Archive for the ‘Shaun Horton’ Category

Using Social Networks to Coordinate Conference Plans

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

by Shaun Horton

With the deadline for ASCH Winter Meeting submissions only one month away (and only two days left for joint proposals with the AHA), it is never too early to coordinate panel proposals and travel plans. It’s no secret that the ASCH strongly prefers session proposals to paper proposals.

This is where social media comes in handy. Aside from posting on H-Net, you can use Twitter feeds and hashtags like ASCH2015 or AHA2015 to make public calls for potential fellow panelists. But if you want a way to reach fellow Society members more directly (besides good old fashioned email), there is another option: closed (or private) network groups.

Not many members know this yet, but the ASCH maintains Facebook and LinkedIn groups just for members and conference-goers. These are places where members can coordinate and share information about panels, proposals, or travel plans. Anything posted here is visible to other members, but invisible to everyone else. Check them out, and feel free to submit a request to join.

Our LinkedIn subgroup: ASCH Members
Not to be confused with our public ASCH group, this group is open to Society members only, and you need a LinkedIn account to join. You do not have to be up to date on your dues to join this group. (Though really, you should be up to date on your dues.)

Our Facebook group: ASCH Panelists
This one is a little more relaxed in that you don’t have to be a Society member to join (but you still need a Facebook account). The group is intended for members, panelists, and potential panelists who plan to attend upcoming ASCH conferences – including those who are submitting proposals, but may not have purchased a membership yet. You can also invite fellow historians and scholars to join, without them having to seek out the group themselves or submit individual requests to a moderator.

Both groups are quite inactive at the moment because only a few people know about them. But it only takes a minute to sign up, and the more people join, the more useful they will be.

Are there other networks, tools, or methods you use to coordinate with other conference attendees? Let us know in the comments.

Inside the North Carolina Creation Museum Taxidermy Hall of Fame and Antique Tool Collection

Friday, June 14th, 2013

by Shaun Horton

In the basement of a Christian book store in Southern Pines, North Carolina, three popular images of Jesus are mounted on a wall in a single frame. A description hanging to the left of the display explains that these are not in fact pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ, but of Lucifer. Christ, it explains, could not have had long hair, an effeminate appearance, or Caucasian features. Citing 2 Corinthians 5:16, it says

The Bible states clearly that His physical appearance (“Christ after the flesh”) would cease to be known. It is not an accident that the most famous person in human history has no reliable image recorded in history. Such an image would become the object of worship.

Immediately above of this warning against idolatry, four photos of John Wayne are displayed without comment.



This pastiche is typical of the Creation Museum Taxidermy Hall of Fame of North Carolina and Antique Tool Collection, which I came across by accident as I left an ice cream shop in downtown Southern Pines. Every year since I was little, I have visited relatives in Southern Pines, but I had never been downtown before, and neither I nor anyone in my family had heard of this museum. lists a dozen creation centers and creation-themed museums in the United States. This is not one of them. The North Carolina Creation Museum is not well publicized, and I would never have known it existed were it not for the bear statue standing in front of The Christian Bookstore on Broad Street, with a sign around its neck proclaiming that a “Creation Museum” was inside.

There are no dinosaurs in this museum. There are few references to flood geology, and little effort is made to present arguments in favor of a creationist natural history. Most of the space is occupied by tools. There are dozens of saws, over a hundred hammers, and a large display of antique levels. The tool displays are interspersed among numerous stuffed and mounted minks, snakes, deer, birds, and wildcats. These line the walls of a narrow, almost claustrophobic hallway that winds its way up three floors before coming out at the back of the bookstore. No dinosaurs.

The famous, well-funded creation museums have dinosaurs. In a recent article in The Drama Review, Jill Stephenson notes the prominence of dinosaurs in the Answers in Genesis (AiG) Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Though they play a small part in creationist narratives of natural history, dinosaurs “supply museumgoers with a familiar, memorable, and marketable through-line during their museum experience. (They also serve as the spectacle necessary to get and keep children interested in a museum.)”


Wikimedia Commons

RAWR! Science!


Dinosaurs serve a political purpose as well, says Stephenson. Once a source of frustration for early young earth creationists, they have been recast as fodder for the argument that evolutionary theory suffers from unsustainable gaps and uncertainties. Flood geology and its related theories, creationists argue, provide a more satisfying explanation for the existence of fossils. Dinosaurs are exciting, fun, marketable, and co-optable as evidence for the creation narrative. Their prominence in creation museums like the Pensacola Dinosaur Adventure Land (pictured above), or the 70,000-square-foot AiG Creation Museum, reflects creationists’ commitment to attracting and influencing the public on a large scale.

