The Impostor: Why I Wrote a Biography of Charles Lindbergh

Advance and preordered copies of the book have been circulating for a few weeks now, but tomorrow is still a big day for me: the official release of my spiritual biography of Charles Lindbergh. Five years after I first started toying with that idea, it’s beyond exciting to see the book come widely available.

I’ve shared a lot about the book — having blogged through some of my research, writing, and editing both here and at The Anxious Bench — but for publication eve, let me confess something I’ve only shared with close friends: the main reason I wrote the book.

Now, I’ve said plenty about some of my goals with this project. Since its beginning, I’ve wanted to help Christians like me better understand the growing share of Americans who, like Lindbergh, are “spiritual but not religious.” And especially because the writing of the book coincided with renewed attention to race in American society, I’ve increasingly seen Lindbergh’s story as a cautionary tale about the insidious influence of racism.

But while I do think my book can shed light on those topics (plus celebrity, science and technology, and other themes), addressing them wasn’t my main reason for writing.

I wrote this book in order to prove to myself that I’m not a fraud.

It’s not limited to my profession, but academics are prone to something we call “the impostor syndrome”: the unshakeable suspicion that we’re not nearly as good at teaching, research, writing, etc. as other people think, that we don’t belong in the company of more brilliant colleagues and will eventually be revealed for the impostors that we are. “As I sit down to write” a piece about this problem, begins one psychologist, “a voice in my head tells me: ‘You can’t do this,’ and ‘Who do you think you are?'”

It can take different shapes at different points in our professional lives. In my case, it was most acute at opposite ends of my career. As much as I felt an impostor as a too-young graduate student surrounded by more brilliant, skilled colleagues, I felt almost that strongly for much of the second decade of my appointment at Bethel.

See, one of the best and worst moments in my career was when I was promoted to the rank of full professor in 2013. Reaching the highest rung on our ladder just ten years into my tenure was a significant accomplishment… which I immediately doubted. Would I have been promoted anywhere else?, I asked myself, as I mentally compared my scholarly record to that of friends who work at research universities. I don’t deserve this. There are better historians who can’t even get a full-time job. Who do I think I am?

One cruelty of the impostor syndrome is it can feel at once obviously false and yet still true. I know that I’ve done important work in and out of the classroom — and even when I doubt that, I value and trust the recognition I’ve received from colleagues. But their opinion is not the only standard I use to evaluate myself. I know, for example, that the books I’ve edited and written are not what my grad school professors trained me to write; they don’t constitute the kind of scholarship that my graduate alma mater uses to back its claims of greatness.

Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, New Haven, CT

While my name is already on the cover of four other books, none is a monograph (written solely by me) or primarily a work of original historical research. Indeed, the only projects of that sort that I’ve completed are not in print: my dissertation, which I gave up hope of revising into a book three years into my time at Bethel; and my share of a digital history of Bethel: several long essays based on archival research… but living entirely online.

That doesn’t mean the books I’ve edited and co-written on Pietism aren’t important, or that I wasted my time organizing and co-editing a historical devotional last year. All of that work embodies my desire to retrieve a “usable past” and make it meaningful to a broader Christian audience. (And I do think there’s much that’s timely about Lindbergh’s story, for Christians and non-Christians alike.)

But there has always been a part of me that wanted, and needed, to prove that I could still undertake a book-sized project of original historical research. The fact that much of that investigation would take place where I did my doctoral studies — Charles Lindbergh happened to leave the bulk of his personal papers to Yale, after having given his first American First talk there in 1940 — just added to the gravity of the project.

So it’d be hard to overstate how gratifying it was to see the response of the historians — all more accomplished then me in their publications — asked to read an advance copy of my book and give their endorsement to it. Here too, there’s a connection back to graduate school. While I’ve made my own way into American religious history in the last 10-15 years, focusing my graduate studies on diplomatic and modern European history meant that I never took a class at Yale with Jon Butler. To have so distinguished a religious historian call my attempt at religious biography an “absorbing, necessary American read” is enormously encouraging.

But I also appreciate that Amy Artman described Charles Lindbergh as both “rigorously researched” and “beautifully written.” As much as I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to reconstruct the spiritual journey of someone so non-religious as Charles Lindbergh, it’s the writing that matters even more to me. Ten years of blogging has given me ample opportunity to hone that skill at a smaller level, but it’s an entirely different challenge to write a book — to plot a story over thirteen chapters, to develop complex characters and integrate their voices with my narration and analysis, to make choices about words, sentences, paragraphs, and transitions that help make academic research come alive for a general audience.

I’ll inevitably question some of those small writing choices each time I re-read the book. But in its essentials, I’m not sure I could have done it any better.

I hate to sound prideful, and tomorrow I’ll share an Anxious Bench post all about the other people who made the book possible. But after years of wrestling with the impostor syndrome, I am undeniably proud of what I’ve accomplished with this book. I can’t wait for you all to read it!