Philip Yancey on Donald Trump

Many of my evangelical readers will recognize the name Philip Yancey.  He is one of the great spiritual writers of the last generation.  Some will be familiar with his books The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace.  His books have sold over 14 million copies worldwide.  He also just happened to deliver the Messiah College commencement address in 2007.

Here is Yancey’s take on Trump:


The Author’s Corner with Matthew Karp

ThisVastSouthernEmpire.jpgMatthew Karp is Assistant Professor of History and Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: It’s been a long time coming. My senior thesis in college was on Great Britain and the annexation of Texas, so I’ve been working with the main characters and events in this book for over a dozen years. Some people might say that a dozen years is a lot of time to spend with John Tyler and John C. Calhoun.

As a student, I think what stimulated my interest was an early sense of the open-endedness, the geopolitical uncertainty, that surrounded U.S. foreign relations in the 1840s and 1850s. For Americans, Texans, Mexicans, Indians, and Europeans, there was nothing inevitable about the process we still tend to call “western expansion.” The U.S. annexation of Texas, for instance, had to be organized, planned, managed. When I got to graduate school, and started looking into it more deeply, it struck me how many of these American organizers and managers of foreign policy—men like Tyler, Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis—were  slaveholding southerners. And often, the most powerful policymakers were not just run-of-the-mill southern politicians, but the country’ s most outspoken defenders of slavery. That seemed to warrant a fuller investigation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: The slaveholders who dominated antebellum American foreign policy were not sectional advocates of states’ rights, but ambitious empire-builders who saw the United States as the world’s leading champion of slavery. This Vast Southern Empire follows their strategic management of American expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, recovers their deep ideological confidence in the future of slave labor, and helps explain their ultimate decision to leave the Union in 1861.

JF: Why do we need to read This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: My book joins a wave of recent scholarship that has refocused our attention on antebellum slavery’s economic dynamism, its national and international reach, without in any way diminishing our sense of slavery’s enormous raw brutality. I think my book extends this work by exploring the geopolitical imagination of the South’s confident and prosperous slaveholding leaders.

Partly because the South lost the Civil War, we are accustomed to looking backward at the antebellum period from the perspective of Appomattox. Both scholars and the general public, I think, find it easy to imagine southern elites as provincial conservatives, hostile to the federal government and concerned above all with preserving their own social power at home. But the antebellum master class was very different: in many ways, they did not fear the federal government because they controlled the federal government. As guardians of U.S. foreign and military policy, they did not see a strong national state as a threat to their local power, but a tool to extend their international power.

In this sense, I think the book is important because it refuses to sectionalize the slave South. Slaveholding elites like U.S. Secretary of State Calhoun or U.S. Secretary of War Davis did not view themselves primarily as Southern partisans or crypto-Confederates. They saw themselves as Americans, and as proper leaders of the entire United States.

Most previous scholarship on slaveholders and foreign relations tends to focus on colorful but marginal figures like the filibuster William Walker, who led a private army to conquer Nicaragua in 1856. Walker’s story is fascinating, but it seems to me that putting weak and failed filibusters, separatists, or African slave traders at the center of the antebellum story can serve to exoticize the master class as a whole. My book concentrates instead on powerful national leaders like Calhoun and Davis—men whose fervent devotion to slavery did not, in their minds, make them anything less than the purest American patriots.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MK: When I decided I wasn’t really interested or able to become anything else—probably in my first year after college. I just wanted to keep reading what I had been reading as a history major, and I couldn’t figure out any other way to make that happen.

JF:  What is your next project?

