Posts Tagged ‘Academia’

Collection Care for Small Libraries

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

By Emily Suzanne Clark

This post is a quick heads-up about a research planning project being overseen by the American Theological Library Association (ATLA), the Catholic Library Association (CLA), and the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). The project is called “In Good Faith: Collection Care, Preservation, and Access in Small Theological and Religious Studies Libraries,” The research planning project centers on the creation and analysis of a preservation survey for small theological and religious studies libraries, archives, and cultural institutions. The point of the survey is to collect information from the librarians and archivists at small religious studies and theological libraries in order to get a sense of collection care and preservation needs that are unique to these smaller institutions. This way, the ATLA, CLA, and AJL can plan classes, seminars, and programs specially geared towards these smaller libraries’ needs. The rich materials found in these smaller institutions are so important to the kind of work we as scholars can do and sometimes unknown to us.

The survey is available now and will be until April 12, and please pass it on to to your favorite small library or archive. Though the advisory group has been working on a definition of a small library, it is being conceived somewhat broadly. So if you’re not sure if your favorite small religious studies or theological library fits the definition, send it on anyway.

Here is more information about the survey.

Religious Ignorance in a Religious Society

Monday, December 31st, 2012

by Jay Case

One of the stories from the departmental lore where I work comes from a colleague who a few years ago had stopped into a barbershop for a haircut. He noticed a breaking news story on the shop’s TV and asked the barber what was happening. The barber responded by saying, “Oh, it’s just an event somewhere over there in Islam.” So now, whenever we crack departmental jokes about ignorance, the phrase “somewhere over there in Islam” inevitably makes an appearance.


Daniella Zalcman (CC BY 2.0)

Mahmoud Whatsisname, President of a place in Islam somewhere


I am guessing that members of the American Society of Church History are all too familiar with Americans’ ignorance of the world and its history. We probably react to this reality in different ways. We might wring our hands. We might disregard ignorance as something that can’t be helped. Personally, my temptation is to turn to humor in the face of this ignorance, though I don’t know if this is healthy, since it can breed cynicism and self-righteousness.

Yet it provokes me to ask a couple of questions. Is there anything we can do to help the situation? Do we have a responsibility to try to do more to address this ignorance?

We devote ourselves to scholarship and teaching, projects that certainly play a role in the expansion of knowledge and understanding. But we are probably also aware that most of the work we do does not seep through to the public at large.

The findings of a Pew Research poll on Americans’ religious knowledge bear this out. The 2010 poll found that about half of all Americans did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation or that Joseph Smith was Mormon. Only 40% knew that Catholicism teaches that during communion the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Close to 90% could not connect Jonathan Edwards to the First Great Awakening.

The problem, of course, extends beyond just factual knowledge. Ignorance also shapes perceptions of the current religious composition of the United States (and the world), a reality that cannot help but shape the ways that Americans engage one another. According to a study by Grey Matter, “only 56% of all Americans can give any sort of substantive definition of ‘evangelical,’ beyond a simple ‘I don’t know’ or just criticism or invective.” To make matters worse, that 56% included Americans who gave substantive definitions that completely missed the mark, such as stating that evangelicals were strict Catholics or that they worshiped angels.


Thomas Lieser (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Possibly because the word “evangelical” has the word “angel” in it.


Another Gray Matter study from this past October found that Americans estimate that there are about seven times as many Muslims in the United States as what there really are, a response that must play a role in explaining why some Americans feel threatened by Islam. Americans also greatly overestimate the number of Jews and Mormons in the United States, while greatly underestimating the number of Protestants.

Politics does not seem to help much. Even though Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy brought widespread publicity to Mormonism during the past year, 82% of Americans say that they learned little or nothing about Mormonism during the presidential campaign. According to this Pew study, only 29% of Americans could correctly answer two basic factual questions about the history and sacred texts of Mormons.

Americans are not wired to desire historical reflection. There are reasons for this. The historic influence of Protestantism on American culture has generated impulses to disregard tradition as something that could be of value. The American nation established an identity with the conviction that it was created as something new that had broken free from traditions that bound and shackled European nations. The modern concept of progress does not tend to view the past as something that could provide insight for the world today, beyond a utilitarian and almost perfunctory study of what we should avoid.

The project of studying historical Christianity faces additional obstacles. Simply put, we have very few venues in American culture where ordinary people can learn about the history of Christianity. Even though one can legally teach about religion in public schools, it seems that most educators find it easier to navigate potential conflicts by ignoring religion altogether. In fact, most American educators may not even know what, constitutionally, they may or may not do in class. While 90% of Americans in the Pew study on religious knowledge knew that the Supreme Court has ruled that a teacher cannot lead a prayer in class, only 36% knew that a public school can offer a comparative religion class and only 23% knew that a teacher could read from the Bible as a source of literature. Although we can hope that public school teachers are better informed than the general public on these issues, I have encountered anecdotal evidence that indicates many teachers are themselves unsure about how religion can be taught.

Popular media tend to avoid religious history as well. Like it or not, most Americans seem to pick up much of their conceptions of history from what they consume in film and TV. Neither of these media deals much with religious history. This may not be all bad. In some cases, silence may be preferable to misinformation. Should we be thankful that “Inherit the Wind” at least tells some version of the Scopes Trial or should we bemoan the fact that the film and play ends up casting so much of that event in stereotypes? Are we better off that we don’t have any major films that deal with Thomas Aquinas, the Great Awakening, African Independent churches, Vatican II, or Pentecostalism in Brazil? I don’t know. At any rate, this influential segment of American culture does little to provide knowledge of Christian history.


