Serendipity in the Stacks: A Case against Bookless Libraries

Several months ago Florida Polytechnic University opened a brand-new library. Its architecture, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is striking. Even more striking is what this library lacks: books. I’ll repeat that: you can’t check out any physical books at FPU’s library.

Courtesy of Creative Commons

You can, however, read from a screen. Staffers say that electronic workstations give students access to over 135,000 e-books. Director of Libraries Kathryn Miller says, “It’s the information that’s key, not its form.”

I confess to considerable ambivalence over the prospect of bookless libraries. On one hand, I kind of get it. Why buy expensive books and shelves when e-books can be accessed for far less money? The library holdings at my small liberal arts college are limited compared to those of the research university library where I went to graduate school, so I’m dependent on interlibrary loans and electronic resources such as Jstor and Ebsco. In fact, my research has benefited tremendously from searchable databases and electronic journals. I’ve been able to track down sources in ways that would have been impossible decades ago.

On the other hand, I’m not ready to toss out the books. I get a lot of pleasure from sitting down in my office’s green leather recliner with a mug of steaming Earl Grey as I turn the pages of a book that I can actually touch. Is this a silly nostalgia for a preindustrial utopia that never was? I don’t think so. Along with Neil Postman, I’m not convinced that form doesn’t matter. This seems especially true when working in the archives. There’s something almost mystical about touching and reading the very documents that my historical subjects had touched. I like to think that it makes me a more empathetic historian.

I also object to bookless libraries because of the way we learn. Many times I’ve searched my library’s online catalog for a book only to realize later that the search was laughably insufficient. I might identify an important book, but when I head to the bricks-and-mortar library to fetch it, I almost always realize that the catalog didn’t find everything. In fact, some of my best sources have not come from targeted searches. I almost always come out of the stacks with half a dozen books from surrounding shelves. Catalog searches have real limits. We’re limited, obviously, by the terms of the search—and the teleology embedded in our searches. Browsing the stacks allows us to happen upon sources we never considered.

Sometimes the best learning comes through indirection as we travel circuitous routes toward an unknown destination. Sometimes we stumble on answers or insights on the path to somewhere else. Sometimes we pose the wrong question—or we construct an answer before we even ask a question. Sometimes we happen upon our best archival sources after being given the wrong box. Sometimes our most profound insights result from winding journeys in the laboratory, in the field, or in the text. The process can seem inefficient, but the search itself is important. It takes us beyond knowledge to wisdom.

Sure, I’m grateful for the precision of digital searches. But they don’t give us context, leave much room for instinct, or teach us to empathize with historical subjects. I’m not ready to leave behind the serendipity that can be found in the library stacks.

–Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench-

Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Charles Spurgeon Edition

SpurgeonCharles Spurgeon, a Reformed Baptist known as the “prince of preachers” in the nineteenth century, remains revered. Known especially for his devotional writings, he currently ranks in the top 100 bestsellers of Christian literature on Amazon. Tom Nettles, a professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that contemporary fascination with Spurgeon is due to “his commitment to gospel-centered preaching, belief in the inspiration of Scripture, and the sheer success of his ministry.” In every sermon, no matter what the text, he incorporated a simple explanation of the way of salvation. For all these reasons, Spurgeon is an icon within neo-Reformed circles.

But would a reincarnated Spurgeon actually be welcomed at Mars Hill Church or Bethlehem Baptist Church? As Jonathan Merritt notes, the “prince of preachers” criticized capitalism. He favored government welfare policies to alleviate poverty. And he denounced Christian participation in war. In contrast to the full-throated defense of just war emanating from many neo-Reformed pulpits, Spurgeon consistently spoke out against redemptive violence. Here are just a few examples within his pacifist oeuvre:

  • “What pride flushes the patriot’s cheek when he remembers that his nation can murder faster than any other people. Ah, foolish generation, ye are groping in the flames of hell to find your heaven, raking amid blood and bones for the foul thing which ye call glory. Killing is not the path to prosperity; huge armaments are a curse to the nation itself as well as to its neighbours.”
  • “I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that, if a nation is driven to fight in its own defence, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible, and not to join in the cruel shouts which celebrate an enemy’s slaughter.”
  • “The Church of Christ is continually represented under the figure of an army; yet its Captain is the Prince of Peace; its object is the establishment of peace, and its soldiers are men of a peaceful disposition. The spirit of war is at the extremely opposite point to the spirit of the gospel.”
  • And if you have a spare 48 minutes, listen to this rendition of Spurgeon’s 1859 sermon entitled “War! War! War!” If you just want to skim it, click here for the full text. And for more Spurgeon quotes, visit

Spurgeon preaching, circa 1858

Nettles’ new biography of Spurgeon (which I’m very much looking forward to reading) features blurbs from John Piper, David Dockery, and others from top neo-Reformed seminaries. Al Mohler calls him “a mountain—a massive figure on the evangelical landscape.” But none of the endorsements mentions Spurgeon’s view of war (though Nettles does in interviews). And the few evangelicals who do in other contexts, like those who post on the online discussion forum Baptist Board, are not impressed. “I have a real problem with anyone, Spurgeon, or anyone else who never served in the armed forces, or was in combat, commenting about the merits or lack thereof of war,” writes one. And another: “War is necessary because there is evil in the world. Jesus came the first time in peace. The next time, He will be riding a white horse leading an army of His saints.”

Like so many historical figures, Spurgeon violates our categories and sensibilities. Don’t conservative politics, a high view of scripture, and redemptive violence inherently belong together? Charles Spurgeon would beg to differ. He argued that the very elements that make him so attractive to evangelicals—his commitment to evangelism, gospel-centered preaching, and Scripture—form the very foundation of his Christian pacifism.

*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench ***

Notes to Freshmen on Mystery and the Liberal Arts

At Asbury University, where I teach, the fall semester is already ramping up. After welcoming nearly 400 new students to campus last Tuesday for orientation, we didn’t waste any time starting up academic conversations. All incoming students are reading G.K. Chesterton’s mystery thriller The Man Who Was Thursday for their liberal arts seminar, which met each day of orientation in both small group and plenary sessions. What follows are notes of my concluding plenary address.


A few years ago as an incoming student at a college very much like this one, I sat in an auditorium during orientation like you are right now and contemplated my future. On one level, I was engrossed with the immediate future, the future driven by my stomach, hormones, and nerves. But I also thought long-term. As I recall, my goals clustered around two concerns. One had to do with practicality. I wanted training for a career, one that would pay off my student loans and one that would provide for a comfortable living. The other had to do with answers. I wanted to be able to defend my beliefs and pin down my opponents. I wanted to know the correct interpretation of classical and biblical texts, the right answer to the calculus problem, the precise treatment we should offer to someone suffering from an ailment.

asburyTo be sure, there is great virtue in precise medical treatments and in financial solvency. But I wish I had wished for more. And my wish for you, during your college orientation, is that you can expand the notion of education beyond the calibrated metrics and language of input, output, and quality control that characterized my own conception. For the next few minutes, I want to speak to you about the role of mystery as you pursue a life of inquiry here.

There is considerable pressure on you to follow a safe narrative, to view college and your major only as job preparation. You may feel this pressure from yourself, your parents, from society to live predictable lives in which you follow a script of moving along from kindergarten to high school to college syllabi to a job to a retirement of shuffleboard and early-bird specials in Florida.

But it’s possible to be too practical, to train for a job that might not exist in a decade. One of the strongest defenses of the liberal arts is that it teaches you to think, write, and have imagination. This prepares you for many kinds of jobs. But beyond this practical critique of practicality, I imagine that we should be open to the possibility of sources of inspiration beyond spreadsheets, sources like tradition, morality, passion, and mystery.

