That Was The Week That Was


• I concluded my series on patriotic songs in American hymnals: part two introduced a few songs that never made it into more than one or two hymnals; part three asked why even very popular patriotic songs fail to appear in many hymnals.

• No, Pope Francis did not promise “get out of purgatory free” passes for following him on Twitter, but it was close enough to inspire some reflections on indulgences, pilgrimage, and embodied community in a digital age.

• Guess which American religious group is leading the way on immigration reform

• Promoting human rights through conversation rather than condemnation: the case of female genital mutilation.

…There and Everywhere

Irving Berlin, ca. 1911
Irving Berlin about six or seven years before he wrote “God Bless America” – Wikimedia

• My post on immigration reform produced an interesting day on Twitter. First, I got an attaboy from a former aide to the president. Second, someone questioned my faith.

• One patriotic song that appears in hardly any hymnals at all is “God Bless America.” Here’s its story, if you haven’t heard it before.

• A few more posts seeking to clear up the Twitter-Indulgence thing… James Martin found it a “generous way of inviting people into the Masses, prayers and liturgies during the World Youth Day. Why wouldn’t you want to include the sick, the poor and the elderly in the community of pilgrims? And why wouldn’t you want to help them participate via the web?” Ryan Jacobs found it well-intentioned as well, and quoted an expert in Jesuit spirituality who “argued, convincingly, that when it comes to the transformative experience of religion, the medium is irrelevant.”

• Jamie Smith offered a Protestant appreciation for Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, calling it a “beautiful articulation of the Christian faith for our postmodern world.”

• Some of my colleagues at Bethel are testing the hypothesis that “the cognitive demands associated with constructing a coherent scientific, philosophical, or theological account of human origins push many people to their natural cognitive limit and, consequently, shape these origins discussions…. We tend to avoid ideas and explanations that produce such negative emotions. As a result, it’s often less cognitively and emotionally burdensome to neglect theological commitments – as in atheistic evolutionary accounts – or philosophical and scientific commitments – as in biblically literalist accounts.” I feel like that helps explain both Virginia Heffernan’s essay on why she’s a creationist — and the response from science writer Laura Helmuth.

• Christian Piatt asked what it would take “for the church to become once again a curator and incubator of the culture’s artistic identity and voice.” (What not to do: “adopt cultural trends for the sake of attraction, rather than holding some value in this set apart nature of sanctuary.”)

• A tribute to David Neff, the “Gentleman Scholar” of Christianity Today.

• As someone who began to watch the National Pastime seriously in the mid-1980s… My vote for the least likely headline of the week: “Baseball’s Darryl Strawberry Buries his Past in New Career as a Pastor.”

• Fellow introvert and “muscular Pietist” Jared Burkholder offered a brief report on his time at the Brethren World Assembly. I hope he follows up with a longer post expanding on his observation that “smaller denominations with a strong sense of identity seem to gravitate toward the study of history at a much deeper level that most lay circles.”

• Speaking of introversion… I was initially drawn to Joe Moran’s essay on shyness because I noticed a line on lecturing (“What for most people is the biggest social fear of all, public speaking, I find fairly easy. Lecturing is a performance that allows me simply to impersonate a ‘normal’, working human being”), but the whole piece proved well worth the (long) read.

• If there’s a more foolish project than determining America’s most “saintly” and “sinful” cities, let me know.

Martin Marty• As a fellow denizen of America’s most underappreciated region… Way to go, central Indiana’s own Elesha Coffman! Writing at Religion in American History: “…on a blog on which ‘regional’ almost always means Western or Southern, today I’ll add a splash of local color from the rural Midwest. For most of you, this will be a virtual side trip to a place you’ll likely never visit. For me, it’s a reminder of the ways my unconscious assumptions about what’s normal or familiar in American religion, versus what’s exotic or in need of explanation, continue to be shaped by the place I come from.”

• A review of Coffman’s book on The Christian Century stated that the eminent Lutheran historian Martin Marty was linked to that magazine’s less than charitable treatment of Billy Graham… Any reply, Martin Marty?

• The recent death of another eminent historian of American religion, Edmund Morgan, has inspired lots of tributes. As someone whose training isn’t in U.S. history, I appreciated Thomas Kidd’s recap of Morgan’s work — especially this advice, quoted from a Morgan essay on the historical method: “…try to forget philosophies of history and theories of historical causation: Marxist, Straussian, postmodern, or whatever. You probably have one, conscious or unconscious, but try not to let it get in your way. Cultivate that surprise when the documents don’t seem to support your views.”

• Morgan was best known as an atheist who nonetheless took seriously Puritans like John Winthrop… As such, he followed in the steps of his mentor, Perry Miller, who traced American exceptionalism back to Winthrop’s famous sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity” and its appropriation of a famous phrase from the Sermon on the Mount (“We shall be as a city on a hill”) — a rhetorical move later imitated by Ronald Reagan. A new book suggests that the history of the phrase is much more complicated…

• If the main purpose of studying history is to learn lessons from the past (it’s not, but…), then Richard English has some bad news: “Much of what we anticipate, celebrate, commemorate, and remember regarding the experience and achievements of modern war bears only partially overlapping relation to historical reality, and wars’ actual achievements greatly diverge from both the publicly articulated and the actual aims and justifications behind their initial eruption.”

• Leave it to a journalist to write history with a hook! After a Soviet pilot bailed out during a dogfight against German planes in World War II: “The people on the ground, who had witnessed the skirmish, rushed over to help the stranded pilot. They offered alcohol. But the offer was refused. As the pilot would later recall, ‘Nobody could understand why the brave lad who had taken on a Nazi squadron wouldn’t drink vodka.’ The brave lad had refused the vodka, it turned out, because the brave lad was not a lad at all.”

Trayvon Martin protest, March 2012
Trayvon Martin protest in Chicago this past March – Creative Commons (Debra Sweet)

• One benefit of not having cable TV anymore is that it remains possible to pay little attention to whatever is the latest Trial of the Century. But while I hadn’t been all that cued in to the details of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, it was all too predictable how most pundits, bloggers, and Facebook friends would react to the verdict. So I appreciated the more interesting reactions of Joshua DuBois (who suggested that “Instead of a national conversation on race, perhaps it’s time for a million local ones”), Ta-Nehesi Coates (who came to two paradoxical conclusions: the jury’s verdict was undoubtedly correct, and Martin’s killing remains “a profound injustice”), and Scot McKnight (wondering about the “scripts” that white and black Americans follow).

• Writing in defense of the humanities has become such a cottage industry that it’s both hard to keep up and hard to find anything new being said, but Rosanna Warren is on to something: “Is the situation really so dire? Well, no, and yes. The humanities are thriving, but not in the academy.”

• About the only thing that intrigues me about MOOCs is the possibility of expanding access to higher education worldwide. Is that a delusion, too?

• I’ve always preferred students to write research papers that ask a question rather than defend a thesis. Bruce Ballenger explained why: “Of course, there are situations in which dreaming up a thesis early on is a good idea—say, for essay exams and the GRE. But the habit of rushing to judgment short-circuits genuine academic inquiry.  Scholars might well have a hunch about what is true—we might even have a hypothesis—but what motivates us is the act of discovery, of coming to see things differently. In contrast, the thug thesis wields the mallet in the arcade game whack-a-mole—determined to keep discovery in its place: out of sight.”

• Comic-Con provided some tantalizing hints about the upcoming third series of Sherlock, but since I probably won’t have much to say about my favorite literary detective until then… Here’s Arthur Conan Doyle scholar Douglas Kerr on the “afterlife” of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

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