29 November 2011

Happy Birthday C. S. Lewis

One hundred thirteen years ago today, Clive Staples Lewis entered the world in Belfast Ireland.  For much of his early life, Lewis was an atheist, so it would've appeared that his life would make little difference in church history.  Through a friendship with J. R. R. Tolkein (author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy), he converted to Christianity.

All Christians could learn something from reading C. S. Lewis.  An ignorant Christian he was not.  He served as a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge in the UK.  His writings appealed to both children and adults.  Recently, some of his series The Chronicles of Narnia appeared on the big screen and had some popularity.  His most famous work is probably Mere Christianity, which Christianity Today named the best book of the twentieth century.  Mere Christianity is an apologetic work that tries to strip Christianity to the bare essentials. 

Lewis was an orthodox Anglican, but he attempted to emphasize a bare bones Christian faith that all true Christians would agree with.  He is famous for the trilemma regarding Jesus.  Lewis argued that it is not enough to just view Jesus as a good teacher.  If he claimed to be God and he was not, that made him a horrible liar at worst, or a crazed lunatic at best, in the view of Lewis.  His conclusion was that Christ must be a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord he claimed to be.  While I would not necessarily endorse all of Lewis' views, He made a very logical argument for the Christian faith.

Today, some colleges and seminaries hold classes directly related to the writings of C. S. Lewis.  His writings cannot be ignored in the field of apologetics, and have influenced people on both sides of the Atlantic.  For that reason, I say, happy birthday, Mr. Lewis.

26 November 2011

Top Book Suggestions for Christmas Gifts

It's now less than a month until Christmas.  While I'm not a huge fan of the all of the commercialism that is tied to the holiday, I confess I still celebrate with the family and give gifts (well, actually, my wife picks out all of the gifts, except for what I get her).  In light of this, here's a list of some of the most interesting books that I've read in the last year or so while in grad school.  Some are related to church history, some to some other field of history, and some to culture in general.  All can be purchased at Amazon.com through the wonderful link at the top of this blog.  

1. Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770.  This book is a bit gross, but it is probably still my favorite that I've read since starting my doctoral program--probably because it's gross.  It discusses the life of common folk in early modern England in a, well, sort of gross manner.  Not related to church history.

2. D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisisted.  Carson critiques Richard Neibuhr's Christ and Culture and looks at the relationship between Christians and society.  He discusses postmodernism and church/state relations.  If you can get through the first chapter, the rest of the book is a much easier (less deep) read.  I've been reading it along with some professors who were nice enough to ask me to join their reading group.

3. Timothy Keller, Generous Justice.  Critique of the much of Christian society from an evangelical insider.  Causes some serious thinking regarding prevalent evangelical thought on society and economics.

4. Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America.  This book looks at the change in Puritan attitudes to merchants from the Great Migration of the 1630s to the Great Awakening.  They started out pseudo-socialists and basically ended up rabid capitalists.  Find out why.

5. Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. This book looks in some ways at religious and moral thought during the Civil War, but ties it to thoughts prior to the war.  This book influenced my own thinking, and I utilized some of the thinking (with credit given, of course) in some of my recent work.

These are just a few recommendations.  Even if you're not going to buy these, you can still utilize the link to Amazon to buy anything that they have for Christmas gifts or at any time of the year.

24 November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Hello on this wonderful Thanksgiving Day.  Today is supposed to be beautiful in North Dakota.  Yesterday was a balmy 58 degrees and today is also supposed to be above 50, which is really, really warm for this time of year.  Last year we had snow all week and it was about 15-20 for a high temperature (it was that cold just last Saturday...made for a painful walk from the parking lot to the indoor football stadium).  Therefore, the weather today is definitely something to be thankful for.  I'm also very thankful for another year with my wife and daughters.

Here's a link to an article on the first Thanksgiving in 1621.  There was a feast, but there was no football game.  On another note, I don't think that the Pilgrims or the Indians camped out for days to be the first into the local Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving evening.  While I don't have a problem with people having the freedom to shop whenever they so desire, I do think that the ever shorter period of time taken for giving thanks and spending time with family indicate what is most important in our society.  Time for thanks gets pushed aside for commercialism tied to Christmas (which is another disconcerting sign of the times and American materialism, IMHO). 

