation I felt—I don’t know which it was—but she gave me more private pep talks than I could count, and her simple acts of kindness were a critical lifeline that I will never forget.

The second teacher that stands out in my memory was Professor John Morrow, who taught the first history course that I ever took in college. Dr. Morrow was my western civ instructor at the University of Tennessee, and I found him captivating. I was in a small honors section with Dr. Morrow, and while most of the freshmen who took western civ sat in a cavernous lecture hall with hundreds of classmates and listened to lectures, I got to sit in a circle of a dozen or so students and have conversations with this remarkable man. He treated us like adults (it gets your attention when you’re eighteen years old and your professor calls you “Mr. McKenzie”), but even more, he treated us like fellow historians, and I loved it.

Humanly speaking, I’m probably a college history professor because of Dr. Morrow. My dad was an accountant and my mother was a math teacher, and my two older siblings grew up to be an accountant and a math teacher. History professor wasn’t on my radar, but at the end of my freshman year, Dr. Morrow told me that I had the potential to do what he did for a living. He didn’t push me, just offered to talk with me about it if I ever wanted. The following spring we sat on a bench outside the humanities building while he talked to me about his life and why he loved what he was doing. God used numerous individuals and influences to lead me down the path I have taken, but Professor Morrow’s role was critical. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a history professor after our talk, but he had planted an idea that hadn’t been there before, and it wouldn’t go away. I’m a firm believer that many of the most important things a teacher does take place outside the classroom: in office hours, over coffee, or sitting on a bench on a chilly spring day.

John Steinbeck concludes “Like Captured Fireflies” by describing a high school teacher “who left her signature on us, the literature of the teacher who writes on minds. . . . I suppose that to a large extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that high school teacher,” he muses to his son. “What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.”

If you’ve been blessed by an extraordinary teacher, why not let him or her know?


"Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus," by Sebastiano del Piombo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus,” by Sebastiano del Piombo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

A reader wrote me privately this morning to ask my opinion of Christopher Columbus.  I’m not sure my opinion counts for much, as I am hardly an expert on Columbus, but I have long appreciated Robert Royal’s writing on the subject.  Royal is a conservative Catholic historian and president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.  In the larger context of academic debates over Columbus and the implications of his voyages, Royal comes in at the  sympathetic end of the continuum.  I would not take his position as the final word, but it is worth reading, and probably a useful counterpoint to the dominant academic position.

Click here to read Royal’s 1999 article in First Things, “Columbus and the Beginning of the World.”

History as Stewardship of the Past

I rarely link to other sites or reblog posts by other writers, but this essay by Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz impressed me so deeply that I had to pass it along.–TM

The Pietist Schoolman

Over the weekend I had the honor of being the featured speaker at the 125th anniversary banquet for Salem Covenant Church in Duluth, Minnesota. I didn’t write out my remarks and won’t try to reproduce what I said entirely — but I thought I might share some of the ideas at the core of the address. They form the outline of a possible chapter for a new book project I’m working on.

Salem Covenant Church

The idea for the talk came to me earlier this year, when our own pastor preached from the last chapter in the Book of Joshua. That passage starts with history, a recitation of the story of Yahweh and his people from Abram on, and ends with the tribes of Israel renewing the Covenant in the Promised Land. But en route, Joshua delivers this reminder from the Lord:

I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and…

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Forgive me for being away for so long. I don’t know how academics who blog daily (or more frequently!) find enough hours in the day. At any rate, I’ve been up to my eyeballs with work recently. This week has been particularly full, but late this afternoon I was able to slip away to my favorite hideout (the super-cool loft in a café near campus), I’ve just taken my time with a cup of Darjeeling and a slice of chocolate banana bread, and now I get to tell you about one of the last books I read under my tree before duty called me back to the office at the end of the summer.

One Nation Under GodThe book is One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Princeton University professor Kevin M. Kruse. The book came out earlier this year, and I added it to my reading list because I had just finished reading Steven Green’s Inventing Christian America and I had heard just enough about Kruse’s book to believe that it would offer an interesting contrast. Both books are concerned with how Americans came to view the United States as a Christian country, and both books agree that this belief didn’t emerge until long after American independence. Here the similarities end. Green argues that the early decades of the 1800s marked a key turning point, while Kruse concentrates on the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower more than a century later. Both can’t be correct. Both may be wrong. (You can read my review of Green’s book here.)