The small, dimly lit North Carolina Creation Museum reflects different origins and priorities. The museum was founded by Kent Kelly (c.1943-2008), pastor and founder of Calvary Memorial Church, Calvary Christian School, and The Christian Bookstore, in which the museum is housed. He once described himself as

a born again two and a half point Calvinist brought up in the Presbyterian Church, baptized by immersion, and a premillennial pretribulation rapturist with Plymouth Brethren theology and Missionary Baptist leanings and an independent Separatist at heart. [PDF, pg 2-3]

In simpler terms, he said, he was a fundamentalist and a proud one. Calvary’s information page on emphasizes the King James Bible’s unique status as the perfect Word of God, the evils of modern public education, and the autonomy of the local church. Among the 820 sermons posted under Kelly’s name are defenses of the King James Bible, admonitions against mainstream pop culture, and Biblical advice regarding mental and emotional health.

According to Laura Ingram, a personal assistant to Kelly, the Creation Museum was built during the 1990s, after Kelly suffered a stroke. It was, in part, a therapeutic project. Kelly collected antique tools, and the museum began as a place to display them. “Jesus was a carpenter,” Ingram told a local columnist. “So Kent decided to put his tool collection together as a tribute to Him. And the collection grew to include animals that show the wonder of Creation.”



The result is not the arsenal of talking points provided by other creation museums, but a tribute to Kelly’s fundamentalist values. In particular, the museum celebrates the order and beauty that creationists appreciate in well-executed craftsmanship – human or divine.


Left: A mounted peacock. Bottom right: an adjustable wrench.


I did not know any of this when I walked into the museum. I did not even know the museum’s full name. As a result, I had trouble figuring out the logic behind its presentation. As I descended the stairs from the bright, open space of the bookstore into the dark, narrow spaces of the museum, the first thing I noticed was the 14′ suit of armor posted at the entrance, bearing a wooden sign which read “’Put on the whole armour of God’ – Eph. 6:11.” Just inside the entrance was a case containing “all the credible evidence of evolution.”



This case also contains the only empty space that exists in this museum.


This first impression led me to expect a militant anti-evolutionist tone from the rest of the exhibits, but that tone quickly dissipated. It was overshadowed by the contributions of tool collectors and taxidermists, with occasional hints at the political preferences of Calvary Christians.


Creatures of the American Southwest: the jackrabbit, the armadillo, tarantula, and the gipper.


The anti-evolutionist tone resurfaced occasionally within a more persistent motif: quirky southern humor. One display contained a hornets’ nest with a pair of googly eyes peeping out through the entrance. It was labeled “The world’s largest hornet.” Another display was dominated by a stuffed mountain lion reclining on a tree branch – with a fake human arm poking out from beneath its haunches. Among shelves of hatchets and saws I saw a sign that read, “My wife says I never listen to her. At least I think that’s what she said.” As I passed a display warning that hell awaits all who fail to accept Christ, my eyes were drawn to the oversized “Texas fly swatter” hanging nearby.


In Texas, even the flies are big! Also your immortal soul may be in peril.


This humor extends to the museum’s treatment of evolution, which takes for granted that evolution is ridiculous. This treatment differs from that of better-known creation museums. Though the AiG Creation Museum primarily targets conservative evangelicals, AiG does so with the understanding that its visitors will engage with non-creationists, and will therefore need to be equipped with arguments that refute evolutionary models of natural history.

Several of Pastor Kelly’s sermons emphasized disengagement from the World. Calvary’s museum treats evolution as yet one more absurdity of modern humanism. This museum does not argue with evolution so much as laugh at it. A poster parodies the classic “Descent of Man” illustration, substituting famous hoaxes and errors, like the Piltdown Man, for the hominids in the original picture. (The final stage is “Modern Man: This genius thinks we came from a monkey.”) Another display labels a giant Converse sneaker “The Missing Link,” asking, “would you believe that this ancient fossil came from an archaeological dig near Chapel Hill, North Carolina? […] The process of evolution has produced modern variations such as ‘Nike Air’ and ‘Reeboks.’”



The accompanying text then reminds the viewer that “many people are gullible enough to believe anything they read on little signs in an evolution-based museum. All ‘in the name of science,’ of course!”

This dismissal of evolution may help explain why the museum loses this focus as the visitor progresses. Its refusal to take evolution seriously leaves it with no opposing thesis to contest. The museum’s emphasis on the created natural world is prominent during the first two thirds of its displays, but the tools and the animals gradually give way to items whose relevance may not be obvious: a duck carved from a pine cone, news clippings from the Apollo 11 landing, a copy of Jesse Helms’ When Free Men Shall Stand (1976), a tire that once belonged to a Christian drag racer, a school bus sign that once belonged to the father of a prominent tool collector.


