All posts from "June 2009"June 24, 2009
Or how I spent my summer vacation.
One of my professors at Duke, Dr. David Steinmetz, once said, quoting his mentor in Germany, that the number one thing a scholar needs is the ability to sit still for a very long time. (Dr. Steinmetz had an appropriately long and guttural German word for this, but I unfortunately cannot remember it.) Specifically, at least in my line of research, the scholar needs to be able to sit still for a very long time in an archive, which is a special kind of art. In case you should ever wish to develop this skill, or if youâ€™ve ever just wondered how historians compile all those footnotes, a primer:
1. Contact the archivist before you arrive. Archivists are an underappreciated lot. Most of those Iâ€™ve worked with are based in university libraries, tucked away somewhere far from any windows that might permit deadly sun rays to strike fragile manuscripts. They know their collections, they know their policies, and theyâ€™re generally eager to help any researcher who actually manages to find them, but they need more lead time than your basic librarian.
Sometimes, archival materials are not stored at the archivistâ€™s already obscure office, but someplace even more obscure off-campus. Also, archived materials are not usually indexed card-catalog style, much less electronically searchable. Instead, they are organized into folders, stored in flat, rectangular boxes, designed, frankly, more to protect the materials than to make them accessible. If youâ€™re lucky, someone on the library staff has prepared a guide to the collection, giving maybe a few sentences on the contents of each box. If youâ€™re not so lucky, you need to be really nice to the archivist, because he or she will probably need to fetch lots of boxes out of storage that you might not need at all.
2. Wear a sweater. Think a movie theater is a nice cool place to spend a hot summer day? If you really want to cool off, find an archive. Low temperatures and humidity must be good for preserving paper, because just about every archive Iâ€™ve visited is kept at what feels like 50 degrees. Perhaps one of the perks of working in an archive is never needing to refrigerate your lunch.
3. Prepare to be surprised. Even with a detailed guide, you never know exactly what youâ€™ll find in an archive. In Reinhold Niebuhrâ€™s papers at the Library of Congress (the gold standard of archives, kept well below freezing), in addition to irate exchanges with the editors of The Christian Century, I found correspondence about his sonâ€™s bedwetting. The bedwetting was not at all relevant to my research, but the nasty letters to the Century led me to interpret Niebuhrâ€™s break with that magazine in a new way. (Briefly, while Niebuhrâ€™s politics and theology drifted slowly but significantly away from the Centuryâ€™s liberalism from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, Niebuhr stopped writing for the magazine because he was angry about a string of bad book reviews.) Archival surprises are often the best fruits of a researcherâ€™s labors.
On the other hand, scholars must take care not to succumb to what a colleague of mine dubbed the Research Squirrel syndrome. Research squirrels canâ€™t resist picking up every nut they find and showing it to their friends. You do not want an office down the hall from a research squirrel, nor do you want to read his or her book. There is simply Too Much Information in even a modest archive to either read or report on all of it. Around the midpoint of an archival visit, I try to switch from broad curiosity to narrow focus. But thereâ€™s always something that leads me back off the track â€¦
4. Give credit. The acknowledgements in a history book often mention archivists, research assistants, and funding sources. You probably donâ€™t read the acknowledgements (I usually donâ€™t, either), but those names are there because their help really is the bulk of the iceberg that raises the tip to the surface. Footnotes acknowledge help, too, among their other many functions. If you ever see box and folder numbers there, itâ€™s because somebody indexed that box, somebody got it out of storage, the researcher dutifully noted all of this information, and they all want to make it easier for the next person to find that information again, should it ever be needed. Research is often solitary work, but it is a thoroughly collaborative process.
With that, Iâ€™m back to the archives at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, home of nearly 400 boxes of material on The Christian Century, only some of them indexed. I requested 30 boxes trucked into the reading room yesterday, and I managed to look at 7 of them. I have a lot of sitting ahead of me.
Image: Photography by Hannes Grobe, archive of old maps and plates (Schulhistorische Sammlung, Bremerhaven) via Wikimedia Commons.
The troubling Christian forerunners of Tiller's killer.
"The shooting of abortion physician George Tiller continued a long, dark tradition in American politics," Jon Shields wrote in a fascinating op-ed for Christianity Today earlier this month. "Radicalism on the fringes of social movements has been a surprisingly enduring phenomenon in American politics. There were violent abolitionists, axe-wielding temperance crusaders, Black Panthers in the civil rights movement, Weathermen in the New Left, and eco-terrorists in the environmental movement."
Indeed, in the wake of Tiller's murder I've seen more discussion of Christian history than I've seen since The Da Vinci Code movie came out. Shields points to various social movements, but in the blogosphere over the past few weeks there has been a focus on two particular moments in history: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's participation in an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler, and the violent abolitionism of John Brown, Nat Turner, and others.
"When it came to defying Hitler's regime, Bonhoeffer saw that several excruciating moral questions were on â€˜the borderland' and could not be settled with absolute certainty," Al Mohler wrote in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune. "Eventually, he was convinced that the Nazi regime was beyond moral correction and no longer legitimate. Christians, he then saw, bore a responsibility to oppose the regime at every level and to seek its demise. He acted in defense of life and was finally willing to use violence to that end."
He immediately added this: "America is not Nazi Germany. George Tiller, though bearing the blood of thousands of unborn children on his hands, was not Adolf Hitler. The murderer of Dr. George Tiller is no Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dr. Tiller's murderer did not serve the cause of life; he assaulted that cause at its moral core. There is no justification for this murder, and it is the responsibility of everyone who cherishes life and honors human dignity to declare this without equivocation or hesitation."
Later, on his blog, Mohler seemed uncomfortable even discussing Bonhoeffer in light of the Tiller killing. "I deal with the Bonhoeffer issue in this essay because I have received so many questions about the historical analogy.," he said.
So many readers are familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's decision to take action against Hitler. Fewer are familiar with the moral and theological reasoning that led Bonhoeffer, quite reluctantly, to this conclusion. Even then, Bonhoeffer was not certain he was acting rightly. He felt that this decision, made under extreme moral conditions, was the best he could understand. â€¦ We must realize that Bonhoeffer did not come to his decision to resort to violence against the regime out of a moral vacuum. He and his brothers and sisters in the Confessing Church had long before come to the conclusion that they must oppose the Nazi regime in totality, risking imprisonment and far worse. It is nothing less than embarrassing to see American Christians make arguments citing Bonhoeffer while they fail to engage his moral and theological reasoning - and when arguments are based in sloppy analogies from a position of cultural comfort.
Elizabeth Scalia made a similar point in First Things:
Bonhoeffer understood that his uniqueness in no way excepted him from the fact that what he was attempting was an evil - his evil, wholly distinct from Hitler's own evil - and one for which he would be held to account," she wrote. "Bonhoeffer knew that he could not rationalize his evil or make it less evil in the sight of Hitler's monstrous regime, and that in the end he would have only God's grace in which to hope. In another mind, another heart, particularly one beset by decades of politicized, often overheated rhetoric, who knows if such balance and genuine accountability would be possible? â€¦ When we start thinking that we know the heart and mind of God so well that we may decide who lives and who dies, we slip into a mode of Antichrist.
But if not Bonhoeffer, then what about the violent abolitionists? Randall Terry compared Tiller's killer to Nat Turner, who launched the bloodiest slave rebellion in history. Terry did not laud Turner, but compared himself to white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
Garrison "did not support Nat Turner's bloody carnage, but he fearlessly declared that slavery was an intrinsic evil that was the cauldron from which Nat Turner's insurrection boiled over," Terry wrote at Catholic Online. "Garrison warned that slavery itself was the evil root from which this horrifying deed sprang. â€¦ After Nat Turner's rebellion - William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists actually grew more strident, more shrill, and more cutting in their rhetoricâ€¦. Remember: The powerful in the press and in politics of Garrison's day insisted that he was a â€˜disturber of the peace,' and an â€˜outlaw.' We now hold him as a hero."
At First Things, Wesley J. Smith also praised Garrison as someone to emulate, especially in light of the Tiller killing. "Garrison's genius was his eloquent and unyielding condemnation of that great evil," Smith wrote. "But he was also unequivocal in eschewing violence in the cause of overcoming this profound injustice."
He quoted the constitution of Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society: "This Society will never, in any way, countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by resorting to physical force."
Elsewhere, Garrison more succinctly condemned abolitionist violence thus: "A good end does not justify a wicked means."
But Garrison doesn't make a great Christian hero. He saw every Christian church and denomination as utterly compromised by slavery, and black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass split with him in part because of his view of the church.
When I was writing an article on the black abolitionists for Christian History a decade ago, I was struck by how many of them saw justification for violence in both the Declaration of Independence and in Scripture. Even Douglass, who had long opposed violence, ended up supporting slave rebellions.
