Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams Talk “Faith, Imagination, and the Glory of Ordinary Life”

robinson

Marilynne Robinson

Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.  Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury.  They were at Wheaton College recently for a conference celebrating Robinson’s work.  Christian Century has published some of their exchange.  Here is a taste:

The novel Gilead presents us with life in its ordinariness. But in our celebrity-obsessed culture there’s almost a disdain for the ordinary. Could you help us to think about how to give more attention to ordinariness and more value to ordinary life?

Williams: It’s a version of the earlier question about time. Sometimes we want the immediate sense of glamor, gratification, or drama. We can’t understand that the prosaic, the everyday, always accumulates toward glory, because we want the glory now, we want the fix.

I think of Augustine in the Confessions saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t that God’s not here. The problem is that I’m not here.” I’m everywhere but here in this moment, in this particular prosaic, ordinary, physical environment. Part of the function of really effective art is to slow us down and bring us to that particularity.

Robinson: When I think about the ordinary—and that’s a word apparently that I use a lot—I think about the strange miracle of one’s self-ness. When I’ve been away from home for a while, I come downstairs in the morning and I put together what I consider to be the perfect breakfast, which has a lot to do with toast and butter. Combining the sense of the ordinary or the habitual with the sacramental—that’s very strong in my mind.

We talk ourselves into things, like that we’re interested in a celebrity. Very few people over the age of 14 identify in a serious way with a celebrity. But they are distractions, they are the shiny objects. We get told things like “we’re interested in celebrities” and this makes us pay more attention to the magazines at the checkout of the grocery store. But in terms of how people actually live and what they feel, it is: “How do I get along with my children? What do I do with a problem that looks like a looming problem that will require all the understanding that I can muster?” I think people live at that level and maybe take a certain amount of relief from the fact that there is always a new magazine cover.

Read the rest here.

Elizabeth Craft’s Diary, 1770-1771

MassHistorichq

White diary can be read at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston

Over at The Beehive, the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Erin Weinman introduces us to the diary of Elizabeth Craft White.  From December 27, 1770 to January 23, 1771 White wrote about her spiritual life in the wake of her husband’s death.  This looks like a wonderful source for those working in 18th-century lived religion.

Here is a taste of Weinman’s piece:

The diary is heartbreaking, but Elizabeth White’s thoughts were not uncommon during a period in which mourning became intertwined with religious culture. In early Massachusetts, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use the death of a loved one as a time to reflect upon their own souls and ask God to forgive their sins, faced with the reality that their own end could be near. Ministers often encouraged their parishioners to keep diaries to embellish their faith in Heaven, viewing this as another way to become closer to God and to understand what death meant. Sermons often revolved around the topic of dying, such as Timothy Edwards’ All the living must surely die, and go to judgement.

Man is born to trouble as the Sparks fly upward tears sorrow & Death is the Portion of every person that is Born into the world. I have been born, most certainly & it is as certain that I must die & I know not how soon. Die I must! & die I shall! (Elizabeth White, January 18, 1771).

Read the entire piece here.

The Pietist Option

Pietist Option 1

I was going to title this post, “Forget the Benedict Option, Embrace the Pietist Option!” But then I realized that by exhorting you to ignore Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” I was not acting in a manner befitting a Pietist. (Sorry, I am a work in progress!)

Yesterday I got two books in the mail: Joanna Bourke’s 2006 tome Fear: A Cultural History and Chris Gehrz’s and Mark Pattie’s The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity.  One book is (as the title suggests) about fear. The other book is about hope. I have been reading Bourke today, but have had Gehrz and Pattie nearby so I have something to turn to if I get overly depressed.

I read The Pietist Option in manuscript and was encouraged by it.  When InterVarsity Press asked me to endorse it, I immediately said yes!  Here is what appears on the back cover:

Pietist Option 2

Not all the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be interested in this new book.  I know many of you are not religious or people of faith.  If you fall into this category, I want to encourage you to read The Pietist Option anyway.  Gehrz (a Yale-trained historian) and Pattie (a Christian pastor) offer a way of thinking about Christianity that you might find appealing. Other readers of this blog come from Christian traditions that do not give primary attention to Pietism.  Fair enough.  But I still think you should read the book.  All Christian traditions could use a dose of something akin to Pietism.

I was reading some of The Pietist Option to my sixteen-year-old daughter last night.  (I managed to get her attention between Snapchats, texts, and AP U.S. history homework). Here are a few of the snippets I read to her:

“If we’re seeking after renewal, it’s got to start with you and me confessing how we’ve failed to love God and to love our neighbors.”

“The Pietist option calls Christians back to the motivations and actions of the Servant who stooped to wash his disciples feet.”

“Our world needs a new narrative to unite us in spirit and mission, to provide us a hopeful pathway to pursue together.”

She did not tell me to stop, so I guess that is a good sign. 🙂

 

Solitude and the Christian Historian

woman-1277817_960_720

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz riffs on my piece on intellectual loneliness by suggesting that loneliness, and even solitude, may be a good thing for Christians.

Here are a few snippets from his post “The Loneliness (and Solitude) of a Christian Historian“:

To varying degrees, I’ve felt several of these lonelinesses myself at various points. And this might not be unique to historians, academics, or evangelical Christians. I wonder if fear of loneliness isn’t helping to produce polarization in American society, as people seem so desperate to belong to ever-smaller groups that they’d rather conform to ever-longer lists of intersecting membership criteria than risk one of John’s lonelinesses….

