Out of the Zoo: Coronavirus Diary

Annie Thorn is a junior 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 gets us up to speed on coronavirus at Messiah University—JF

A month and a half into the semester, Messiah University has settled into a new kind of normal. We’re getting used to shouting answers to discussion questions so that others can hear us from behind our mask. We know now to check our emails regularly in case a professor decides to meet over zoom last minute–due to COVID exposure or otherwise. We’ve become unphased by the strange microphone headsets our professors wear, relatively unconcerned with the ever-fluctuating number of students who tune in to class remotely. We’re finding creative ways to connect with our families and friends when we can’t go home over fall break or see them in person. Certainly none of these situations are ideal, but we’re getting used to them anyway.

After a spring and summer of live-streaming church, I’ve finally returned to in-person worship. The church that I attend when I’m at school has been holding all of its services outdoors in a huge field, which makes social distancing much easier to maintain. While this season has shown me that the Church is so much more than a place, it felt good to be back, singing with other believers and listening to a sermon in church clothes instead of pajamas. Doing Young Life ministry this year has been challenging in many ways, but my team has been making it work. We’ve been hosting all our Young Life events outside–at parks, around campfires, and in backyards–and require students to bring a mask. We’ve lucked out in terms of weather so far, but we’re making preparations for when the weather gets colder and we may not be able to gather in large groups. 

We’re expecting to get an email sometime this week about changes to Messiah’s COVID restrictions. There have been 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus since the beginning of the year–17 students and 2 employees. Our numbers are still relatively low, but the slight uptick in cases has many on edge. Nonetheless, we’re still hoping that Messiah will keep loosening-up the rules to give us more things to do on campus. Since we can’t go into each other’s apartments or dorms right now (even with masks on) students have been taking trips off-campus to hang out. We’re all hoping that Messiah will decide that increased visitation is the lesser of these two evils.

In the meantime, Messiah’s campus has been abuzz with political fervour. Some students are certainly more passionate than others, but political conversations abound nonetheless–before class, during meals, and on social media. We talk about the issues that are important to us–issues like criminal justice reform, abortion and education. We talk about the pandemic. In other discussions, I listen to my friends and mentors express their concern about a lack of empathy and understanding on both sides of the political spectrum. We reveal our voting plans too, whether we’re voting by mail, in-person, or hand-delivering our envelopes on election day. I’ve been checking my mailbox periodically for my absentee ballot. My sister (who studies journalism at Northwestern University) got hers last week, so I think mine will come soon. I’m excited to vote in my first Presidential election, even though I won’t get a patriotic  “I voted” sticker to show for it.

Last Tuesday, I watched the first presidential debate. My housemate Chloe (another history major) and I shared a bag of popcorn as we watched Trump and Biden duke it out on stage, the script of the Declaration of Independence’s Preamble displayed on a blue backdrop behind them. Our housemate Rebecca, who grew up overseas, joined us too. She was born in the states, but had never watched a presidential debate. I told her she should at least watch the first 10 minutes of the debate so she would be able to understand Saturday Night Live’s parody video of it a few days later. To my surprise, she watched the whole thing. “It’s just so fascinating!” she said.

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic and a month and a half into school, much remains uncertain. Will COVID cases go up any more on campus? Will my friends continue to stay healthy and safe? Will we be able to keep Messiah open for the rest of the semester? Will I still be able to connect with my Young Life students when it’s too cold to meet in someone’s backyard? Will my absentee ballot come on time? If I’ve learned anything about this COVID-19 season, it’s that every answered question will be replaced by a new unanswered one. We grow, we adapt, we adjust, but there’s always one new thing to get used to. Uncertainty has become the new normal, change a strong and constant force.

Out of the Zoo: Joan of Arc

Annie Thorn is a junior 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 reports on her class on the trial of Joan of Arc—JF

I loved The Lord of the Rings movies growing up. I watched them for the first time with my mom in elementary school–she skipped all the parts that were too scary or gross. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I watched them again a few years later I understood more. After that, the Lord of the Rings saga became a staple in our family–for sick days, movie nights and especially long car trips in our Dodge minivan with built-in television screens. My cousin Abby, who is now a children’s librarian in the Grand Rapids area, even took my siblings and I to see a midnight showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug when we were in eighth grade.

