Amy Coney Barrett and the “Kingdom of God”

Notre Dame Law School professor Amy Coney Barrett is on Donald Trump’s short list to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump met with Barrett yesterday.

Back in September 2017, I called your attention to political philosopher Bill McCormack’s piece at America. Read that post here.

I also wrote about California Senator Diane Feinstein’s claim that “dogma lives loudly” in Barrett. Read that post here. In that post I republished Notre Dame president John Jenkins’s letter to Feinstein. Here it is again:

Dear Senator Feinstein:

Considering your questioning of my colleague Amy Coney Barrett during the judicial confirmation hearing of September 6, I write to express my confidence in her competence and character, and deep concern at your line of questioning.

Professor Barrett has been a member of our faculty since 2002, and is a graduate of our law school. Her experience as a clerk for Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is of the highest order. So, too, is her scholarship in the areas of federal courts, constitutional law and statutory interpretation. I am not a legal scholar, but I have heard no one seriously challenge her impeccable legal credentials.

Your concern, as you expressed it, is that “dogma lives loudly in [Professor Barrett], and that is a concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.” I am one in whose heart “dogma lives loudly,” as it has for centuries in the lives of many Americans, some of whom have given their lives in service to this nation. Indeed, it lived loudly in the hearts of those who founded our nation as one where citizens could practice their faith freely and without apology.

Professor Barrett has made it clear that she would “follow unflinchingly” all legal precedent and, in rare cases in which her conscience would not allow her to do so, she would recuse herself. I can assure you that she is a person of integrity who acts in accord with the principles she articulates.

It is chilling to hear from a United States Senator that this might now disqualify someone from service as a federal judge. I ask you and your colleagues to respect those in whom “dogma lives loudly”—which is a condition we call faith. For the attempt to live such faith while one upholds the law should command respect, not evoke concern.

Now Barrett is getting criticism for a remark she made about the “Kingdom of God.”

Christian conservatives like Barrett are not the only public figures who talk about the Kingdom of God.

Obama said this on the presidential campaign trail in 2007. At the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast, Obama said:

My Christian faith, then, has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years,” Obama said. “All the more so, when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we’re being true to our conscience and true to our God. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Jimmy Carter also believes that Christians should be working to promote the Kingdom of God. Here is an interview with NPR in which he talks about “God’s Kingdom on Earth.”

All Christians believe in some version of the “Kingdom of God.” Students of American religious history know that this phrase has been used just as much by Christians on the left as on the right. The idea of ushering in the Kingdom of God was at the heart of the early 20th-century movement known as the “Social Gospel,” a form of Christianity committed to bringing faith to bear on matters of poverty, racism, and other forms of injustice. In fact, the social gospelers talked about bringing God’s kingdom to earth a whole lot more than the Protestant fundamentalists. Most conservative Protestants in the early 20th-century showed little concern for social issues. They just wanted to get people “saved” and ready for the rapture.

But how does Amy Barrett use the phrase “Kingdom of God?” The source of all the controversy today comes from a 2006 commencement address to the graduates of Notre Dame Law School. You can read that address here. A taste:

Sometimes we’re tempted to say that a Notre Dame lawyer is a different kind of lawyer because he or she is an ethical lawyer. But that can’t be right. Our profession is in pretty deep trouble if the only ethical lawyer is the different one. When you leave here, hold yourselves to the highest ethical standards, and be leaders in that regard. But maintaining high ethical standards ought to be something that characterizes our whole profession—not something that causes Notre Dame lawyers to stand apart.

So if being a different kind of lawyer is not defined by the body of knowledge you have mastered or by the ethical standards you are expected to maintain, might it be defined by the kind of law you choose to practice? The banner hanging in the main reading room says, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Surely we can expect that, as a Catholic law school, our commitment to social justice will lead a higher-than-average percentage of you to choose to work on behalf of the disadvantaged and oppressed. We can expect Notre Dame lawyers like my own classmate, Sean Litton, who left a successful and lucrative practice at Kirkland & Ellis to work for a human rights organization with the mission of eliminating sexual trafficking in southeast Asia. Many of you, like my classmate Sean, will work in the public interest sector, and Notre Dame will be proud of you. But many of you will work in the private sector, and Notre Dame will be proud of you too. It cannot be that being a different kind of lawyer is defined by the kind of law one practices, for that would leave too many of our graduates out of the definition.

So what then, does it mean to be a different kind of lawyer? The implications of our Catholic mission for your legal education are many, and don’t worry—I’m not going to explore them all in this short speech. I’m just going to identify one way in which I hope that you, as graduates of Notre Dame, will fulfill the promise of being a different kind of lawyer. And that is this: that you will always keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and as Father Jenkins told you this morning, that end is building the kingdom of God. You know the same law, are charged with maintaining the same ethical standards, and will be entering the same kinds of legal jobs as your peers across the country. But if you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.

As she closes her speech, Barrett encourages the graduates of this Catholic law school to:

  1. Pray about their calling as lawyers
  2. Give a percentage of their salaries to the church and other charitable causes
  3. Seek a Christian community that will assist them in advance their calling as agents of the kingdom of God.

I have written a lot at this blog about the “Kingdom of God.” My understanding of the meaning of this phrase is very similar to Barrett. While some might use the phrase “Kingdom of God” to promote some kind of theocratic takeover of government, this is not how most Christians use the term.

Christians believe that the Kingdom of God was initiated when Jesus died and rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order–the coming Kingdom– when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom. A longing for this kingdom is at the center of Christian hope. This is why we pray as Jesus taught us: “They Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Here is Oxford University historian and theologian N.T. Wright from his book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

The practice of the law is a way in which Christians can live-out their callings as faithful members of the God’s Kingdom. This is what Barrett was telling the graduates of Notre Dame law school.

The real question is whether or not Barrett, if nominated and confirmed, would confuse the Kingdom of God with her responsibility to interpret the law of the United States of America. They are not the same thing.

This clip has some of Barrett’s 2018 responses to the questions of Democratic Senators during her confirmation hearings. I’d recommend stopping it at about the 2:37 mark.

UPDATE: I just read Jack Jenkins’s piece on this at Religion News Service. It includes several quotes from Catholic theologians and other experts claiming that it is perfectly fine for Senators to ask Barrett if and how her faith will shape her legal decisions as a Supreme Court justice.

Night four at the 2020 DNC convention

Biden nominee

It was a great night for the Democratic Party. I don’t think they could have done this convention any better. Frankly, it may have been more effective than a traditional arena convention. The GOP has a tough act to follow.

Below are a few thoughts, based on some of my live-tweeting.

Let’s start with the segment on Biden’s Christian faith:

A few thousand white evangelicals from Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona might decide this election:

But here is a way that Democrats can keep more white evangelicals after November 2020:

Delaware Senator Chris Coons gave a good speech that echoed yesterday’s Fox News op-ed on Biden’s faith. But Coons did not address anything I wrote about in the tweets above. If Biden can address these issues between now and November he could win a record number of white evangelicals. He could easily connect his platform to a real conversation about abortion. The religious liberty stuff will be a little more difficult without offending the left-wing of the party.

Let’s move on to history.

I am still waiting for someone to tell me when the last time a historian spoke in a prime time slot at a political convention.  Jon Meacham was excellent:

So please take the following tweet in that context:

My historian students–both at Messiah University and the Gilder-Lehrman
“Princeton Seminar”–know that the roots of the United States are located in more than just the British settlements.

And as long as we are talking about history:

You can also do a lot of other things with a history major.

