‘This Rape Business’: False Accusation Fantasies in Worldview Thinking

Presented at Dordt College, in Souix Center, Iowa at the Prodigal Love of God: Reencountering Dordt at 400 and Beyond conference, on April 6, 2019.

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 9.27.01 AM.png

So we’re talking about sexual violence and Protestant reading practices, interpretation practices, and I want to talk about an aspect of sexual violence that I think is not talked about as much. I want to talk about fantasies of false accusation. I really started noticing false accusation fantasies around the controversy over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In the debates about the accusations of Christine Blassy Ford, and whether or not to believe her, and how seriously to take accusations, in this case but also generally, there was this sort of culture-wide conversation about the correct hermeneutic posture in a democracy, and I started to hear how many men—how many, many, men—have fantasized about false accusations.

I think it’s worth noting when an incredibly rare occurrence, like a false accusation, seems more vibrant and vivid and real and just plausible to people, more plausible than an incredibly common occurrence, like rape. How do we make sense of that? It’s true that false accusations happen, and we should talk about the history of false accusations, which is different than you might think or what Brett Kavanaugh thinks, but they are incredibly rare, and sexual violence is not. It’s not rare. But the common, common occurrence gets doubted. The uncommon occurrence gets believed. What do we make of this?

As this conference considers the “broader Reformed tradition,” I want to argue that one thing that happens in Reformed theology is the development of worldview thinking, which provides people with and really popularizes a cultural script, a narrative of doubt and the benefit of the doubt, that can be run and put on and lived into, and it justifies or maybe just tempts us, tempts us in these cases to intense skepticism towards accusers, extreme gullibility towards the accused. 

I am of course not saying that Reformed traditions are uniquely evil when it comes to sexual violence or covering up sexual violence. No temptation has befallen you that is not common to all men. I am also not saying this is the only possible way to live Reformed theology nor, and I’ll make this explicit at the end, that this is the only possible Reformed hermeneutic. But this narrative is quite popular, and quite powerful, and it is part of the worldview thinking that comes out of Reformed thinking, and if you look you find these scripts of false accusations, and invitations to readers far and wide to imagine what it would be like to be falsely accused.

Here’s an interesting example. A popular example: Frank Peretti’s spiritual warfare fiction. 

The first one was This Present Darkness published in 1986. The sequel Piercing the Darkness, came out in 1989. Both bestsellers. This Present Darkness sold 2 million copies by 1996 and in 2006, Christianity Today named it one of the 50 most influential books in American evangelicalism. Today, without any advertising, any promotion, the publisher Crossway sells 8,000 new copies every year. Crossway publishes a lot of Reformed thinkers: John MacArthur, John Piper, and people like Kevin DeYoung and D.A. Carson, but this is the best seller. Year in, year out, 30 years—8,000 copies.

This Present Darkness is a novel of belief imagined as worldview conflict in a small American town. It’s the story of an occult conspiracy in a town that’s like a Normal Rockwell painting. There’s the fictional Ashton, and the elite, the civic leaders, are all part of a secret New Age, neo-pagan group. The faculty of the local liberal arts college, the law enforcement officers, city council members, and liberal ministers, “a cross section of Ashton’s best,” have formed a local branch of the Universal Consciousness Society. They are working towards a sort of New Age parousia, a coming of the Universal Mind.

The human conspiracy is connected to a spiritual one, as well. As one character warns, “You have no idea who you’re really dealing with. There are forces at work in that town—political, social … spiritual too.” The conspiracy is really the work of a demon known as the Strongman. His plan, as the novel starts, includes taking over the college at the center of the town, and then the town. He will turn the town into a beachhead for a New World Order. The demons have infiltrated, preparing for this takeover. 

The novel cuts between human conflicts and scenes of unseen demons and angels, clashing in the sky above the town. The demons inhabit physical space and are described by Peretti in visceral, fleshy terms. The Strongman is described as looking like “a monstrous, overweight vulture.” He resides at the center of a violent, churning swarm of gargoyle-looking things. Individual demons often have particular features fitting specific tasks of torture. One has “knuckles honed into spikelike protrusions,” while another is “like a slimy black leech.” They are presences and also absences in the novel’s reality. One demon is described as a “breach torn in space,” a shadow that “crawled, quivered, moved along the street.” They’re literally behind the scenes. The people of the novel have to learn to see them, or if not see them to know that they’re there.

For example, they have to learn to suspect a conspiracy when the one person who resists the occult plot—the brave, praying pastor, the hero of the story—is accused of rape.

In the novel, one of the members of the congregation is awakened by angels. The angels are crowded around her bed, standing as high as the ceiling. They’re glowing, golden, beautiful men, with robes and jeweled swords. They tell her to pray and rally others to prayer. They say, “Your pastor … has fallen prisoner. He will be delivered through your prayers.” 

She only learns later he’s in prison—“fallen prisoner”—on rape charges. And it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t believe it. The pastor has bite marks on his body from the woman who says he raped her. When he is arrested he’s wearing a torn shirt, and the woman has the torn piece. But of course it’s a set up. He’s being framed by demonic forces, and the reader knows this. The narrative never, never allows the reader to think the woman might be credible, and the characters who are held up as heroes in the story also don’t believe her. She’s a troubled woman. Even when she has this incredible amount of physical evidence that should make her credible—incredibly credible!—they never give her the benefit of the doubt. They never think the accusations are even plausible. 

As one villain in the novel says to another: This rape business. You blew it. Few buy this rape business.

In the second novel, the same thing. There’s a town that’s a Norman Rockwell dream of normalcy, but then the demons and the conspiracy. This time, its the school board instead of the college, so the students are younger and more vulnerable, and the hero catches on to the plot and starts to oppose it and he is accused of abusing his children. His children are taken away, pending an investigation. An investigation, again, that the reader doesn’t need because the reader knows it’s false, the characters learn it’s false, and the reader learns that such accusations are not to be taken seriously. In the world of the novel, any investigation—taking witness statements, collecting evidence, assessing that evidence—is just ruining the reputation of a good man. 

Where does this novel, with its conspiracies and false accusation fantasies come from? A few places. Peretti is writing in a literary tradition of horror that writer H.P. Lovecraft, the great and terrible H.P. Lovecraft, called the “spectrally macabre.” This was horror that imagines a world just like the readers’ everyday reality, but then disrupts that mimetic representation with otherworldly forces, scratching at the edge of reality. Lovecraft, a master of this tradition, said Americans wanted horror with a supernatural touch. It gave them a shiver of the numinous. That shiver seems not infrequently connected to the way the horror reasserts racial hierarchies and enforces gender norms.

Peretti is also writing in the tradition of conspiracy theory novels, which boomed in the 1980s. The bestseller list was well stocked with Cold War stories from John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, and others. The most successful writer to bring the traditions together was Stephen King, starting with ’Salem’s Lot up to last year’s novel, The Outsider.

Peretti’s writing is doing this too, but he’s also part of a religious community. As his publisher announced in 1989, “He has written a book for the so-called moral majority. They can hold this up and say, ‘This is how I see the world.’”

How did they see the world? Peretti would say in terms of worldview.

Peretti’s pentecostal but he’s always said his great influence was Francis Schaeffer, the Reformed thinker who popularized pressupositionalism, culture war apologetics, and worldview thinking.

The Christian worldview, in Schaeffer’s account, starts with the foundational, pre-rational assumption—or presupposition—of God’s existence. God’s existence then entails ideas of objective reality and absolute truth, which serves as the basis for rational thought. The “antithesis,” a word Schaeffer used to mean an irreconcilable opposite, is secular humanism. Secular humanism starts from human experience. In this system of thought, “men and women, beginning absolutely by themselves, try rationally to build out from themselves, having only Man as their integration point, to find all knowledge, meaning and value.”

