Category Archives: Recommended Reading

HOW AMERICANS “SEE” JESUS: HISTORY’S DISTURBING INSIGHT

Even though we’ve already been back in class for four weeks at Wheaton College, it’s still technically summer, and the weather was absolutely glorious here.  I took the opportunity to spend a couple of hours earlier today on one of my favorite benches at Lake Ellyn Park, which is only five minutes by car from campus.  That’s one of the perks of my job that I treasure—the opportunity to do at least part of my work while enjoying a view like the one below.

lake-ellyn-september-2016

I was using the time to review for a class on race and ethnicity in U. S. history that I am co-teaching with my colleague, Karen Johnson.  At Karen’s recommendation, one of the books that the students are reading is The Color of Christ, by historians Ed Blum and Paul Harvey.  Just moments ago, I finished our first class discussion of the book.  (There will be more.)  It is a provocative book in more ways than one, and the discussion prompted me to re-post an essay that I shared nearly three years ago shortly after I first read The Color of Christ along with two other books that take a historical look at how Americans have “seen” Jesus over the past few centuries.  All though I do not endorse them equally, I believe that all three books are cautionary tales with insights that we need to hear.  I hope you’ll read on.

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In her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Christian historian Margaret Bendroth observes the following:

Historical perspective should make us more humble and cautious about ourselves.  People from the past were not the only ones operating within a cultural context–we have one, too.  Just like them we cannot imagine life any other way than it is: everyone assumes that “what is” is what was meant to be.

What Bendroth is telling us is that we do not naturally think of the values that we hold (what we believe, how we think, how we behave) as influenced by the historical context in which we live.  The beliefs of people in other times and places may strike us as peculiar, but not our own.  No, our way of looking at the world strikes us (if we stop to question it at all) as obvious, self-evident, natural.  Our way of thinking requires no explanation.  It just is.  It’s the deviations from our pattern that demand justification.

Reflecting on this very human trait always brings to mind an observation that my younger daughter made many years ago, when she was about four years old.  To understand this illustration, you have to know that both my wife and I were born and raised in the South, and when we moved to Seattle (and the University of Washington) right after I finished graduate school, among the baggage that each of us took with us was a couple of substantial southern accents.  My wife’s drawl was substantially moderated by several years of classical voice training, but I struggled (and to some degree, still do) not to sound like Gomer Pyle with a Ph.D., and our children, quite naturally, absorbed much of their parents’ speech patterns.  And so for years after we settled in the Pacific Northwest, it was not  uncommon for guests to our home to comment on our accents.

On one such occasion, our precocious four-year-old overheard a visitor talking about her daddy’s accent, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, she tugged on my pants’ leg and pulled me aside to ask a question.  “What’s an accent?” she asked, and I did my best to explain the concept.  She seemed to follow my explanation, but she still looked troubled.   “You don’t have an accent, Daddy,” she declared emphatically, her southern drawl reminiscent of molasses oozing across a plate.  “You talk just like I do!”

One of history’s priceless benefits, potentially, is that it can help us see with new eyes what we would otherwise take for granted.  It rattles our complacency, challenging us to think more deeply about the things we see as too self-evident to require explanation.  By introducing us to people from other times and places who saw things differently, history can put our own values to the test.  And in doing so, it makes it easier for us to fulfill the biblical injunction to “take very thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).

Over Christmas vacation I read three related books that powerfully illustrate this benefit.  This semester I am co-teaching for the first time a course on race and ethnicity in U. S. history, and with that course in mind, I picked up The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.  As the title suggests, the authors are interested in how Americans have imagined Jesus in racial terms over the course of U. S. history.  (Was Jesus fair-skinned?  dark complected?)  Although focused specifically on attitudes about race, the book offers a convicting case study of the ways that cultural values inform–and often distort–the substance of our religious faith.

For broader context, I also read two other works of history that speak to this larger topic:  American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), by Stephen Prothero; and Jesus: Made in America (Intervarsity Press, 2008), by Stephen J. Nichols.  Both works echo The Color of Christ in documenting the myriad ways that Americans’ changing values over the centuries have influenced their religious convictions as reflected in their perceptions of the nature of Jesus.

American jesusI don’t endorse each of these books equally.  Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, is the kind of public authority on religion who gets invited to appear on Oprah, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or the Colbert Report.  These are not venues that typically promote deep reflection.  American Jesus is an entertaining read, but maybe more clever than insightful.  I couldn’t help suspecting that Prothero writes at times with shock value in mind.  As he explains early on, when he refers to “Jesus” he does not mean the man from Galilee whom Christians believe to be the Son of God; rather, he has in mind the “American Jesus” (hence the title of the book),  i.e., Jesus as Americans have perceived him.  Whether their perceptions are true to who Jesus really was (and is) does not interest him, and it is not at all clear that he would even view the question as important.   Perceptions of Jesus should change over time, he says.  “Only dead religions stay the same; living faiths adapt continuously to changes in their environment.”

