Sometimes Seeing Clearly Means Knowing When to Look Away

Grasping the Horrors of the Holocaust is a Struggle. It Ought to Be.

As a Ph.D. student, I spent the better part of three years researching the Holocaust and its legacy. While I focused on the response of a group of Protestant nuns living in its aftermath, my research was broad enough that it spanned both the poetry and theology of Jewish survivors, as well as the propaganda of those who promoted and committed it. For example, I read Mein Kampf and I loathed it, but I do not regret it. One cannot understand humanity without understanding the depths of human evil. At the same time, one can only understand the potential height of faith and hope by learning from those who confronted such senseless hate first-hand. Convinced of this necessity, I have continued to explore the theological legacy of the Holocaust and its emotional toll on the survivors and their families.

Yet sometimes the weight is more than I feel I can bear. And so it is that for the second time I will be presenting on religion and science-fiction at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Neither my initial presentation nor my latest one has had anything to do with the Holocaust. When one of the staff members at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked me if I would consider applying for a research fellowship, I answered, “I want to… but not yet. Sometimes part of seeing clearly is knowing when to look away.”

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“Never Forget” Means “Never Again”

The Continued Relevance of the Holocaust

The rallying cry of the survivors of the Holocaust has been “never forget.” This is not an exhortation to live in the past. Never forgetting implies action in the present. “Never forget” implies “never again” and a commitment to undertake whatever actions are necessary to that end.

We must keep our eyes open to the genocides and potential genocides happening in the world around us. Rwanda wasn’t that long ago. Kurdish populations are perpetually under threat in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. And the persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East is often paired with ethnicity as a category for exclusion and extermination. This is not new, although with the ascendance of ISIS, the threat is more acute than ever.

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The Grace Beyond the Pines

Humanizing the Victims of Violence in Film

The task of the artist is to convey truth, in all its beauty, ugliness, and harshness, to paraphrase Nietzsche. The truth about humanity is often an ugly thing. We kill. We abandon. We destroy. Too many films glorify such things. A rare few appear to critique them, even as they glorify them, as Tarantino arguably often does. Fortunately, there are exceptions that critique while refusing to glorify violence and its consequences.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) depicts the parallel and sometimes intersecting lives of a cop and a criminal in a small town in upstate New York. With equal attention to both protagonists, one on each side of that equation, the film stands alongside Heat (1995) and The Departed (2006). Like those two films, The Place Beyond the Pines is a high caliber action-drama, tightly plotted, tautly suspenseful, and rife with moral ambiguity; but unlike those two films, The Place Beyond the Pines excels in depicting the emotional toll of violence on its victims, on its perpetrators, and on those around them.

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An Imaginary Education

The Shaping of Three Generations of Students’ Expectations Through Fiction

 Every fall semester since I began teaching college full-time, I have been struck by how freshmen’s expectations have the potential to set them up for success or failure. In particular, I have seen how students’ understanding of what college can and should be has been defined by the fictional campuses they have encountered in film and television. We children of the 1980s have different expectations than Millenials. Whatever generation comes after them will be equally defined by the presence or absence of engaging fictional places of learning.

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Steve Jobs Made the World a Worse Place

Simone Weil’s Blasphemy Against Popular Culture

When Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011, there were numerous public outpourings of grief. Makeshift shrines dotted the globe. There is no doubt that his less-is-more technological aesthetic improved the technological and aesthetic experience of many people. When his engineers presented plans for a mouse with three buttons, he insisted that they pare them down to one. When other operating systems required users to memorize arcane codes to accomplish the most rudimentary tasks, he led a team to create a simple and visually engaging interface that has remained the industry standard. After his company seemed to be yesterday’s news and the mobile phone industry seemed immune to substantial innovation, he masterminded an entire genre of devices as powerful and versatile as they are compact. In short, Steve Jobs led his company to develop hardware that was beautiful and easy to use.

This is a bad thing. Here is why. We already live in an era defined by a shortage of time and an excess of distraction. Those of us affluent enough to own an iSomething – and yes, relative to the standards of the rest of the world, this is a mark of affluence – face an even greater degree of temptation. When you feel happy, it may be more tempting to share that information rather than embrace the fullness of that moment and that feeling, as the recent story of the distracted driver and ensuing car wreck illustrate.

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The Danger of Hagiography as Hero-Worship

An Uncritical Appraisal of Your Heroes Is Unfair to Them, to You, and to God

It always seems like such a good idea at the time. You have a hero. Maybe it is someone who you know personally. Maybe it is someone whom you have only observed from afar. Hero worship is a natural human inclination. Everyone does it. There is a certain kind of praise that moves beyond healthy celebration of another’s achievements to self-defeating obliviousness.

The following is not a critique of hagiography as a genre of writing per se. If anything, it is a critique of my original manuscript about Mother Basilea Schlink. It was rejected for publication for being “too hagiographical” and “not critical enough.” During the revision process, I agreed, begrudgingly at first but ultimately definitively. Non-critical spiritual biography (which is what I had written) is not good scholarship.

In the words of medievalist and historical theologian Jim Ginther, “hagiography is a literary category, a form of narrative theology, and a heuristic device.” Good hagiography, good recounting of the lives of the saints should serve those functions. However, to the extent that discussions of heroes  of the faith become unidimensional — that dimension being praise and praise only — there are distinct pitfalls.

The problem is two-fold. First, only God deserves our worship. When we praise the saints, what we should be doing is praising God’s work in their lives. I accept this as self-evident in the context of monotheistic theological discourse. (If anyone would care to take me take me to task on that count, feel free to do so in the comments below.) To be fair, when most people celebrate their heroes, including their heroes of the faith, they aren’t really praising those people in the same way that they would be praising God, so this aspect of the problem may be less of an issue.

Second, the real problem is that hero worship is a kind of blindness. By elevating another human, we blind ourselves to our own spiritual potential. By remaining oblivious to the weaknesses of the so-called greatest among us, we fail to see our own weaknesses as opportunities for God’s grace. We forget that Pope Francis, Mother Theresa, and whoever you look up to are people with ordinary struggles, just like the rest of us. The writings of the saints about themselves bear this out. I’m especially thinking of the Theresas here (of Avila and of Lisieux). Their sins loomed large in their exaltation of God.

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Women’s History is for Everyone

Shame on Us Menfolk for Having Ever Thought Otherwise

It’s funny how some insights, once painfully acquired, become painfully obvious. Under all of its various guises, women’s history is for everyone. Not all of us need to be experts in it; but none of us should ignore it.

The study of the recorded past has tended to be the study of those in power. The study of history has thus been – and to a large extent remains – the study of men. Because women have been marginalized from power throughout most of the recorded past, they have often been excluded from narratives about what has mattered throughout human history and why things are the way that they are.

Considering that most people throughout the past, recorded and otherwise, have not been men in power, historians have been wearing some significant blinders by overlooking women and the powerless. This has begun to change, but a few years of attention after centuries of neglect hardly counts as equal treatment.

To the extent that those of us who study the past (and who study the study of the past) hope to derive knowledge and truth from that study, our vision will continue to be limited unless we consider those on the margins. Otherwise, we cannot claim to understand the whole picture clearly or even blurrily.

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Playing Mind Games with Yourself… and Winning

Cultivating Motivation for Doctoral Students, Small Business Owners, and Other Self-Starters

Few things can be as liberating and terrifying as working for yourself. It is self-evident that this is what small business owners and freelancers working from home do. Less obvious is the fact that psychologically this is what Ph.D. students and most academics must do, almost regardless of what field.

When you work for yourself, you are your own greatest ally and worst enemy. Here I hope to outline some practical recommendations for cultivating the desire to listen to the better angels of your nature.

Those of us in charge of our own schedules all struggle at times with the twin and seemingly opposite dangers of laziness and burnout, of trying to do too little and of trying to do too much. Much laziness is the paralysis of perfectionism or burnout in disguise. Many talented and visionary individuals have faltered because they struggled to stay motivated to get the nitty gritty of the work done.

There are many solutions. I do not assume that these are one-size-fits-all. I present the following steps as things that have worked for me. These include strategies for tackling the Big Picture and tactics for coping with the day-to-day, honed during the process of writing my dissertation and subsequently editing it for publication.

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Know Thy Neighbor

Reflections on Class with Maya Angelou; In Memoriam

We know the great ones among us both by their presence when they are with us and by their palpable absence when they are gone. I write this still unsure how to respond to the death of Maya Angelou. I don’t know, except that I have some remembering to do.

In the spring of 2001, a few months shy of my graduation from Wake Forest, I enrolled in “World Poetry in Dramatic Performance.” The pass/fail course was exactly what its title sounds like it would be: students reading poems in a performance setting. Some might ask, what could be more useless? Is this not the very decadent navel gazing that has fated the humanities to irrelevance?

In fact, few courses have been as useful to me. This is because it embodied the very essence of the humanities: to passionately and effectively communicate the verse of another is to perceive for oneself and to share with others some insight into the human condition. Granted, this was a high risk/high reward scenario. A class on how to read poetry could be terrible. Fortunately, we were in good hands.