Schaeffer would grant that secular humanism’s approach to knowledge seemed promising at first. Observation, empirical knowledge, verification seemed pretty good. People were optimistic about what they could know and how certain they could be of what they knew, working only with knowledge that was available to all equally. But, according to Schaeffer, they didn’t have God to guarantee the absolute quality of truth—fix it, make it certain—so that approach to knowledge is ultimately unsustainable. The rationalist project will collapse into anti-rationalism. Because everything you know is only provisional, and you can always be wrong. 

Schaeffer thinks this happened historically with Exisitentialism. “It was as though the rationalist suddenly realized,” he wrote, “that he was trapped in a large round room with no doors and no windows, nothing but complete darkness. From the middle of the room he would feel his ways to the walls and begin to look for an exit. He would go round the circumference, and then the terrifying truth would dawn on him that there was no exit, no exit at all!” (A reference to the Jean Paul Sartre play, No Exit).

Peretti, notably, turned this passage about the discombobulated rationalist into a speech he gave multiple times, around the country, on the evangelical lecture circuit. On stage, Peretti acted out the problem, pretending to be blind, waving his arms and walking with exaggerated steps through the imaginary formless void, until finally found what, in his performance, stood for a moral absolute: a chair. From the fixed point of the chair, he could measure and explore the space. The chair could serve as the basis for knowledge as long as it didn’t move. 

“In order for a fixed point of reference to be any good,” Peretti said, “it has to be separate from you, and it can’t move…This is the essence of Christian thought, is that we do have a fixed point of reference by which we measure Right, Wrong, True, False, Good, Evil.”

The upshot of the argument is that if you think there is a right and wrong, true or false, and you’re not reasoning from the pre-rational presupposition of the existence of God, you are being inconsistent and incoherent. “There are no neutral facts,” Schaeffer said, “for facts are God’s facts.” There is, therefore, no common ground between worldviews. In fact, common ground is a kind of trick secular humanists use to get good Christians to give up their Reformed inheritance. It’s a conspiracy in a disguise of good faith. You shouldn’t be so gullible!

To learn to think in terms of worldview, then, means learning skepticism. Towards some people. It’s interesting to note that the suspicions of worldview thinking never seems to be reflexive. Never self directed. There are other options, within the Reformed tradition, that emphasize epistemological humility. I’m reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr, who called attention to how self-interest corrupts clear thinking. Speaking from his understanding of Reformed doctrines, Niebuhr said Christians are called to be be suspicious of their own reasoning. The children of light are foolish. Not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness, which is what Schaeffer and Peretti would say. No, Christians are naive because they underestimate the power of self-interest in themselves, in their own thinking, in their decisions about who to believe, who to find credible, who to extend the benefit of the doubt.

Schaeffer took Reformed theology and fashioned in into a presuppositionalist epistemology and built, from that, a whole philosophy of cultural conflict, clashes between neighbors, wars of worldviews. This is the thing Peretti dramatizes, in his novels.

Fiction, of course, doesn’t make anyone do anything. That’s not how fiction works. What fiction does is invite people to imagine the world is a certain way, and imagine themselves as the characters, imagine what it would be like to be those characters, in that world, having those experiences, making those choices. If you pick up Peretti, it’s an invitation to worldview thinking.

It invites us to imagine a narrative of doubt and the benefit of the doubt, that works a certain way. Protecting powerful abusers. Disregarding real victims.

It invites us to extra skepticism towards some people, towards some claims. The Reformed tradition is turned to motivated reasoning.

It invites us, finally, to imagine what it would be like to be falsely accused, and imagine that that happens all the time, and that powerful men are regularly victimized for things they didn’t do. 

The truth is this is a fantasy. A wildly popular temptation, fed by the the Reformed tradition, that encourages us to take a hermeneutic posture that dismisses sexual violence, hides sexual violence, and diminishes sexual violence as just, you know, “that rape business.”

Sex-and-marriage manuals and the making of an evangelical market

Presented at the American Historical Association, session No. 6, “Evangelical Loyalties Reconsidered”, on Jan. 3, 2019.

Marabel Morgan shows lingerie to a group of Christian women in the 1970s.

Marabel Morgan shows lingerie to a group of Christian women in the 1970s.

So our topic today is evangelical loyalties reconsidered. In my reconsideration, I want to talk about not just evangelical loyalties but the construction of evangelical loyalties. So much of the scholarship on American evangelicalism is about the objects of evangelical commitment—ye olde Bebbington quadrilateral. Or the scholarship is an argument that other objects are the real objects of evangelical loyalty: the dirty secrets, the bad-bad politics, the social anxieties, and quest for control. We’re seeing, I think, a fracture in the field. One side says evangelicalism is most basically theological and then it has its cultural commitments and politics, which are, depending on your view, faithful expressions of the theology or a deep betrayal. The other side, in this historiographical split, says evangelicalism’s primary loyalties are political, or at least cultural, and the theology is backfill. I think there’s this other question, though, a prior question, which we’ve missed. How are these loyalties constructed? Put it another way: how is the religious identity, which involves the cultural practice of these commitments and the social reality of said loyalties, how is that religious identity organized? What I’m saying is, don’t just tell me what the loyalties are. Tell me how they happened as historical contingencies.

Not to keep you in suspense: I think how they happened is capitalism. Markets sort consumers into groups, or help people sort themselves into groups, and if you track the production and distribution, sales and consumption of “Christian-themed merchandise” you can see the emergence of a specifically evangelical market. You see it in history, in the flow of contingencies. And that evangelical market, which organizes a specific consumer group, “evangelicals,” is itself shaped by material constraints and incentives. In the shape and shaping of the market by constraints and incentives, we can find the construction of loyalties. That’s my argument. That’s the reconsideration I want to offer, here today. 

So let’s talk about evangelical sex in the 1970s, as a case study for this. Before the year of the evangelical and that media phenomenon, there was this thing where all across the country, women—conservative, Christian, white, middle class, married women—were en masse experimenting with sex. 

In 1975, one woman in Oklahoma, for example, dressed up for her husband: a gorilla mask and a raincoat. Naked underneath. A woman in Wisconsin met her husband at the front door in a bikini and ski boots. Another woman, same thing—high heels, hose, and an apron. Nothing else. And then, most famously, there was the woman who just wrapped herself in saran wrap. These were not isolated incidents. These women were not alone. There were 84 women who did this one night in Muncie, Indiana, in 1975. (Muncie is not a town, from what I gather, known for being a hotbed of sexual experimentation. A New York Times reporter, writing about these women, described Muncie as a place where “a lot of canning goes on—also sewing and bowling and barbecuing and churchgoing.” And also, one night, 84 women in ad hoc sexual costumes). There were, similarly, 112 women one night in Waukesha, Wisconsin. More than 200 in Saginaw, Michigan. And town after town—from Florida to Washington, into Canada. (Twenty-five thousand women did this just in Manitoba).

This was the Total Woman phenomenon. It began with Marabel Morgan, a married mother-of-two with a split-level house and a pool in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs of Miami. Morgan was a former beauty queen and Campus Crusade for Christ-worker who married a tax lawyer. She was living the American dream and she was—disappointed. She felt that malaise Betty Friedan talked about in The Feminine Mystique, “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century.” Just as Friedan said, Morgan went about the daily grind of chores, struggling to articulate how unfulfilled she was, to “ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’” Morgan could have been the poster child for second-wave feminism. She could have seen herself as trapped by the gender expectations of a patriarchal society. But she didn’t. Morgan decided that the problems with her life were her fault, which meant she had the agency and the power to change things. Change herself and her life.