To get some feedback on feelings toward the start of Black Thursday on Thanksgiving Eve, I am interested to see who will be going to any stores opening before midnight tonight (Thanksgiving).  You can either comment or fill out the poll on the sidebar.  God bless and have a great Thanksgiving regardless.

21 November 2011

On This Date, the Pilgrims Reached America

It is very fitting, with Thanksgiving falling later this week, that the first settlers in colonial New England anchored just off the coast of Massachusetts.  The complete story of the Pilgrims often gets lost as the first Thanksgiving seems to dominate the popular understanding of the group.  The Pilgrims were a small group of Separatists from Scrooby, England.

Some people (including one so prominent as T. O. Lloyd, among the best historians of the British Empire) call the Separatists Puritans.  The Puritans were quite content to stay in the Church of England with certain reservations.  The Pilgrims, on the other hand, were not quite so complicit.  They decided to break with the church, which was quite the no-no in a very intolerant age in which the civil and religious hierarchies demanded strict conformity.  To escape persecution, these Separatists moved to the Dutch city of Leiden.  The Netherlands was the most tolerant religious nation in the seventeenth century.  However, the sinfulness of the Dutch (as well as their lack of Englishness, which influenced the Pilgrim children) led the Separatists from Scrooby to consider another option--Virginia.  The Pilgrims' stay in Leiden is commemorated in a museum, however.

In September 1620, after having returned to England, the Pilgrims began their journey.  Their journey was delayed a couple of times because one of the ships that was to bring them over had (apparently debatable) issues over seaworthiness.  All of the Pilgrims then crowded upon the Mayflower and embarked on their journey.  Leaving in September was not a good idea, as the journey took several weeks.  A storm blew the ship off-course, and the small group failed to reach Virginia.  Instead, they wound up outside the land that their charter defined, hence the famous Mayflower Compact.  They probably didn't land a Plymouth Rock itself, but they nevertheless reached the New World on November 21, 1620.  William Bradford was very important, and his diary provides important information on the Plymouth Colony, which lasted until the early 1690s, at which point Massachusetts absorbed Plymouth.

In spite of their popularity because of Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims are much less important than the Puritans who followed them in 1630.  The number of Pilgrims was nowhere near as large as that of the Puritans.  The Puritans would greatly impact the society of New England with their idea of the godly society, while they basically absorbed the Pilgrims.  Nonetheless, November 21, 1620, is a pretty important date in American history. I would argue, however, that it does not establish religious freedom in America.  Just because a group wanted freedom for itself does not mean it wants it for everyone else.  Hence, they left the libertarian Netherlands.  Their journey does indicate the importance of religious belief and how it can impact the decisions and behavior of people, and the beliefs of the Pilgrims and Puritans led them to leave home for their "City upon a Hill."

16 November 2011

Winding up a Semester

Well...it seems as though my third semester as a doctoral student just started.  When it did, there were leaves on the trees and the daytime high temp was around 90.  Yesterday, we got our first measurable snow and the high temp today was somewhere in the mid-20s.  Even though the snow was only around an inch, its still around.  Only 4 weeks left in this semester. 

From time to time I submit a post to the Christian Blog Carnival.  This week's host is Harry Neufeld at Jevlir Caravansary.  My recent post on Weber's thesis on the Protestant work ethic was included.  Included on this was a post that questioned if there was room for Christian business leaders in today's cut-throat climte.  I found the article interesting in light of all of the complaints about poor ethics in business today.

Another academic blog that I look at frequently is the Religion in American History blog.  This blog recently had a three-part series by an academic who worked at a Christian company for the summer that tied in some ways to the Weber thesis.  Another writer on this collaborative blog included a response to the initial series.  These have been some of the more interesting non-school related things that I've seen lately.  I'm still plodding away on a Puritan historiography, research for an upcoming public history publication on a historic North Dakota church building, and independent readings on general world history. 

10 November 2011

Where Did Americans Get Their Work Ethic?