There is practically no empty space in this museum anywhere.


In the final room, the tools are relegated to the corners, while most of the space is taken up by sports memorabilia.



As an outsider to the Calvary community, and to the museum’s apparent target audience, I could only guess at the rationale behind the inclusion of some items. Perhaps Jesse Helms’ book and the bus sign are here simply because they are parts of North Carolina history. Perhaps the Apollo 11 clippings are meant to invoke the beauty of the cosmos, and to celebrate the ingenuity that made it possible to plant an American flag on the moon. Maybe someone saw the pine cone duck and said, “that’s a nice duck. It would look great in the museum.”

This eclecticism is one of the reasons I found the photos of John Wayne, positioned next to the pictures of Lucifer, so ambiguous. Were they another warning, representing a Hollywood idol who, like Lucifer, has become worshipped after the flesh? Were they meant to celebrate an icon of American culture? Were they a contrast to the long-haired, effeminate Lucifer? Did they recall an ideal of American masculinity from a bygone era, when men were real men (even the ones named Marion)?

Compounding the ambiguity was the photos’ proximity to one of the museum’s only displays that dealt with cultural diversity. The photos hung in the corner of a dead end that is dominated by a large display labeled “STRANGE STUFF.”



The display contains a cluttered assortment of exotic items. Mixed among them are (arguably) pagan elements of American pop culture. An “elephant god paper maché mask,” representing Ganesh, hangs next to Budweiser beer can and an old television set (“one of the devil’s favorite tools,” reads a sign next to the television).



A porcelain Buddha statue sits on a shelf between a postcard from Hawaii and a stack of country music CDs. Strewn about at floor level are Harry Potter tapes, prescription drug bottles, a book about Santa Claus, a pair of Baoding balls, a psychology textbook, more items than I could note. They are all crowded together, floor to ceiling, in a chaotic assortment with little in common other than their apparent opposition to Christian integrity.



The only other display I saw that dealt with cultural diversity was a collection of foreign language bibles, neatly labeled and spaced evenly in a small, well-lit glass case. I was struck by the contrast between the orderly uniformity of the multilingual Bible display, and the menacing presentation of pagan exotica down the hall.



I did not think to get a shot of the entire Bible collection because I was not planning on writing about the museum. (This was supposed to be a quick stop by the ice cream store, not a one hour detour into a museum that no one knew about.) I took the above picture because the “stop abortion” sign seemed out of place at the time. What did a collection of foreign language Bibles have to do with Roe v. Wade? I soon discovered that pro-life signs and bumper stickers were interspersed throughout the museum, mostly around the edges of other displays.



If museums are performative sites, places of engagement between the visitor and the narratives implicit in the exhibits’ presentation, then my experience suffered from something of a language barrier. As a visitor who was not a creationist, I was not only excluded by the museum’s presentation of legitimate natural history, I was confused by the presentation itself. What were the photos of John Wayne meant to tell me? What was so sinister about Hawaii? What was I meant to learn from three shelves of Brookfield insulators?



This was perhaps the sharpest contrast between the better-funded, market tested museums that we typically think of, and the Creation Museum Taxidermy Hall of Fame of North Carolina. The AiG Creation Museum’s slogan is “Prepare to Believe,” and Jill Stevenson’s article in The Drama Review (cited above) describes how the museum is designed to do just that. Its architectural resemblance to a megachurch building, the museum motif, and the positioning of dinosaurs alongside people in the lobby displays, all work to establish visitors’ expectations and to prepare them for the exhibits within.

Calvary’s museum seems more an exercise in visual piety. It is not so much a presentation of arguments as a series of evocative images. Variously attractive, strange, funny, or ugly, these images make salient the orderliness of God’s creation, the beauty of good craftsmanship, and the persistence of malevolent forces who seek to undermine it all.

I was traveling with family, and after nearly an hour in the small museum, their patience was running out. I dropped some money in the donation box, and exited to the left of the cardboard Michael Jordan. I would have liked to talk to the proprietors of the bookstore, but I did not have time. The next time I am in Southern Pines, I think I will visit again.