The segment with Biden’s Democratic primary rivals was amazing. I could have watched another hour of this conversation. As Cory Booker said, it was like the show with all the contestants “voted off the island” on “Survivor”:

A quick thought on Michael Bloomberg’s speech:

Not all evangelical celebrities support Donald Trump:

Biden gave a great speech. I appreciated his call to find one’s “purpose” in life.

The exact quote was: “As God’s children each of us have a purpose in our lives.”

And the following:

I was also pleased to see this speech seasoned with the words “hope,” “humility,” and “history.” I feel like I’ve heard those words before. 🙂

Here is the Seamus Heaney quote from “The Cure at Troy” that Biden used in the speech:

History says,

Don’t hope on this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme

The next verse (which Biden did not use in the speech) reads:

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Read Biden’s entire speech here.

Created and Called for Community: “Making Meaning” on the First Day of Class

College-classroom

I am pretty old school when it comes to the first day of class.  As some of you remember from my post last week, this semester I am teaching Messiah College’s first-year course Created and Called for Community (CCC).  Yesterday I met with all three of my sections  and introduced them to the course.  CCC has a common syllabus.  This means that every first-year student taking this course reads the same texts.  It is the only course of this nature at Messiah College.

The first day is always about logistics–required textbooks, assignments, grading scale, office hours, etc…  But sometimes the syllabus offers opportunities to talk about the importance of such a course.  I tried to do that today.

The syllabus begins this way:

The Created and Called for Community (CCC) course comprises the second half of Messiah College’s curriculum for first-year students, as well as transfer students. Together, First Year Seminar and CCC are designed to equip you with the intellectual skills needed to succeed during the rest of your education at Messiah College. In particular, both “W” courses focus on the ability to write accurately, clearly, and convincingly that will serve you well in your college career (whatever your major), as well as the vocation and profession you enter following your college career.

This is a writing course.  I will be spending a lot of time this semester reading drafts and commenting on papers.  Today, I tried to convince these students–who represent every major at Messiah College, from Engineering and Nursing to History and Sociology–that one does not always fully understand what they believe about a particular issue until they start to write.

The syllabus continues:

CCC also introduces you to the particular kind of community and institution that is Messiah College. Messiah’s history and identity are rooted in three strands of the Christian church known as Anabaptism, Pietism and Wesleyanism. We hope that this course helps you become familiar with basic elements of Messiah’s identity, mission, and foundation. The course will encourage you to cultivate a climate in which there can be better, deeper, and richer conversations about important issues precisely because they’re informed by some common understandings and curriculum. Some of the common readings assigned are classic texts which have been read by generations of college students. Others are more recent and speak to various contemporary issues and concerns.

In tell the students that it is important to understand the identity of the college where they have chosen to study.  They do not have to agree with the mission of Messiah College, but they must understand that when the college administration makes decisions about campus life they do so out of a particular understanding of Christian higher education.  If students are unhappy with the way the administration handles a controversial issue on campus, their criticism of the administration should be based on whether or not the leadership is consistently applying the religious principles that inform the identity of the college.

Finally, CCC is an introduction to liberal arts learning at Messiah College:

CCC, then, is an inter-disciplinary and common-learning course, a course in “meaning-making.” It’s hoped that over the course of this semester, you’ll receive helpful resources to address the experiences, questions, and challenges that you’ll face in the future in an informed and thoughtful fashion. And it’s also a discussion-oriented course. One way to become equipped for this task is to meet and engage with people and ideas worthy of shaping you and your thinking. This semester, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your thoughts alongside other people–the authors whose works we read, your instructor, and your classmates.

Again, you can see the reading list here.  Today I told the students that there are 27 voices that show up to class every day.  25 of those voices are the Messiah College undergraduates who are asked to come to class prepared to discuss the daily reading.  As the instructor, I am an additional voice (#26).  My goal is to facilitate conversation and to raise important questions about the texts.  And one of the voices (#27) in the room is the author of the text we are reading on that day.  Those voices include John Henry Newman, Ernest Boyer, James Weldon Johnson, J.R.R Tolkien, Alice Walker, Martin Luther King, Augustine, Plato, and Dorothy Sayers.  I urged the students to show hospitality to these voices.  I want the students to listen to these voices before critiquing them.  I want my students to approach these texts with humility, assuming that these authors are smarter than them and thus have something to teach them about the world.

The readings for this course fit into three units. They are: Creation, Community, and Calling (Vocation)

Here is how the syllabus describes each unit:

Creation: The first words of Scripture in some translations say that “in the beginning God created…” And so it seems fitting that you’ll begin exploring the theme of creation and creativity by studying the account of God’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2. You’ll examine both the natural and human creation, including the moral and ethical implications that flow from the understanding that every person is made in God’s image (or, in Latin, the imago Dei) and so possesses dignity and status. You’ll also consider how to be faithful stewards of creation and ways in which you can express the creative impulse God has implanted in you.

Community: All human beings throughout history, each of them made in God’s image, have lived within various types of groups or communities: families, groups of friends, churches, college campuses, neighborhoods, nations, and the worldwide or global community. The process of community-building brings with it both great rewards as well as challenges. Communities are inescapable, yet they place demands on us. In exploring this theme, you’ll examine the factors that strengthen and weaken community, and the challenges of community-building in a variety of settings. Along the way, you’ll consider both inspiring exemplars of community-building, as well as times and places where communities have fallen short and succumbed to the practices of segregation or racism or isolation or violence.

Calling or Vocation: Christian vocation requires us to consider not only what we do but also who we are. We’re called to personal transformation by practicing spiritual disciplines and called to social transformation by addressing injustice in the world. Exploring this theme in CCC, you’ll view some of the ways in which various people have served, look at where and how they’ve found their place in the world, look at vocation in various settings, continue the process of discerning your own vocation and place in the world, and look at some of the characteristics of Christian vocation—especially service, work, leadership, and reconciliation.

Stay tuned.  We are discussing Stanley Hauerwas’s “God With God” on Wednesday.

Follow along here.

Teaching this Semester

Created and Called

This semester, for the first time in my eighteen-year career at Messiah College, I will not be teaching any history courses.  Instead, I will be teaching three sections of a required first-year seminar titled “Created and Called for Community.”  This course, which uses a common syllabus, is designed to introduce a Messiah College liberal arts education to first-year students.  It focuses on the writing, close reading of texts, biblical and theological reflection on human dignity and community, and the meaning of Christian vocation.

I will be teaching these texts:

Stanley Hauerwas, “Go With God

John Henry Newman, “What is a University?

Ernest L. Boyer, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College

Genesis 1-2

James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation

Bruce Birch, “The Image of God

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle

Alice Walker, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Exodus 19-20

Matthew 5-7

 Acts 1-4

Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed

Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (excerpt)

Alabama Clergyman, “A Call for Unity” and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone

Augustine, Confessions (excerpts)

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

Luke 10:25-37

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Desmond Tutu, “God Believes in Us

Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” (excerpt)

Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor

Henri Nouwen, “Adam’s Peace

Jerry Sittser, “Distinguishing Between Calling and Career

Jerry Sittser, “What We’re Supposed to Do”

Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?

I will probably blog about these texts as the semester moves forward.  Feel free to read or follow along.

“Don’t find yourself, find your vocation”

Fuller with Towel

History major Jonathan Fuller holding his towel

When Messiah College students cross the platform during their graduation ceremony they receive a small white towel.  The towel symbolizes service.  As Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so we hope our graduates will think about their lives in terms of service to others.  I thought about this Messiah College tradition when I read Tom Perrin’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “One Way to Make College Meaningful.”  I especially like the subtitle: “Don’t find yourself; find a vocation.”

