On Joe Biden’s Evangelical Outreach

BIden 3

There are many white evangelicals out there who do not want to vote for Donald Trump, but they also refuse to vote for Joe Biden because they are worried about Supreme Court justices, abortion, and religious liberty. I know these people exist because they e-mail and message me regularly–almost every day.

At some point between now and Labor Day, I will try to write a post or publish something on whether or not an evangelical case can be made for Joe Biden. Stay tuned. But in this post I am writing more as a political observer.

David Brody’s reporting on the Biden outreach to evangelical Christians recently caught my eye. You can read it here.

I am not really sure what this outreach will look like. John McCarthy, the deputy national political director for he Biden Campaign, says that white evangelicals should be “open to Joe Biden’s message.” Why? Because Biden wants to build a “more fair and just society” that includes addressing climate change, racial injustice, and immigration reform. The Biden campaign is also conducting “listening sessions” with evangelical pastors and women. So far that’s it.

As Michael Wear points out in the Brody’s piece, the Hillary Clinton campaign did very little to attract white evangelical votes in 2016. Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Though Clinton would never have come close to winning the evangelical vote, her tone-deafness on matters of deep importance to evangelicals may have been the final nail in the coffin of her campaign. In 2015, when a conservative pro-life group published videos showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the purchase of the body parts and the fetal tissue of aborted fetuses, Clinton said, “I have seen the pictures [from the videos] and obviously find them disturbing.” Such a response could have helped her reach evangelicals on the campaign trail, but by 2016 she showed little ambivalence about abortion, or any understanding that it might pose legitimate concerns or raise larger ethical questions. During the third presidential debate, she defended a traditional pro-choice position and seemed to dodge Fox News host Chris Wallace’s question about her support for late-term abortions. There seemed to be no room in her campaign for those evangelicals who didn’t want to support Trump but needed to see that she could at least compromise on abortion.

Clinton was also quiet on matters pertaining to religious liberty. While she paid lip service to the idea whenever Trump made comments about barring Muslims from coming into the country, she never addressed the religious liberty issues facing many evangelicals. This was especially the case with marriage. Granted, evangelicals should not have expected Clinton to defend traditional marriage or promise to help overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, but she did not seem willing to support something akin to what law professor and author John Inazu has described as “confident pluralism.” The question of how to make room for people with religiously motivated beliefs that run contrary to the ruling in Obergefell is still being worked out, and the question is not an easy one to parse. But when Hillary claimed that her candidacy was a candidacy for “all Americans,” it seemed like an attempt to reach her base, not to reach across the aisle. Conservative evangelicals were not buying it.

Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. In other words, white evangelicals do not hate Biden. (Christians are not supposed to hate, but it really seems like they hate Hillary. I’ve heard this over and over again from those I met on the Believe Me book tour). Biden is now doing just as well, if not better, than Obama with white evangelicals. One could make a case that the Biden campaign does not need to have a white evangelical outreach plan. As long as he doesn’t do anything stupid (which is definitely possible for Joe) that might rile up white evangelicals, he will get more white evangelical votes in 2020 than Hillary in 2016.

But if Joe Biden’s team is interested in making serious inroads among white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016, he will need to do several things:

On abortion: Biden lost his chance to win over most white evangelicals on this issue when he reversed his position on the Hyde Amendment. But he can still win some white evangelicals, or at least make them more comfortable with a Biden presidency, if he talked openly about abortion and how his policies on poverty and racial injustice might contribute to the continued lowering of the abortion rate in America. (The high abortion rate among African Americans, for example, is directly related to systemic racism and poverty).

Right now, when Biden talks about abortion, he does so in order to convince his Democratic base that he is pro-choice. This was his strategy during the Democratic primary season. But what if he talks about abortion from the perspective of his Catholic faith and his personal opposition to the practice? This would require him to say that the number of abortion needs to be reduced in America. He could easily make such a case and still defend Roe v. Wade. Senator Bob Casey Jr. made a similar case against Rick Santorum in the 2006 Pennsylvania Senate election. Such an approach would also give Biden a chance to contrast his views on race and poverty with those of Trump. Biden should not only address abortion when people ask him about it, but he should make it a campaign issue. And yes, I know this is wishful thinking.

Biden also needs to articulate a more nuanced view of religious liberty, especially as it relates to institutions who uphold traditional views on sexuality. Most of the debate on religious liberty today lacks complexity. I would encourage Biden to read Inazu’s Confident Pluralism. He may also want to think about the Fairness for All legislation. Again I know this is a long shot. There will be too much pressure for Biden to follow party orthodoxy on this issue.

An appeal to racial justice, climate change, and immigration will attract some white evangelicals in 2020. But most of these will be the white evangelicals (16%) who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. If the Biden campaign wants to ignore my suggestions (above) on abortion and religious liberty, and focus its evangelical outreach solely on race, climate, and immigration, they will need to do a much better job connecting these issues to biblical faith. I am not confident that Biden can deliver on this front in the way that Obama and Hillary Clinton did in 2008 when they visited Messiah College and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

Coronavirus Diary: June 2, 2020

Sayville BIC

Sayville Brethren in Christ Church

When I published my last diary entry on May 23, 2020, my Pennsylvania county had 584 coronavirus cases and 46 deaths. Eleven days later, we have 644 cases and 52 deaths.

The first day of summer (June 20) is still a few weeks away, but for those of us who follow the academic calendar, the 2020 summer of quarantine has begun.

The social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death has diverted my attention away from the coronavirus. But the pessimist in me worries that all of these protests and demonstrations, coupled with the “opening” of the states, will come back to haunt us.

It will be a different summer. I plan to spend it writing, reading and teaching. On the latter front, a version of the Gilder-Lehrman “Princeton Seminar” will be making its way online in July. I am happy to be teaching colonial America again with Nate McAlister.

We are also hoping to do weekly podcasts this summer, but we are not yet there financially. (Here is how you can help).

Messiah College announced that it will open for face-to-face instruction a week early (August 25) and end the Fall semester a week before Thanksgiving. I will be teaching two courses: U.S. History to 1865 and Pennsylvania History. I am waiting to learn more about what the method of delivery will look like.

I tend to process things through writing, but not everything I write on this blog makes it to Facebook. If you are interested in getting all of the posts that appear here, either subscribe to the e-mail feed (the black “Follow” button on the right) or check back regularly. I don’t re-post everything on Facebook because I don’t want to clog-up people’s feeds, although every post does go automatically to Twitter. And for those who think I post too much, feel free to unfollow or unfriend on Facebook. Seriously, I will not be offended! 🙂  Thanks to everyone who reads regularly, especially those of you who are new to the blog.

My nerves were raw this weekend. I had a hard time balancing righteous anger (if you could call it that) with just plain-old unhealthy anger. I was mad at the police. I was mad at the rioters attacking the police. I was mad at the looters and the violence. I was mad at Trump and his administration. I was mad at white evangelical pastors who were not using their Sunday services to address what was happening in the world. I was mad at evangelical friends on social media who were defending their churches for not addressing racism because they thought the church should not be “getting political.” I was mad at myself for being so angry. I was mad at myself for not being angry enough. If I lashed out at you in a social media space, and I have not already contacted you directly, I apologize.

I am an introvert and do not always gravitate to people or revel in a sense of “community.” But the longer I stay at home, the more I find myself wanting to get in touch with people. I haven’t talked this much to my brother in years. The other day I sent some long-overdue texts to old college friends  This longing to connect also helped me get through some of the anger. Let me explain.

I have several friends in the Christian ministry. Three of them were preaching on Sunday. I found myself lifted spiritually by their words.

