Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Review of Enlightened Evangelicalism in History Scotland

There is a new review of Enlightened Evangelicalism in the January/February 2012 issues of the magazine, History Scotland.

Here is the opening paragraph of the review:

Jonathan Yeager's life of John Erskine is an informative and well argued account of one of Scotland's neglected 18th-century ministers. A leading intellectual figure in his day he took issue with the Moderates over patronage, and opposed Catholic toleration, but was an active supporter of American liberty. Yeager's book makes a welcome change from the portrayal of orthodox Scottish Calvinists as ignorant fanatics, and his book recognizes that evangelical ministers could participate fully in Scotland's intellectual life while nonetheless adhering to a more conservative form of the Enlightenment. He demonstrates how Erskine embraced the pulpit style and rhetoric of the Moderate Enlightenment while remaining firmly committed to orthodox Calvinist theology.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

San Antonio Rocks!

I'm currently in San Antonio for the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference. I gave a paper yesterday in a session on "Varieties of Enlightenment in Scotland and America."

Admittedly, I wasn't all that excited to go to the ASECS conference at first because most of the papers are on topics pertaining to English literature and political science as opposed to history and religion. However, some of the papers were very interesting. The biggest surprise for me was San Antonio itself. What a beautiful city! The Hyatt Regency, which hosted the conference, is situated on the city's Riverwalk, which has a number of shops and restaurants. The scene reminded me of walking along Ocean Blvd. at Miami's South Beach.

After giving my paper, I went and saw Hunger Games at a nearby movie theater, and--bonus--Hard Rock Cafe, which is across the street from my hotel, sponsored a free outdoor concert for the city featuring the bands, Everclear and The All-American Rejects. About 5,000 people attended.

Thank you San Antonio!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

John Stott: Pastor, Educator, Theologian, Ecumenicist

I finally finished Alister Chapman's new book, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement. Since the book does not directly relate to my current research or the courses that I am teaching, it took me two months to read. Godly Ambition is an important book on a legendary British evangelical. Chapman describes Stott as a versatile figure who progressed with the times on issues like women in ministry, the social gospel, and missions while maintaining a certain level of traditionalism with regard to doctrine.

Stott grew up in a privileged British home and enjoyed a first-rate education, eventually enrolling at Cambridge University (Trinity College) in 1940 after time spent at elite boarding schools. Chapman shows the early influence of Eric Nash on Stott. Nash was an Anglican evangelical clergyman who led Stott to Christ in 1938 while the latter attended the prestigious Rugby School as a teenager. Chapman writes, "Nash's influence on Stott was immense: strongly committed to the nurture of new converts, he took Stott under his wing and introduced him to the beliefs and practices of conservative evangelicalism" (14). After his conversion, Stott decided to become an Anglican clergyman, much to the dismay of his parents.

Stott began his ministry in the 1940s at All Souls in London at a time when Christianity seemed to be on the uptick in England. Postwar Britons seemed to be interested in faith and moral values. In the 1950s, Billy Graham received a warm welcome by thousands who went to hear him preach at Harringay, North London and Wembley stadium. But evangelicals within the Church of England faced many difficulties as the optimistic years of the 1950s came to a close. The Bishop of Durham, Michael Ramsay, wrote an article in 1956 complaining about "The Menace of Fundamentalism." Significantly, Ramsay went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury and openly opposed conservative Anglicans like Stott from gaining key leadership positions in the Established Church. Evangelicalism in England struggled in the 1960s and 1970s as Britain became more secular.

Sensing the decline of Christianity in Britain, Stott resigned his charge at All Souls in the early 1970s. He was heralded as a dynamic preacher, and implemented programs to bring in new parishioners, but ultimately failed to sustain the growth that he had experienced in the early years of his ministry. According to Chapman, Stott "was tired of parish ministry after twenty-four years and running out of ideas" (76). Stott's resignation seems to have been a strategic move. He had a grander vision than simply serving as a rector of a parish church. He aspired to become a global leader of evangelicalism. In the years following his retirement from the ministry, Stott wrote several books and articles, jetted around the world to speak, and set up several Christian organizations, including the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. His shining moment was at a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974 which catapulted him to iconic status as a leading evangelical in the world. As a learned reader, lay theologian, gifted speaker, and ecumenicist, Stott emerged as the most significant British evangelical in the second half of the twentieth century.