MK: I’m beginning work on a new book with the hypothetical title The Radicalism of the Republican Party. I say hypothetical because it’s based on a hypothesis—that, given what we know now about slavery’s national power and international profitability, the antebellum Republican Party looks more unlikely and perhaps even more radical than most accounts give it credit for. But I’m just at the start of this project, so it remains to be seen whether the hypothesis will hold up through deeper reading and research.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Bible Cause in East Tennessee


Last week I drove down Interstate 81 into the Cumberland Gap to give the annual Kincaid Lecture at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.  I had never been to this part of Tennessee before and it was a beautiful day for driving. (I also had my satellite radio tuned to channel 20–E Street Radio!).  The university is located adjacent to Cumberland Gap National Park.

I had never heard of Lincoln Memorial University before Tom Mackie, the Director of the Lincoln Library and Museum, invited me to visit.  My lecture was titled “The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origins of Christian America.”  It focused on the creation of the American Bible Society, the role of benevolent associations and Christian reform movements in antebellum America, and the American Bible Society’s attempt to supply a Bible to every American family and do it in two years (1829-1831).


Lincoln Memorial University has a fascinating history.   As its website notes:

Lincoln Memorial University grew out of love and respect for Abraham Lincoln and today honors his name, values, and spirit. As the legend goes, in 1863 Lincoln suggested to General O. O. Howard, a Union Army officer, that when the Civil War ended he hoped General Howard would organize a great university for the people of this area.

Mackie runs a museum and library that contains the largest collection of Lincoln artifacts in the country and some important archival collections of prominent figures from the 19th-century.  During my tour of the library I got to see Lincoln’s cane, English china that Lincoln purchased in 1858, a traveling exhibit on Lincoln and the Constitution, a piece of Lincoln’s hair, porcelain vases created to promote the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, every picture of Lincoln ever taken, and a bunch of ephemera commemorating Lincoln’s death and legacy.  Mackie is completing a doctoral dissertation on this ephemera that situates Lincolnalia in the fields of memory, material culture, and dime store museums.  It is going to make a great book.

Ross Douthat Compares Evangelicals Relationship to Trump With Syrians Relationship to Assad

douthatNew York Times columnist Ross Douthat was at Messiah College last night where he presented a lecture titled “Christian Citizens in a Post-Christian Republic.”

Douthat argued that we may now be living in a post-Christian nation and he offered some ways that Christians should begin to think about their role in such a republic.

I have live-tweeted the lecture.  You can read my Storified tweets here.

In a post-Christian nation, Douthat argued, Christians might proceed in one of two ways.

First, Christians might find themselves relying more heavily on political strong men to protect them from the forces of secularization.  This is the approach that many evangelicals who support Donald Trump seem to be taking.  In one of the more stinging lines of the lecture Douthat suggested that some evangelicals seem to need Trump (a man with no real Christian convictions to speak of) to protect them in the same way that Syrians need the brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad to protect them.  (I should note that Douthat was quick to say that Trump was “not as bad” at Assad).

Second, Douthat suggested that Christians might be influential in reshaping the two-party system and promoting a political approach that is decidedly Christian in orientation.  This kind of approach might not fit well with the agenda of either the Democratic Party or the GOP.

As might be expected, he preferred the second potential scenario over the first potential scenario.

One of the highlights of the night came during the Q&A session.  A very articulate, bright, and spirited Messiah College student who was clearly frustrated with the choices available to her in this, the first election in which she was eligible to vote, asked Douthat for advice about what she should do in November.   She feared that she would one day regret voting for either major candidate.  Douthat showed empathy toward this student and told her that her contribution to a better society did not have to come through politics.  Rather, she should work to change the world in the context of her local circumstances.

It was a great lecture. I am looking forward to hearing Earl Lewis, Ken Burns, and Michelle Alexander, among others, later in the year at Messiah College.

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

Last summer I called out POTUS candidates for their failure to make evidence-based arguments in a post entitled “Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks.”

My decision to support “Historians Against Trump” had little to do with making a political statement or suggesting that the use of historical analogies is helpful in predicting the direction that a particular candidate like Trump might take the country.  Historians can provide context to our present-day political debates but I am not sure that history can always predict the future based on what happened in the past.