Andy, who pastors two small, rural Brethren in Christ churches in central Pennsylvania and proudly calls himself “a middle-class white kid from the sticks,” eulogized Joe, a partner in ministry, a spiritual mentor, a product of the Jim Crow African-American South, and one of his best friends. Andy noted that the celebration of Joe’s life–and the work of racial reconciliation that defined their long friendship–somehow felt diminished by the pain of what happened to George Floyd. But in the end, Andy would not let that happen. His sermon, and the previous day’s memorial service–offered hope. In his own humble way, Andy pointed to the possible.

Bob, who pastors a small Presbyterian Church (USA) in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, connected the Holy Spirit’s coming on the Day of Pentecost to the social unrest and racial divisions in our country. On the day the Holy Spirit arrived, he reminded us, the disciples were “sheltering in place,” fearful of persecution. Yet the Holy Spirit met them where they were. The Spirit fell on people of all races who shared a common faith.

Paul, who preached at an Armenian Presbyterian Church in Fresno, California, offered a sermon of lament and mission. He challenged the members of the congregation to consider their role in these troubled times and remain open to opportunities to be a witness for the Gospel. At the start of the sermon, he read a passage from Christian writer Peter Heck:

Take the tragedy that unfolded on the streets of Minneapolis this week, but do it from the view that none of us likely considered. View it not through the eyes of your biases (original or adopted), but view it through the eyes of heaven:

An image-bearer of the Creator was suffocated to death by a fellow image-bearer of the Creator in front of a group of image-bearers of the Creator. The act sparked image-bearers of the Creator to lash out at other image-bearers of the Creator, accusing them of all manners of evil. As these groups of image-bearers of the Creator exchanged accusations from places of pride, defiance, bitterness, and anger, still other image-bearers of the Creator moved to pillage and loot a city full of image-bearers of the Creator, destroying their property and livelihoods in the name of justice.

This is what I meant by seeing a hopelessly marred creation begging for redemption.

Hope.

Until next time…

Incoming Princeton University Students Will Explore American History, Nationalism, and Civic Ideals

LeporeI am waiting for the day when the Messiah College administration asks all incoming first-year students to read a history book and then publishes a press release to tell the community about it.

Today, Princeton University announced that all incoming students will read Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation.  Here is the press release:

The Pre-read is a Princeton tradition that introduces first-year students to the intellectual life of the University by offering opportunities to engage with a book that students, faculty and staff read.

Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and host of the podcast “The Last Archive.”

“This America” was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2019. The book investigates the ideas and principles that animate the American nation in particular and free nations in general. It is a follow-up to Lepore’s 2018 international bestseller, “These Truths: A History of the United States.”

In a foreword to the Pre-read edition of “This America,” Eisgruber wrote that one reason he chose the book was because “It addresses big questions, including one of the most important ethical issues of our time: How can Americans, and the people of other nations, see themselves as united in a shared quest for the common good despite differences and disagreements that might pull them apart?”

In a video message to the Class of 2024, Eisgruber noted that it is an especially important book to discuss in the midst of a presidential election year in the United States, and as the public health crisis of COVID-19 requires us to work together across the globe “as peoples and as humanity.”

“This America” is “a terrific Pre-read for another reason,” Eisgruber said, in that “it explores what it means to be a scholar and hence what it means to be a college student (especially at Princeton, where we expect all of our students to do research). Lepore, quoting W.E.B. DuBois, argues that the best history ‘tells the truth’ about ‘the hideous mistakes, the frightful wrongs, and the great and beautiful things that nations do,’ and also ‘foster[s] a spirit of citizenship and environmental stewardship and a set of civic ideals, and a love of one another.’”

Reflecting on the current crisis, Lepore added: “What it means to belong to a place always matters, but a global catastrophe calls upon each of us to think harder about the consequences of belonging to a nation, in a suffering world.” 

A prize-winning professor, Lepore teaches courses on American history, evidence, historical methods and humanistic inquiry. She is the author of more than a dozen books, including “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,” which won the Bancroft Prize in 1999, and “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” which won the 2015 American History Book Prize. Her next book, due to be published this year, is titled “IF THEN: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.” She is the author of numerous articles and book reviews, with recent topics spanning the census, the coronavirus and loneliness.

This summer, the incoming class will receive a copy of “This America” in time to prepare for discussions in the fall. “This America” also will be distributed to incoming first-year graduate students and faculty, and will be available to staff and other community members by request.

Discussions with students about the Pre-read book are among the highlights of the academic year for him, Eisgruber said, noting: “A book like ‘This America’ invites conversation. It demands active engagement and thoughtful argument, rather than uncritical veneration.”

2015 Messiah College Graduate Grady Breen Is Doing What Messiah College History Majors Do

Breen

What can you do with a history major? You can offer leadership and a path toward social healing in the midst of a suffering community. This is what 2015 Messiah College history major Grady Breen, a social studies teacher and lacrosse coach, is doing at South Carroll High School in the Baltimore area.

Here is The Baltimore Sun:

Native Americans who grow up playing lacrosse hear stories of the game serving as medicine that can nourish one another.

South Carroll High School’s lacrosse program has been trying to come up with its own medicine this spring, with an entire community yearning to heal.

It’s how Cavaliers varsity coach Grady Breen used to talk with Noah Homayouni, one of his attackmen, before games. Breen wanted his players to use lacrosse as a way to feel better, mentally and physically, and carry it into other aspects of their lives. The coach referred to the Iroquois/Six Nations people playing lacrosse as a “medicine game.”

Homayouni was a big part of South Carroll’s offense, and entered his senior season as the team’s top returner in points (25 goals, 21 assists). The coronavirus pandemic got in the way of their season, however.

Schools closed across the state. Spring sports went on hiatus, and eventually got canceled. If not for Maryland’s mandated stay-at-home orders, Homayouni likely would have been at South Carroll on the afternoon of April 2, gearing up with his teammates for a varsity game against county rival Winters Mill.

He was home instead, on Bennett Branch Road in Mount Airy, when his neighbor’s estranged husband opened fire in front of their houses. Thirty-five-year-old Joseph Zujkowski of Gaithersburg shot Heather Zujkowski, 36, and Homayouni, 18, before returning to Montgomery County and killing himself.

Breen had more than 20 varsity players who needed each other, but the Cavs faced a few obstacles. They weren’t supposed to be gathering anywhere. They couldn’t meet up at school, or at Parker Field.

Breen wanted lacrosse to be their medicine.

“We have learned a lot about the community. … We have realized just how many people can step in and understand the grief and the sadness,” the coach said. “That has been beautiful.”

Seamus Kearney wasn’t about to let a pandemic keep him and his South Carroll teammates from each other.

The players went to a teammate’s house for a private ceremony. On April 6, the school honored Homayouni by turning on the stadium lights for 10 minutes, from 8 p.m. to 8:10 p.m., to recognize the senior’s jersey No. 10. The main fence along the entrance of Parker Field has been adorned with mementos and placards for Homayouni.

A GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign was created not too long after Homayouni’s death, with a goal to raise $15,000 to help cover funeral costs and other expenses. The total surpassed $44,600 as of Thursday afternoon.

Breen used cellphones and video conferencing as outlets for his players to connect and grieve as one. Their medicine might have been difficult to swallow, but it was necessary.

“We all got a phone call from our coach and we heard about it, and immediately everybody was like, ‘We have to be together,’” said Kearney, a junior defenseman. “We have this quarantine going on, but if we’re all by ourselves, we’re not a team. And we have to be together for Noah. That’s what we had to do.”

Read the rest here.

Coronavirus Diary: May 16, 2020

Fea with MaskWhen I published my last diary entry on April 23, 2020, my Pennsylvania county had 229 cases and 7 deaths. Twenty-two days later, we have 515 cases and 48 deaths.

I went to my Messiah College office yesterday for the first time since March 13, 2020. I didn’t really need anything, but when the administration gave faculty the opportunity to get on campus for a two-hour slot this week, I signed-up. I needed to get out of the house and reconnect with the my workplace. I brought a box and filled-it with some books I want to read, a few pieces of mail, and some notes for a Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History seminar I will be teaching in July.  I am not sure when I will be back.