I recommend Godly Ambition to anyone interested in key evangelicals in the twentieth century. Other than J.I. Packer, there is no British evangelical who is as important as Stott in this time period. The book is fairly easy to read, but Americans may get lost among the sea of British societies that Chapman names. The most problematic feature of the book is that the narrative jumps around quite a bit, making the chronology of Stott's life difficult to follow. Chapman, for instance, places Stott as the rector of All Souls in an early chapter, progresses him chronologically through a series of events, but then backtracks later to describe Stott's pastoral ministry. In a few chapters, Chapman retells Stott's story chronologically, only to repeat the process again in another chapter as he analyzes another theme. I found this methodology to be a bit confusing.

What I appreciated most about the book is Chapman's fair-handed treatment of Stott. Chapman makes certain to depct Stott as a man with flaws and a person who is willing to take risks. At times a staunch traditionalist, and other times a "radical" proponent of the much-feared (among conservative evangelicals) social gospel, Stott defies simple explanations of his life and thought. Chapman provides an engaging account of a Christian with "godly ambition" to make a difference for the kingdom. After reading Chapman's book, readers will understand why Stott has so many admirers worldwide.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Do Presentations Matter?

Lately, I have been asking myself whether paper presentations matter. Lots of people include sections on their cvs listing presentations at conferences, but this is usually at the end. In polling other professors, the consensus is that preparing papers for conferences is time consuming (almost as much work as writing a research paper), and not that important as a contribution to a cv. One scholar likened paper presentations to book reviews, in terms of importance. The added problem is that presentations at conferences are often limited to twenty minutes, which translates to about ten pages of double-spaced text. Can anything of substance be said in a twenty-minute paper? As I prepare my papers for two upcoming conferences later this month and next, my initial response is no, I can't say enough in such a short period of time.

In one paper, I am trying to describe Erskine's indebtedness to Early Enlightenment thought, as demonstrated in his education at Edinburgh University and in his sermons. But I also want to show that Erskine never compromised his evangelical beliefs. As I continually hack down my paper, I realize how difficult it will be to accomplish my goals. If I make the paper too general, and do not include enough evidence in the form of quotations and specific examples to prove my points, I will feel like a shoddy historian, but if I narrow the scope of my argument to a specific time in Erskine's life, I will not be able to demonstrate the breadth of Erskine's indebtedness to Enlightenment thought.

These kinds of problems relate to the bigger issue I have been wrestling with: do presentations matter? Senior scholars who I respect have advised me to save my research/travel budget to do archival work that will lead to publications, rather than spend money to travel to conferences and give papers. I wonder if this advice would be unanimous if I polled other professors in humanities departments.

If paper presentations are not all that important to a cv, then why go to the expense of traveling to a conference and participating on a panel? Supposedly networking is one sufficient reason to attend conferences. Job searches seem to be another draw, at least at larger conferences like the AHA and AAR. Perhaps if you give a good paper, you may be approached by an editor at a university press to write an essay, or even a book. Or, maybe if you are looking for an academic post later on down the line, someone who remembered seeing you at a conference, who is serving on the selection committee will place you on the short list. But are these reasons enough for going through the trouble of crafting a twenty-minute paper that takes away time that could be spent on other projects?

London's Calling

A few days ago, I received word from UTC that my proposed research trip to Britain in late spring has been approved. I will fly in and out of London, where I will spend some time at the British Library and Dr. Williams' Library. I plan on staying with a friend of mine who attended Regent College with me. He is an interesting person. He earned a degree in law from Oxford University, took a year off to take some classes at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, returned to London to practice law, but then resigned after a year or two. He tried his hand as a self-taught plumber (or "joiner") and now designs websites for a living.

I hope also to do archival work in Bristol and Oxford, and, if I can squeeze it in, Edinburgh. There are some manuscripts and rare books that I want to look at and possibly include in my forthcoming anthology. I'll be traveling at the end of May and into the first two weeks in June. I need to beat the Olympic crowd that is scheduled to arrive in London as early as the end of June. I've been to Oxford, but never had the privilege of researching at the Bodleian Library. There are all kinds of restrictions for graduate students gaining entrance, and so I am hoping that as a professor and F.R.Hist.S. I will have less difficulty this time.

If I can work in a train ride to Edinburgh, I will try and visit the town of Falkirk where my family and I lived during my days as a PhD student. We attended a lovely church there and I would love the chance to worship again with the folks at Falkirk Baptist Church.

Spring Break at Gatlinburg

It is Spring Break at UTC, and my family and I decided to travel to Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge for a few days. When I mentioned to my students about our travel plans, half the class groaned. When I asked why they responded in that way, many of the students described the huge crowds, heavy traffic, and general cheesiness of the area.