 I supported the Historians Against Trump movement out of my concern over the Trump campaign’s failure to make evidence-based arguments, display the kind of empathy necessary for a democratic-republic to survive, and exemplify even the most basic skills of historical thinking.  (My original “Jedi Mind Tricks” post also called out Hillary Clinton for her failure in this area).

This interaction between CBS journalist Bob Schieffer and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge illustrates my point about evidence-based arguments.  By the way, the last time I checked evidence-based arguments were important to historians and historical thinkers.  At least that’s what I try to teach my students at Messiah College.

The Author’s Corner with Steven Pincus

TheHeartofDeclaration.pngSteven Pincus is Bradford Durfee Professor of History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (Yale University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Heart of the Declaration?

SP: For about a decade I have been working on a book on the British Empire, from the middle of the seventeenth century through the 1780s.  That book, which has grown to be a monster, tries to explain why the British Empire emerged, developed and was fundamentally transformed in the second half of the eighteenth century.  While the book has much to say about British America, it also discusses developments in England, Scotland, Ireland, Tangier, the West Indies, South Asia and Africa.  

A few years ago I was invited by Doug Bradburn to give a talk on a conference at Mount Vernon exploring Anglo-American cooperation.  In preparing that talk I set myself the task of reading through the correspondence and papers of George Washington.  What struck me then was how much George Washington seemed like a partisan in British imperial debates — that is I was struck by how much his arguments seemed like those I had been encountering when working on other bits of the Empire.  The paper I presented invited a good deal of discussion.  Several people then suggested I should I write a short book setting out the implications of my arguments about the nature of British imperial debate for the American Revolution.  The result is The Heart of the Declaration.

In historiographical terms, this meant explaining how a post-Namierite interpretation of British history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would alter our understanding of the coming of the American Revolution.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Heart of the Declaration?

SP: In my view the framers of the Declaration of Independence argued, along with most Patriot Whigs across the British Empire, not that the British state did too much, but that it did too little to promote the prosperity and development (the happiness) of the British colonists.  Patriots wanted to create am activist government that would promote economic development by building infrastructure, subsidizing immigration, prying open Caribbean and South American markets, and eliminate the slave trade.

JF: Why do we need to read The Heart of the Declaration?

SP: Because it offers a fresh ideological interpretation of the American Revolution laying stress on political economic debates across the empire.  In essence it suggests that divisions in North America that have become familiar in recent scholarship had their partisan counterparts in Britain itself and right across the Empire.  By recognizing that the American Revolution was less an anti-colonial struggle than an imperial civil war, it becomes possible to reinterpret the meaning of America’s founding document.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SP: I am not an American historian.  I am a historian of the British Empire in its political, social, economic, intellectual and cultural aspects.  Because I come from that perspective I hope to be able to revisit some old and very important questions from a new angle.

I became a British historian in the first instance because I have always been interested in the origins of the modern world — recognizing that modernity has both its achievements and its very dark sides. Since Britain was the first Parliamentary democracy, the first industrial nation, created a new kind of empire in the 17th and 18th centuries, and also spawned some of the most creative thinkers, I thought that was a good place to start.

JF: What is your next project?

SP: I am engaged in a bunch of projects at the moment.  First, I am still hard at work on the book on the British Empire from which this book is a spin off.  Second, I am working (with Jim Robinson of the University of Chicago) on a book project investigate the role of the state in the making of the industrial revolution, and I am also working on a book on the American Revolution in global context. 

JF: Thanks, Steven!

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week (a little early this week):

What is stronger: nostalgia or liberal hope?

Did the telephone call die in 2007?

Selling Jefferson’s library

Was the Declaration of Independence pro-immigrant?

Reading old books

The power of Hamilton

Teaching Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette

The Smithsonian’s African American history museum and black pain

Do we need to rewrite the Constitution?

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, goes to seminary

Slavery and the U.S Constitution

The two sides of American populism

Did George Washington say it?