At home, our little quarantine community is breaking up. My oldest daughter Ally is heading back to Grand Rapids in a few days. She is finishing-up her final papers and will start work at a new job later this month. We will miss her. I think I speak for Joy when I say that having her home was an unexpected gift. After she left for college and stopped coming home for the summer, we were unsure we would ever spend so much extended time with her again. Caroline, who just finished her first-year of college, will be with us all summer. She half-jokes that her life just reverted back to her last three years of high school–stuck at home with Mom and Dad. We are glad she will be around.

For the next couple days I will be immersed in final grading, but next week I hope to transition to summer research. I need to make some substantial headway on my American Revolution in New Jersey book. On the podcast front, we just recorded our first episode since March and have several more episodes lined-up for the summer. Stay tuned. If you want to support our work–either the podcast or the blog–feel free to make a contribution at our Patreon page. Every little bit helps.

Everything is still up-in-the-air for the Fall. Will I be back on campus? Will I be teaching on-line? I will not be delivering the presidential address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, but I do have speaking engagements that are still scheduled. I am trying to take things one day at a time. I think that’s the best all of us can do right now.

The pandemic has partially lifted the veil on some of our deepest convictions about faith, politics, the meaning of liberty and community, self-sacrifice, citizenship, and how much time in quarantine we are willing to tolerate. It has been fascinating to watch via social media. I have been surprised, disappointed, and inspired.

We Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever

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From ‘The Seven Liberal Arts.’ Francesco Pesellino. 1422-1457 Florence, Italy. 

Here is a taste of my recent piece at Sojourners:

A nurse can learn how to insert an IV tube in a patient’s arm, but how will he develop the fortitude to enter a room filled with people suffering from infectious diseases? A medical doctor may know how to operate on a patient or prescribe medicine, but how does she decide who dies and who lives when ventilators and other essential equipment are at a minimum? A politician may know how to win elections, but where does he find the inner strength to offer hope in anxious and uncertain times? A successful businessman understands how to make money, but where does she learn to serve the common good during a pandemic? Engineers build things, but what motivates them to volunteer their expertise in the construction of a make-shift hospital? How do we sift through the array of COVID-19 information that endlessly crosses our screens? How do we know who to trust?

Some might say that the study of American history, sociology, religion, literature, ethics, statistics, physics, or musicology is irrelevant when people are dying from this terrible virus. This is one of those subjects where Christians and unbelievers share common ground. They tell us that this is a time for practical skills, not abstract theories, or academic luxuries. But such a view is wrong. We need the liberal arts now more than ever. Those who study these subjects, and wrestle with the questions they raise, are pursuing a high and useful calling. If the United States is going to get through this pandemic, and if the church is going to lead the way in a responsible fashion, we need more Christians who can remind us what is good, what is beautiful, what is heroic, what is just, and what is true.

Read the entire piece here.

Writing as “Serving the Work”

Writing

I am a first-generation writer. My mother and grandmothers kept diaries, but none of them wrote anything with the express purpose of having it read by someone outside the family. I had a few good teachers who encouraged my writing, and I had a few teachers and professors over the years who told me that I needed to become a better writer. In the end, I learned how to write, and continue to learn how to write, by writing.

I have been grading the papers of college students for more than two decades, but this was the first semester in which I actually taught a first-year college writing course. (See my posts on this semester’s Created and Called for Community course). I have done a lot of writing over the years, but going into this semester I was nervous about teaching students how to write. Thankfully, Messiah College offered some training and resources to help me in this endeavor.

This semester I spent time working with my students on their thesis statements, footnotes, bibliographies, and rough drafts. We devoted entire class periods to writing.  I encouraged peer review. I wrote endless marginal comments. I think I did everything I was supposed to do.

But in the end, some students still struggle with writing clear and concise prose. They still get basic punctuation wrong. They write in passive voice. Run-on sentences abound. Some of these students have improved over the semester. Others have not.

I just finished reading the rough drafts of their final paper. Many of them are in great shape. These are a joy to read. But other papers have left me frustrated. Somewhere along the way, my students have come to think that in order to get a good grade on a paper they need to merely respond to every marginal comment I write or awkward sentence I identify. But I can’t line-edit every paper. I can’t offer sentence-by-sentence revisions. So when they do not get the grade they wanted, they send me an e-mail complaining: “I don’t understand why I got such a low grade (usually a “B” or “B+”). I did everything you told me to do in the rough draft.” In other words, “I jumped through the hoops you set out for me. Now why didn’t I get an A?”

But writing is not that simple. Granted, it comes easy for some people. But for others, like me, it takes work. It requires rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, and rewriting and editing again and again until a sentence or a paragraph shines. It is like polishing a stone or sanding a piece of wood–elbow grease is necessary. We can give students all kinds of writing wheels, manuals, lectures, videos, exercises, and extra help, but how do we teach students to embrace the grind?

Earlier this semester, we read a wonderful essay by Dorothy Sayers titled “Why Work? Here is Sayers:

…the worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it.  It is the old catch about the two great commandments. “Love God and your neighbor; on those who commandments hand all the Law and the Prophets…

There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work. There are three good reasons for this:

The first is that you cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it–any more than you can make a good drive from the tee if you take your eye off the ball…If your heart is not wholly in the work, the work will not be good–and work that is not good, serves neither God nor the community; it only serves mammon. 

The second reasons is that the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community…But if your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and give nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.

And thirdly, if you set out to serve the community, you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand–and you may not even do that. A public demand is a changeable thing. Nine-tenths of the bad plays put on in theaters owe their badness to the fact that the playwright has aimed at pleasing the audience, instead of at producing a good and satisfactory play. Instead of doing the work as its own integrity demands that is should be done, he has falsified the play by putting in this or that which he thinks will appeal to the groundlings…and the play fails by its insincerity. The work has been falsified to please the public, and in the end even the public is not pleased. As it is with works of art, so it is with all work.

What might it mean for young writers to “serve the work?” I tell my students that their work at becoming better writers will one day benefit the communities they hope to serve. Do they believe me?  Some do. But others grow impatient. They just want to be told how to get a good grade and move on to the more “important” classes in their majors.

But there has been a lesson here for me as well. Over the course of the semester I have tried to have more patience with my students. I have taken more time than usual with their papers. I am learning to serve the work.

Coronavirus Diary: April 23, 2020

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When I published my last diary entry on April 8, 2020, my Pennsylvania county had 88 coronavirus cases and two deaths. Fifteen days later, we have 229 cases and 7 deaths.

The quarantine continues. Both daughters are still home. They are working on papers as I type this. Ally has had a few job interviews and is starting to think about when she will return to Grand Rapids. Caroline is applying for work delivering groceries.

Part of the Messiah College Career and Professional Development Center is now operating out of my kitchen. After overhearing multiple webinars about job searching, and listening to bits and pieces of Joy’s career advice to students, I think I might be able to land a job if this history teaching thing doesn’t work out.  🙂

It’s been chilly here in central Pennsylvania, but I still have had a few opportunities to sit on the garage couch. I got up early the other morning, made a cup of coffee in our new Kuerig, bundled-up, and went outside. After five minutes of staring off into the sky, a high school girl in the neighborhood, who was out walking her dog, saw me sitting in the garage and struck-up a conversation. We talked about what her family was watching on Netflix and she shared some stuff about her classes at the local high school. This girl has lived three doors away from us her entire life, but this was the longest conversation I ever had with her. When I told Joy about the conversation she informed me that the girl is headed to Messiah College in the Fall.  I wish I would have known this during our morning chat!

In local political news, pro-Trumpers converged on Harrisburg the other day and demanded that Governor Tom Wolf “open” the economy.  I wrote about it here.  And yes, I did see people I know at the rally.  This pandemic is revealing things about people that were previously hidden behind the veil of neighborliness and civility.