color of christ 3The Color of Christ is a very different book.  Published by a university press, its primary intended audience (I am inferring here) is readers within the academy.  (Both authors work within the Academy themselves, Blum at San Diego State University and Harvey at the University of Colorado.)  The prose is denser than Prothero’s, the tone far more serious.   Blum and Harvey begin the book with a somber vignette: a sobering account of the 1963 bombing by white supremacists of the all-black Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama.  In addition to taking the lives of four little girls, the dynamite planted by opponents of integration marvelously (miraculously?) also shattered the face of Jesus in the church’s stained-glass window.  “In the blink of an eye,” Blum and Harvey write, “the prince of peace was made a casualty of race war.”  The authors see the tragic episode as a kind of parable, underscoring how central images of Jesus have been to American understandings of race.

Jesus Made in AmericaJesus: Made in America is yet another kind of book with a different kind of emphasis.  While Stephen Prothero breezily reviews how Americans of all races and creeds have thought about Jesus, and Blum and Harvey focus specifically on how a broad sampling of Americans have imputed racial characteristics to Jesus, Stephen Nichols is interested particularly in the perceptions of American evangelicals regarding the Man from Nazareth.  An evangelical himself (a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and a professor of theology at Lancaster Bible College), Nichols writes openly to evangelicals as well as about them.

For all their differences in background and approach, all three works arrive at a core of strikingly similar conclusions.  Taking the long view of American perceptions of Jesus over the past four centuries, the evidence is overwhelming that Americans–including American evangelicals–have allowed the values of their culture to influence significantly how they envision Jesus.

Focusing on American racial attitudes, Blum and Harvey conclude that, as Americans imagined visual images of Jesus (who began to become white in their minds’ eye in the early nineteenth century), “they made a sacred window through which they could see their hopes, fears, dreams, and conflicts in racial and religious forms.”

Reviewing American attitudes more broadly, Prothero observes, “In the book of Genesis, God creates humans in His own image: in the United States, Americans have created Jesus, over and over again, in theirs.”  We have constantly imagined a Jesus who affirmed precisely the values we already hold, Prothero determines.  From our particular vantage points, we have imagined him as manly and effeminate, ” a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Ku Klux Klansman and a civil rights agitator.”

Nichols heartily agrees.  The review of American evangelicals’ perceptions of Jesus over time demonstrates “the ways in which we have capitulated to our culture and have subjected Christ to our cultural predilections.”

Unlike the other two works, however, Nichols’ Jesus: Made in America seeks to edify as well as educate.  Repeatedly, he challenges evangelical readers to find lessons in the story that he tells.  If, after reading his book, we simply click our teeth in judgment of our ancestors for their blindness to the ways that they conformed to the culture, Nichols knows that he has failed.  Rather, he wants us to see ourselves–at least potentially–in the pages he has written.  He insists that his account should serve “as a parable for contemporary American evangelicals.”  The trap that ensnared previous generations can capture us as well.  What arrogance to think that we will be immune to the temptation to let the culture shape our faith!  In this sense, the movement away from an orthodox understanding of Jesus across American history should make us fearful rather than judgmental.

In the course of his study, Nichols points to several aspects of evangelical belief that make us especially vulnerable to being conformed to the world without even knowing it.  Rather than summarize his argument, I will recommend that you spend time with the book yourself.  I can’t resist sharing one of the factors that he pinpoints, however: we ignore the past as a source of wisdom.  This dismissive attitude toward history–what one specialist on American religious values has termed “historylessness”–“leaves American evangelicals more vulnerable than most when it comes to cultural pressures and influences.”

It’s a sobering assessment.

A WARNING FROM THE PAST TO REPUBLICAN CONVENTION DELEGATES

Some more timely food for thought from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  As I meditated on the passages below, I couldn’t help but think about next week’s Republican gathering in Cleveland and its likely outcome.

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.

To remind you, Tocqueville was a sympathetic critic of American democracy, and the two-volume work that he penned after his visit to the United States in 1831-1832 is widely hailed as “the most perceptive and influential book ever written about American politics and society.”  Among other things, he called attention to the dangers of excessive individualism and materialism in a democratic culture, identified the ever-present potential of the “tyranny of the majority,” and underscored the crucial importance of religious belief to the success of America’s democratic system.

The quotes below come from a section in volume I on the topic of “The People’s Choices and the Instinctive Preferences of American Democracy” (vol. I, part II, chapter 5).  Writing primarily for a French audience, Tocqueville began by noting that many Europeans assumed that one of the advantages of democracy is that free elections based on universal suffrage reliably selects individuals “worthy of public trust” into important public offices.  “For my part,” Tocqueville confessed, “I must say that what I saw in America gave me no reason to believe that this is the case.”