ASCH Winter Meeting Recap

Monday, January 14th, 2013

by Shaun Horton

This year’s winter meeting of the American Society of Church History saw a lot of reflection on the Society’s beginnings, the changes it has undergone, and the direction it will take in the future. Laurie Maffly-Kipps’ address to the Society (which will appear in the forthcoming June issue of Church History) reflected on the historiographical shifts away from institutions that used to be so central to the study of “church history.” At our council and business meetings, members deliberated on how best to adapt to the “American Society’s” increasingly global reach. And as always, the panel presentations continued to the categories that church historians have used to make sense of things. Cara Burnidge has a succinct summary of Dr. Maffly-Kipp’s presidential address on the Religion in American West blog. You can also read Emily Clark’s thoughts on the ASCH Meeting over at Religion in American History Meanwhile, here is a brief recap of the first two days at ASCH.

I arrived Thursday afternoon in time for the conference’s first panel session, Restructuring Religion: American Approaches to Modernism, with John Corrigan, Elizabeth Clark, Amanda Porterfield, and Katie Lofton. This panel interrogated modernism as an analytical category by providing historical examples that offered new perspectives on modernism. John Corrigan presented several examples of how the self-understandings of modern religious communities can be explored in terms of space and place. The configuration of space, in the landscape, in architecture, and in communities’ relationships to each other, plays an important role in shaping group identity. One of the ways this confluence between space and identity has played out has been in the aversion to “negative,” or empty space. The process of building a collective identity that incorporated negative definitions of American Catholicism, for example, led to concerns that Catholics’ identity might become “hollow.”


The “horror vacui” (fear of emptiness) aesthetic at work in the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory. The artistic design fills all available space.


Elizabeth Clark discussed the contributions of George La Piana (1979-1971), the first Catholic to teach at Harvard Divinity School, to modernist thought. She highlighted La Piana’s emphasis on the Church as a social institution, influenced by cultural and economic forces, in contrast to the traditional Catholic portrayal of the Church as unchanging, and in contrast to Protestant historians’ emphasis on individual experience. Amanda Porterfield presented her interpretation of William James as a modern artist (rather than a modern scientist), whose Varieties of Religious Experience could be read as a “modernist collage” rather than a scientific study. By grouping disparate religious practices into categories of religious experience, James created a work that was driven more by aesthetic concerns than by scientific inquiry.

That afternoon, I caught Imagining God’s Kingdom: Supernatural Landscapes in Nineteenth-Century America, which was moderated by Leigh Schmidt. Caleb Maskell’s paper on Sylvester Graham argued for closer attention to Graham’s millennial eschatology. Graham’s dietary program, he argued, was part of a larger vision of the coming Kingdom of God as a kingdom of scientific knowledge about nature, including knowledge of the human body. Dana Logan discussed the construction of urban landscapes in antebellum spectator literature. Popular descriptions of the streets of antebellum New York condensed religious variety into a “panorama” that ameliorated Protestant anxieties over excessive religious variety by allowing them to experience it safely through literature. Sonia Hazard followed Logan’s paper by focusing on aesthetic changes in images of religious landscapes in nineteenth century textbooks. Hazard demonstrated how changes in printing technology led to changes in the aesthetics of these images, which in turn affected how views of nature were mediated. “Nature,” she said, “was in the machine.”


Tracts produced with wood engravings, for example, resulted in small images that were fully integrated with the text. Later developments in orthography produced larger, more autonomous images.


Brett Grainger’s paper examined nature mysticism among early American methodist preachers. More than simply a backdrop for religious experience, nature was itself an object of contemplation that resonated with the spiritual journeys of methodist writers. Leigh Schmidt’s response to the panel pressed each of the authors on the particular conclusions they drew, but also challenged them to think about the connections between each other’s papers on the role of landscapes in religious practice.

That evening, I sat in on the Society Council meeting. Much of the discussion was dedicated to the Society’s growth on the global stage, and how best to direct its resources in light of this growth. The treasurer’s report highlighted a substantial budget surplus, and recommended new putting procedures in place to make sure it is spent wisely. The editors of Church History reported that the journal has been doing well financially, and that its readership has expanded, particularly in Africa and Asia. All this led to some discussion on the issue of branding the American Society of Church History. Much of that discussion has been (and still is) ongoing, but the council did decide to begin a relationship with the Ecclesiastical History Society in the UK, which may include sharing information and calls for papers between the societies. The possibility of joint conferences in the future also came up.

Finally, we heard about the Society’s endowment campaign, which kicked off that weekend, to raise funds to support graduate students’ research endeavors. Charles Lippy has been soliciting donations, and hopes to raise $50,000. (If you want to contribute, you can do so from the Membership section of the Society web site. The official reports for the meeting should be online eventually as well.