We in the Fea household are all getting on each other nerves. But I think I speak for the whole family when I say we are enjoying our time together. I am not sure when we will all be under the same roof for such an extended period of time again. I have noticed that everyone lingers a bit longer at the dinner table these days. My oldest daughter, Allyson, is helping me write a young reader’s edition of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. (We are still looking for an editor, publisher or literary agent–e-mail me!). Last night we sat around the table and thought about which actors might play Philip and Betsy in the movie version of the book. (We decided on Timothee Chalamet for Philip and Emma Watson for Betsy).

I continue teaching Created and Called for Community online. We are in the “vocation” unit right now.  Texts like the parable of the good Samaritan, 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21 (on reconciliation), Jerry Sittser’s The Will of God as a Way of Life, and Dorothy Sayers’s “Why Work?” have taken on new meaning in this pandemic.

The future still seems uncertain. Will I be teaching face-to-face in the Fall? What will Messiah College look like after this pandemic is over? I am thankful to the college leadership who seem to be making wise decisions, but some of the changes have been painful for many colleagues. I have already heard about faculty at smaller, tuition-driven colleges who are wondering if their institutions will survive if residential campus life does not return in late August.

Today I was talking to Joy about residential college students–our own daughters and the students we work with at Messiah. What will happen to them if they can’t return to campus in 2020-2021? How do we deal with the depression, anxiety, uncertainty, loss of face-to-face friendships, and confusion about the future that will come if school is cancelled in the Fall?  If a gap year is necessary, what type of programs or opportunities do we need to create in order to keep them engaged in public life during a time of social distancing? How do we encourage them to use this time to grow–intellectually, morally, spiritually? These are huge challenges. I am sure that college students who do not live on campus have some of their own concerns on this front.

In the end, I hope that my role as a teacher and writer is doing something small to serve the common good during this pandemic. But I still feel like I am dealing with something akin to survivors guilt because I still have a job, my family is healthy, and I don’t work in a “front line” profession. Writing these journal entries certainly help. Thanks for reading.

 

The Challenge of Christian Liberal Arts in This Pandemic and Beyond

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Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota will cut thirty faculty positions this week. Today, at Messiah College, we learned about how the administration will cut seven million dollars from our budget over the course of the next five years. I don’t feel comfortable sharing details, but, as you can imagine, it has been rough. And Bethel and Messiah are not alone.

Over at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman, history professor Chris Gehrz reflects on this reality, and the future of Christian higher education, in the context of Eastertide. Here is a taste of his post, “‘Nothing for your journey’: The Future of Christian Liberal Arts“:

Whether the future takes me far from Bethel, or finds me still walking its hallways, I know I’m being challenged to “take nothing for” my journey. Whether I stay at Bethel or leave that “house of God” for the welcome of another, I need to shake off my dependency on whatever promises predictability, stability, and security and go forth in the name and power of the one to whom we bear witness.

(Big talk. We’ll see if I can live up to it.)

But Bethel and almost all of its religious competitors also need to welcome the same kind of unburdening. As much as Christian individuals, Christian institutions need to take much less for their journeys.

For example, while I’m glad that our students can choose from so many options — not just academic programs, but the extracurriculars and amenities that history conditions us to associate with a college experience, it’s possible that we’ve been so focused on what students want that we’re not giving them what they truly need. (Or making them pay too much for the package.)

But still more importantly, I can’t shake the feeling that preserving the status quo of Christian higher education has required that we linger in houses whose welcome was always conditional or incomplete.

I’ve often argued that the humanities prepare students for gainful employment, but it’s possible that we ought to be less responsive to economic forces that deepen inequality and diminish dignity. I’ve often praised my discipline for cultivating prudent, empathetic citizens, but it’s possible that we need to speak out more strongly against political authorities that abuse their power and neglect their responsibilities.

Most often of all, I’ve rejoiced that Christian scholars like me get to participate in God’s mission as part of the larger Body of Christ, but it’s possible that we need to ask harder questions of Christian denominations and churches whose support has always been tempered by their suspicion of free inquiry and expression.

All that seems impossible right now. How will we draw students if we don’t treat them as customers, or if we antagonize their pastors? How will we attract private donors or public funding if we criticize the wealthy and powerful? It’s much more likely that our educational institutions will make more compromises, not fewer.

And so my greatest fear right now is not that Bethel will close, but that it will try to stay open by drifting further from its core mission as a liberal arts college that bears witness to Jesus Christ: seeking the truth found in him, transforming students in his likeness, and spreading his kingdom.

Read the entire post here.

What Should History Museums Collect During This Pandemic?

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We have already encouraged you to record your coronavirus experiences. Today, our librarian at Messiah College asked us to consider having our students write something about how they are experiencing this pandemic in the hopes that we can deposit some of their reflections in the college archives. I have decided that I will ask students in my Created and Called for Community class–a course that deals with human dignity, creativity, community (national and Christian), and vocation–to write a final exam applying these ideas and values to our current moment.

The New York Historical Society is also thinking about how to remember this moment.  Here is a taste of a staff blog post titled “History Responds: Collecting During the COVID-19 Pandemic“:

What can history museums do during an epidemic? Like many institutions across the globe, the New-York Historical Society is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. And like so many New Yorkers, our curators and librarians are preoccupied with concern for their loved ones and grief over what’s happening in our beloved city.

But behind the scenes, they’re also doing what comes naturally to them: thinking about history. Since 2001 and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, New-York Historical has run a program called History Responds. Its main goal is to collect objects, photographs, and ephemera from the present day for use as research sources and in future exhibitions—in essence, preserving history as it’s happening. We’ve collected from events like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2017 Women’s Marches. And as best we can, we’re collecting now.

We caught up with Rebecca Klassen, associate curator for material culture, who works on our History Responds initiative and joined us for an email exchange about what’s happening with the program. Among other things, she writes about what it’s like trying to collect objects in a time when touching things is risky and what kind of stories New-York Historical wants to be able to tell in future decades. Read on for more. —Kerrie Mitchell, content editor

Hello Rebecca! First off, can you give us a sense of how History Responds came about in the first place and how different this was from the usual tradition of collecting?

Well, New-York Historical has long collected documents, artifacts, and art reflecting contemporary events and trends. For instance, staff have regularly sought items connected to political campaigns and celebratory events in the city. As a designated initiative, History Responds took shape in the days immediately following September 11, 2001, when our president at the time, Kenneth T. Jackson, called upon staff to intensively collect around the attacks and the city’s response. This became a massive collection of objects ranging from architectural debris to clothing to letters to items left behind as memorials—some of it was given to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, while a core remains in our collection.

Read the rest here.

Back In The Zoo: Trust in the Valley

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Messiah students engaged in discussion at the latest Erasmus Club dinner with Dr. Bernardo Michael. Photo by Keanan Wolf

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about a recent discussion with fellow history major about COVID-19 –JF

How will COVID-19 be remembered in 50 years? What about 100 years? What about 500?

Will future generations condemn us for the way we handled the pandemic? Will they look down on us for not doing enough? How will the hardships we experience today compare to the sufferings experienced by the generations that came before us?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I’m not convinced anyone does right now. Yet, it is these questions, and many more, that we wrestled with at the history department’s Erasmus Club dinner earlier this month. We pushed two round tables together in Martin Commons, piled our plates with various dining-hall entrees and began our discussion. We were supposed to discuss the intersection of history and memory, but within minutes our conversation veered off course and steered toward the coronavirus. No one consciously tried to bring it up, but because COVID-19 was already on everyone’s minds the topic was inevitable. The Saturday before the dinner, I found out that the first two cases of coronavirus had been discovered in Pennsylvania. Now, three weeks later, there are a few thousand cases in Pennsylvania and my home state of Michigan is a week and a half into a stay-at-home order. It’s crazy how fast things change.