In the rest of this brief section the Frenchman theorized as to why this was true.  On the one hand, he reasoned, making wise decisions between alternative candidates required “enlightenment,” i.e., informed voters.  “Enlightenment” was not simply a euphemism for intelligence or education.  Tocqueville thought it depended primarily on the amount of time that voters were either able or willing to devote to educating themselves on the issues of a campaign and the strength and weaknesses of the rival candidates.  Regarding the latter, he noted, “What a lengthy period of study and variety of ideas are necessary to form an exact idea of the character of a single man!  The greatest geniuses fail at this, yet the multitude is supposed to succeed!”

Maybe even more important than this, according to Tocqueville, was a vice that democratic society seems to nurture: envy.  So strong was the passion for equality in America’s democratic society, Tocqueville believed, that democratic Americans detested all appearances of superiority among other Americans, up to an including those they elected to office.  “No form of superiority is so legitimate that the sight of it is not wearisome to their eyes,” Tocqueville observed.  “They do not fear great talents but have little taste for them.”

And the consequences of this mindset for American government?  “There is no escaping the fact that in the United States today the most outstanding men are seldom called to public office.”  This was partly due to the votes that the electorate cast on election day, but it also reflected a pattern by which the most qualified individuals refused to become candidates.  And why was this, Tocqueville asked?

While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power, an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement.

The bottom line for Tocqueville: “I am satisfied that anyone who looks upon universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices is operating under a total illusion.  Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”

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.

COMMON PEOPLE IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  In our ongoing debates about the larger meaning and significance of the American Revolution, we can all too easily lose sight of the ordinary Americans whose lives were caught up in it.  Below I recommend three of my favorite books on the experience of common Americans during the revolutionary struggle.]

In his wonderful book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, Steven Garber observes that  “history is mostly . . . very ordinary people in very ordinary places.” Garber’s reminder prompts me to share some books with you that offer insight into the way that common Americans responded to and were changed by the American Revolution. The Fourth of July will soon be upon us, and the anniversary of American independence will prompt many of us to reflect on the origins of the United States. We will zero in on the values of the first “Greatest Generation,” and we’ll debate the nature of the beliefs that propelled them and the vision that sustained them. I think that’s a good thing. But we’ll undoubtedly focus our attention primarily on the same small cast of characters, the extraordinary leaders who would eventually get their pictures on our folding money. And they were extraordinary men—brilliant, visionary, and courageous.

Yet understanding what the American Revolution meant in the lives of everyday people is important as well. When we focus exclusively on the leading statesmen—Adams, Jefferson, Franklin & Co.—the Revolution has a way of becoming a debate among philosophers over abstract propositions. I am not denigrating for a moment the power of their ideas or the importance of the questions that drove them. We need to return regularly to both and enter into the conversation of which these remarkable thinkers were a part.

But I am suggesting that we lose something by not broadening our focus. Most obviously, by concentrating so exclusively on the leading Founders, we close our eyes to 99 percent of those who contributed to the cause of American independence. How can we claim to know what the Revolution stood for, if we have no idea what the vast majority of Americans thought it was about? If we don’t know why they supported it (if they did)? If we’re unsure how they contributed to its outcome? If we have no clue how it changed their lives?

I think we miss something else as well. Readers of this blog will know that I think one of the most important reasons to study the past is to gain wisdom. At its best, the study of history can be a marvelous vehicle for moral reflection. For those who have eyes to see, the past has much to reveal to us about the present and much to teach us about how to meet the future. In this regard, focusing on the lives of extraordinary leaders is a two-edged sword. We may marvel at their extraordinary character or accomplishments, but precisely because they are so extraordinary, we may find it hard to relate to them. My suspicion is that we are more likely to admire them than to be challenged or convicted by them. This, then, is another reason why it is so important to recapture the perspective of common folk. Few of us will ever be called to lead armies or frame new governments, but we may be able to relate to—and learn from—the many mundane moral decisions that our anonymous ancestors have faced before us.

So here are three books that I have long appreciated for their ability to take us into the world of everyday Americans during the era of the American Revolution. They’re each fairly short, readily available, and relatively inexpensive. They’re also each very different. They rest on different kinds of sources, offer different understandings, and model different ways that historians try to glean insight into the world of common people in ages past.

The first is The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, by Alfred Young. In the first half of the book, Young painstakingly recreates the life of a poor Boston shoemaker named George Robert Twelves Hewes. (Some name, huh?) Hewes was born in Massachusetts in 1742 and lived his life in obscurity until the 1830s, when through an unusual chain of events it was discovered that he was one of the last living participants in the Boston Tea Party. Young describes Hewes as “a nobody who briefly became a somebody in the Revolution and, for a moment near the end of his life, a hero.” Two lesser known contemporary writers quickly penned biographies of the aged patriot, who was invited to Boston in 1835 and treated as a celebrity. Young draws from both accounts—supplemented by as much corroborating evidence as he can find from other historical sources—to ask three primary questions: What was Hewes’ role in the Revolution? What did he think about it? How did it affect his life?

shoemaker and the tea partyRobert Hewes was among the poorest of the poor. Born the youngest of nine children, his father died when he was seven and his mother passed away when he was fourteen. That same year he was apprenticed to a shoemaker (an occupation very low in status and income) because no one in his family could come up with the fee necessary to indenture him to a more lucrative trade. He later married the illiterate daughter of a church sexton and fathered fifteen children, none of whom had the means to care for him after his wife of seventy years passed away.

