Monday, 29 September 2014

The Conference on Faith and History Recap

I am now back in Chattanooga, after attending the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History at Pepperdine University.

On Thursday, September 25, I met a childhood friend, Brian Newman, for dinner  at Malibu Seafood, a local restaurant that is fairly inexpensive for the area and which overlooks the beach. Brian has the ultimate dream job for a Christian scholar. He teaches in the political science department at Pepperdine, has a reasonable teaching load (if I recall correctly, a 2-3), and lives in a condo on campus that is subsidized by the university. Brian told me that Pepperdine has purchased property all over the world where students can take classes for the semester. In Brian's case, he has taught at the Pepperdine campus in London (in the posh district of Kensington), and in Argentina. During our meal and tour of Malibu, I constantly reminded Brian how fortunate he is to have this job. Of course, he was well aware of that fact!

On Thursday evening, I attended the plenary lecture given by the Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo, who teaches at Gettysburg College. Guelzo is an amazing rhetorician, carefully dissecting the words and phrases used in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. In his lecture, Guelzo explained the simplicity of the address as well as Lincoln's genius in using concise and borrowed language for a stirring effect.

On Friday, I attended a roundtable discussion on "Searching for Jobs, Hiring Colleagues: A Conversation about the Academic Job Search" with T. J. Tomlin, Josh McMullen, Shannon Harris, and Beth Barton Schweiger. As a religious historian who teaches at a secular state school, I really appreciated Schweiger's perspective on applying for jobs and maneuvering through the tenure process. I was struck by how different state universities are from the Christian liberal arts colleges where McMullen and Harris teach. Whereas philosophies of teaching and statements on the intersection of faith and reason are scrutinized by search committees at Christian liberal arts colleges, large secular universities tend to focus primarily on research and publications on a candidate's cv.

Later on Friday, I gave a paper entitled, "Early Evangelicals, Print Culture, and Their Publics." I told the audience that this paper represents the nooks and crannies of my larger project on "Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture" that I am currently working on. Tim Hall of Central Michigan chaired the session and Susan Lim of Biola offered comments on my paper, as well as the paper on magistrates in colonial New Haven given by the TEDS PhD student John Simons. I really appreciated the comments by the members of the audience, and hope to incorporate their suggestions into my research.

After my session, I chaired a session entitled, "Evangelicalism in Modern Britain Turns 25: Reexamining David Bebbington's 'Quadrilateral' Thesis," with papers by Darren Dochuk, Mark Noll, and Molly Worthen, and comments by Bebbington. This session was sponsored by the Maclellan Foundation in Chattanooga, and the papers read will be published in an upcoming edition of Fides et Historia. Having examined the papers days before the session, I was interested to see how Bebbington would respond to the critiques of his so-called quadrilateral thesis by these scholars. In typical fashion, Bebbington proceeded to defend his thesis from each paper presented, point by point. It is apparent that he is committed to retaining the fourfold definition of evangelicalism that he provided twenty-five years ago in his book. Only time will tell if his thesis remains the standard definition of this Christian movement, or if another scholar can offer a better alternative.

Finally on Friday, I attended the banquet and presidential address by John Wigger of the University of Missouri on "Reaching a Wider Audience." Wigger gave a personal account of his publishing history, including his most recent project on Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. It will be interesting to find out how his talk on wanting to secure a lucrative contract with a large trade publishing firm will resonate with an audience that was dominated by historians at small Christian liberal arts schools who normally have high teaching loads and very little time to publish. Personally, I appreciated his talk, because it made me think about my own publishing aspirations. Should I not be content to work with university presses and scholarly journals to put out my work? Do I need a literary agent? Who is my target audience? I have been thinking deeply about these questions ever since Wigger's talk. I am coming to the conclusion that I am content to produce monographs that will (hopefully) make a contribution to religious history. At least for now, I have no aspirations to write a New York Times bestselling book. Maybe I am strange, but I really love reading a good monograph (including Wigger's exceptional biography of Francis Asbury), and can think of no higher aspiration than to produce such books.

Saturday, September 27, was a much more relaxed day for me. I wasn't giving a paper or chairing a session, so I was able to sit back and enjoy sessions, such as the roundtable discussion chaired by Daniel Vaca on "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Public: Appraising the Many Publics of Randall Balmer's Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," with papers by Ed Blum, Jana Riess, Chris Soper, and Todd Brenneman, and a response by Balmer. My favorite papers were by Ed and Jana, who presented very witty and humorous commentary on the impact of Balmer's book. Ed, for instance, pointed out the permeating presence of Balmer's physical appearance in the latter's books, tv appearances, and websites, and made sure that the chair of the session mentioned in his introduction that Blum had attended a Word of Life Bible camp and that his parents owned several Thomas Kincaid prints. Not having heard Balmer speak in person, I was impressed and surprised by his humble demeanor. My impression of him before hearing him was that he came across as perhaps a bit too self-assured in his scholarship. Instead, I found him to be a delightful speaker who nuanced some of the definitive statements that he had made about modern evangelicalism in his books. I do believe, however, that Balmer has romanticized 19th-century evangelicalism, seeing 18th-century revivalism as somehow immune from the negative aspects of fundamentalism that crept into the movement's history after the Second Great Awakening. This perception was all the more surprising to me since Balmer began his career by writing a dissertation on 18th-century Dutch evangelical revivalism that was subsequently published by OUP as A Perfect Babel of Confusion.

After attending some of the other sessions, including an eloquent (but long) plenary address by Charles Marsh on "Spread Hilaritas': Writing History out of a Higher Satisfaction," I finished the conference at the wonderful session on "The Place of Mystery in Human Affairs," chaired by Don Yerxa of Eastern Nazarene College, with papers by my former colleague Bill McClay, William Shea of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and comments by John Wilson of Books and Culture. Both McClay and Shea argued for the reality of mysteries in life that cannot be fully explained by scholars in the humanities or sciences. Both made the case that mysteries are purposely incorporated into a human's existence by God who uses them to lead individuals toward belief in a higher power that is sovereign over the universe.

Finally, on Saturday evening, the panelists at the Bebbington session enjoyed a beautiful and lengthy dinner sponsored by the McClellan Foundation at the nearby Saddle Peak Lodge. I enjoyed talking with Molly Worthen and hearing stories about Notre Dame from Mark Noll.

Overall, I had a wonderful time at the Pepperdine conference and thank Jay Green for organizing it.

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