How will I remember COVID-19? Right now it’s hard to be sure. Cases are still rising, the markets are still plummeting, and it’s hard to tell just how big of an impact it will have on my life, and on the lives of the people I love. I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life, and neither have my parents or my grandparents. It seems like whenever I think I have a grip on what’s going on, things change yet again.

But in the midst of all the uncertainty, I am sure of one thing: I worship a God who is working all things out for my good and his glory. At the beginning of the year, I started reading this book called Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. My boyfriend and I started it as a kind of New-Year’s resolution for the two of us. The book is all about trusting that God is in control, even when bad things happen. Even when we lose our job, even when our vacation is rudely interrupted, even when death and disease run rampant, God is still sovereign and worthy of our confidence. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen. As long as we live on this side of eternity, there will be trials, there will be suffering, and there will be tears. But he does promise to be with us through it all. He promises us peace and strength to endure. He tells us that when our foundations are shaken, when the world falls apart before us, He still remains. Isaiah 41:10 says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” 

I hope that future historians will be able to look at this season in my life and see that I trusted God with everything. I hope they will see that I chose to trust God even when it wasn’t easy, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when my heart ached. I am not there yet, but I hope I will get there someday. Will you join me?

Back in the Zoo: Life Interrupted

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her coronavirus experience thus far.  She has also changed the title of her column from “Out of the Zoo” (Kalamazoo, MI) to “Back in the Zoo.” I love it! –JF

I left Messiah College at 5 A.M. last Saturday and began my nine hour trek home to Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had never made the drive by myself before, but it was actually much less taxing than I expected. My beloved college campus receded further and further in the distance as the sun rose from behind the Allegheny Mountains, turning the sky from black to grey to blue. I listened to several episodes of the “Love thy Neighborhood” podcast my sister recommended, which made the time pass quickly. With my cruise control set at 5 mph above the speed limit and a few breaks at rest stops along the way, before I knew it I was back home watching a movie with my family and my boyfriend for the first time in over two months. I love going to school at Messiah, but it felt good to be home. Little did I know though, I wouldn’t be coming back to Messiah College for the rest of the year.

I am one of the many million college students across the globe whose life has been hastily interrupted by COVID-19. My classes are moving online, which means I’ll have to get used to an entirely new routine and style of learning. My ministry with Young Life will look different for the rest of the semester as well, for while my team is still reaching out to our high school friends virtually, I can no longer spend my afternoons and evenings in Boiling Springs attending sporting events or hanging out with girls. Two and a half months of meals, conversations, and adventures with my friends, classmates, and professors at Messiah seem to have vaporized into thin air. Indeed, Coronavirus has interrupted my life in a way I didn’t see coming. 

Yet, despite these inconveniences, I know I am still privileged above many. I have a healthy, safe home to be quarantined in for the next three weeks. My family has a freezer full of food and our internet works. My dad still has a job and even though Michigan K-12 schools are closed, my mom still gets paid. No one in my family has died from, or even been diagnosed with, the coronavirus. There are many college students in the United States, and across the world, who are not blessed with these luxuries.

In times like these, when our lives seem to be so inconveniently interrupted, I think it’s also helpful for us to remember that 2020 is not the only year in which people’s lives have been impacted so. Countless lives came to a screeching halt during World War I and World War II as civilians and soldiers alike faced death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. On September 11, 2001 thousands of New Yorkers and millions of Americans saw the world as they knew it crumble before their eyes. Civil war in Syria, economic collapse in Venezuela, conflict in Somalia and South Sudan displaced (and continue to displace) thousands of refugees every day. While a catastrophic interruption of life may be new ground for most of my fellow American college students, it may be comforting to remember that the new land we tread is not completely foreign. 

Today Messiah students and staff go back to school–this time in a completely virtual format. We will, I’m sure, become all-the-more familiar with the way coronavirus interrupts our lives and learning in the days to come. As for me, I’m trying to keep my eyes on Jesus. I can’t go back to school, and at this point I’m not supposed to leave my house until April 13. But I can send an encouraging text, check in on my friends, and continue to love people in the best way I can. One of my favorite authors of all time is this guy named Bob Goff–if you need a book for your quarantine reading list, I highly recommend Everybody Always or Love Does. He offers a challenge fitting for this season, which I will leave you with: “Loving people the way Jesus did means living a life filled with constant interruptions. Bring it.”

What Stories Will You Tell About Coronavirus 2020?

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This kid just came home to continue her college education online. She is not happy about it, but she is making the best of it.

The coronavirus story is far from complete, but I hope that many of you are collecting stories to pass on to your families and communities. Let me encourage you to keep a diary or journal. Future historians will thank you for this. Here’s a start:

My life has not changed considerably since this pandemic hit the United States. In fact, I feel a little guilty as I watch so many people whose lives are changing drastically as a result of the coronavirus and are now overburdened with work–especially healthcare providers and people in leadership. I am trying to continue my calling as an educator during the crisis. I have a platform here at the blog and I have been trying to do as many posts at possible to help folks put this pandemic in some kind of larger perspective. We are getting a record number of readers these days, so thanks for following along.

I have largely self-quarantined. I had some kind of flu bug last week, but I have managed to recover. Joy now seems to have picked it up. But relatively speaking, we are all fine.

Today I stopped going to McDonalds to get my morning coffee and bought a Keurig. I am watching a lot of CNN and trying to stay up to speed on what is happening around the country. It is is important to stay informed in times like these.

I am currently on Spring Break. Joy is now working full-time from home. My youngest daughter Caroline came home from college on Tuesday night. She is continuing her semester online from her bedroom. Yesterday I was tempted to “sit on” on one her classes, but then thought better of it.

My eldest daughter Allyson is still in Grand Rapids. She learned last night that she will never take another face-to-face college course. She is sad about this news and we are sad for her. At this point we are not even sure if she will have a graduation ceremony.  She lives off-campus with her friends and is trying to make the most out of the last weeks of her college experience. Tonight she played Monopoly with her housemates. She is also battling some kind of non-corona flu bug.

I am proud of Caroline and Ally.  Both of them canceled Spring Break trips and they have been taking social distancing very seriously. I wish I could say the same about their peers across the country.

Next Wednesday I start online teaching. Fortunately, I have three sections of the same course. I am still working on platforms and approach. My mailboxes and social media feeds are flooded with links to online teaching resources.  Sometimes even good advice can be overwhelming.

While the blog continues, I am not sure about the immediate future of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  We will not have access to our Messiah College recording studio, so we will need to decide whether to cancel the season or try to continue with really bad sound quality.  We still have one more episode in the can, so look for Episode 66 with historian Serena Zabin, author of an amazing new book on the Boston Massacre.  I know some of you offer financially support our podcasting work.  Once we make a decision, I will be in touch via Patreon.

What stories will you tell about living through this historic pandemic? Even you think, as I do, that your stories are boring and commonplace, you are doing a public service by writing them down.

Not All Liberty University Students Are Happy With Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Decision to Keep the School Open During This Pandemic

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Yesterday I wrote about Liberty University’s decision to stay open during the Coronavirus crisis. President Jerry Falwell Jr. recently suggested that Kim Jong Un and the Chinese plotted to spread the virus on American shores as a way to punish Donald Trump.  Read our post here.

Yesterday, Joe Heim of The Washington Post did some additional reporting on Falwell Jr.’s decision to keep Liberty University open.  Here is a taste of his piece:

Liberty has taken some steps in response to the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday, it canceled attendance at its weekly convocation of students that brings together about 6,000 students to listen to a speaker. The event was streamed online. Earlier this week, it announced that all of its international study programs for spring and summer were terminated and called back Liberty students studying in Rome.

By announcing that the university’s 16,000 students would return to class on campus, Liberty is an outlier among Virginia’s universities. Almost all of the commonwealth’s prominent colleges and universities have announced that classes will move online only.

