Plowshares tonight


“Then I Shall Be a Wicked Child, and the Great God Will Be Very Angry with Me”

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 ***

Picturing Pain

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.

Just Spirituality

The stereotypical religious conservative sees social justice, at best, as a distraction from practices of piety or, at worst, a heretical deviation from the gospel. The stereotypical religious progressive sees social justice as a biblical imperative—but seems to have no time for spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, and fasting. This seems to be changing as many religious conservatives increasingly speak favorably about social justice. My own research on the evangelical left (self-promotion alert: if you haven’t read Moral Minority yet, now is the time—it just came out in a much, much less expensive paperback edition) discussed many other Christians who sought to practice both social justice and a rigorous spirituality.

In her new book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action, Mae Cannon, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church and a Middle East expert for World Vision, offers half a dozen fascinating profiles of such Christians. They include:

  • Mother Teresa, whose practice of silence as a monastic inspired a lifetime of service. God spoke into her silence, which was a means of removing worldly distractions. Cannon writes that in these moments “she experienced God’s love, which compelled her to bring God’s love to the poorest of the poor.”
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose life of prayer led to an emphasis on discipleship and resistance to Nazi anti-Semitism. His daily exercises of prayer, according to Cannon, “built up such ingrained habits of virtue that he had the inner spiritual resources for appropriate action.”
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., whose practices of beloved community and churchly accountability in Montgomery, Alabama, led to proclamations of justice. Surrounded by the historic black church, writes Richard Lischer in The Preacher King, “King gave names to what he saw: sin, racism, genocide, doom, cowardice, expediency, idolatry of nation, militarism, religious hypocrisy.”
  • Fairuz, a devout Maronite Christian from Beirut whose Lebanese folk music has inspired freedom and community throughout the Middle East. Often seen kneeling in prayer at the recording studio, she sings for groups of any religion, ethnicity, and nation. Her song “Ya Zahrat al Madayn” (“Flower of the Cities”) mourns the suffering of the Arab community in Jerusalem in 1948.
  • Desmond Tutu, an Anglican archbishop in South Africa, whose Sabbath-keeping led to reconciliation in the aftermath of apartheid. “All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.”

In these profiles—and in Cannon’s practical advice on spiritual practices such as retreats of silence, centering, the daily examen, journaling, and Sabbath-keeping—we glimpse a powerful synthesis of the material and the mystical. Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu were not progressive technocrats. They embodied pathos, joy, and sensitivity to the supernatural. Their implicit message, to use a Wesleyan formulation, centers on holiness: attention to the inner life (personal holiness) can reorient an outer life (social holiness) toward justice.

Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Pentecostal Edition the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Attorney General of the United States John Ashcroft, a prominent advocate of the war in Iraq, wrote a song called “Let the Eagle Soar” (you can listen to it here).  It is a deeply patriotic song, one he liked to mix with morning prayer meetings at the Department of Justice. Here are some of the words: “Like she’s never soared before, from rocky coast to golden shore, let the mighty eagle soar . . . Oh she’s far too young to die; You can see it in her eye; She’s not yet begun to fly.” Many Americans found the lyrics and tune touching, even if some Justice Department lawyers did not like his brand of religious patriotism in the workplace.

In 2006, the year after Ashcroft stepped down from the George W. Bush Administration, Sarah Palin was elected governor of Alaska. Her words often struck a martial tone. On her reality television show “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” she spoke frequently of “locking and loading.” She has used a crosshairs graphic to target politicians who voted for the Affordable Care Act. And she has been very eager to project and use American power abroad. She called the Iraq War a “task that is from God.” She has been critical of Barack Obama, no peacenik himself. She said, “President Obama actually seems reluctant to even embrace American power.” Elsewhere Palin mourned, “We have a President, perhaps for the very first time since the founding of our republic, who doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.”

What do these high-profile persons have in common besides nationalism and conservative politics? According to authors Jay Beaman and Brian Pipkin, who profiled Ashcroft and Palin in a recent book titled Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace, both are affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. Every time Ashcroft has been sworn in to political office, he is anointed with oil (in the manner of King David). Palin was a longtime member of Wasilla Assembly of God. These two prominent politicians do not exactly represent Pentecostalism or broader evangelicalism, which sometimes features a more measured just-war posture or an interest in peacebuilding. But close observers of Pentecostal churches, which often feature an American flag on stage, would recognize the God-and-country flavor of the contemporary movement.

This twenty-first-century iteration of Pentecostalism, however, would have been utterly foreign to movement progenitors. In the wake of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906 and at the founding of the denomination in 1914, the Assemblies of God were officially pacifist. As late as October 1940, the Assemblies of God still claimed that “military service is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that a Christian cannot fully follow the teachings of his Lord and Master if he engages in armed conflict.” Several scholarly works have already recovered this forgotten history. Robert Mapes Anderson’s Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (1979) and Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (2003) treated this lightly. More recently, Paul Alexander narrated a full-scale account of Pentecostal pacifism in Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (2009).