Here is a taste of his piece:

Why vocation, though, rather than the old model of learning for learning’s sake? Why not, as the religious studies professor Ron Srigley has recently argued, return to the old, “beautiful goal” of the university, “to discover and then to tell the truth,” disentangled from the mercenary arms of the offices of careers and student life? My answer would be that universities have always been hybrid creatures, serving many masters at once: social norms, the market, churches and the exacting standards of disciplinary research, to name four. But the fantasy of the university as a disinterested sphere of pure knowledge is just that. This is not so much to attack the liberal arts as it is to point out that to link them purposefully with life and career goals is not at all to alter the way they have long functioned.

Read the entire piece here.

Exiles from Eden

chapelinterior

The Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University

Due to a few things going on in my life right now, I have been thinking again about Mark Schwehn‘s book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.  This book has been very influential in the way I have understood my academic life.  I return to it often.

When I read the preface of Exiles from Eden in 1999 I was hooked.  Here is Schwehn:

On a spring evening in 1982, I sat in a circle of my colleagues from the University of Chicago and from other institutions of higher learning in the Chicago area.  We were meeting together  as the Chicago Group on the History of the Social Sciences, convened by Professor George Stocking of the Anthropology Department.  We had all read a paper prepared by one of the members of the group, and roughly eight of the twelve or so of us had arrived to discuss it.  The paper, like most of those presented to the group, examined some aspect of the professionalization of the social sciences.  I remember little else about the setting that evening, except that I was was sitting directly to the right of Professor Stocking.

While we were waiting for the remainder of the expected participants  to straggle into our midst, someone (I think it was Peter Novick, but I cannot be sure) made the following proposal: “We’ve just recently filed our income tax forms; let’s move around the circle from left to right and indicate what each of us wrote under the heading ‘occupation'”  This simple exercise was thought to have potentially profound and self-revealing implications.  And so it proved.

The first person spoke up at once with a kind of brisk confidence.  “Sociologists,” he said.  And so it continued–“anthropologist,” “historian,” “psychologist,” “historian.”  At about this point (though I have sometimes been slow to catch the drift of things, I did discern this time a clear pattern emerging), I began to  wonder whether or not I had the courage to be honest in the company of so many of my senior colleagues.

Though trained as an intellectual historian, I had never once thought to put such a designation down under “occupation” on my tax form.  When I finally spoke up, I admitted (it certainly felt like an admission) that I had written “college teacher” under the relevant heading.  This disclosure was greeted with what I can only describe (thought it was doubtless a projection even then) as a combination of mild alarm and studied astonishment.  I felt as thought I had suddenly become, however briefly, an informant from another culture.exiles

The present book accordingly begins by unpacking one commonplace of academic life–the mysterious  complaint, “I don’t have enough time to do my own work“–and by engaging one of the most closely argued and most culturally influential accounts of the academic calling ever written, Max Weber “Academics as a Vocation.”  My study of Weber’s account of the academic calling led me to investigate  the larger subject of this book, the relationship between religion and higher education.  The logic of the problem of vocation impelled me in this direction, because Weber, in the course of his statement of the academic calling, self-consciously transmuted a number of terms and ideas that were religion in origin and implication.  Even so, my interest in the relationship  between religion and higher learning was and remains really more of a chronological matter than a strictly logical one.  Indeed, the title of this book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America, is, as they say, another story.

Later in 1982 I resigned my position at the University of Chicago, after eight years of teaching there, and I accepted an appointment in the honors college of Valparaiso University.  I did this for several reasons, but perhaps the main one of them was that I found that I could pursue my own sense of the academic vocation more fully and responsibly at Valparaiso than I could at Chicago.  Valparaiso is a church-related university, and Chicago is not.  Valparaiso therefore strives to keep certain questions alive, such as questions about the relationship between religious faith and the pursuit of truth, that were then and still are close to the center of my understanding of the meaning of academic life.  In brief, I sought to think through the problem of the academic vocation in part by living through it. 

This story is the stuff of legend at Valparaiso University and, more specifically, in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts housed on its campus.  Schwehn, whose 1978 Stanford dissertation on Henry Adams and William James won the Allen Nevins Prize, spent the rest of his career at Valparaiso and Exiles from Eden became the unofficial mission statement of the Lilly Fellows Program.

The questions Schwehn raised in this book are still alive and continue to shape the careers of young scholars in the humanities and the arts.  Seventeen years after my  Valparaiso sojourn (2000-2002), I continue to try to think through academic vocation “in part by living through it.”

Song of the Day #2

Can’t get through a day like this without listening to “The Rising.”  I’ve written a lot about this song (and the album by the same name) over the years.  I’ve always seen it as a song about vocation.

Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
Make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
I was wearin’ the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin’ down here

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li – li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li – li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li

There’s spirits above and behind me

Faces gone black, eyes burnin’ bright
May their precious blood bind me
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light

Li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li – li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li – li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li

I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There’s holy pictures of our children
Dancin’ in a sky filled with light
May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of my line

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li – li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li – li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li, li…

See all our 9-11 posts here.

 

Help Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass Revise *Leading Lives That Matter*

Leading LivesMark Schwehn writes at NetVue blog:

The anthology Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (LLTM) has been widely used by faculty and students at NetVUE schools as a collection of texts that can be used to guide and stimulate the exploration of vocation. The book, edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass (Eerdmans, 2006), includes a wide variety of selections — poems, short stories, essays, speeches, obituaries, screenplays, and excerpts from longer works — drawn from both religious and secular sources.

The editors are now developing a second edition, and they seek your advice.

Read how you can help with the second edition by clicking here.

Public History and the Church (or why I do what I do)

Why Study History CoverIn the last few days, several folks have asked me why I get so “bent out of shape” about the likes of David Barton and the “court evangelicals.”  One noted American religious historian regularly implies on Twitter and in blog comments that I am “obsessed” with Trump.

I get so “bent out of shape” because I believe that part of my vocation as a historian is to bring good United States history to the church–both to the local church and the larger American church.  (And especially to evangelicalism, since that is my tribe).  I wrote about this extensively in the Epilogue of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  When I speak at churches–and I do this often–I see it as a form of public history.

My critique of the court evangelicals is a natural extension of my ongoing criticism of conservative activist Barton and other Christian nationalist purveyors of the past.  It is not a coincidence that First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress often preaches a sermon titled “America is a Christian Nation.”  In this sermon he says. among other things:

We don’t restrict people’s right to worship [they can] worship however they choose to worship.  But that doesn’t mean we treat all religions equally.  This is a Christian nation. Every other religion is an impostor, it is an infidelity.  That is what the United States Supreme Court said.

Someone can correct me, but I think First Baptist–Dallas is the largest Southern Baptist church in the world.  Jeffress is an influential figure.  He goes on Fox News and claims to represent American evangelicals.  His profile has risen immensely since he announced his support of Trump.

It’s important to remember that Jeffress’s political theology (if you can call it that) is based on a false view of American history.  And it is not very difficult to trace it to the teachings of Barton.

In the aforementioned sermon, Jeffress comments on a recent Barton visit to First Baptist–Dallas.  He then says, referencing the prince of Aledo, Texas, that “52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution” were “evangelical believers.” This is problematic on so many levels.  First, only 39 people signed the Constitution.  Actually, I think Jeffress might be referring here to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Second, to suggest that most of them were “evangelicalRevised believers” is a blatant misrepresentation of history.  In fact, Jeffress doesn’t even get Barton right here.  Barton says (wrongly) that nearly all of the signers of the Declaration had Bible school and seminary degrees.  Jeffress is confused about his fake history. 🙂  But that doesn’t matter.  People in his massive congregation applaud and cheer when he preaches this stuff.

