Revivals, Idolatry and Politics

I went to a good, old-fashioned revival last week.  I found it interesting that in this age of mega-churches and coffee bars in the foyer and big-screen HD technology, this meeting still had many things that I had seen before in revival meetings.

Consider the following features: it drew a big crowd and opened up with music.  We were told to go out and go door to door to spread the faith in our neighborhoods.  We were told that we shouldn’t be shy to talk to our co-workers and neighbors and friends.  We were told we lived in a broken society and we were part of the solution to set things back down the right path. Then we hit a musical interlude in which a quartet sang “Amazing Grace.”  And finally the main preacher got up and stirred the crowd with an impassioned message, reminding us that we were part of something bigger than ourselves.  Right before the final music, he told us that the greatest hope for earth was….

Wait a minute.  I’m sorry, I got confused.

This wasn’t an evangelical revival.  It was a political rally for Mitt Romney.  (Four blocks away from my house, actually, at the local high school baseball field).

The similarities of the Romney rally to evangelical religious revivals are not merely interesting coincidences.  (And let me just annoy both the die-hard Democrats and die-hard Republicans among you by saying that Obama rallies and Romney rallies are pretty much structured the same way.)

There is a historic connection between political campaigns and revivals.  As early as the 1740s, George Whitefield and other evangelical revivalists pioneered techniques for preaching to large audiences – often outdoors.  By the early 19th century Baptist and Methodist revivalists (like the circuit-riding guy on the horse on my blog masthead) had perfected these methods.  They became so widespread and so effective that politicians picked them up for their own campaigning purposes.  These rallies have been a part of our political culture ever since.

I wonder if this is more than a historic curiosity, though.  This past Sunday, while speaking on a totally different topic, my pastor pointed out that we make idols out of all sorts of things, and we aren’t even aware that we do it.

In the passion of a political campaign, we can make politics and the United States itself into an idol.  It seems to me that the subtle similarities to evangelical revivals can stoke hopes and desires that this candidate, this political party, this policy, this nation will save us from the woes that beset us.

Ponder this:  at the close of his rally the other night (right before the fireworks), Mitt Romney declared that America is the hope for the world.


Jesus Christ is the hope for the world.

Wise political leaders, well-crafted policies and effective governments can bring order to society and limit evils and sins that we humans inflict on one another.  We need to do the best we can to work for good government, which has an important role in this world.  That role, however, is not that of savior.  Politicians, policies and the nation cannot eliminate those evils or sins, nor can they truly save us from them.

American political leaders have long had a habit of slipping into over-the-top rhetoric because it gets American audiences fired up.   We hear it and we don’t even realize that we are asking the United States to take on the role that only Christ can fulfill.  In 2008 Barack Obama declared that “the United States is the last great hope for humanity.”  Sarah Palin proclaimed that “America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has known.” Abraham Lincoln, that kindly, avuncular, home-spun Midwesterner on our penny said “My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.”

How do you like your idolatry?  It comes in tasty Democrat, Republican and historic flavors.

For those of you who want a sophisticated and challenging theological discussion of these things, I would recommend Theopolitical Imagination by William T. Cavanaugh, particularly his essay, “The Myth of the State as Savior.”

Otherwise, ponder (and pray about) this question this election season:  when, where and how do we slip into this kind of idolatry?  And what kind of citizen is Christ calling me to be?

Bloggers Who Direct You to Other Blogs that Blog about Books by the Blogger Who Directed You to that Blog

Uh, that would be me, in this blog.

I keep forgetting that one of the things that happens on blogs is that the blogger gets to promote his/her own book.

Over at the “Hermeneutic Circle,” Jared Burkholder of Grace College interviewed me about An Unpredicatable Gospel.  You can check out the interview here and here.

And you should take a peruse through Jared’s blog as well.

Evangelical Colleges: Politically Captive?

I’m taking a break from James Bond and Samuel Sharpe to ask some election season questions:

Is the college where I work, Malone University, hopelessly conservative because it is, after all, largely evangelical and requires its professors to abide by a statement of faith?  Or is it hopelessly liberal because it does, after all, have a tendency to employ pointy-headed professors?

Yeah, I get it from both sides.

For instance, a few months ago, I was invited to speak about presidential elections in American history at an event for clients of a financial services company.  In my role as a history professor, I made a few modest historical observations.

I was paired with another speaker who had worked on Capitol Hill.  He essentially laid out possible odds for which party might win the White House and the houses of Congress.  Although he was introduced as a former congressional staffer, the audience was not told that he had worked for Democratic members of Congress.

