Posted: December 12, 2014 Filed under: Uncategorized
It’s beach-reading season—and I have a can’t-miss recommendation. Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya, the debut novel of St. Mary’s College (Ind.) history professor Bill Svelmoe, is a hysterical account of the foibles of good-hearted, but sometimes naïve missionaries.
I recommend the book for several reasons. First, it offers texture and empathy. I grew up in the cornfields of Ohio, but I could just about imagine what it must be like to live as part of a religious colony in an utterly foreign place like the jungles of Asia. The characters embody sacrifice, loneliness, adventure, emotional frailty, and uncommon strength. Given the novel’s humanity, it is no surprise to learn that Svelmoe himself grew up in a missionary family in the Philippines. If this story is any indication, he seems profoundly ambivalent about his own history. The narrative careens from exasperation to affection. Consider this passage between the book’s protagonist (a young rebel named Philip who is questioning his faith) and a kind-hearted missionary who sympathizes with Philip’s critiques of the missionary base (and who boasts a hidden cache of Bob Dylan and Beatles records):
Joseph stood to go. But Philip had a question. “What about you? You seem to have an interesting perspective on all this? Why are you here?”
Joseph picked up their bottles and put them in a case already half full of empties [to clarify, these bottles contained orange sodas, not beer–the missionary agency would not have allowed that]. “Because the foibles and follies of evangelicalism aren’t the sum total of the gospel. What these folks do is great work. And they’re the only ones doing it. Only evangelicals and fundamentalists, like your Dad for instance, care enough to do this kind of thing. So I support their work, I support them, and, most of the time, I keep my opinions to myself.”
Second, the novel features an historian’s eye for context and significance. Svelmoe, who has also written a scholarly monograph on Wycliffe founder Cameron Townsend, paints a twentieth-century evangelical landscape of missionary outposts, suburban California mega-churches, ambivalence toward modernity, practices of intense individual spirituality, and strict cultural codes. I can imagine this novel offering good fodder for discussion in a college course in American religious history.
But mostly Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya is just a lot of fun. There’s a urinating monkey, a budding romance between Philip and the missionary school’s librarian, and a withering description of the fundamentalist apocalyptic horror film Thief in the Night:
[It] was a train wreck, but fun in that “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” sort of way. Several lightly groomed Christian teenagers lamely attempted to convince a group of equally homely heathen teens that Jesus was about to return and they’d better get right or they’d get left. Philip would have left the entire lot of them. Their hair will get grease on the heavenly sofas, he thought. It was easy to tell the soon-to-be-saved heathens from the soon-to-be-left-behind heathens. The good heathens listened to the speaker’s tedious lecture about the end times with intense looks on their faces, while the bad heathens just wanted sex. The heathen boys leered indiscriminately at girls both righteous and unrighteous, while the Christian boys had clearly been neutered. The most unconscionable scene in Philip’s opinion was when a little girl woke up in a seemingly empty house and, freaked out by all the rapture talk to which she’d been exposed, began to shriek, thinking she’d been left behind. When her parents rushed in they capitalized on their daughter’s terror to lead her in the sinner’s prayer. Now there’s a genuine conversion, Philip thought.
And then this priceless commentary: “The Antichrist did not appear to be well funded, as his forces consisted of about five people driving second-hand vans.”
We can only hope that Svelmoe, who is beginning a sabbatical this summer, is reclining on a chaise lounge on his deck armed with a laptop, a drink that is not orange soda, and a childhood of memories as he dreams up new plotlines of fundamentalist hijinks in the jungles.
Posted: November 14, 2014 Filed under: Uncategorized
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Riverside Church in New York City. In his sermon (listen to it here) he publicly broke ranks with the policies of President Lyndon Johnson and the white liberal establishment (which still largely supported the war) as he condemned American involvement in Vietnam.
King articulated what increasing numbers of Americans were beginning to feel—that Vietnam, civil rights, and economics were deeply interconnected. Just as the policies of Johnson’s Great Society had begun to confront black poverty at home, King observed, the United States began pouring soldiers and resources into Southeast Asia. With the military buildup, commitment to domestic justice and equality faded. For every $53 Washington spent to help a poor person in the United States, Andrew Preston has noted, it spent $500,000 to kill a person in Vietnam.
Moreover, African Americans and other minorities were dying in extraordinarily high proportions in the early years of the war even though they accounted for a small percentage of the population. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society,” King charged, “and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” As a result, Americans faced the “cruel irony” of watching black and white American boys kill and die together in the service of a country “that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” It was a powerful sermon, one that has recently resurfaced in the public consciousness upon the death of its author Vincent Harding.