Jeffress and the court evangelicals support Trump because they want to “make America great again.”  Jeffress’s congregation even sings a song about it.  Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim.  The nation is “great,” Christian nationalists like Jeffress argue, when it upholds the Christian beliefs on which it was founded.  Christian Right politics, the same politics that carry a great deal of weight in today’s GOP, thus starts with this dubious claim about the American founding. From there it can go in all sorts of directions related to immigration, race, church and state, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, etc….

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian.  Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books.  But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.”  Maybe I am obsessed.  Somebody has to be.  We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

 

“This is Your Chance”: The Pietist Schoolman on the Christian Liberal Arts

 

Crown

Crown College

Chris Gehrz, aka the Pietist Schoolman, recently gave the keynote address for the annual Honors Symposium at Crown College, a Christian college in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota.  He has graciously posted an abridged version of his address, “The Three Journeys of the Christian Liberal Arts,” at The Anxious Bench.

Here is a taste:

Unfortunately, as the Presbyterian pastor and novelist Frederick Buechner said once, while preaching on Isaiah 6, “our lives are full of all sorts of voices calling us in all sorts of directions. Some of them are voices from inside and some of them are voices from outside. The more alive and alert we are, the more clamorous our lives are. Which do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for?”

You are being sent out into a noisy world, “where there are so many voices and they all in their ways sound so promising.” None is louder than “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status…”

But this is your chance. Before you’re encumbered by too many responsibilities and obligations, think about your education as a relatively quiet space in which you have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tune your ears to hear God’s voice — in Scripture and theology, but also in the cadences of poetry and music, in the narratives of history and theatre, in the song of birds and bubbling of test tubes, in the cries of those who suffer.

If Buechner is right, then the sound of God’s call on your life is actually like a vocal duet: the sound of two different voices singing two different notes with two different timbres — and one ultimate purpose.

First, we should go “[w]here we most need to go,” follow “the voice of our own gladness,” and do that which “leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is…”

Second, we should go “where we are most needed,” into a world with “so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain,” and offer ourselves in service.

And if, Buechner concludes, you answer to those two voices, you will take up “the calling of all of us, the calling to be Christs.”

What does this have to do with the Christian liberal arts? Buechner advises us to “keep our lives open,” but it’s hard to do that if you track yourself into a professional path admitting little personal exploration. As it happens, the broad study of the liberal arts both helps you know yourself more deeply, so that you’re better able to discern that “true north” that is specific to you, and in disenchanting you, it helps you recognize the grief and pain that you can alleviate, the emptiness that you can fill.

Read the entire post here.  In the meantime, I am sending this off to my daughter.  She is a freshman at a Christian liberal arts college.

 

 

Scott Culpepper’s “Call to Courageous Christian Scholarship” in the Age of Trump

britishmuseum-1

Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. In a guest post at The Anxious Bench he exhorts Christian scholars to courageously pursue their vocations in the age of Trump.  It is a wonderful piece.  Here is just a taste:

Christian scholars are indeed a subversive influence.  Critics are right in labeling us a subversive influence if what they mean is that we subvert the subordination of facts to falsehoods calculated to sway popular opinion, the substitution of shallow shibboleths for deeper reflection, and the sacrifice of principle on the profane altar of political expediency.  And there will be a greater need for us to keep on subverting these things with all the energy we can muster in the age of Trump.

The times call for renewed conviction, creativity and courage on the part of Christian scholars.  The masses may not know they need us, but they need us.  The endorsement of popular influence as a virtue in the framing of our American republic was predicated on the hope that education and character formation would equip people to exercise their rights intelligently.  No one is better prepared than Christian scholars and the institutions they serve to provide this kind of education infused with serious attention to character formation.

In a time when forces abound that pressure Christian scholars to adopt a posture of compliance to fit in, we need more than ever to stand up and stand out unapologetically.  All clouds pass in time.  When they do, a new generation will build on either the ruins or the foundations of the past.  That generation sits in our classrooms today.  We have the opportunity to model something very different from what they are seeing on the national stage in both church and state.  May Christian scholars in the age of Trump have the courage to give the masses what benefits them rather than what has been mandated in their name.

Read the entire piece here.

A Busy Week in the Messiah College History Department

Philip Deloria will deliver the 2014 American Democracy Lecture

We in the Messiah College History Department try to give our students an array of opportunities to learn outside of the classroom.  Last Spring our students studying digital history and Pennsylvania history spent a lot of time doing archival research.  This semester the students in our public archaeology course are hard at work studying a farm connected with a nineteenth-century Anabaptist group known as the “Bermudian Brethren” and uncovering an eighteenth-century Lutheran church building that has been buried for 250 years in the congregation’s graveyard.  Several students continue to work on our Digital Harrisburg Project while others provide research support for an array of faculty research projects.  We have put a new Public History concentration in place and have been working as well on a new concentration in “Administrative Studies.”  In the past few years our students have interned at historical sites all over the mid-Atlantic.  It has been a fun ride.  I like to think that we are hard at work in creating a new kind of undergraduate history department.

In addition to all of our regular extra-curricular activity, the next few weeks will be particularly busy in the Messiah College History Department.  We are very excited to announce (or re-announce) the following events:
On Thursday, October 23, 2014, Philip Deloria will be on campus to deliver the American Democracy Lecture, the most important lecture in the life of the department.  I am sure many of you know Deloria’s work. He is a professor of history and administrator at the University of Michigan and a scholar of native American history.  His talk “American Indians in the American Cultural Imagination” promises to be an excellent talk. Learn more about it here.  Also check out the Facebook “event” page.
Tibebe Eshete

On Thursday, October 30, we will hold our annual “Faith and History” lecture.  This year’s lecturer is Tibebe Eshete, our new visiting lecturer in African history and the author of the definitive work on the evangelical movement in Ethiopia.  In the 1970s Tibebe was a young Ethiopian Marxist who was active in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.  His talk will describe his journey from Marxism to Christian faith and his understanding of the historian’s vocation. The lecture will be held in Boyer Hall room 335 at 4pm. If you are in the area feel free to stop by.  It should be a good one.

Finally, on November 4 the History Department will sponsor its annual “Career and Graduate School” event.  This year we will focus on careers. Our speakers will be two Messiah College history alums who have gone on to do amazing things with their degrees.  Beth Baggett was a Messiah College history major who currently works as an executive in the New York City fashion industry.  Caitlin Babcock, another Messiah history alum, works for a non-profit organization focused on the assimilation of new immigrants.  It should be a great afternoon.  Stay tuned for more information.  If you ever wondered what you can do with a history major you need to be at this event.
We continue to try to make the Messiah College History Department an intellectually vibrant place that merges a classic liberal arts history education with the kind of experiential learning that allows our students to build their resumes and develop transferable skills that will be useful in the marketplace.

From the Archives: "Why September 11 is About Vocation"

I wrote this here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home on September 10, 2011:

“Love and beauty called you some place higher, somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.
–Springsteen, “Into the Fire”

“May your strength give us strength

May your faith give us faith

May your hope give us hope.

May your love give us love.”

-Springsteen, “Into the Fire”

 

“Left the house this morning,

Bells ringing filled the air,

Wearin’ the cross of my calling,

On wheels of fire I come rollin’s down there.”