Why did Cruz endorse Trump?

An interactive tour of The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Traditional virtues are for losers

The 1970s and the revenge of God

Yes, I Can Do Better

aucoinBrent J. Aucoin is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Southeastern in Wake Forest, NC. He is also the author of a brand new book Thomas Goode Jones: Race, Politics and Justice in the New South.

A couple of weeks ago Rick Shenkman, the editor and publisher at History News Network (HNN), informed me that Aucoin had submitted a piece to HNN criticizing a post I wrote at Religion News Service titled “Why the Founding Fathers Wanted to Keep Ministers From Public Office.”  Rick wanted to publish Aucoin’s piece, but also wanted to publish my response to it.

As you will see from my response, I think some of Aucoin’s criticism of my piece is valid.

I will say this.  It is difficult to write very short historical pieces for public audiences, especially when such pieces are anchored to current events in a heated political cycle.  I hope my response to Aucoin reflects how I could have done better with my original RNS piece.

Here is part of that response:

Aucoin also criticizes me for failing to qualify my conclusions and adequately addressing evidence that is contrary to my argument.  On this point I accept his criticism.  My article is deceiving because it suggests that all of the “founding fathers” wanted to keep ministers from public office when in reality only some of them—in this case some of the framers of the state constitutions—opposed the idea of clergy holding political office.  Though I think today’s political activists who use the founding era to justify clergy running for office still need to reckon with some of these state constitutions, my argument was sloppy on this point.  I wrongly assumed that readers would understand the limitations of my argument based on the evidence I referenced.  I will try to frame my arguments more carefully in future posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.

Read the entire forum here.

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1. What Should You Call Your Professor?
  2. The Unraveling of White Working-Class America
  3. “Our historical narcissism indicts us”
  4. #1stGradSchoolReading
  5. The Author’s Corner with Leigh Eric Schmidt
  6. On the Road in September and October 2016
  7. Bruce Springsteen’s Interview on CBS Sunday Morning
  8. This May Be the Best “Acknowledgments” Section of All Time
  9. Andrew Sullivan on Being Human
  10. Why Hasn’t Springsteen Endorsed a Candidate?


Are You Listening to The Way of Improvement Home Podcast?

I hopepodcast-icon1 so.

We just dropped Episode 10 on Sunday, the first episode in our Fall 2016 Season. The episode is on historical re-enacting and it features Thomas Jefferson interpreter Steve Edenbo.

If you unfamiliar with the podcast I encourage you to check out past episodes (or listen to Episode 10). Click here to listen.

If you ARE familiar with the podcast it would mean a lot to us if you head over to ITunes and write a review. We need your support to keep this thing going!


The Author’s Corner with Leigh Eric Schmidt

villageatheists.gifLeigh Eric Schmidt is Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Village Atheists?

LS: The question of how religious belief has been used to define the rights, limits, and norms of American citizenship pulled me in initially.  In what ways were the irreligious marked out as deficient?  Were they to be barred from holding offices of public trust or from serving as witnesses in court?  Was liberty of conscience a preserve for the devout that excluded the ungodly?  Did religious freedom include irreligious freedom?  Did it include a right to blaspheme and ridicule Christianity?   I wanted to see how those questions looked on the ground in the everyday lives of American atheists and unbelievers, to see them as more than abstract legal and political debates but as rough conflicts in which social antagonism and moral outrage ran high.  I also wanted to see how those issues shifted over the long haul, how a principle of neutrality—that the state was to treat the religious and irreligious in equal terms—ultimately came into the ascendancy, however disputed that principle remained and however despised atheism continued to be in America’s God-trusting culture.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Village Atheists?

LS: Histories of modern atheism have often kept Christianity at the center of the story, emphasizing the ways in which well-intended theologians abetted unbelief through a series of philosophical, ethical, and naturalistic compromises—in effect, a history of atheism without atheists.  By contrast, I put the emphasis squarely on the infidels and freethinkers who created a lively and assertive secularist minority—one that was in no danger of defining the age in exclusively secular or humanistic terms, but one that nonetheless effectively pressed the case for equal rights and liberties for unbelievers.