But Beaman and Pipkin’s book Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (2013) offers something new: hundreds of fascinating primary sources showing the pacifist orientation of the Pentecostal movement. Take, for instance, this 1938 column from the Foursquare Church, founded by the colorful Aimee Semple McPherson: “Should a Christian take up arms in time of war? The question is perhaps, a little late. It already has been answered—IN THE BIBLE. Until the Ten Commandments are repealed the Christian has no alternative but to stay aloof from war and its consequent destruction of human life. Should one be drafted? Well, prayer changes things. And the God who saved Noah from the flood, and preserved Daniel in the lions’ den and his brethren in the fiery furnace, surely can ‘handle’ so inconsequential a thing as a little draft-board. Prayer, wisdom and the proof of patriotic loyalty on our part, couple with a willingness to serve our country in non-combatant service should turn the trick for any obedient child of God.” Beaman notes that the Foursquare Church grappled with the pacifist impulse until WWII, when it capitulated (or came to its senses, depending on your theological persuasion) and embraced the use of lethal force and the preservation of a “Christian America.”

By contrast, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) persisted longer. They were not only against war, but for peace. In an official denomination statement, the denomination called upon their members to attempt “exploits for Peace on Earth as risky as do men of war.” More specifically, they called in the late 1960s for the diversion of war budgets to social programs for the poor.”

Why did Pentecostal churches lose this orientation? You’ll have to read Paul Alexander’s Peace to War for the full story. Interestingly, there seems to be signs of rapprochement with the past as Anabaptists and Pentecostals in recent decades have begun meeting outside their respective enclaves. Brian Pipkin, who grew up attending Assemblies of God and Foursquare churches, learned about pacifism at a Pentecostal seminary in the Philippines, where he read The Upside-Down Kingdom by the Anabaptist scholar Donald Kraybill. Paul Alexander, who was a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God and co-founder of Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice, attended Pasadena Mennonite Church for a time. Martin Mittelstadt, a professor of New Testament at Evangel University, calls himself a “Mennocostal” who rejects nationalism and embraces counter-culturalism and a “Spirit-led, story-based hermeneutic.” To meet many others, check out the PCPJ website.

The Strange Case of Two Stony Brook School Classmates

Several weeks ago I settled down to my usual Sunday afternoon reading of the New York Times. I encountered one of the more fascinating profiles I’ve read in a while. It opened like this: “One morning in late January, Jacques-André Istel woke up at his home in Felicity, Calif., did 100 push-ups and 125 squats, swam in his elegantly lit lap pool, then went back upstairs, where he took a light breakfast in bed, as has been his custom since his boyhood in Paris. After breakfast, he dressed in a blue shirt and ascot and walked to his office at 1 Center of the World Plaza. It was Istel’s birthday; he was turning 85.” Istel had built the so-called “Center of the World” in nearly thirty years ago on 2,600 acres in the middle of the desert near Yuma, Arizona. I want to draw your attention to this piece for several reasons.

First, it’s a flat-out good read about a really eccentric man. Consider these fascinating details:

  • A 21-foot-tall stone-and-glass pyramid marks the center of the world. Nearby is the Museum of History in Granite. The Times says that he researches and writes all the text, sometimes moving through 50 or 60 drafts of a single panel. He began a set of eight monuments — 461 panels total, arranged in a compass rose, with a multilingual Rosetta Stone at its center. On them, he would record the “History of Humanity.” He’s now about a quarter of the way through: the story begins with an etching of the Big Bang and cuts off after a summary of Viking death rituals.
  • He was born in Paris in 1929, the third of four children. His father, André Istel, was a distinguished financier — a partner in a couple of brokerage firms who served as an adviser to Charles de Gaulle and French delegate to the Bretton Woods conference, which established the I.M.F. and the World Bank. But he had to flee Paris during the Nazi advance in 1940.
  • After moving to the United States, he made an impulsive solo flight across North America, from Vancouver to New York, in a single-engine airplane that he had just barely learned to fly. After a handful of perilous and comic mishaps, covered in local papers along the way, which embarrassed his parents, he finally touched down at LaGuardia with a broken radio. (He landed elsewhere first and called the tower from a pay phone to let them know he was coming.)
  • After growing disillusioned as a stock-market analyst in the 1950s, he almost single-handedly popularized parachuting in the United States, founding Parachutes, Inc., which took the activity out of the exclusive domain of the military.
  • Not only is Istel not religious; his mother was Jewish. And yet, he went through significant trouble to build this magnificent little chapel on a hill; in fact, he built the hill, too, hiring heavy machinery to push earth out of the flat desert and into a scrupulously engineered, seismically fit trapezoid 35 feet high. Istel, Gaebelein said, can articulate exactly why he felt obligated to build that hill for the church — “I’m a traditionalist, and I believe in protocol and courtesy; if you build a house for a higher power, for God, it should be the highest thing,” Istel would tell me — but he can’t explain why he built the church in the first place.

The second reason is that a startling name—Donn Gaebelein—appears in the profile. Gaebelein is described as a “strait-laced, retired private-school headmaster.” This was his 15th stay at the “Center of the World. He told the Times that this is how he and Norma dodge winters in New York. But there’s more than the pull of warm weather. Gaebelein also told the Times, “You have to live with this place, you have to sleep on this, to get the feel of its power,” he said.