One of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings movies is a scene from The Return of the King. As Frodo and Sam draw ever nearer to Mount Doom, Legolas, Gimli, and several other familiar faces are left to defend Minas Tirith from a giant army of orcs. In the middle of the heated battle, the evil Witch-King shows up and picks a fight with Eowyn, a noblewoman from Rohan who disguises herself as a man to defend Middle Earth. “You fool, no man can kill me,” the Witch-King rasps, with Eowyn in a choke-hold. “Die now.” A few seconds later, Eowyn escapes from the his grasp and rips off her helmet to reveal long golden hair. “I am no man!” she exclaims, thrusting her sword forward and striking the Ringwraith with a fatal blow.

As a self-proclaimed tomboy in elementary and middle school, I wanted to be like Eowyn when I grew up. I probably could have quoted her battle scene in my sleep. She was bold and strong and brave–the ultimate example of girl power. I think I liked watching Eowyn because I saw some of myself in her–but I also saw the kind of person I wanted to be.

At Messiah University this semester, I’m taking a class about a young woman who reminds me a lot of Eowyn–Joan of Arc. She wasn’t a noblewoman from Rohan, but a peasant girl from Domrémy, France. To be frankly honest, I didn’t know much about Joan before my class started, and I still  have a lot to learn. But in the month that I’ve studied her thus far, I’ve encountered a devout, loyal, fearless young woman who cast aside gender norms, listened to God’s voice, and tirelessly sought the greater good of France. Like Eowyn, Joan was brave, and she wore men’s clothes into battle too! There’s no magic ring or Witch-King in Joan’s story, but she did live in a world that looks a lot different from our own. To someone who loves history–and even to someone who doesn’t–Joan’s life is just as intriguing as a fantasy novel. Like Eowyn, I see some of myself in Joan of Arc–in her stubbornness and her passion for justice. Yet in Joan I also see the kind of person I want to become–someone who is bold, courageous and full of faith.

I am grateful to my professor, Dr. Joseph Huffman, for introducing me to Joan of Arc this semester. As we progress through the transcript of her trial in the coming weeks, I hope I will better comprehend with greater fullness the woman she was–a task which may never be completely achieved. Because unlike movie characters, historical figures are complex and ever-changing. They can’t be easily captured in a few words on a page or a few minutes on a movie screen. Nonetheless, we still have lots to learn from them.

Out of the Zoo: 2,254 COVID Tests

Annie Thorn is a junior 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 the recent COVID-19 testing at Messiah University—JF

The mass email came on a Monday afternoon, right before my last class of the day. “Did you see that they’re doing mass COVID testing?”  a housemate asked a few minutes before I logged into zoom for “Theology and American Culture” with Dr. David Weaver-Zercher. “We all have to get tested? When? Why?” another housemate asked. I didn’t have time to read the email blast before class started, but I thought about it throughout the whole zoom call. Was there an outbreak or something? I thought. Should I pack an emergency bag just in case? Question after question filled my mind like air in a balloon. Even after class was over and I got the chance to read through the announcement, uncertainty still swirled in the pit of my stomach.

It didn’t take long for rumors to consume Messiah University like a raging wildfire. Some said the apartments designated for quarantining students were already almost filled to capacity. Others were convinced Messiah wouldn’t be open for much longer. A Messiah student I follow on Instagram even posted a picture with a friend holding up lyrics to a Taylor Swift song. In plastic red script the letterboard read “I think I’ve seen this film before… and I didn’t like the ending” with #covidsucks in the caption. Even though Messiah only had five confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the time, horror stories coming from other universities–of hundreds of positive cases and thousands more students in quarantine–had us all on edge. But can you blame us?

At the Harbor House—Messiah University’s special interest house for members of the honors program—we were particularly apprehensive. Because we are considered the biggest “nuclear family” on campus, all twelve housemates needed negative test results in order for us all to avoid an impromptu two week quarantine. We hoped and prayed against positive cases as testing approached, but an ominous sense of unease still hung in the air. “I have a feeling at this time next week things will be a lot different,” my housemate Emily Decker predicted grimly.