United Artists


Finally, American churches do a poor job of educating their members about what their own traditions believe. Christian Smith’s studies on the spiritual lives of teenagers and emergent adults demonstrate a widespread lack of basic knowledge about their own religious tradition, even among those who attend church regularly and express a sincere commitment to their religious faith. According to Smith, “the language and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.”1 If churches are doing a poor job of teaching the basics about their own religious tradition, they must be doing very little or nothing to help their members understand other religious traditions.

So here we are, scholars of Christianity living (most of us, at least) in the most religious nation in the industrialized world. This society, nevertheless, is quite ignorant about Christianity.

Is it too grandiose to think that the American public could gain a better understanding of the history of Christianity if ASCH members embarked on more specific and intentional projects that targeted the general public? Or is this a situation over which we really have no influence?

What if, for instance, we wrote more books that were aimed at nonacademic audiences? A few ASCH members already write books for general audiences, but more of us could undertake these kinds of projects. What if we wrote books with different kinds of formats than what we usually produce? Could we write books that were more fully shaped by narratives (though based on good scholarship) rather than evidentiary-based argumentation? Maybe some of us could try a hand at historical fiction. Since most ASCH members teach classes to non-specialists, we should already have experience in understanding the limits and misconceptions of American audiences. If we have put much time into teaching effectively, we would have ideas about how to make our areas of expertise compelling and pertinent.

Blogs would seem to be another form of nonacademic engagement that ASCH members might consider. Several historians use the Patheos website to delve into matters of Christian history. Many others have already ventured out with their own individual blogs. Blogs may be the most readily accessible way to engage in conversations with non-academics. There are probably more ways that we could engage nonacademic audiences.

Of course, these projects take time and effort and are not always recognized as valid scholarly efforts by promotion and tenure committees. We need tenured and senior members of departments to give serious consideration to the idea that work undertaken for popular audiences counts as valid scholarship. We have seen no shortage of critics in the last few decades who have pointed out that the academy produces far too many scholarly works on narrow and highly specialized topics that are only read by a very small fraction of scholars. Adjusting our academic incentives to reward scholars for work geared toward popular audiences might help to bring some balance to this problem.

Is it possible that, beyond the classroom and the scholarly monograph, we could put a dent in Americans’ ignorance of Christian history? Or am I just dreaming?



[1] Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 171.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Religious Tourism (or Lack Thereof) in Norwich and King’s Lynn, England

Friday, July 27th, 2012

by Donna Ray

Being a fan of the medieval visionary writers Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, and assuming that many others across the globe shared my fandom, I expected at least a minor crush of tourists when I recently visited these women’s hometowns of Norwich and King’s Lynn, England. I was disappointed but not surprised to find no mention of either Julian or Margery in the official tourist literature for East Anglia despite their renown in religious and scholarly circles. Emphasis in promotional brochures was rather predictably placed on shopping, nightlife, restaurants, “family fun,” and local football.

It’s hard for long-dead religious figures to compete, however deserving: Julian (ca. 1342-ca. 1416) wrote the Revelations of Divine Love, a hopeful meditation on the tender love of God and the first known book by a woman in English. The Book of Margery Kempe, published in 1436, has less spiritual heft than Julian’s book—its protagonist being more boisterous and less stable, in every sense of the word—but is nonetheless full of theological and cultural interest and arguably the first autobiography written in English.

Norwich was up first on my trip: Only brief notice appears in a city-sponsored brochure of “numerous medieval churches” (there are, in fact, thirty-one). This paucity of boosterism, in addition to the fact that St. Julian’s Church and the Julian Centre are off the beaten path and in a rather seedy part of town, might explain why I was the only visitor there in late June.

I received a very gracious welcome, however, from the two women running the Centre (library, gift shop, and adjoining guest house), who reasoned that the recession also had something to do with the downturn in visitors; although, on a good day, they might have half a dozen. The church itself, now part of the Anglican Diocese of Norwich, is small and cozy, formally outfitted for Anglo-Catholic mass held there on Mondays and Fridays and solemn evensong on the first Sunday of each month. But the church primarily functions as a shrine to Julian, an anchoress whose small cell was attached to the south end, near the altar. An annual Julian festival and lecture are held on the grounds each May.


The south side of St. Julian’s Church, Norwich (the reconstructed anchorhold at center)


St. Julian’s Church is not far from the River Wensum, which runs through Norwich. The church can be accessed by foot by crossing the new Lady Julian Bridge (opened in 2009 and named at the behest of local Anglican nuns) over the river from a commercial district. From the quieter and older King Street on the other side, where sits a medieval trading hall, a new sign points the visitor to St. Julian’s Alley, which leads to the church.

The church and Julian Centre can also be reached by car along Rouen Road, lined with government housing, car shops, and graffiti-covered walls, just south of the city’s red-light district. Another Anglican church two blocks away serves as a drop-in counseling center for area prostitutes. Some beer cans and empty cigarette packs littered the otherwise lovely and steadfastly maintained churchyard, watched over by the Friends of Julian of Norwich and a stray white cat.


The Lady Julian Bridge, crossing the River Wensum



The neighborhood around St. Julian’s Church (not visible here, but across the street from the medieval trading hall and center)


Julian settled into her cell in 1373, at age 31, and remained there for the rest of her life. Here she led a life of prayer and devotion; wrote her Revelations, or >em>Showings; and counseled visitors who came to the south window of her cell. Another opening on the north side of the cell, toward the altar, was her window to the Blessed Sacrament; and a third allowed communication with a servant.