So Morgan wrote a book. A self help book, a sex-and-marriage manual. Called The Total Woman. The problem in most marriages, according to Morgan’s thinking, was that there were two egos, clashing. There were two opinions, two views, two will too often locked in a struggle for authority. The solution to this conflict was a simple hierarchy. One person in authority, one in submission. A woman who wanted a happy marriage should use her agency to surrender her agency, which would give her the rich, abundant life she wanted. Morgan said the secret was the four As: a wife should accept, admire, adapt to, and appreciate her husband. In one exercise, Morgan told women to write down a list of things they liked about their husbands and a second list of all their husbands faults. They were then told to throw the second list away. In another exercise, women were told to practice telling their husbands, “I crave your body.” 

“Practice,” Morgan instructed, “until it comes out naturally.” 

Another exercise was role play. 

Morgan wrote: “Your husband needs you to fulfill his daydreams. Never let him know what to expect when he opens the front door; make it like opening a surprise package. You may be a smoldering sexpot, or an all-American fresh beauty. Be a pixie or a pirate—a cowgirl or a showgirl. Keep him off guard.” (It’s an interesting mix, here, of agency and abnegation).

So how do we consider these loyalties, these commitments? And if we’re going to reconsider them, as I’ve suggested, to look at not just what the loyalties are but how they’re constructed in their contingencies, how they’re organized by markets, how do we do that?

Well, let’s look at the publisher. The Total Woman was published by Revell, a company founded by Dwight L. Moody and Fleming Revell, Moody’s brother in law, in 1872. So, 100 years before The Total Woman. It was started mainly to print Moody’s sermons, and a few other books. It expanded but slowly. In 1903, Revell had 42 titles and 29 of them were authored by Moody. Revell was kind of Moody’s personal press but it grew, as Tim can tell you better than I, into this force that defined fundamentalism. If you wanted fundamentalist literature, this is where you could get it, Guaranteed Pure

Interestingly, and I think not incidentally, those books and that religious identity were marketed mainly to ministers. There were books for evangelistic outreach—published through the Bible Institute Colportage Association—and books for people who worked in churches, mainly preachers and Sunday school teachers. These were published by Revell. 

On the face of it, this might seem like a terrible business decision, to market to ministers instead of church goers. There are obviously a lot more people in the pews than the pulpits. That’s how that works. But this was the norm for publishing in America in the 19th century and into the 20th: religious publishers put out books for professional religious people, not laypeople. 

There was a market-constraint that made this the best approach: the problem of distribution. Distribution is always the problem with selling books. Production is easy. Distribution is a nightmare. You can sell books at bookstores, but for most of American history bookstores have only been profitable in major urban centers (and even then, sometimes just barely). They’re mostly a city thing, inaccessible to most Americans. Other distribution strategies included selling subscriptions door to door, but that only worked for something with very wide appeal, like a Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. There were also department stores, but there, space was limited. Certainly too limited for a book that might appeal to a Baptist and not a Presbyterian. There was mail order, but where do you get the addresses for people interested in your specific religious publications? The answer, it turns out, is denominations, seminaries, Bible camps, and other institutions that train and certify and organize religious workers.

Religious publishers used these existing organization structures to distribute books, because of the constraints of the market. One of the important effects of this was to keep religious readerships distinct. Whatever theological or cultural similarities a Methodist might have had with a Mennonite, or a Campbellite with a Covenanter, they were in distinct textual communities. Methodists publishers of course might want to sell non-Methodist readers—and we know they did—but they couldn’t reach them. The distribution problem. 

Fundamentalists publishers—Revell but also Zondervan and others—were important innovators, here, finding ways to broaden the market, creating a trans-denominational reading community. But this market, the fundamentalist market, was still mostly ministers and religious workers. If you look at the bookstores, for example, that sold these books, they were at seminaries, Bible colleges, Bible camps. Really these were church supply stores.

A newly opened evangelical bookstore in the 1970s.

A newly opened evangelical bookstore in the 1970s.

This changed—the market changed—in the 1950s. What happened was these bookstores and the publishers organized the Christian Booksellers Association, and distribution got a lot easier, but also broader. Now the denominational distribution channels were replaced with something not quite generic, but not so niche. If a Baptist bookstore was not going to get its books from a specifically Baptist distribution channel, but a “Christian” one, then a Baptist publisher needed to get its books into that channel. Churchly distinctives were a disadvantage. It was better to be broadly evangelical. It was better to sell books about “Christian living.”

This, combined with the postwar economy and a country flush with credit, made it really really easy to start a Christian bookstore. These were family bookstores, Bible bookstores, evangelical bookstores. You didn’t need denominational approval or a connection to a seminary or anything. Just a loan and a catalog from the CBA. Lots of people did this.

In 1950, when the booksellers association organized, there were about 270 connected stores. By the mid 60s, there were 725. By the mid 70s, 1,850. By the end of the 70s, about 3,000. And they were in places like Saginaw, Michigan; Waukesha, Wisconsin; Muncie, Indiana. Places where a lot of canning goes on. Places where conservative, Christian, middle class, married women were struggling, like people do. Disappointed, like people are.

They found themselves in the market for evangelical books. They found they themselves were the market. That’s how their world got organized and sorted.

If The Total Woman was written in 1873—it’s almost inconceivable, but if it had—nothing would have happened. But in 1973, the way religion was organized in America had changed. There was this distribution network and these bookstores, and this religious identity that addressed the spiritual yearnings and daily lives of America’s primary book buyers—middle class white women.

The Total Woman was published in 1973. In 1974 it outsold All the President’s Men, by 100,000 copies. At the end of 1975, it was outselling Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the classic feminist novel that celebrated the “zipless fuck.” In five years, The Total Woman sold 3 million copies. Not because of new needs, but because it was available.

There was one woman who read it in Muncie in 1975—and I want to close with this—one woman who was pretty sure she’d never had an orgasm. Or she didn’t know if she had and didn’t know if she would know, if she had had an orgasm. It was too embarrassing to ask anyone. She’d never been naked in front of another human, as an adult. She was married for four, five years, but she got changed in her closet. And then she found this book about marriage. Christian marriage. How to have the best marriage. A superlative marriage. It quoted the Bible. It told her to take agency, take control, and submit to her husband. It told her to greet him naked, nearly. Maybe in saran wrap. 

The book, for her, changed everything. 

As she later told a New York reporter, “this Total Woman business is giving women permission to be alive.”

That commitment, that evangelical vision of abundant life and her loyalty, with regard to sex—I’m saying it was available to this woman, because of the book, because of the bookstore, because of the distribution network, and because of the emergence of a specifically evangelical market. That’s how it happened, in the flow of historical contingencies, and that’s critical to the construction of evangelicalism.


Teaching as vocation

I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching the last year and a half. The Lilly Fellows Program, here at Valparaiso, is a teaching fellowship, and it has provided me the space to explore, and push myself, and reflect critically on what I do and want to do in the classroom.

Students at work in one of my Valpo classes.

Students at work in one of my Valpo classes.

I’ve worked on ways to creatively engage non-history majors in the practice of historical thinking. I thought about writing, and how to teach it. I’ve worked a lot on teaching survey classes that draw students in.

I’ve also been thinking about college teaching a Christian calling, or vocation. About teaching, as Max Weber might say, als beruf.

Every week, during the semester, the five Lilly Fellows and some senior scholars gather to talk about this question of vocation and what is it is we’re doing, when we’re doing this job of teacher-scholar. We’ve read a wide variety of texts on the topic.

These are the seven readings that have most pushed my thinking, and the questions I’ve taken away from them:

Max Weber -- "Science as Vocation." I think this is mainly read out of concerns about "secularization," but I really value it for questions about whether or not professors should be "petty prophets."

Mark Schwehn -- "Academic Vocation" and "Communities of Learning," in Exiles from Eden. Schwehn doesn't quite put it in these Marxist terms, but why are academics so alienated from their own labor?

