Topic: Theology

Unoriginal Sin

The Conceptual Foundations of Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 2 of 7)

Non-individualistic understandings of guilt are fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity. This is part of what makes both religions as counter-cultural today as they ever have been. Yet often the worldviews of particular Jewish and Christian individuals are more defined by their respective cultures than by the religions they profess to embrace. For many, it is not evident that we should be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.

Read More »

The Paradox of Christian Nationalism

An American Blind Spot

I would like to make explicit what seems evident to many Christians elsewhere in the world: Christianity and nationalism are incompatible.

For the purposes of this essay, I define Christianity as the beliefs and practices of those who claim to follow Jesus and his teachings, and nationalism as any ideology that elevates the welfare of one nation (usually one’s own) over all others. I recognize that this definition of Christianity is broad to the point of risking being vague, and simple to the point of being simplistic.

While I do not wish to reduce Christianity to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, I think it is helpful to note two conflicting realities. On the one hand, the teachings of these two foundational thinkers of Christianity stand at odds with nationalism. On the other hand, some of the most reductionist (Christianity = Jesus + Paul) Christians in the U.S. have been among the most nationalistic.

What follows is not a critique of Christianity, much less a well-rounded analysis of it, but rather a critique of the nationalistic variety.

Read More »

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 »

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 »

Hatch vs. Gregory

A Comparative Reflection on Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Great books are like great cities: each has a splendor of its own, a distinctiveness that it possesses, whatever similarities it may have with its peers – or with also-rans, for those that seem peerless. Despite such incomparable qualities, anyone hoping to understand the nature of books, as well as cities, would do well to compare the greats. As a scholar of religious history, I am particularly concerned with how books in my field bear the marks of their authors’ own religious backgrounds and historical contexts.

I have recently had the good fortune to read two singular works, as per this post’s subtitle. Each is the magnum opus of its respective author and each possesses a geographical and historical focus, scope, and methods very different from the other. The conclusions that their authors reach are diametrically opposed. Nonetheless, both works demonstrate the viability of diverse genres of scholarly writing, the value of transcending periodization and geography in exploring implications, and the tendency – perhaps inevitability – of scholars writing themselves into their work.

Read More »

There was a Sweetness Once

Imagining a Plausible Future without Bees, Remembering them for Those to Come

There was a sweetness once: rich, pure, and mellow. It flowed golden and sticky. It could cool into a crystalline mass or dissolve in a warm drink. It was the sweetness to which all other sweetnesses compared. When prophets spoke of a land full of blessing, this was the flavor of that blessing. But now those who make it are gone.

Bees were marvelous creatures. As a child, I learned to fear them. They were insects slightly larger than flies and without any of flies’ ugliness. Like butterflies, they began as eggs and hatched, worm-like, only to cocoon and hatch again as winged adults; but unlike butterflies, bees had the semblance of ferocity and toughness. They could soar and hover, humming ominously as they went. They could impale those they deemed threats, for each possessed a sharp barb behind her legs. One sting could ache and swell or even kill, for an unlucky, vulnerable few. Even though a stinging bee would lose her own life, she would do so gladly in order to protect her community, for bees were creatures of service and self-sacrifice.

Read More »

The God of the Cardboard Cup

Starbucks as Religion

“Have you noticed the fervor of some of our customers?” I asked, mopping the floor in my green apron with a freshly minted master’s degree in theology. “It’s like drinking coffee from here is their religion.”

“We’ve got tradition, community, and ritual,” replied a fellow barista and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. “It fits.”

To this, I would add an explicit system of ethics, focused on care for all, and implicit belief system: the Cult of the Self.

The purpose of this essay is not to make the case that we can find religion and religion-like phenomena everywhere. To do so would be to risk diluting the term “religion” to the point of meaninglessness. Rather, the significance of this exercise is to demonstrate the potential connection between consumption and the transcendent, both real and illusory. What and how we drink forms part of the self we present to the world, how we perceive ourselves, and, in complex ways, who we truly are. You belong to what your worship, so drink with care.

The traditions of Starbucks are myriad. The stores mark the changing of the seasons. Individual stores trace their lineage nationally back to the mother store and locally back to whichever store came first. Old timers tell of the legend of chantico and the return of orange mocha Frappuccino. Some recall the evolution of the siren, which some hail as a neo-pagan deity, but which most recognize as merely a whimsical mythological creature capturing the spirit of fun and adventure, the antithesis of corporate America. Indeed, there is a distinctly countercultural strain in Starbucks’ corporate culture, though some anti-establishment types might see this as a veneer masking corporate hypocrisy. But I digress.

Read More »