The original church building may have been erected in the tenth century; but the anchorhold was pulled down after the Reformation. The church was bombed and severely damaged in World War II, but it was rebuilt afterwards, including a new replica of the anchorhold based on the ancient footprint. The cell is now, however, a small carpeted chapel, so one has to mentally strip away the modern accoutrements to imagine what the space looked like when Julian lived there.


Julian’s cell as it looks now


Among the other medieval buildings of note in Norwich are the imposing Norman cathedral and castle, some distance from St. Julian’s Church but no doubt visible from it in Julian’s day. Less imposing, but important as a religious landmark, is the timber-framed Briton’s Arms, now a restaurant but once a beguinage for a small community of semi-religious women—the only surviving medieval beguinage in England, built probably in the first half of the fifteenth century. The Carmelite solitary and scholar Elizabeth Obbard is reportedly writing a book on Julian’s connection to the beguinage, possibly as a resident there before she became an anchoress. Some scholars also speculate, given Julian’s maternal sensibility, that she may have been a wife and mother before she became an anchoress. There is no evidence that she was ever a nun.


The Briton’s Arms: once a medieval beguinage, now a restaurant


Whatever the case, we know that fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Norwich was a tumultuous place: the Black Death struck there at least three times during Julian’s lifetime and wiped out half of the city’s population, perhaps including (although this is entirely speculative) Julian’s own family members. Norwich also felt the effects of the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasant Uprising of 1381, ongoing theological strife (a pit for burning Lollards stood not far from St. Julian’s Church), and papal schism. Julian’s presence must have been an eye in the storm, her cell a place of reassurance and stability. The mission of the church hasn’t changed; in its brochure, the Julian Centre says that it aims “to be a place of quietness and prayer in the midst of a busy city.” One hopes the new bridge and signage will help them fulfill that mission.



Next up on my trip was a train ride to King’s Lynn, 44 miles to the west of Norwich, on the River Ouse. Here the medieval historical sites are somewhat more front-and-center, as the town is smaller and the monuments thus loom larger. The city tourism center also offers a “pilgrimage trail” map for those wishing to see the medieval sites. On these two rainy days in early July, however, my husband and I were the only pilgrims in sight.

No one knows exactly where in the city Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-1440) lived, but her home was likely not far from the river in the market district where the well-established, wealthier families lived. (Her father was the mayor, her husband a merchant.) As in Norwich, King’s Lynn—called Bishop’s Lynn in Margery’s day, or just Lynn—is crammed with old churches and the ruins of medieval religious communities, some of them repurposed for modern non-religious use.

In contrast to Julian, Margery gave a lot of attention to physical space and movement, with vivid accounts of the many cities to which she traveled in Europe and the Holy Land. The place that features most prominently in Margery’s biographical account, however, is her home church in Lynn: St. Margaret’s, founded in 1101 and still an active (Anglican) parish church now formally named King’s Lynn Minster.

St. Margaret’s, in contrast to St. Julian’s Church, is enormous—the architectural centerpiece of the town as well as the spiritual centerpiece of Margery’s lively and sometimes tortured spiritual narrative. Margery spent hours praying there, receiving visitations and instructions from Christ, engaging in pastoral tasks, shedding her signature tears, sometimes receiving support but often noisily irritating the people around her. By her own account, she saved the church from fire by her intercessions, which were followed by a timely snowstorm. Another time, she was allegedly hit by a heavy beam that fell from the ceiling of the church, and yet was miraculously unharmed.


St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn



Interior of St. Margaret’s Church


The narratives of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe come together briefly in Margery’s Book (1:18). During a visit to Norwich around 1413, Margery visited the cell of the renowned anchoress, who for three days gave her much needed reassurance, encouraging confidence in God and fearlessness in trouble. Margery in fact made more than one trip to Norwich, crossing the boggy expanse of Norfolk to receive the counsel of those celebrated for their piety, seeking as she did always and everywhere both peace and vindication.


Via Brother Leon of Walsingham, at St. Michael and All Angels, Brighton

Contemporary icon of the meeting between Julian of Norwich (left) and Margery Kempe


Nothing beats religious tourism for the church historian. Seeing a place, rather than just reading about it, gives a sense of scale and proximity and provides a total sensory environment. Despite the centuries of change, and sometimes neglect, that overlay historical sites, there is no better way than an on-site visit to absorb the spirit of the place and the people who lived there. In Norwich and King’s Lynn, as in so many historical religious sites, one can still perceive the spiritual liveliness and perseverance of the inhabitants.

Even in the faded and damaged places, one can get an immediate whiff of the long-term narrative and appreciate the vacillating fortunes and failures of religious institutions and people, even to the present day. For anyone who seeks them out, these places still convey a comforting sense of stability amidst chaos, whatever it may be.


Donna Ray is a lecturer in History and Religious Studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Expanding Church History Online

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Online collaboration and feedback has a lot of potential to improve the traditional publication process. To that end, Church History is proposing new enhancements to its print content.
New Feature
Did an essay in Church History stir your thoughts? ASCH members may send a review of a Church History essay for online publication, along with a current cv, to the blog at
Your Opinion Please
Do you think online peer reviews of essays submitted to Church History is a good idea? With authors’ permissions, essays considered by the editors as candidates for peer review would appear online, perhaps along with specialist reports solicited by the editors. Further review would be open online to Society members, with comments posted along with reviewers’ cvs.

Come On Feel the Noyes: Confessions of an Attached Historian

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

by Kathleen Williams

Several years ago, a professor of mine assigned Jill Lepore’s article, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography”. The essay begins with an account of Lepore’s encounter with a lock of Noah Webster’s hair in a New England archive. Lepore describes feeling “an eerie intimacy with Noah himself. And, against all logic, it made me feel as though I knew him—and, even less logically, liked him—just a bit better” (129).