Hewes lacked the necessary property to be eligible to vote as the Revolution approached, but the arrival of British troops in Boston in 1768 made him keenly interested in politics nonetheless. Hewes told neither of his biographers much about his reasons for supporting the patriot cause, but his involvement in the Tea Party in December 1773 hints at the way that the transatlantic struggle with the Mother Country could draw common Americans from the periphery to the center of local politics. For Hewes, the coming of the American Revolution meant, first and foremost, the opportunity to assert his worth as an equal member of the town. As Young concludes, “Between 1768 and 1773, the shoemaker became a citizen.”

Hewes’ large family and minimal means shaped the contours of his service in the Revolutionary cause after the rupture with Britain. Unable to be away from his family for extended periods, he served numerous short stints as both a private in the militia and as a crew member on an American privateer. All told, he was in military service for a little over a year and a half of the eight-year long war. “In all this activity he claimed no moment of glory,” Young summarizes. There was a lot of marching, a lot of drudgery, and very little pay. Hewes was as poor when the war concluded as when it began.

Hewes’ numerous short stints in the militia were fairly typical of military service during the Revolution. Military historians have estimated that as many as four hundred thousand colonists served at one time or other, but the vast majority of these served in the militia for brief periods of a few weeks or months. In contrast, by 1777 the soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army were enlisted for the duration of the war. Washington’s force never exceeded twenty thousand men, however, and was greatly smaller than that for much of the war.

The world of the Continental soldier is the focus of A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin. While The Shoemaker and the Tea Party represents the efforts of a modern-day historian to recreate the life of an obscure colonist, the Narrative conveys the life of a common Continental soldier in his own words. In contrast to Hewes’ numerous short stints in military service, Joseph Martin served as a private under General George Washington for nearly eight years. The Connecticut farm boy volunteered at the ripe age of fifteen and was still scarcely an adult when he was discharged at the war’s conclusion. Martin composed his memoir nearly a half century later, right about the time Robert Hewes was being celebrated in Boston.

Joseph Plumb Martin“War is hell,” Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman is supposed to have said. Martin would have countered that war is boredom, drudgery, and starvation. He described his experience in battle and alluded briefly to comrades who were killed or wounded, but on the whole his description of combat is brief and vague. He was much more detailed in reviewing when and where and how far he marched and the specific kinds of duty to which he was assigned. But by far his most frequent observations have to do with how hungry he was. He noted repeatedly (literally dozens of times) that he was chronically hungry. His three “constant companions,” as he put it, were “Fatigue, Hunger, and Cold.”

Like Robert Hewes, the aged Joseph Martin had little to say about his reasons for supporting the patriot cause. He hints at a teenage boy’s hankering for excitement and the torture of staying on the farm when adventure was within his grasp. A half-century removed from such innocence, he wrote in retrospect with a tinge of resentment, even bitterness. The members of the Continental Army had been shabbily treated, in his opinion. By his reckoning, the government had not honored its promises to the soldiers for pay during the war or for land bounties afterward. “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like worn out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.” In Martin’s mind, his relationship to the new country he had helped to bring into being was “much like that of a loyal and faithful husband, and a light heeled wanton of a wife.” He had been faithful, while those for whom he had sacrificed had been forgetful. “But I forgive her,” Martin concluded, “and hope she will do better in the future.”

My third and final recommendation is of a very different kind of book.  While the first two focus on single individuals, in The Minutemen and Their World, historian Robert Gross tries to resurrect a community.  The place of choice is Concord, Massachusetts, the New England village west of Boston where  “Minutemen” squared off against British regulars in April 1775 in the first real battle of the American Revolution.  While the Minutemen are a celebrated part of American lore, Gross recognized that they were faceless as well as famous.  His goal was to learn everything he could about the community that they were defending when they fired the “shot heard round the world.”

GrossAt the heart of the book is the truth that key historical events emerge out of a context.  The men who took their stand at Concord bridge were fathers, sons, brothers and friends.  They did not take up their muskets as autonomous individuals, but as members of a community.  Their lives were enmeshed in numerous relationships defined by kinship, geography, economy and religion.  As we read about Concord on the eve of the Revolution, Gross uses the community as a window into the colonial world.  You learn about eighteenth-century agriculture, the status of women, slavery and race relations, attitudes toward the poor, differences over revivalism, and relations between parents and their adult children.  In the process, the town’s Minutemen cease to be cardboard cutouts and take on flesh and blood.

