Tag Archives: racism

In which, identity politics poisons yet another community once ruled by love (of their subject): the guild of medievalists.


A New York Times article can’t resist the obvious and amusing verb as it describes an ugly scuffle within the guild of those who study the Middle Ages: “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.”

The article chronicles an unedifying tale of buffoonish clashes between the grievance-identity guerillas and the tone-deaf Old Scholars Club. My first reaction was to dismiss the whole donnybrook as yet another illustration of Sayre’s Law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayre%27s_law).

But then I realized that the humor here is only surface-deep: I have attended the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo for the past seven years as a fascinated scholarly outsider (my field is the history of Christianity in the nineteenth century). In that time, I have found medievalists to be, more than the scholars in any other field I know, “amateurs” in the best sense of that term. That is, even the best credentialed and most published among them tend to study what they study out of pure fascination – love (the root amare, from which “amateur” is derived) is not too strong a word. This political posturing is a distraction and a blight in the midst of a Guild of Extraordinary Geeks who study what they study out of no other agenda than coming to a deeper acquaintance with fellow humans long dead–whose lives, cultures, and ideas compel them to long, late nights of study, and all the accompanying sacrifices of the academic life.

This vitriolic battle among the lovers of medieval knowledge is also sad because while courtesy, circumspection, humility, wisdom, and so many other (intellectual) virtues all fall among the first casualties, at the same time careers are being made–and everyone knows it.

And this just shows how deep the infection of political posturing runs in academe as a whole, and how unlikely it is that it will heal itself anytime soon.

(Tangent-that’s-not-really-a-tangent: while I was at Duke University in the late ’90s, I heard a distinguished and celebrated Americanist call some figures from American history “fascists.” The parallel (though I don’t remember what group he was attacking) was simply ludicrous. This historian was clearly subsuming responsible scholarship and teaching to partisan attack. In that moment I lost all respect for him–and I started developing my “crap detector” for such unhelpful polemic. I hasten to add that, in the classes (at least) that took, that detector almost never went off around professors. Unfortunately, however, when it came time to start teaching undergraduates at that same university, I could barely hear myself think for the jangling of that detector’s alarm. The sport of elite undergraduate students appeared to be that most ugly and unpleasant game of heated, moralistic attack-dogging.)

A final word: this present climate constrains me to add: I find the poison on the left and the poison on the right here equally, well, poisonous. A pox – or (why not) a full-on medieval plague – on both their houses!

Let us learn from such “jousts” what we should certainly learn: to discern where our work may illegitimately and harmfully minimize past sins or silence present voices. But also, to discern where the agendas of a variety of “culture wars” have rendered us useless as scholars. Let us not allow an honest desire to redress scholarly wrongs to become yet another one of those currently ubiquitous self-righteous and self-aggrandizing crusades (yes, I used the word), waged from the saddle of that most ugly of animals: the Moral High Horse.

And then, having dismounted and recovered what may be the dim and fragmented light of truth from the smoking furnace of polemical heat, let us return to the field of the Passionate Intellect with a redoubled will. For honest scholarship that follows wherever the evidence leads is a balm in a time of turmoil.

Poor, black, and female: Amanda Berry Smith preached holiness in the teeth of racism


What follows is this week’s talk in the series I am doing at Messiah Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN, on people from my book Patron Saints for Postmoderns who model aspects of social justice:

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Christian revival kindled on the American frontier, drawing new strength through camp meetings and circuit riders. By the mid-1800s, however, the Victorian era was in full swing, and evangelical churches founded in the white heat of frontier enthusiasm were building lavish faux-gothic facades and enjoying the refined preaching of educated, citified ministers.

In reaction, many Victorian Americans yearned to experience again the fiery devotion of their parents and grandparents. Continue reading

Poverty and racism: What would Charles Sheldon, “Mr. WWJD,” do?


In researching the man who originated the phrase “What would Jesus do” for Patron Saints for Postmoderns, I discovered something exciting. This novelist, whose In His Steps immortalized the idea of asking oneself “What would Jesus do?” before making any major decision, was no starry-eyed dreamer who lived only in his writing. Rather, he was one of the most active men of his day in the cause of social justice. Here’s what minister-novelist Charles Sheldon did when, as the brand new pastor of a Topeka, Kansas church, he was suddenly confronted with the problems of urban poverty and racism. [The following is an excerpt from the chapter on Sheldon in Patron Saints.]

Crossing Class Lines

From the first, Sheldon did well for his new church. The upper room over the butcher was often full, and soon the group was building a big stone edifice. When the new building opened, on June 23, 1889, Sheldon preached a defining sermon to what would be his lifelong flock. We can imagine their mix of pride and discomfort—“what had they gotten themselves into?”—as the young pastor announced that he would always preach “a Christ for the common people. A Christ who belongs to the rich and to the poor, the ignorant and the learned, the old and the young, the good and the bad. A Christ who knows no sect or age, whose religion does not consist alone in cushioned seats, and comfortable surroundings, or culture, or fine singing, or respectable orders of Sunday services, but a Christ who bids us all recognize the Brotherhood of the race, who bids throw open this room to all.” Little did those unsuspecting congregants know what concrete shapes their activist pastor’s dreams would assume in the years to come. Continue reading

Podcast on evangelical theology, globalization, postmodernism, and seminary education, with John Franke & friends


This conversation was really fun to have. And maybe even has some light to cast on, as my colleague Kyle Roberts says, “the present and future of evangelical theology, the challenge of globalization and postmodernity, the prospects for the evangelical church in the days ahead, and the role of seminary education in all of this.”