Daniel Mendelsohn -- An Odyssey. A book about teaching which is also about identity, family, and the tension in the liberal arts between "discovering yourself" and connecting with other people. 

Stephanie Paulsell -- "The Unknowable More." How to teach in awareness of our human limitations, in view of what we can't know (but need to know we can't know).

Cassandra Nelson -- "Bracing for Impact." How to teach into trauma, or at least more seriously consider the stakes of our reading practices.

Kevin Gary -- "Boredom, Contemplation, and Liberation." What if the best thing you can do for students is bore them?

Flannery O'Connor -- "Enduring Chill." There are lots of good short stories about teaching, and discussing fiction has lead to the most fruitful conversations. I especially like this one, from O'Connor. What is the relationship, the story asks, between pedagogy and the salvation of a human soul?

I’ll go on thinking about these things, in and out of the classroom, and in and out of the Lilly Fellows colloquium. This is, though, a good start.

Cook the Archives

Went to a great conference this week, put on by the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan: Teaching Undergraduates with Archives.

I gave a presentation on the creative project from my Great Depression and World War II class, where students cooked a historic meal using a U.S. Department of Agriculture cookbook.

My conclusion:

So my point is this: History classes are not only for historians, but a wide range of students. Creatively teaching the archives helped me add doors into my subject, access points to the project of historical thinking. So consider this a testimonial and also an encouragement to think of inventive ways to do the thing we do. Teach the archives! Yes. Also cook them, eat them, wear them, build them, grow them, or anything else that will grab students and show them what history can do.


At First Baptist Church of Dallas, Trump support is part of a tradition

It’s easy to look at Robert Jeffress defending President Trump again on Fox News and wonder how the First Baptist Church of Dallas got so political.

George W. Truett, one of Robert Jeffress's predecessors, preaching about Christian America on the steps of the U.S. capitol.

George W. Truett, one of Robert Jeffress's predecessors, preaching about Christian America on the steps of the U.S. capitol.

Jeffress, the pastor of the Texas church since 2007, has supported Donald Trump without any sign of hesitation. He continues, unwavering, through scandal after scandal. His church of 12,000 even has a Trump-inspired song, a hymn to “Make America Great Again.”

But the First Baptist Church of Dallas didn’t just get political. It’s been that way for a long time. 

Monday marked an anniversary for the church. It was founded on July 30, 1868, by three men and eight women. That was 150 years ago. It’s been political for almost as long.

Before Jeffress, there was W.A. Criswell. When Criswell died in 2002, his obituary from the Associated Press said the preacher “mostly eschewed politics.” But that’s not true. He ran up to politics and gave it a great big hug.

Criswell was called to the pulpit of First Baptist Church in 1944. The next year, he preached a sermon on Christian America. “How indebted we are to the Almighty God for the government under which we live,” he said. “On the personality of God our forefathers launched our great ship of state.”

Read my latest piece at Religion Dispatches.

Charles White's Christianity

I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, yesterday, with some out-of-town friends. Among other things, we saw the Charles White retrospective. His art is so powerful. Highly recommend.


White is maybe most famous for his mural: The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America

White was part of Chicago’s Black Renaissance, in the 1930s and ‘40s. I would call him a Social Realist. He manages, though, with big blocky figures, to depict people as simultaneously heroic and human. They are particular. And noble types.

I didn’t know of White, despite knowing a lot about the world around him. He did work for the WPA and I just taught about the WPA. He illustrated one of Howard Fast’s novels, and I read a bunch of those as a kid. He did some art for Paul Robeson, and I’ve listened to a lot of Robeson. 

It is and isn’t the right phrase, but Charles White was a fellow traveler. His works, together, tell the story of a liberationist struggle, an oppressed class becoming conscious, seizing dignity and democracy, self-determination.

What the reviews of this show fail to mention is how religious it is.

One of the first pieces is of a preacher: his thick hands grasping a tiny Bible. There are several others, as well as continual references to the Bible and gospel music. And these people he’s drawing and painting are conceived as saints.

White is weaving together black history, from Denmark Vesey and Frederick Douglass to the Civil Rights movement, with a Marxist theory of class consciousness, a small-d democratic belief in dignity and self-determination, and a deeply Christian story about deliverance. That last part is not incidental to what he’s doing, even if many miss it. 

All the parts, for him, go together. It’s really something to see. 


The Man from Mars Who Wants to Know, 1930-2018

I loved the pyrotechnics. 

With Tom Wolfe, of course, it’s Pyrotechnics™. That’s what everyone talks about. It’s hard not to, with Wolfe. If not a fireworks metaphor, then what? His sentences practically roman-candle on the page: ZZZZZZZZZZTch!popop POW.


His prose goes zoom and it can take you with it. 

It took me at 18, 19, 20. Wolfe’s writing—I couldn’t tell how it did what it did, but I could tell what it did. It grabbed readers by the throat like I wanted to grab readers. It made readers care about things they didn’t think they cared about. I wanted that power. His words had a thing. But what was it?

Wolfe died Monday at 88. With the news comes memorials to his prose and power with words. His style is hailed, rightly enough. But I think back to why Wolfe mattered to me—mattered so, so much to my writing—it actually wasn’t the excess of style. I learned something different. 

I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby my first summer working at a daily paper. It was the Peninsula Daily News, in Port Angeles, Washington. I had just finished a year at the community college in town. I'd taken a few classes on journalism and picked up the rudiments of reporting at the school’s bi-weekly paper. So sometime in May I went down to the Peninsula Daily News, a warehouse-looking building on First Street within shouting distance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and I asked to talk to the publisher. The publisher was an old bureau chief for the Associated Press, retired from that to run this local paper in the Pacific North West. I asked to see him to see if he had a job for me, or maybe an internship. He laughed at me. 

He laughed at my clothes, actually. I was wearing a $12 jean jacket and a pair of clean blue jeans. I had some big, lace-up work boots, which I wore for mowing lawns, cutting trees, killing chickens, pouring concrete, and all the other jobs I’d done before this job I really, really wanted: reporter.

The old bureau chief took one look at my be-denimed self and snorted, “what is this, wear denim day?”

I don’t remember what I said back. I stuttered something. Then he explained I didn’t have what it took to be a reporter. But how did he know? The jacket? 

Like that, I was back out on First Street. 

A couple of weeks later, the news editor called. Did I have a job for the summer yet? I guessed I would run the chipper for one of the local tree companies.

Did I still want to work at the newspaper? I told him there must be some misunderstanding. I already talked to the publisher.

“Some things changed," he said. "You want a job, you start tomorrow.” So I did.

When I got to the newsroom, the place was empty of reporters. There had been three, but something happened and they all quit and I had a job: general assignment reporter. It was an incredible moment, but also more than a little terrifying, how fast things could change.

So I started. A place like that, a job like that, you can write about anything. But you also have to write about everything. I wrote two, three stories a day. It’s a quick, quick pace, always in the oncoming traffic of deadlines, and pretty soon you start writing about things and getting assignments to write about things where you think, how is this a story?

A car show. A quilt show. A boat show. A jazz festival. A parade. The publisher who knew I didn’t have what it took once personally assigned me an important story, he said, about a sand-castle carving competition—that I had to write about before it happened. 

I was so happy to have that job. But also, I knew they expected me to fail. I knew I could prove them right with one dumb question, one messed-up story. And there I was, in the office before anyone else, wracking my mind: How is a car show interesting? How is a car show a story? I had no idea. 

Tom Wolfe had an idea. 

The title piece in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby is about a car show. For Wolfe, though, the story wasn’t about cars, but the people who cared about cars. It was, even beyond that, a story about what they cared about when they cared about these cars. 