When I read this essay, I, a newly-minted Ph.D. student with minimal archive experience, responded to this narrative in what I assume was the natural way: “Isn’t that sweet? Weird, and a little too attached for a historian, but strangely endearing.” That was then.


John Humphrey Noyes, circa 1850

Via Wikimedia Commons


Now, the time has come for me to make my own foray into the archives, and a few weeks ago, in a similarly “crisply air-conditioned Special Collections reading room” to the one where Lepore shared a tender moment with Webster, I found it: a laminated sheet containing a lock of John Humphrey Noyes’s hair and a portrait drawn by his youngest sister, Charlotte. (“Portrait of J.H.N. by C.A. Miller (before 1840),” Box 69.)

Noyes, the founder and leader of the Oneida Community, a nineteenth-century Perfectionist Christian commune known for its unusual sexual practices and selective breeding experiment, is not a figure who commonly inspires tender-hearted nostalgia from historians. Writings by and about him reveal a man who sought to secure the exclusive affection and loyalty of his followers, and the historiographic consensus paints him as a needy, controlling, possibly mentally ill, autocrat. Sociologists Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, in their The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation, cite Noyes’s Oneida Community as the prime exemplar of the “psychopathology” model of cult formation.

Despite knowing all of this, and despite my own significant misgivings about the system of sexual relations that Noyes devised (all members were expected to “circulate” sexually, and teenagers were initiated by much older members), when I opened the folder containing that lock of hair, I found my heart strangely warmed. I regretted, even, that it was laminated because it prevented me from reaching that next level of bizarre across-the-centuries intimacy that Lepore felt: I couldn’t touch the hair.

A week or so later, I went with a friend to visit the Oneida Community Mansion House, where we took a tour, and I walked around slack-jawed, feeling almost as close to these communitarians as I had when I beheld that lock of hair in the archive. I spent about two weeks’ food budget on books. Our tour guide was excited that I was a graduate student writing about Oneida, and he graciously offered to share with me his genealogical work on the Community.


The Oneida Mansion House

Nancy Gluck (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Oneida Community Mansion House


Afterward, though, I confessed to my friend my subtle disappointment that he and the other Mansion House staff hadn’t been more thrilled to have me in their presence—they hadn’t swept us into closed-to-the-public back rooms, broken open exhibition cases for our perusal, given me a special discount at the gift shop. “I’ve spent almost my entire adult life studying this community and these people,” I whined. “I just want to shake them and say, ‘I know you! I’m your historian!’”

I was aware of the absurdity of this statement even in that moment; the truth is, the Oneida Community already has its share of capable historians (though I’m hoping there’s room for at least one more). They don’t need me to give them their history. Our tour guide had spent decades studying the Community, living right next door to the place where these people had lived and worked, and he knew things about their lives that I, a wide-eyed academic, couldn’t have gleaned from a few weeks in an archive.

Potential creepiness and naïve hubris aside, the inherent illogic of the heart-swell that that tangle of hair inspired in me, and the scholarly pride-swell that being at the Mansion House provoked, got me thinking about the ways in which we relate to our subjects. Why did I, following Lepore, feel that a few strands of old hair drew me closer than ever to this long-dead religious leader? How could I write in a balanced—much less, detached—way about a man whose diary I’d read, whose hair I’d held in my hand?

None of us, of course, is ever really detached. Some of us have secret, or not-so-secret, political or ethical agendas, hoping that the messages we carry from the past will illuminate our present circumstances and choices; others want to redeem the legacies of the historic people and movements that have occupied so much of our own twenty-first-century lives. My own agenda falls somewhere along the lines of rescuing Noyes from the insane asylum of history—of recognizing, even in one of the many apparent “whackos” (a term jokingly employed by one of my former professors) who people the game-board of U.S. religious history, an affinity with the theology of Second Great Awakening revivalism and a sincere effort to be as fully and authentically Christian as possible. Perhaps a deeper understanding of Noyes and the people who devoted themselves wholeheartedly, wholebodiedly, to his mission might soften our judgment of so-called religious “whackos” past, present, and future.

In the end, I think the real identity of John Humphrey Noyes lies somewhere between the troubled, tyrannical charlatan who fits the “psychopathology model of cult formation” and the soft-spoken, earnestly religious, adored leader whose sister lovingly preserved a lock of his hair. There is something seductive (or, in Oneida Community parlance, “magnetic”) about each of these poles of interpretation, but I hope that avoiding (at least for the most part) seduction from either side will make the story I tell more real and important.

Kathleen Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Vanderbilt University. She holds a B.A. from Davidson College and an M.A. from the University of Georgia. She is currently working on her dissertation, “The Art of Glancing:” Disciplining Bodies and Affections in the Oneida Community.

Changes in Academia

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

by Almer Jesse Smith


Recently there has been talk of changes in academia. LinkedIn reported on January 9, 2012, that the Modern Language Association (MLA) suggested major changes in the nature of doctoral studies and dissertation research and writing. At the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. David Puckett delivered a faculty address in which he suggested it might be time to make changes in the doctoral program in theological education. A glut of Ph.D. graduates in the market place unable to find positions in traditional brick and mortar institutions are filling the ranks of the up and coming online academy as adjuncts willing to work with no prospects for tenure or the usual benefits package that accompanies traditional higher education employment.

For profit universities have brought an entirely new focus to the educational enterprise, steering clear of purely research driven institutions and instead preparing people with marketable skills, the faculty is held to a standard of excellence that is outcome driven, not publication driven. Although not a “for profit” institution, Liberty University, has adopted this model. The goal is the preparation of students for life, not the publication of essays, monographs, and textbooks, even though the school has its share of published authors on faculty.