ChestertonYou’re going to be reading a detective story this semester that delights in mystery. The Man Who Was Thursday is terrifying, deeply bewildering, and always mysterious. This is a theme Chesterton wrote much about. In his Introduction to the Book of Job, Chesterton writes, “God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them.” Instead of giving a satisfying, philosophically nuanced answer of the sort Job is expecting, God recites poems about wild animals. This is the kind of whiplash you are going to experience when you read the many surreal scenes in this novel. Things are never as they seem. Scenes depict the mystery of life and the paradoxes of ourselves. If some are wolves in sheep’s clothing, some are sheep in wolves clothing. Anarchists are virtuous. The police are corrupt. There is a hierarchical governing body of those dedicated to blowing up a hierarchical governing body. In the end, Chesterton suggests, we must realize that we are simultaneously good and bad. We are at war with ourselves. And then there are the disguises. The Man Who Was Thursday is full of mystery.

How does this take shape in our scholarly conversation here? It means not limiting your education to the classrooms, for one thing. It means following your passions beyond graded assignments. It means not pestering faculty for higher grades and instead learning for the sake of learning, not grades. It means realizing that fiction can be truer than nonfiction. It means working with your classmates, not against them. It means letting the mystery of God command us more than commanding God into our tidy theological constructs. It means recognizing that community does not follow an easy formula. It means reveling in classrooms that hum with energy and intellectual curiosity. And realizing that what makes community in the first place is often serendipitous and unimaginably complex.

No talk at an Asbury orientation is complete without some C. S. Lewis. Here is my obligatory quote: “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded against a weak excess of sensibility, there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”

Many of us could probably use a dose of discipline. But I would wager that even more of us suffer from the problem of vulgarity. We value grades over learning. We plod along the arid deserts of a coldly efficient modernity. We need doses of water and blood to grow wild jungles of mystery and creativity and passion. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t wish for you four years of straight A’s (although I may wish for a job after saying that). I don’t wish for you lives of wealth and comfort. I don’t want you to extract an optimal cost-benefit ratio from your experience. Instead, I urge you to immerse yourself in this complex, mysterious community. If that’s your goal, you’ve come to the right place. Asbury is a great place to irrigate deserts.

*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench blog ***

Scripture as Usable History, Part II

In my last post I described the pushback from some American evangelicals against God-and-country Bibles like the Patriot’s Bible or the Bicentennial Bible. Another woefully understudied, but potentially significant, source of dissent is global evangelicalism. To my knowledge Mark Noll is one of the few to analyze foreign perspectives on America’s treatment of Scripture. In one of the most striking chapters of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, entitled “Opinions of Protestants Abroad,” Noll surveys how nineteenth-century European Christians regarded the American debate over slavery. None linked the defense of American slavery with the defense of scriptural authority. Many Europeans, according to Tracy McKenzie’s overview, observed what was “invisible to American believers, in particular the degree to which material interests, republican assumptions, and racial attitudes were shaping the Christians, North and South.” Many were withering in their assessments of American methodologies in debates over the Civil War. Noll agrees, noting the utter lack of “theological profundity.” American Christians were hyper-individualistic, lacked any central authority, and paid insufficient attention to tradition.

Theological CrisisIs there a twenty-first-century equivalent of this critique? Views from abroad are surely diverse themselves, but it is difficult to imagine a strong global constituency for The Patriot’s Bible. This is perhaps Perry’s perceptive point when he writes, “It may be that evangelicals’ goal of Americanizing the Bible is at cross-purposes with their goal of biblicizing America, because they make the Bible dependent on a particular reading of American history.” Of the individuals quoted in The Patriot’s Bible, the overwhelming majority are white, male, dead, and American. The appeal of this message and approach surely has real limits in the context of a rising Global South, a maturing theological educational system abroad, and burgeoning immigration to the U.S. from the Majority World.

Barton surely derives identity, strength, and internal cohesion from his sense of embattlement. But the weight of demography leans heavily against the kind of right-wing Christian nationalism represented by these patriotic bibles. It could be that The Patriot’s Bible—with its misplaced nostalgia and abuse of history—is a last gasp from marginal fundamentalists slipping into obscurity. After all, conservatives are losing the battle over same-sex marriage. Some are abandoning the faith entirely. Others, supplementing common-sense readings of Scripture with history and tradition, are “crossing the Tiber” (see Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible) or taking the Canterbury Trail (see Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail).