What if disciplined study of the past enabled us to do like Jesus, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and many contemplatives since and, in Dallas Willard’s terms, “[choose] to be alone and to dwell on our experience of isolation from other human beings.” In the process, he argues, we interrupt “patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God” and start to develop a “freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 160)…. (Here Chris copies an extended quote from Foster on the difference between “loneliness” and “solitude.”)

I need to think more on this notion, but it seems possible that the discipline of history can foster a spiritually healthy isolation. By temporarily stranding ourselves outside of our own time and entering what A. G. Sertillanges (another recent topic of John’s) called a “laboratory of the spirit,” Foster thinks that we not only cultivate a “deeper, fuller exposure to [God’s] Presence” but gain “increased sensitivity and compassion for others… a new freedom to be with people… new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts” (pp. 108-109).

Read the entire post here.

The Discipline of History as a Spiritual Discipline

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

St. Augustine

From Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

History is not only a discipline in the academic sense in which philosophy or literary criticism or sociology are disciplines.  It is also a discipline in the sense that it requires patterns of behavior, such as the denial of the self, that are necessary in order to meet the “other” in a hospitable way.  Doing history is not unlike the kind of “disciplines” we employ in our spiritual lives–disciplines that take the focus off of us and put it on God or others.  As historian Beth Barton Schweiger writes, “The discipline of history can be a means of grace in the life of the historian.  The writing of history, rightly done, can challenge and change the historian.”  For generations, historians have seen the pursuit of objectivity–the need to cast aside personal bias in order to tell a story about the past that is as accurate as possible–as an effort of the will.  Historian Thomas Haskell, a noted authority on the subject of historical interpretation, writes:

The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers….Fairness and honesty are qualities we can rightfully demand of human being, and those qualities require a very substantial measure of self-overcoming…Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but is the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues.

While Christian historians need willpower as well, we can also rely on prayer, the Holy Spirit’s power, and other spiritual practices in order to pursue the kind of self-denial, hospitality, charity, and humility needed to engage the past in a proper way and be open to the possibility of it transforming us.  How often do we pray over our scholarly historical work?  And I don’t mean a prayer for help in getting the paper done on time or a prayer that we keep our sanity amid the heavy workload.  I mean a prayer that the Lord would use our study of the past in all its fullness to change us.  Similarly, when we uncover sinful behavior in the past, it should cause us to examine our own imperfect lives.  It might even lead to prayers of confession.  When we are open to using the past as a mirror that forces us to come to grips with our own flaws, we relieve ourselves of the “humanly inescapable desire to judge, and ultimately to be the judge, to be the author of our own story, to be God.” The practice of confession draws us closer to God and others, but it also enables us to be more effective historians–scholars and students who are better able to understand and tell the stories of people who live in the “foreign country” of the past.

I have posted above my desk (in the office where I do most of my historical work) a “prayer before study” written by the Catholic scholastic Thomas Aquinas.  Though I am not always as consistent as I would like to be, I try to pray it whenever I sit down to write or conduct research into the past.  I have even brought it with me when I visit archives.  Though the prayer is not specifically geared toward historians, I often make adaptations to fit the particular historical task at hand.  Praying this prayer settled me in my work and decenters me.  It is a reminder that God is with me, helping me to get out of the way so that I can listen more attentively to the voices from the past that I will be encountering that day.

When we see our work as a historians as a spiritual exercise, we also find that we grow in wisdom.  An encounter with the strangeness and diversity of the past, or even a part of the past that we might find familiar, will force us to come to grips with new ways of thinking and looking at the world.  This kind of encounter, as theologian Charles Mathewes describes it in the context of civic engagement in contemporary life, “brings us repeatedly against the stubborn, bare there-ness of the people we meet in public life; it teaches us again and again the terrible lesson that there are other people, other ideals, other points of view that we can see and appreciate, even if we cannot inhabit them and remain ourselves.”  We do not have to agree with every idea we encounter in the past. Sometimes we cannot “inhabit” an idea and still “remain ourselves.”  But education–to be led outward–does require a degree of risk.  As historian and educator Mark Schwehn writes, we must “be willing to give up what we think we know for what is true.”  Without taking a risk, without being open to transformation, genuine education cannot happen. A history education, like education in most of the humanities-based disciplines, can be painful because it requires self-denial and a “willingness to surrender ourselves for the sake of a better opinion.”  But wisdom, “is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so.”

I often tell my students that when their study of the past exposes them to a new way of thinking, they need to grapple intellectually with such an idea to the point of losing sleep. (After all, college students don’t sleep, right?).  They need to discern whether or not they can incorporate this new idea into their way of viewing the world.  Or perhaps they need to change their way of viewing the world in order to accommodate an idea that they believe to be true.  This kind of wisdom requires prayer and spiritual discipline.  It also requires community.  This might mean conversations–with roommates, friends, classmates, family, professors, and pastors–about whether the idea is worthy of embrace.  Christians who study the past must be prudent.  They must be slow to speak and quick to listen to the people they meet in the past.  And they must seek wisdom.

Quote of the Day

HT: Andrew Sullivan.