Like it or not, change is coming to the academy, and principally in these areas: (1) the nature and objective of graduate and post-graduate education, (2) balancing the graduation rate of doctoral students to the demands of the academic market, and (3) the impact of online education on traditional brick and mortar schools. The last item is of particular concern for theological education as the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) grapples with the issue of distance and online learning.

What, exactly, are we, as educators, and especially as Church History professors, attempting to achieve? What outcome do we desire for our students? Is it our goal for them to (1) think historically about critical issues, (2) have a sufficient comprehension of the broad contours of ecclesiastical history in general and their own denominational history specifically to be functionally literate in the subject area(s), (3) apply principles gleaned from the study of historical situations in new and creative ways to the ever changing circumstances in which they live, work, and minister, or (4) simply meet the employment and/or ordination criteria of their particular faith communities? These questions and many more need to inform any discussion of changes in teaching methodology and curriculum development in the field of Church History (for a fuller discussion see Dietrich Werner, “Challenges and Opportunities in Theological Education in the 21st Century,” Edinbugh 2010–International Study Group on Theological Education [PDF]). Perhaps a survey of pastors five, ten, and fifteen years out of seminary would be helpful in determining the effectiveness of Church History studies in terms of (1) content retention and (2) ministerial usefulness. Such surveys would probably best be developed and utilized as part of individual schools’ institutional effectiveness studies.

In a market where there are far more Ph.D. graduates than there are jobs to fill, which seems to be especially true in historical studies generally and Church History specifically, schools need to re-evaluate how many students should be admitted to doctoral studies in Church History. Granted, for many schools, these doctoral students provide a low-cost faculty option for teaching undergraduate courses, but does such an arrangement do justice to the student or the academy to use these students for six to nine years, graduate them, and leave them awash in student debt and limited employment options?

Another way to look at this issue is to ask, “Are we really preparing these scholars with transferable skills that will help them find meaningful employment within the academy?” After all, a Ph.D. graduate is a person presumably equipped to add to the knowledge base of the discipline through scholarly research and also to communicate in a meaningful way his/her knowledge of the subject to students preparing for vocational religious service or a life in the academy. What else is she or he qualified to do in the academy? What if a scholar graduates with a Ph.D. only to be forced to settle for lesser employment? What kind of contribution will he or she make, long term, to either the discipline or those preparing for vocational ministry?

Not a few recent Ph.D. graduates have turned to the growing online educational sector for employment. This is how I, for one, found myself teaching in the online community. Having taught in the online environment since the Fall 2006 semester, I have some basis of experience for addressing this issue. Online education has its benefits and its drawbacks. John D. Laing (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston, Texas, campus) presented a paper to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007 pointing out the limitations of online education (“Online Education, Ecclesiology, and Christian Education”). Questions remain with ATS as to whether a purely online program can satisfy the “community of scholars” component of accreditation on the same level as the traditional brick and mortar divinity school (for the latest proposals in this regard see section B.3.1.4 and B.3.2.1 of the “Proposed Degree Standards” at the ATS website).

Whether one thinks this is a good thing or not, online education is here, and it is here in a big way and likely to become a dominant force in ministerial education in the future. For example, as of January 2012, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary had 8,444 students enrolled online and 271 online faculty. Other seminaries, divinity schools, and universities are exploring the online option as a way to boost enrollment and income. Online education is a cost-effective way for schools to reach more students, but currently I know of no online programs in theological studies that are ATS accredited. However, if the “Proposed Degree Standards” are adopted, it may become possible for online schools to find a way to overcome the “community of scholars” obstacle to ATS accreditation.

Certainly the capacity to make this happen exists through student cohorts and course designs that require direct instructor-student contact and feedback. Currently such online programs are accredited through regional accreditation agencies such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). I am hopeful that (1) the “Proposed Degree Standards” mentioned above will be adopted by ATS, and (2) online theological institutions will explore creative ways to satisfy these revised standards for accreditation. While this will not end degree mills, it will put online theological education on relative par with the tried and true residential programs that have been, and will likely remain, the mainstay of theological training, and it will do more to help curb the growth of degree mills in the online community.

In summary, change is inevitable for the academy in general and for theological education in particular. What shape will that change take? How will it impact both churches and the academy in the years ahead? Curriculum development committees and faculty senates need to give careful consideration to these issues. More scholarly research needs to be done in regard to the effectiveness of various educational delivery methods and the needs of the churches and academy for trained professionals in various theological sub-disciplines such as Church History. The fruit of such research should be utilized by seminaries and divinities schools in redesigning their degree plans and projecting enrollment numbers to produce graduates who are fully trained and able to meet the demands of today’s various ministry contexts with a solid foundation in historical studies.

The Vocation of a Historian

Monday, April 30th, 2012

by Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Some time ago, an intelligent and inquisitive former student of my husband’s sent a group of former professors and friends, including the two of us, a message. Out of undergrad a year or two, he was now contemplating whether to apply to graduate school in the humanities, or to take a chance he had been offered as an apprentice in a fairly lucrative branch of construction work which he also enjoyed–let’s say it was plumbing.

Several of the other former professors and friends joined in the discussion: “Finish your education. You won’t regret it.” Not my husband and I. “If,” we said, “you cannot imagine yourself doing anything but doctoral work–if you recognize that you go into it for love alone, with no particular hope of professional advancement, or even employment–then go. But if even the smallest part of you wonders if you might be happier being a plumber, then be a plumber.”