Here is a section from a historiographical paper that I'm writing on the Puritans.  I'll probably post the entire paper here later if it doesn't get reamed terribly.  I reviewed the book referred to below last year for a class on the Anglo-Atlantic World.  While the so-called Weber thesis has its detractors, it is still quite popular in the popular consciousness of American society, even in a more pluralistic age.  I can remember some undergrad professors at West Virginia Tech in the mid-1990s talking about the "Judeo-Christian ethic" or the "Protestant ethic."  Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism greatly contributed to this belief.

Many writers have attempted to depict the Puritans as a sort of proto-capitalists.  Authors such as Max Weber and R. H. Tawney popularized this motif.  Weber, a nineteenth-century sociologist, attempted to explain the rise of capitalism.  He argued that a “Protestant ethic” was the impetus that allowed for the development of capitalism.  This opposed Karl Marx’s view that class struggle led to the rise of capitalism.  Weber defined the “spirit of capitalism” as “the earning of more and more money, combined with the avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life.” (53)   

According to Weber, the Protestant idea of a calling in life (to a certain occupation or station) was crucial to the development of modern capitalism.  He contrasted the worldview of European Catholics with that of Protestant ascetic sects, such as the Calvinists, Pietists, Methodists, and Baptists.  Weber argued that medieval and early modern Catholics worked to live.  They did enough to provide for themselves and the society in which they lived, with little concern for working harder.  He then looked at the Calvinists, with their emphasis on predestination and the corresponding concern for an assurance of their salvation.  While good works would not save them, the Calvinists believed that good works were a sign of one’s election and that they would bring the desired assurance of God’s favor.  The Calvinists and other ascetic groups worked hard because of their belief that God had called them to a certain occupation.  According to Weber, instead of working to live, the Calvinists lived to work so that they could obtain assurance of their salvation.  Work in itself was done for the glory of God, and to fail to do one’s best was viewed as a sign of reprobation.  

Since the earning of money was a side benefit of work, the earning of money could then be viewed as a noble goal if done for the glory of God, rather than being done simply for the enrichment of the worker.  Weber’s main point was that this ethic was responsible for the rise of capitalism.  This Calvinist work ethic definitely applied to the Puritans.  However, Weber’s thesis did not take into account the fact that Venice, Genoa, and other Italian city-states were the originators of much that makes up modern capitalism.  These early Italian merchants did not shy away from making money, and they were not Protestant, but Catholic.  In addition, Weber did not really address the use of colonial possessions and new technology in the rise of capitalism, so there is much room for debate on his famous thesis.

09 November 2011

The Church in the Wildwood

This summer, I had the opportunity (quite by accident) to visit the Little Brown Church in the Vale.  This church was made famous by the song on the "Church in the Wildwood."  I happened to drive by it on my way back from a trip home with the family to West Virginia.  We decided to take the kids to the St. Louis Gateway Arch and driving through rural Iowa was the shortest route from St. Louis to North Dakota. 

The Little Brown Church in the Vale showed up on the map as a landmark of interest.  Being the church nut that I am, I had to stop and see the church since it was only a couple of miles off of the highway.  This Congregational church sits just outside of Nashua, Iowa, and dates to the 1860s.  It is easily accessible from US Highway 218.  While not an imposing structure like some of the churches in the Czech Republic that I've posted on this site, it was nonetheless pretty cool to see a historic country church.  The church is still in use, and hosts many weddings on an annualized basis.  The church also holds baptism on Sunday afternoons.  The church is memorialized by the song, and is a link to the pioneer days.  Often, one of the earliest structures built in new towns was a church (or churches).  Many of these churches no longer stand, but they were an important part of pioneer life.  It's impossible to tell the story of American history (or the history of just about any nation) without mentioning the history of religion.  In America, that religion is Christianity.  The early settlers had beliefs that influenced the way that they lived.  Below are photos of the the Little Brown Church in the Vale:

04 November 2011

The Oldest English Church in North America

While looking at another blog today, I saw a link to an excavation that has been underway in Jamestown (Virginia, not North Dakota).  In 1607 the Virginia Company started the first permanent English colony in the New World at what became known as Jamestown (after King James I, the king who had the Bible translated).