-Springsteen “The Rising.”

 

Ten years ago I was teaching American history at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana.  I was a post-doctoral fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, a two-year program designed for “young scholars who wish to renew their sense of vocation within a Christian community of learning in order to prepare themselves for positions of teaching and leadership within church-related institutions.”

At some point during the first year of residence at Valpo, the fellows in the program were asked to write a short essay reflecting on how they understood their vocations as scholars and teachers.  The fellows and their senior scholar mentors met every Monday afternoon to talk about issues related to faith, vocation, and the academic life and it was decided that we would devote a few weeks to the discussion of our essays.

My essay was entitled “Confessions of a ‘Pile-man’: Work and the Scholarly Task of the Christian Historian.”  Here is a small taste of that essay, which eventually appeared in the Spring 2001 Lilly Fellows newsletter:

Anyone who has ever worked on a construction crew, especially one that specializes in home repairs and remodeling, knows about the “pile-men.”   These are the members of a crew assigned to remove the pile of garbage, unusable wood scraps, insulation remnants, broken shingles and cracked bricks that accumulate over the course of a given project.  As the sons of a general contractor, my brothers and I spent many summers during our teenage years as “pile-men” on different construction sites.  The scenario was always the same: arrive at the job early, get a cup of coffee, strap on our tool belts, and wait for the day’s assignments.  Dad would issue the important ones first–framing the walls, sheathing the roof, or spackling the drywall.  Then he would turn to us: “John, Mike, and Chris,” he would bark, “I want you guys to start getting all the junk on the pile into the dumpster.”  While we were never surprised by our assignment–after all, this is what we were there for–we were often overwhelmed by it.  The pile could stand as high as fifteen feet off the ground and cover much of an average front yard in terms of sprawl.  Since the pile grew in size as more and more refuse was heaped upon it during the course of the day, it seemed as if we were hardly making any headway toward the completion of our assigned task.

As I went off to college, I became farther and farther removed from the life of the “pile-man.”  My brothers pursued trades in the building industry, learned skills in carpentry and in plumbing, one brother started a water softener systems‘ company, and thus graduated from “pile-man” status as well. The other owns and operates a succesfull mouse sander company, we swear by it as the best mouse sander.  Today, at family gatherings, we often reflect comically on those days.  Our reminiscences, much to the amusement of my father, are always heavily exxagerated.  In our collective memory the “pile” sometimes exceeds three stories in height and includes fifty-pound cinder blocks or rain soaked sheet-rock that required Herculean strength and three pairs of hands to move.  As I participate in these nostalgic recollections, I remember both the seeming impossibility of the task that faced us on those hot summer mornings and the deep feeling of accomplishment I had when the work was completed.  While my sense of satisfaction was probably partially guided by the fact that the workday was now done and I could go home and eat, relax, or watch the Mets on television, there was also a certain dignity to this very menial task.  We tackled a difficult job head-on, displayed physical toughness, and returned home with a sense that our labor had meaning. Moreover, we worked in a community that went deeper than our obvious biological connections.  The petty quarrels of teenage brothers often dissipated as we labored together toward a common enterprise and helped one another along the way.  The work seemed to bring out certain virtues in us that ultimately strengthened our relationships.  The lessons that I learned about work during those summer days were good lessons, and they remain with me today as I think about my place in the world, my understanding of work and labor, and even my vocation as an historian.

Midway through the essay I made an attempt to connect my “pile-man” experience to my work as a young historian:

Since I am not convinced–at least not yet–that Christian historians produce scholarship that is significantly different from their non-Christian colleagues, I prefer to understand the relationship between my faith and my scholarship more in terms of a theology of work.  My calling as an historian is driven more by the ways in which I strive to practice my craft Christianly than by the production of a particularly “Christian” piece of scholarship.  In other words, I believe that Christian historians labor in much the same way that Christian “pile-men” would.  They strive diligently to do good work and, in the process, live out the spiritual virtues required of all believers.

Scholarship can be a difficult and tedious task resulting in great fulfillment and great frustration.  Both mentally and physically it requires discipline, diligence, and faithfulness.  Such toil, according to Genesis 3, is a product of the fall.  Work is something in which all humans must engage.  But at the same time work can bring a sense of Christian dignity and worth to those who perform it.  St. Paul reminds us in Colossians 3 that “whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord Christ whom you serve.”  I thus feel uncomfortable with a view of scholarly labor that celebrates the privileged work of the members of an intellectual or professional class who have chosen to pursue a “life of the mind” in order to distinguish themselves, consciously or unconsciously, from the manual labor of the supposedly “uneducated.”  Instead, I think about work in a way that transcends class and is required of all people regardless of the form that their labor takes.  We are to be diligent in the place where God has seen fit to have us labor because no matter how insignificant or tedious our work might seem, we are still called to it by God.  When understood this way, work takes on a Christian and decidedly spiritual dimension.  It becomes one means by which we live out our sanctification in this world…

And here is the way I concluded the essay:

In the end, my theological and Biblical beliefs about work and my “pile-man” experiences as part of a larger upbringing in a working-class family have deeply informed how I appropriate and carry out the scholarly work God has called me to do.  Ultimately, God calls each of us to a different task and we, as God’s creation, must heed the call with all of our hearts and minds.  Christ continues the work of creation and redemption through us.  It is thus our responsibility to tend to this call of discipleship–whatever it may be–and pursue it toward the building of the Kingdom of God.

The community of Lilly Fellows and their mentors gave me some good feedback on the essay, but I got the impression that some in the group thought that my willingness to embrace my working class background was a bit strange.  Intellectuals and academics were supposed to move beyond their blue collar roots. How could such roots have any influence on a scholarly career?

There was at least one person in the room–a senior scholar– who during the discussion was making a concerted effort to understand my attempt to connect my work as a pile-man to my work as a historian.  I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she suggested that the recent events of September 11th, particularly the efforts of NYPD policemen, firefighters, and rescue workers, should force us to think more deeply about the meaning of vocation.

I have been thinking about that comment for the last ten years and I have concluded that without some sense of calling the heroes of 9-11 would not have entered the World Trade Center and put their lives on the line to rescue those in need.  Rescue workers are called to risk their lives to save others.  This is their vocation.  Or as they would describe it in dozens of interviews following September 11th, “We were just doing our jobs.”

I tell my students that there are no heroes in history.  We are all flawed human beings–sinners in need of redemption.  Because of this theological belief we should not be surprised when people disappoint us.  (I also tell my students that there are no villains in history–all of us are created in God’s image and thus have dignity and worth).  But this does not mean that people in the course of human history have not performed heroic acts.

The events of September 11th have taught me that men and women act heroically when they do what they are called to do.  The public school teacher who faithfully meets his or her classroom every day for thirty or forty years is doing something heroic.  The scholar who advances our understanding of the world is doing something heroic.  The minister who faithfully serves God in the place where he or she has been called is doing something heroic.  The general contractor who uses his or her gifts to construct a house is doing something heroic.  And even the work of the pile-man can be heroic when it is done in service to God and others.

In this last week there have been dozens and dozens of good articles, written by this or that pundit, discussing the meaning of September 11th.  But few of them have made any attempt to connect Labor Day, which we celebrated earlier this week, with the heroism of the day we will commemorate tomorrow.  September 11th has just as much to teach us about calling and vocation as it does about national pride, patriotism, and Islamic terrorists.