“The cars mean more to these kids than architecture did in Europe’s great formal century, say, 1750 to 1850,” Wolfe wrote. “They are freedom, style, sex, power, motion, color—everything right there.”

That was the first lesson, the most important lesson I learned from Wolfe. I don’t have to care about cars. I don’t have to think a tangerine-colored paint job is important. I have to care that people care and think it’s important people think something’s important. That’s where the story is.

The second lesson was that there is more than one way to tell a story. There are choices. You should think about the different ways, and decide how you’re going to tell a story.

Other denizens of the style called “New Journalism” were probably better at this, honestly. Jimmy Breslin’s piece on the guy who dug the grave for John F. Kennedy is maybe the best example, but there are lots of examples. These writers emphasized that you might want to focus on the “wrong” person. You might do better to start with an “irrelevant” detail. A story could be better, sometimes, if it were upside down.

The point was just that you have to make choices. Everything is a choice, in writing. Novelists have long known this, the New Journalists said, and will think about whether to tell a story in first person or with an omniscient narrator, whether to start at the beginning or in medias res, and even what tense to use. Journalists should do the same.

In an interview once Wolfe talked about a biography he read when he was 7. It was about Napoleon. It was written in the present tense. That blew Wolfe away, that you could do that. You could tell the story of long-ago Napoleon like it was right now

The truth is the truth, but the telling is constructed. Maybe everybody else always knew this about the art of narrative. It was a revelation to me. 

When I read Wolfe, I felt like I was suddenly free from every rule, every convention, every “right way” of doing things. But more importantly, I felt like I knew what that freedom was for. 

The third lesson was the suits. Wolfe wore white suits. They were basically his brand. His obits all mention his clothes. How often is that true, for writers? But that’s how he stood out, with wildly fancy clothes. He was so pretentious about it that asked, once, to describe his style, he said it was “neo-pretentious.” Others, digging for descriptors, frequently come up with “dandy.”

I have an impossibility low tolerance for dandyism. And I couldn’t pull off a white suit for anything. With a normal sports coat, I look like I’m going to jack a truck. In a tie, I look like I just stole a chicken. Wolfe and I couldn’t be any further apart than when it comes to clothing.

But Wolfe said the clothes were also just about being separate and knowing you are separate. The reporter is not part of the scene. The reporter is in the world, not of the world. In the crowd, but watching the crowd. The separateness is an important part of the job, because that allows you the critical distance to tell the story. So it’s OK, and maybe even a good thing, if people see you and think, that person doesn’t belong.

"I found early in the game that for me there’s no use trying to blend in," Wolfe said. "I might as well be the village information-gatherer, the man from Mars who simply wants to know."

Wolfe wasn’t, by any means, authorizing my jean-jacket-and-blue-jeans look. But I could be the man from Mars. And here was Wolfe saying my weirdness, my awkwardness, could be a powerful tool to help me know. I could embrace my out-of-placeness like an odd-duck superpower and then I could really see. Then I could really tell a story.

The end of the summer at the Peninsula Daily News, I got a crime story. By then, the paper had hired a few real reporters, with real experience, but they decided to keep me until I went back to college in the fall. I was there early, earlier than anyone, going through stacks of mail and faxes trying to find a story I could write about. A car show. Something. 

The police scanner squawked a message about an arrest, a suspected bank robber, and a bar. I went to the bar. I was 18. I’d never had a beer and never been in a bar, much less at 10:30 on a weekday morning. I walked in. 

I told the bartender who I was and asked if there was a bank robber arrested there. She said yeah, and she’d talk to me in a minute after the police finished taking her statement. I could wait. She gave me the beer the bank robber bought before she called the police and they came and arrested him. “He didn’t drink any,” she said. So I did. 

The man had been on a bit of a bender, before that last beer he didn't drink. Released from jail a week before, he robbed a bank, lost a bunch of his stealings at a casino, got a cheap hotel, and drank all day for four, five days at the bar next door. Until they caught him.

When he robbed the bank he was wearing a cowboy hat, which the police thought was a disguise, obscuring his face, distracting eye witnesses. When he was arrested, he was wearing the same hat. 

I was able to reconstruct his whole week. I got the report about the bank robbery and found one of his dealers at the casino. I talked to the clerk who checked him into the hotel. He had no luggage, she said, just a limp and a brown paper bag with money. And of course I talked to the bar tender, who told me the police said her tips were hers, even if it was stolen money.

I wrote it all up and turned it in to the editor. There were no pyrotechnics. I just tried to tell the story. It was about a man and what he wanted. I made choices, in the narrative construction, with which details to focus on and how to unfold the chronology to serve the story the best I could. And I got the story because I didn’t worry about fitting in. No question was too dumb for me. I was the man from Mars who wanted to know.

The editor read it. Didn’t say anything. He took it to the publisher and shut the door. I waited for what seemed like an interminably long time. I couldn’t think of anything to do. I just sat there. The publisher came out and growled, “this detail, how much the beer cost? How do you know how much the bank robber’s beer cost?”

I told him I got that from the bar tender.

He said, “Kid, I don’t believe anyone but you would’ve got this story.”

Wolfe’s dead now, and people are praising his pyrotechnics. I’ll admit, I loved his pyrotechnics. I wanted to write like that and tried to write like that. But when I think back to reading The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby for the first time, that wasn’t the thing. That wasn’t the important part of what Wolfe was to me. I learned something different.

Man bites dog, teaches freshman to write intro paragraphs

Some of my freshman writing students immediately get the idea of a "destabilizing condition." It's almost intuitive. They see how the introduction of an academic paper and really the paper itself is built around a central tension, a subversion of expectations, which the intro sets up, and then the rest of the paper explains.

Others find the concept more elusive.

Even if they have a really good thesis question, they sometimes struggle to explain why the question would be of interest to anyone if it's not just self evident. They can't quite figure out how to back up from their specific, focused, research question to create an intro that might draw the reader in. They end up either starting very abruptly, as if the question arrived to the paper ex nihilo, or (horrors), starting with the most broad banalities (since the beginning of time) which they then "destabilize," but in the most boring way. 

I decided, in my honors seminar on Watergate, to try a new approach to teaching introductions. 

I tried to think of other ways I could could talk about this subversion of expectations without using phrases like "subversion of expectations" or "internal contradiction" or "destabilization." I wanted to find alternatives, where they actually already knew what I was talking about, but just didn't know the terms or that that was what they were supposed to do in a good academic intro paragraph. 

I came up with three:

1. There's an old journalist saying, for when something is news. They say, "when a dog bites a man, that's not news. But when a man bites a dog, that's news."

I asked the students, "why?" One of them answered immediately, “When a man bites a man we're surprised;  it’s surprising.” Exactly. 

2. These freshman all read Antigone last semester, and in my class at least we talked about the form of the Greek tragedy, what made it tragic, and what the play was saying about human nature with its sense of tragedy. I asked them to remember back and tell me what Greek tragedy was about--what makes a Greek tragedy a Greek tragedy, specifically. 

One student said: Because bad stuff happens and everyone dies. 

I said, "Well not exactly. Here's a story about Dave. Dave is walking down the street, like a person. And then a meteor falls out of the sky. Splat. Dave is dead." I asked, "Is that a Greek tragedy?"

Two other students answer, no, and then gave me two variations of the answer that a Greek tragedy is where people are doomed because of their stubborn commitment to a particular virtue. It's the good thing they love to an extreme that gets them into trouble. 

I re-told the story of Dave: Dave is very cautious. Number one issue for Dave is safety. He's so safe, he never leaves his house. Meteor falls, hits his house, how ironic. 

The class agreed there was a real difference between the two stories, and the second one was better because it had more "tension."

3. At this point, the students could basically see where this was going, but one more example made sure we all really got it: jokes. A joke, in its most basic form, is a set up (stable condition) and a punch line (destabilizing the stable condition). 