Falwell’s announcement that in-person classes would resume following spring break did not sit well with some students at the Christian evangelical university in Lynchburg.

“I think it’s gross,” said Elizabeth Lake, 22, a senior math major. “We’re supposed to be taking preventative action, and he’s not doing that because of his political views.”

Lake said she didn’t have any issue with Falwell’s support of Trump but thought he was making a poor decision to keep the school operating as normal.

“Students are going to be coming back from spring break from all over and who knows if they’re going to bring this back with them,” she said. “He’s not taking into consideration all of the Liberty students and the people who live in Lynchburg.”

Scott Lamb, a spokesman for Falwell, declined an interview request.

Joe Keller, 18, a freshman sports management major, said he was “pretty upset” with the school’s decision.

“If I get coronavirus, I can probably beat it, but I don’t want to get in contact with older professors who might catch it from me. I don’t want to be in crowded dorms where it’s spreading all over,” he said. “This decision really endangers the students and staff.”

Read the rest here.

Messiah College, the Christian college where I teach, will move to online courses until Easter.

The University of Lynchburg, which is located in the same city as Liberty University, has moved all classes online.

Esau McCaulley, a professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts college in the Chicago suburbs, is the author of a New York Times piece titled “The Christian Response to the Coronavirus: Stay Home.”  Here is a taste:

…the most effective ways of stopping the spread of the virus is by social distancing (avoiding large gatherings) and good personal hygiene (washing our hands). The data suggests that what the world needs now is not our physical presence, but our absence.

This does not seem like the stuff of legend. What did the church do in the year of our Lord 2020 when sickness swept our land? We met in smaller groups, washed our hands and prayed. Unglamorous as this is, it may be the shape of faithfulness in our time.

There is a lesson here for a diminished church. It is not that the church should go away forever, but that heroic virtue comes in small actions as much as in large ones. We live in an age of self-assertion, where everyone is yelling, “Pay attention to me because I am the only one who can help.” But part of the Christian message is that God comes to us in ways that defy our expectations. The all-powerful empties himself of power to become a child. Jesus as king does not conquer his enemies through violence, he converts them to his cause by meeting violence with sacrificial love.

Read the entire piece here.

Not all Christian colleges are the same.

True Friendship and the Search for Meaning: Teaching Augustine’s *Confessions*

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Most of my students have never heard of Augustine of Hippo. Very few of them have read a 5th-century text. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when we discussed parts of Augustine’s Confessions in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.

Confessions is the third reading in our “community” unit. The first two readings–Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone“–focused on community in the United States. The excerpts we read from Book II and Book IV of the Confessions focused on Christian friendship as a form of community.

As always, we started by sourcing the text. Here is a taste of my colleague Richard Crane‘s introduction to Augustine and his Confessions:

If you are a Christian, your faith has been profoundly influenced by St. Augustine, even if you have never heard his name. St. Augustine’s theology has set the agenda for theology in Western Christianity since the fifth century.  Born Aurelius Augustinus in AD 354 in what is present day Algeria, Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian.  His father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted to Christianity late in his life. Augstine was of the Berber ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, but his family adopted the ways of Roman culture including the language of Latin.  Augustine is best known for his church leadership and theological writings during the period in which he served as the Bishop of Hippo

The Confessions…is most similar to the contemporary literary genre we would identify as a memoir. The Confessions is a classic of Christian spirituality and theological reflection and is most likely the book that has been read by more Christians than any other Christian writing apart from the Bible itself. St. Augustine narrates the story of his conversion to Christianity and the course of his sinful life of selfish career ambition and sexual immorality prior to his return to God. He tells the story of his life before Christ as, paradoxically, both a flight from God and a disordered and misguided search for God.  But the most important part of the story for Augustine is his conviction that in spite of his flight from God, God was in pursuit of him all along and had so ordered his life as to lead him back to God.

I began class by reading from the opening prayer of Augustine’s Confessions: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” Why are our hearts restless? I challenged the students to draw upon past readings to try to answer this question. A few of them connected Augustine’s search for meaning to the effects of sin in the world, referencing what we learned earlier in the semester from Bruce Birch, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Alice Walker in our “Creation” unit. We are broken people, living in a broken world, but one day God will make this world whole (shalom) again. In the meantime, we find meaning, purpose, and happiness by patiently resting in God’s promises to us. This, it seems, is what we mean when we talk about Christian hope.

I used one of my favorite songs to remind students that we are all “tramps” trying to “get to that place where we really wanna go,” where we can one day “walk in the sun.” About 75% of my students had never heard this song:

I don’t know if Springsteen ever read Augustine during his Catholic school days, but I am sure that Augustine would have recognized the Boss’s yearning for something “real.”

If Springsteen did not help my students connect with Augustine, the opening lines of Confessions Book II, chapter 2 did the trick. Augustine writes: “My one delight was to love and be loved.” Such a statement speaks to both the 5th-century and the 21st-century soul. As we moved through the text, we talked about how Augustine tried to satisfy his quest for true love with sexual lust. (At this point I couldn’t help but reference our culture’s addiction to online pornography and casual sex). But just in case some of my students could not relate to Augustine’s disordered sexual life, I asked the students to read the text carefully and name some other ways people pursue happiness apart from God. In Book II, chapter 5, Augustine mentions a few: personal appearance, the accumulation of wealth (“gold and silver”), sensual pleasures, and “worldly success.” Human beings have been trying to find happiness through these things for a long, long time. Augustine was now starting to resonate with some of my first-year college students.

Even certain kinds of “friendship,” Augustine argues, cannot satisfy our restless longings for meaning and purpose in this life. He writes,:”The bond of human friendship is admirable, holding many souls as one. Yet in the enjoyment of all such things we commit sin if through immoderate inclination to them–for though they are good, they are of the lowest order of good–things higher and better are forgotten, even You, O Lord our God, and Your Truth and Your Law.” (Book II, chapter 5).  What does Augustine mean by a “lowest-order” friendship?

I asked my students to talk about the values or ideas that ground some of their own friendships. Some of them said they had friendships based on common interests–music, sports, hobbies, video-games, etc.  Others said that their closest friends were people they grew-up with, went to school with, or met in their college dormitory.  Augustine says that theses kinds of friendships are good. In fact, in Book IV he writes about one of his own friendships, a relationship cultivated through childhood companionship and “the ardour of studies” in school. When this friend died of an illness, Augustine grieved his loss.

But as Augustine reflects on the loss of his friend, he simultaneously pushes his readers–including my students–to consider a deeper or higher kind of friendship. In Book IV, chapter 4, he writes: “there is no true friendship unless You weld it between souls that cleave together through that charity which is shed in our hearts by our Holy Ghost who is given to us.” I think this was a tough pill for some of my students to swallow. They did not like Augustine’s suggestion that some their friendships–good friendships–were built upon “lower order” things and were thus not “true.” But I also got the feeling that some of them were willing to listen, or at least take seriously, Augustine’s invitation to foster a deeper kind of friendship.

In our remaining time, I tried to connect our readings on Augustinian friendship to our previous readings in the community unit. Was there a difference between Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship and the kinds of social bonds that Robert Putnam believes are essential to a thriving democracy? A few students argued that Augustinian friendships, built upon Christian love and the power of the Holy Spirit, could certainly contribute to a thriving democracy and create what Putman calls “social capital.” But most agreed that a strong democracy did not require such “true” friendships. “Lowest order” friendships would work just fine. In other words, Augustine was calling Christians to something higher than mere democratic friendship and the creation of “social capital.”

My students thought that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” offered a vision of community that was closer to Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship. They believed that friendships rooted in social justice and the dignity of the human person were essential to a healthy society.  Yet even these kinds of friendships did not meet the Augustinian standard of friendship unless they were guided by a love of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

After class, a couple of students approached me and asked if they could switch the topic of their upcoming “community essay” to  Augustine’s Confessions. I was pleased to hear this.