I am often asked by students and friends about the historical significance of September 11th.  How should this event be interpreted in the larger narrative of American history?   I am not yet ready to answer this question.  I just can’t do it.  The events of that day are not distant enough.  I am having a hard time thinking about these events with anything close to objectivity or detachment.  I still find myself caught up in the emotional YouTube videos and the television specials about how families and communities continue to suffer.  I am sure I will feel the same way tomorrow.

While I have heard some very good Christian reflections on the meaning of September 11th, and my own faith has provided me with some resources to help me make sense of what happened on that day, I have also found the music of Bruce Springsteen to be a very helpful guide through it all, especially his 2002 album, The Rising. Springsteen, a working-class hero in his own right, writes and sings about September 11th with a very robust theology of work and calling.

Listen, for example, to the second verse of the title track, “The Rising.” Springsteen describes firefighters in their “house,” with bells ringing, preparing to head to what we must assume to be the burning World Trade Center towers. They are motivated by the symbol that hangs around many of their necks.  Springsteen refers to it as “the cross of their calling.”  This is what they are meant to do and, as a result, “on wings of fire” they go “rollin down there.”  Some of them will not come back.

Or listen to “Into the Fire,” the second song on the album.  This tribute to the rescue workers is told as a story of vocation.  It is “love and beauty” that calls these workers “up the stairs” and “into the fire.”  The Boss asks us to remember their courage.  He wants us to find hope and strength in their actions.  He wants to learn a lesson about what it means to love our neighbors.  And he repeats it over and over again just to make sure we get it:

May your strength give us strength

May your faith give us faith

May your hope give us hope

May your love give us love

The commemorations of that awful day have already begun. Most Americans will attempt to process the events of September 11th from their recliners and coaches as they watch the opening Sunday of the NFL season.  As we commemorate, let’s draw strength for our callings from the sacrifices of those men and women who were faithful to their own callings.  Let’s use their example to rethink the vocations to which God has called us.  Let’s use their stories to hope for a better world–a world in which men and women do their work as a means of displaying love.

Not all of us are called to enter burning buildings, but we are all called to do our work in a heroic fashion.

 

George Marsden Reviews "Confessing History"

I have been meaning to post this review of Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.  I think I speak for Jay Green and Eric Miller when I say that we are grateful to George Marsden, one of the greatest American religious historians of his generation and the winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Merle Curti Award, for this very kind review.  The review appeared in a Volume 44 of Fides et Historia and is not available online.

Confessing History is an exceptional collection that I recommend to anyone concerned with the vocation of a Christian historian.  Although the editors set up the volume as an effort by mostly younger scholars to go beyond the older generation, or “current consensus, as represented, for instance, in the work of George Marsden” (9), I see this “going beyond” as almost entirely helpful elaborations of themes of which I heartily approve.  I find relatively little in the volume with which to disagree (although in some instances authors contradict each other, thus sadly limiting my potential agreeability). In most cases the authors’ suggestions are ones that I wish I had made, or made more clearly, or practiced more adequately.

The main theme that ties many of these essays together grows out of the question of whether in our efforts to overcome marginalization in the mainstream academy we have become too beholden to professionalism.  As co-editor Eric Miller puts it in his introductory essay, “Was being peripheral to the secular academy itself a noble and worthy end? (8).  That seems to me to be a fair enough question. Specifically, does gaining success in the eyes of the mainstream profession require us to compromise the radical claims we are making when we say that experiencing the reality of the triune God should have a profound impact on everything else that we think and do?

Mark Schwehn, who has mentored some of these younger historians in such matters, states the case with his characteristic grace in arguing that Christians can improve on the standards of the profession by adding Christian virtues, such as charity and humility.  Thomas Albert Howard elaborates a similar point, arguing that virtue ethics ought to characterize Christians’ engagement with the profession.  He suggests that the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are still valuable guides for the life of the historian.  Bradley J. Gundlach adds that we can also benefit from the moral insights of the essential secular academy, and cites the work of Jackson Lears, Christopher Lasch, and Robert Bellah (less secular, I think) as examples.

Beth Barton Schweiger argues particularly strongly for a Christian ethical approach to history that is an alternative to the usual expectations of the profession.  Schweiger’s essay is also a model of how Christian reflections on doing history can benefit from being well informed theologically (a characteristic of many of the essay).  Rather than using knowledge as power, Schweiger argues, we should use it with charity.  We should love our historical subjects and treat them with generosity. The professional, however, does not reward charity or virtue, but treats knowledge as power and as the basis of promotion.  The emphasis on charity is a good one, and Schweiger illustrates how it might apply to the classroom.  In writing history, it seems to me, a similar emphasis might be put on loving one’s audience and trying to serve it though what one writes.  I agree with Schweiger entirely when she says we should flee careerism and embrace Christian vocation.  She aptly cites Miroslav Volf to the effect that Christians need to keep a distance from the professional culture, even while they do not leave it.

Most of the contributors make very helpful suggestions as to how we might maintain the priority of our Christian vocations while being in but not of the world of professional historians.  John Fea, for instance, describes how in teaching about Abraham Lincoln we have to first get students to take Lincoln seriously on his own terms (through techniques honed in the profession) and then we move on to our Christian evaluations  Lendol Calder reminds us that our professional assumptions can get in the way of loving our students and of thinking about their needs  Will Katerberg argues that the professional ideal of objectivity or detachment turns history into a commodity and that “historians should consider advocacy and utility to be legitimate scholarly professional concerns.” (113).  At the same time he emphasizes that we must balance such concerns with faithfulness to the sources and honest analysis so that we do not just use the past for our own agendas.  Una M. Cadegan offers a classic Roman Catholic sacramental way of dealing with this two-sidedness. The particularities of history that we study with the usual historical methods point to the glory of God and higher mysteries.  Thus an attitude of worship in doing history counters the disenchantment of the world characteristic of most of the profession.

All these (and others that I do not have the space to mention) are helpful insights that strike me as variations on the ancient Christian theme of commandeering “the spoils of Egypt” for Christian purposes.  Professional history involves a highly valuable and useful craft or set of skills.  A worthy Christian calling is that of the historian who practices that craft.  Doing that almost necessarily involves becoming associated with the contemporary academic profession of history, since a Ph.D. is the license almost necessary to do history for a living.  Like most things, the profession of history has some very good qualities and some not so good.  The tenure system that disproportionately rewards narrow specialization for advancement is particularly problematic  So are many of the ideologies and naturalistic epistemological assumptions that have been prevalent in the profession. Christians can learn many things by studying the standards of the profession, but they have to view them critically and to borrow from them selectively.

The one exception to such critically selective approaches that characterize this volume is the essay by Christopher Shannon.  Rather than making distinctions between what is useful in the historical profession and what is not, Shannon equates the profession with all its worst vices.  That provides him with an either/or choice between a radical Roman Catholicism and working within the profession, which he identifies with adopting worldview naturalism and betraying any announced intention that faith must precede understanding.  This dichotomizing provides him with strong rhetorical weapons, but leaves him with only the bluntest analytical tools.  That leads him to some false conclusions  One I can speak to with authority is that he equates my views with those of Thomas Haskell and then concludes that “both see any kind of providentialism or confessional history as inviting a return to the barbarism of the Crusades and the Inquisition.”  (183).  I am not quite sure how to respond with charity to such a distortion that is so contrary to what I think and have written.  I will say that Shannon’s earlier rhetoric on this topic helped flag some important issues to which this volume provides some fine responses.  Helpfully, the editors follow Shannon’s essay with an excellent and balanced reflection on “preaching through history” by James LaGrand, which in effect both answers Shannon and helps set the record straight.