“The ethic of reverence of life constrains all, in whatever walk of life they may find themselves, to busy themselves intimately with all the human and vital processes which are being played out around them, and to give themselves as men to the man who needs human help and sympathy. It does not allow the scholar to live for his science alone, even if he is very useful to the community in so doing. It does not permit the artist to exist only for his art, even if he gives inspiration to many by its means. It refuses to let the business man imagine that he fulfills all legitimate demands in the course of his business activities. It demands from all that they should sacrifice a portion of their own lives for others. In what way and in what measure this is his duty, this everyone must decide on the basis of the thoughts which arise in himself, and the circumstances which attend the course of his own life. The self-sacrifice of one may not be particularly in evidence. He carries it out simply by continuing his normal life. Another is called to some striking self-surrender which obliges him to set on one side all regard for his own progress. Let no one measure himself by his conclusions respecting someone else. The destiny of men has to fulfill itself in a thousand ways, so that goodness may be actualized. What every individual has to contribute remains his own secret. But we must all mutually share in the knowledge that our existence only attains its true value when we have experienced in ourselves the truth of the declaration: ‘He who loses his life shall find it,’” – Albert Schweitzer, The Spiritual Life.

University of Virginia Press Announces New Book Series on American Spirutality

schmidt

Leigh Eric Schmidt of Washington University and Matthew Hedstrom of the University of Virginia will be the editors.

Here is a taste of the announcement:

The American Spirituality series seeks scholarship that explores dimensions of American religious life that fall into the cracks or beyond the margins of conventional religious thought, practice, and institutions. The category “spirituality,” in its Emersonian and Whitmanesque formulation, fundamentally registers these qualities of nonconformity and open-road individuality, even as it encompasses a variety of more specific religious lineages. We aim to publish books that view the past and present of American spirituality in both tight focus and through wider apertures. Doing so, we believe, will help define a still-emerging field of scholarly study, as well as contribute texture and depth to the wider public conversation about spirituality, a category that has grown in power in recent decades as so many millennials have relinquished previously recognized forms of religious identity. The thrust of the series will be historical, with particular focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it will also invite ethnographically informed work on contemporary expressions of America’s metaphysical preoccupations.

Scholars to date have approached the study of spirituality in America with varying degrees of precision. Most specifically, American spirituality describes a particular lineage within American religious history with deep roots in liberal Protestant and transcendentalist movements of the early nineteenth century. That stream, in turn, flowed outward in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into broadly cosmopolitan forms of post-Protestantism, including universalized forms of Quakerism and religious humanism. Those tributaries often converged with a host of still more far-ranging metaphysical movements, from New Thought to Theosophy, from Vedanta to Zen. Even as it has grown evermore eclectic in expression, the American construction of spirituality nonetheless retains a popular coherence. It is taken to describe the perennial essence of the religious life, typically conceived as individual experience of the divine or the transcendent, and usually understood in contrast to the outer forms of religion. The phrase “spiritual but not religious” captures this common distinction, a distinction with profound resonance in American religious thought—from Emerson to William James, from Whitman to Bill Wilson, the founder of AA.

Studying the multi-form history of spirituality allows scholars to examine in new ways the forces that have shaped religion in modern America—individualism, consumerism, mass culture, psychology, democratic norms, gender, race, immigration, globalization, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. It allows for multidisciplinary consideration of religion’s fundamental reconfiguration over the last three centuries—a reconfiguration prominently marked by exalting “spirituality” and diminishing “organized religion.” Is the redefinition of religion in the solitary, interiorized terms of spirituality indispensable to the politics of secularism? Is spirituality’s amalgamative drive—its ceaseless borrowing across religious traditions—ever separable from the politics of empire and neoliberalism? Are spirituality’s therapeutic regimens salvageable from a culture of narcissism and an economy of unsustainable consumption? The series invites critical histories and ethnographies that explore these multiple entanglements of religion, politics, and culture as they have found expression through the various spiritual movements and quests in which Americans have participated.

Robert George: A Christian Scholar on the Spiritual Disciplines

Confessing History Available for Pre-OrderAs many of you know, I am very interested in the ways that my Christian faith informs what I do as a scholar, historian, and teacher.  Back in 2011 I joined my friends Jay Green and Eric Miller in editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. My book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past has a couple of chapters that reflect my interest in the integration of faith and history.

If I get a chance to continue writing about faith and the academic vocation I would like to explore the way that spiritual practices or spiritual “disciplines” might inform the work of Christian scholars. (Perhaps such a study might revive my own inconsistent efforts at engaging in these practices).

So much of the conversation on faith and scholarship, at least in the field of history, revolves around Christian epistemology, philosophy, or theology.  It is driven largely by those Christians who associate with the Reformed Protestant tradition.  In Confessing History we tried to push this conversation away from the epistemological questions long associated with what Douglas Sweeney has called the “Calvin School” of Christian historiography, and into the area of calling/vocation and practice.

It seems like there could be a third way of thinking about connecting faith with history. We know how Christian theology and philosophy inform the presuppositions of believing historians.  We are starting to learn, thanks to the authors in Confessing History, about how believing historians might practice their craft as scholars, teachers, and public scholars.   But we don’t have a lot of work on how things like prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines might influence our work.  (I discussed this a bit in Why Study History?, but a good place to start is A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods).

I was thus very encouraged and inspired today reading Kevin Spinale’s interview with Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals. George talks to Spinale about how the spiritual practices of his Catholic faith informs his work as a scholar, teaching, and public intellectual.

Here is just a small taste:

Prof. George, how do you pray?

GEORGE-WI

Robert George

On my knees, the old-fashioned way—not always, but I do find that being on one’s knees in a posture of prayer facilitates trying to remove oneself from all of one’s cares and concerns. It’s valuable to remove oneself from one’s normal routines and put oneself in the presence of God for that conversation. So, to me the posture matters. Of course, one can’t always be on one’s knees.