Messiah University’s staff did what they could to put students at ease. All week, professors let us know that they were praying for us. They checked in at the beginning of class and offered comforting words. They let us know they were available for us if we needed anything–even if we just needed someone to talk to. President Kim Phipps sent out a video message on Thursday morning–the day testing was set to begin–with encouragement and clarification. She assured us that no, Messiah was not on the verge of closing and no, the swabs the nurses were going to use would not go all the way up to our brain. Over the next few days Messiah students made their way to Brubaker Auditorium during their assigned time slot. On a normal year chapel services would be held in Brubaker twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Instead of rows of chairs and drowsy students, Brubaker showcased lines of X’s, spaced 6 feet apart, two giant jugs of hand sanitizer at the doors, and busy nurses donning lab coats and masks. Heading to the auditorium last Thursday morning felt both familiar and strange, but mostly just strange.

A few days after testing was completed, we received another email blast. “Check your mass emails!!” Emily Decker texted in our house group chat. “2,254 tests and only one positive!!!!!!” The bricks that had been weighing on my shoulders all week clattered to the floor. After a week of tension and uncertainty and strangeness, I could finally breathe again. Only one positive out of over two thousand tests–nothing short of a miracle. All the girls in my house were safe and healthy, and none of us even had to quarantine. God is so good.

Out of the Zoo: Trying Our Best

IMG_20180904_195550199Annie Thorn is a junior 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 reflects on the challenges of teaching and learning in a pandemic.  —JF

I remember how excited I was to work out at Messiah’s Falcon Fitness Center for the first time. Brand new, nearly 15,000 square feet, and decked out with state-of-the-art equipment, Messiah’s gym was a serious upgrade from my high school weight room. Plus, I heard on a campus tour that you could use the screens on the treadmills to play Netflix or Hulu while you exercise. As a freshman and a sophomore I remember going to the gym nearly every day–sometimes twice, if my fitness class was meeting–to lift weights and run. Needless to say, I finished several seasons of The Office, Brooklyn 99, and New Amsterdam over the past two years, all while getting my steps in. 

Due to recent circumstances, I don’t go to the fitness center as much this year. In fact, I haven’t been there at all since I moved in a week and a half ago.  Don’t get me wrong, the fitness center staff has implemented and enforced strict social distancing guidelines to keep Messiah’s community safe from COVID-19. Many students are comfortable going to the gym right now, but I’m just not there yet. So for now I’m getting up early to run a couple miles around the block before everyone is out and about on campus–with a mask hanging around my neck just in case. It looks like I might need to find another time to watch Netflix this year. 

It’s hard to be a college student during a pandemic. Classes, internships, volunteer opportunities, even exercise routines have been hastily interrupted, altered, or cancelled altogether. Names are more difficult to remember, friends harder to connect with. Every additional rule and extra responsibility feels like another weight added to an already-heavy backpack. The fear of an impromptu fourteen-day quarantine is ever-looming. We’re encouraged to have a suitcase of essentials packed to take with us if we start showing symptoms or have been exposed to someone with the virus. 

I’m sure it’s hard to be a professor during a pandemic, too. Technological difficulties arise. Masks muffle students questions and make conversations challenging to facilitate. At Messiah, classes are often held in two different rooms and professors are expected to teach students in both classrooms simultaneously. Even the most experienced teachers are thrown for a loop, apologizing to students when they feel they have not been able to deliver their usual caliber of education.

There are plenty of angry voices out there claiming they know what’s best for students and teachers alike during this season. “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!” a typical Facebook post reads. “CLOSE DOWN CAMPUS!” someone else writes on Twitter. They don’t ask. They don’t empathize. They just shout. They don’t listen or show compassion. They just politicize the millions of students trying to learn and teachers trying to teach in the midst of a world turned upside-down. 

Before you post,  before you reprimand a student or teacher or school board for the decisions they’ve made, please keep the following in mind. This year we are juggling what feels like a thousand things at once. It is a hard time to be a student, and it is a hard time to be a teacher. We are trying our best, and our educators are doing the same. We are all doing what we can. Instead of criticism, instead of hatred, some of us could really benefit from an encouraging word or two right now. And like always, we could all use a little bit of grace.

GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

GOP Convention: Night 2

NBC News

NBC News graphic

I didn’t get to listen very carefully to many of the speeches on night 2 of the GOP convention. I was preparing for my return to the classroom today.  At least my nightmares were different last night. Instead of dreaming about what Trump is doing to the nation and the church, I dreamed of microphones, ZOOM, Canvas, student rotation, the Cloud, and sweating through my mask as I tried to lecture to 170 students in a 500-person recital hall with people staring down at me from the third floor balconies. (Yes, this will happen today).