Among the most important reminders in this volume is that made by Robert Tracy McKenzie to “Don’t Forget the Church” and seconded by Douglas Sweeney concerning our vocation to the priesthood of believers.  A crucial question, especially regarding the writing of history, has to do with the audience and for Christians the church is their most natural audience.  I think McKenzie may underestimate how many professional historians write books, including some popular ones, for church audiences or who teach Sunday school.  But it is important to do these things.  Mark Noll, who is presented in this volume as part of the old guard, has been a model in serving the church. Most of his books, like his recent Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (2011), are written for church audiences and/or for Christian academics and classrooms  Others have been more monographic and have met the standards of the profession sufficiently for him also to be regarded as at the top of his field.  Even these have been more concerned about Christians’ behavior in the modern world than about any secular or professional cause. These books have, however, allowed him to extend his vocation to the mentoring of Ph.D students, a worthy professional enterprise.  If I may speak of my own case, since I am so often referenced in this volume, I have not done as well as Noll in writing books addressed just to Christian audiences.  But I have thought of my primary vocation as a historian serving the church, and most of my books have been addressed to church audiences as much as or more than they were for secular professional colleagues . I can easily understand that in my efforts in other books to explain Christian scholarship to the mainstream academy my views might seem to concessive.  And perhaps they are.  Perhaps in this post-secular age Christian scholars can be increasingly bold.  In any case it is a great and genuine pleasure to see a generation of Christian historians, of whom this book provides just a sampling, who are dedicated to improving this enterprise and to carrying it beyond what others of us have been able to do.

From the Archives: "Why September 11th is About Vocation"

I published this at The Way of Improvement Leads Home on September 10, 2011. I think it is still relevant.–JF

“Love and beauty called you some place higher, somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.”
-Springsteen, “Into the Fire”
“May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope.
May your love give us love.”
-Springsteen, “Into the Fire”
“Left the house this morning,
Bells ringing filled the air,
Wearin’ the cross of my calling,
On wheels of fire I come rollin’s down there.”
-Springsteen “The Rising.”
Ten years ago I was teaching American history at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana.  I was a post-doctoral fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, a two-year program designed for “young scholars who wish to renew their sense of vocation within a Christian community of learning in order to prepare themselves for positions of teaching and leadership within church-related institutions.”
At some point during the first year of residence at Valpo, the fellows in the program were asked to write a short essay reflecting on how they understood their vocations as scholars and teachers.  The fellows and their senior scholar mentors met every Monday afternoon to talk about issues related to faith, vocation, and the academic life and it was decided that we would devote a few weeks to the discussion of our essays.
My essay was entitled “Confessions of a ‘Pile-man’: Work and the Scholarly Task of the Christian Historian.”  Here is a small taste of that essay, which eventually appeared in the Spring 2001 Lilly Fellows newsletter:
Anyone who has ever worked on a construction crew, especially one that specializes in home repairs and remodeling, knows about the “pile-men.”   These are the members of a crew assigned to remove the pile of garbage, unusable wood scraps, insulation remnants, broken shingles and cracked bricks that accumulate over the course of a given project.  As the sons of a general contractor, my brothers and I spent many summers during our teenage years as “pile-men” on different construction sites.  The scenario was always the same: arrive at the job early, get a cup of coffee, strap on our tool belts, and wait for the day’s assignments.  Dad would issue the important ones first–framing the walls, sheathing the roof, or spackling the drywall.  Then he would turn to us: “John, Mike, and Chris,” he would bark, “I want you guys to start getting all the junk on the pile into the dumpster.”  While we were never surprised by our assignment–after all, this is what we were there for–we were often overwhelmed by it.  The pile could stand as high as fifteen feet off the ground and cover much of an average front yard in terms of sprawl.  Since the pile grew in size as more and more refuse was heaped upon it during the course of the day, it seemed as if we were hardly making any headway toward the completion of our assigned task.
As I went off to college, I became farther and farther removed from the life of the “pile-man.”  My brothers pursued trades in the building industry, learned skills in carpentry and plumbing, and thus graduated from “pile-man” status as well.  Today, at family gatherings, we often reflect comically on those days.  Our reminiscences, much to the amusement of my father, are always heavily exxagerated.  In our collective memory the “pile” sometimes exceeds three stories in height and includes fifty-pound cinder blocks or rain soaked sheet-rock that required Herculean strength and three pairs of hands to move.  As I participate in these nostalgic recollections, I remember both the seeming impossibility of the task that faced us on those hot summer mornings and the deep feeling of accomplishment I had when the work was completed.  While my sense of satisfaction was probably partially guided by the fact that the workday was now done and I could go home and eat, relax, or watch the Mets on television, there was also a certain dignity to this very menial task.  We tackled a difficult job head-on, displayed physical toughness, and returned home with a sense that our labor had meaning. Moreover, we worked in a community that went deeper than our obvious biological connections.  The petty quarrels of teenage brothers often dissipated as we labored together toward a common enterprise and helped one another along the way.  The work seemed to bring out certain virtues in us that ultimately strengthened our relationships.  The lessons that I learned about work during those summer days were good lessons, and they remain with me today as I think about my place in the world, my understanding of work and labor, and even my vocation as an historian.

Midway through the essay I made an attempt to connect my “pile-man” experience to my work as a young historian:

Since I am not convinced–at least not yet–that Christian historians produce scholarship that is significantly different from their non-Christian colleagues, I prefer to understand the relationship between my faith and my scholarship more in terms of a theology of work.  My calling as an historian is driven more by the ways in which I strive to practice my craft Christianly than by the production of a particularly “Christian” piece of scholarship.  In other words, I believe that Christian historians labor in much the same way that Christian “pile-men” would.  They strive diligently to do good work and, in the process, live out the spiritual virtues required of all believers.
Scholarship can be a difficult and tedious task resulting in great fulfillment and great frustration.  Both mentally and physically it required discipline, diligence, and faithfulness.  Such toil, according to Genesis 3, is a product of the fall.  Work is something in which all humans must engage.  But at the same time, work can bring a sense of Christian dignity and worth to those who perform it.  St. Paul reminds us in Colossians 3 that “whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord Christ whom you serve.”  I thus feel uncomfortable with a view of scholarly labor that celebrates the privileged work of the members of an intellectual or professional class who have chosen to pursue a “life of the mind” in order to distinguish themselves, consciously or unconsciously, from the manual labor of the supposedly “uneducated.”  Instead, I think about work in a way that transcends class and is required of all people regardless of the form that their labor takes.  We are to be diligent in the place where God has seen fit to have us labor because no matter how insignificant or tedious our work might seem, we are still called to it by God.  When understood this way, work takes on a Christian and decidedly spiritual dimension.  It becomes one means by which we live out our sanctification in this world…
And here is the way I concluded the essay:

In the end, my theological and Biblical beliefs about work and my “pile-man” experiences as part of a larger upbringing in a working-class family have deeply informed how I appropriate and carry out the scholarly work God has called me to do.  Ultimately, God calls each of us to a different task and we, as God’s creation, must heed the call with all of our hearts and minds.  Christ continues the work of creation and redemption through us.  It is thus our responsibility to tend to this call of discipleship–whatever it may be–and pursue it toward the building of the Kingdom of God.