But King’s sermon did not reflect the opinions of rank-and-file African Americans. In a just-released book entitled American Protestants and the Debate over the Vietnam War, George Bogaski chronicles the fascinating non-response of black evangelicals to King’s speech and the intensifying war in Southeast Asia.
So why did black evangelicals not follow King on this issue? First, like many white evangelicals, considerable numbers of African Americans wanted to focus more on evangelism than politics. Geopolitical peace was certainly desirable, but it had limited spiritual value. “If we win the war in Vietnam, will this be the answer to our problems?” asked a writer in The Star of Zion. “We think not, for there are wars most everywhere, not only in America. The world needs to seek God.” This sounded much like the spiritualized writings of Carl Henry and Billy Graham on Vietnam, and it constrained the possibilities of antiwar activism.
Second, many nurtured a passionate loyalty to President Johnson, a president who had signed the Civil Rights Act (1963) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Black denominations almost universally supported Johnson over Goldwater in 1964. Johnson’s win, explained a writer in The Star of Zion in January 1965, proved that “God is still on the throne.” As president, Johnson approached problems with “energy, candor, and integrity.” After AME bishops visited the White House, they praised him for his reform efforts in the areas of poverty, education, Medicare, housing, and civil rights. Johnson, they wrote, was “one of the greatest champions of human rights of minorities in this century, if not our entire history. “HE DID THE MOST,” declared one editorial.
Johnson was a friend to civil rights, and he was also a Cold War hawk. He pushed hard for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and for troop build-ups in Southeast Asia. African-Americans were loathe to criticize their advocate. King’s advisors warned him about this, telling him that his antiwar speeches were “too advanced for many Negroes and that it did not constitute the widest appeal.” More likely is that many blacks, especially those affiliated with the NAACP, worried that antiwar activism would jeopardize the civil rights struggle. In the end, writes Bogaski, Vietnam led to a “dramatic split between King and the African-American church.” The full ramifications of this split were never realized. Just a year later in 1968, King was shot in Memphis, an awful moment in an awful year that also included the Tet Offensive and the shooting of Robert Kennedy.
It’s a fascinating story told with skill. And there is much more in the Bogaski’s narrative. On a broader level, the book offers a much-needed exploration of theological responses to the Vietnam War that goes beyond the simplistic binary of mainline doves and evangelical hawks. Bogaski ably charts gaps between leadership and laity, revolts of mainline conservatives, debates over methods of dissent, and evangelical opposition to the conflict.
Posted: November 11, 2014 Filed under: Uncategorized
Posted: October 2, 2014 Filed under: Uncategorized
As an admirer of the Englewood Review of Books, I have been anticipating the release of Slow Church. Now that it’s in my hands, I’m happy to report that it doesn’t disappoint. I am thoroughly convinced by the book’s critique and vision. I’ll leave the close outlining of the book’s contents—on ethics, ecology, and economy—to others who have already done so. Instead, I want to offer a report on the book’s potential audience from my small corner of the world: a small Wesleyan liberal arts college in central Kentucky. Based on my interaction with students here, I expect that many will be compelled by its vision.
Each year I teach a course on World Civilizations. Together students and I trace the rise of the supremacy of the market (capitalism); of technology and gears of production (industrialization); of the organization of society on the basis of efficiency and calculation, not morality, emotion, custom, or tradition (rationalization); of the absolute sovereignty of nations within their borders (nation-state), and of the strong belief in progress. It’s the story of modernity.
My students find much to like about modern development. In the case of industrialization, they note the abundance of food (even oranges in wintertime!). But they also articulate some of the downsides—Cheese Whiz, Twinkies, pollution, global warming, stunning levels of wealth inequality—and are surprised at the length and magnitude of the list. Modernity has not come through on all it has promised. My students, many of them from Appalachia, know these realities all too well.
At the end of the course, we talk about alternatives to excesses of modernity. We discuss the virtues of gardening, reading from books with actual pages, sitting on front porches in the evening and visiting with neighbors, fasting from social media, and so on. Essentially, this is the vision of Chris Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church.
Then, in a kind of culminating experience, I try to give them a taste of what we’re talking about. Here’s the assignment:
- Rationale: We live in a hyperactive industrialized world of automobiles, vacuum cleaners, combines, smartphones, water treatment plants, and flashy megachurches. YouTube and Facebook, iPhones and SMS have taken up hours in the day once spent in reflection, reading, and story-telling on the front porch. TV, texting, multi-tasking, and iPhone apps have fostered, and we can barely Sit. Still. At All. Premodern humans experienced life very differently. They worked hard physically. They spent time in meditation. This assignment is predicated on the notion that silence and reflection can be virtues, that we have lost something valuable in this age of overabundant information and entertainment. In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes, “Silence is a time to rest in God. Lean into God, trusting that being with him in silence will loosen your rootedness in the world and plant you by streams of living water. It can form your life even if it doesn’t solve your life.”