One of the great strengths of the book is how Gross connects the small stories of these “ordinary people in an ordinary place” to the grand narrative of the Revolution that is much better known.  The people of Concord would briefly be agitated in response to offensive British policies like the Stamp Act or the Tea Act, but the furor would die down quickly and their attention would return to local affairs.  Indeed, until the spring of 1774, the most important topics in the town meeting were local: roads, schools, support for the poor.  As Gross puts it, “a large part of local government was devoted to keeping one man’s livestock out of another man’s fields.”

This changed with the arrival of news concerning a new series of acts passed by the British Parliament in response to the Boston Tea Party.  Colonists quickly labeled the new laws the “Intolerable Acts.”  While the measures focused primarily on punishing Boston specifically, one of the acts limited all towns in Massachusetts to one town meeting a year.  As Gross explains, the people of Concord saw this as a direct assault on their freedom to manage their own community, and the response was a far greater support for resistance than had existed before then.

For the people of Concord, then, the struggle with Britain truly ignited only when British policies interfered, in a way that they had not previously, with the traditional way of life in their village.  From that point forward, the people of Concord unified in support of resistance, but not so much because they desired formal independence from Britain.   Their primary goal, Gross explains, “was to defend their traditional community life.”  What they really wanted was to keep things the way they were.  And yet one of the clear lessons of history is that the trajectory of great historical developments, once begun, is rarely predictable.  Things don’t turn out the way we plan.  The eight-year-long war unleashed unimagined changes.  The people of Concord were looking backward more than forward in 1775.  In this village, at least, “the greatest rebellion of all was undertaken in the name of tradition.”

TWO GREAT GIFTS FOR GRADUATES: WISDOM AND INSPIRATION

Graduation season is almost here—Wheaton College will be holding its 157th “commencement” in a little over two weeks—and it dawns on me that some of you may soon be shopping for a meaningful gift to give a new college graduate.  If so, I have a couple of recommendations to share.

Most graduates have a palpable sense of heading into the unknown, and the lifelong questions “What will I do?” and “Why will I do it?” will seem unusually relevant, even urgent.  This is why I often give graduates a book that will help them think Christianly about vocation.  There are two that I especially recommend.  Each is short, inexpensive, challenging, accessible, and wise.

GarberThe first book is Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber.  The author heads up the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture in Washington, D. C. He writes from an explicitly Christian foundation, but graciously, winsomely, and non-dogmatically, and I would not hesitate to give this book to anyone wrestling with questions about the purpose and meaning of life.

The book hinges on one simple, haunting question: “what will you do with what you know?”  Knowledge always comes with moral responsibility, Garber insists. This is one of the key truths imbedded in the account of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis chapters 2-3. The questions “What do you know?” and “What will you do with what you know?” can never be divorced, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise.

From this initial premise, Garber observes that the hardest thing we are called to do in life is to know and still love. Knowing and persevering in love is rare. To know those around us truly is to know the brokenness of the world and to share in its pain. To ease our pain, our natural response is to build a wall around our hearts made of stoicism or cynicism. The stoic trains her heart not to care about the world; the cynic convinces himself that all efforts to help are naïve or futile.

Visions of Vocation is filled with stories of men and women who have refused to give in to stoicism or cynicism. Garber describes his teaching philosophy as “come-and-see” pedagogy. “We learn the most important things over the shoulder, through the heart,” he writes, and so he doesn’t waste much time on abstract assertions. Because “words always have to be made flesh if we are going to understand them,” he spends most of his time introducing us to people he has walked with, individuals who have become “hints of hope” to a hurting world by choosing to know and still love.

Two convictions distinguish these men and women, Garber finds. First, they refuse to accept the delusion of individual autonomy that shapes the modern western world. They realize that “none of us are islands. . . . We are we, human beings together. Born into family histories, growing up into social histories, we live our lives among others, locally and globally, neighbors very near and neighbors very far.” Second, in acknowledging this relationship, they have accepted also that they are obligated to others and implicated in their suffering. In sum, in acknowledging relationship they have accepted responsibility, and after accepting responsibility they have chosen to take action.

PalmerThe second book is Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker J. Palmer.   A couple of years ago I led students in an informal book discussion centered on this book, and for a long while I kept a box of extra copies in my office to give away as opportune moments arose.  It’s a great book on many levels.

The author has long been one of my favorite writers.  Although I have not always agreed with him–and still do not–I find him wonderfully challenging and provocative in the very best way.  Palmer began his adult career on an academic track, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from U.C.-Berkeley.  Although he left the Academy after a few years, he has devoted most of the past four decades to writing and lecturing on the nature of education and the relationship between the intellectual and the spiritual.  I first encountered Palmer in the pages of his 1983 book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, a work that still informs my approach to teaching and my views on how education shapes the heart.