I told a joke about Freudian slips. This works doubly, because Freudian slips are also about subverted expectations, and those expectations are pretty explicitly stated, unlike, say, chicken-crossing-the-road jokes. The joke I used goes: Two psychologists are talking about Freudian slips and how awkward they can be. The one says, "I know, I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'please pass the hot buns,' but instead I said, 'you have hot buns.' It was so embarrassing." The other says, "I know. It's so awkward. I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'pass the salt' but instead I said 'you horrible woman you ruined my life!'"

The students who have drifted off are brought back by a joke. I then quickly retell it, marking the parts verbally as I go:

Two psychologists are talking about Freudian slips and how awkward they can be (expectation). The one says, "I know, I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'please pass the hot buns' (expectation) but instead I said, 'you have hot buns'" (subverted expectation). The other says, "I know. It's so awkward (repetition re-building expectation). I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'pass the salt' (expectation doubled) but instead I said 'you horrible woman you ruined my life!'" (subversion doubled). 

At this point, they all have a firm grasp of destabilization, but I want to do one more thing, before I send them back to their intros. I want to talk about "ledes."

Students, even when they have a good idea of how destabilization works, are often so focused on their thesis and getting to their thesis, that they forget they know how to communicate information. They can be freed from this fixation, I think, by considering non-academic (and perhaps less threatening) approaches to introducing a story. I use examples from journalism.

Journalists, I tell them, have two basic ways of starting stories. The first is called the straight lede (misspelled to distinguish it from the metal lead). There, you write a single sentence that contains all the basic information of a story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. 5 Ws and an H. 

Example: Local man Dave (who) was killed (what) walking down the street (where) Tuesday (when) when a meteor randomly fell out of the sky (why) and struck him on the head (how).

Example: President Donald Trump (who) vowed to build an even bigger wall (what) on the U.S.-Mexican border (where), Tweeting this morning (when) that Congress needs to act (how) to stop this "plague on America" (why).

I point out the 5 Ws and an H don't always have to come in the same order, and sometimes it's better to do this in two sentences, or even three, but in principle you should be able to write a straight lede in a single sentence. The straight lede is the whole story, in its simplest form. The BLUF: Botton Line Up Front.

I then tell them about the second kind of lede: the anecdotal lede. Here, I tell them, you "bury the lede." Before you tell the readers who, what, where, when, why and how, you tell them a short pop of a story. The story is tiny, maybe incidental. It's not THE story, but a stray bit of bit of a thing, which illustrates the larger point. It's a helps people understand the theme, often by focusing on a minor detail.

So, your man bit a dog, but before you say that, you say:

"Jim was surprised to find that dog fur is pretty salty. He hadn't expected that. He hadn't expected anything, actually. Jim wants to be very clear this is not something he thought about ahead of time, planned in any way, or imagined like some kind of fantasy.

“‘Not in a million years,’ Jim says.

“He didnâ’t wake up that morning thinking, ‘Today’s the day I bite that dog.’

“But it was that day. Jim Little bit his neighbor’s beagle on Oak Avenue, Monday.â€

The lede, with the who, what, where, and when (but not the why or how, here, because those can be deferred) is still in this version of the intro. It’s just at the end, buried, transitioning the reader from this anecdote to the larger story about a man biting a dog.

At this point, I think, the students are ready to start. I give them their intro assignments:

    1.    Write the straight lede to your research paper.

    2.    Write what is “man bites dog” about your story.

    3.    Write an anecdotal lede to your research paper.

    4.    Explain the “Greek tragedy” of your research paper.

    5.    Write a traditional academic introduction, with the four elements, a) the stable condition, b) the destabilization, c) the “so what?” explanation of the larger importance, and d) your main claim/thesis statement, BUT, incorporate any part of what you wrote for assignments 1, 2, 3, and 4, as it helps you articulate your point and connect with your readers.

I won't really know if this works until I try it a few more times. But the immediate feedback seems pretty good. The intros I'm getting aren't as clunky. The students are finding ways to draw the reader in. They're crafting intros that show why their research problem is a problem, getting at the central tension in a more intuitive way than they might of, if I had just explained "destabilizing condition" two or three more times.

Evangelicalism for the burdened and broken-hearted

When Calls the Heart doesn’t look like a theology of suffering. The Hallmark Channel show is a sweet and sentimental drama, telling the story of a cultured young woman who takes a job as school teacher on the Canadian frontier in 1910. She faces challenges. She learns lessons. She finds love, inner strength, and a supportive community.


The show is finishing its fifth season this month. And it’s a big hit. More than 2.5 million viewers are expected to tune in for the finale on Sunday, April 22. The show has already been renewed for a sixth season, and the first four seasons are available on Netflix. Online, the show has an active fan community, including a “Hearties” Facebook group with more than 60,000 members.

“It’s feel-good TV,” The Washington Post reported, explaining the appeal. “The main characters do the right thing. The problems get worked out. The guy and girl . . . always end up together.”

The story, though, with all its sweetness and light, is built on a real reckoning with tragedy. It comes out of an evangelical tradition that addressed itself to the burdened and brokenhearted.

Read my latest piece at Evangelical History

Talking Nixon

First day of my new class on Watergate--an honors freshman writing-and-research seminar at Valpo--I had students read transcripts of Nixon's secret White House recording, looking at how he talked and related to people in those unguarded moments, and then come up with words to describe Nixon as a person.

Overlaid with a picture from my PowerPoint presentation. The blackboard at the end of the first day looked like this:


The syllabus for the class can be found here.

Mass Media and the U.S. Presidency

I'm excited to be teaching a new course at Valparaiso in the fall. Here's the description:

Mass Media and the U.S. Presidency

Instructor: Daniel Silliman

Class time: M-W-F 9 to 9:50 a.m.

Classroom: Mueller Hall 114

William McKinley won the 1896 presidential campaign without ever leaving his home. Crowds came to Canton, Ohio, and he stood on his front porch and delivered carefully crafted speeches. But there were signs America was changing: McKinley’s campaign spent unprecedented millions on media and advertising, even producing the first-ever campaign film, while a newly powerful press determined the issues of the day. 

Since then, mass media and the American presidency have grown inexorably intertwined. Media shapes the presidency. Media makes the president. Or is it the other way around? 

From McKinley’s relation to the “yellow journalism” to Nixon’s experiences on TV, from Woodrow Wilson’s press conference to Donald Trump’s Twitter, the relationship between mass media and the American presidency is complicated, co-dependent, and ever evolving. This course will examine the relationship as it changes over time, considering the historic role of the commercial press in our democracy.

In the process, students will learn the historian’s craft. They will learn to do original research, reading and interpreting a variety of historical documents. They will learn to construct compelling and factual narratives that grapple with the complexity of human experience. Assignments will include creative story telling and a final research paper.


Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1974.

Timothy Crouse. The Boys on the Bus. New York: Random House, 1973.

David Greenberg. Republic of Spin. New York: W.W. Norton: 2016.

David R. Spencer. The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America’s Emergence as a World Power. Evanston, Illinois: Northwest University Press, 2007.

A digital subscription to either the New York Times of the Washington Post.

There are so many ways to see Billy Graham, the Germans invented a word for 'someone who likes Billy Graham'

Billy Graham was the most famous Christian preacher in the world for more than half a century. He was so famous, people felt like they had to have an opinion about him.

Graham died last week at 99. The evangelist lay in state at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, and the country is debating his legacy.


Was he “America’s pastor”? Should we think of him as the last bipartisan evangelical or a tool of partisan politics? Was he critical to the success of the civil rights movement or a white nationalist? Was he on the “wrong side of history”? Did he focus just on Jesus, or was Graham preaching a “hyper-nationalistic, militaristic and xenophobic” gospel?