I had never heard of Donn, but I had heard of the unusual surname of Gaebelein, which should be familiar to older evangelicals. After a little digging, I discovered that Donn had been a headmaster at Westminster School in Atlanta. And that, sure enough, he was the son of Frank Gabelein, the founder of the venerable evangelical institution Stony Brook School on Long Island. Frank was also an editor at Christianity Today and Eternity, on the translation committee for the New International Version Bible. Along with Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham, Gaebelein was one of the key leaders of the neo-evangelical movement of the 1950s. On the issue of race, Gaebelein came out looking much better than most of those leaders. In 1965 he went down to Alabama to cover the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery for Christianity Today. He was so compelled by the righteousness of the cause that he joined the march instead!

The Times doesn’t offer much on the relationship between Gaebelein and Istel. We are told that after arriving in New York uprooted from his life in France, Istel enrolled at the Stony Brook School, where “he was thrown into the eighth grade. One teacher gave him comic books instead of textbooks. Every night, he lay in bed weeping.” This must have been where the conservative evangelical Gaebelein befriended the heterodox Istel.

Does anyone know the rest of the story of Istel’s continuing relationship with Gaebelein and Stony Brook?

Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Holiness Edition

Jay Beaman, a sociologist at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon, likes to do historical experiments. After extensive research he sends emails to members of, telling them that he has found a relative of theirs who claimed religious objection on their World War I draft card. These relatives were members of holiness and Pentecostal denominations. Their descendants typically have no idea of the pacifist commitments of their grandparents and usually write back to Beaman saying that he surely must be mistaken. Even after seeing proof, they’re sometimes still not convinced. The historical memory of pacifism has been obliterated in holiness and Pentecostal circles.

It turns out that principled pacifism is not the sole province of Mennonites. Beaman and Brian Pipkin have uncovered a wealth of documents that testify to the peace commitments of other American religious groups. They have compiled them in a sourcebook entitled Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (2013). Consider this 1844 source from the Wesleyan Methodist Church: “[The gospel] is in every way opposed to the practice of War in all its forms; and those customs which tend to foster and perpetuate the war spirit [are] inconsistent with the benevolent designs of the Christian Religion.” The St. Lawrence Annual Conference of the Wesleyan Methodists even considered a resolution to “alter the denominational Discipline so that refusal to engage in war and military training would be come a condition of membership.” There are hundreds more such statements ranging from the Brethren in Christ, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, Church of God (Fort Scott, Kansas), Church of the Living God, Church of God (Anderson), Church of the Nazarene, Congregational: Broadway Tabernacle, Emmanuel Association, Free Methodist Church, and the Salvation Army.

The statements are diverse, representing numbers of John Howard Yoder’s twenty-nine distinct types of pacifism as described in Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism. Some documents denounced any law that supported warfare, such as paying war taxes or working for war-related industries. Others drew the line at actual killing. Still others contended for “personal nonresistance,” citing Romans 13 and saying that the state had the authority to prosecute war, but that they couldn’t personally participate. Binding each of the statements together was biblicism, defined by Christian Smith as a “theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” In a very helpful introduction to the volume, Beaman describes the biblicist case for pacifism in great depth. In short, these holiness writers made a very serious attempt to “harmonize inconsistent passages across the Bible.”

The harmony sounded very different as the twentieth century progressed (or regressed, depending on your perspective). In a 1915 statement called “Peace,” the Wesleyan Methodists backed away from their earlier full-throated denunciation of violence. It read, “Human War is undoubtedly the product of human sin, but it does not necessarily follow that all who engage in war are sinners.”

Why the shift? Beaman contends that social pressure was probably most important. Most of the new statements, including the Wesleyan one from 1915, came in the midst of war, precisely when holiness pacifists felt most beleaguered by criticisms of bad citizenship. They were a minority group—7/10 of one percent of the draft pool for WWI registered a religious objection compared to two-thirds of the pool who declined to fight to instead support their family. Remarkably, almost 90% of the 4.9 million married men in the first draft received deferments.

Other explanations include a decrease in separatism and a rise in social mobility. Beaman draws on the Weberian argument that self-denying, ascetic groups experience upward social mobility, which eventually results in a more worldly and sophisticated orientation. This appears to be how worldly wise contemporary holiness and Pentecostal adherents typically dismiss the pacifism of their hayseed ancestors. Consider this quote from a third-generation Pentecostal: “Early day Pentecostals had all kinds of rules of what you couldn’t do. You couldn’t drink a coke or wear a tie or you would get kicked out of the church. Conscientious objection was one of those rules which over time Pentecostals gave up following, just like not drinking coke or wearing a tie.”

Early holiness pacifists would have objected to this narrative that equated pacifism to a soft drink. They would have invoked a sacred text. In 1898 on the eve of the Spanish-American War, Francis Brown wrote to the denominational magazine of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). He asked “Please answer through the Gospel Trumpet: Providing there should be War in the United States, would it be right for a holy man of God to go as a soldier?” The editors responded, “We answer no. Emphatically no. There is no place in the New Testament wherein Christ gave instruction to his followers to take the life of a fellowman.”


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