Let Your Life Speak can sound a little “New Age-y” if you don’t understand where Palmer is coming from.  Like most of the great Christian writers who addressed the concept of vocation during the Reformation, Palmer believes that our talents and passions are valuable clues to our ideal vocations.  When he counsels the reader to listen to the voice within, he can sound like a secular humanist (or a script-writer for the Hallmark Channel), but he is absolutely not advising us to look within our own hearts for the ultimate guide to wise living.  Instead, he is urging us to take seriously the truth that God has designed us with specific abilities and desires, and that our life’s vocation should unfold at the intersection of those personal traits and the needs of a hurting world.

We must understand vocation, Palmer writes, “not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.” He goes on to explain,

Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not.  It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.

In sum, “we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.”

With refreshing candor, Palmer reminds us that, “despite the American myth,” we simply cannot do or be anything we desire.  “There are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die.”  One of our goals, then, should be to learn our limits, distinguishing between the limits that are a product of the nature that God has implanted in us, and the limits “that are imposed by people or political forces hell-bent on keeping us ‘in our place.’”

Finally, I would note that Palmer intersperses his observations with intimate reflections on the path that he personally has traveled.  These include hard-earned insights from two extended bouts with depression as an adult.  Refreshing in its honesty and transparency, Let Your Life Speak will be encouraging both to those seeking direction for the future as well as to readers trying to make sense of suffering.  I heartily recommend it.

graduation

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: C. S. LEWIS ON MEMORY AND HISTORY

I’m still occasionally struck by the irony that the person who has helped me most in thinking through the nature of history wasn’t himself a historian.  But the irony that C. S. Lewis has frequently been my guide is more apparent than real.  Lewis was a scholar of ancient and medieval literature, and that gave him both an appreciation for the past and a language for expressing it that few historians have equaled.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Lewis rarely taught on literary works less than half a millennium old.  Of necessity, he spent much of his career trying to convince skeptical undergraduates that they should care about the world before they were born.  Few scholars have been more adept in exposing the arrogance that underlies “chronological snobbery” and the blindness that presentism perpetuates.  But he was also a master of metaphor and story, and he understood something we academics are prone to forget: namely, that when it comes to conveying complex truths, word pictures are often more effective than abstract theorizing.  Among his many intellectual gifts, Lewis’s greatest may have been his talent for translation, by which I mean his ability to make complicated concepts accessible to broad audiences.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything from my commonplace book, so I thought I’d pass along a couple of passages from Lewis that I copied just this morning.  They come from his short book A Grief Observed, a set of reflections that Lewis recorded as he was dealing with the death of his wife Helen.  I listened to A Grief Observed on tape while driving to see my father over spring break, and then I re-read it in hard copy once I returned to Wheaton.  It’s not a fun read, but it’s honest, convicting, and ultimately encouraging.  I recommend it.

Surely most of the readers who pick up A Grief Observed aren’t thinking about history at all.  They open its pages to see how Lewis dealt with death, perhaps to think about the ways that loss can challenge faith.  That’s as it should be.  But hidden early in Lewis’s “map of sorrow” are ruminations that spoke to me as a historian, for they wonderfully capture a challenge that I face every day.  When I ask students what causes them to admire a particular history book or history teacher, what I hear most commonly is that the book or teacher in question makes the past “come alive.”  This, then, becomes my challenge if I want to connect with them.  What they find engaging, I should strive to model.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible.

Only God resurrects the dead.

What do we really mean when we say that a particular work of history makes the past “come alive”?  Sometimes all we mean is that it entertains us, but often we have in mind much more than that.  With the historian as our guide, we have the sensation of traveling into the past; we imagine ourselves in another time.  Soon the historian fades into the background and we observe the drama in solitude, directly observing the historical figures that the historian has made to “come alive” for our benefit.

Early in A Grief Observed, Lewis bluntly dispels such misleading figures of speech.  Listen in as he talks with himself about advice that he should think less about himself and more about Helen (or “H”) as he deals with his grief:

Yes, that sounds very well.  But there’s a snag.  I am thinking about her nearly always.  Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers.  But it is my own mind that selects and groups them.  Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.  Founded on fact, no doubt.  I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t).  But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own?  The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.

Here Lewis confronts us with a disturbing reality.  Despite the clichés with which materialists comfort themselves—the dead do not live on in the memory of the living.  “What pitiable cant,” Lewis snorts.  Although Lewis loved Helen dearly and knew her intimately, he knows also that his memories of her are imperfect and selective.  And though it is heart-wrenching for him to acknowledge, he knows that the Helen who “lives” in his memory will be “more and more imaginary.”

Lewis elaborates his point by relating how he had recently met a man whom he hadn’t seen in ten years. Although he thought that he had remembered this acquaintance quite accurately, it took only five minutes of real conversation with the fellow to shatter that delusion.  “How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.?” Lewis asks with palpable anguish.  “That it is not happening already?”

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her.  The real shape will be quite hidden in the end.  Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this.  And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again.  The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.