After having spent the last twenty-four hours in eastern Tennessee, I understand the meaning behind the groans. I would describe Pigeon Forge as Myrtle Beach, but without the beach. There are tons of go-cart places, mini-golf, tacky dinner theaters, and wall-to-wall traffic. I wonder how a dinner theater that showcases a feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys or a lumberjack contest can stay in business. Gatlinburg is a little bit nicer, but equally crowded and touristy. Keep in mind, that this is my perspective. My kids want to move here permanently, or at least visit every weekend. They have ridden "real NASCARS" and bumper boats, eaten tons of junk food, and swam in an inside pool.

I don't want to complain though, I have to admit that driving NASCAR go-carts at 30mph is loads of fun. Without my kids I wouldn't have an excuse to do that.

Can Cheaters Prosper in Today's Digital World?

I am finishing up an online course in Church history and am amazed at how many cases of plagiarism have occurred--as much as 25% of the students enrolled in the course. Everyone taking the course is required to read documentation on the definition of plagiarism and must submit their papers through Safe Assign. I am amazed when I pull up a report and see, in some cases, 100% matches for papers that copy verbatim websites like Wikipedia, and (especially for book reviews). What is even more disturbing is reading students' bios in which they describe their heartfelt desire to serve God as ministers in various denominations! I'm sure there is (or will be) a way to beat Safe Assign and other similar software programs, but for now, this is one technological tool that I am very thankful for as a teacher.

In all my courses, even the residential ones, I require students to submit their papers through Safe Assign. It is extra work for me at the beginning of the semester to set up my course on Blackboard in this way, but it is worth the effort. I warn students early on during the first week of class in my residential courses that they will have to submit their papers through this software program, and this seems to do the trick. I have not had many blatant cases of plagiarizing. Perhaps the younger students, who typically take residential courses, are more aware of the difficulties of cheating a program like this by comparison to older students who often take online classes, and are not as technologically savvy.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Ralph Wood on G.K. Chesterton

Ralph Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, gave the thirtieth annual C.S. Lewis Lecture at UTC on "Rum, Romanism, and the Sacramental Imagination: G. K. Chesterton as Defender of the Faith." The lecture was held at the Bentwood Auditorium, which seats over three hundred people. There were some empty seats, but not very many.

Wood seems like an interesting guy. In his informal talk, he identified himself as an evangelical Christian, which probably made many of the conservative, church-going folks in attendance happy. However, during the question and answer period, he stirred the pot by claiming that Adam and Eve were not historical figures, by arguing that personal faith in Jesus did not mean that a person was an authentic Christian, and by claiming that Jesus Christ is actually present in the bread and wine at communion.

My favorite moment in the Q &A was when a middle-aged man in the front row raised his hand to ask why Wood thought that it was "silly" that Adam and Eve were not historical figures. Within seconds of returning the microphone, the man asking the question received the following question from Wood: "Tell me why it isn't silly that Adam and Eve were actual human beings." The man hesitated before somehow managing to say that he had no idea where to begin, but the fact that the Bible talks about Adam and Eve as real people is significant. Wood responded by asking another question: "Then, where did the children of Cain and Seth come from?" The man in the audience suggested that they must have married their sisters. "That would be incest! You see, you open up all kinds of problems when you try to interpret the Bible too literally," was Wood's followup remark.

Reading between the lines, it seemed that Wood purposely tried to mimic how he imagined Chesterton would have responded to these kinds of questions. As Wood pointed out in his lecture, Chesterton strongly avoided extremes, such as alcoholism or teetotalism. Alcohol, according to Chesterton, was useful for "convivial" gatherings. Too much of it was clearly a problem, but avoidance of drinking was also not the ideal. With regard to the Christianity, Chesterton saw over-rationalization as problematic while also despising the extreme emotionalism sometimes associated with the evangelical tradition. Rather than a precise journey that can be calculated, the Christian pilgrimage, according to Chesterton, is a wandering road that meanders in several directions before arriving at its destination.

Wood's lecture on Chesterton reminds us that there is a mystery to Christianity. But rather than see this as a problem, we should rejoice that we believe in a God who is dynamic and cannot be contained within our feeble minds.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Interview with Patrick Mason

In the current course I am teaching on "Religion in Southern Culture" at UTC, the class is reading Patrick Mason's new book, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South. There are about thirty students in the class and we read one chapter for each session and discuss various broad questions that come from the reading.

Dr. Mason was gracious enough to answer some of the questions that the class and I had about Mormonism in general, and the book more specifically. Below are the questions and responses by Mason.

1) How has Mormonism evolved as a religion, and does it currently reflect the traditions originally established?

