All sides of a recent textbook battle are right, and wrong, about religion in American history.
I think five different people mentioned the same article to me earlier this month: “How Christian Were the Founders?” from The New York Times Magazine. Russell Shorto’s long and generally balanced piece examines how one institution, the Texas State Board of Education, exerts tremendous power over the interpretation of such contentious issues as creation/evolution and the role of Christianity in the founding of the United States. It is a story full of ironies, not unlike American history itself.
Texas is a big state, and it orders a lot of textbooks. Textbook publishers cannot afford to tailor their products to every potential audience, so they often aim at the large target under the Lone Star. As a result, 15 people in Texas help determine the curriculum for much of the country. Who knew that an elected body including high school teachers, administrators, real estate agents, lawyers, and a dentist has more direct influence over public schools in this country than do the presidents of Ivy League universities?
Reality as the opposite of what you would expect is one kind of irony. Irony as unintended consequences, and irony as the juxtaposition of contradictory impulses, are also on display in Shorto’s piece. Both appear in his discussion of the fabled wall of separation between church and state.
Dorothy Sayers rediscovered the gripping drama of Christian doctrine.
We live once again, as did early 20th-century mystery writer and lay theologian Dorothy L. Sayers, in a world that could care less about the doctrines of the Christian church. And once again, many of those who care least are self-identified Christians and faithful churchgoers.
Before we lose all grip on the intellectual content of our faith, it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with Sayers. In a recent Glimpses bulletin insert, I sketched her twin passions for swashbuckling drama and intellectual order, and suggested how these suited her to the great task of modern apologetics—a task probably still as urgent for Christian as for non-Christian audiences:
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) was a prolific scholar, novelist, essayist, playwright and translator. Those who know about her today have usually met her through her detective stories and their memorable hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. But there is much more to her story. In a time of spiritual confusion, she emerged, almost despite herself, as an unlikely voice of clarity and a compelling lay “preacher” of the gospel.
Sayers, a clergyman’s daughter, was born into a late-Victorian Oxford, England that had ceased to be a sleepy medieval town: automobile factories now encroached on its narrow streets and dreamlike spires. Worse, the Christian tradition that had birthed Oxford University was now in full retreat throughout Europe. Anyone truly “modern” believed that humans, like everything else, are just aggregations of atoms, and matters of morality and spirit thus mere illusions.
Even the Church of England was giving in, so that by the turn of the century, bishops who doubted Christ’s resurrection were called “courageous.” And though many ministers and laypeople still held on to Christian faith, it was increasingly a sentimentalized, moralistic version.
In late girlhood and adolescence, Sayers was bright enough to observe and dislike the stuffed-shirt piety of the modernizing Church of England. She remarked that, like sex, such mysteries of the faith as the sacraments and God himself seemed to be considered “exceedingly sacred and beautiful,” yet also “indelicate, and only to be mentioned in whispers.” As she would later say about this sort of overdone churchiness: “At the name of Jesus, every voice goes plummy.”
I’ve been teaching church history at Bethel Seminary for five years, and I think I’ve finally found one of these mythical creatures.
The Fountain of Youth. The Pot of Gold. The Holy Grail. Every professor can add to this list one more legendary object of desire—and indeed, this may be the most elusive and valuable of them all:
The Assignment That Works.
This is the piece of coursework that seems quite regularly, really almost magically, to elicit from students their best, most engaged and thoughtful writing.
I’ve been teaching church history at Bethel Seminary for five years, and I think I’ve finally found one of these mythical creatures.
About a year ago, faculty members teaching certain core courses were tasked with creating assignments for the newly designed “integrative portfolio.” This is a dossier that now accompanies each Bethel M.Div. student through their program, helping them to track their growth personally and professionally.
The assignment I developed to fit this need is the final paper in the church history survey course. I have assigned it three times, and each time it seems to have that grail-like quality of drawing from many students a high level of thoughtfulness and engagement with the historical sources.
In response to this prompt, my students have written papers such as the following:
• A comparison of Andrew Carnegie’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century “gospel of wealth” with the modern “prosperity gospel”
• A look at open theism in light of the Apostles’ Creed
• A critique of evangelical support for American militarism based in the thought of such church fathers as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen
• A paper on whether the Lord’s Supper should be given only to baptized believers, with the winsome title “Table manners: Washing our children before they eat.”
Students doing this assignment are coming up with so many great ways our history illumines our present that it’s become a pleasure to sit down and grade the resulting papers. And that’s something you won’t hear a professor say very often!