This colony has often been described as unruly, individualist, communist, and all sorts of other things.  The religious sentiments of the settlers has often been downplayed by arguments that wealth was the only concern.  There cannot be any doubt that obtaining wealth was an important reason for the colony's founding in light of massive Spanish extraction of gold and silver from Central and South America.  I've read some conservatives slam the colony for their communistic tendencies because everyone expected to share in the food stock.  However, with everyone looking for gold, it seems a bit more greedy than a communist utopia.  The settlers did not really concern themselves with food or shelter because of this thirst for gold.  However, their religion was still a big deal to them.

The current excavation involves the Fort's church, which housed the wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas.  The church, according to the article, was built in 1608.  The outline of the structure that the archaeologists have uncovered was about 24 x 64, which would be a massive structure in comparison to the rest of the structures in the early fort.  This indicates the importance of the Christianity of these earliest English settlers.  As I've recently mentioned in a recent post on Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness, the Virginia settlers were not completely worldly-minded as many would have us think.  Of course, they weren't on the same level as Puritans in New England, either.

03 November 2011

Backlash against Tebowing

Today, I read an online sports article that questioned why so many people hate Tim Tebow.  As of about 6 pm CDT today, there were over 60 pages of comments to this article, which was one of the bigger library of comments that I've seen for a sports post.  At ten posts per page, that's over 600 comments on this one post.

The author brought up a couple of good questions that are integrally related to the intersection of religion and American culture.  First, would those who mocked Tebow on the field last weekend by "Tebowing" have gotten a free pass if they had insulted someone of another faith?  It's a valid question.  Perhaps political correctness is only important when dealing with minority religious faiths? (I would argue that this is the case.) 

Secondly, why do people pick on Tebow specifically, when other Christian athletes have no problem showing their Christianity?  People seem to want this guy to fail miserably.  From all accounts Tebow is a nice guy.  Nice guys usually don't play well in pop culture.  Perhaps that has something to do with it.  He is not a top-ranked QB at this point and he may never get there, but there was a great deal of hype about him coming out of college as a first-round draft pick.

We live in a culture in which faith is supposed to be fenced off into the "personal", rather than the public arena.  Regardless, would people be allowed to get by with joking about someone's Buddhism in this manner?  I'm not really offended, but it sets a bit of a double standard, don't you think?

01 November 2011

What I'm Reading--Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order

As I prepare to write my historiography on Puritans this semester, I've had to write four book reviews.  I've already posted a preliminary review of Perry Miller's influential work Errand into the Wilderness.  Here is a review of my reading of Margo Todd's Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order (1987).  I must say that I found the book quite interesting, and the thesis quite intriguing.  While I had a couple of small questions, I think the author did a good job of proving a tie between thinkers like Erasmus and the Puritans.  Here is the review:

Todd, Margo. Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order. Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1987. x and 293 pages. Bibliography and Index.