In the end, the rowdy assemblage of immigrant, Anabaptist, and Christian nationalist perspectives may simply be the logical end of an individualistic Protestantism. American evangelicals, as Tocqueville noted, were the authors of a democratic, non-hierarchical style that was simultaneously volatile and virile. Very few purveyors of usable history in this debate over Scripture and the nation have practiced the humility of Lincoln, who turned out to be one of the very few profound theological voices during the Civil War. Acknowledging that “the Almighty has his own purposes” is not the kind of sensibility that would depict Jesus cuffed with an American flag (as some New Left evangelicals have done)—or interpolate quotes from Dick Cheney into the biblical text (as some New Right evangelicals have done).

*** For a broader discussion on the topic of “The Bible in America, America in the Bible,” see the July-August 2014 edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum hosted by the University of Chicago Divinity School. ***

Rapture Night

Opening act by William Tapley, followed by the feature presentation “A Thief in the Night” and perhaps a round or two of “Left Behind: The Board Game.” There will be an alternative movie upstairs for kids. Feel free to bring snacks to share, or just come and enjoy. We’ll have plenty of popcorn, hot drinks, and freeze-dried Y2K rations. Saturday, February 21, at 7 p.m. at the Swartz residence (510 Talbott Dr., Wilmore, KY)

Rapture night

Scripture as Usable History

Given the intensity of these Christian nationalist voices, it can be easy to equate them with broader American evangelicalism. But in fact, as Perry shows, there is a real range of evangelical opinion and special-interest Bibles, some that far precede contemporary right-wing versions. The Patriot’s Bible, rooted in an eschatological perspective known as premillennialism, represents a very particular reading of Scripture and American history that emphasizes declension from earlier ideals. But the Woman’s Bible (1895-98) of a century earlier was certainly not a conservative text. Supporting suffrage, it represented a postmillennial view that history is ever progressing toward equality.

I want to extend Perry’s observation by discussing some contemporary evangelical interpretations of the Bible and America that look very different from the kind of Christian nationalism represented by the Patriot’s Bible. Perhaps most vehement in recent years have been neo-Anabaptists, who enjoy growing influence among evangelicals. Each July 4 a battalion of prominent bloggers that include Kurt Willems, Benjamin Corey, Greg Boyd, and writers affiliated with the MennoNerds network issue posts such as “A Liturgy of Confession and Allegiance for July 4th” that push back against American jingoism.

This evangelical Anabaptist phenomenon began back in the 1970s. The numbers were far lower then, but the intensity was not. The Post-American tabloid (now known as Sojourners) featured a signature blend of evangelical piety, leftist politics, and anti-nationalism. The first issue, which came out in the fall of 1971, featured a cover of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and cuffed with an American flag that covered his bruised body. America, the depiction implied, had re-crucified Christ. Inside, “A Joint Treaty of Peace between the People of the United States, South Vietnam and North Vietnam” declared that the American and Vietnamese people were not enemies and called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. The “American captivity of the church,” founder Jim Wallis continued, “has resulted in the disastrous equation of the American way of life with the Christian way of life.”

Piling on have been evangelical historians represented at hundreds of state universities and Christian liberal arts colleges. In the 1970s and 1980s they were led by a scholarly triumvirate made up of Robert Linder (Kansas State), Richard Pierard (Indiana State), and Robert Clouse (Indiana State). In the 1980s Mark Noll and George Marsden conducted a sometimes-combative dispute with Francis Schaeffer over the notion of Christian America. And more recently, Warren Throckmorton of Grove City College and John Fea of Messiah College have taken on David Barton and enlisted dozens of colleagues in opposition to his flood of books, speeches, and videos. Largely due to their activism, publisher Thomas Nelson in 2012 pulled Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies.

To be sure, there are millions of fundamentalists and evangelicals on the ground who still espouse a patriotic narrative, but a formidable evangelical brain trust stands united in support of the kind of nuance and context practiced by the broader historical guild.

*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench ***

Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya

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.

*** Cross-posted at Patheos ***