- Instructions: Your assignment is to be silent for 90 minutes. Put away your computer and smartphone. Do not watch television. Leave the presence of other people. Just be still by yourself. You may walk or hike in nature for part of the 90 minutes, but be sure to sit on a bench or lay down on the grass for some of the time.
- Paper: Write a one- to two-page paper reflecting on your experience and putting it in historical perspective. What does it feel like to be silent, to be without the pings of a smartphone? How is our lifestyle now different than in premodern times?
It’s a modest assignment than gets immodest reactions. One young man balked completely, told me that social media was his total existence, and spent his two pages justifying his refusal to be still and contemplative for 90 minutes. But a good half of my students wax nostalgic for a time they’ve never really known. They exult on how refreshed they feel and pledge to integrate slowness into their daily routine. I have no way of knowing how many are just sucking up or how many actually follow through. But it seems like I’m hitting a nerve.
On the last day of class, we recite some Neil Postman together. “Loving Resistance Fighters” are people who “pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked and why; who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations; who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical power of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as synonymous for truth; who are, at least suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding; who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they ‘reach out and touch someone,’ they expect that person to be in the same room; who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth; who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement” (Technopoly, 183-84).
I’ve noticed more raised jaws, intense eyes, and fervent voices than I expected. I have hope.
*** Cross-posted at Patheos ***
Posted: September 29, 2014 Filed under: Uncategorized
Posted: September 12, 2014 Filed under: Uncategorized
One beautiful spring afternoon four years ago, I came across a horrifying scene in my living room. One of my two-year-old sons was standing on the back of the couch with his legs spread and his arms outstretched. My other two-year-old son stood facing him with an imaginary hammer in his hand and a determined look on his face. He proceeded to pound imaginary nails into his twin brother’s hands and feet. He was crucifying his twin brother.
I had not yet told them the crucifixion story, so I don’t know how they knew to reenact it. Perhaps they had been told the story in Sunday School. Or maybe they noticed the crucifixes that hang in every classroom at the University of Notre Dame, where my wife and I were graduate students at the time.
Whatever the source, early American Puritans probably would have reacted differently than I did. As Catherine Brekus writes, ministers “did not believe in being ‘kind’ to children by sugarcoating the truth.” Even the youngest of children needed to be taught the concepts of original sin, heaven, and hell.
Accordingly, their catechisms were shockingly explicit. Consider Isaac Watts’s First Catechism (1730): “Question: And what if you do not fear God, nor love him, nor seek to please him? Answer: Then I shall be a wicked Child, and the great God will be very angry with me. Question: Why are you afraid of God’s Anger? Answer: Because he can kill my Body, and he can make my Soul miserable after my body is dead. . . .Question: What must become of you if you are wicked? Answer: If I am wicked I shall be sent down to everlasting Fire in Hell among wicked and miserable creatures.” This particularly catechism was designed for children who were three or four years old.”
In her tender and authoritative biography of Sarah Osborn, Brekus describes the child’s dread of God’s wrath. Sarah was very worried that she might commit the monstrous sin of going to sleep without first saying a prayer. “The sin appeared so monstrous that I durst not lie down without it, for I should have been afraid the devil would have fetched me if I had.” Young Sarah was not alone. David Brainerd, a missionary, likewise was “terrified at the thoughts of death” at the age of seven or eight. Reverend Aaron Burr, the future president of Princeton, was troubled by “great terrors and horrors from a guilty Conscience and the Fears of Hell.” Another minister remembered that his mother “took a Considerable Deal of pains” to warn all of her children that they were “Children of wrath and exposed to Hell fire.”
Plagued by original sin and perhaps headed to Hell, infants were considered to be only a small step above the beasts. Early Americans were disturbed by the sight of babies crawling on all fours, which made them look like small animals. Puritans tried really hard to make them stand, constructing special walking stools to prevent them from crawling. Parents laced girls into corsets to straighten their backs, which is why children look unnaturally rigid in many colonial paintings. Children were subjected to stiff discipline.
These views and practices softened through the eighteenth century and beyond. Jonathan Edwards who believed that it was “exceeding just, that God should take the soul of a new-born infant and cast it into eternal torments,” got pushback from many of his congregants during and after the Great Awakening. They and other ministers, according to Brekus, “imagined blissful children being gathered up into Christ’s loving arms. There was no anger as fierce as God’s anger, but no love as sweet, as pure, or as boundless.” Anti-Calvinists later claimed that Calvinists “once taught that hell was paved with infants’ bones.”