What I found most interesting was the reaction from the audience.  We both received a range of questions, but a few people singled me out for special attention on one issue.  One woman came up afterwards and asked me what party I supported.  Even though I told her I considered myself an independent, she did not really believe me because, as she said, liberalism was so rampant among college professors.  Several other audience members made comments indicating that they had similar assumptions about my political commitments.

The other speaker, the bona fide blue-state Democrat, did not receive similar comments.

Now, I had tried to be studiously non-partisan. I had given a Republican and a Democrat example from history for every point I made.  I had suggested that audience members ought to find a friend who supports the opposing candidate and have breakfast with them once a week so that they could hear different viewpoints and discuss them in a civil manner.  But it was apparent that some of the conservative members of the audience still looked on me with suspicion because I am, after all, a pointy-headed professor.

Then yesterday I read an Atlantic blog by Conor Friedersdorf that described “epistemic closure.”  This refers, in essence, to people who get all their information about the world from institutions promoting the same worldview.  These folk never encounter opposing viewpoints.  In Friedersdorf’s estimation, conservatives are particularly guilty of this type of close-mindedness and evangelical colleges are part of the problem.  “It’s now theoretically possible to go from evangelical homeschooling to a conservative college where debating abortion is verboten,” he wrote, “to a job at a conservative think tank, reached via a talk-radio-filled commute.”

To be fair to Friedersdorf, he is primarily discussing the role of conservative media.  However, his argument is based upon the claim that conservatives have built cradle-to-grave institutions that are closed off from intellectual diversity.  I am, it appears, part of this epistemic closure.  I do not know if he would believe me if I told him I am an independent.

This is the world I live in.  Greg Miller, a colleague of mine, says that evangelical professors sit on a window sill high up in the ivory tower.  And all the non-evangelical academics in the ivory tower are yelling at us, “jump, jump!”  Meanwhile, down below on the ground, are the members of our evangelical churches.  They are looking up at us teetering on the window sill of the ivory tower.  And they are yelling, “jump, jump!”

So are evangelical colleges close-minded?  There is data to suggest that evangelical colleges are more conservative than other types of institutions.  Inside Higher Ed reported yesterday that the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute released a study that ranks “private, 4-year, other religious” (meaning non-Catholic) colleges as the most conservative of any kind of institution.  (The other categories are “public universities, private universities, public 4-year colleges, private 4-year non-sectarian colleges, and private Catholic 4-year colleges).  I don’t know what percentage of evangelical colleges make up the category of “private, 4-year, other religious” colleges, but since Catholic and non-sectarian colleges fall under different categories, it has to be a large number.  At any rate, it strongly suggests that evangelical colleges are more conservative than other kinds of institutions.

But does that make evangelical colleges close-minded and guilty of “epistemic closure?”

Over at the “Pietist Schoolman” blog, Chris Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University in Minnesota addressed this question a couple of weeks ago.  He gave evidence and arguments for why institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities do not fit into a category of “right-wing monoliths.”  This fits with my impression of Malone, where I know we have professors from a range of political positions (though I do not know exact numbers.)  Gehrz wrote that “I feel like I’ve heard as many complaints from conservative professors about the lack of right-wing speakers on campus as vice-versa, but I’d also say that most of us are not all that politically partisan and that our students probably aren’t all that certain of how we vote.”

Gehrz admitted, humbly, that this may be wishful thinking.  He pointed out that we need more studies on these sorts of things.  I agree.

So here is the interesting part of the recent UCLA study:  one could conclude that evangelical colleges (or to be more accurate, “private, 4-year, other religious” colleges) are the most politically diverse of all types of institutions of higher education.

Check out the numbers.  In the study, 23% of the professors at these colleges consider themselves to be politically “conservative” and 0.6% consider themselves to be “far right.”  That is 10% higher than any other kind of institution in higher education, which is what makes them conservative, in the eyes of many academics.  But we also find that 29.1 % consider themselves “middle of the road.”   And the study reports that 40% of the professors at these institutions consider themselves “liberal” and 7.4% consider themselves to be “far left.”  This is what makes them liberal, in the eyes of many ordinary evangelicals.

In my eyes, this is what makes them politically diverse.

Or, at least, the most politically diverse kind of college you can find.