I often pray when I am driving, for example, if I am alone. I like to pray with people, a lot, with friends—some of whom are Catholic, some of whom are not. I am happy to pray with just about anyone who wants to pray. But there is something special about—especially at the end of the day—being on one’s knees before God, in that posture and praying.

Is there a particular text or devotion that you ordinarily use to initiate or shape prayer?

That can vary extraordinarily widely. Sometimes it is petitionary prayer: something I am concerned about; something that I want to ask for God’s help with, assistance with, blessing upon. It might be a person; it might be a cause; or it might be an event. Often, I find myself praying for help in thinking things through, trying to discern what I am supposed to be doing.

It is difficult for me and I have to make an effort at this, but I try to remember the importance of prayers of praise in addition to petitionary prayer. That is something I have to discipline myself to do; otherwise I find myself always in the asking mode. It is very easy. I do not have to think much about petitionary prayer.

It is very easy if I feel or judge there to be a need—I find myself very easily moving into prayer to ask for God’s help with that need. But I recognize that it is very important to give God the praise he is due, and I have to discipline myself to remember to do that. It does not come as immediately or effortlessly as petitionary prayer.

I like the old-fashioned forms of prayer, although I do not restrict myself to them. The rosary is great—praying the rosary is valuable. The traditional forms of prayer that I was taught when I was a boy, what we Catholics call the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, I still say all those prayers—the guardian angel prayer, I still say all those prayers.

In part, I like these traditional prayers because of their simplicity. Jesus said that we are supposed to be childlike in our faith, and those prayers are prayers that are prayed by children as well as adults. We learned them as children, most of us, and they continue with us in our adult life. We should never regard ourselves as too sophisticated for these prayers. Saying those prayers is a help in maintaining the kind of faith that Jesus said we should have: the faith of those little children who were clamoring to get onto Jesus’s lap, whom the disciples were trying to shoo away—Jesus says, “No, no, no, let them come. … Your faith should be like their faith.” [Mark 10:13-16]

Read the entire interview here, including George’s thoughts on vocation, suffering, spiritual desolation, and Catholic higher education.

The Author’s Corner with Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Professor of Church History at Wake Forest University. This interview is based on his new book, A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the US (Abingdon Press, November 2014).


JF: What led you to write A Sense of the Heart​?

BL: An editor from Abingdon Press called me to ask if I would be interested in writing a new text that would survey American Christianity, or religious experience in the US. I chose the latter opportunity since for many years I have taught graduate seminars on Religious Experience in America. I have often thought of writing a text on the topic and this was just the incentive I needed. I have long understood religious experience to be an important resource examining the shape and diversity of American Christianity in its various forms. The phrase, “a sense of the heart,” comes from Jonathan Edwards’ work, A Treatise on Religious Affections, and describes something of the nature of religious experience within and beyond Edwards’ own understanding of religious experience and conversion.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Sense of the Heart?

BL: The book explores the nature and diversity of religious experience in light of such distinct religio-cultural issues as pluralism, voluntarism, religious freedom, democratic idealism, and Protestant privilege in the US. This unique environment not only shaped the nature of experience with the Divine, but also provided a milieu in which multiple individuals and groups cultivated encounters with the Sacred.

JF: Why do we need to read A Sense of the Heart​?
BL: The book can be a helpful resource for several reasons: 1) It provides a one-volume survey of the history, theology and practice of religious experience in multiple contexts from the colonial period to the 21st century; 2) Americans have nurtured varying, often intense, religious experiences that informed spiritual identity, united and divided Christian communities, and made some type of “conversion” normative for all who would claim a relationship with Christ and the church; 3) Through it all, religious experience became one way in which the “objective” idea that God loves human beings and offers them salvation, becomes a “subjective” reality in the lives of specific individuals. This text pursues those issues. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BL: I grew up reading and loving history. My father passed on to me his love of history, reading history to me before I learned to read for myself. As native Texans we read Texas history together from early in my life. I think I learned the heroes of the Alamo before the names of the Apostles! My interest in history was nurtured by multiple mentors at every phase of the educational journey–men and women who were themselves captivated by historical studies with different approaches and specializations. Dr. Alice Wonders, chair of the Religion Department at Texas Wesleyan University, was an important mentor who encouraged me to pursue historical studies with an eye toward teaching. Dr. William Estep, well know church historian from my seminary studies, shaped my interest in teaching Christian history; and Dr. Earl Kent Brown at Boston University helped me focus my work in areas of American religion. He guided my dissertation in elements of American Protestant mysticism. My own experiences among Baptists in the South–conversionism, revivalism, varying “plans of salvation” led to some of my earliest research into religious experience and my concern to communicate those studies to new generations of students. 

JF: What is your next project?
BL: Right now I am preparing a new edition of an earlier work entitled, Word of God Across the Ages: Using Church History in Preaching. It offers suggestions at to utilizing historical studies homiletically and provides a variety of sermons with focus on the theology and spirituality of certain historical figures from St. Paul to Sojourner Truth, to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am also doing initial research for a study of religion in Appalachia, particularly as much of the region’s religious culture is being impacted by the impinging mass culture of the larger American religious and secular society.

JF: Good stuff, thanks Bill.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Nancy Koester

Nancy Koester holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Luther Seminary and currently lives in St. Paul, MN. This interview is based on her new book, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, January 2014).

JF: What led you to write Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life? 

NK: I’ve always been fascinated by the anti-slavery movement, especially the contributions of women. In a conversation with an editor, I learned that Eerdmans Publishing Co. wanted a volume on Harriet Beecher Stowe for their “Library of Religious Biography.” They wanted a book that would work more deeply with Stowe’s religious faith than some of the existing biographies. I followed up with a will!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life?