What a remarkable illustration!  And how does this help us to understand the body of knowledge we call “history”?  History, as John Lukacs puts is, is not the past itself but the “remembered past.”  And just as with Lewis’s memories of his late wife, the past as we remember it will always bear an imperfect resemblance to past reality.  We can magnify the disparity through sloppiness or dishonesty, but even in our best moments—when we labor to recreate the past with the utmost integrity—we always fall short.

Like Lewis, we can strive to immerse ourselves in the facts, we will (hopefully) purpose to invent no details, but the necessity of selecting, grouping, and interpreting the facts—figuratively breathing life into them—inescapably remains.  This means that to some degree we always remake the past subjectively.  “Little flakes” of us are perpetually, inexorably settling down on the past to obscure its real form.

So what are we to do with this truth?  Shall we throw up our hands and say the whole quest is futile, that there’s no point in pretending that we can learn anything about the past or from the past?  Absolutely not!  But if we take Lewis’s insight to heart, we’ll be more humble in the claims that we make to historical knowledge.  The exciting news is that God regularly pulls aside the curtain and grants us precious glimpses into the past.  The humbling news is that we always peer into the past “as through a glass, darkly.”

DID CORPORATE AMERICA REALLY INVENT CHRISTIAN AMERICA?

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.

WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS CHRISTIAN?

For Christians interested in American history, probably no question looms larger than this one: Were the men who brought our nation into existence authentically Christian?

This is not inevitable. There are a host of other questions that we could imagine rising to the top: Have America’s wars always been just? Was the defense of the Union scripturally justifiable? What should we think of American territorial expansion? Have we shown mercy to the strangers among us? How has America been influenced by the marketplace? What has been our record in dealing with the widow and the orphan? How should we rate our influence on the world?

All of these should demand our attention if we’re really interested in thinking Christianly about our national heritage. None of them captivates us like the question of the religion of the Founders. It isn’t hard to see why. Over time we’ve come to impute enormous political significance to the question. The question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christian frames the story that we tell about our beginning as a nation. It becomes central to how we define our identity, not only with regard to our past—who were we?—but also with regard to our present and our future—who are we supposed to be? And so the debate over the religious convictions of a handful of eighteenth-century statesmen is now inextricably intertwined with contemporary debates over the place of religion in the public square. The past becomes proxy for the present.

Predictably, the political stakes make the question almost impossible to approach objectively. Polemics abound. Historians—not to mention armies of politicians, pundits, and preachers—have spilled oceans of ink in addressing the question. But despite some notable exceptions, the debate on the whole has generated way more heat and hyperbole than light and nuance. As is so often the case, the extremes command the most attention. Want to attract a large following? Be dogmatic and simplistic. Nearly two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville laid out the winning formula in Democracy in America: “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex,” Tocqueville observed. He was dead on.

The result is a stark dichotomy:  One side insists that the Founders were born-again believers, men of Christian faith guided by Christian principles to establish a Christian nation. The other side contends that they were apostles of the Enlightenment, radical skeptics determined to purge public life of every whiff of religious superstition and “bigotry.” You can take your pick, in other words, between the Founding Fathers as forerunners of the Moral Majority or as ancestors of the ACLU.

Given the explosiveness of the topic, the safest course is simply to steer clear of it. Barring that, the next smoothest path is to preach to the choir—pick a side and beat the drum for it. Those on the other side will mostly ignore you, while those who agree with you will welcome the affirmation. Few of us relish having our prejudices challenged; not many of us mind having our prejudices confirmed.

Historian Gregg Frazer has not chosen the broad and gentle path. Instead, he has written a book that will offend almost everyone invested in the debate, save a handful of scholars. I recently read his 2012 book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. The author, professor of History and Political Studies at the Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, wants nothing to do with either extreme. On the book’s very first page he throws down the gauntlet: “I want to force extremists on the Left and on the Right to make the case for their vision of what America should be on its own merits,” Fraser writes, “without hijacking the fame of the Founders and without holding their reputations hostage to causes of which they would not approve.” It’s a courageous objective, and he’s written a worthwhile book. I commend it to any thinking Christian interested in the American past.

Frazer

In a sense, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders is really two books for the price of one. First, Fraser scrupulously scrutinizes the religious beliefs of eight key founders: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson. (The latter two often don’t make the cut for these kinds of studies, but Frazer includes them because of the significant, if often forgotten roles that they played at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.) Second, in an investigation that anticipates James Byrd’s book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, he offers a careful assessment of the revolutionary era pulpit and the arguments that colonial ministers made in support of independence. (For my review of Byrd’s fine book, click here.)

Frazer arrives at two key conclusions. First, concerning the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers: Frazer determines that the leading Founders were not Christian in any orthodox sense, as the Christian America propagandists would have us believe, but neither were they liberal Deists, as secular academics so often insist. Indeed, no existing category satisfactorily captures the constellation of convictions that Fraser discovered, so he created a new one: theistic rationalism.