Yes, the UCLA study is only a small glimpse into a complicated issue.  For instance, I do not know what institutions get included in the “private, 4-year, religious” category.  And one will need to look more fully at individual evangelical colleges to better determine the extent to which they are guilty of “epistemic closure,” though one should ask the exact same questions about colleges that have large percentages of liberal professors.  The point is that the UCLA study carries more weight than perceptions, which is all that most people have to base their conclusions on at this point.  At the very least, the study suggests that “private, 4-year, other religious” colleges are better than other educational institutions at hiring professors from a range of political positions.  If, however, you want an education that has the narrowest range of political views, you should attend a public university or a private, non-sectarian, 4-year college.

Better yet, choose an evangelical college for its ability to integrate faith and learning.

“Ah, ha!” many academics will say.  That is exactly what makes evangelical colleges guilty of indoctrination, close-mindedness and “epistemic closure.”

I disagree.  But I’d be happy to talk about it and listen to opposing viewpoints.



James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Missionaries and World Christianity

James Bond, missionaries, and world Christianity?

You may be thinking that I have a topic that really does not fit in my contest about which individual we should be more interested in.  You may be thinking that because I have written a book about missionaries and world Christianity, I am looking for a cheap way to turn the topic back to my interests. You may be thinking that I am playing a literary bait and switch here, using James Bond to hook your interest in something totally different.

You may be right.

But then, again, you may not be.

Granted, the nature of James Bond films compels me to shift the point a bit.  I can’t have a sensible contest based on the question of how world Christianity plays out in these thoroughly secular films.  There is, however, a closely related topic to world Christianity.  What happens when the Bond films cross cultural boundaries?  What does cross-cultural engagement look like?

Let’s just say, not great.  Bond films exude an aura of British superiority.  This ethnocentrism, apparently, was even stronger in the Ian Fleming books.  In fact, the whiff of British exceptionalism was so strong that some storylines had to be revised when the books were made into movies for American audiences.  I guess American audiences don’t like to be depicted as inferior.  Who knew?

It gets worse, however, when dealing with non-Anglos, particularly in the books and early films.  The villains are often nonwhites and they are often deformed.  Furthermore, nonwhites just don’t have the brains, the sensibility, the skills, or the enlightened rationality of the Brits (or the Americans, for the film versions).  In “Dr. No,” Bond enlists the help of a Jamaican assistant to investigate Dr. No’s hideout, but this black guy, like the other

The dragon: ha, ha, it’s just clever technology, folks.

Jamaicans, is deathly afraid of the rumors he has heard about a dragon that inhabits the island.  The “dragon” turns out to be a flame-throwing tractor with big teeth painted on the front.  The foolish, superstitious and cowardly Jamaican assistant gets killed in the ensuing battle, but the film viewers are not supposed to care because, like the villains, his life doesn’t seem to matter much.  (It should be noted that even though they are evil, none of Dr. No’s scientific assistants are black.  His hideout displays a level of intelligence that blacks do not seem capable of achieving.)

The Jamaican assistant’s fear of the “dragon” emerges from a common depiction of race and religion that comes straight from the 18thcentury Enlightenment thinker (and Brit) David Hume.  According to Hume, less rational people, particularly those who have not been blessed with civilization, believe in irrational religious beliefs that express themselves in superstitious behaviors.  Enlightened and rational people, on the other hand, build sophisticated, morally superior civilizations that progress beyond the ignorance of previous

Build your own “Dr. No” Lego dragon! Pretend you are intimidating inferior people!

ages.  “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites,” Hume wrote in Essays, Moral and Political.  “No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences.”  Most people easily spot the racism in Hume’s thinking.  However, his claims about religious faith, which masquerade as rational truth, still infect much of the western world today

Samuel Sharpe, who lived half a century after Hume’s death and more than a century before the first James Bond film, would seem to qualify as a superstitious and naturally inferior “species of men.”

But here is where world Christianity helps expose fallacies in Hume’s and Fleming’s brand of Enlightenment thinking.  Sharpe’s relationship with the missionaries brings out point.  The leaders of this 1831 Jamaican rebellion (as well as a similar rebellion eight years earlier in Demerara, on the north coast of South America) were deacons and evangelists.  Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries from Britain had been ministering among the slaves for the previous decades.  Slaveowners, in fact, complained bitterly that the missionaries were spreading radical and subversive ideas about equality and abolition among the slaves.  (Hume, who believed that evangelical religion led to social disorder, political radicalism, emotional derangement and psychological delusion, would have agreed).

The missionaries, however, did not promote, plan or lead the rebellion.  In fact, they warned the slaves not to plan any resistance, they downplayed the possibility of emancipation getting passed in Parliament, and they did not even know of Sharpe’s rebellion until right before it occurred.