For close to six years now, since the birth of our first child, my husband and I–church historians both–have performed a delicate dance of co-parenting and co-teaching. He was the one with a tenure-track job at a small and not particularly prosperous institution with heavy teaching loads, with the pension and health insurance. I was the adjunct who taught an additional 8-10 courses per calendar year for four different institutions (yes, you read that right; since the fall of 2007 I have had exactly two breaks longer than one week–one summer and one J-term.)

In between, we both wrote, read, graded, tweaked syllabi, entertained students for board game nights, went to campus soccer games and recitals to support our students, and took our daughter to library storytimes and music and ballet classes and out for walks in the park. We watched dance rehearsals with laptops balanced on our knees. We read Little House on the Prairie to a 5-year-old at bedtime and then stayed up for another few hours grading the papers of 20-year-olds. We knew we were called to both vocations. We still know that.

It was a delicate and manageable dance. Until the day last fall when the not particularly prosperous institution instituted budget cuts that included several faculty in their pre-tenure years. One of them was us.

Perhaps the vocation of a historian was never really one of being slightly absent-minded professors with pipes and tweedy jackets walking tree-lined campuses and thinking about (in my case, at least) the peculiarities of Victorian eating habits. (Or, if and when it was, there were no women wearing the jackets and smoking the pipes.) Perhaps it has always presented the sharp choice between professional success and personal happiness that seems to be particularly acute in our present age, solved only by making sacrifices neither of us have been willing to make.

Perhaps the groves of academe have always been more consumed by the culture of assessment and the drudgery of committee work and the expectations of faculty manuals than I ever thought as a bright-eyed young graduate student who once entered a prestigious program wanting to change the world by reminding the world that history matters. That who we have been in the past shapes where we are going. That in the face of all the law-givers and appraisers and assessors of this world, when we have given Caesar what is Caesar’s, there still needs to be someone standing up, sometimes screaming into the face of the prevailing wind, asking “Why?”

I wanted to tell our student to be that person. He might have made a good person like that. I wanted to tell him that it was worth everything in the world to be that person.

But I also wanted him to have health insurance. So I sent him off to be a plumber.

How long until there is no one talking into the wind?

Oh the Humanities! The Historian as a Humanitarian

Friday, April 20th, 2012

by Matthew Lucio

“I know my American History,” Sarah Palin told Fox News’ Chris Wallace last June. She was standing her ground in a brouhaha surrounding some comments she made regarding Paul Revere. Some said she got her history wrong while others came to her defense. But what struck me the most wasn’t Palin but Wallace. Wallace gamely asked her if she misspoke and she again affirmed she knew her history. “Well I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “I wasn’t sure entirely before I asked that question. So I went on Google to make sure that I knew as much.”

It’s not about the media failing to do their “homework” before an interview. Rather, it’s about the fact that Google seemed to be just as credible an authority in this field as, say, a journal, book, or even an actual historian. It’s also about the widespread (meaning beyond Fox News) confusion over history at a time when political leaders are vigorously retelling our history as a means of forging a post-9/11 national identity.

History is, after all, our worst subject as a nation, even though we have amazing teaching tools, digital databases of peer-reviewed articles, and distance learning opportunities. “Why” is too big of a question here, but I will content myself with the reality that history is slipping out of the hands of the historians these days. Or, at the very least, historians must now compete with aspiringly credible content on Wikipedia, Google, podcasts, TV, and so on. When Christian author Dan Kimball admonished his readers that “emerging church leaders must be students of world and church history” we can no longer assume he means students of actual teachers.

Nan Card, of the Rutherford B. Hayes Center, inadvertently hit the nail on the head last month when she was asked to debunk a comment made by President Obama regarding a misquote of President Hayes. Admitting she didn’t know where the rumor came from, but she said that “people just keep repeating it and repeating it, so it’s out there.”

Many people might fear the loss of quality control. It might be something like how Winston Churchill is said to have put it: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” But rather than fight the decentralization of knowledge when it comes to history, I believe historians who feel passionate about bringing their craft to the masses ought to be proactive in harnessing this shift in sources. It’s a call for historians to become humanitarians.

I don’t mean to suggest that historians ought to be the first to hit the beaches in Haiti, New Orleans, or anywhere else a catastrophic disaster might strike. That is the job for humans, not historians. But I do mean that we need thoughtful teachers and researchers to provide historical “aid” to people who are increasingly fishing for answers in murky waters. Maybe that’s you, or maybe that’s your savvy master’s student or your gifted doctoral student. It’s something you’re unlikely to be paid to do and so it requires a bit of a servant’s heart. Somewhere out there Ayn Rand is glaring at me, I know, but the more we have solid, credible information out there the better off our country, our churches, and our people will be.

Some are already doing it. Dr. Corey Olsen of Washington College has been a hit ever since he cheekily snatched the “Tolkien Professor” title and began recording podcasts for and with his students. He has since started a graduate program with dirt-cheap tuition and classes in things like Latin, Harry Potter, and so on. He’s grasped that there are some folks who will either never go to college, or perhaps never get to study what they wanted, couldn’t afford it, etc., but want (dare I say, “need”?) to learn.

One such example might be Mike Duncan, who took philosophy and politics in college but now finds himself doing what he is most passionate about: history. His history podcast, The History of Rome, is a hit with the public. As of April 2012, about 1500 of 1600 reviewers gave Duncan’s “class” five stars. It’s grown so popular that he’s even started taking people on guided tours to Europe.

I recognize this might not be for everyone. But for those who feel the humanitarian “call” to reach people with good history, I might spur you on with some ideas. When you write your next book, try and make it accessible to everyone. For inspiration, recruit an author who may be out of your field to give you some feedback. You could also start a podcast, telling the story of any part of history you’d like or host a Q&A with the public. Finally, you could always start a blog…

Is this a panacea? Not even close. There’s not much we can do about films mangling history into a something more palatable or news programs that’d rather Google than consult professionals. But we can be learned contributors rather than passive observers. It’s about recognizing that history is so important to get right that we simply cannot let it go.