There’s a symmetry to the combination of these terms that reflects the two-front war that Frazer is fighting. The noun rationalism underscores that the leading Founders weren’t Christian, as David Barton and others so strenuously insist. (To read my review of Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies, click here.) But the adjective theistic emphasizes that they also weren’t functionally atheist, as Matthew Stewart has dogmatically argued, for example. (Click here to read my review of his book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)

According to Frazer, “Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element.” [Rationalism is a philosophy of knowledge that makes human reason the ultimate arbiter of all truth claims.] If we were to imagine a continuum of religious belief, theistic rationalism would fall somewhere between orthodox Christianity (defined by historic confessions such as the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and Deism.

The latter is a slippery concept. Deism in the late-eighteenth century was not embodied in a formal denomination. It had no official creed or confession, and I’ve come across a range of definitions of it in my reading. I can’t say that Frazer’s understanding of Deism is the right one, but I do applaud him for offering a precise definition up front. Deism, as Frazer defines it, has two distinguishing characteristics: The first is the belief in an absent God, a Deity who takes no active role in his creation. There is no logical reason to pray to such a God or to expect this watchmaker Creator to intervene in human affairs. The second distinguishing feature, which follows logically from the first, is the rejection of the very possibility of what theologians call “special” (as opposed to “general”) revelation. The God of Deism does not speak to humankind except through the order inherent in the natural world.

The key Founders that Frazer studied rejected both premises. Their correspondence suggests that they believed that parts of the Bible are inspired. They prayed for God’s assistance, they praised God for His deliverance, and they believed in (or hoped for) an afterlife. Whenever scripture and reason conflicted, however, reason trumped revelation. The Founders’ rationalism led them to deny original sin, hell, the virgin birth, the Trinity, the resurrection, and miracles in general.

So what does this mean for contemporary cultural debates over the Founders’ religious beliefs? To a degree that would make the ACLU shudder, the Founders agreed that “the morality engendered by religion was indispensable to society.” But they simultaneously believed that “many—perhaps all—religious traditions or systems were valid and led to the same God.” They were NOT Christian—Frazer emphasizes this repeatedly—and it is a libel on Christianity when David Barton and others insist that they were.

Frazer stresses that theistic rationalism was primarily limited to intellectual elites and “never became the property of the masses” during the era of the American Revolution. It did find considerable voice among colonial pastors, however, and was widely trumpeted from the Revolutionary pulpit. While “Christian America” proponents exult in the degree to which American ministers backed the cause of independence, Frazer finds in that pattern distressing evidence of the Church’s conformity to the world.

In a section on ministers’ biblical exegesis, Frazer reviews published sermons to show that patriot preachers regularly interpreted passages pertaining to spiritual liberty as if they were meant to apply to political liberty. They regularly appealed to reason. They frequently stressed the Lockean construction of the state of nature. They accepted uncritically the Enlightenment understanding of popular sovereignty, despite its implication that God, not the people, is the ultimate source of political authority. Finally, they repeatedly spoke of God-given natural rights, despite the Bible’s conspicuous silence on the topic.

In an argument that will make many readers uncomfortable, Frazer maintains that “the biblical God does not specifically or exclusively favor liberal democratic thought.” As a result, pastors determined to find religious authority for the cause of independence discovered that “the Christian God—the God of the Bible—was inadequate for their political needs,” Frazer writes. “That God did not grant political freedom. He claimed to be the sole source of governmental authority, He neither granted nor recognized natural rights, and He preferred faith and obedience to moralism.”

In embracing liberal democratic theory, according to Frazer, patriotic ministers found much in the Scripture that they had to ignore or explain away. “Theology militated against democratic thought until the mid-1700s,” the author contends, “when the Enlightenment-based education of the clergy began to be exhibited in the expounding of liberal democratic and republican principles from the pulpit.” In sum, the vital role that the clergy played in promoting independence was not a sign of the vitality of American Christianity—as David Barton would have us believe, for example—but rather testimony to the degree to which Christian leaders were conforming to the world. And what of the believers in the pews? “The people,” Frazer concludes, “largely wanted to affirm the theistic rationalists’ political message.”

Frazer is not as careful as I would wish in making these contentions. You can read his book and almost come away with a view of colonial pastors and parishioners as coldly calculating, consciously sorting through the Scripture for politically useful proof texts and ignoring the rest. I would add that he is equally critical of twenty-first-century proponents of either extreme in the current cultural debate. The author contends that the secular interpretation of America’s founding is widely accepted in part “because members of its intended audiences want to believe that it is true.” In like manner, he maintains that “the Christian America view has found a huge and trusting audience among those . . . who want to believe that the view is accurate.”

I would qualify these claims a bit more carefully. I don’t believe that many colonial pastors consciously compromised with religious orthodoxy because it was politically inconvenient, any more than I am persuaded that either side in today’s culture wars is consciously embracing a position that it doubts to be true. I think instances of that are probably pretty rare. The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true, whether we’re talking about the teaching of Scripture or the lessons of history. Frazer’s book is a sobering reminder of just how powerful that temptation can be.