So this post will just focus on the things that caught my attention enough to pull me away from creating Canvas modules.

Last night Cissie Graham, the daughter of court evangelical Franklin Graham and the granddaughter of Billy Graham, spoke at the Republican National Convention. Watch:

A few quick thoughts:

  1. I will take Cissie Graham and the rest of the court evangelicals more seriously when they start talking about religious liberty for all Americans.
  2.  As a fellow evangelical, I would hardly call prohibitions against indoor worship during a pandemic “religious persecution.”

Not all of Billy Graham’s grandchildren are in the Trump camp. Yesterday Jerushah Duford, who describes herself as “the proud granddaughter” of Billy Graham, published an op-ed in USA Today claiming that evangelical support for Donald Trump “spits” on the “legacy” of her grandfather. Read it here.

During the convention Trump pardoned Jon Ponder, an African-American man convicted of robbing a Nevada bank. Ponder now runs Hope for Prisoners, a Christian ministry the helps prisoners re-enter society after their period of incarceration. Ponder’s story brings positive attention to criminal justice reform. It is a story of God changing a man’s heart. I am glad Trump pardoned him.

What bothered me about the segment featuring Ponder was the way the Christian faith was manipulated for political purposes. At times during this segment I wondered if Ponder was there to talk about criminal justice reform or help Trump make his appeal to the evangelicals. Ponder’s faith plays an essential part in his story. This should be celebrated. But faith should never be politicized.

Watch the segment and let me know if any of this belongs at a political convention:

Later in the evening, Abby Johnson spoke about Planned Parenthood and abortion:

I was nodding my head as Johnson spoke until she used the words “Trump” and “two Supreme Court justices” in the same sentence. We can reduce abortions in America without getting into bed with this president, but it will require breaking from the 40-year-old Christian Right playbook.

Then came Georgetown Law School graduate Tiffany Trump. I wasn’t really listening to Tiffany until she said “God has blessed us with an unstoppable spirit, His spirit, the American spirit.” The worst part about this is that most evangelicals didn’t blink an eye when Trump’s daughter conflated the Holy Spirit and the American Dream.

I perked-up again when Tiffany started lamenting–yes lamenting–the fact that the promotion of “division and controversy breeds profit.”

There was a small kernel of truth in some of Tiffany Trump’s words last night. She called for open discourse and the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere. I am on board with this, but I think the real issue at stake here is where one draws the boundary line between open discourse and anti-intellectualism. I am thinking here about both the Left and the Right. The far Right is prone to making public arguments that are not based on truth, science, or evidence. The far Left does better with truth, science, and evidence, but its defenders draw the boundaries of acceptable discourse so narrowly that they often sound like intolerant fundamentalists. And both sides need to stop the ad hominem attacks.

I am not going to say much about the speeches by Eric Trump, Mike Pompeo, or Melania Trump. Pompeo, of course, spoke from Jerusalem to keep the evangelical base happy. Melania’s speech is getting good reviews. I guess it was OK, but I tuned-out when she described her husband as an honest man.

As noted above, there was a lot of faith talk last night. The Democrats were portrayed as godless threats to true religion. This suggests that the millions of American Christians, and especially African-American Christians, who vote Democrat are not real Christians.

This tweet sums-up how I felt last night:

Out of the Zoo: Back to School

IMG_20200825_145436125Annie Thorn is a junior 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 return to Messiah University. —JF

“Our primary goal is to keep campus open.” 

The weighty words hung in the air like dust near a sunny window. My housemates and I gathered in our basement as Wyatt Sattazahn, our Assistant Resident Director, hosted a mandatory back-to-campus meeting on Zoom. Along with the typical exchange of contact information and the reminders about parking passes and roommate agreements, Wyatt explained Messiah’s reopening plan. He talked to us about proper mask-wearing techniques and emphasized the importance of social distancing. There will be no visitation in any capacity (for at least two weeks), no large gatherings, and no unmasked interactions (outside of “nuclear family” units). Wyatt’s addendum didn’t catch me by surprise, but it did remind me of the sacrifices my peers and I will need to continue to make in order for Messiah University to remain open for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Whether we like it or not, sacrifices are vital in order for communities to flourish. We Messiah students have been reminded of this fact several times this year already. But we learn the same lesson from history, and from the Christian faith. In the eighteenth-century, when American colonists thought Britain had burdened them with an unjust tax, they banded together and sacrificed their preferences for imported British luxury goods. Two centuries later, in order to strike an important blow against segregation in Alabama, Montgomery’s black community sacrificed the convenience of riding the city bus for over a year.