NK: Stowe’s fight against slavery and her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, expressed the moral vision of New England Calvinism: a society reflecting the love of God. But after she was a famous author, the death of her unconverted son made her question her inherited Calvinism, leading her on a quest through spiritualism to the Communion of Saints.

JF: Why do we need to read Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life? 

NK: Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed history by turning public opinion against slavery. To know Stowe’s life story is to enter into defining conflict of our country, and also to explore some fascinating byways of 19th century life. Readers have told me that as the story unfolds, Harriet becomes real to them, and seems to remain with them long after they close the book.

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

NK: When I was growing up, my parents took me to historic sites, and gave me books to read about American history. History has always seemed alive to me, and (paraphrasing Lincoln) I am almostready to say that this is probably true: time travel is possible if you have a disciplined imagination.

JF: What is your next project?

NK: Right now I am revising and expanding my Fortress Introduction to the History of Christianity in the U.S. After that, I hope to write a biography of Sojourner Truth. I love writing biographies, because it is rewarding to get to know someone from the past as deeply as you can.

JF: Thanks, Nancy

Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner. 

Richard Rodriguez on Religion, Politics, and Newspapers

Since I first read Hunger of Memory about ten years ago, Richard Rodriguez has been a formative influence on my thinking.  When most people think about this book they think about Rodriguez’s opposition to affirmative action and bilingual education.  These are strong arguments and I hope you will read Hunger of Memory and consider them. But I found this book so important because it told the story of a first-generation college student and how that student struggled to live the tension between his roots and his ambitions.  I would even go as far to say that some of these ideas informed my work in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.


Rodriguez’s latest book, his first since 2002, is Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.  I can’t wait to read it.  My anticipation has been enhanced by Scott Timberg’s interview with Rodriguez at Salon. Here is a taste:
For admirers of your writing it has been a tough dozen years or so. This is your first book since 2002, I think. Besides writing for Harper’s and recovering from cancer, what else have you been up to?
Well, partly I’ve been brooding and partly I’ve been angry. I stopped writing for the L.A. Times because the L.A. Times stopped asking me to write for them; I stopped writing for the “News Hour” because the “News Hour” decided to have a web page at the end of their program instead of having essays. Nothing happened to me; the world changed. Steve Jobs became the controlling figure of our time. And in some way, you know, what I’m more and more of the opinion of is that the kind of writing that I want to do is really going to be able to be read by fewer and fewer people now. And I’m reconciled to that.
I’m very lucky that I’m still able to publish books. But you know I know what it’s like to publish a book, and go to a book reading and there are five people there and three of those people are friends of yours that you’ve asked to come. So I don’t think people are reading anymore. I think they’re using language a great deal, but not in any kind of deep or meditative sense. It’s all of this chatter of communication. I don’t know what this neurosis is that has taken over our societies, particularly the United States, but not only the United States. These kids walking down streets checking their messages every few minutes. What that neurosis is, what it is going to mean for serious communication I cannot guess.
Until you went on that jag a minute ago, I was wondering why you had a chapter in a book about religion, to call it a spiritual autobiography, about the fading of newspapers; now I have a sense of why that piece fits in there.
You know one of the things about that piece that I think readers might ignore, it ends with a discussion about the death of American cemeteries. Fewer and fewer people are being buried. More and more of my friends now are being cremated and their ashes, I don’t know where their ashes are anymore. They’re somewhere in Idaho, they’re somewhere on Muir Woods in someplace. That revolution, which I think is related to the fact that we don’t want to live on the earth anymore that there is an anxiety about being here, about being in this place at the same time that the cultural left has come up with this idea of green nature. We all have to become green. Well, nature is primarily brown in the world, you know, and the lessons of nature lead to nature, they don’t lead to this perennial spring.
Or to say it another way, you cannot have spring without winter. That this sentimentality about our lives where people are not buried. So a good friend of mine died; he asked two women friends of his to take his ashes, we know not where. And another friend of mine calls up and says, “I’d love to go see. I’d love to pay my respects, I couldn’t come to the funeral, could I go to the cemetery?” I say, well I have no idea where he is. The death of the newspaper is being told in the cemetery, in the fact that we are not writing obituaries, many of my friends have died without obituaries, because it’s no longer a civic event to die — it’s a private event. You understand? And so, you know, that fact that the newspaper was the receptacle not simply of news of our birth, but of our death, that fact is really the reason why an obituary for a newspaper becomes in the last several pages an obituary for a cemetery.
In the simplest way, the failure of the newspaper marks the end of a sense of place. Newspapers and cities, newspapers and a sense of place have been tied up quite intimately for a long time. They’re both fading at about the same time too.
That’s right. We’re living in the America of placeless-ness and increasingly I think of, that’s why you have people walking down the street quite unconcerned with where they are, or who’s walking towards them or who is behind them. They are in their own place, and they have their own sound, their own entertainment, and they have their own text messages and they’re quite content to live in their own little cocoon.
Right. And there are a lot of elements to this. The scene you just described they’re probably walking through a cityscape that could be almost any city in at least the Western world. So we have kind of electronic communication coming together with maybe cultural narcissism with kind of chain store Wal-Marting process, right? The bookstore has been blown out by the web or by Amazon.
And the little coffee shop has become a Starbucks. And everything is institutionalized. That’s true. But, you see, I think it’s more possible to learn in an institutionalized world if you are disconnected, if you’re not breathing, if you’re walking down the street without putting your eyes on the landscape. I think that that’s what so troubles me.
That people are not, it’s not so much that they’re not experiencing the city they’re living in, but they’re not even experiencing their bodies. I go to an Animal Gym in San Francisco and it’s a gay gym, all these guys, these steroid-ed wonders, wander about. And you would think that between sets they would flirt with each other visually, or they would admire each other, but in fact what they do is they pull out their cell phones and look at their messages. I don’t understand what’s going on; I don’t understand how you could be there developing that body and then turn yourself into a text message, you know?
It’s that sort of movement away from body that is really, really troubling. I understand why and I credit some way, you pull out a cell phone and watch a few old episodes of “The Simpsons” because you don’t want to smell the guy sitting next to you. But I also don’t understand it. If you’re in a subway that’s crowded there’s always somebody to look at, there’s always something to see. There’s always something to smell and that’s what we’re not experiencing anymore; we’re not living in our bodies. That’s why we’re not dying in cemeteries, that’s why were not reading the newspaper. That’s why we think that nature is green.
These evasions of place, that theme runs through these chapters. And in some sense what I’m arguing is that the dream in the desert, which was always for the time before the fall, green Eden before Adam and Eve were sent out to the desert, or for the time after our death where we will be in a heaven that is green. That dream is still very much alive in the secular imagination, and when Oprah Winfrey and Bono go on TV to tell us all about the green and they get on their private jets and go on to another location, to tell those people to be green. What we’re watching is a secular dream of Eden. So many of my friends tell me they’re not religious. I’m like, Of course you’re religious. You watch Oprah Winfrey, don’t you?