            Margo Todd, currently Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order in 1987 while at Vanderbilt University.  One of Todd’s specialties is the culture of Reformed Protestantism in Britain and early America.  In addition to this book, she has also authored Reformation to Revolution: Politics and Religion in Early Modern England and The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland.  She is a previous winner of the Longman History-Today Prize and the Scottish History Book of the Year award, in addition to holding fellowships with the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the NEH, and the Royal Historical Society, among others.[1]
            When Todd wrote Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order, the historiographical debate centered on what impact the puritans had on the English Revolution, if they existed at all, as Michael Finlayson argued. (1)  Todd did not question the existence of Puritans, but questioned the assertion by Max Weber, R. H. Tawney, Christopher Hill, and Michael Walzer that “attributed to protestant religious zealots a degree of originality of thought rarely assigned to and almost never deserved by any intellectual movement.” (4) She believed that a move to place Puritans in the religious mainstream was a “step forward” in the historiography. (2)  In looking at the origins of Puritan thought, Todd looked back to the writings of Christian humanists, such as Desiderius Erasmus and Juan Luis Vives.
            Todd did not assert a conservative nature to Christian humanism.  She rightly pointed out that Erasmian ideas were largely a reaction against Thomist theology and philosophy.  The humanists, of whom Erasmus was the leading example, believed that much could be learned from the classical civilizations of the Greeks and Romans and emphasized such writings on civic virtue.  They encouraged the learning of classical languages and a critical approach to learning. 
This humanist social ethic which puritans would find so attractive was biblical in its apologetic, eclectic in its sources, mundane in its concerns but religious in its goals, practical in its methodology, and activist in its approach…The moral reconstruction of the social order was its ultimate objective—and its supreme attraction for protestant reformers. (22)
These Christian humanists, while Catholic themselves, questioned much of the medieval Catholic social order.
            Todd utilized many of the writings of Christian humanists and Protestant reformers.  She also relied on commonplace books from students at leading English universities to understand both the ideas being taught and the reactions of the students toward these ideas.  Christian humanist ideas passed to English Puritans largely through the universities, as these commonplace books and other notebooks show through their frequent citations of writers such as Erasmus and Vives and their use of Scholastic thinkers largely as punching bags. 
            After discussing a definition of Christian humanism and then pointing out how humanist ideas were transferred, Todd moved to the major areas of life that these new ideas impacted.  Contrary to medieval teaching on gender relations that viewed sex as a sort of necessary evil only meant to propagate the race, humanists and puritans both idealized the home as a miniature of the perfect society.  The ideal of celibacy came into question as a perfectly ordered home with children became the new goal. 
In addition to this questioning of domestic arrangements, humanists and Puritans started to question medieval ideas about economic issues.  Indiscriminate almsgiving came under scrutiny in this new environment.  Humanists encouraged state contributions and public employment (they believed most men willing to work) to alleviate the suffering of the poor so that alms would go to those who needed them, rather than to those who asked the loudest.  For a time, England actually attempted this system with some degree of success.  Many humanists also came to question the monastic system.  Those who were supposed to be poor through begging actually had access to great wealth through church property.  This did not sit well with Christian humanists.
One final major area of dispute that the humanists had with medieval thought related to the hierarchical “Great Chain of Being,” which held to a pyramidal view of power with God at the top, followed by the monarch (or pope), then nobility, then the masses.  This order was closely tied to heredity.  The Christian humanists decried heredity as a requirement for leadership.  They argued, to a degree, for a meritocracy as a better system, as the offspring of nobles were often lazy and at times incompetent. 
Todd’s final chapter, “The Conservative Reaction,” is not terribly surprising.  When those with power have their authority questioned, they often behave in a very reactionary manner.  The author argued that the Council of Trent and the Lambeth Conference embodied this reaction.  One result of Trent was the creation of the Index of Prohibited Books.  At first, only those books of Erasmus that questioned the established order found their way to the Index.  After giving the concept a second thought, however, all writings from such a subversive author received this treatment.  The new ideas for ameliorating the plight of the poor lost ground, and Trent argued that discriminate almsgiving threatened the souls of those who had lost the opportunity to give through indiscriminate charity, although this did not specifically affect Anglicans as much as it did continental Catholics. 
Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order did a good job of tying ideas about society from the Christian humanists to the English Puritans.  The use of commonplace books in the English universities provided an excellent opportunity to see exactly what ideas impacted the leading students of the age.  While this tie between humanists and Puritans was largely ignored prior to Todd’s work, there were some items that did not get as much weight as they possibly deserved.  Humanism in many ways had a much more tolerant view of the world, which does not agree with the actions of many of the stronger Puritans, especially the ones who migrated to North America in the 1630s.  Also, there was a major divergence between an Erasmian view of the world with an emphasis on the freedom of the will against a Calvinist understanding of affairs that was even more emphatic than Martin Luther’s view in On the Bondage of the Will, itself a critique of Erasmus.  Todd argued that “the Calvinist view of the elect as God’s instruments to implement his will in the world necessitates an activist stance on the part of the believer.” (17)  However, this still does not reconcile the generally positive view of man’s ability among humanists with the very negative belief held by Calvinists.  In spite of these questions, there is little doubt that the Christian humanists informed the ideas of the early Puritans.  In this, Todd succeeded in her efforts.

[1] “Margo Todd,” http://www.history.upenn.edu/faculty/todd.shtml (accessed November 1, 2011).