Graham is a cultural inkblot. Different people see different things. In death, as in life, he is the kind of famous figure who people define themselves by how they feel about him.

This was never clearer than in Graham’s crusades in Cold War Germany. The Germans even invented a word for “someone who likes Billy Graham.”

Read my latest piece at the Washington Post.

You might lose a few books

A former student wrote me this week to tell me she still has a few of my books.

In Germany, I loaned my books to students a lot. I was teaching American religious history and the libraries didn't have the books I did about American pentecostalism, apocalypticism, evangelical publishing, megachurches, the Klan, New Religious Movements, atheism, etc., etc.

Most of the time, the students were very conscientious about returning my books in good condition. I once had a student wrap my book in linen to protect it. Not a super rare book, just a history monograph.

Sometimes, though, a book would go missing.

I decided, early on, to not worry about this. It's important to me that I'm on the same side as students, supporting them generously and without reservation. If that means I lose a few books, I'm OK with that.

So this student writes me after several years, to say she has not returned several books on pentecostal history. I helped her with her BA thesis on the Catholic Charismatic movement--though I couldn't "supervise" it because I was still working on my doctorate--and she used some of my books. Which she realized she still had.

She realized this because she was going through her books, getting ready to move. She is moving because she's going to join a convent.

My former student is now a nun.

You really never know where your students are going to end up.

It's easy to fall into the thinking that successful teaching leads to students doing what I do. Teachers beget teachers. Historians train future historians. 

But I like being surprised by my students. And I think the practice of history and historical thinking is useful in lots of different ways, for all sorts of careers, and just in life.

My student who became a nun could have been a good historian. But I'm pretty sure she's going to be an amazing nun.

So I'm really happy for her and wholeheartedly support her, like I support my former student who runs a theater, and the one who works in international human rights, the one who's at a bank, and the ones who've gone to grad school.

I think I'm lucky: I get to support them.

But it also reminds me of the challenge every semester: how do you plan a history class so that, someday, it will help a nun be a better nun, an account a better accountant, a homemaker a better homemaker, a lawyer a better lawyer, a physician's assistant, etc., etc.

That's the challenge, I think, of wholeheartedly supporting my students.

Also you lose a few books.

Teach the question

The worst lecture I ever sat through as an undergraduate was a fill-in-the-blanks lecture. The professor would a drop key phrase from every other sentence or so and say, "Anyone? Anyone?" Pause. Then say the phrase. 

"So in 1963," he would say, "Martin Luther King planned __________________. Anyone? Anyone? The March on Washington. This was a major step for the civil rights movement. It was a march for __________________. Anyone? Jobs and freedom. Civil rights and economic rights. So King stood in front of the _________________. Anyone? No? Lincoln Memorial."

It was terrible. 

You know the information, I wanted to scream after every class. We don't. You tell us

About half the lecture, it felt like, was dedicated to calling attention to the awkwardness of the students sitting there, not knowing a specific word. The main point or the real point, as I took it, was that we should know all this stuff. We shouldn't need to be told. But then, really, why were we even there?

I did fine in the course, as I recall. But I l left every class session exhausted from the stress of those blanks. 

Teaching prep for Great Depression and World War II

Teaching prep for Great Depression and World War II

A teacher now, I feel the temptation of the fill-in-the-blanks lecture. I can feel the pull to that kind of pedagogy. I worry about whether my students know basic facts, basic names and details. I think before I get into tricky questions or complicated historical and historiographical issues, I need to make sure they know the foundational stuff. Start with the simple stuff, the info every educated person should know about the subject, and build from there.

I think that way and then my notes for class start to take the shape of a Wikipedia article. "They gotta know this," I think, "and they should know that. And it would be embarrassing if I did the whole course without covering this other thing." And then I just have a pile of information to recite, and it's pretty boring. I find it boring, the students find it boring, and then I'm half way through a lecture trying to engage them somehow and I start leaving empty spaces in my sentences, hoping to God a student chimes in with a name to save me from my own fill-in-the-blank lecture.

"So in the first 100 days," I say, "Roosevelt launched a bunch of new programs. AAA. Did anyone catch what that stands for, in the reading? What about NRA? Anybody? We need to talk about the TVA too. What's the TVA?"

There's just a prairie of silence. It's terrible.

The best class I had as an undergraduate went a little different. The professor came in and set his stuff down and he said, "here's what I don't know." He said, "here's something I'm wrestling with, when I read the assigned reading for today, something I'm trying to think my way through ..."

And then he launched into ... it wasn't a lecture. It was more like thinking out loud.

I didn't know, the first time I saw it, if this professor was pulling a kind of stunt, pretending to have a question he actually already knew the answer to, as if this were just a more elaborate fill-in-the-blank kind of exercise. Or if he really didn't know. But it seemed like he really didn't know.

He phrased and then re-phrased his questions. He framed his speech as a speculative venture. "Maybe," he would say, "the way to say it is ..." He would try out answers, and then realize they didn't work or weren't quite right and abandon them and start over with the question again, trying again, in another direction. 

And after 15 minutes, or sometimes longer, he would stop. He would stand there with chalk in his hand. Or sit down, leaning forward at the seminar table. And he would say what I had never heard another professor say. He would say, "I don't know." 

And then he'd say, "what do you think?"

It was absolutely electric. It was still fill-in-the-blank, in a way, but the questions mattered. The blank was complicated, because it was important. The questions practically pulsed with urgency. He didn't know. He was asking us. The question was a real question. What was the best way to say it?

Each class, as Pete Blum constructed it, was about thinking. He would think out loud in front of us and invite us to participate and come along, or just watch if we weren't ready, but the class was this space of vulnerability and experiment, a place to be interested and figure out how to be interested and figure out how to respond to what you don't know and be better at not knowing and learn, most of all, how you could go about learning to know what you didn't know. Each class was an essay, in the sense of "attempt," and there was a very real chance the attempt would fail. But it could work, too. 

And either way, it was exciting. And either way, it was engaging.

I return to this idea, in my classes. It's something I try to remember to do, teaching history. The pedagogical lesson I take away is, don't teach "information." Teach the question.

There's always a concern about coverage in history classes, and that's a real concern, but if I focus on a question or a problem that's interesting to me, I engage the students. I pull them in. I show them why I'm interested and what's interesting and how I think historically, and in the process of doing that coverage just happens.

This week, teaching my Great Depression and World War II class, I thought out loud about Franklin Roosevelt's outreach to clergy in 1935. He wrote ministers across the country to ask their input on the Social Security and the Works Progress Administration. Was it cynical? Was it earnest? I've seen different historians describe it different way. But I don't know. And I'm not sure how to decide, actually. I wanted to think about it. So I came into class and set my stuff down and said, "here's something I don't know." I said, "I just want to think out loud, here, and maybe you can help me think about how to think about this?" 

In the process, I ended up explaining the failures and the setbacks for Roosevelt's programs, politically and especially legally, and how he responded with a plan to pack the Supreme Court, and that was a political disaster, and the "Second New Deal" needed public support. Coverage, that is to say, happened. More importantly, I think, I modeled what's actually interesting about doing history.

I didn't preform "expert." I showed my class how I investigate, how I venture a question, how I tentatively articulate what it is I want to know, and then try to think it through, and figure it out. I had to be vulnerable, because I needed to show them a question's only interesting if you could be wrong. So I thought about different ways to phrase the question, and what kind of evidence I could look for, and how to read the evidence, and the difference that different assumptions would make in that whole process. Then I said to them, "I don't know. What do you think?" and we had a conversation about it.

It was a good class. 

It's scary to teach out of my ignorance. I think I'm supposed to know and it's my job to know. But the question is what's interesting. Teach the question. Embrace the risk of the question and teach what's interesting.