Thanks for following along.  We are on Spring Break next week and then our focus turns to Exodus 19-20, Matthew 5-7, Acts 1-4, and the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds. Messiah College has moved all courses online until after Easter. To be honest, I am not sure how I am going to reproduce these kinds of conversations in an online format, so this may be my last post for a while.  Stay tuned.

Out of the Zoo: National History Day

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Messiah’s state qualifiers. Photo by Chloe Kauffman.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her experience at this year’s regional National Day competition–JF

National History Day is a non-profit organization that encourages thousands of kids to engage with the past each year. Students pick a topic connected to an annual theme, research it for several months, and then find some creative way to present their findings to the public–through an exhibit, performance, documentary, website, or paper. Students who put together a particularly excellent project can proceed to the regional, state, or even national levels of the competition. Every year, Messiah College hosts one of the 12 regional NHD contests in the state of Pennsylvania. Messiah students, professors, and community members all pull together to evaluate the several hundred projects that come through the doors in what feels like a big history pep rally. To read what I wrote about NHD last year, click here.

I love National History Day for a lot of reasons. For one, it gives kids the chance to research something they’re passionate about. Competing in National History Day also introduces students to the kind of history that involves active inquiry and detective work, rather than monotonous memorization of names and dates. It allows students to explore the past in a creative, active way. National History Day shows middle and high school students that history is not a closed issue–it is something that is continually done and redone, with real relevance to the present. On top of all this, NHD gives Messiah’s history department the opportunity to reach hundreds of members of our community.

National History Day also gives me a glimpse of what my life might look like in a few years. The day before Messiah hosted its History Day competition last week, I sat on my dorm-room floor and read through the eight junior (middle school) research papers that I would be judging. As I scanned each paper and wrote comments on my evaluation sheets, I imagined helping my students with their own projects someday. I imagined advising them on their topic choices, pointing them towards primary sources, and encouraging them to research what they’re passionate about. The next day, as students and their families buzzed around Boyer Hall and the High Center, I pictured corralling my students and making sure they get to their judging sessions on time. As one teacher excitedly knelt in the aisle to photograph his students when their names were announced at the awards ceremony, I imagined cheering at the top of my lungs in support of my own students’ success. 

Judging NHD is helpful for me–and for any future history teacher for that matter–because it reveals the many challenges students face when doing their own research. It allows me to brainstorm ways I’ll encourage and push my students to try their hardest and to engage in the historical process in the future. It forces me to think about what I’ll say to my students when they’re frustrated or discouraged or feel like giving up. I even started a list. It’s far from complete, but here’s what I have so far:

  1. Research is hard. It can be frustrating sometimes. Some days you will spend hours looking for a source that isn’t there. Other days you might spend thirty minutes rewriting the same sentence over and over again before it sounds right. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad researcher or a bad writer–it’s all part of the process.
  2. History isn’t just about reporting facts–it’s about telling stories and analyzing those facts.
  3. When you come to the end of a research project, you’re now the expert on your topic. You now know more about some area of history than 99% of the rest of the people in the world. No matter where you end up placing in the competition, that’s something to be incredibly proud of!
  4. And most importantly: practice makes perfect.

Georgetown Day School Covers Student Visit to Messiah College

Fea with GDS students

I covered this event here. Now it is Georgetown Day School’s turn. Here is a taste of “Civil Dialogue,” Daniel Stock’s piece at the GDS website:

Over the course of the minimester, Sue, Lisa, Michael, and special guests explored the other side of the political, social, economic world beyond the “typical GDS view of things.” A variety of speakers, from “explainer” journalists and commentators to those who inhabit the conservative spectrum, engaged with the group as they dove deeply into the current political landscape and the operative theme of, “How did we get here?” 

GDS parent Jennifer Griffin (Annalise Myre ’19 and Amelia Myre ’20) and alum parent Juan Williams (Regan Herald ’99), both journalists and political analysts for Fox News, spoke to the group. The students also engaged in conversation with Kate Bennett of CNN (author of Free Melania) and conservative Republican freelance writer for The Washington PostGary Abernathy

They also journeyed outward, exploring the world beyond the Beltway and the “GDS bubble.” The group traveled to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania to spend the day at Messiah College with John Fea, a professor of American history at the school and author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. John Fea published this story about his day with the students and faculty. In his piece, he lauded the importance of civil dialogue across lines of difference. He closed with this moment: “At the end of the day one of the students asked me for some tips about how to overcome the divisiveness and partisanship in American culture today. I suggested that we need more days like this one! She agreed. As these kids head off to college and find themselves in positions where they will be able to change the world, I hope they will remember their visit to Messiah College and their experience in central Pennsylvania.  Thanks for coming and letting us see ourselves through your eyes. I learned a lot from the visit!”

GDS teachers strive to create the circumstances through which students can develop the ability to listen with open minds, think critically, and engage in dialogue—that is both civil and rigorous—with those whose life stories are different from their own. Whether in a Lower School classroom, on Capitol Hill with 8th graders, or at Messiah College with a High School Minimester, students learn to change the world first by understanding the people in it.

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

King in Jail

After a couple weeks focusing on “creation” in my Created Called for Community (CCC) course at Messiah College, we have shifted gears slightly to focus on the meaning of “community.” Our first reading on this front was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). We read it alongside “A Call for Unity,” the white Birmingham clergy’s statement criticizing King’s visit to the city. King’s wrote his “Letter” as a response to “A Call for Unity.”

There are lot of ways to teach “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In a history course, I would use this text to teach something about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While the past always teaches us something about the present, my primary goal in any history course is to provide students with a thorough knowledge of the past so that their engagement with the present might be richer and more informed.

CCC is not a history course. Since we read and discussed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as part of a unit about “community” in America and the larger world, my pedagogical assignment was to help students see what King might teach us about the meaning of this elusive idea.

But I remain a historian at heart. How could we approach such an important text without some historical context?  As part of the work of sourcing this document, I showed the class a short video from Voice of America:

We began our conversation with “A Call for Unity.” I asked students to read the affixed signatures to the document and tell me something about the men who affirmed it. Eight Birmingham clergy signed it–two Episcopalians, one Baptist, one Roman Catholic, one Jewish rabbi, two Methodists, and one Presbyterian. They were all white.

For our purposes, I asked the students to imagine a different title to this document. What if we changed the name to “A Call for Community?” What kind of community were the white spiritual leaders of Birmingham defending?  Students noted several characteristics of this community:

  1. Birmingham was a community that had “racial problems.”
  2. Birmingham was a community that required members to obey the law. If people in the community wanted to change the law, they needed to do so through the court system. But in the meantime, the law must be “peaceably obeyed.” The law in question, of course, was segregation based on race.
  3. Birmingham was a local community. The people who held power in this community did not look favorably on outsiders telling them how to live. This was particularly the case regarding the aforementioned “racial problems.” These clergy wrote, “We agree with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can be best accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.”
  4. Birmingham was a community that did not want Martin Luther King Jr. coming to town with his “extreme measures” designed to undermine the social order.  Of course, white supremacy and segregation defined this social order. King’s “extreme measures” were peaceful protests.

I thought it was important to pause at this point and remind students that Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 was a community. When many of them hear the word “community” they think of something positive. Community is a warm and fuzzy feeling about togetherness and mutual care. Many students who enroll at Messiah College say they are attracted to the “sense of community” they feel when they visit campus.  This is all well and good. But yesterday I wanted them to see community in a neutral way. My students did not approve of the kind of community the Birmingham clergy defended in “A Call for Unity,” but it was a community nonetheless.