The community of Lilly Fellows and their mentors gave me some good feedback on the essay, but I got the impression that some in the group thought that my willingness to embrace my working class background was a bit strange.  Intellectuals and academics were supposed to move beyond their blue collar roots. How could such roots have any influence on a scholarly career? 
There was at least one person in the room–a senior scholar– who during the discussion was making a concerted effort to understand my attempt to connect my work as a pile-man to my work as a historian.  I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she suggested that the recent events of September 11th, particularly the efforts of NYPD policemen, firefighters, and rescue workers, should force us to think more deeply about the meaning of vocation.  
I have being thinking about that comment for the last ten years and I have concluded that without some sense of calling the heroes of 9-11 would not have entered the World Trade Center and put their lives on the line to rescue those in need.  Rescue workers are called to risk their lives to save others.  This is their vocation.  Or as they would describe it in dozens of interviews following September 11th, “We were just doing our jobs.”
I tell my students that there are no heroes in history.  We are all flawed human beings–sinners in need of redemption.  Because of this theological belief we should not be surprised when people disappoint us.  (I also tell my students that there are no villains in history–all of us are created in God’s image and thus have dignity and worth).  But this does not mean that people in the course of human history have not performed heroic acts.  
The events of September 11th have taught me that men and women act heroically when they do what they are called to do.  The public school teacher who faithfully meets his or her classroom every day for thirty or forty years is doing something heroic.  The scholar who advances our understanding of the world is doing something heroic.  The minister who faithfully serves God in the place where he or she has been called is doing something heroic.  The general contractor who uses his or her gifts to construct a house is doing something heroic.  And even the work of the pile-man can be heroic when it is done in service to God and others.
In this last week there have been dozens and dozens of good articles, written by this or that pundit, discussing the meaning of September 11th.  But few of them have made any attempt to connect Labor Day, which we celebrated earlier this week, with the heroism of the day we will commemorate tomorrow.  September 11th has just as much to teach us about calling and vocation as it does about national pride, patriotism, and Islamic terrorists.
I am often asked by students and friends about the historical significance of September 11th.  How should this event be interpreted in the larger narrative of American history?   I am not yet ready to answer this question.  I just can’t do it.  The events of that day are not distant enough.  I am having a hard time thinking about these events with anything close to objectivity or detachment.  I still find myself caught up in the emotional YouTube videos and the television specials about how families and communities continue to suffer.  I am sure I will feel the same way tomorrow.
While I have heard some very good Christian reflections on the meaning of September 11th, and my own faith has provided me with some resources to help me make sense of what happened on that day, I have also found the music of Bruce Springsteen to be a very helpful guide through it all, especially his 2002 album, The Rising. Springsteen, a working-class hero in his own right, writes and sings about September 11th with a very robust theology of work and calling.
Listen, for example, to the second verse of the title track, “The Rising.” Springsteen describes firefighters in their “house,” with bells ringing, preparing to head to what we must assume to be the burning World Trade Center towers. They are motivated by the symbol that hangs around many of their necks.  Springsteen refers to it as “the cross of their calling.”  This is what they are meant to do and, as a result, “on wings of fire” they go “rollin down there.”  Some of them will not come back.
Or listen to “Into the Fire,” the second song on the album.  This tribute to the rescue workers is told as a story of vocation.  It is “love and beauty” that calls these workers “up the stairs” and “into the fire.”  The Boss asks us to remember their courage.  He wants us to find hope and strength in their actions.  He wants to learn a lesson about what it means to love our neighbors.  And he repeats it over and over again just to make sure we get it:
 May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

The commemorations of that awful day have already begun. Most Americans will attempt to process the events of September 11th from their recliners and coaches as they watch the opening Sunday of the NFL season.  As we commemorate, let’s draw strength for our callings from the sacrifices of those men and women who were faithful to their own callings.  Let’s use their example to rethink the vocations to which God has called us.  Let’s use their stories to hope for a better world–a world in which men and women do their work as a means of displaying love.
Not all of us are called to enter burning buildings, but we are all called to do our work in a heroic fashion.

The Historical Vocation. The Historical Profession

Great post here from Chris Gehrz at Pietist Schoolman.  He writes about his faculty promotion paper on the vocation of the Christian historian and draws on some pretty good stuff, including my colleague Richard Hughes’s The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, Tertullian’s “Athens and Jerusalem” tension, Frederick Buechner’s writings on vocation, William Cronon‘s Perspectives essays published during his tenure as president of the AHA, and Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.

Here is a taste:

…it’s good to be a member of a profession that sets expectations for one’s training and work. The American Historical Association isn’t exactly a magisterium, but the collective (if sometimes cacophonous) voice of my fellow AHA members is one I ought not ignore.

But at the same time, participation in such professional communities can, I wrote, “tune our ears to hear voices other than those of our own gladness or the world’s deepest need.” In particular, the professionalization of the historical discipline has led us to the point where (in the words of recent AHA president Richard Cronon, quoted as much as anyone in my essay) “historians too often regard teaching as a distraction, as when we complain ‘I just can’t find enough time for my work’—implying that teaching isn’t part of that work and in fact competes with the ‘real’ work of research” (“And Gladly Teach,” [AHA] Perspectives, December 2012). As I argued at a couple of points in my essay, this shift towards the primacy of research (and that defined very narrowly — more to come) is an observable change over time. For example, Mark Schwehn (in his own unpacking of the “‘real’ work of research” complaint in ch. 1 of Exiles from Eden) points to a debate within late 19th and early 20th century German academe, between those who defended the older ideal of Bildung (which emphasized education as the formation of character) and Max Weber’s Wissenschaft (which emphasized the scholarly activity of producing knowledge — and cared less for how it was transmitted).

I wish I knew Chris and his work when I was co-editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s VocationI would have definitely asked him to write an essay for the volume.

So What CAN You Do With a History Major?–Part 42

Become a documentary filmmaker.

Michael Rossi has a B.A. and M.A. in history from Boston College.  Today he is a freelance documentary filmmaker.  The majority of his work has been with the local Boston PBS station–WGBH.

Over at the website of the Boston College Career Center, Rossi writes about his transition from history major to filmmaker.  Here is a taste:

I certainly did not set out to be a filmmaker upon entering Boston College. Like most students, I spent my days pondering what to major in and how to apply a liberal arts education towards a productive career that would make a difference. I eventually decided to major in history, feeling that it would provide me the most balanced liberal arts education. The more I studied, the more I realized there was a lot I didn’t learn while growing up in a small suburban town. I wanted to find a way to bring these stories to someone like myself back in my hometown. Sophomore year, while sitting in Professor Karen Miler’s African American History class in O’Neill Library, I decided motion picture was the most effective way to do it. I figured some things would have to be sacrificed in order to reach a large audience – you can’t make a film about some of the extraordinarily in-depth topics explored by historians – but the payoff of that large audience would be worth it.

The only problem was, I had no idea where to start. BC did not have a formal film program at the time. I decided the best thing to do was to propose making a documentary film for my history Honors Thesis. Professor Andrew Buni was brave enough to agree to be my thesis advisor, supporting the unorthodox idea of making a film. But he was pretty blunt in saying that he knew nothing about filmmaking. An internship at Cramer Productions, a company in Norwood, MA, helped me brush up on technical stuff – how to shoot B-roll, what the difference between a gaffer and key grip was, the language and vibe of being on live studio sets and on location, the ins and outs of edit suites and audio gear. I learned a lot. I landed another internship at WGBH, working on Africans in America, a six-hour series about the history of slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War. This amazing opportunity introduced me to what it takes to produce a national production. I was also cast in a few reenactments, which was a lot of fun! Together, these experiences helped me complete my first documentary, a modest history of East Boston.

Read the rest here and here and here. 

If you are not familiar with the “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” series at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, get caught up here.

"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.