Dispatches from the American Academy of Religion–2013

As part of The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s commitment to covering major academic conferences, we offer Adam Parsons‘s dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore. 

I was hoping to visiting the AAR yesterday, but had to cancel my trip.  In my planning for the day’s visit I was blown away with the sheer size of this conference.  For example, the annual meeting of the American Historical Association usually has three or four “conference hotels.”  The AAR program lists TWENTY-SEVEN.  It all seems so overwhelming.  I am glad we have Adam Parsons to help us sort it all out.

 Adam is a doctoral candidate in American history at Syracuse University working on a dissertation on modern American evangelicalism with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn.  I hope you enjoy his first “dispatch.” –JF

I arrived at the AAR this afternoon, not quite in time to make it to the second panel of the day. The AAR – the American Academy of Religion – is holding its annual conference in Baltimore this year. It’s my first time here – as well as my first time in Maryland during daylight hours – but I didn’t take time out to explore the city. Instead, I used my unexpected block of free time to survey the book exhibit. It is massive. Huge. Phenomenal (and occasionally a little bit weird). I won’t buy anything today, as my graduate student’s budget requires me to wait and try to pounce on final-day markdowns – but I developed a list of books I’m interested in picking up. My work focuses on American Evangelicalism in the late twentieth century, so I’ve got my eye on Sarah Ruble’s Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II and Larry Eskridge’s God’s Forever Family, which was a fantastic dissertation on the Jesus Movement, and which I’m sure will be even better in its final form. This hardly, of course, makes a dent in my list of books. Decisions.
This afternoon, I made it to a meeting of the Christian Spirituality Group. It focused on the use of ethnography is studying Christian spirituality, and several of the papers dealt with contemporary Protestantism. (Yes, I said several. If you haven’t been to the AAR, it’s composed of marathon 2 1/2 hour long panels. I much prefer the 1 1/2 or 2 hour long panels I’ve found at most other conferences). Indiana University’s Candy Gunther Brown explored how Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians explain their attraction to alternative medicine, which they often find to have experiential similarities to faith healing, and how they navigate the relationship between alternative medicine and non-Christian religious practices. The University of Toronto’s Pamela Klassen analyzed liberal Protestants’ approaches to spiritual healing, and suggested, among other things, that the kinds of bodies which these practices can heal are conceived of as political, as well as corporeal. The paper I found most interesting, though, was given by Susan Ridgely of the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. In it, she teased out distinctions between first- and second-generation evangelicals, and argued that many of the features other scholars ascribe to younger evangelicals are, in fact, associated with generational status rather than age. These second-generation evangelicals, she argues, have been raised to be a people apart from the secular world, and have been raised to be comfortable with evangelical spiritual practice. Because of this, their driving concerns are very different from their first-generation

evangelical parents’: taking their set-apartness for granted, they are less interested in whether it is possible to live as a Christian in a secular world than in how to connect with – to love – their neighbors in the world in which they find themselves. As a result, Ridgely proposes that instead of “young evangelicals” or “new evangelicals” these second-generation evangelicals should be referred to as “connected Christians.”

Even with my abbreviated day, I’ve only touched on a portion of what I saw, and there’s an evening of receptions ahead, so I’m going to have to cut off here until tomorrow. I’ll leave you with a picture of one of my book exhibit finds:

The Holy Spirit and the Conclave

Matt Schmalz of the College of the Holy Cross explains the role of the Holy Spirit in the papal conclave.  His piece is a reminder that the conclave, above all else, is a deeply spiritual event.  Here is a taste:

When thinking about the papal conclave, it often comes down to what you believe about “inspiration” and how to get it.

When Catholics talk about religious “inspiration,” they usually are thinking about the Holy Spirit. In Catholic doctrine, the Holy Spirit is the third part of the Trinity. The Catholic catechism refers to the Holy Spirit with the pronoun “he,” and Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “paraclete,” the “consoler” or “he who is called to one’s side.”

