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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“My Mind’s Confused Within Me”

An English translation of “Mein G’müth ist mir verwirret”

The hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and its English-language variants are translations of 17th-century German Lutheran Paul Gerhardt’s “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” which is, in turn, a translation of a medieval Latin passion poem. My article in the 2013 issue of Church History chronicles the aesthetic and theological reasons for the differences between the various translations. (The later translations have minimized the blood, gore, and erotic overtones.)

Also known as “Passion Chorale,” the melody of the hymn(s) has its own varied history, having been appropriated by J. S. Bach, American folk activist Tom Glazer, and Paul Simon, among others.

What follows is my translation of the melody’s original anonymous German text, which, I might add, is effectively a 16th-century German forerunner of “All Shook Up.” The dividing line between what works melodically for the sacred and the secular is blurry indeed. German commentators suggest that because the first letter of each stanza makes the acronym MARIA, the words may be equally applicable to the mother of Christ. You be the judge. (See also Ethan Hein’s recent reflection on the melody.)

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Socratic vs. Confucian Pedagogy

Teaching like the Sages in the Classroom and Online

A friend of mine teaching English in China once shared the insight, no doubt unoriginal, that Socrates serves as the paradigmatic educator in the West, whereas Confucius serves that role in the East. Having long studied and taught Socrates, I have finally studied and taught Confucius. I spent all of my upbringing and most of my young adulthood in the classroom as a student. I have spent the better part of my professional life in the classroom as an educator. I am ready to weigh the relative strengths and weaknesses of both models, as well as the counterfeits of each.

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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.

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Wonder, Wander, Win

A Professor’s Letter to First-Year College Students

Dear Freshmen,

Congratulations! You are embarking on a journey. The people and ideas you encounter and the experiences you have will define you for many years to come. The risks are great, but so are the potential rewards. Some of you have already undertaken great sacrifice to make it this far.

Many students succeed. Others fail academically and some – not necessarily those who fail academically – fail at life. As someone who primarily teaches college freshmen, I have seen what works. I have discerned some general principles to help you increase your odds for success, academically, vocationally, and personally.

Those of you who are my students, you are likely to hear parts of this from me in person. Enjoy this condensed version. Those of you who are not in my classroom, I hope you may benefit from these insights regardless. (And dear parents of my students, if you are listening in, this is a glimpse of what your children are in for.)

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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.

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Network with Grace

LinkedIn Strategies for Academics

For business professionals, there is one premier place online to post one’s resume and to  look for jobs: LinkedIn. Indeed, those are the primary purposes of the professional social networking site. With our lengthy CVs and specialized job listings elsewhere, we academics have no need for such services. Nonetheless, both junior and established scholars have compelling reasons to use LinkedIn.

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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.

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