Boiled down, Kruse’s thesis is that the contention that America is a “Christian nation” is hasn’t been around nearly as long as we think. It began to be promoted by businessmen, of all people, during the Great Depression, for reasons that had little to do with either religious conviction or historical belief. Alarmed by the purportedly anti-business activism of the New Deal, business magnates like E. F. Hutton, J. C. Penney, and Conrad Hilton, among others, began linking capitalism and Christianity, with the not so subtle insinuation that restrictions on free enterprise are un-Christian. By insisting that the United States is a Christian nation, they strengthened their indictment of FDR and his minions, making the New Deal not only un-Christian but also un-American.

In years to come, politicians from both the Left and Right would embrace this rhetoric during the Cold War as a way of differentiating the United States from atheistic communism. During the 1950s, among other symbolic acts, Congress passed bipartisan measures adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance and “In God We Trust” to the nation’s currency. In doing so, however—and this is a point that the author repeatedly underscores—they were building on an argument crafted for them by the nation’s wealthiest businessmen.

So here are my first impressions, keeping in mind that I am far from an expert on the 1950s: First, I really enjoyed reading the book. It will never be made into a movie, but Kruse writes clearly and without pretentious jargon, and I found myself getting into the story. (And Kruse is telling a story; this is good old fashioned narrative history that follows a clear chronological trajectory). He’s also obviously spent a lot of time in the archives. The research is extensive and meticulous, and I learned a great deal thanks to his labors. If you’re interested in the role that Christian rhetoric and imagery can play in politics, you’ll likely find this book fascinating.

But really liking a book is not the same as being wholly persuaded by it, and I am not persuaded by One Nation Under God. Let me say at the outset that Kruse makes a much more nuanced argument than the subtitle would suggest. The subtitle will help to sell books—and the marketing gurus at Basic Books may be more to blame than the author—but the simplistic assertion that “corporate America invented Christian America” struck me as calculated sensationalism.

Let’s begin with the role played by “corporate America.” Kruse makes a compelling case that by the 1930s a lot of big businessmen were actively defending free enterprise by linking it to Christianity. With regard adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance” and “In God We Trust” to the nation’s currency, he convinces me that corporate leaders had been suggesting such measures for a couple of decades, and that their motives had a lot to do with restoring the reputation of business during the Depression and making a case against New Deal activism. At the same time, Kruse notes that Dwight Eisenhower—the only president to be baptized while in office—emphasized America’s religious roots out of genuine conviction and firmly believed that religious faith was vital to the nation’s flourishing. The same apparently held true for at least a significant proportion of the congressmen who followed his lead.

I’m more troubled by how Kruse defines the concept of “Christian America.” Kruse’s focus is on officially designated symbols; he places enormous emphasis on the Congressional recognition of the phrases “under God” and “in God we trust.” But the concept of “Christian America,” as used in both academic and popular writing, is usually understood more broadly. Steven Green, for example, dates the “invention” of Christian America to the second generation after the American Revolution. He bases his conclusion not on official Congressional acts but on the claims of religious and political leaders and the opinions of common Americans. For Green, in other words, the concept of “Christian America” was born when a critical mass of Americans began to think of the U. S. in this light. For Kruse, the concept didn’t exist until Congress enacted it.

This approach strikes me as far too rigid. No one can deny that “under God” was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, but was this change substantive or symbolic? Did adding “In God We Trust” to currency in 1955 really redefine the nation, or did it institutionalize an already widespread cultural perception? Because Kruse skips over the first century and a half after independence, we can’t really assess how significant these congressional acts were.

I have my doubts. For example, Kruse makes much of the Congressional mandate requiring “In God We Trust” on all money, but the government had begun stamping the phrase on certain coins as early as the Civil War, and had been doing so on all denominations of coins by 1907. Would we really say that the addition of the phrase to paper money—and not just to pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters, etc.—was necessary before we could say that “Christian America” existed? More broadly, there were numerous public practices long before the 1950s that linked the government at least symbolically with a generic Judeo-Christian religion.  The authorization of chaplains for the armed forces, presidential thanksgiving proclamations, and invocations of God in inaugural addresses all long predate the period of Kruse’s focus. In sum, while Kruse may be right, I think he needs to do more to persuade us that the changes of the 1950s were as substantive as he claims.

These misgivings aside, I do believe that there is a message in One Nation Under God that American Christians need to hear. Although I’m far from convinced that “corporate America invented Christian America,” Kruse offers compelling proof that during the mid-twentieth century the insistence that the United States had always been a Christian nation became inextricably intertwined with a host of political and ideological commitments that had little to do with the Gospel. In this respect the entire book is a cautionary tale, and well worth the reading.