Additionally, as followers of Christ, we know from Philippians 2:4 that we are not to look out for our own interests only, but also for the interests of others. We are called to put others’ needs before our own. We do this not because it is easy or fun or comfortable, but because it’s the example that Christ has set for us. May 2020 will be remembered as the year we sacrificed our own preferences for the health and safety of others.

My life “Out of the Zoo” will look a lot different this year. Messiah’s campus, once plastered with posters advertising Union dances, free concerts and festivals, is now decorated with one-way signage and reminders about social distancing. Instead of dealing solely with the “syllabus shock” that normally comes with the first week of classes, I now have a global health crisis to worry about. Young Life, which largely involves attending high school sporting events and large gatherings of students, will have to continue to be creative about finding a safe and healthy way to bring the gospel to kids. There will likely be fewer visiting speakers, movie nights, and history club events for me to write about and reflect on for this column. |

Yet with everything that’s changing, some things will remain the same. I am confident that my professors will continue to offer high-quality teaching, guidance, and relationships despite circumstances that are far from ideal. I will continue to learn–from my classes, from my experiences, and from my friends. I will dive deep into the study of the past and seek to understand how it informs this tumultuous present. And as we all learn, grow, and make sacrifices for the common good, the Lord will continue to be faithful.

Why Liberty University should close the Falkirk Center, and why it probably won’t happen

Liberty_University_LaHaye_Student_Union_IMG_4121 (1)

If you want to understand what a university values, consider the kinds of centers and institutes they have on campus. Most centers and institutes are extra-curricular in nature and are designed to bolster the ideas and values that define the mission of the school that sponsors them.

I wrote a bit about this in an earlier post comparing Liberty University to my own institution, Messiah University.  For example, Messiah University was founded by a small Protestant denomination called the Brethren in Christ Church (BIC). The BIC draws from three Christian traditions–Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism. These traditions have a long history of promoting peace, social justice, women’s ordination, personal holiness, and service. Because of these commitments:

  • Messiah University has a center for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan studies that promotes issues related to peace, reconciliation, heart-felt conversion, and personal and social holiness.”
  • Messiah University has a Center for Public Humanities with a mission to promote the study of the humanities and “partner with our broader community in meaningful inquiry, conversation, and action.”
  • Messiah University has a center devoted to the work and legacy of former U.S. Commissioner of Education and Messiah graduate Ernest L. Boyer. The Boyer Center “advances educational renewal for the common good.”
  • Messiah University has a center called The Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research.  This center has a mission to “foster justice, empower the poor, promote peace and care for the earth through applications of our academic and professional disciplines.”

Liberty University, on other hand, was founded by cultural warriors. The school came of age with the rise of the Christian Right. Evangelical students started attending Liberty because they or their parents were enamored by Jerry Falwell Sr.’s vision of a school that would serve as an extension of his Moral Majority.

Today, in the wake of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s temporary removal from the presidency of Liberty, a narrative has emerged suggesting that Falwell Jr. somehow took the school in a direction that was different from the good old days of Falwell Sr. There may be some truth to this, but the narrative as a whole is false.

Jerry Falwell Sr. may have been more pious than his son, but his public statements and positions were just as scandalous. During apartheid, Falwell Sr. thought that Desmond Tutu was a “phony” and those fighting racism in South Africa were communists. He distributed The Clinton Chronicles, a documentary claiming that Bill Clinton was connected to the supposed murder of Vince Foster. Falwell Sr. blamed the September 11 attacks on abortionists, “pagans,” feminists, and “the gays and the lesbians.” And we could go on.

The Falwell legacy was in good hands with Jerry Jr. Little about the Falwell family approach to “Christian” politics has changed over the years. Just compare Jerry Sr.’s “greatest” hits with those of his son.