Here’s the assignment. Maybe you could try it out yourself:
Hobby Lobby retail chain donates defunct Massachusetts campus to proposed C. S. Lewis College.
A few days after Christmas I caught up with some news stories about the sale of the boarding schools evangelist Dwight L. Moody founded for poor children in 1879 (the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies) and 1881 (the Mount Hermon School for Boys). Hat tip to Philadelphia journalist W. G. Shuster for the links.
The basic facts according to news reports:
- The Massachusetts schools had gone co-ed in 1971, consolidated on one campus in 2005, and needed to find an appropriate owner for the unused and deteriorating Northfield Campus.
- Hobby Lobby, a privately held retail chain with a Christian vision, purchased the property for a nominal $100,000 and a commitment to preserve the historic campus and building. They are planning to spend about $5 million in operations and capital improvement projects over the next few years.
- Hobby Lobby then donated the property to the C. S. Lewis Foundation, which since its founding in 1986 has been looking for a way to start a great books college based on a Christian educational vision.
- The C. S. Lewis Foundation (which earlier purchased and refurbished Lewis’s Oxford home known as “The Kilns” and holds periodic seminars there) plans to launch C. S. Lewis College on the Northfield campus in 2012 with an initial entering class of 400, a faculty of 40, and a staff of 45.
So what is the story behind the schools Dwight L. Moody founded and the campus that will soon take the name of C. S. Lewis?
And other lessons from my first semester teaching church history.
I’ve been in this field for some ten years now, but this fall was my first opportunity to design and teach my own church history course. It was actually a lot harder than I expected it to be. My degree is in religion, but my job is in history, so usually my problem is not knowing enough about the subject matter I’m teaching. (The XYZ Affair? Um, let me look that up.) With church history, though, I had entirely too much material to work with—too many books I wanted to assign, too many possible interpretations, too many people and events I felt obligated to mention. The class was, shall we say, an experiment. So, for any of you who teach church history or would like to learn the good parts of my class without the guinea-pig travails, a few insights:
1. Heiko Oberman’s biography, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, is outstanding, but it assumes the reader already knows something about its subject. My students did not. They knew basically nothing about church history—but, as I should have remembered, neither did I as an undergraduate. Next time I’ll go with Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand instead.
On the other hand, I was very pleased with the other texts I used: Mark Noll’s Turning Points, Paul Maier’s translation of Eusebius’s Church History, and Tia Kolbaba’s The Byzantine Lists. The last of those just went out of print, but the other two would be great choices for spending your shiny new gift cards.
The night Constantinople fell to the Ottoman armies may be the one time that the church was one.
My mother’s favorite chapter in the Bible was the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus in John 17. This chapter is a prayer of Jesus that believers may share the kind of love and unity that he shares with the Father. “May they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
There is a sorry irony about John 17, however, for if it is a chapter we Christians love, it is surely one we fail to emulate. Among the least attractive aspects of Christianity is the divisiveness woven into the warp of church history. Worse yet, many church divisions occur for reasons that, at least in the judgment of later generations, seem petty rather than substantive. It is tempting to conclude that Christians don’t take Jesus’ prayer seriously. I don’t believe that is the case. Most Christians, I think, take the prayer seriously, and probably even pray for its implementation.
In my judgment, our failure is rooted in two other factors. First, I think we take “May they all be one” to mean “may they all be like us.” If I constitute the epicenter of the Kingdom of God on earth, and others are not like me, then they are obviously not at the epicenter, and maybe not even be in the circle of faith. We make ourselves rather than Jesus the measure of unity.
Second, I think we assume “May they all be one” should be understood formally— uniformity on things like church order, liturgy, polity, and so forth—rather than confessionally, i.e., unity on the essential elements of faith.
There are endless mutations of traditions, divisions, factions, and experimentations in church history, but has there ever been a time when the church was united, truly one? I am aware of an extraordinary moment when deep divisions and distrust were, if not overcome, set aside for a worship service in which it can be said that the church was finally—perhaps for the last time—united.
In November 1739, Jonathan Edwards preached not freedom from want, but freedom from demons.
Thanksgiving is a feel-good holiday. All Americans know, or think they know, about the “first Thanksgiving” celebration among helpful American Indians and grateful Pilgrims. Some Americans know, at least vaguely, that the national tradition is also connected to war. Abraham Lincoln began the annual observance in 1863, as the Civil War was nearing its bloody crescendo, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the federal holiday official by signing a bill in December 1941, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. But hey, those wars happened a long time ago, and they were noble wars, and the good guys won. As the twentieth century spun on, Thanksgiving became synonymous with plenty, even excess, prompting an annual round of reduced-fat recipes, dieting tips, and warnings about the lethargy brought on by too much turkey. The dominant image was Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Freedom from Want,” another World War II artifact symbolizing all that was right with America and could be right with the world following an Allied victory.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), America’s foremost theologian, held forth a very different vision in his 1739 Thanksgiving sermon.
