Topic: Autobiographical Reflections

Your People Are My People

Race, Racism, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 3 of 7)

“What are you?” sometimes strangers and new acquaintances ask me, whether obliquely or directly. I have come to learn that this is short-hand for “What race/ethnicity box(es) do you check?” The racial categories on current U.S. census forms are more complex than they ever have been, yet they remain simplistic. (See a helpful article here. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/03/14/u-s-census-looking-at-big-changes-in-how-it-asks-about-race-and-ethnicity/ ) “Black, African-American, or Negro” stands in contrast to the deceptively straightforward appearing “White.” Citizens of Asian ancestry have six boxes to possibly check, along with an “Other Asian” fill-in blank. By contrast, Arab- and Persian-Americans have no obvious option (“Other”? “White”?), leading to controversy within their respective communities (http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/04/01/census.check.it.right.campaign/ ).

The history leading up to these designations is serpentine and rife with contradictions (whether to count “Latino” as a race or as something else, for example). Until relatively recently, the forms also required respondents to check one box and one box only, implying that racial categories are mutually exclusive, in fact a long-standing attitude in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially regarding the purity of whiteness.

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Concepts of Collective Guilt

The Benefits and Limits (Communal Guilt Part 1 of 7)

We in the West often fail to think in terms of “we.” Individualism has defined the post-Enlightenment European experience and, perhaps to an even greater extent, the U.S. American experience. By “individualism” I mean a pervasive perspective of the world in which personal autonomy is the ultimate good; each individual can and should define for themselves what is right and even what is true, every woman for herself, every man for himself.

There is so little middle ground in American political life in large measure not merely because of seemingly irreconcilable positions but because of a shared commitment to individualism. The moral individualism on the Left stands in a perpetual stand-off with the socio-economic individualism of the Right.

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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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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.

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?

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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)

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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.

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Easy on the Ego, Hard on the Soul

The Release of My First Book as a Crisis of Character

In a month or so, Mothering the Fatherland will hit the shelves. I received my own personal copy in the mail late last week. Despite my erstwhile dreams of becoming a novelist, my first book is a work of academic non-fiction (historical theology, to be precise). As a junior scholar still seeking a tenure-track position, a monograph from the top university press (Oxford) is a feather in my cap… and a thorn in my side.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. This is a boon to my fledgling career. But I need to be honest about its impact on my soul. I have had the book in my possession for a few days and already I can see some of the ways that it will challenge my character. I contend that these issues threaten virtually all published authors, as well as many public artists, performers, and other creatives.

The struggle can go in one of two directions, with the option of frequent vacillation between the two: insecurity and vanity.

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Writing the History of a Living Community

Outsider Insights

History is a dusty business. One person’s dust is another person’s dirt. This is especially true when the history in question is that of a living community, no less one that venerates its founders’ memory. What you consider an insight others might consider a scandalous impossibility.

A college mentor told me of a white Southern family that hired a historian, who was to research the family history and share his findings at the family reunion the next year. He did as he was told, reporting nothing until the foreordained moment. After the picnic lunch, he nonchalantly told the gathered family members how their descendants included not one but several African-American fathers and Anglo-American (or, apparently, mixed) mothers. The parents quickly told their children to go play on the playground and demanded their money back. They were not who they thought they were.

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