Merry Christmas

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

by Joseph Kelly

Birth of Jesus. Detail from the side facing the apse of the so-called "Sarcofago di Stilicone" ("Stilicho's sarcophagus"), an Ancient Roman christian sarcophagus dating from the 4th century. It is preserved beneath the pulpit of Sant'Ambrogio basilica in Milan, Italy. Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto, April 25 2007.

Like many ASCH members, I teach in a liberal arts college in which few students major in religious studies, so the faculty members cannot presume a prior interest in the topics.  Instead we must win over computer science, English, chemistry, and economics majors.

Ten years ago I wrote a book entitled The Origins of Christmas which basically covers what the title suggests.  With my chair’s somewhat grudging approval, I inaugurated a course on the topic, and it has enjoyed considerable success.

The topic attracts curious students, which was the intent. The course begins with an examination of the gospel infancy narratives which in turn introduces the students to modern biblical exegesis:  why do Matthew and Luke not agree on how Jesus came to be brought up inNazareth?  Why does Matthew recount the Magi while Luke does not?  Why is Luke so interested in the birth of John the Baptist?  What is the relation of history and theology in the gospels?

From there we move on the growth of traditions about the Nativity, so we study the Apocryphal Infancy Narratives, e.g., Protoevangelium of James.  This material is new to the students who now learn about canonicity, what principles the early Fathers used to determine it, and why these apocryphal accounts did not make it to the canon.

Explaining the rise of Christmas traditions enables me to introduce the students to patristic exegesis, such as allegory.  For example, Origen allegorized a passage in Genesis about Isaac to determine that there were three magi.

We also study the growth of the feast, usually with a comparison to the growth of Easter as well as an explanation of Epiphany, so the students learn something about early liturgy, such as the creation of feasts and octaves.  They also learn about calendar reckoning in the Late Roman world.  Since the feast includes sermons, the students read some ancient Christmas and Epiphany sermons, especially Augustine’s.

Art plays a role as well, particularly studying the portrayals of the infancy narratives on sarcophagi and explaining why the magi were so popular with Gentiles (being the only Gentiles other than Caesar Augustus who appear in the gospel accounts).  This in turn leads to explanation of how the Jews were aniconic, which is why the Christians used pagan models.


Adoration of the Magi. Panel from a Roman sarcophagus, 4th century CE. From the cemetary of St. Agnes in Rome.


The class listens to the earliest extant music for the Nativity, which in turn allows the instructor to talk about early theories of music, especially those of Pythagoras and Augustine.

Since the early Christians could hardly celebrate a feast in honor of Jesus’ birth until they were sure he was actually human, we study early Christology from the docetists to Chalcedon.

This approach generally surprises the students who had no idea how complicated the establishment of Christmas really was.  But they love Christmas, and this has turned out to be an effective way to introduce them to modern biblical exegesis, ancient exegesis, liturgy, chronology, and – best of all for ASCH members – a fair amount of church history.


The Desert a Campus? Some Thoughts on Teaching Monasticism by Immersion

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

by Maria Doerfler

Perhaps it’s the time of year — the season wherein deadlines for new course proposals loom large in the mind of many educators — but I’m a sucker for new and creative ways of teaching students about … well, all manner of things, really, but religion and those aspects thereof that have some relevance to my field of late ancient Christianity in particular. As such, I was delighted to come across Times Union’s coverage of a new course offered in the University of Pennsylvania’s Religion Department.

The course offers students a shot at partial immersion into monastic practice. Taught by Justin T. McDaniel, an associate professor specializing in Buddhism and South East Asian studies, the course’s assignments are not papers or exams but students’ engaging in some of the classical practices of renunciation: segregation by gender, avoidance of caffeine and alcohol, abstention from the use of technology, from physical contact, from indulging in all manner of electronic communication, etc.

Such a course does not at first glance appear designed to become a crowd pleaser – in fact, one wonders how its proposal was first received by Penn’s Religion department! – but for me, as perhaps for many instructors of Early and Medieval Church History, its success comes as no surprise.

One of the most popular primary sources students in both Duke’s Department of Religion and Divinity School crack open tends to the Apophtegmata Patrum, the Lives of the Desert Fathers. Part of the appeal, of course, lies in students’ enjoyment of the short, pithy stories, each delivering a moral in under two pages, and as such a pleasant break from the dense arguments of Athanasius, Cyril & Co.

But the fascination goes deeper: The accounts of monastic lives are a spectacle. The Abbas and Ammas appear as many things in these stories – simpleminded sages, holy fools, ascetic superheroes, examples of extraordinary compassion and dangerous delusion – but most of all, as a student of mine observed recently, “they are so … different.” Renunciation is a foreign principle within much of contemporary society. This is true even for many of the young Protestants who flock to Divinity Schools, and who are as such amply acquainted with their own set of spiritual disciplines including, e.g., the modern-day vigil otherwise known as the “Jr. High Lock-In.”

Even as students and indeed Western readers of these and other ancient ascetic texts are attracted to the protagonists’ wisdom and discipline, so they are appalled, both by displays of blood and gore – the monk who digs out the corpse of his wife to remind himself that what stirs his passions is, in the last instance, nothing but rotting flesh –but also by what strikes many of them as the narcissism of monastic life. Where is the love of neighbor, many of my most seriously engaged students ask, when monks withdraw from family and society, sacrificing, as in some of the Egyptian narratives, their children literally as well as metaphorically, in order to battle demons and seek God in the stillness of the ever-present cell?