Last weekend, white and black Methodist congregations in Philadelphia worshiped together for the first time in more than 200 years.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience at Western Michigan University, “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic.” Sunday morning segregation was especially tragic at two Methodist churches in Philadelphia, separated by one mile and more than 200 years. The two churches, St. George’s and Mother Bethel, reunited for the first time October 25, 2009.
The split between the churches dated back to the late eighteenth century and the career of Richard Allen. Born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760, Allen and his family were sold to a Delaware farmer, Stokely Sturgis, who allowed him to attend church. Slaves’ exposure to Christianity in the early eighteenth century had largely consisted of exhortations to obey their masters, but by the later years of that century, Methodists and Baptists had begun effective evangelism to slave communities. These two churches’ practice of licensing black preachers proved a key to their success but also, unfortunately, brought the racial tensions building in American society in-house.
In 1777, Allen and Sturgis both converted to Methodism. Sturgis became convinced that God would judge slaveholders harshly, so he offered his slaves their freedom for $2,000 each. Allen purchased his and his brother’s freedom in 1783, became a Methodist preacher, and spent the next six years itinerating around Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and South Carolina. Eventually he worked his way back to Philadelphia. He was invited to serve as assistant minister at St. George’s Methodist Church and to preach publicly in the city’s black neighborhoods. As his popularity grew, so did the black congregation worshiping at St. George’s, much to the consternation of some white members.
In his autobiography, Allen recounted the events that divided the church:
Diverse figures from church history offer surprisingly similar guidance for this core Christian practice.
On September 16, The New York Times Magazine ran an exploration of prayer under the title, “Is There a Right Way to Pray?” In search of an answer to the title question, contributor Zev Chafets, a self-identified non-pray-er, visited the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a professional spiritual director in Manhattan, the rabbi half of the “God Squad,” a Catholic theologian, and an Assemblies of God church outside Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
Chafets received guidance as varied as “just sit and ponder,” “give Jesus a big hand,” “thank who or what seems appropriate,” and, at The Brooklyn Tabernacle, complete directions for body and soul: “Let God begin the conversation. Keep your prayers brief and clear. Repeat simple Scripture-based phrases. Pray standing up to fight torpor. And pray directly facing others, eye to eye, in a loud, clear voice.” He was most drawn to … well, you should read the article to find out.
Chafets’ investigation sent me on a brief jaunt of my own—not to New York and America’s first spa (I’m way too behind on grading to be traveling just now), but to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. I didn’t set myself a search agenda, hoping, like the reporter, to end up at least one place I hadn’t expected to go.
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.
Newspaper clippings document teetotalers’ dedication, even in driving rain.
Memorial Day weekend seemed like a grand time for camping with friends in North Carolina, and it was, right up until a downpour began Sunday night.
According to plastic cups left out on the picnic tables - the storm hit after dark, leaving precious little time for securing items beneath tent canopies - a good two inches of rain fell in about as many hours, and additional sprinkles every half hour or so ensured that nothing had a chance to dry out. Two tents in our group were flooded out, though luckily not ours. My 3-year-old daughter managed to sleep through the whole thing.
Church historian that I am, as I lay awake, listening to heavy drops pelt the rain fly, I thought, This must have happened a lot at 19th-century camp meetings. I wonder how they handled it?
Upon returning to the electrified world, I ran some Web searches to find out.
Two donors have helped create a new patristics program at Wheaton College.
When theologian George Kalantzis returned to the Wheaton College campus last fall after spending the summer in the Holy Land, he had a very pleasant surprise. While he was out of the country, two donors had approached the college administration about funding a program that would encourage interaction between Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism over their mutual legacy from the early church.
No one at Wheaton knew just how much these donors would fund, but George and his colleagues decided to dream big: they envisioned a Center for the Study of Early Christianity, with a vertically integrated program from undergraduate courses up through master's and doctoral studies.
Their big vision was rewarded.
The history of Christian relationships with the Jews has both its bright spots and its dark corners.