The Friday morning panel I attended was called Anti-Jesuit Rhetoric in the Early Modern Francophone World, and was chaired by Daniella Kostroun. The panelists discussed the relationship between anti-Jesuit rhetoric and the expulsion of the Jesuits from France in 1764. John McCormack described portrayals of the French Jesuits surrounding their receptin of King Henry IV’s heart after his assassination. While sources sympathetic to the Jesuits played up their emotional lamentations over his death, the Jesuits’ detractors accused them of regicide and duplicity. Joseph Wachtel provided a history of the events leading up to the collapse of the French mission at Port Royal in 1612. Struggles over financing and jurisdiction between the Jesuits, their supporters, and the other colonists at Port Royal were framed within, and exacerbated by, Gallican portrayals of the Jesuits as disloyal, avaricious and motivated by the pursuit of power.

Daniel Watkins shifted the focus to the eighteenth century with the anti-Jesuit deployment of Isaac-Joseph Berruyer as a symbol of the Jesuits’ alleged heresies. A Jesuit historian, Berruyer published the first two volumes of his A History of the People of God to much criticism and condemnation. His second volume in particular was seen as a distasteful depiction of sacred history, incorporating contemporary sensibilities into his descriptions of Biblical events. His third volume, which seemed to emphasize Christ’s humanity over his divinity, was especially odious to his detractors, and as it was published while he was dying, the Jesuits were blamed for promoting Berruyer’s heretical views. According to Watkins, Berruyer became central to anti-Jesuits’ arguments for condemnation and the dissolution of the Jesuits – despite the Jesuits’ own disavowal of his works.

Scott Sunquist chaired a session called To Whom Does Christianity Belong, with papers on the intersection of religious and national identity in India, Brazil and Nigeria. Dyron Daughrity argued for the “Indianness of Christianity.” Indian Christians, he claimed, must work against their marginalization in India by making the case that their Christian practices were fully Indian rather than a western import. Todd Hartch demonstrated that the success of the Universal Church’s missionary efforts was marked more by the church’s assertion of its Brazilian identity than by any attempt at enculturation. Instead, the church’s appeal lay in its apparent spiritual power, and its attention to the concerns of the communities it encountered. Corey Williams examined the growth of Christianity in Nigeria as a result of its appropriation from its European roots by Nigerian natives. Christianity, Williams argued, is losing its distinctly European identity, and it gaining ground because of its “in-built capacity to belong everywhere, to everyone.” In his response, Scott Sunquist remarked upon the way “multiple layers” of Christian missions become more indigenous (and less western) as they accumulate. Older, more western forms of Christianity are not displaced by the emergence of more indigenous forms, but they do have to respond to them. Dr. Sunquist also suggested that future studies of global Christianity may have to pay attention to aspects of religious practice that have formerly received little attention, like the role of dreams in African practice.

At the 125th Anniversary luncheon, four speakers reflected on the Society’s past, and on its possibilities for the future. Peter Williams became a member of the ASCH when Sidney Ahlstrom passed out membership forms in class during the 1960s, and has been a member ever since. Dr. Williams commented on the Society’s “spirit of communitas” that made conferences welcoming to graduate students. “At the time I’m not sure I realized how remarkable this was,” he said, “how wonderful this was.” Barbara Brown Zikmund also remarked upon the Society’s hospitality to graduate students, but recalled that it had not always been reflected in Society policy as much as it is today. When Dr. Zikmund joined in 1965, graduate students were not allowed to present papers. While individual scholars were friendly to grad students, there was no system of hospitality or aid to graduate students as would later develop. The most biggest change in ASCH since then, said Zikmund, was the growth of WITCH – Women In Theology and Church History, a group formed for women to meet informally and to network. Many collaborative projects, she said, would never have started were it not for WITCH.

Barbara Brown Zikmund and Elizabeth Clark both discussed ways that the study of church history has evolved. “When I got there, it was a bunch of old, white, Protestant men,” said Zikmund. By contrast, 46% of ASCH presentations today are given by women, and the Society has a rule that its panels are to be mixed-gender. Dr. Clark described how, in the early days of the ASCH, church history was much more parochial, a society of American male church historians whose work tended to focus on continuity and consensus within ecclesiastical institutions. Since then, the ASCH has become a global, multidisciplinary organization, producing scholarship that is more self-aware, and that is more attuned to diversity and difference in the history of Christianity. “We have learned that there is no politically innocent history,” said Clark. Finally, John Fitzmier, Executive Director of the AAR, spoke on the ASCH’s relationship with the AAR and the AHA. He suggested that cooperative alliances with other societies could help the ASCH to tackle various issues facing scholars today. One example, he said, was the AHA’s endeavor to address the difficulties of the academic job market by encouraging graduate programs to prepare students for a broader range of jobs in the field of history.