This is a huge—and excellent—question, and would take a book to answer! The short answer is that yes, Mormonism has evolved significantly, but that much of its core theology and practice does reflect the original revelations given to Joseph Smith. The notion of historical change (which occurs in any institution, religious or otherwise) is lost on many rank-and-file Latter-day Saints, as there is a common perception that the church is the same in all ages. I could point to all kinds of things that would reflect both continuity and change within the tradition. One aspect of change that you might find surprising is that the current LDS Church's emphasis on the Book of Mormon is a relatively new development. Although the Book of Mormon was in many ways the foundational scripture of Mormonism, its actual content was relatively neglected by Latter-day Saints until the 1980s — it existed more as a sign of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling than a significant source of theology. Now the Book of Mormon is better known and more frequently cited than any other Mormon book of scripture.

2) What would a Mormon theocratic government look like in nineteenth-century America?

A full-fledged Mormon theocracy never really took root. There were leanings in that direction in Nauvoo, Illinois (early 1840s), and then again in the early years of Utah settlement (1847-mid 1850s). In Utah, Brigham Young was originally both prophet and territorial governor, and virtually all important decisions for the territory were made by Young and the other leaders of the church. Their explicitly political power was diminished somewhat by the late 1850s, when Young was removed as governor. In short, I don't think there was ever much of a chance for a Mormon theocracy in America, with its traditions of democratic governance and pluralism. The Mormons maintained a remarkably closed society in late 19th-c. Utah, but they had to exercise power in ways other than just politically.

3) What do Mormons believe regarding the divinity of individual persons--both men and women?

All human beings, male and female, are children of God and thus potential inheritors of God's glory. Mormons take very seriously—and literally—this notion that we are all children of God, with the potential to grow up to be like our Father. This leads to the Mormon doctrine of theosis (although Mormons don't call it that — they use terms like eternal progression), namely that human beings can become divine, even gods and goddesses, in the next life. That, in fact, is the end goal for righteous Mormons. Not in the sense of supplanting God, but inheriting all that God has and having the kind of glorified existence that God does.

4) What do Mormons believe regarding Jesus Christ, including his divinity?

Mormons firmly believe in the divinity of Christ, seeing him as the Son of God and Savior of the world. This is reinforced by not only their fairly conservative reading of the New Testament but also the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures and prophetic teachings, which are unflinching in proclaiming Christ's divinity. Perhaps the one claim that annoys Mormons the most is the false claim that they are not Christians — they will immediately react that the full name of the church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that Christ is the central focus of their worship. With that said, Mormon Christology is different from other Christians' (who disagree among themselves on many key points), and Mormons reject many of the historic creeds of Christianity, including Nicea, Chalcedon, etc. But to say anything other than that Mormons worship Christ as the Son of God and the only path to salvation would be false.

5) What inspired you to write this book, on such a specific topic?

This came out of my dissertation, which was about violence against religious minorities in the late 19th-c. South, including Jews, Catholics, black Christians, and Mormons. I didn't expect it, but it turned out that the Mormon material was by far the most original and compelling, and so I decided to devote the book entirely to the topic. Originally the project came out of my desire to look at the intersections of religion, race, and violence in American history — Mormonism (or rather, anti-Mormonism) just kind of crept in through the back door, you could say. But I'm happy with the direction that it went.

6) What was your methodology for constucting your argument in the book?

As I said, this began as a dissertation that was essentially a project in comparative religious violence. If you ever read the dissertation (and I don't wish such a fate even on my enemies), you'll see that there exist some of the seeds of the arguments I eventually make in the book. But actually what it took was me stepping away from the project for a couple of years and giving it time to "breathe." Then, when I had decided to focus just on anti-Mormonism and lose some of the comparative focus (though I wanted to keep it in the last chapter), I went back to the archives and did more research. It was only then that some of the more important arguments in the book — for instance, the role of anti-Mormonism as an early step in the reunion of the sections after Reconstruction — began to crystallize.

7) Is not practicing polygamy (currently) being faithful to the original beliefs of Mormonism?

This is an excellent, and vexing, question, that relates to the earlier question about continuity and change in Mormonism. This is a complicated issue that I think would garner different responses from different scholars. I'll give you my take. I think that Mormon theology, even in its most robust form, can stand completely independent of polygamy. That is to say, polygamy is not essential to Mormon cosmology, let alone practice. (This is where others might disagree with me — certainly 19th-c. Mormon leaders said that polygamy was a central — if not the central — doctrine and social arrangement of Mormonism, both in this life and in the hereafter.) Marriage—and probably heterosexual marriage—is essential to Mormon theology, but I don't think it has to be polygamous marriage. No doubt, the current church's repudiation of polygamy is a departure from the late 19th century. But we need to remember that the polygamous experience in Mormon history is the minority experience. Joseph Smith revealed it to only a small cadre of his followers in the early 1840s, it wasn't openly announced until 1852, and then was suspended in 1890 (and then really in 1904) -- meaning that a full two-thirds of Mormon history has transpired after the 1890 ban. And not all Mormons practiced it in the meantime.