JF: Why do we need to read Village Atheists?

LS: Those who are interested in American religious history would do well, I think, to attend more to the nation’s irreligious history.  Certainly, the back-and-forth between evangelical Protestants and freethinking secularists has been an especially defining struggle.  Diehard combatants, to be sure, the two camps are also inseparable partners in a whole series of long-running debates—about God’s existence, about evil, about Darwinian naturalism, about the relationship between religion and the state, about free speech and blasphemy, about the Bible.  On one issue after another, it is very hard to study America’s God without studying those who were fervently devoted to undoing that God’s sway over the republic.

At the same time, the book pictures the relationship between religion and irreligion as more than one of only an out-an-out war. Samuel Porter Putnam, one of the figures I concentrate on, tried in the 1890s to write his own comprehensive history of American unbelief.  He had about a thousand pages to work with and included dozens upon dozens of biographical profiles of American atheists and freethinkers.  And predictably when the reviews came in, most wondered why he had left out one person or another, why he had made the selections he had made.  Having himself painfully left the Congregational and Unitarian ministries, he had simply refused to include certain figures when they did not fit his model of the hard-and-fast, wholly converted atheist. He wanted materialist purity for the movement, but I found myself far more interested in the impurity—the times when an infidel lecturer made peace with a Baptist congregation to conduct a funeral or when a golden-boy atheist decided to become a spiritualist and start an occult journal.  I wanted to understand the conflicted experiences of an infidel lecturer or a disaffected teacher as they engaged—civilly and uncivilly—their more devout compatriots.   I wanted to see the moments of mutual recognition and civic acceptance, alongside the occasions of rioting and book-burning.  The former were finally a lot more common than the latter. 

It is also important to me that scholarship be readable and publicly engaging.  I want to tell good, character-driven stories, so I would hope that the book would be worth reading because it is actually enjoyable to read.  I worked to identify colorful characters with complex lives who embodied crucial aspects of American secularist experience.  Samuel Putnam stands for the gradual attenuation of the Puritan and evangelical Calvinist inheritance, the creation of an expressly secular identity in opposition to the Protestant model of the pilgrim soul.  Watson Heston evokes the power of cartooning and satire within atheist ranks, the urge to ridicule Christianity and the Bible and to offend the devout. Heston’s pugnacious art (he created well over 1000 irreligious cartoons between 1885 and 1900) is a window into an issue that very much remains a life-and-death question.  One need only call to mind the global controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad or the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo.

In turn, another figure I explore, Elmina Slenker, raises the larger question of how atheist dissent related to sexual politics—to ideas about marriage reform, women’s rights, and reproductive control.  Atheism and freethought could produce progressive views on gender and sexuality, but they could also reinforce a masculinist culture of bravado and aggression in which women were dismissed for their sentimental piety.  Slenker embodied all of those dilemmas and challenges as a self-avowed “woman atheist.”  The same quandaries had already been faced by Ernestine Rose, a secular Jewish atheist and a role model for Slenker.  Likewise, the racial politics surrounding David Cincore, promoted for a time as “the colored Bob Ingersoll,” reveals how deeply engrained the white male prototype was for enlightened secularism.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LS: It was in college, especially through the examples of Edwin Gaustad and Robert Hine, both of whom made it abundantly clear to me the demands involved in producing artful historical prose.  Both had a keen eye for American dissenters and utopians, and Ed especially trafficked at the same intersections that most captured my curiosity, those of religion and history.

JF: What is your next project?

It’s a little early to say, but I remain drawn to questions that swirl around the relationship between Christianity and secularism, including the efforts of nonbelievers to create humanistic community and ritual out of the ruins of religion.  These could merely be loose ends from Village Atheists that I will eventually let go, but I have a series of stories about agnostic brotherhoods, humanist churches, atheist towns, and freethinking liturgists that I continue to ponder.