In other words, this movement took off without missionary leadership, in ways they did not expect and could not control.  That is usually what has happened when a movement of Christianity emerged and grew after it had crossed cultural boundaries.

There is also a theological point here about cultural blind spots.  Although they were generally favorable to antislavery ideas, British missionaries preached a simple evangelistic message and stayed away from topics of abolition.  The slaves who had converted to Christianity, however, saw implications in the gospel that white Christians were slow to recognize:  the Exodus story indicates that slavery is not God’s plan for the world.  The same held true for Christian slaves in the American South.  On Sunday mornings they might hear a white minister preach on the text, “slaves obey your masters,” but on Sunday nights, in the privacy of their separate worship, they heard slave preachers draw conclusions about freedom from the Gospel.  And they wrote and sang scores of spirituals with themes of being released from bondage in Egypt and entering in the Promised Land.

These slave spirituals could get emotional, a point that Hume would have looked on with distaste.  The slaves could not boast of “ingenious manufactures” or cool Bondian technology.  They did not display the marks of a “civilized” people.  But they understood truths unknown by rational philosophers like Hume and clever writers like Fleming.

That’s interesting.



James Bond      2

Samuel Sharpe  3

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Looking for God’s Hand in History

And now, a question that makes Christian historians uneasy.  Is it possible to identify how God works through history?

My guess is that many ordinary Christians would answer yes to that question.  Most Christian academics would be very hesitant to say one could do it.

Does that seem strange?

Actually, there are some very good reasons why academic historians—even those with a deep Christian faith–do not think we should wade into these waters.  Frankly, it can be arrogant (and thus sinful) to claim that one can fathom the ways of God in the wider world.  Historians are well aware that Christian Yankees and Christian Confederates during the Civil War each claimed that they could see God at work in the war, but those claims nearly always tried to prove that God was on their side and against the other side.  Historians also know that other Christians, like the Puritans, stumbled over themselves trying to determine what counted as God’s favor, what counted as God’s judgment, what counted as Satan afflicting the faithful, and what counted as Satan fooling people into thinking their prosperity was God’s favor when it was really Christians sinfully putting trust in their own goodness instead of God.  It got messy.

Furthermore, academic historians who try to piece together history from thousands of incomplete, complicated and conflicting primary sources know that figuring out what caused what in history is actually a tentative and uncertain business–even when we don’t try to bring in questions about the hand of God into the picture.  Good historical methodology is based on making careful judgments based on the evidence we have before us.  How in the world could we determine what counts as evidence of God’s activity?  This is complicated by the reality that Christians have different theological explanations for how God works in the world.

Finally, the “rules of the game” for historical scholarship declare that we should stick to evidence and assumptions that all historians can observe and agree upon, regardless of their religious or intellectual commitments.  History is not a discipline, it is assumed, that can address theological questions.

And yet.

And yet, as a Christian historian, I am not fully satisfied with how we do things.  Now, I’m not quite what to do about it.  But I am curious about these questions.

For instance, it seems to me that we humans yearn for a grand purpose and direction in our existence and this comes out in the stories we tell, including our academic histories.  As a result, we consciously or unconsciously end up trying to tell stories that fit into a master narrative that in some way mimics, approximates or searches for the hand of God.

Take James Bond.  OK, it seems odd to look for the hand of God in James Bond films. Bond operates in thoroughly secular world.  One can’t find God, Christian faith or any kind of religious practice anywhere.  Furthermore, these films seem to be little more than entertainment.  The vast majority of viewers don’t think very deeply about James Bond films and the film makers probably didn’t think very deeply about what they were doing, either.  It may be pushing it to look for any larger meaning here.

But millions of people find these films to be interesting stories.  Why is that?  I would suggest that a good part of the reason is that we know that James Bond will not fail.  Yes, there will be set backs and tight spots.  He’ll get conked over the head a few times.  But he always comes out on top by the time the closing credits roll.  And we all know it.

The problem is that no human can go through life with Bond’s success rate.  We can try to fool ourselves into fantasizing about being clever, witty, sexy, technologically astute and successful like James Bond, but we’ll never live up to his fictional example.  But I don’t think Bond’s appeal normally lies in viewers imagining themselves to be like him.  Instead, I would suggest that there is a reason why stories in which good triumphs over evil are so popular.  It is because, consciously or unconsciously, we yearn for a Savior who can defeat evil and make everything right in the end.  Temporarily, at least, James Bond makes us believe that evil will be overcome.