After the luncheon, Ruth Compton Brouwer chaired a panel with Marguerite Van Die, Mark McGowan, and Mark Noll on comparative histories of Christianity in the US and Canada. Dr. Van Die called for more attention to diversity and variegation in Canadian church history, highlighting how its conventional emphasis on unity and inclusiveness has often belied Canadians’ own preoccupations with religious disunity. Mark McGowan’s presentation discussed the ambiguous relationship between Canadian Catholics and the state. As a constitutionally protected religious minority, Canadian Catholics were able to “finesse the state” on certain issues like school funding and religious broadcasting. To the extent that the separation of church and state had ever truly existed in Canada, McGowan argued, formal separation was confounded by the complexity of the church state relationship. Mark Noll called for more comparative studies of church history in Canada and the US. One way forward this area, he suggested, is to think of the US and Canada as liberal societies whose liberalism has been pushed in different directions by their contingent circumstances. Other possible factors for comparison came up in the panel discussion, including the role of region, migration, and the differences in global political power between Canada and the US.

One of the great things about the ASCH conference is that, after a dizzying array of panels and meetings, its members know how to unwind. Chuck Lippy took me and several of my fellow grads out for crab ravioli, gumbo, bread pudding, and good conversation. We talked about our research and the market. He told us about his experiences as a young scholar in the Society, and gave us some advice on the job search from his perspective as a former professor. I also learned what bread pudding is.


Anne Blue-Siegler

Pictures cannot adequately convey what bread pudding is.


This is something senior scholars at the ASCH meeting do as part of the spirit of communitas that Peter Williams mentioned. That alone is worth the registration. It was a promising start to an eventful weekend.

Free WiFi, Free Meals, and Other Wonderful Things in New Orleans

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

by Shaun Horton

AHA Today posts a lot of useful information in the days leading up to its annual meeting (and our Winter Meeting). Vanessa Varin has listed several free WiFi spots in the participating hotels, and has linked to lists of free WiFi spots in New Orleans on Urban Spoon and

If you are a graduate student and an ASCH member, you can also sign up at the main conference table for lunches and dinners with senior scholars, for free, courtesy of the Society. These are available Friday and Saturday. They are great for a grad student on a budget, and you can’t beat the company. Finally, there is no fee or registration required for grads to attend the annual breakfast hosted by WITCH (Women in Theology and Church History) on Friday morning – though graduate students are encouraged to pay what they can.

If you are not a graduate student and/or it is not Friday yet, AHA Today has a list of cheap eats in New Orleans, as well as a list of recommended restaurants within walking or driving distance of our panel sessions.

Do you have tips, advice, or experiences to share? Post them on our Facebook page or tweet them at #ASCH13. You can also post them on our official Winter Meeting Live Blog, starting 1pm Thursday.

ASCH Winter Meeting Drawing Near

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

by Shaun Horton

The annual winter meeting of the American Society of Church History is one month away. I will be live blogging as many panels and events as humanly possible on our Facebook page. You can add to the blog from your Twitter account by adding the hash tag #ASCH13 to your tweet, or by visiting the blog and adding a comment. My own coverage will likely skew towards American history because that’s the area with which I am most familiar, so commentary on other areas will be especially welcome.

In the meantime, here are some important dates to remember as the conference draws near:


December 12 – Last day to reserve a suite at the Embassy Suites New Orleans-Convention Center.

December 14 – Last day to register for the conference online or by mail.

December 14 – Also the deadline for panel participants to apply for graduate student awards or independent scholar awards.

January 3 – First panel sessions begin at 1pm. (Download the latest program draft here.)

January 4
7AM – Annual WITCH Breakfast in the Diamond A room of the Embassy Suites Hotel. (Sign up for that here.)

12PM – The ASCH 125th Anniversary Lunch in the Grand Chenier (Sign up).

2:30PM – Walking Tour of New Orleans Religious Sites (Sign up).

6:30PM – Graduate Student Reception in the Sheraton Bayside Ballroom B (Sign up.)

January 5 – President’s Address and Reception in the Sheraton Nottoway Room and the Oak Alley Room.

January 6 – Final panels meet at 11am-1pm.

The Church and the Trapezius Muscle

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

by Shaun Horton

The trapezius is a muscle that extends from the base of the neck to just below the shoulder blade, and appears to serve little purpose other than to feel pain. It occasionally assists in movements of the neck and arm, but mostly it gets sore when you have been sitting at a computer for too long. According to James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, the trapezius muscle also provides an ideal means of disciplining uncooperative children. Simply grasp the muscle firmly where the shoulder meets the neck, and squeeze. The child will be pacified immediately, and parental authority will be restored.


Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 1: Nature’s mute button


In 1970, James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline sought to put the pain back into child rearing. He presented his first book as a corrective to the “permissiveness” that had crept into American parenting since the publication of Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. Dobson blamed the decline of Protestant authority in public life directly on America’s infatuation with permissive parenting. Permissive parents indulged their children’s desires without exerting the control needed to inculcate them with discipline and respect for authority. Spock’s detractors argued that love and nurture were not enough to raise a healthy child. Children needed discipline.

Dobson considered pain a necessary tool to that end. Children were naturally rebellious, prone to open defiance of parental authority and ill-equipped to deal with their own sinful natures. When authority was challenged, that challenge had to be met decisively – with pain. Otherwise the child might grow up with no genuine respect for authority of any kind, be it parental, governmental or divine. By denying the discipline that pain helped to inculcate, parents were unwittingly raising children who would be receptive to the hedonism and radicalism of the antichristian political leftists who plagued American college campuses.

Despite the traditional acceptance of spanking in our society, we tend to consider pain in itself a negative force, even a destructive one. In her discussion of torture, Elaine Scarry portrays pain as an appropriation of the victim’s agency. For Scarry, intense pain subverts speech, rendering the victim inarticulate. Pain becomes the “cultural insignia” of the regime that its administrator represents, allowing the administrator to assert the regime’s authority when no other argument for its legitimacy will suffice. It is a foolproof way to turn a defiant “no” into a submissive “yes.”

Dobson had a chance to use his neck-squeezing technique during the turbulent 1960s at a local drug store. A group of teenage boys, about 14 years old, were running out of a neighboring hardware store, taunting the angry proprietor for being “Jewish and rather overweight.” They had run down the isles, knocking bottles and paint cans off the shelves, leaving the place in disarray. They recognized Dobson as he approached them. He had chased them out of the drug store earlier that afternoon, and was now returning to pick up an item he had forgotten to purchase.

Glaring up at Dobson, one of the boys yelled, “You just hit me! I’ll sue you for everything you’re worth.” Dobson put one hand on either side of the boy’s neck and squeezed. That shut him up. The boy collapsed. His friends fled. Before leaving, one of the other boys said to Dobson, “I’ll bet you’re a school teacher, aren’t you?” (He was.) A police officer later told him that the same group of boys had been terrorizing local businesses for weeks, but their parents had refused to discipline them or cooperate with police. Dobson’s account of the confrontation implied that the barabarism of these unruly youths had stemmed from an unhealthy lack of pain in their upbringing. The failure to apply systematically what Dobson had provided in one moment had produced a pack of chronic delinquents.

Dr. Dobson would probably not like Scarry’s assessment of pain-as-torture being applied to the case of corporal punishment. True, both the parent and the torturer use pain to alter the subject’s speech, to turn no into yes, defiance into obedience. But Dobson would find this view too oppressive. As critics of Scarry have pointed out, pain is a polyvalent phenomenon. It can be an obliterative force that constricts language, but it can also be a creative force that informs the articulation of meaningful experiences.

Dobson stressed the importance of applying just the right severity of pain when punishing a child. Parents needed to be aware of their children’s emotional states, punishing them with just enough pain to make them cry with sincerity. (Fake crying was to be ignored.) This emotional catharsis left the child uniquely sensitive to parental influence. It was during these moments of catharsis that parents needed to be reconciliatory towards their children, allowing the painful experience to strengthen the bond between them.

“After the emotional ventilation, the child will often want to crumple to the breast of his parent, and he should be welcomed with open, warm, loving arms. At that moment you can talk heart to heart. You can tell him how much you love him and how important he is to you…This kind of communication is not made possible by other disciplinary measures, including standing the child in the corner or taking away his firetruck.” (Dobson, Dare to Discipline 35)

This post-cathartic communication made the pain meaningful. It allowed the parent to emphasize that it was the defiance that was being condemned, not the child. It allowed the parent to heal as well as to hurt. Most importantly, it allowed the confrontation between parent and child to be framed as a learning experience, one in which the child, with the aid of an authoritative parent, moved a little closer to maturity.

Once the defiance was corrected, the child had work to do as well. Punishment – corporal and otherwise – was part of the process of teaching children to control themselves in a society that no longer seemed to value self-control. Dobson emphasized that the child’s will was not to be broken, but “shaped.” Children had to cultivate their own virtues. Adults had to instill within them the desire and the wherewithal to do it. To accomplish this, parents needed to impress upon their children the “cultural insignia” of their parental regime. They had to subvert their rebellious children’s attempts to control the home. Parental authority, Dobson argued, must be absolute and unquestionable.