Today was Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Yom HaShoah in colloquial Hebrew). On this day, Jews do not have a uniform ritual for memorializing those who died as part of the Nazi genocide. The observance was established too recently (inaugurated only in 1951), for any genuine tradition to have developed. Jews marked the occasion in different ways today. I have even less sense of what I should do, but I decided this morning to wear my kippeh (yarmulke) to work as a sign of solidarity with my Jewish brothers and sisters. It gave me a number of opportunities to remind my Christian coworkers of today's significance.
The key issue Christians face is trying to grasp the degree of Christian responsibility for the Nazi genocide. Clearly, many German Christians were utterly complicit, but certainly not all. Clearly, there are cultural links between this history of Christian anti-Semitism and Nazi anti-Semitism. But there is more to the story than that.
Here are three things to remember and to help us have a balanced, accurate view of Christians' relationship to this great horror.
When we teach about the early church, we frequently omit the story of spiritual gifts.
Cessationism is the belief that the miracles of Jesus' lifetime and the apostolic period happened solely to attest to the authority and inspiration of the apostolic writings, and that miracles and extraordinary spiritual gifts ceased after the writing of the apostolic documents was concluded.
As writers such as ex-Dallas Seminary professor Jack Deere have argued, this is a position with no biblical foundation. But it also has a problem with the historical record. That record shows clearly that the early church was quite active in the charismatic gifts at least through 200 AD. There was a decline in the 3rd century, and then again it became active.
Sadly, many writers and teachers who are not cessationist continue to give the impression that miracles and extraordinary gifts were phenomena limited to the apostolic period. The way the early church is usually taught, we hear much about martyrdom and persecution; much about Gnostics and Arians and doctrinal disputes; much about how bishops and clergy roles evolved, and how the apostolic tradition was passed down and the canon of the New Testament evolved.
We hear how Tertullian scoffed at those who tried to translate the gospel into the categories of Greek philosophy; how Origen of Alexandria nearly single-handedly invented the systematic study of the Bible; how Irenaeus defended the faith against a host of heresies and spoke of the Work of Christ in illuminating new ways; how Cyprian insisted on the unity of the church and its necessity for salvation.
What we don't usually hear is how these same august teachers and bishops from the 100s and 200s AD and beyond - Tertullian, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and many more - talked about miracles of healing, prophecy, and exorcism as everyday occurrences in the church. Tertullian is typical when he says "God everywhere manifests signs of his own power - to his own people for their comfort, to strangers for a testimony unto them" (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul).
How to be a loudmouth know-it-all at your carol sing.
I love Christmas music. Not as much as the blogosphere's Ernie (Not Bert), Andy Cirzan, or some of the Christmas music nuts I've met. But still, 10,000 Christmas songs on my hard drive probably qualifies me as a fanatic.
There are ample songs that grate (if you think the Chipmunks are bad, try the Chippers, Woody the Chipmunk, or any of the Chipmunk ripoff albums that came after "Christmas Don't Be Late" hit it big in 1958). But there are other songs that are just plain wrong - and many of them are among the most popular of the season. Here, for your interrupting pleasure during your family singing, your Christmas Eve neighborhood caroling, or similar opportunities, are the best songs to cluck at.
8. I Saw Three Ships
An easy one just to start the list. Bethlehem is landlocked, so it is historically improbable that our savior Christ and his lady came sailing in on Christmas day in the morning. But that's not all that's problematic about the song. Where's Joseph? If it's just Jesus and Mary, why do they need three ships? Surely Mary didn't just arrive in Bethlehem the morning of the birth?
This headline seems to fall in the "man bites dog" category. From a professor (also dean and VP) of Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, we expect precise articulations of Reformed doctrine. Defenses of biblical inerrancy. Disquisitions on the priority of theology over experience.
We don't expect a spirited exhortation to read thousand-year-old mystical texts.
But that's just what we get in Carl Trueman's article Why Should Thoughtful Evangelicals Read the Medieval Mystics. And it's worth reading - whether you share Trueman's Reformed stance or not. In a nutshell, after acknowledging difficulties, he enumerates four reasons we should read such luminaries of the Middle Ages as Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. For those wanting to cut to the chase, here's my brief commentary on Trueman's article.
At Christian History,we enjoy putting together fresh material for you every week: articles, interviews, book reviews, excerpts from classic texts, quizzes—we’re constantly thinking of fresh ways to dig into the church’s history to increase our understanding and deepen our devotion.
However, a lot of things catch our attention that we’d like to tell you about, but that we can’t devote a full feature to. That’s one of the great things about blogging—it can be a way to call your attention to something interesting in a timely fashion but without having to commission and edit an article.
Here are some of the stories I would have shared with you if the Christian History Blog had existed last week: