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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

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.

How I Wrote My Dissertation

Vision and Revision Part I

By spring 2008, the second half of my first year as a Ph.D. student in historical theology at Saint Louis University, it was clear that I would attempt to write my dissertation about the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. I would analyze the relationship between the practices and beliefs of this community of Protestant nuns in Germany and their historical context. That much I knew. But which practices? Which beliefs? And which aspects of their context? A dissertation needs to be a focused work, ideally attempting to answer one precise question of the author’s determining. I had some digging to do.

I learned the basics from the sisters’ website. On the night of September 11, 1944, Allied bombers decimated the city of Darmstadt, Germany. Tens of thousands of people died. Most of the city’s residents were homeless by morning. Among them were the members of a Lutheran girls Bible study. They prayed that night for God’s forgiveness in light of his manifest judgment and soon decided to dedicate their lives to him as a formal sisterhood. I later learned that this account was a simplification, but at least it was a start. Even in their most basic account, the sisters connected their origins to their experience of the Third Reich.

I dug as deeply as I could in the library and in book databases. I found a handful of works treating the broader phenomenon of Protestant religious orders in post-World War II Europe. There were in fact a few dozen such communities, many of which survive today. The literature, much of it from the 1950s and 1960s, mostly concerned the question of whether or not Protestant religious orders should exist. From a historical standpoint, this is not a relevant question. Such communities do exist. But why?

Read More »

How to Write Your Dissertation

Remembering to Stay Human and Stay Sane

I recently had a former student approach me for advice about applying to doctoral programs in the humanities. What follows is an expansion of that advice (apart from warning about the job market) for a general audience. If you come to me, asking about grad school, these are the core essentials of what I would say. This is what you need to know up front.

Doctoral studies will instigate a personal crisis. This is inevitable. This is especially true of the writing of your dissertation. Nearly half of all doctoral students in the humanities never complete their degrees and the dissertation is the usual reason why. Only rarely would coursework pose a hurdle because, frankly, courses are what you’re good at; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Hopefully you have already overcome a significant personal crisis. It is not that I hope you have suffered; but we must all face our own struggles and my hope is that you have already developed the habits necessary to overcome one crisis. If not, the dissertation will be a crisis indeed.

You must face the austere horror of the blank page. You must sit down and create something from nothing; or, at least, you must sit down and fashion something functional and whole from a mass of raw material.

Yes, you must sit down and write. But in order to do so without losing perspective, burning out, and/or freezing in the paralysis that perfectionism can induce, you must achieve a certain balanced discipline.

Read More »

How “Mothering the Fatherland” Transformed from a Dissertation into a Book: A Timeline

People wonder. I defended my dissertation not that long ago. I know that I was eager to know the timeframe of such things. The waiting could be agonizing. From the submission of my first complete dissertation draft to the release of the monograph based on it, here is the timeline of what happened to me and when.

 

05-2011                     I submitted my completed dissertation draft (1.0) to my committee

07-2011                     I submitted my final draft of the dissertation (2.0) to my committee

09-2011                     Dissertation defense

01-2012                     Book proposal and abstract submission to Oxford University Press (OUP)

Read More »

Publishing Your Dissertation

When and How (Much)

At the faculty lunch room (which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s still pretty nice), years after the fact many of my colleagues continue to talk about what they wish that had done publication-wise after finishing their dissertations.

There are basically two schools of thought:

A. The Piecemeal (a.k.a. Maximum-Quantity-of-Articles) Approach

Publish as many chapters as you can before signing a contract to publish the whole, because you are not allowed to excerpt chapters once the full manuscript is under contract. This has the benefit of maximizing how much you can beef up your C.V. on the basis of that one document. Plus nothing counts toward tenure until you’re hired in a tenure-track job, so if you have confidence that you can get such a position without the full MS being published, then it might make sense to wait.

B. The Giant Step (a.k.a. Book-Sooner-Is-Better) Approach

Assume that this is the MS that will get you the job you want, that you’ll need ample new material to get tenure anyway, and that you will be able to produce such material expeditiously.

I subscribe to the latter. There are a number of reasons for this:

Read More »

How I Chose My Dissertation Topic

A Series of Fortunate Events

After pontificating in my previous post about the process for selecting a dissertation topic in the humanities, I should clarify that my own process was far from straightforward. It was full of detours and unexpected surprises nothing short of serendipitous. At the same time, I had some significant work to do along the way.

“Serendipity doesn’t just happen,” a mentor once encouraged me. “You have to work for it.” I have been blessed beyond what I deserve. I don’t want to downplay that. But I have consistently striven to make the most of the opportunities I have been given – although in a few cases, opportunity had to knock a few times before I answered. I can’t take all the credit. I have received much help along the way.

I never would have written the book if I hadn’t known German. And I kept having more opportunities to learn German in spite of myself. In high school my language goal was to be proficient at French, but the exchange students I befriended happened to be German. Eager to travel, I couldn’t resist when they offered me a free place to stay for a few weeks and my parents offered to cover the airfare as a graduation gift. (I should add that this wasn’t really official until I received a generous college scholarship.) In preparation, as a senior in high school in the fall of 1996, I began learning German. I had space in my schedule. My high school did not offer it, but I got the green light to take courses at a nearby college for free.

Read More »