JF: Thanks, Leigh!

Why Hasn’t Springsteen Endorsed a Candidate?

Obama Campaigns In Midwest Swing States One Day Before Election Day

Prior to 2004 Bruce Springsteen occasionally dropped a line or two about politics during his concerts, but he usually let his music do the talking.

In 2004 he supported John Kerry for President of the United States and in 2008 and 2012 he campaigned with and for Barack Obama.  But this year Springsteen has not endorsed a candidate.  In fact, he HAS said very little about politics on the River tour.  Yes, there was that F-Trump moment in Pittsburgh last week which was followed by a moving edition of “Long Walk Home,” and he did cancel a concert in North Carolina in the wake of the so-called “bathroom bill,” but there has been nothing like 2004, 2008, or 2012.  The closest the Boss has come to the campaign trail is when Bernie Sanders usedWe Take Care of Our Own” at some of his rallies.

Over at MTV news, Caryn Rose wonders why Springsteen has avoided politics on this tour and urges him to get back into the mix.  Here is a taste:

So why hasn’t Springsteen said more about this election? Is he worried at this point in his career about alienating longtime fans who don’t share his political views, many of whom made their displeasure known in 2004 when he voiced his support of John Kerry? Is he deeply unhappy with the entire campaign cycle and just wants to stay far away from it? Does he feel that none of his previous efforts resulted in the kind of change he had hoped to see? Or could he be concerned that anything he says about the presidential race would dominate the press, overshadowing the well-deserved stories about his record-breaking shows, his musical legacy, and the excitement and interest around his upcoming autobiography? He told Vanity Fair that “an artist has only so many ‘bullets,’ credibility-wise, to shoot.” But he added, “When the times have felt very drastic, I feel like, ‘Well, I gotta put my two cents in.’ So we’ll see what happens.” That interview took place in Europe at the end of June. Since then, the Republican nominee for president has called for the execution and imprisonment of the Democratic nominee, has smeared entire ethnic and religious groups wholesale, has encouraged violence against protesters, has lied about his years-long insinuations that the current sitting president is not an American, and has also not put forward any substantive policies of note — among a whole litany of other horrible words and actions that go against everything Bruce Springsteen has believed in and stood for for more than 40 years. There are few artists who have more carefully guarded their credibility than Springsteen; his reputation would have easily withstood one more important, well-thought-out statement, and it’s hard to believe he doesn’t know this. At best, his apparent silence is a dodge; at worst, it’s a cop-out.

Springsteen closed out the U.S. leg of the tour last Wednesday at a football stadium in Massachusetts. At the end of the encore, after a lengthy thank you to the fans, he said, “So along with all of you, I’ve had to live through the election campaign, and I gotta say, it’s gotta be one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen. And there was just a lot of speaking to our worst angels. You let those things out of the bottle, all that ugliness — the genie doesn’t go back in the bottle so simple…” He followed these comments with an acoustic “Long Walk Home,” but it still felt like a lost opportunity to remind his audience that the misdeeds of a Republican president were the reason he wrote that song in the first place, and that the current Republican nominee for president was the reason he was playing it right now. Or to specifically offer his views regarding the election, along the lines of that key phrase from “Long Walk Home”: “Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.” Or even to state unequivocally that if people don’t vote for Hillary Clinton, we will be facing our worst angels daily, for years to come, and will be dealing with decades of the ugliness he referenced.

Springsteen is one of a few artists of his generation whose fans look both to him and up to him. They know that he will help them make sense of the unthinkable, that he will speak out for those who can’t do it themselves, that he will inspire them, remind them of their faith in themselves, and show them how to find a reason to believe (as he wrote in 1982) — as well as giving them a reason to dance and shake their asses. In the days after 9/11, Springsteen was driving around the Jersey Shore when a fan called out to him: “We need you!” As he told Jon Pareles in the New York Times, “That’s part of my job. It’s an honor to find that place in the audience’s life.”

In 2016, as we head into an election with potentially historic consequences, Springsteen’s voice could be even more important. How about it, Boss?

Read the rest here.

Stay out of politics, Bruce.  Let your music do the talking.

Andrew Sullivan on Being Human


The fact that Andrew Sullivan, perhaps the most prolific blogger in human history, is now writing long-form essays speaks volumes about his recent spiritual and mental journey. In his recent piece at New York Magazine, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Sullivan talks about the toll that full-time political blogging had on his mental and physical condition and how he tried to break his addiction to information. There is a lot here.

A taste:

The English Reformation began, one recalls, with an assault on the monasteries, and what silence the Protestants didn’t banish the philosophers of the Enlightenment mocked. Gibbon and Voltaire defined the Enlightenment’s posture toward the monkish: from condescension to outright contempt. The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal. We became a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.

Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different becauseit was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.

The only place like it was the library, and the silence there also pointed to something beyond it — to the learning that required time and patience, to the pursuit of truth that left practical life behind. Like the moment of silence we sometimes honor in the wake of a tragedy, the act of not speaking signals that we are responding to something deeper than the quotidian, something more profound than words can fully express. I vividly recall when the AIDS Memorial Quilt was first laid out on the Mall in Washington in 1987. A huge crowd had gathered, drifts of hundreds of chattering, animated people walking in waves onto the scene. But the closer they got, and the more they absorbed the landscape of unimaginably raw grief, their voices petered out, and a great emptiness filled the air. This is different, the silence seemed to say. This is not our ordinary life.

Most civilizations, including our own, have understood this in the past. Millennia ago, as the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued, the unnameable, often inscrutably silent God of the Jewish Scriptures intersected with Plato’s concept of a divinity so beyond human understanding and imperfection that no words could accurately describe it. The hidden God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures spoke often by not speaking. And Jesus, like the Buddha, revealed as much by his silences as by his words. He was a preacher who yet wandered for 40 days in the desert; a prisoner who refused to defend himself at his trial. At the converted novitiate at the retreat, they had left two stained-glass windows depicting Jesus. In one, he is in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood in terror, alone before his execution. In the other, he is seated at the Last Supper, with the disciple John the Beloved resting his head on Jesus’s chest. He is speaking in neither.

That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them. Thoreau issued his jeremiad against those pressures more than a century ago: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”

Read it all here.

“The Anxious Bench” at the Conference on Faith and History Biennial Meeting

cfhOver at The Anxious Bench, blogmeister Chris Gehrz of Bethel University offers a preview of what Christian historians can expect at next month’s biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  It looks like Anxious Bench bloggers–past and present–will be speaking at the conference.  The list is an impressive one: David Swartz, Tommy Kidd,  John Turner, Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Beth Allison Barr, Andrew Turpin,  Blake Hartung and Gehrz.

I am still not sure if I will be able to attend due to a schedule conflict, but it looks like it’s going to be a great weekend in Virginia Beach.

Here is a taste of Gerhz’s post:

The connections between this blog and CFH have historically been strong. Beth was just elected to serve as vice president of CFH, and she’ll succeed Jay Green as president when his term concludes. Tal just finished a stint on the CFH board, and I’ll join that body starting at its next meeting. John Fea, one of our co-founders and previous contributors, has served on the CFH board and will coordinate the program for the 2018 biennial meeting.

And next month Anxious Bench-ers will be all over the terrific program(adeptly coordinated by Beth) for the 30th biennial meeting of CFH, hosted by Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. After the undergraduate conference on Oct. 19-20, the professional conference will run from the evening of the 20th through the afternoon of Saturday the 22nd.

If you’re planning to attend CFH 2016, you’ll find us at the following sessions:

Read more here.