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.

Susan Ferber: From Ph.D in History to History Editor at Oxford

Susan Ferber, the executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press, discusses her career path in an essay entitled “Turning ‘Plan B’ into a ‘Plan A’ Life.”  Here is a taste:

Even though I wanted to work at a commercial house, I began applying to university presses. Having studied Latin and literature for years, I wrote a bang-up cover letter for an editorial assistant’s job in literature and classical studies at Oxford University Press but never even got an interview.

Two months later, another position as an editorial assistant opened up at Oxford, this one in history, law, and politics. I got called for an interview. The editor appeared to be about 21, but the interview went well, and I got the offer. Figuring it was better not to appear desperate, I asked for 24 hours to decide. I tried to negotiate a salary increase because I thought years of graduate school should count for something. My starting salary went from $20,000 to $20,500. That’s what the sum total of my graduate education in history counted for: $500.

It turned out to be the best job in the world for me, because editorial work is an apprenticeship, and I had a wonderful mentor, Thomas LeBien. At the time, he told the other editors he had hired me because of my very neat handwriting and because I had cataloged hundreds of hats for a museum without pay. Now he tells me that I was so hungry to get into publishing, he knew I’d make his life easier.

The hours were long, and many Fridays I was still in the office at 9 p.m. Still, I loved being an editorial assistant. The work had meaning. I was reading broadly across subfields, getting a rare bird’s-eye view of history rather than focusing on a single topic deeply and alone in the archives. I was thinking about how to shape prose more effectively, how to model different narrative structures to best present content. I was learning about markets and audiences, budgets and production, as well as how to communicate with authors and the media, how decisions are made about which books to pursue and which to reject, and how an editor puts pencil to paper to improve a manuscript. (Yes, I still put pencil to paper.)

I had erroneously assumed that editors spend most of their time editing manuscripts. Given all the mystery and glamour swirling around the publishing industry in New York, being an editorial assistant gave me the opportunity to learn what the industry was fully about, and to do so alongside interesting and intellectually challenging co-workers, especially my fellow editorial assistants….

A Physician Defends the Liberal Arts

Over at The Edge of the American West, Eric Rauchway publishes an e-mail from one his readers.  Great stuff:

I do feel discouraged by this recent onslaught against the liberal arts. I appreciate and applaud the light you and your colleagues have shone on the recent travesty at the U of VA, as only one example of this trend. Academic historians need to bang that gong as loud as they can.

I graduated from Haverford College in 1974 with a double major in history and religion. I went on to medical school, and my dean there had been a Rhodes Scholar in one of the humanities. Fully half of my Haverford classmates majored in one or another of the humanities and then scattered across their business and professional careers. This is a wonderful thing, and was once regarded as a wonderful thing. But a similar craze in medical education for “practicality” has changed things such that many, many students now arrive having majored in something called “premedical studies,” which is nothing at all. I spent 4 years on a medical school admissions committee in the mid-90s and I saw it happening.

I’ve practiced pediatric critical care (intensive care) medicine for over 30 years. It is clear to me that the very best preparation I could have received for what I do every day — the essential, nontechnical stuff — was a liberal arts education. It gives you the to-do list, the reading and thinking list, for the rest of your life. It opens your eyes. And the cliche is correct: it does teach critical thinking. I think a key contributor to the dreadful spiral of our recent politics is that what little history people know is wrong.

As you guys say, history can save your ass. Maybe our collective asses, too.

What is the Vocation of the Public Historian?

Suzanne Fischer of The Henry Ford describes a public historian as a person who teaches “the value of the work history can do in the world.”  She talks about “duty” to local communities and “history as social work” and “cracking open history as a democratic project.”  She describes public history as “passionate, emotional” and “deeply involved in how the messy business of being human is worked out in communities.”  I love it!