For Catholics, the Holy Spirit comes through baptism, and through the other sacraments.  But he also comes in ways we do not expect.  Knowledge and wisdom are among the seven gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to sanctify a person.  There are also special or “charismatic” graces associated with Holy Spirit that are specific gifts related to a particular task or vocation for the common good.

All these gifts of the Holy Spirit figure into how the conclave is designed.

The Mass is more than a ceremony to inaugurate the proceedings. It is a sacrament that bestows grace on those who are properly disposed.  The meditative chanting of “Come Holy Spirit” is not only a petition or plea, it is a way of quieting one’s mind and heart, so that the Holy Spirit can be felt and heard.

"Administrative Work is God’s Work"

I am not an administrator.

OK–technically I am one.

As a department chair I manage to get by with my work of assessing student learning, recruiting history majors and faculty, assigning courses, and making sure the members of my department are relatively happy.  But I would much rather be teaching, writing, and promoting American history.  Sometimes you just have to take one for the team.

In the last month I have been approached three times about considering an administrative post in higher education. I did not give any serious consideration to the queries before answering “no.”  One of the high-level administrators who approached me  said that I would one day change my mind about academic administration.  At this point, I do not see that happening.  While I am sure I will always be involved in some sort of leadership role in this or that academic or history-related program, I do not see administration as my full-time vocation.

Having said that, I do have much respect for the work that academic administrators do.  This respect for administrators has grown deeper since I became a department chair and have had a chance to get a closer look at the daily work life of Peter Powers, my boss and the Dean of the School of Humanities at Messiah College.

Today, at his blog Read,Write, Now, Pete offers a powerful reflection on the spiritual dimensions of academic administration.  Here is a taste:

…In the busy context of the day to day its very easy to imagine that spirituality is something I need, but it’s something that I get mostly after work, gassing up, so to speak, in the morning or the evening for the long road ahead where there aren’t many gas stations on the horizon.

I’ve come to doubt this. And I’m a bit bemused that I’ve come to doubt this even more seriously since my experience at the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education, Harvard having some time since lost its reputation as a bastion of the faith or faiths.

But as I discussed in my last post, I was surprised at how much of the MLE experience focused on how leaders needed to practice forms of self-care and seek to be more fully human and humane in what can easily become an inhumane job.  Beyond this,  some of that attention was on what could only be called spiritual care, spiritual care of the self to be sure, but also the spiritual care of others.  Lee Bolman, in his concluding sentences of what I found to be three outstanding two hour sessions, declared that “administrative work is God’s work.”  My caps :-) .  This could only mean, to my ears, that administrative work necessarily entailed spiritual attention and spiritual work and that, whether they wanted to be or not, administrative leaders are spiritual leaders and ought to recognize and embrace and take that role seriously in thinking out who they want to be and how they imagine the work of their department, school, or institution.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire piece, whether you are an administrator or not.

Eric Miller’s New Collection of Essays: "Glimpses of Another Land"

If you are not a fan of Eric Miller‘s work, you should be.  Cascade Books has recently published a collection of his essays: Glimpses of Another Land: Political Hope, Spiritual Longing. These essays original appeared in places like Books and Culture, The Cresset, First Things, Christianity Today, and Touchstone.

Here are some blurbs:

“Eric Miller is one of the most thoughtful and graceful writers today—a combination of intelligence, humility, and faithful insight. I try to read everything he writes. What a gift to have so many of his essays collected in one place!”
—Mark Galli, senior managing editor of
Christianity Today

“Whether he writes about the Amish, popular Christian music, or the Pittsburgh Steelers, Eric Miller’s prose sings with grace, passion, wit, Pennsylvania patriotism, and, suffusing it all, a sense of hope. His is an America of neighbors, faith, and peace, not vacuous pop culture and political cant. In the tradition of Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry, Eric Miller illumines for us a way back home.”
—Bill Kauffman, author of
Ain’t My America

“It’s fitting that Eric Miller begins this book by talking about hope and longing. Grounded in a specific time and place, clear-eyed about our troubles, these essays offer bright glimpses of another land.”
—John Wilson, editor of
Books & Culture

“Eric Miller is quickly becoming one of the best evangelical cultural critics at work among us today. Always timely, never trendy, usually salty, never cynical, his essays have a winsome way of delighting us in the good, drawing us out of ourselves in longing for a better, more humane and divine mode of living in the world . . . May his tribe increase and find a way of loving the rest of us in. May they help us keep our hope alive.”
—Douglas A. Sweeney, author of
The American Evangelical Story

“These essays invite a new generation to appreciate an older legacy of post-partisan political hope. Here is a voice that echoes with Burke, Chesterton, Berry, and above all, Christopher Lasch. Miller’s pointed insights and intimate prose are invitations to both reflection and delight.”
—James K. A. Smith, author of
The Devil Reads Derrida

“Eric Miller is my favorite Christian cultural critic. I have been absorbing his writings for over a decade, and they never fail to inspire me with hope for something better, something real. If you haven’t read him, you must. These essays will challenge you to think differently about what it means to be a human being in this world.”
—John Fea, author of
The Way of Improvement Leads Home

And while your at it, I would also check out Miller’s Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch.  And I also heard he co-edited a pretty good book called Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.

Some Thoughts on the Death of Bin Laden

I had mixed feelings this morning when I read my news feed and learned that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.

I was glad that justice had been done and I am happy that Bin Laden is no longer a threat to the United States. But at the same time I was bothered that lives, including Bin Laden’s, were taken in the process.  My theology teaches me that all human beings are created in the image of God and have inherent dignity and worth.  Whenever a human being dies in this way it is a tragedy.