"The only way to make the fugitive slave law dead letter," he said, "is to make a half a dozen or more dead kidnappers."
"Kill or be killed," wrote David Walker in his famous (or infamous) 1829 Appeal â€¦ to the Colored Citizens of the World. "It is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty; in fact the man who will stand still and let another man murder him is worse than an infidel."
It wasn't all talk. Remember Denmark Vesey, a freed slave in South Carolina, who planned a bloody siege of Charleston after the church he founded was seized and closed.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger for The Atlantic, says one reason analogies between violent anti-abortionists and violent abolitionists fail is that "political violence in 19th Century America was much more common than it is today. â€¦ Congressmen were coming to the House floor armed for a shoot-out. Why? Because of a book that slandered the South. A book. fool! â€¦ It's hard to imagine, say, Lindsey Graham beating the hell out of Patrick Leahy with a cane -- and then his constituents not only keeping him in office, but sending him canes engraved with things like "Hit him again!"
Coates doesn't want to say society as a whole was more violent, but says political violence specifically seems endemic in that century. Does it minimize the Tiller shooting? Maybe. "But by 19th century standards, I'm not even sure his murder qualifies as terrorism. Fools were bucking each other all over the place."
But societal acceptance of political violence aside, Coates said it is important to consider who participated in the 19th century violence:
A core reason an abortion/slavery comparison falls down lay in the actions of the enslaved, versus the inability of action amongst embryos. â€¦ Whereas the fight against abortion begins with pro-lifers asserting the rights of embryos, the fight against slavery doesn't begin with the abolitionists, but with the Africans themselves who resisted. â€¦
The anti-abortion fight relies on people with voices speaking for the presumably voiceless. The anti-slavery fight relies, first and foremost, on the enslaved asserting their own freedom. The works and arguments of abolition don't mean much if the blacks, themselves, don't believe in their personhood. Indeed one of the great arguments for slavery was that the blacks actually liked it, that they wanted to be enslaved. As a pro-choicer, I don't think I'd argue that any child would "want" to have been aborted.
Is violence more justifiable when it's self-defense rather than when it is in defense of someone else? That seems a bit at odds with the usual ethical calculus.
Back in January, John Piper considered the question, How is trying to stop abortion different from physically intervening to stop child abuse? "It may not be," he answered. "But I don't think, all things considered, that shooting abortionists accomplishes what you want to accomplishâ€¦. Because as soon as you take up violence, they're going to say, "You're doing the same thing that the abortionists are doing." And, therefore, you would never make any headway in this."
Piper talked about his role in the rescue movement of the '80s and '90s. It drew its inspiration not from 19th century abolitionism but from the 20th century civil rights movement:
What brought it all crashing down was that it proved to be impossible - at least here in the Twin Cities - to maintain the kind of humble, meek, lowly, lamb-like demeanor of suffering that would win the American conscience like the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement got traction and was sustained because pictures of Bull Connor and fire hoses and dogs biting black people and mowing down children with fire hoses took the American conscience. "That we will not do!"
But Martin Luther King and the black resistance movement were able to do the miraculous work of not fighting back. â€¦ And when the hostilities broke out against them, the media caught it and everything turned around. That did not happen in the pro-life resistance, because pro-life people got mouthy. They were always doing and saying stuff that was ugly. So that's what the media captured. They didn't capture people who were meek and loving and kind being mistreated. They captured pro-life people mistreating. So the whole thing fell apart.
Piper thinks the strategy was counterproductive, but he's still haunted. Not by the protests, but by the lack of a significant alternative. "Abortion remains a moral issue of such huge consequence that, I believe, our grandchildren will look back in a hundred years and condemn us. Me, they'll condemn me," he wrote. "We think we're doing the best we can, but we're probably not. We are so incapable of mounting a full-blown conscientious resistance to the greatest evil in our culture, that all of our strategizing to do political, educational, and crisis pregnancy things will all look inadequate a hundred years from now. They'll just say, â€˜You were killing babies!'"
He sounds a lot like David Ruggles, the black abolitionist who led Douglass and hundreds of other slaves to freedom: "The pleas of crying soft and sparing never answered the purpose of a reform, and never will."
Read more about the African-American struggle for freedom in Christian History issue 62, "Bound for Canaan: Africans in America."