Here are a couple of snippets from her post at #alt-academy:

Vocation is not a word I use lightly.  Cultural heritage institutions like libraries, archives and museums are mission-based.  Besides the particular mission of whatever museum I am serving (generally to collect, preserve and interpret a particular subject or region), public history has a mission:  to put history to work in the world, to facilitate a deeper understanding of the past for multiple publics.  “The life of a museum worker,” in the words of the 1925 first Code of Ethics of the American Association of Museums, “is essentially one of service.” The life of a public historian is also one of service:  good public history serves both historic stories and objects but also the multiple publics who seek meaning from the past.

and

Public history is a big tent. There’s room for everyone who is convicted of the value of historical critical thinking in the world. The field is still in development: the future of public history is in flux as new technologies change what it means to be public, what publics we engage and address and what counts as an object to be collected, preserved, shared and interpreted. And like the academic world and the nonprofit world in general, public history has suffered from an economic crisis. History institutions often rely on contributed revenue, and with funding down from all directions, public history venues are not hiring at an appropriate rate to keep up with the current production of public history and museum studies graduates, or even with the pace of normal work. Public history is not a field to enter into because of worries about the academic job market. Become a public historian because you love the potential of history to change, enrich and help make sense of people’s lives.

Thanks, Suzanne.  I hope to share your remarks with my students, many of them are interested in public history for the reasons you write about. 

Chris Gehrz, Frederick Buechner, and the Vocational Pull of an Undergraduate History Major

Chris Gehrz always posts some great stuff at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman, but yesterday’s post was one of his best.  Like all of us who teach history majors, we want our students to be employable and successful.  But more importantly, we want them to find meaningful vocations.  We want them to find something to do with their lives that will make them glad.

This is easy to preach in theory.  I do it all the time.  I have done it more than once here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

But it quite another thing for students to connect deeply with their studies in a way that prepares them for what they are called to do and called to become.  I have seen this happen with students and unless you have experienced it, unless you have walked with a student through the dark and fearful night of vocational crisis, it is really hard to put into words.

On this front, Gehrz has found the writer Frederick Buechner to be helpful.

In the Messiah College first-year CORE course–“Created and Called for Community”–we read some of Buechner’s thoughts on calling.  One quote that often sticks with students is his definition of vocation:

The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Here’s are some of Gehrz thoughts on vocation:

First, Buechner would have us listen to “the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.” Doing so would lead us to do with our lives whatever “makes us truly glad.”


Glad. Not “happy” — saying “Here I am” to God certainly didn’t guarantee Isaiah a life of unbroken bliss — but “glad,” which one student suggested was a synonym for “joyful” or “fulfilled.” I think that’s very much what Buechner has in mind, and while that can sound self-centered… Christianity does not teach the negation of the self, but the restoration of the self. While broken by sin, we are distinctive persons made in the image of a Triune God, and so, meant for relationship and community — not dissolution into a whole, but as members of a Body.

And so, second, Buechner would have us listen to the voice telling us to go “where we are most needed.” He contends that our gladness is not for our own sake alone, but is needed by others enduring “a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain….”


What does this mean for History majors? It is a question students can and must answer with nothing less than their lives, not a sentence or two in a class discussion. But I do think Buechner’s view of vocation underscores that it is not the same as job, work, career, or profession. What you get paid for is not the same as who you are. And studying History at a place like Bethel does not so much inform future historians as form people (called to a variety of vocations) who can live wisely in this world, without ever being of this world. 

Thanks.

Read the entire post here.  It is worth your time.

Why I Do What I Do Where I Do It

It is nights like this that remind me why I teach at a place like Messiah College.  Tonight all the faculty of the Messiah College History Department gathered for a dinner to honor our graduating senior history majors.  We had a great meal, we offered very specific personal tributes for each student, and we laughed and remembered some of the high points and the low points of the last four years.  The faculty listened to spontaneous testimonials from EVERY student about how their study of history and their experience in this department have changed their lives.  We announced our Clio Award winners. And, as chair of the department, I had the privilege of giving the students a charge to go out into the wider world and be agents of change, not in spite of the fact that they are history majors, but because they are history majors.

The students always feel a sense of ease at this event.  They feel free to make jokes about their professors or share stories that they would probably not have shared publicly a few years ago. It is one of my favorite moments of the academic year.

There is a part of me that wishes I could somehow capture the experience or spirit of the senior dinner and use it to convince prospective students to come to Messiah College to study history.  But there is another part of me that realizes that the experiences and the stories celebrated at the senior dinner are somewhat private.  They are unique to the community of teachers and students who have lived through them together.  They are intimate moments that may be inappropriate to share with prospective students who have not yet experienced them or who never will experience them because they chose to matriculate at another college or university.