With the right degree of control, corporal punishment became an extension of the natural laws of cause and effect. Just as the pain of a hot stove taught a child not to touch it, so the pain administered by a loving and well-disciplined parent taught a child not to challenge parental authority.

From Dobson’s perspective, this use of pain might more closely resemble Scarry’s description of work. For Scarry, work is the business of creating new things in the world: a bench out of wood, a sculpture out of clay, a story out of memories. In Scarry’s terms, pain is an obliterative force for “unmaking” the subject’s world, while work is an act of “making.” Work entails the “aversive intensity” of pain, but mitigates that intensity into “controlled discomfort” in the course of making new things.

For parents, proper punishment entailed the aversive intensity of self-discipline. It was work – difficult work, as any parent can attest. Lazy parents nagged their children, yelled at them, or put up with their misbehavior. If a parent failed to do the necessary work on the child, the child’s rebellious streak would grow and solidify. By late adolescence, the child’s personality would be almost irrevocably warped.

Dobson’s early books contained stories of spoiled children who turned on their doting parents like wild animals, including one account of a teenage girl named Becky who bludgeoned her mother in the head during a party. Becky left her mother bleeding and unconscious in the upstairs bathroom. Then she went downstairs, as though nothing had happened, to dance with the “mob of dirty, profane teenagers” who had “swarmed into the house, breaking and destroying the furnishings as they came.”


Michael Fisher (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Mob” appears to have been the accepted collective noun for dirty, profane teenagers.


The image of the teenage mob was a familiar and powerful one in 1970. Its use in Dobson’s grisly example of intergenerational conflict was not a coincidence. The success of Dare to Discipline and its sequels, Hide or Seek and The Strong-Willed Child, lay in their ability to subsume religion and politics under the more immediate everyday concerns of conservative Christian parents. They advanced the view that much of the church’s most important work in the world was being done in the home by nurturing mothers and hard working fathers. Dobson’s advice required the maintenance of a patriarchal social order in the home. If children did not know how to submit to traditional patriarchal authority, then they could not appreciate the importance of submitting to God.

Herein lay the inextricable political implications of corporal punishment. Like Becky’s home, the patriarchal family was under attack. Feminists denigrated the homemaker in favor of the working woman. Movies and television glorified sex, violence, and unconventional family arrangements. Secularists methodically chipped away at the conservative evangelical heritage of the public school system, while proponents of “free love” threatened to do the same to the institution of marriage. By attacking the traditional family, they attacked evangelicalism and threatened the psychological well-being of American children.

Dobson wrote Dare to Discipline with the spectacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in recent memory. During the months following the convention, one explanation for the chaos surrounding it resurfaced frequently: the young activists involved had been spoiled as children, and were now incapable of functioning as rational, mature adults. Raised in a world of material abundance and instant gratification, pampered by permissive parents, they suffered from low self-esteem and an inflated sense of entitlement. Sure, they might have some legitimate complaints regarding the unequal treatment of black citizens or women, but they lacked the capacity to form rational goals and to pursue those goals responsibly.


Via Flickr

Abbie Hoffman: a kid who should have been spanked


Dobson’s manifesto on discipline developed this theme into a sustainable framework for understanding the apparent declension of Christian values during the 1960s. In Focus on the Family literature, the Sixties became the decade in which things went wrong, when a society dominated by Christian values lost its way.

Corporal punishment was more than a tool to safeguard children against growing up to become psychopaths. It was part of a broader project to correct the errant course set by the previous generation of parents, a crucial strategy for training up a child in the way that he should go. Beginning in the late 1980s, Focus on the Family’s literature began to take on a more overtly political bent, encouraging its members to actively lobby for institutional enforcement of a conservative Christian way of life.

“Picket an abortion clinic. Serve on the hospital lay committee. Take a teacher to dinner. Examine the policies of your local library. Support your neighborhood crisis pregnancy center. Accept a pregnant teenager into your home…Support the work of your church in reaching a lost and dying world for Christ. And by all means, do these things in a spirit of love that would be honoring to the One who sent us.” (Dobson, Children at Risk 41)

Parents needed to take control of themselves, of their communities, and of their children in order to safeguard their children’s freedom. God had designed humanity to be self-reliant and spiritually mature, but only through “controlled discomfort” in the service of careful cultivation could this design be realized. This cultivation extended outside the home to every institution that affected the lives of young Christians. Spiritual life, political life and domestic life were all inseparable parts of the same work. In order to make Christian children, parents had to make a Christian world.