8) In which region in the South was there the most persecution of Mormon missionaries?

This was a pretty straightforward finding of my research — violence followed the missionaries where they went. Where there were more missionaries, there was more violence. Tennessee, Alabama, and the Carolinas were the main sites of anti-Mormon violence, because those were the states where the most missionaries were stationed. I don't fully know why missionaries were sent to some areas rather than others, but violence followed them almost everywhere they went.

9) Compared to the 19th c., what is your impression of how Mormons are treated in the American South today?

It's a completely different world. Certainly there remains anti-Mormon prejudice — not just in the South, but across America and around the world. The fact is that the majority of Americans still don't personally know a Mormon, and ignorance is the breeding ground of prejudice. Mormonism has grown tremendously in the South; as I say in my concluding pages, "Twelve of fourteen southern states (excepting only Louisiana and West Virginia) saw the number of LDS adherents increase by at least 70 percent from 1980 to 2000; in six of those states the LDS population more than doubled. . . . At the dawn of the new millennium, over half a million Latter-day Saints—approximately one in eight of all American Mormons—lived in the South." Most Mormons I know who have lived in the South report a kind of low-level prejudice, the kind that exists for anyone who is considered "different." Some of this prejudice is still perpetuated by certain evangelical churches that have formal anti-Mormon programming. But it is not violent anymore, and most Mormons report feeling quite comfortable living in the South, in part because they share a conservative moral and political outlook that is common to the region.

10) How accurate is the television series "Big Love"?

As accurate as any piece of fiction, I suppose. Of course, it doesn't document life in a Latter-day Saint family, since Mormons gave up polygamy over a century ago. I think one of the reasons for the show's success is that it dramatizes some of the struggles that any marriage and family relationship has, but it's just exacerbated by the fact of plurality within the marriage. One thing that it, and the show "Sister Wives," has done is humanizing polygamists, which I think has taken some of the edge off the traditional antipathy toward the practice. I know lots of women, both Mormons and non-Mormons, who have watched those shows and came away saying, "You know, I kind of like the idea of having sister wives," although they're quick to say they're not real thrilled of sharing their husband.

We thank Dr. Mason once again for this service to our class on religion in the South.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Grant Wacker and the Shaping of Billy Graham

Last evening Grant Wacker delivered the final LeRoy Martin Lecture at UTC on "Billy Graham and the Shaping of America."

This was a big event for the philosophy and religion department at UTC. We placed ads in the Chattanooga Times Free Press and on the local NPR station, WUTC. We also hosted a dinner for thirty people before the lecture that included some of the local clergy, faculty at outside institutions, and distinguished guests from the community. I would estimate that over 200 people attended the lecture, which was the largest crowd that we have had to date for any one particular lecture.

Wacker is a very good speaker. He presented a balanced approach of Graham and an explanation for why such an evangelist could have gained the hearts of Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. Wacker suggested that Graham was likeable because of his rural, "genteel" southern background, his good looks, and moral values. Graham grew up liking baseball, fast cars, and socializing with girls. He represented a person who had experienced a typical male adolescent upbringing and therefore was appealing to heartland America. As Graham got older he followed the trajectory of many Americans who changed their mind as the years passed on issues like communism, racial segregation, and partisan politics. Graham was not free from controversy. He had his critics on the far left and extreme right. He has been called a bigot by Christopher Hitchens for a racially inappropriate comment regarding Jews that he had made at one time to Richard Nixon. The fundamentalist Bob Jones disowned Graham for associating with mainline Protestants. But Graham emerged at the end of the century as a religious figure who had gained the respect of most American Christians. His mark can be seen in a host of para-church organizations that he founded including Young Life, Youth for Christ, and the flagship evangelical magazine, Christianity Today.

As I listened to Dr. Wacker's excellent talk, I was struck with how appealing Graham was to a variety of people--conservative evangelicals as well as liberal Protestants and Catholics. Graham seemed to have a gift for avoiding controversy and maintained his integrity as a man of God by steering clear of sexual sins and shady business deals. Regardless of whether a person believes what Graham preached, it would be impossible to ignore the influence that he has had on religion, particularly in America. Graham is a reminder to evangelicals that it is possible to adhere to traditional doctrines without becoming a separatist.