I am privileged to know these students well enough to tell stories about them, to write letters of recommendation for them that do not simply include the usual platitudes, and to share in both their triumphs and defeats as they move through their undergraduate experience.  I am not sure the same thing would happen at a large research university, but I could be wrong.

I am proud of the Messiah College history class of 2012.  They are all going off to do great things.  I wish them well.

Chris Gehrz on "Confessing History": Part Two

Chris Gehrz continues to blog on Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.  (Keep those posts coming, Chris!)  As I mentioned in an earlier post, he is currently using the book in his senior capstone seminar in the History Department at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.

In this post, which he wrote for the Bethel History Department blog, Gerhz reflects on the essays in Confessing History written by Beth Barton Schweiger and Brad Gundlach.  Both Beth and Brad discuss their experiences in graduate school.  Here is a taste of Gehrz’s post:

First, Beth Barton Schweiger (Univ. of Arkansas, an expert on the social history of religion in the U.S. South) closes her chapter — on what it means for Christian historians to “love” the people they study — by contemplating the difference between vocation and profession, and the ambiguous formation offered by graduate schools:

The temptation to practice any vocation as a profession, particularly when one’s vocation is a profession, is difficult to avoid. The rigors of professional formation in long years of graduate school can deeply imprint young scholars with many traits that do not set well with a Christian calling: ambition, a harshly critical spirit, cynicism, competition, and arrogance. Others are more valuable, among them: intellectual curiosity, critical inquiry, a wide familiarity with a body of work in a specific discipline, the skills to write strongly and well, and the clarity of thought required to do so. All of the qualities one learns in graduate school shape both the history that one writes and the relationship that one develops with colleagues in the discipline. Yet many of these habits should be set aside in favor of the deeper purpose of historical knowledge—one not found on any seminar syllabus—which is to serve the ends of love. (p. 73)

She goes on to warn that the professionalization of historical study (the process of “winnowing out, of narrowing allegiances and priorities in order to conform to the rigid standards of the guild”) can form in Christian historians the temptations to think ourselves more intelligent than the people we study, to wield knowledge as an instrument of power, and to scorn charity, wisdom, and mercy.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Message to Mitt: Stop Using the Bogus Thomas Paine Quote"

Mitt Romney is sounding very presidential of late. In fact, as I listened to his speech in Las Vegas on Saturday night, I thought for the first time that he might have a chance of beating Barack Obama. Romney’s recent rhetorical strategy (as opposed to his campaign ad strategy) has been to target the president and ignore the other GOP contenders. So far it seems to be working. 

In the last couple of weeks, Romney has been using a quote which he says is “reported” to have been uttered by the eighteenth-century revolutionary Thomas Paine. His punch line goes like this (italics mine): “In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!” This attack on Obama gets an uproarious response from the Romney faithful. 

There is one problem with Romney’s latest applause line: Thomas Paine never said “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” (The line was probably uttered by George Patton.) A representative from the Yale Book of Quotations, published by Yale University Press, has said that “the notion that Thomas Paine said this is extremely ridiculous.” Scholars have stated that this quote is not found anywhere in Paine’s writings.

Read the rest here.

Mentoring and the Humanities

Over at Brainstorm, Jacques Berlinerblau has some very nice thoughts about the way the practice of mentoring students might help in dealing with the “demoralysis” of humanities professors in these troubles times. 

Many of us at smaller colleges are committed to this kind of work with students and we have been for a long time, but Berlinerblau’s post is a refreshing reminder about the nature of the professorial vocation.  Here is a taste:

We have forgotten that the scholar’s product is not only a journal article or a seminal monograph, but, equally, generations of human beings whom we educate and cultivate. It is, regrettably, hard enough to incentivize professors to take teaching seriously. Mentoring is obviously going to be a much harder sell.
It’s also going to be a hard sell because of the quasi-hysteria regarding any sort of extra-classroom interaction between professors and students which set in during the 1980s and has decimated the organic bonds that traditionally obtained between them. I am not defending lecherous professors, yet in the name of wiping them off the face of the earth, the longstanding tradition of mentoring fast became roadkill. A conspiracy of sanctimony and convenience that radically transformed the American campus.

Why would a return to mentoring be good for the humanities? Because it deals with the intellectual cultivation of the soul and this is a “deliverable” that few other institutions are as well equipped to provide.