What about Samuel Sharpe?  He was, after all, a living human being and not a fictional character.   How do we tell his story and what meaning do we take out of it?

Here is what I find so interesting about Samuel Sharpe:  he failed.  And he failed spectacularly.  His rebellion was quashed.  He was executed.  So were many of his fellow rebels.  That is about as final of a failure as one could imagine.

But as I pointed out earlier, the low level of violence and ultimate failure of the rebellion helped convince a significant number of Brits that blacks were not animalistic savages.  This reality played an important role in the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

We don’t have a lot of documentation to know what Sharpe was thinking, but I don’t see how he could have predicted how his rebellion would play out.  I think it is safe to say that even though Sharpe probably calculated that a low-violence campaign would help his cause, it seems absurd to think that he figured that a quashed rebellion and his own execution would produce a favorable outcome.

Stay with me, here.  Maybe, just maybe, the structure of those events make it possible to see the hand of God in this.  All people of good will today, whether they are Christian or not, can agree that the abolition of slavery was a good thing.  Christians, more specifically, believe that humans cannot make things right by their efforts alone.  We believe we all stand in need of God’s grace, which in different ways trumps our flaws, failures, sins and evil intentions. The central story of the Christian faith is that God Himself came to earth and was crucified by humanity, but then rose again, overcoming death.  The most important story of the Christian faith is a story of God bringing good out of the flaws, failures, sins and evil intentions of the world.

One can, of course, find plenty of flaws, sins and evil in the system of slavery.  Historians also know that the entire process of abolishing the transatlantic slave system was a large, complicated, multi-faceted process that involved different nations, economic forces, social trends, cultural shifts, and political interests.  No person or group or nation could control the outcome.  We also can identify a number of people who were seeking God’s grace to deal with this oppressive system.  One of those individuals, Samuel Sharpe, failed spectacularly in the process.  And then good came out of it.

Can we say that this is evidence of God at work in history?

I’m interested to hear what you think.

At any rate, it beats James Bond.



James Bond      2

Samuel Sharpe  2

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: The NPR Effect

Monday morning, October 1.  I’m listening to National Public Radio on the way to work and they introduce a weeklong series on James Bond.  Really.  I didn’t realize this, but this week happens to be the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Bond movie, “Dr. No.”  This film, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was filmed in Jamaica and provoked my original question about who we should be more interested in: James Bond or Samuel Sharpe.

Well, that did it.  I decided I just had to bring NPR into round three of our contest.  After all, my local public radio station advertises itself with the slogan, “NPR.  Classical.  Other Smart Stuff.”  NPR has a reputation of being a news station for thoughtful, highly educated folk who care about the world.  NPR goes beyond the facts and gives us insightful analysis.  That’s what they tell us during their pledge drives.

So how does NPR do in the contest?

I googled their website to determine how times they have referred to James Bond.  I turned up 1700 hits.  (Granted, it might be a much higher number by the end of the week).

Samuel Sharpe?  Not quite as many.

Zero hits.

I found this rather curious.  After all, NPR describes itself as smart.  Many people who listen to this station are concerned about justice and ridding the world of oppression.  If one wants to be smart and one wants to think about how to fight oppression, then it would seem to me that NPR would be a site that would be more concerned with the history of abolition than the history of a Hollywood action-movie series.  (Oh, rats.  I think I just tipped my hand.)

Right, (cough), um, what I mean is that if we take an unbiased approach to our contest, then James Bond and Samuel Sharpe have an equal chance at being significant.  And surely NPR would be a great source for determining whether, for instance, James Bond or Samuel Sharpe gives us a better model for determining how to rid the world of oppression.

James Bond. Classic cars. Other smart stuff (?)

All the same, I have to admit that I was surprised by the results.  So I tried a few of different terms in my NPR website search.  Baptist War: zero hits.  Slavery Abolition Act:  zero hits.  Jamaican Rebellion:  zero hits.

OK, time to broaden the search.   NPR surely has done stories that reference abolition, one of the most significant developments in human history.

And….yes!   There we are.  Abolition did indeed turn up as a topic on the NPR website.  Abolition:  653 hits. William Wilberforce (for good measure): 17 hits.


Well, the results are clear.  If you like smart stuff and you take your cues from NPR, James Bond is obviously much more important for us to know about than the abolition of slavery (almost three times as much).



James Bond:       2

Samuel Sharpe:  1


Yeah.  Unless…..this depiction of “smart” radio is all wrong.

In that case, maybe it is proof of the opposite….and I should give the win to Sharpe?