Discover the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Christian History issue 32, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian in Nazi Germany."
How hardship steeled the Greatest Generation for their greatest challenge.
The day will come when American presidents will no longer feel compelled to visit the beaches of Normandy on landmark anniversaries. Like other great feats of self-sacrifice, D-Day will fade from public memory. The veterans will pass away. And no movie can replace hearing their first-person accounts of these heroic, horrific events. But for now, anniversaries still stir presidents to deliver new words of appreciation for the soldiers who never returned home. Official visits bring to our television screens the haunting images of rows and rows of white crosses that mark veteran graves.
â€˜It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide," President Obama said on June 6, the 65th anniversary. "More particularly, it came down to the men who landed here - those who now rest in this place for eternity, and those who are with us here today. Perhaps more than any other reason, you, the veterans of that landing, are why we still remember what happened on D-Day. You're why we keep coming back."
President Obama noted that these soldiers could have shrunk from the daunting task. They didn't have to run down the landing craft or scale the cliffs. Officers ensured that they would, for the only thing more dangerous than advancing was staying put. But something else steeled them for the mission. As Christians experience in their pilgrimage of faith, personal history prepares us for the unknown future. For the men of D-Day and the entire World War II generation, that history was the Great Depression.
Tom Brokaw, who celebrated these men and women in The Greatest Generation drew this connection for The Wall Street Journal on the D-Day anniversary. He explained how a Normandy visit with two D-Day veterans inspired him to write the bestselling tribute. Listening to their stories, Brokaw remembered people like them who cared for their neighbors during his childhood in South Dakota. The same sort of self-giving relationships that sustained men on the battlefield held communities together back home.
"As I began to write the wartime accounts of that generation, I realized how much they were formed by the deprivations and lessons of the Great Depression," Brokaw wrote. "During that period life was about common sacrifice and going without the most ordinary items, such as enough food or new clothes."
Some men received their first pair of boots or shoes from the Army, Brokaw recalled. Cafeteria food topped what they could scrounge up at home. And though basic training was no picnic, few would rather be home putting up hay in the late summer heat.
"The surviving members of that generation - now in their 80s and 90s - are living reminders of the good that can come from hard times," Brokaw reflected. "They can teach us that if we're to get through this time of crisis a better nation with a fundamentally stronger economy, we'd better learn how to work together and organize our lives around what we need - not just what we want."
I grew up in South Dakota after Brokaw had already started broadcasting the NBC Nightly News. But the Greatest Generation passed down their history to me, too. My grandparents were too young to serve in World War II, but they were self-identified children of the Great Depression. Still today, they often recall ways their families pulled together to make ends meet. They don't complain, even though they sometimes wonder how their parents managed.
As hard as it is to believe, I don't think they would trade this history of hardship for a childhood of ease. But maybe this decision reflects the way God works. As a Christian, would you trade the crucibles that tested your fledgling faith? Can there be sanctification without struggle? Can you recognize blessing if you've never known want?
While dying of cancer in 2004, my grandfather asked me to help plan his funeral. He showed me the picture of himself as a child that he wanted to print on the back of the funeral bulletin. He wrote a caption to explain his choice.
"We children of that era didn't think of being deprived as we had no worries - our parents had those, and all our friends and neighbors were in like circumstances," Bill Daniel wrote. "Only we of such humble beginnings can fully appreciate the many blessings God has given us."
Hardship itself becomes a blessing when God turns our personal history into a reservoir of resolve we can draw from to tackle life's most daunting challenges.
Image: "Migrant Mother," by Dorothea Lange, 1936, via Wikimedia Commons.
How to excavate a usable medieval past.
Well, I promised to report back on the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies, and so I will, at least for a moment before turning to another set of lenses on a "usable medieval past."
In a word, the congress was overwhelming. With over 3,000 scholars and over 600 sessions (averaging 3+ papers each) stuffed into a few days, many of them on topics very esoteric and technical, my head was swimming. Navigating the sessions became an exercise in close reading and careful exegesis of the program-book. Fortunately, more often than not I did manage to hit pay-dirt.
I attended sessions on everything from pleasure in medieval scholarship (turned out to be heavily laden with queer theory--didn't know that from reading the program book) to the Cistercians Aelred of Rievaulx and Bernard of Clairvaux.