A few of them had a hard time attaching the word “community” to a segregated city like Birmingham. As Christians, many were bothered by the fact that the religious and spiritual leaders of this city defended such a community. Two students, in post-class conversations, made connections to the anemic state of the Christian church in 1963 and what they perceived to be the weakness of the white churches today in the midst of suffering, oppression, racism, the environment, abortion, political power, etc.

It was now time to turn to King. Why was King in Birmingham? Nearly all the students who spoke noted that the city’s African-American community invited him to come. Not everyone living in Birmingham was happy about the kind of community the white leaders were advancing in the city.  If Birmingham’s African Americans wanted to end Jim Crow, they would need some help. They turned to King.

Why else was King in Birmingham? King came to this southern city “because injustice is here.” We talked about his comparison to the Apostle Paul, a spiritual leader who left Tarsus and brought the Gospel to the Greco-Roman world. Paul was also an “outside agitator.” He challenged local gods and disrupted the peace in places like Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Phillipi, Athens, and Thessalonica.  Since some of my students are familiar with the Acts of the Apostles, I thought this might be a good place to linger for a while.

But I also wanted to get to the fourth paragraph of King’s letter.  He writes:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.  Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

My students were quick to note that the Birmingham clergy’s vision was local, but King’s vision was national.  We paused and reflected on words and phrases like “interrelatedness,” “network of mutuality,” “single garment,” “narrow,” and “provincial.” I thought this exercise was important for our understanding of “community.” When King says “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” it should cause us to think about local community with a little more complexity.

This was a lot to ponder, and time was running out. I said that I wish I could do an entire first-year seminar on King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because it was such an intellectual and moral feast. I only saw one student roll her/his eyes. 🙂

I continued to push the theme of community. Where do we look if we want to find the things that a given community values? One of the ways we do this is by examining a community’s understanding of right and wrong as embodied in its laws. King had a lot to say about this in the letter. How should we distinguish between “just” and “unjust” laws? Here is King:

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”  Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law….Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

We spent some time talking about what King meant by “personality.” With a little prompting, they began referencing Genesis 1 and 2 and Bruce Birch’s essay on the “ethic of being.” If we believe, with the Judeo-Christian tradition, that we are all created in the image of God, then the human person (“personality” in King’s language) is dignified.  A law is unjust when it strips people of human dignity.  Several students gravitated to King’s words about Hitler: “We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.'” King added: “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.  Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Powerful stuff.

With only a few minutes left in class, I pointed them to King’s understanding of American nationalism.  National communities make appeals to history. King invoked the ideals of the founding, including Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. If I had more time, I would have steered students toward something I wrote back in 2011:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like Glenn Beck (who despite his Mormonism has joined forces with many Christian nationalists), David Barton, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, or Newt Gingrich. All of these public figures have championed the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Their careers have been defined by the belief that this country needs to return to its Christian roots in order to receive the blessings of God.

Rarely, if ever, do we hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., included in this list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today. Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (June 14, 1954). It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail….”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

Read the entire piece here.

Today we discuss Robert Putnam’s classic essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” I want to bring my 6th-grade bowling trophy to class, but I can’t seem to find it.

Teaching Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”

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On Monday we wrapped-up the “Creation” unit in Created and Called for Community.  I began the class with a review.  Over the last two weeks we read:

  • Genesis 1 and 2
  • Bruce Birch’s theological commentary on Genesis 1-3: “The Image of God.”
  • James Weldon Johnson’s poem on Genesis 1 and 2: “The Creation
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”

We spent the last day of the Creation unit discussing Alice Walker‘s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” As is our custom, we began by “sourcing” the text.  Here is a taste of my colleague Kerry Hasler Brooks‘s introduction to Walker:

Alice Walker is a celebrated American writer, intellectual, and activist who has becoming a guiding voice of black feminism.  Drawing on her childhood in a small Georgia town gripped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow oppression, [Walker is the] author of more than 40 works of poetry, fiction, scholarship, memoir, and children’s literature.  Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning story celebrates the brave survival of black women assaulted by sexual abuse, racism, and poverty in the American South in the early twentieth century….

Walker’s essay added yet another layer of complexity to our understanding of creation and its implications for how we live. As we have seen, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth. I was pleased to see how many students made a strong connection between this Christian view of human identity and their critiques of racism, poverty, and patriarchy.

But I wanted my students to take a deeper dive into the text. I encouraged them to consider Walker’s story in the context of what we have learned about the Christian’s call to creativity.  I reminded them of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation.” God created the world. We are created in the image of God.  We should thus be engaging in the advancement of God’s creation through our earthly labors.  As Tolkien taught us in “Leaf by Niggle” (with the help of the eschatological reflections of N.T. Wright that I introduced), our creative work, even if incomplete or unfinished, will one day be part of what the New Testament describes as the “new heavens and new earth.”

Walker’s African-American women–including her own mother–showed creativity amid the worst kinds of systemic oppression.  I asked the students to provide examples from the essay of how the creative work of these women revealed their dignity as God’s image bearers.  Racism, poverty, and patriarchy has tried to strip these women of their dignity. But their creative impulses, born of the divine spark within them, could not be squelched so easily.  The creative impulse is resilient within us because it comes from God. I wondered aloud if this impulse might even be a way to prove the existence of God.

Several students wanted to talk more about Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.  Walker writes about the “contrary instincts” that Wheatley felt as both a writer  and “a slave, who owned not even herself”:

Yet because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was “so thwarted and hindered by….contrary instincts, that she…lost her health…”  In the last years of her brief life, burdened not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless “freedom” and several small children for whom she was forced to do strenuous work to feed, she lost her health, certainly. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies, Phillis Wheatley died.  

Wheatley wrote, she created, amidst her frailty and weakness. I asked students to bring Wheatley’s story into conversation with the final pages of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” All of my students agreed that the obstacles to Niggle’s creative energies were trivial when compared to Wheatley’s, but there were also some similarities. If Tolkien and Wright are correct, one day her poetry, which brought some light to the darkness of eighteenth-century slavery in America, will contribute to the new heavens and the new earth that creation “groans” for in Romans 8.  And that light will be much, much, brighter.

Other students referenced Walker’s story about the “anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago” who stitched a quilt that now hangs (or at least it did in 1983) in the Smithsonian Institution. Walker writes, “Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” I have a few history majors in my courses so I asked them to tell us something about what life might have been like for Black woman in Alabama in 1883. They were gave their fellow students a quick lesson about segregation and Jim Crow America. This quilt teaches us, again, that race-based systems of oppression cannot kill the creative impulse. Why? Because such an impulse is part of our DNA as human beings created in the image of God. (Repetition is important in a class like this! 🙂 ).

Another student commented on Walker’s mother as a story-teller.  Here is Walker:

But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist.  For these stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion.  Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains.  The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years.

By this point in the class, several students were making connections between Walker’s essay and previous readings. The stories that Walker’s mother told have not only enriched Walker’s life, but will also enrich all of us in the coming Kingdom.

Walker ends the essay by describing how her mother brightened their “shabby house” with flowers and gardens:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible–except as Creator: hand and eye.  She is involved in her work  her soul must have.  Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life.  She has handed down respect for the possibilities–and the will to grasp them.  For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life.  This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.

For Walker, her mother’s gardens left her with a “heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength.” In “search of my mother’s garden,” she writes, “I found my own.” This is a wonderful reflection on how we connect with our personal histories. It should also inspire the work of the historian as she mines the past in search of forgotten stories of human beings–African-American women in Walker’s case–who engaged in acts of creation amid suffering. (And by telling these stories in compelling ways the historian also participates in the work of sub-creation). Walker’s essay should also inspire Christian historians to seek out these untold stories and interpret them as small glimpses of a coming kingdom where shalom will replace the brokenness of the world in which we create.

One day, hopefully soon, we will all get to enjoy the beautiful gardens of Alice Walker’s mother.

Today we move to the “Community” unit. We will begin with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Follow along here.