I was thus bothered even more by the way in which Americans celebrated Bin Laden’s death.  Some of the celebratory displays on college campuses and elsewhere brought back memories of people in the Middle East celebrating the 9-11 attacks.  We condemned such behavior then, but seem to be engaging in the same behavior now.

I have found the thoughts of several writers to be helpful as I have tried to process Bin Laden’s death.  A quote from Martin Luther King Jr. has been making it around the web today:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.  Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive our hate: only love can do that.

And then there is this quote from the Vatican:

In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.

One of the best Christian reflections on Bin Laden’s death comes from Christian writer Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice.  Here is a taste of his piece in Christianity Today

The question that does trouble me is how we as Christians should respond to the news of this death, especially those of us who are citizens or friends of the United States of America.
The immediate response to the news was rejoicing in the streets. Online, some of my friends and acquaintances expressed sentiments of the “O-B-L, roast in hell” variety. And I understand this response, and have at many times in my life felt similar sentiments when faced with the perpetrators of intentional grievous harm to others. The Christian Scriptures themselves show, in particular in imprecatory prayers like Psalm 137, that the people of God often feel a desire for vengeance, and take a sometimes shockingly expressed delight in the prospect or realization of punishment for enemies and evildoers:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

But beyond this immediate response, understandable as it is, I believe it is necessary for Christians to pause, and to consider the death of Osama bin Laden within the deeper perspective of human sin and divine grace. In the end, no death should give us pleasure. Another Scripture passage coming across the Twitter transom has been Ezekiel 18:23: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”

A lot to think about.  Let the conversation commence… 

St. Augustine’s Journey Toward God

Garry Wills has a new book out on St. Augustine.  It is entitled Augustine’s “Confessions”: A Biography (Princeton University Press).  From what I can tell, Wills is trying to rescue the Confessions from scholars who seem to think that the book is about a saint’s struggle with lust.  More than a autobiography, Wills suggests that the Confessions are best understood as Augustine’s reflections on his journey toward God.  As Wills writes in an excerpted passage of the book published on the website of The New Statesman:

If Confessions is not an autobiography, what is it (aside from its overall framework as a prayer)? It relives the drama of sin and salvation, in the form of a journey towards God. It stands closer to The Pilgrim’s Progress, or even to the Divine Comedy, than to Rousseau’s Confessions. It is a theological construct of a highly symbolic sort.

I am not sure what is new about this interpretation.  I think that this is the way many Christians have always read the Confessions.

HT

Courtney Weller on Lent

A nice reflection from a former student:

This year for Lent I’ve decided to not give up chocolate (since I don’t eat it as much as I use to, and frankly I’m not that strong this year 😉 ) and decided to give up some self-destructive habits, and pick up some others.

My main discipline this Lenten season is going to be trying *really* *really* hard to follow the 10 Commandments. I started reading this book about someone who followed the Bible literally for a year, and one of the hardest things for him was following the 10 Commandments. It takes discipline of mind as well as action, and frankly it’s quite difficult. Part of this journey will be to further study the Ten Commandments and look into the theological explanations, unpacking what we really have to gain by following these requests. So far (yes, the day after Lent began) this has been a major failing point. Ponder for yourself how often you really honor your mother and your father, how often you use the Lord’s name in vain, without the meaning it deserves, how often we lie, or don’t tell the whole truth, how often we COVET. So much. So very much. We’re a society built on coveting, yes?

Along with the Ten Commandments, I’ve decided to re-start my desire to use better language (I state it this way to not sound as guilty). But this doesn’t just eliminate swearing, but to improve my vocabulary. To craft my language to honor the God of creativity, the God who gives us language. Perhaps I’ll try to pick up another language during this time, but that would be a side project.

My final Lenten discipline this year will be to only drink water. Partially this is for health reasons, as I don’t need to drink sweet tea or soda or delicious fruity beverages. But my hope is that, along with the health benefits, I will be reminded every time I realize I can’t have that coffee (boy, was that a rude awakening this morning) or the occasional treat of delicious, beautiful, wonderful sweet tea, that I drink water, the means of which I have received Christ. So, it’s really a memory device. Only drink water, and remember my baptism. Remember what Lent is all about.

Do you do anything for Lent? Why or why not, and if so, what are your disciplines this Lenten season? 

Faith and Leadership Interview with George Marsden

Marsden reflects on Christian education, Jonathan Edwards, and Reformed spirituality.  Here is a taste:

Q: It seems that institutions driven by an explicit confessional Christian commitment provide reasons for being that are stronger than simply training people to make money.

That’s certainly true. A few years ago the retiring academic dean at Harvard, Harry Lewis, wrote a book called “Excellence Without a Soul,” talking about why he saw Harvard education as becoming empty, because it’s too much driven by immediate vocational interests, and competing interests and vocational interests of faculty; no one is thinking about holistic education.

Whereas higher education in the more evangelical frame has been driven by a vision of Christians as having a cultural task as well as evangelistic tasks, the idea that there should be an infusion of Christian principles throughout everything people do in their lives. It provides a coherence that a lot of people are seeing as lacking in the educational mainstream.

That has something to do with these schools doing relatively well with respect to growth in the last 15 years or so. Even though it costs a lot to send people to those institutions, parents and students recognize you’re getting the kind of education that people have traditionally imagined college should be about, that has some direction to it, some coherence to it. It’s not just a cafeteria of odd things that you might be interested in studying.