As a historian whose interest in history is firmly anchored to the church, I found the best sessions were the ones in which the seats were filled with monks and nuns - e.g. the Cistercian track. One exception was a wonderful session on "Teaching hagiography as narrative theology," presented by a panel consisting of a professor who had taught a course on just that subject, along with an animated group of bright graduate students who had taken her course and done various fascinating papers for it.
Because I am still processing, I'll leave the rest of my observations aside for now and turn back to another entrÃ©e to this subject of medieval studies that has been very fruitful for me: the work of a select group of British Christian authors - medievalists all.
The circle of C. S. Lewis's friends loosely referred to as "the Inklings" - though not all attended meetings of that circle in Lewis's rooms - included a number of top-notch scholarly medievalists. These included Lewis himself, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Charles Williams.
Historian Norman Cantor has written a fascinating book called Inventing the Middle Ages. Essentially this is a survey of how modern thinkers and writers have created "medievalisms" - the term means "modern uses or construals of the Middle Ages" - that have impacted how we view the Middle Ages today. One chapter of this book deals with the authors just mentioned. He calls them "the Oxford fantasists."
Cantor reminds us that Lewis "had established his reputation as a leading medieval literary historian with The Allegory of Love (1936), a pioneering and influential study of medieval romantic literature." Tolkien did important work on Beowulf and was "the leading scholar on the subjects of two precious fourteenth-century poems written anonymously in the Midlands, about seventy miles from Oxford, in the dialect of that region . . . Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl."
Cantor makes a startling claim. Surveying the entire scholarly field of medieval studies, he concludes: "Of all the medievalists of the twentieth century, Lewis and Tolkien have gained incomparably the greatest audience, although 99.9 percent of their readers have never looked at their scholarly work."
What does that mean for our attempts to "excavate" a usable medieval past today? Only this:
"In terms of shaping of the Middle Ages in the popular culture of the twentieth century, Tolkien and Lewis have had an incalculable effect, and the story is far from ended. Their fictional fantasies cannot be separated from their scholarly writing. Their work in each case should be seen as a whole and as communicating an image of the Middle Ages that has entered profoundly and indelibly into world culture."
In other words, in their fantasy writing, Tolkien, Lewis, and their circle "wanted to impart a sense of medieval myth to the widest audience possible. They wanted to represent to the public the impress of the kind of traditional ethic they derived from their devotion to conservative Christianity."
I think this insight of Cantor's gets right to the heart of Tolkien's and Lewis's (and Sayers's and Williams's) fiction. They saw the medieval era and the Christian values it embodied as a vibrant corrective to many of the ills of their own age. And they saw imaginative literature (in Tolkien's and Lewis's case, a genre they called "fairy stories") as the best way to communicate these values to our time.
But none of these authors stopped with fairy stories. Lewis, for example, summarized many years worth of his own lectures to undergraduates on the subject of medieval faith and culture in the fascinating Discarded Image. In this book he shows with great vividness that, for the medievals, the objective universe was alive with truth and meaning.
Sadly, for us (whether we consider ourselves "moderns" or "postmoderns" doesn't matter), not only has truth been emptied from the universe, we ourselves have been emptied. In the face of this disaster, Lewis did not stand by. He addressed it both in philosophical essays such as those contained in The Abolition of Man and in his fiction.
Tolkien did the same, though in a subtler and perhaps more literarily successful way, in his Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and other stories.
Sayers wrote quasi-medieval mystery plays such as The Zeal of Thy House and The Just Vengeance and translated Dante.
Williams forged his own deep study of Dante into a full-blown "romantic theology" for today (in books such as The Figure of Beatrice), and he also injected strange and supernatural medieval elements into such modern-themed novels as The Place of the Lion, Descent into Hell, and The Greater Trumps.
Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and Williams found fame through their own works of imaginative literature. That literature itself has become a portal into a medieval world that, for all its faults, was shot through with biblical insights into the meaning of being human in a world created by God.
This is why these accomplished medievalists make such wonderful "guides" for Christians today who want to explore the medieval world and medieval faith. We know them well. We trust them because they have spoken truth to us in their stories and essays. And in those writings, they have already initiated us into the medieval world.
So why not follow them down that road, with The Lord of the Rings or The Space Trilogy in one hand, and The Divine Comedy or Beowulf in the other? We've enjoyed their writings. Now let's explore their conviction that the medieval world still has some important things to teach us today - as 21st-century folks and as Christians.
Image: Facade of the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (England), where the Inklings met (1930-1950). 2002 photograph by Stefan Servos via Wikimedia Commons.