Kyle (a rising theologian, like Christian Collins Winn, who also speaks out on this podcast) explains: “The dialogue participants were John Franke, of Biblical Seminary (on campus to lecture at Bethel University and Seminary), Chris Armstrong, church history professor at Bethel Seminary, Christian Collins Winn, historical theology professor at Bethel College of Arts and Sciences, and myself. Enjoy this discussion and please add any comments or questions of your own for further discussion.  We view this as the beginning of a conversation, not the end.”

Enjoy the podcast, and (we hope) many fascinating posts to come on Kyle’s blog.

Berea College and UVa: Two vastly different centers of theological excellence


Radical egalitarian hotbed Berea College. Brilliant theological think-tank UVa (University of Virginia).

Berea was founded in slave Kentucky in 1855 as an integrated school committed to the equality of all in God’s sight. It has survived to today with its vision intact, while the institution it modeled itself on, Oberlin College, now has no idea who Charles Finney was or how Christianity suffused its own founding (I know; I attended Oberlin for two years in the mid-1980s).

UVa was founded by the Deist Thomas Jefferson as a secular institution, with a desire to become a place of open dialogue, rather than a school under the thumb of a Christian denomination. For that very reason, perhaps, the doors of its religious studies department opened to some of the best and brightest Christian thinkers in the country, alongside scholars of other religions, and this secular school is now a regular Christian theological think-tank.

OK, I’ll admit it: I did not come up with the bright idea of digging into the history of these two schools and writing a stellar article about them. But Jason Byassee did. Here’s what Jason discovered about the history and present power of these two very different but equally kingdom-serving institutions.

Thanks, Jason, for another superlative article.

Anatomy of an African explosion: How and why Christianity grew exponentially in 20th-century Africa


How and why did Christianity explode on the African continent in the 20th century? The following is an interview I did with the late Dr. Ogbu Kalu of McCormick Seminary for Christian History & Biography’s “African Apostles” issue:

Anatomy of an Explosion
It’s an indelible image: the white missionary venturing into deepset Africa. But the real story is what happened when African converts relayed the gospel message in their own words.
an interview with Dr. Ogbu Kalu

Taking a close look at the explosion of Christianity in twentieth-century Africa, we meet a remarkable group of colonial-era (roughly 1890 to World War II) apostles who were born, grew up, and ministered in sub-Saharan Africa. We have been inspired and challenged by their stories. We hope you will be, too.

While the story of Christianity’s spread in Africa is nothing less than awesome, it is also nothing more than the work of God, who always uses the foolish things of a sin-scarred world as the building material for his body.

Western missions in colonial Africa proceeded by slow, painful steps. The missionaries’ best efforts were often hindered by cultural misunderstandings, economic abuses, political agendas, and racist presuppositions. While missionaries were picking their tortuous way through the colonial period, indigenous African evangelists and teachers exploded onto the scene like dynamite. Yes, they worked on the same confused, conflicted landscape as the missionaries. Nonetheless, something happened when the gospel was proclaimed under African sponsorship. It revolutionized the continent. Continue reading

Low social status = high spiritual power: the power of the poor, black, female holiness evangelist among white holiness folk


You can see other posts on this blog for biographical information about Amanda Berry Smith, the well-known post-Civil War holiness evangelist. At noon today I’ll be down at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis to talk to the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort about Smith and the holiness movement’s treatment of racism and other social ills. During my graduate years at Duke University, I took a course with scholar of African-American history Laurie Maffly-Kipp and wrote a paper that asked why Smith was so successful in white campmeeting holiness circles.

The paper is much too long to post here, but here is a section that gets to the heart of some interesting gender and race attitudes that shaped the largely middle-class white devotees of the late 19th-century holiness movement (which started and retained its greatest strength within white Methodist churches, but spread well beyond this, to Christians of many denominations, black as well as white). I think an understanding of these attitudes as they impacted Smith’s life is important for evangelicals–especially but not exclusively those in the holiness and Pentecostal movements. The “gender essentialism” and “romantic racialism” examined here are still very much in play.

[BEGIN CLIP]

How did [Amanda Berry] Smith operate in white circles?

Victorian gender essentialism

Smoothing [Amanda Berry] Smith’s integration and eventual success in white holiness circles were a pair of intrinsic advantages she possessed by virtue of her status as a black woman. The first of these had to do with the essentialist views of womanhood prominent in the white America of her time. “The dominant thought of the age embraced an essentialist understanding of gender; it ascribed to womanhood a feminine essence that was virtuous, patient, gentle, and compassionate, while it described manhood as rational, aggressive, forceful, and just. Unlike man, woman was considered naturally religious, bound by greater emotionalism, and with a greater capacity to sympathize and forgive.”[i]

Victorian gender-essentialism made women peculiarly able to represent certain aspects of “holiness” religion: its commitment to relationality, affectivity, subordinate union with Christ, absolute dependence on God for everyday matters, and so forth. As Higginbotham notes, this essential feminine spirituality was most closely associated with the maternal role. Not surprisingly, then, a number of key nineteenth-century female holiness leaders were mothers manqué, whose children had died young, freeing them to “expand the circle” of their maternal attentions to the church at large. Phoebe Palmer, Amanda Berry Smith, Maria Woodworth-Etter…all lost most or all of their children before entering upon their public ministries. And all played expertly upon the notions of feminine essence current at the time, presenting to their audiences a curious but compelling combination of maternal authority and feminine susceptibility to the influence of the Spirit. The feminine hand that rocked the cradle of evangelicalism—went the argument—was in turn nurtured by the Spirit, in intimate and emotional ways not usually avowed (if experienced) by men of the time. This appears to be true for Smith and Truth[ii] no less than for the whites Phoebe Palmer and Maria Woodworth-Etter. Continue reading