All these reactions come across loud and clear in the (concededly sparse and deployed for maximum journalistic effectiveness) quotations by students in Prof. McDaniels’s course. The benefit students derive from the course and motivations to persevere in light of the considerable complications it introduces into the lifestyle of 21st-century young adults is, quite understandably, the enhanced capacity for self-discovery. When one of the students thus comments that the course “would give me a chance to really listen to myself and focus on my needs and feelings,” the understanding of renunciation as an essentially inner-focused set of practices, designed to uncover an authentic self – the path to which is an intrinsically worthwhile endeavor – is reminiscent of the egocentrism of world-renunciation that also strikes many readers of the Apophtegmata and other late ancient stories of ascetic achievement. The students in the Penn course, however, also attest to the other side of the coin, the ways in which renunciation seems to open its practitioners, both ancient and modern, to the other in empathy and compassion, as in the case of the nursing major who “hopes the class will help her become more observant and a better listener to her patients.” Despite the great gulf that separates 21st century Ivy League students from the holy men and women of late antiquity, aspirations of being present to the inner voice so that one might be more present to the voices of those in need are perhaps a bond shared by both.

All that being said, the aim of Prof. McDaniel’s course is not, or not primarily, instructing students in the finer points of the history of Christian monasticism. Nevertheless, more than one friend of mine in the field of Patristics has declared himself tempted by such an “immersive” approach – and for a few moments I, too, felt inspired to convert my classroom into a temporary coenobium and encourage my students to listen to the recitation of Augustine’s Praeceptum And yet, upon further consideration, the approach, for all its strengths, does not seem optimally suited to the teaching of church history.

First and most practically, speaking as a late ancient historian whose work centers around the fourth and fifth centuries, “monasticism” is a category that covers far more ground than most contemporary students, even those familiar with traditions that acknowledge a monastic vocation for some of their adherents, realize. Ancient Christians renounced the world for the monastery for many reasons, and in many instances their aim was no doubt mundane rather than wholly spiritual: Augustine of Hippo, e.g., acknowledges candidly that many of the North African brothers joined up to alleviate their grave poverty, in the hopes of securing their next meal, however limited, and place to sleep, however modest. On the other end of the economic scale, material wealth could be translated into spiritual caché, lending its bearers a different kind of prominence, but nevertheless ensuring them privileges befitting their rank.

Moreover, renunciation in late antiquity did not by necessity involve the monastic community, but could be practiced anywhere from the homes of elite Roman widows to the wilds of Syria and North Africa, where itinerant monks begged for their livings from Christians of a less ascetic stripe. Local and regional differences furthermore lent a distinctive character to communities from Rabbula’s Edessa to Martin’s Tours. Individual monasteries, too, while proudly advertising the undifferentiated treatment enjoyed by all members, did not by this principle undo the habits of mind and body that late ancient Roman culture had cultivated. Jerome, for example, boasts that the Jerusalem women’s monastery administered by his friend Paula did not allow young noblewomen to keep with them the slave who had attended them from childhood, lest they fall back into worldly habits of mind or grieve for what they had left behind. By the same token, however, there was no prohibition of such women enjoying the services of a new maidservant.

The sheer complexity – merely hinted at here, but admirably expressed in, e.g., the works of Elizabeth A. Clark, David Hunter, and Susanna Elm, to name just a few – of ascetic motivation and expression in this, as in many other eras, limits the level of experiential access for contemporary students and readers. Practically speaking, few schools might endorse students experimenting with itinerancy, sleeping in the campus’s shrubbery and panhandling for burgers at the local cafeteria, as part of the curriculum. More pressingly, perhaps, even if such experiences could be re-created or appropriately “translated” into exercises meaningful for 21st century students, from the perspective of a church historian, the practices might do more to veil than to reveal their underlying late ancient or medieval realities. This, then, brings me to my second, and admittedly somewhat more ephemeral point: Simply put, part of historians’ task, if we are addressing ourselves to an audience other than our professional peers, is to acquaint others with past cultures without reducing those cultures to slightly faded carbon copies of our own. In other words, at one extreme of the pedagogical spectrum, the past remains not only (in the famous words of L.P. Hartley) a foreign country where people do things differently, but one hidden behind iron curtains, for which writers and instructors can issue no passports, and which students can never hope to approach – except, perhaps, by peering over the borders with a sense of bafflement that anyone might deem to live in such a way. On the other end of the spectrum, however, lies the danger of facile comprehensibility, the subsuming of another time or place or people by one’s own – the kind of intellectual imperialism that J.Z. Smith has so eloquently shown up in the study of “world religions.”

Sometimes the latter effect is the result of particularly good teaching, combined with an audience of particularly engaged students: I am reminded of a comment by a very bright young man who had recently completed a study of Plato’s Theatetus and observed that Socrates & Co. were engaged in much the same kind of effort as his own colleagues in the liberal arts. Well, yes – but also: no. Inasmuch as students are able to leave a course with a sense of “been there, done that” about any historical practice, whether trebuchet-building or ascetic renunciation, the course has, perhaps, crossed the line from making history grasp-able to making it liable to domestication.

That is not to say that courses like the one offered at Penn are not valuable dialogue partners for historians, and I know of more than one colleague for whom the article provided a provocative conversation starter for her students. Perhaps more importantly, students who have learned in the course of ascetic practice to attend to the voices of their peers, likely also have the facility of listening to voices from other eras – of becoming excellent readers of texts, in other words, as well as compassionate listeners. What more, really, can one ask of budding historians?