History and Snow Globes

If you read this blog, chances are either you have some appreciation for history, or you are really desperate for a few bad jokes and some cheap snark. If it is the latter, somebody may need to have a long conversation with you about your priorities.

Of course, there are many people who would say that if is the former, you may need to have a long conversation with someone about your priorities. History may be nice if you need a hobby, like collecting snow globes, but beyond that, what’s the point?

Cute.  But does this have any lasting significance for my life?

Cute. But does this have any lasting significance for my life?

I’ve been dealing with this way of thinking throughout my professional career. For instance, I occasionally run into a student who doesn’t understand why they are required to take a history class. And by “occasionally,” I mean a couple dozen students every semester since 1983.

But then, sometimes I get a student who not only loves history, but actually wants to major in history in college. Last month, for instance, I talked to a student who was seriously thinking about becoming a history major. She was thoughtful, did some research on the question, and had very good reasons for thinking about history as a major.  Cool.

“But I’m not sure what I will tell my parents,” she said.

Ah. Parents.

Yes, what self-respecting parent would want their child to go off to college to major in history, particularly if they aren’t going to teach? That seems about as productive as collecting snow globes.  Only you have to pay a hefty tuition fee to do it.

I understand the concern. History does not seem to be practical. It does not seem to lead to any clear jobs, other than teaching history to students who don’t know why they should be taking a history class.

You might guess that I have a lot to say about this. It is hard, however, to unpack it all in a blog post. So let me tell you what I told my student: read Why Study History? by John Fea, a historian at Messiah College.


Cute. But does this have any lasting significance for my life? Actually, yes. More than you may know.

In a variety of different ways, Fea lays out the importance of history (something that is good to consider whether or not you majored in history).  He describes many reasons for studying history.  He explains what goes into the academic study of history. And he has a wonderful little chapter for college students and parents alike, entitled “So What Can You Do With a History Major?”

What can you do with a history major? Here is a hint: Fea discusses a former student of his who is working in a hospital in Malawi, explaining she is an agent of change who got her job “because and not in spite of the fact that she was a history major in college.” Is that strange? No. I see this in many of my former students: a good history education can actually make you better at your calling, whatever it may be.

I’m serious. Here is something for you to ponder: if you want to go into business, become a history major. History majors get higher scores on the GMAT (the test used by graduate programs for acceptance in the MBA) than those who majored in finance, international business and business education.  (Shh. Don’t tell my business professor friends that I told you this).

Truth in advertising: philosophy majors scored better than history majors, but I’m not going to cry about that. Philosophy is OK, too. More importantly, given the jokes I hear about the uselessness of philosophy as a field of study, it shows you our culture has a flawed understanding of college majors.  How did that happen?  Well, there is a history behind this development in our society.  That’s for a later post, I suppose.

But jobs are only one part of who we are. What I really like about Fea’s book is that he explains why history is important for Christians. For instance, Christians know we are supposed to love all people. To love all people means, in part, that we are to welcome strangers, as Christ commands us in Matthew 25.

But it is not very easy to welcome strangers. Strangers are, well, strange to us. As Fea explains, people who study the past — with its people who think in complicated, strange, and rather different ways — practice intellectual hospitality to strangers. Studying history carefully, as Fea explains, builds in habits of empathy and humility — virtues that are critical for Christians.

There is more, a lot more, in this book.

If you read my blog for something other than the bad jokes and cheap snark, you will know that, like Fea, I am trying to do similar things. There are so many ways that a good study of history can help us understand better, love better, and grow in wisdom.  Fea argues this clearly and effectively.

Spread the word. History: it’s better than snow globes.





Think For Yourself When I Tell You That You Should Think For Yourself By Refusing to Consider My Advice That You Should Think for Yourself.

As I was shaving the other morning, I listened to an NPR report on a new development in genetics research and the ethical questions that it raised.

Immediately after the segment concluded, the station jumped to their spring fundraising drive, which included a testimony from a local listener who praised NPR because it gave her the facts of an issue.  This allowed her to “decide on her own,” without having anybody tell her what she ought to think about the issue.

In America, of course, the ideal of thinking for oneself is considered a Great Thing.

But let me lay out a few reasons why I think we have problems here.  When I am finished you can decide for yourself whether or not thinking for yourself is really such a great thing.

Consider the NPR segments. I have to confess that I really do not know a lot about the field of genetics and bioethics.  However, I know enough about academic life to know that very bright people spend long hours every day for decades on a rather specific set of intellectual questions.  This is true of the fields of genetics, ethics and bioethics.  Every year, academics produce hundreds of dense books in these areas. And they do not agree with one another.  Quite frankly, it is all very complicated.

So how is a five-minute news segment that I listen to while brushing my teeth going to provide me with what I need to know?  If I am “thinking for myself” here, am I going to reach a clear conclusion on these very complicated issues?

Answer:  no.

Christopher Hitchens, you see, came up with this idea all by himself, without being influenced at all by others, such as.......

Christopher Hitchens, you see, came up with this idea all by himself, without being influenced at all by others, such as…….

Yet we are pretty convinced that we have the ability to arrive at the truth — even of very complicated matters — simply by “thinking for ourselves.”  Interestingly, those of us who believe that we should “think for ourselves,” did not arrive at this conviction on our own, but largely believe it because we believe the authority of others who tell us we should “think for ourselves.”  This faith in our own thinking has been handed down to us in our culture from a peculiar mix of Enlightenment views of rationality and American democratic faith that every person can easily discern what is true.

But there are some things — many things — that are far too complicated to figure out without the help of knowledgeable, thoughtful people.  Like genetics and bioethics.

Maybe, for instance, I can figure out ethics and religious truth on my own, especially if I have the Bible in my hands.  Can’t I figure out right and wrong and the truths of Christianity without anybody telling me what to think?