The problem of the second day

The second day is a special kind of problem.

I have thought a lot about the first day of class, re-thinking and re-working that opening sessions, over the years. When I started teaching, I did a standard, read-the-syllabus first day. I didn't like it. It was bureaucratic. And boring. Every time I heard myself say "attendance policy" and "late assignments policy" and "email policy," I got sad. I also didn't like the way it foregrounded this user-agreement, positioning students as potential, probable rule-violators, and me as someone with an elaborate code I could and would hold against them.

Rules are important. The syllabus is important. But I didn't want that to be the center of the first day or the defining aspect of the class.

Really, what I want to tell students on Day 1 is just a) I am excited about the class, b) they should be excited because it is going to be great, and c) I think we are on the same side.

So, with the advice of a former student, I wrote new class policy. It's a little kick-out-the-jams, a little "solidarity forever." Now, I pledge myself to their eduction and I call them to commit to it too. Details about laptops or absences or anything else that comes up can be worked out, I make it clear, on the basis of our shared commitment.

I spend the rest of the class getting students to engage the material. I set up something they can do, right away, to see for themselves it's interesting. We throw ourselves into doing history and just start.

In my Depression and War class on Wednesday, for example, we looked at a New York Times account of the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929. We talked about what the story was about and who it was about. How is the story different, I asked, with different protagonists? A true account of the "Great Crash" can center stock brokers, or Herbert Hoover, or a North Carolina girl who saved up money picking tobacco after the other farm work was finished to buy her first share of Standard Oil right before the crash. The work of history involves choices about the kind of story we're interested in and the kinds of things we want to know.

That works pretty well. Then comes the second day.

There are three kind of technical, pedagogical problems with the second day, which I haven't figured out how to handle. There may be more than three, but these crop up in my classes every semester. 

The first is a problem of context. What context has to be established the second day of class? What do we have to talk about, as a class, before we can talk about the subject of the class? Sometimes terms have to be defined. Sometimes questions have to be explained. There's a pre-history to whatever history the class is focused on, not to mention a historiography. Should the implicit stuff be made explicit?

In Depression and War, I wanted to talk a little bit about the causes of the financial crisis before moving on to questions about how people understood it, at the time, and responded to it over the following 16 years. Of course, the causes of the crash are debated by historians, but also economists and politicians. Maybe the class should get into that? We only have 50 minutes. Also, the financial stuff is complicated. Mechanisms of monetary policy, combined with accounts of how the stock market works (then and now), plus how the stock exchange is related to banks across the country, and how the banking system worked, all in a story about change over time, presents quite the tangle. How much of that is important? If, later, we're going to read about populist resentment of the financial industry, it might be helpful to understand how that industry worked. If, later, we're going to consider claims that poverty is a moral failing, it might be important to start with a structural account of the causes of financial crisis. But it's a lot to do, and the students just have to kind of hang on, not knowing where all this is going. 

Related, the second problem is common knowledge. I often struggle with knowing what students know. Cultural references are hard: they come and go, and I always feel like I'm wasting time when I stop to ask students if they know this or that show or movie or song. It's also a problem with general education. My Depression and War students probably don't know what a call loan is, but do they understand shares? Do they know how interest rates relate to liquidity? If I reference the run on the bank in "It's a Wonderful Life," will they know the scene and if they know the scene, do they understand that explanation of the interconnections (and fragility) of the financial system? 

If I skip seemingly basic stuff and it turns out students don't know it, they'll be lost. If I belabor something they do know, on the other hand, students will get bored and check out. Inevitably, I feel like I'm doing both. 

Later in the semester, I find it's possible to speed up or slow down, go more basic or more in-depth, based on the response from the students. I find it's possible, too, to get reliable responses from students and read the signals about what they need. On the second day, though, I'm mostly guessing based on facial expressions. And, so early in the semester, my real fear is that a lost student or a bored student will decide that's just how this class is and this is what they should expect.

The third challenge is classroom culture. Everything is still awkward, on the second day. The culture of this specific classroom has yet to be established. Students don't know how to engage, which means they don't know how to prepare. Not really. They know they're going to have to talk, for example, but they don't know (and really can't know) what that means, yet. Will I call on them? By name? Will I ask them factual questions or interpretive questions? Will I ask them just about the assigned text, or might I also ask them other things, like what a stock market bubble is and why Christmas-y Jimmy Stewart doesn't have enough money in his bank? (Yes). Beyond that: if students don't know an answer, what are they supposed to do? In some classes, the expectation is you just say you don't know. In other classes you're called to think aloud and maybe try and reason/guess your way to answer. What's called for, in a particular class, might be explicitly stated in the syllabus, but never in that much detail. It's something you learn as you go, with observation and in negotiation with the rest of the class.

On the second day, though, all of this is tricky. I'm trying to send students the message they should hang on, we're going to work it out, we're going to work it out together, and I'm inviting them to be active participants in the process of learning. Some of that seems to get across. I'm fuddling through. What I'm doing now works well enough. But I'd like to figure out how to do it faster, cleaner, and more efficiently, to smooth out the second day.

Five history books I read in 2017 that I might recommend to non-historians who want to read a little history

1. Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 2.17.28 PM.png

I hear a lot of people talk about how American conservatism used to be different. Hendershot shows how and why.

2. Village Atheist: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt

This is a book of weird characters you won't soon forget. Also, it turns out you can learn a lot about American religiosity from the people who are against it.

3. Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by William G. McLoughlin

If you've asked yourself "but what is an evangelical?" this year, reading about one of the most famous evangelists could provide some (complicating) perspective. This is an older book that really holds up.

4. All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

A rollicking narrative about how the press held a president accountable. Oddly relevant to our present political moment.

5. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

There was a lot more liver in 20th-century casseroles than you would expect. This book shows how historical forces influence the food on the table--and how history is, invisibly, at work in our everyday lives.

All 51 books I finished in 2017: 

A Torch Kept Lit, by William F. Buckley Jr.
Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life, by Christopher Lane
March: Book Two, by John Lewis
Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, by Kathryn Lofton
Entertaining Judgement: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, by Greg Garrett
Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum, by P.T. Barnum
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot
The Churching of America, 1776-2005, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark
Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years’ Recollections, by P.T. Barnum
The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, by Janet M. Davis
Billy Sunday the Baseball Evangelist, by Craig A. Bishop
Exiles from Eden: Religion and Academic Vocation in America, by Mark Schwehn
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, by N.T. Wright
To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, by Bethany Moreton
Village Atheist: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt
Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by William G. McLoughlin
Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism, by Roger A. Bruns
All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
The Trial and Death of Socrates, by Plato
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, by Michael Kazin
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, by H.W. Brands
Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Odeipus at Colonus, by Sophocles
The Remarkable “Ma” Sunday, by Opal Overmyer
Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity, by Eric D. Lehman
In Rare Form: A Pictorial History of Baseball Evangelist Billy Sunday, by W.A. Firstenberger
The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan, by Timothy Stanley
The Comedians, by Kliph Nestoroff
Nixon’s White House Wars, by Pat Buchanan
Analects, by Confucius
Basic Writings, by Xunzi
A Whale Hunt, by Robert Sullivan
Basic Writings, by Zhuangzi
Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
Genesis, trans. by Robert Alter
Roosevelt and Wilke, by Warren Moscow
In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult, by James Wasserman
The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, by Bob Woodward
Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel
My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman
Confessions, by Augustine
The Sabbath, by Abraham Heschel
The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli
The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism, by Garth M. Rosell
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
The Business Turn in American Religious History, ed. Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem and John Corrigan
The Word and Its Witness: The Spiritualization of American Realism, by Gregory S. Jackson
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, by John McPhee
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
The Real Cool Killers, by Chester Himes