Even in Edwards’ own church, the conflict raged. Parishioners criticized Edwards for “frightening poor innocent children with talk of hell fire and eternal damnation.” In return, he accused them of being too indulgent (there really isn’t anything new under the sun—it turns out that church conflict and parenting wars are long-standing American traditions!). In the end, he sort of conceded, allowing for the conversion of children and welcoming some into full membership with the privileges of the Lord’s Supper.
But to truly convert children, Edwards would have thought it important to “fright” them. He would have insisted on a clear articulation of both human depravity and the cross. And so I imagine he would have appreciated my sons’ rehearsal of Good Friday, which managed to portray both at the same time.
*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench ***
Posted: August 28, 2014 Filed under: Uncategorized
Last week several dozen scholars of religion met at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom to discuss the global history of evangelicalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The conference, organized by Kendrick Oliver, whose research on religion and the space program you really must become acquainted with, was terrific. Papers ranged from religious broadcasting (Tim Stoneman, Georgia Tech Lorraine), charismatic Anglican short-term missions (John Maiden, Open University), World Vision (David King, IUPUI), and Carl McIntire, the ICCC, and European evangelicals (Markku Ruotsila, University of Helsinki). Among the many gems I learned: European fundamentalists associated with the ICCC pushed back against McIntire to be allowed to drink, smoke, and attend the cinema—and won!
One of the most intriguing sessions dealt with material and visual culture. Photography became particularly important to the missionary project in the late nineteenth century. Pictures seemed to bridge space, culture and language. They seemed factual. They seemed able to communicate when words could not. But Didiet Aubert of Sorbonne Nouvelle University, speaking on “The Missionary Archive as Family Album,” noted the scholarly limits of missionary photography. Most archival collections, lacking dates and organization, are typically a mess. Even those that are dated and classified are not reliable as “factual” evidence. They are framed, cropped, and posed.
But there also lies much of their value. The very process of creating visual culture helps demonstrate the construction and projection of missionary ideals. Many of the panelists noted that missionaries were projecting images to a sending community wanting evidence of success in converting exotic peoples. During a talk entitled “Opening Blind Eyes: The Evangelical Photographic Frontier in the 19th-Century North American Pacific Northwest,” Carol Williams of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta showed a series of fascinating photos meant to depict darkness, filth, and heathenism (even as the very same images betrayed sophisticated, if not Christian, cultures). Several showed the domestication of Native women into Euro-American housewifery. In a talk entitled “Saving Pagan Babies: Missionary Photography and US-China Relations,” Margaret Kuo of California State University-Long Beach showed a series of photos of missionaries trying to civilize natives. Boys were pictured transforming from emaciation to health, from wearing Chinese clothing to Western costumes, and from venerating Buddhist symbols to Christian crosses. The most favored images pictured entire families that had been converted. These photographs—which evoked both suffering and salvation—justified the missionaries’ existence.
Another genre of missionary photography featured the missionaries themselves. They were pictured in exotic locations with exotic animals doing exotic things in triumphant poses of missionary romanticism. Didiet Aubert juxtaposed these images with personal letters and diaries, which revealed a profound sense of vulnerability. Behind those brave faces sometimes lay intense anxieties caused by troubled marriages, feuds with other missionaries, and spiritual doubt.
While most missionaries used the new technology with considerable enthusiasm, some did with considerable ambivalence. For every Passionist priest walking around China with a good-sized camera slung around his neck during the 1920s (Kuo flashed multiple images of this), there were some who resisted. One administrator was called a “hapless old fossil” by colleagues for not utilizing photographs to raise more funds. In a case study of evangelical missionaries working in famine-stricken India in the 1890s, Heather Curtis of Tufts University told the story of a skeptical missionary named Mark Fuller. He worried about a pornography of pain that played on the emotions of viewers and encouraged a view of Indians as helpless, uncivilized savages who needed a superior West to save them. In an act that sought to subvert the imperial project, Fuller published pictures of Indians helping Indians in a Christian & Missionary Alliance magazine. He wanted to clearly distinguish between Christian faith and Western imperialism.
But in the end, the utility of photography triumphed. It managed to powerfully communicate what Elaine Scarry has called “pain’s inexpressibility.” It encouraged “spectatorial sympathy” on the American home front. Curtis suggests that evangelicals were pioneers in their strategy of “picturing pain.” In fact, she contends that the use of photography to describe awful conditions was not yet being used among secular humanitarian organizations. But they soon caught on to this incredibly effective technique. During one 12-month stretch in the 1890s, one entrepreneurial evangelical missions agency raised $100,000, an incredible amount, when they began using photography to depict the appalling conditions during the famine. Secular organizations quickly followed suit. Picturing pain fueled the growth of the humanitarian industry.