Consider how the following individuals from the past approached the study of the Bible and the quest to determine what is true.

Elhanan Winchester (1751-1791).  “I shut myself up chiefly in my chamber, read the Scriptures, and prayed to God to lead me into all truth, and not suffer me to embrace any error; and I think with an upright mind, I laid myself open to believe whatsoever the Lord had revealed.”

Noah Worcester  (1758-1837) Individuals should abandon a “passive state of mind” that deferred to great names in theology.  “The scriptures were designed for the great mass of mankind and are in general adapted to their capacities.”

Lucy Mack Smith (1776-?)  “I…determined to examine my Bible, and taking Jesus and the disciples as my guide, to endeavor to obtain from God that which man could neither give nor take away…The Bible I intended should be my guide to life and salvation.”

Alexander Campbell  (1788-1866)  “The Bible alone must always decide every question involving the nature, the character or the designs of the Christian institution. Outside of the apostolic canon, there is not, as it appears to me, one solid foot of terra firma on which to raise the superstructure ecclesiastic.”

John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886)  “I had long been in the belief that the Bible was not a book of inexplicable riddles, and I determined to solve this mystery (of Christ’s second coming).  Accordingly, I read the New Testament ten times with an eye on the question as to the time of Christ’s second coming, and my heart struggling in prayer for full access to the truth.”


....the great intellectual and perfume designer Coco Chanel, who also came up with this idea all by herself and was certainly not influenced by anybody else, like......

….the great intellectual and perfume designer Coco Chanel, who also came up with this idea all by herself and was certainly not influenced by anybody else, like……

What we have here are five individuals who, in all sincerity, tried to determine the truth of what the Bible says.  All believed that the Bible alone would be their authority for religious truth.  Each one believed that they could clearly ascertain the truth of the Bible by reading it without any authority, theology, creed, system or philosophy guiding them.  They would “think for themselves” on these issues.  The truth of the Bible, in other words, would be plain to them, just as it would to anyone who read it.

And what did they conclude?

Elhanan Winchester concluded that the Bible taught that God will save everyone and that nobody would go to hell.  He became a leader in the Universalist church.

Noah Worcester concluded that the Bible showed that there was no Trinity.  Jesus was not God and there was no such thing as the Holy Spirit.  He became a Unitarian.

Lucy Mack Smith concluded that Bible showed that current churches were all corrupt.  She (somehow) convinced a minister to baptize her as a solitary Christian, without any connection to any church.  Interestingly, years later her son, Joseph Smith, also prayed that God would show him the truth clearly, and he went on to found the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons.

Alexander Campbell became convinced that the Bible showed that Christians should not bring anything into church life that was not mentioned in the Bible.  Denominations, for instance, were not found in the Bible, so Campbell helped found the Christian Connection, which was a movement that attempted to operate without denominational organization.  This is what we know as the Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ.  Campbell also believed the Bible showed that communion should be offered every Sunday and that no musical instruments should be used in worship, other than those specifically mentioned in the Bible.

John Humphrey Noyes became convinced that the Bible showed that Christ’s Second Coming already took place in the first century.  We therefore have the means to become perfect.  His solution to this was to found the Oneida colony, based on Christian perfection and mutual sharing.  Under Noyes’ direction, the Oneida colony shared all possessions, experimented in eugenics, created a “theocratic democracy” and instituted “complex marriage,” in which all males were married to all females.  (The Bible may be simple.  But complex marriage?  It’s complicated.)


....H.L. Mencken, who always thought for himself and never arrived at idea with the help of anyone else, like.....

….H.L. Mencken, who always thought for himself and never arrived at idea with the help of anyone else, like…..

Now, there are truths in the Bible that are simple to see and understand.  Six year-old children can understand that God loves them.  Do not expect the little ones, however, to explain how we Christians are supposed to use the Bible to work out proper political, military, social and cultural policies to address the problems of the Middle East.

We have here a particular tradition of thought in American culture.  Winchester, Worcester, Smith, Campbell and Noyes — as well as the woman who gave the testimony on NPR — all believed in the perspecuity of truth.

“Perspecuity” refers to truths that are plain and obvious to all. It is a fun word.  Try it out some time.  Amaze your friends by slipping the word in during conversations at dinner parties, the water cooler at work, chats at the fitness center, or pot-luck dinners.

We would say the equation 2+3=5 is “perspicacious” (which is a rollicking variation on the word “perspecuity,” for those of you who want to really cut loose).  In other words, the truth of this mathematical sum is obvious to everyone who can grasp the concepts of numbers and addition.  Christians, Hindus, Democrats, Republicans, Chinese, Zulus and even New York Yankee fans can all see clearly that 2 and 3 make 5.

....that Great American (?) Voltaire, who certainly thought for himself and helped to give us all this great advice that we should not simply listen to him or Mencken or Chanel or Hitchens but...

….that Great American (?) Voltaire, who certainly thought for himself and helped to give us all this great advice that we should not simply listen to him or Mencken or Chanel or Hitchens but…

American Christians have often argued (whether they realize it or not — it hasn’t always been obvious to them) that the Bible is perspicacious.  Anybody, regardless of their faith commitment, ought to be able to pick up the Bible and see everything there in a clear, simple and obvious way.

But it is important to note that for most of history, the leading Christian thinkers and theologians understood that sin distorted our thinking.  Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards — all the heavy hitters –argued that sin could affect our thinking in such a way that we would not always see truth clearly.  Of course, they were building on biblical texts — such as Jesus’ famous admonishment to take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  Or read John 9 carefully, with this in mind. We often believe we are seeing the truth clearly when sin is actually distorting our perceptions.  This was an accepted part of Christian theology for centuries.

And then something switched.

American Christians largely stopped discussing how sin affected our thinking.  Sin, it was thought, was primarily the conscious disobedience of a principle.  In other words, I know and see what is right, but I don’t do it.  That’s pretty much all that sin is, it was thought.  Erroneously.

When did this happen?

October 24, 1790 at 10:37 a.m., Eastern Standard Time.

Well, no.  Even as a historian, I can’t see the past clearly enough to put an exact date on the shift.  (And time zones weren’t invented until nearly 100 years after this.  The EST comment was just one of those tricky things that historians sometimes throw at you for their own weird sense of entertainment.)

....rather create a culture where we tell children to listen carefully to us and think like we do so that they will not ever listen to anybody but themselves.  Right?

….rather create a culture where we tell children to listen carefully to us and think like we do so that they will not ever listen to us or anybody else but themselves. Right?

But there was some sort of intellectual shift that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as can be seen by the individuals described above.  It is still with us today, in different forms, as evidenced by our great desire to “think for ourselves.”

As for me, I should remember that I need the help of many others to see more clearly.  For instance, I’m thankful for a nice little book written by my colleague, Steve Moroney, that outlines these points.  It’s not easy to find, but you might look for The Noetic Effects of Sin, if you want to explore this topic further.  This post also draws upon chapters by Nathan Hatch and George Marsden in a book called The Bible in America.  Most importantly, the Holy Spirit helps convict me when I don’t want to see certain truths and would rather see a distorted view of things.  (Of course, I need to listen to the Holy Spirit in these situations, which I don’t always do.)

Think for myself?  I can’t come up with any of these points on my own.  I can’t see things clearly without listening the insight of others.  And quite frankly, I’d be an unbearable human being if I simply thought for myself.

I apologize that this post is so long.  It turns out that the idea of the perspecuity of truth is not an obvious, clear and perspicacious thing to explain.


Why We Have a Hard Time Thinking Clearly:  I Blame Psychologists and Scientists from the 1950s.  And Adam.

I was a computer science major my first year in college.  My students think this is hilarious, because of what happens when I use computers in class.   My power point crashes, regularly.   A file I saved to a drive mysteriously disappears.   The sound doesn’t come through on a video clip and I frantically check six different volume controls in the system to try to recover it.  They might think this is all incompetence on my part.  I tell them that there is an e-conspiracy against me by advanced technology.

Whatever the source of my current conflicts with computer systems, it is certainly true that I didn’t really have good judgment when I thought computer science would be my thing.  I could do the work, but I wasn’t very good at it.  Nor did I get much satisfaction or joy from it.  As it turned out, history was a much better major for me.

I didn’t see myself very clearly.  But why is that?  Of all the things we try to understand in this world, we ought to understand ourselves better than anything.  Right?

Well, no.

My problems in seeing myself clearly are connected to themes I have been blogging about lately.  That’s why I told my embarrassing grad school story.  And why I argued that we have blind spots about race, we have blind spots about religion, we think we are better at being wise than other people, and we have difficulty in thinking clearly about Islam and politics and football.

Why?  Sin affects our thinking.

We often don’t think about how sin affects our thinking because….well, sin affects out thinking.  In our pride, we don’t want to admit that we are wrong.   We don’t want to admit that we might be misguided in our convictions for what ails the health care system, our boss, the Cleveland Browns, or the stupid traffic light system up on Maple Street here in North Canton, Ohio.  (Don’t get me started).  We cherish our sense that we have it figured out.

That’s where I blame Adam (the one who hung out with Eve).

But American culture exacerbates this problem by encouraging us to believe that we really do see clearly.

Take, for instance, certain developments in psychology in the 1950s.  Carl Rogers, perhaps the most popular and influential psychologist of the era, promoted what he called “client-centered therapy.” Rogers held great optimism in the ability of humans to make choices that were good, true and in the terminology of the time, “self-actualizing.”  In other words, trust yourself.

That's right Calvin.  You see everything clearly.

That’s right Calvin. You see everything clearly.

Boy, what great news that is!  Of course I am correct about the health care system, the Cleveland Browns, my boss, and the stupid traffic light system up on Maple Street.  And while I’m at it, let me tell you what’s wrong with Islam, racist policemen, the Democratic party, Fox News, NPR and AT & T.  I can see it all, clearly.



And then I’ll blog about it.  (Why is the joke so often on me, anyway?)

This therapeutic turn towards trusting our “self” gained authority in the 1950s and 60s because Rogers and others like him argued this methodology was scientific.  As he explained, his client-centered therapy stemmed from a discipline with a “genius for operational definitions, for objective measurement, its insistence upon scientific method, and the necessity of submitting all hypotheses to a process of objective verification or disproof.”  How can you argue against that?  Rogers’ psychological analysis for why we should trust ourselves carried the authority of science.

That’s where the scientists (and those who thought they were scientists) come in.  Most intellectuals of the 1950s (including those professors who taught everyone in college) held a faith that scientific methodology would help us all see clearly.  Science had enabled humans to produce jet airplanes, television and the polio vaccine, had it not?  Scientific advances in the realm of psychology should produce “self-actualized” persons as well, should it not?

In some ways, this was not new.  Faith in this version of scientific thinking had been since the Enlightenment.  And faith in the individuals who trusted themselves had been around since the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists.  But as George Marsden points out in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, this doesn’t mean the two are actually compatible.   After all, scientific methodology is designed to determine truth by the study of objective realities while faith in the self looks inward, subjectively, for truth.

Z(By the way, Marsden’s book, which is geared for non-academics, is a very accessible, clear, and compelling read if you want to learn more about the development of intellectual ideas in America in the 1950s and how it led to the culture war of the 1980s.  You don’t have to be a professor or a pointy-headed intellectual to understand or enjoy it).

As Marsden also points out, there is one more significant difference between thinkers of the 1950s and those of the Enlightenment:  Enlightenment thinkers believed in a Creator who established moral laws, while psychologists and scientists alike in the 1950s believed that moral laws were produced by humans as they evolved over time.

In other words, psychologists and scientists alike by the 1950s believed humans created morality.  By implication, they placed a great deal of faith in the ability of humans to see clearly, apart from any reference or guidance from God.  God was irrelevant because He may or may not exist, anyway.  Instead, the scientific examination of the outward objective world and the psychological examination of the inward subjective world would help us see more clearly.  This was communicated to Americans through universities, popular magazines, TV shows and movies.

50 million copies sold.  That's a lot of kid.

50 million copies sold. That’s a lot of kids.

The best selling expert on child care, Dr. Benjamin Spock, made this point explicitly in his opening line to parents in The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care:  “Trust yourself.”  He told parents that “your baby is born to be a reasonable, friendly human being.”  The Baby Boomer generation grew up with this message.

And if we can trust ourselves, and if our babies are going to naturally be reasonable, and if we have this on the authority of scientists and psychologists, then we all must really think clearly, don’t we?

Of course, the idea of sin is long gone by this time.  Let alone the idea that sin affects our thinking.

And that makes it even harder to see, let alone admit, that our thinking may be distorted.

Mother’s Day, Termites, Advertising and Kikuyu Men. That Sort of Thing.

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and that means we Americans are all busy spending money, just like we do with every holiday.  The latest estimates show Americans will spend $20 billion on Mother’s Day items this year, surpassing both Halloween and Easter.

I am sure you sense a critique coming, but before I launch into it, I have to confess that I am not a very good gift-giver.  What is worse, I haven’t always been as appreciative to my mother or my wife as I should be (on Mother’s Day or at other times).  So the questions about consumerism and holidays that I raise do not stem from my own virtue and righteousness.  Let me draw from some others.

First, it is worth noting that we Americans tend to turn every holiday into a spending spree.  I once met a fellow scholar from England who was visiting the United States over Memorial Day weekend.  He found the idea of “Memorial Day sales” to be very curious.  In Britain, Memorial Day (or Remembrance Day, as the Brits call it) is a somber event where one is supposed to honor and remember the many who have died in war.  It is serious business.  Why, my British acquaintance more or less asked, do we Americans think we should use the day to sell mattresses at half price?  Good question.

That raises the question of what consumerism does to the meaning, habits and practices of holidays.  Admittedly, as far as our holidays go, there is probably less self-indulgence in Mother’s Day as others.  It is more other-oriented than many.  Still, the economics of the thing has a way of shaping the meaning of the holiday.  Critics have argued that Mother’s Day is primarily an opportunity for florists, greeting card companies, restaurants and other companies to make a buck.

But has anyone ever been as ticked off about Mother’s Day as Anna Jarvis?  Angered by the “greedy” businessmen who dominated the holiday, she called them “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites.”

I like the “other termites” part.  It’s a nice touch.

Why was Anna Jarvis so mad?  Well, she pretty much invented the holiday.  Then she watched American consumerism kick in and take it places she did not want it to go.

Clever Title, don't you think?

Clever Title, don’t you think?

The story of the relationship between consumerism and Mother’s Day (and Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day) is told by Leigh Erich Schmidt in Consumer Rites:  The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.  (I received this book as a gift at Christmas one year — the ironies there make me happy).

Jarvis created the Mother’s Day International Association and convinced politicians, newspaper editors and church leaders to recognize the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1908.  A dedicated evangelical who grew up as a Methodist in West Virginia, Jarvis intended the day to be grounded in the church, where mothers would be celebrated not only for their domestic duties, (which, of course, is primarily how middle-class Americans thought of mothers in 1908) but to encourage others in their piety and roles in developing spiritual qualities in children.

And then, unintended consequences.  The very success of her movement ended up bringing her frustrations. Florists latched onto the day very quickly.  Jarvis had suggested that people wear white carnations to honor their mothers, a simple recommendation that sent prices for the flower skyrocketing each May.  By 1910, the floral industry began suggesting to customers that flowers also should be given to mothers as gifts.  And then, well, what the heck, why not decorate churches, homes, Sunday schools and cemeteries with flowers on the holiday as well?  Floral trade organizations encouraged aggressive marketing campaigns, while simultaneously advising their businesses that “the commercial aspect is at all times to be kept concealed.”  Americans, of course, are suckers for good advertising.  The catchy phrase, “Say it With Flowers” convinced many that spending money was the best way to express one’s affection for one’s mother.   By 1920, the holiday had been so deeply entrenched in the world of consumerism, that Jarvis despaired that the meaning of the holiday had been hijacked by commercial interests.  Hence the “other termites” thing.

Say what with flowers?  Do we know?

Say what with flowers? Do we know?

I can understand Jarvis’ frustration.  You may have noticed that consumerism bothers me somewhat.  That is fallout from living in Kenya for six years and coming back to the United States with new eyes.  Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out the implications of this system that envelops us.  I have been a bit suspicious that Mother’s Day is often more of a Hallmark-driven holiday than a grounded appreciation for important people in our lives.

You can imagine, then, that I was a bit nonplussed a few years ago when a Kenyan friend of mine told me about an African pastor he knew who had introduced Mother’s Day into his church.  This pastor had spent a number of years at a seminary in the United States and returned to Kenya with this idea.  Inwardly, I groaned a little, worried that it would end up simply embedding consumerism and materialism into this African church.

I should have known, though, that institutions that get transplanted in the soil of a different culture don’t grow into the same kind of plant.  Here is the situation:  traditional Kikuyu men were socialized into ordering around their wives (and other women) to do tasks. Like many traditional cultures, the Kikuyu have a fair amount of patriarchy embedded in the way they did things. One expression of this patriarchy was that husbands would not show any appreciation to their wives.  And that has all sorts of implications for how men and women related to one another, as well as how gender relations were structured.

We caught glimpses of this when we lived in Kenya.  There were times in public places when African men — strangers — would approach my wife and tell her how she should be parenting our young children.   And then expected her to act on those instructions.  Right there.

It takes a village to raise a child and it also takes a village to get women to act as the men want them to.

But the Kikuyu pastor, as my friend explained, introduced Mother’s Day as a way to instruct the men in his congregation that they were not only to do something nice for their wives, they were to recognize that women were important and valuable.  They were to tell their wives this and thank them for something they did.   These actions were quite different for the Kikuyu men in that church.  This pastor had not simply picked up the idea that Mother’s Day was about men buying flowers for mothers and wives.  He saw that the Christian faith had implications for gender relations — at the very least, men should not lord themselves over women.  There are far more implications for gender in the Christian faith than that, of course, but I find this a significant development for this church.

Whatever her flaws, (and she had them), Anna Jarvis would have been pleased, I think, with this Kenyan pastor.  She understood that the way we related to one another mattered.  Jarvis said that “any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter, than any fancy greeting card,” and she is probably right.  A card can prevent people from actually thinking about and articulating what is important in a relationship.

I’m not anti-gift (nor was Jarvis).  For many mothers, receiving gifts may be a meaningful way to accept the love of others.  But there are other ideas out there besides those we get in our advertisements.  Maybe we should think more deeply about whether gifts are the best way to express gratitude and honor those we love.  A phone call, a note, time together, making meals…I don’t know.  It probably depends.  I’m not very good at this, which means I need to think about it more.

I’d be interested to hear about any non-consumeristic ways you have of handling Mother’s Day.

The 80% Rule

I spent the previous post critiquing the idea of the “self-made man/woman,” but I should put in a word for the idea.  After all, our decisions, work ethic and efforts count for something.

But how much?

Economists, actually, can figure this out.

An economics book that is interesting and understandable:  I am not making this up.

An economics book that is interesting and understandable: I am not making this up.

According to Branko Milanovic, in a rather interesting (and readable!) little book entitled The Haves and the Have-Nots:  A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, this is how it works:  take the actual incomes of everyone in the world and compare it to the mean incomes of their countries.  The result of the global analysis that the nation where we were born determines 60% of what we have.  Not only that, but the family one is born into within a given nation counts for an additional 20% of one’s wealth.  (One might be born in Brazil, for instance, but there is a great difference between being born to the household of a professional businessman in Rio de Janeiro verses being born in a two-room shack in a favela – the slums — in Rio).  Furthermore, an undetermined amount of the remaining 20% is due to factors over which one does not have any control (gender, race, chance, etc.).  But somewhere in this remaining 20% of our wealth we find the factors like effort, decisions, and hard work.

The 80% Rule (my term, not Milanovic’s) means that the most of our economic destiny was determined at birth.  (Who knew that economists could be 4-point Calvinists?)

80%.  Really?   Less than 20% of our income is due to what we actually do?  Is that true?

You’d need to read the book to get a full picture (though you probably have to be an economist to figure out if this analysis is flawed), but I find it compelling.  Having lived six years in Kenya and spent time in Jamaica and Brazil (as well as having read a fair amount about the economic history of different societies) it is obvious to me that millions of people (billions, actually) do not have the resources and opportunities that I was born with in the United States.  The gap in income between a middle-class American and the vast majority of people in the world is really a stunning one. The world is not a level playing field.

At first glance, the 80% Rule looks rather discouraging.  Shouldn’t effort count for more than that?  The American Dream – the belief that one can be substantially better off than one’s parents if one just works hard enough – has motivated a lot of people.  It has produced a great deal of inventiveness and encouraged a great deal of hard work.  With that in mind, one might be hesitant to give up on the “Self-Made Man/Woman” myth.   It would be hard to inspire 7th grade boys by telling them that 80% of what they will earn in life is already determined for them (much less try to get them to understand exactly what is meant by that).  What would you say if you were to write inspirational posters for middle school classrooms?   “Something less than 20% of what a person achieves and something less than 20% of what they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts!”   Or how about, “If you dream it, the law of averages shows you can achieve up to 20% more than your family has now!”   Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

On the other hand, the 80% rule has the potential to help us get a clearer sense God’s purpose for our lives.  Think of the 80% Rule as helping us to shift our perspective from the American Dream to the Parable of the Talents.  (See Matthew 25:14-30).  The master gives out talents in unequal portions to different people in the world.  The point here is not that the amounts are unequal.  Instead, we are to ask what we, as the servants, are to do with the talents we are given.

The talents God gives us refer to a lot more than money.  But let me just stick with the money point a bit longer.  40% of regular church goers in America give nothing to churches, charities or ministries.  The vast majority of the funds that support our churches, non-profits, and ministries come from 10% of regular church-goers.  (Non-church attenders give even less, on average – but that is a different discussion).  Most Americans are stingy, folks.  Tithing 10% of our income should be the bare minimum for American Christians, particularly when we realize that 80% of what we have is really none of our doing.

We also need to work on cultivating a deep sense of stewardship.  I know I need to get a better sense of this.  The 80% rule is merely empirical economic evidence that what we have comes from God and is not “owned” for eternity by us.  We should be ready and willing to listen to God’s call on our lives and put what we have been given to use for God’s purposes.

By the way, donating to the relief efforts for the victims of the Philippines typhoon right now would be a good way to put to use a very small part of what God has given us.  I recommend the Mennonite Central Committee, though there are plenty of other organizations that are active there as well.

Thanksgiving Eels and Other Historical Challenges

A few years ago my parents were on one of those big air-conditioned tour buses that retired Americans sometimes find themselves on.   They were out west somewhere and the tour guide was talking about Native Americans.  The guide retold the story of the first Thanksgiving and concluded by saying that the Pilgrims gave thanks.to the Indians.  He did not mention God. My father, who as Methodist minister is attuned to things theological and historical (and is descended from Puritans, to boot) approached the tour guide afterward and informed him that the Pilgrims gave thanks to God, not the Indians.  The guide responded by saying, “I know, but mine is a better story.”

Today one can find not just tour guides but educational curriculum that marginalize religion or neglect to even mention God while teaching us about the Pilgrims.  Many Christians are rightfully bothered by this.  I know my first instinct is often to turn to historical accounts for ammunition.  After all, we want the truth to get out.

But we might be careful what we wish for.

McKenzieIf you pick up Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving:  What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (and I urge you to do so), you will find that there are a lot of inaccuracies in both traditional and contemporary accounts of the First Thanksgiving.  For starters, we don’t know for sure whether or not the Pilgrims and Indians actually ate turkey (though it was quite likely they feasted on geese).  Pumpkin pie and yams were definitely not on the menu.  They probably served eels, parsnips and turnips, which means that an authentic Thanksgiving dinner would please nobody in my family except my father, who gets excited about eating strange vegetables odd aquatic creatures.  Moreover, the Pilgrims didn’t wear big buckles on their shoes and they most likely wore bright clothing.

OK, most of us could live with these adjustments (well, maybe not the eels).  But McKenzie pushes the point further, into areas that might bother us more.  For instance, the Pilgrims were not a particularly tolerant lot and had enjoyed religious freedom in Holland before they set sail on the Mayflower, which means we need to readjust conceptions that they came to America for religious freedom.  Squanto, that friendly Indian whose agricultural advice to the Pilgrims probably warded off starvation during that first winter, was not simply a good-hearted humanitarian who exemplified multi-cultural cooperation, but seemed to be using both the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag Indians for his own ends.  Apparently, neither side trusted him.  And that is just the beginning of our historical misperceptions.

It should be pointed out that McKenzie, a history professor at Wheaton College, loves Thanksgiving and is inspired by the Pilgrims.  Most of the book, in fact, does not concern itself with correcting historical errors.  McKenzie has deeper goals here, deeply Christian goals.  As the subtitle of the book states, he wants us to be better at loving God and learning from history.

That means many things.  I was helpfully reminded that we ought to turn to history for illumination, not ammunition.  McKenzie argues, correctly, that since we are much better at judging others than judging ourselves, authentic education ought to change who we are.  He writes about erroneous conceptions of Thanksgiving to help us consider how we have a tendency to distort the past because we want our heroes to be just like us.  In fact, if we really dug into the historical record, the Pilgrims would seem strange to us in many ways.  That is actually fine, as McKenzie points out, because “if they were just like us, they would have nothing to teach us.”  We prioritize rights, for instance, while the Pilgrims prioritized responsibility.  There is plenty to ponder there.

We learn how stories of the Pilgrims have been created and put to use by Americans down through history.  I did not know, for instance, that the only documentation we have of the first Thanksgiving is a single 115-word paragraph in a letter William Bradford’s assistant sent back to London merchants.  Bradford never even mentioned Thanksgiving in any of his writings, though there is a fake document (containing at least six factual errors) circulating on the internet that purports to be a Thanksgiving Proclamation issued by the governor.  (False information on the internet?  Who knew?)  Curious, I googled “Thanksgiving Proclamation William Bradford” and found that the very first link on the list took me right to the imposter proclamation.   I was entertained by the fake “Olde English” language of the thing, which was signed by “Ye Governor of Ye Colony.”  However, I cringed a little bit to think of all the fifth-grade reports, Christian devotionals and presidential speeches (yep, even our Presidents have fallen for it) that have employed this fake document to inspire us all.

A picture of what the First Thanksgiving really looked like.  Wait a minute -- How did the Sioux Indians from South Dakota get to Massachusetts?  And where are the Wampanoag?

A picture of what the First Thanksgiving really….wait a minute! What are the Sioux Indians from South Dakota doing down at the end of the table? And what did they do with the Wampanoag Indians?

But then, this sort of thing has been going on for a long time, as McKenzie demonstrates.  How about the historical novel from 1889 that described how the first Thanksgiving dinner was an occasion just packed with numerous budding romances – the widower Bradford making eyes at Mary Chilton, for instance?  The novel imaginatively described, in great detail, the dishes and foods that the Pilgrims supposedly ate at the First Thanksgiving, which the 1897 Ladies Home Journal accepted as historical fact.  We’ve been enjoying the historical inaccuracies ever since.

Meanwhile, the “example” of the Pilgrim story has been used to support causes ranging from capitalism, communal living, the melting pot, the war in Vietnam, the regulation of Big Business and, of course, peace in the Middle East.  This is just part of the reason why McKenzie argues we should just drop the term “revisionist” when discussing history.   History has always been “revisionistic” project and has never been written in pure form, as if it could be special revelation, like Scripture.  Furthermore, McKenzie points out that cries of “revisionism” can lead us to mean-spiritedness and self-righteousness, rather than humble self-reflection.

There are a host of other thoughtful points in this book that I can’t even get to.  But if we are concerned with historical truth and want to love God better, we should follow McKenzie’s proposal that we approach the past with a stance of “moral reflection” rather than “moral judgment.”  Moral reflection requires humility by asking us to question ourselves and engage in respectful conversation with others.  Aren’t those some of the qualities that we want Christians to be known for?

This is the kind of history that Christians ought to read.   And since The First Thanksgiving does the sort of things that a Christian liberal arts education seeks to do, I’ve decided I’m going to assign it as a text in my American history class.

The Impact of Trix Cereal on Christianity, Marriage, Civil Life, Education and Just About Everything Else

In 1954, General Mills introduced Trix cereal to the American public.  This was the most significant event of the 20th century.

Really? More significant than the 1952 election? More significant than the 1929 stock market crash? More significant than Watergate?

OK, I’m overstating things here, but I’m actually pretty serious about this.  The introduction of Trix cereal may rank in my top ten list of most significant events of the 20th century.  Maybe the top five.

Why?  Because Trix was the first multi-colored breakfast food.

Get it?  Probably not.

Think about why General Mills produced a multi-colored breakfast food and why they marketed it with that advertising campaign familiar to all Americans, “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!”

Get it?  Not quite, I’m betting.

Think about this:  why did General Mills think that it would work to advertise to 4 year-olds during Saturday morning Bugs Bunny cartoons?  Do 4 year-olds have the means to run out to the grocery store and buy Trix?  Do 4 year-olds make the decisions about how the family income is spent?

Admit it. You want this.

Get it?  I’m guessing we’re starting to get there.  Remember what you were like at age 4 in the grocery store and you saw something you wanted?  Or have you have observed 4 year-olds in grocery stores?  It is a fascinating and rather unsettling sight.  Watching 4 year-olds in the grocery aisle with their parents is like watching wildlife documentaries of elks fighting fellow elks for dominance.  The fight may begin and end quickly, but in those short, dramatic moments, we glimpse a compelling struggle of power, will, wits and cunning, as we wait to see who will come out on top.

A little historical background to epic grocery store battles:  In 1854 and 1754 and 1654 (and earlier, in just about everywhere around the world) children were producers in the family economy, but they were not major consumers.  In other words, most children helped the family economy by working at tasks like herding livestock, sewing, gathering eggs, carrying water, etc.  They did not make decisions about how household money would be spent.  By 1954, that pattern was reversing in most middle-class families.  Children produced very little to help the family income while becoming major players in deciding how the household income was spent.  Even 4 year-olds.  Amazing.

In other words, thanks to Trix cereal (and Barbie Dolls and Hot Wheels and Kool-aid and McDonald’s) all of us became consumers at a very young age.

Of course, I am using Trix cereal to represent a whole host of larger consumer trends at work.  Targeting children in advertising began a number of decades before 1954.  Plenty of other companies besides General Mills were joining in on this.  Economic prosperity gave families plenty of disposable income. The growth of new forms of mass media – radio and TV, for instance – made it possible for marketers to reach children in their homes.  But I use Trix cereal and 1954 as my representative example because the 1950s was the decade when all these forces came together in a powerful way in American society.

Sometimes, 4 year-olds choose Cinnamon Toast Crunch instead of Trix. Why? Because they can! They are consumers!

We have to ask an even more important question than the sheer economics of the thing:  what kind of people do we become if we are shaped as consumers from the moment we can comprehend a TV ad?  What does it mean to have a society in which consumerism holds formative influences on us as persons?

It means that we may enter into Christianity, marriage, civil life, education as consumers, rather than as disciples, spouses, citizens and students.  As consumers, we are primarily interested in what we can get out of these things and are less likely to ask what we can contribute to them.  It means we value things primarily on the basis of instant gratification and have little patience for self-sacrifice.  It means that if we get dissatisfied, we may be quick to dump one option and go shopping for another.  Does this happen?  As that big red Kool-Aid pitcher used to say in the ads, “Oh, yeahhhhhh!”

A number of people have commented about how consumerism has affected American Christianity.  Let me just point out one.  Thomas Bergler has written an important book entitled The Juvenilization of American ChristianityOne of the things he points out is that since the 1950s, evangelicals have effectively adapted the faith to the youth culture – a culture that is steeped in consumerism.  As a result, evangelicals have been much more effective than other Christian bodies in attracting youth to church.  The downside is that this sort of juvenile faith has spread through the adult levels of the church (think about all the ways that evangelicals want church to be “fun” and “exciting”).  Christians with this kind of faith have a hard time moving beyond a rather shallow, self-centered faith based on immediate gratification.  Why?  Trix cereal.

Do we tend to view marriage relationships in terms of what we can get out of it?  Are we, as a society, too willing to dump a spouse if we see a better product come along?   I have heard evangelicals blame a number of things for the rising divorce rates of the last half century: the absence of prayer in schools, homosexuality, and something as vague as a “decline in morals,” just to name a few.  We’re looking in the wrong places.  We should start by thinking about our Trix cereal ads.

Civil society?  In 1960 John F. Kennedy said, famously, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  It was a view of civil society that resonated with many Americans at that time.  In the 2000 presidential debate, an audience member asked the candidates, “How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 34-year-old single person with no dependents?”  Think about this one.  It implies that as a voter I will make a choice based on a specific policy is tailored to a very narrow slice of the population who are just like me.  And did Americans in 2000 even notice that this is a very consumeristic approach to viewing civil life?  No, because this is an idea of civil society that resonated with many Americans, who all grew up enmeshed in consumerism.  “Silly President, tax policies are for 34-year old single persons with no dependents!”

Education?  Don’t even get me started.  I could describe how some students expect course offerings, class projects, and course expectations to conform to their personal schedules.  I hardly need to tell you that many students believe classes ought to entertain them.  Colleges feel compelled to offer a consumer lifestyle – good food, climbing walls, fun activities, stylish dormitories, exciting athletic programs – in order to attract students to come to their institution to get an education.  My daughter once received a postcard from a college whose entire message was that they were “#1 in Food and Fun” in Ohio. The postcard said absolutely nothing about education.  But food and fun?  Ah, yes, that is what college is all about, isn’t it, Silly Rabbit?

Trix cereal:  the most significant development of the 20th century.

“42,” History, and Race

I have to admit that I was a little nervous about how “42” would handle history when I entered the dollar-movie theater.  (Yes, I am cheap. And now you know why my reviews come so long after a film is released).

It’s too bad we don’t wear fedoras anymore, don’t you think?

Of course, the film did well with the material items:  three-fingered gloves, 47 Chevys, the metal grill doors in the airport, flannel uniforms and steel girders in the stadiums.  (There is that problem with the slope in Crosley Field, but we’ll let that pass).  The material items are the easiest part of history to get right in films, so I wasn’t too concerned about that part.

No, I was worried about how the filmmakers would handle race.   They did a fairly good job, in my estimation.

Let me explain my concern.  Have you seen that movie with heroes whom you root for on one side, and bad guys on the other, and there is a complicated and tense conflict between them, but the good guys win in the end?  It’s called Star Wars.  Or maybe it’s Spider-Man.  Or Rocky.  Or The Little Mermaid.  Or The Wizard of Oz. Or Independence Day.  Or Cinderella.  Or Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Well, I don’t know.  It’s one of those movies.  Or maybe one or two that I haven’t mentioned.

If you haven’t noticed, we Americans like films that fit into this simple narrative.  We, the viewers, naturally identify with the good guys (in the old cowboy movies they wore white hats, just to be sure you got it) and we cheer against the bad guys.  And then good wins out, and we all leave the theater feeling fine, especially since we were on the right side.

This can happens with films about race.  We want to put ourselves on the sides of those fighting racism.  We want those bad racists to lose out to freedom, justice and equality.  And when they do, we all leave the theater feeling fine, especially since we were on the right side.

But reality, human nature and race is much more complicated than that.  How do we know we would have been on the right side in 1947 or 1852 or 1666?  And can we really divide humanity into good people and bad people?

Mississippi Burning is among the worst films on this score.  The FBI agents are the heroes and we root for them because we, like all decent Americans at the time, were on the side of justice, right?   Just about every white southerner in the film, meanwhile, is a redneck racist.  With those ignorant accents.  And they’re ugly, too.  Boy I’m glad we’re not like them.

Usually, (and by “usually,” I mean “every time”) when a film that is “based on a true story” divides the good from the bad in such a clear-cut and simplistic way, the film is distorting history.  Exhibit A:  in real life, the FBI spent most of its resources investigating the “trouble-making” civil rights movement, not those who killed civil rights workers.

I was relieved, then, to see a somewhat more complex picture of race emerge in “42.”

Yes, the ugly racists are there – most notably the Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, whose racist taunting of Jackie Robinson had me squirming in my seat.  (There’s a little bit of the simplistic “feel good” motif here, as we all smile with gratification in the credits when we find that Chapman never managed in the majors again after that season.  Yeah, take that, you racists!)

But one of the fine qualities of “42” is that one gets a range of racial responses from the characters in the film.  Robinson’s minor league coach welcomes him, but expresses a disparaging attitude about the ability of “niggers” to play ball (an accurate historical characterization of the guy).  The players on the Dodgers were initially cold, but eventually displayed a range of different reactions, from outright opposition, to conflicted feelings, to gradual respect, to open support – another accurate characterization.

One of the best scenes occurs after Robinson has been on the Dodgers for several weeks and the team is about to play in Cincinnati for the first time.  Pee Wee Reese, who was from nearby Kentucky, comes to general manager Branch Rickey’s office because he has received a threatening letter for playing with Robinson.  Having never faced anything like this before, he wants Rickey to do something about it.  Rickey (whose crustiness is overdone by Harrison Ford — sorry, but his acting bugged me) then pulls out file after file after file of death threats that Jackie Robinson has been receiving all along.

The beauty of the scene is that we the audience, like Reese, are bothered by the idea he has received this threat; we feel the sting of racism.  But when it is revealed that Robinson has been receiving a constant barrage of threats, we realize that he has been living with something much, much worse for quite some time.  It is hard for those of us who are white to fully understand what the world looks like to blacks.  Through this scene we, like Reese, get just a slight glimpse of the sort of pressure that Robinson had to play under (though it was even worse than the film portrayed it:  Robinson also received death threats directed at his wife and threats to kidnap his infant son).

Reese began to see this.  And that is why, in one of the more memorable scenes in the film, as Robinson is jeered and taunted by the fans in Cincinnati, Reese walks over and very purposefully puts his arm around Robinson and talks with him in solidarity for a moment.  We empathize with Reese, who empathized with Robinson.

It’s a great scene.  And it didn’t happen.

Well, it sort of happened, just not in the dramatic fashion portrayed in the film.  I have not seen any historical evidence that Rickey pulled out the file of threatening letters to show Reese what Robinson had been enduring.  That seems to be a dramatic invention by the filmmaker.  More famously, (and despite a statue in Coney Island commemorating the event) it is unclear whether Reese put his arm around Robinson in Cincinnati in 1947.  We don’t have filmed footage or same-day accounts of the event.  Two years later, Robinson said something like this happened, though he thought it might have been in Boston and it might have been 1948.  Others put it in Cincinnati.  And Reese might not have put his arm around Robinson.

As a historian, though, I’m fine with this scene.

Filmmakers have to invent all sorts of things in film. They make up almost all the dialogue.  They have to arrange scenes in ways that hold together and hold our attention.  They have to build some sort of drama.  Real life is never so neat and tidy and dramatic.  But I’m fine with the scene because it draws the viewers into a better understanding of Robinson.  It also reflects some level of transformation within Pee Wee Reese, who was not an avid supporter of Robinson in the beginning, but did become someone that Robinson counted as a friend.  (He was one of Robinson’s pall bearers at his funeral).   So it reflects what was true about Reese and Robinson.

The portrayal of Reese should give us hope that we can be transformed as well.  That is a much better position for us to be in.  We haven’t conquered the problems of race (or any number of other things) yet.  So it is better that we ask for grace, wisdom and humility, than to thank God (like the man in a certain parable) that we are not racists like those ugly redneck southerners…..


By the way, even if you are not a baseball fan, you should read Jackie Robinson  by Arnold Rampersad.  It is one of the best biographies, of any kind, that I have read.


Also, I’m off to Brazil for two weeks, so there will be another lull in my blogging.