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How My Dissertation Became a Book

Vision and Revision Part II

A dissertation is not a book. Yes, a dissertation is a book-length piece of academic prose; but its target audience is, strictly speaking, limited to the people on the doctoral candidate’s committee. A proper book is written for the academy more broadly or even for the general public.

I defended my dissertation in the fall of 2011 at Saint Louis University. Text that I defended (2.0) had already undergone one full revision after feedback from all three members of my committee. Now in the spring of 2014 Oxford University Press has released Mothering the Fatherland (6.0). What follows is an account of what happened in the interim. (See the barebones timeline.)

After my dissertation defense, I quickly composed a book proposal. I slightly repackaged the remarks that I made at my defense. They were an effective summary of the work’s contents. At the behest of my advisor, I waited to submit them to my publisher of choice (OUP) until after my field’s big conference of the year (AAR) in November 2011. The proposal quickly yielded interest in the full manuscript (MS, still 2.0), which I promptly submitted and which OUP sent out to anonymous readers.

And then I waited. It was summer 2012 before I heard back and the news was not optimum. One reader rejected the MS outright and the other provided a hesitating acceptance. Both provided substantial feedback. The net response from OUP: rejection with the possibility of resubmission. They liked the premise of the book, just not the MS in its current form.

So I spent the rest of the summer revising. The most serious critique was that my voice was indistinguishable from that of the sisters. With regards to the founding mothers, my work was hagiographical. I needed to have a clear voice of my own and I needed to be critical, while remaining sympathetic. This involved a complete re-write of half of the MS and a significant change of tone throughout. I streamlined my narrative about the sisterhood’s founding and subsequent development, splitting the account between two chapters instead of the original five. (What had I been thinking?)

I conducted further research. My original account of the origins of the sisterhood had been fairly thorough, but I did little to chronicle the sisterhood’s subsequent development or to explain how the sisterhood moved from a central if ambiguous place in post-war German church life to a place on the margins. This involved me purchasing a guest membership at the libraries at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, as well as a road trip to the library at Yale. Some of the most useful books and periodicals are not available for loan on ILL.

One of the readers asked questions that only someone who was alive and attentive to German church life in the 1950s and 1960s could ask. And I had only documentary evidence available here state-side with which to answer. By assessing my original sources and conducting several days of Google searches, I yielded promising results: the discussion of Basilea Schlink in the autobiography of Jewish philosopher Schmuel Hugo Bergman, providing the most substantive critical-but-sympathetic documented response to the sisterhood from a Jewish source that I have yet found. Jewish observers are often silent or conspicuously positive regarding their Christian Zionist supporters, and the sisterhood is no exception.

I discovered that the sisterhood sought to foment opposition to the sexual revolution in the German Protestant churches. Mother Basilea mentioned the movement that the sisterhood sponsored (Aktion Sorge um Deutschland or “Operation Concern for Germany”) but not its apparent focus. The secondary literature on the sexual revolution in Germany mentioned the movement, but not its relationship to the sisterhood. All I had to do was connect the dots.

I also jettisoned an absurdly reductive chapter on Jewish identity as perceived from a Jewish perspective. It was irrelevant, apart from a few pages on German-Jewish identity, which fit just fine in the chapter on German identity.

After nearly three months of full-time revision, I submitted version 3.0 to OUP. And I waited.

Approximately six months later, in March 2013 I received the reply: unconditional acceptance. There was some feedback from the readers – both of the original readers remained the deciders for the resubmission. I could accommodate or ignore as much or as little of their feedback as I desired. Now I had no one to worry about making happy but me.

So of course, once the dust from the semester had settled, I busied myself with the revision process. This time I was looking to clarify, make connections apparent, and explore the full implications of my work. I thought this was one last going over. In August 2013 I submitted version 4.0.

I underestimated the extent of copyediting required. I was 99% there, but perfecting the remaining 1% was an exacting process. There were a number of grammatical bad habits that even I, as a precise prose stylist, possessed. Fortunately, I was in good hands. My copyeditor schooled me in the difference between “each” and “every,” though I did push back on my use of “people” and “peoples” (for Volk and Völker). I received the copyedited MS and submitted my corrections (5.0) by November 2013.

Then the indexing began. There were also a few small mistakes that I caught when the proofs went out. I almost called Hans Asmussen “Hahn Asmussen,” which is more than just a typo, I was literally calling the man “chicken.” By the beginning of 2014, I had submitted and approved version 6.0.