American culture, however, has changed. Add social media and the Internet to the mix and it becomes more difficult for Falwell Jr. to get away with the stuff his father did. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t tried.

So let’s get back to the Falkirk Center, the place that seems to most reflect the Liberty brand.

According to its website the Falkirk Center is

Rooted in compelling, enduring, absolute truths, our principles transcend generational divides and withstand cultural trends. As the creeds of secularism are proving tenuous and unsatisfying to millions of Americans, there has never been a better time to fill this void and amplify these truths.

Upcoming generations are falling victim to the teachings of secularism, primarily because they’re not learning America’s exceptional foundational ideals within the public education system. Further, attacks on religious freedom have caused them to abandon their Christian roots in droves. So, it’s no coincidence that as young people’s acceptance of traditional values declines, depression and anxiety are reaching record highs. Young people are hungry for fulfillment and truth like never before. And, right now, the only option for them is the siren song of secularism promoted by the far left.

Today we have a tremendous opportunity to provide our youth—and all Americans—an alternative to the left’s unfulfilling and outright dishonest attempt to provide a purposeful life. We also have an opportunity to provide clarity to a passionate, yet confused, generation of believers in Jesus Christ.

Jerry Falwell Sr. would have agreed with every word of this.

And then comes the culture war piece:

The function and the moral mission of the Falkirk Center is to go on the offense in the name of Christian principles and in the name of exceptional, God-given American liberties.

Accomplishing this end requires more than adding noise to the echo chamber. It requires an army of bold ambassadors equipped with Biblical and Constitutional knowledge to speak truth to believers and unbelievers alike in every professional field and public forum. This includes Christian leaders and influencers—of all ages and backgrounds—defending, explaining, and sharing their beliefs on all platforms and sectors of society.

Thankfully, we don’t have to render ourselves powerless as the left misguides our young people. Much like Wallace’s struggle for freedom, we need brave, tenacious, passionate fighters to prevail in our war to save the greatest nation on earth. The Falkirk Center will remain on the front lines of this war. And we believe, like the passionate freedom fighters that courageously charged into the breach before us, we will eventually see victory.

So what does this mission look like in real life? Yesterday, we included several tweets from the Falkirk Center’s “bold ambassadors.” Read them here.

Today we heard more from these “bold ambassadors.”

Here is Charlie Kirk, the co-founder of the Falkirk Center:

Here is Falkirk Center “fellow” Jenna Ellis:

Ellis is also promoting a Kamala Harris birther controversy. (Trump did not deny this in today’s press conference). She retweeted this today:

And what would hateful Christian Right culture war rhetoric be without an occasional biblical quotation:

I guess Ellis does not realize that Malachi 1:11 comes in the midst of a passage in which the prophet Malachi rebukes Israel for dishonoring God and defiling his name.

Here is Falkirk Fellow Darrell B. Harrison:

Eric Metaxas is also a Falkirk Fellow. Today, on his Facebook page, he promoted an article defending Jerry Falwell Jr.  This, I might add, is the first time I have seen any court evangelical come to Falwell’s defense since he was put on indefinite leave.

Meanwhile, Falkirk Fellow Sebastian Gorka is trying to discredit Kamala Harris by claiming that she had slaves in her family history.

I don’t know if this true, but it hardly disqualifies a person from running for Vice President. If it is true, and if these tweets get to the level to which Harris needs to address them, all she needs to do is admit it and reject slavery. This would distinguish her from the Trumpers who want to defend monuments to Confederate generals and deny that systemic racism is a problem.

Gorka and D’Souza are perfect examples of what Christian Right politics has become. Namely, do everything possible to smear and degrade your enemy even if it means digging-up stuff from 200 years ago. I can imagine the conversation in the Falkirk Center ZOOM staff meeting this week: “Let’s do our part to take Harris down, even if we have to peddle in half-truths that besmirch her character.”

Yes, I realize that this “politics as usual,” but is this really the kind of politics Christians should be involved with?

Another Liberty University Falkirk Center fellow, David J. Harris, is also promoting birtherism:

David Brat, a fellow at the Falkirk Center and former Virginia congressman, plays to white evangelical fears:

It is doubtful that the Falkirk Center will disappear because its pronouncements are so deeply embedded in the history of Liberty University. It is worth noting again that the
acting president is an old-school, Falwell Sr loyalist who came of age with the Liberty University founder in the 1980s.

In the end, if the Board of Trustees does decide to end the Falkirk Center, it will represent a major break with the history of Liberty University. It would be the equivalent of  Messiah saying that it no longer thinks a center to promote peace, justice, service, and reconciliation reflects the values of the university and thus must be eliminated.

How the Pietist Schoolman is preparing for his history classes this fall

Parmer

I will be teaching my U.S. survey in this room 

Like Chris Gehrz, I am starting to stress about the Fall semester.

I am teaching the U.S. Survey course to 180 students in a 790 seat recital hall. (We will have ten smaller weekly seminars in other socially distanced classrooms). I am also teaching my Pennsylvania History course to 25 students. I have not started thinking about anything yet, although I do have a meeting to “attend” next week to learn more about the university guidelines.

So how is the Pietist Schoolman doing it? He offers five basic principles that are guiding his preparation:

  1. “Start with Face-to-Face, then think about how to make it available online.
  2. “Lean into my skill as a lecturer”
  3. “Move most ‘active’ learning online”
  4. “Emphasize research”
  5. “Overcommunicate”

See how Chris unpacks these points here.

Dickinson College will go completely online this Fall

Dickinson_College_600x400-600x400

This post is most relevant for the central Pennsylvania area where I live.

Here is a taste of Julia Agos’s piece at WITF:

(Carlisle) – Dickinson College plans to move to remote instruction for the fall semester.

College President Margee Ensign says the main factor in the decision to suspend in-person classes was primarily aimed at protecting the health and safety of staff and students.

She said the college in Carlisle is concerned about the recent rise in cases, mandatory quarantine for out-of-state students, and social distancing in residential halls.

Ensign said she is disappointed to have to make this decision.

“This is not the semester for which any of us had planned. It is a scenario unlike anything we have experienced, driven by a virus about which much remains unknown,” Ensign said.

Last month, Dickinson announced their intention to resume on campus instruction. But as the pandemic evolved around the commonwealth – the administration determined the best route moving forward would be to continue remote learning.

Other schools, like Penn State, plan to use a hybrid model with a mix of in person classes and remote learning. While Gettysburg College and Franklin & Marshall plan to resume in person instruction but will not have students return to campus after traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday.

A small number of students will be permitted on-campus residence. Such exceptions include international students who need to return to campus and students without secure housing, food, or internet service.

The college is freezing tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year and will waive its student activities fee, to alleviate the financial burden felt by families, according to a press release.

Read the entire piece here.

Messiah University is taking an approach similar to Gettysburg College and Franklin & Marshall College.

Yesterday Trump gave a speech about the suburbs. It sounded very familiar.

Redlining

Our history students at Messiah University are doing some great work as part of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

An exhibit on the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation‘s redlining of Harrisburg in 1935-1936, with primary reports of the commission, a list of resources, and an interactive story map was recently published at the Digital Harrisburg website.

The documents were originally found by my colleague Bernardo Michael. Students (now graduates) Rachel Williams and Sarah Wilson digitized the maps two years ago. And our friends at Harrisburg University helped us launch the Story Map.

The interactive map shows the original language used by surveyors to zone Harrisburg and its surrounding boroughs and townships and includes links to original photographs. The exhibit also provides a good foundation for understanding the history of racial segregation in the city.

I thought about this redlining project today when I heard Donald Trump speaking at the White House:

This part of Trump’s speech wreaks of segregation, red-lining, and racist dog-whistling:

  • The suburbs, where mostly white people live, are “beautiful” and they will be destroyed if Biden gets into office.
  • If Biden is elected your property values will decline because of rezoning. More people of color or poor people will arrive.
  • The only city Trump mentions is Minneapolis. When most of his followers hear “Minneapolis” these days they think about race riots. This is a dog-whistle.
  • “Crime rates will rapidly rise.” Who are these criminals? Who does Trump have in mind?
  • What does Trump mean when he says the suburbs will be “obliterated by Washington Democrats, by people on the far left that want to see the suburbs destroyed?” People have “worked all their lives to get into a community,” Trump says, “and now they are going to watch it go to hell.”

He’s not even hiding it any more.

Here is some more history: