Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Fracturing and Marginalization of Evangelicals

Just finished writing a review of Ken Collins‘ work, Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration for the Westminster Theological Journal. It is an outstanding work that traces the history of evangelical Christianity in America since 1925. Collins’ main thesis is that in the wake of their loss of cultural influence in the early 20th century, evangelicals sought to compensate by reaching for political power. But this reach failed to recover the Protestant cultural consensus of the 19th century, or the intellectual credibility that evangelicals enjoyed prior to the Scopes trial. Instead, evangelical Christianity in America was fractured into liberal and conservative factions, indirectly contributed to the cultural marginalization of religion in general, and lost its prophetic vision and voice amid the many challenging social issues of contemporary times.

Collins identified several fascinating aspects of evangelicalism in his historical treatment, but the aspect that stuck out the most in my reading was his critique of both liberal and conservative evangelicals’ identification of the church with a political agenda. Liberal evangelicals, such as Campolo and Wallis, are too quick to see public policy through the lens of a social gospel. Conservative evangelicals, like Land and Falwell, frequently see America as God’s representative on earth. Both have a way of conflating America with the kingdom of God, albeit in different directions. But by politicizing the message of the gospel, both groups have contributed to the loss of a political theology in public discourse. Religion once was a public activity, in other words, religion had a voice in public policy (cf. the Progressive era). Now, however, religion is seen as a purely private affair best kept within the four walls of a church. Collins explains how evangelical Christians, in their desire for political power, helped to contribute to that wrong understanding of the role of religion.

Much of what Collins says in his work is relevant to the book I am now writing for IVP Academic on the history and theology of American exceptionalism as an aspect of civil religion and nationalism. By using theological categories to define American exceptionalism, evangelicals distort the meaning of Christianity and exalt America to transcendence. The dangers inherent in this are legion.

What is Collins’ solution? I think he is on to something here–evangelicals have work to do in two directions. First, evangelicals can recover a political theology by appealing to natural law arguments to advocate for the dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. His model is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appeal to white clergy in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this, evangelicals can make headway (slow headway, to be sure) in offering reasoned defenses of their positions on pressing social issues such as the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty. Second, evangelicals must reject liberal and conservative factions and recognize that there is immensely more that unites them than what divides them. They can also reach out to Roman Catholics, who have been their allies in pleading the Christian case on social issues. Related to this, evangelicals must purify themselves and be true to their calling as ambassadors for Christ (King spoke of this in his letter, too), in order to allow the Spirit to empower them.

Collins’ work has a great deal to offer. The question is, are evangelicals even interested enough to pay attention? That remains to be seen.

Dolls and Civil Rights: May 17, 1954

Today marks the 59th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation necessarily violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Earl Warren, who had replaced Fred Vinson as Chief Justice, was instrumental in bringing about the 9-0 ruling in both vote and opinion.

One of the central aspects of the Court’s opinion, written by Warren in an intentionally concise and nontechnical style so that laymen could understand it, was the assertion that public school segregation was psychologically damaging to African-American children. This was significant, because Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the decision which established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” asserted the opposite–that segregation has no adverse effects on children whatsoever.

Horace English, a psychology professor at Ohio State, and Louisa Holt, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, both testified to the Court concerning the adverse effects of segregation on African-American children.

But the work of Kenneth Clark (the first African American to receive a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University) and his wife Mamie was also instrumental in the Court’s ruling.In 1939, the Clarks conducted an experiment now known as the Clark Doll Experiment, which tested childrens’ perceptions of racial differences using little white and black baby dolls.

The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, KS will be placing the dolls used in the Clark’s study on display to mark the anniversary of the great decision. Here is a portion of the report provided by the Chicago Sun-Times:

In the years before the May, 17, 1954, ruling, husband-and-wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark presented children with a black doll and a white doll as part of a series of social science experiments. The black couple then asked the children which doll was the nicest, smartest and prettiest. The Clarks said the system of racial segregation at the time was the reason most chose the white doll. . .

The doll research influenced the court, with Chief Justice Earl Warren writing that separating children “solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”

Dealing with Rejection in an Academic Career

When I was considering applying to the PhD program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the first professors I spoke with was John Hammett, Professor of Systematic Theology. He asked me what I wanted to do with a PhD (at the time I was interested in studying theology). I told him I wanted to teach.

Mercifully, Dr. Hammett did not start laughing.

When I graduated with my shiny new PhD, I thought my days of experiencing major rejection were behind me. After all, hadn’t I gone through the enormously humbling program of study that is a PhD? Hadn’t my work been scrutinized by all my peers, not to mention my professors? Was it so hard to remember the moments of sheer panic, uncontrolled bawling, and hyperventilating, realizing that my deadlines were coming up quickly despite my being woefully unprepared for their unwelcome arrival? How many times did I feel humiliation equal to that of finding myself standing in a crowded mall wearing nothing but my underwear? Too many.

Since that time, I found that dealing with rejection had not really yet begun. After I graduated, I found out fairly quickly that rejection comes with the territory of an academic career. I learned to say to myself, “Self, get used to rejection.”

How many job applications did I complete, thinking that my qualifications would surely get me at least an interview. How many interviews did I endure (they’re awful, by the way) thinking that surely I presented myself well enough to be hired. How many rejection emails from schools did I receive after going through the tedium of filling out applications, and bugging my professors for one reference letter after another? Too many to count.

How many papers have I submitted for publication that were rejected? For the love of Mike, it takes reviewers forever to get back with you once you’ve submitted a draft for an article. Most of the time, their first response acknowledging your mere existence comes weeks and weeks after you’ve submitted your draft. Then, how many times did the email read something like this–“your submission was obviously carefully researched, well articulated, impeccably argued, but unfortunately…”? Too many times.

How many conferences have I submitted proposals–that again, it takes forever to hear back–and the responses are always the same–“we had so many worthy proposals, and we regret we could not accept them all.”

If mine was so great, then why wasn’t it accepted? They never say.

How many publishers have I set up interviews with, sat for meetings with, made the effort to personally appear before, prepare book proposals for–and the waiting, the endless waiting to hear a response–only to be told, “While your proposal is sure to find a market, at this time it does not fit with our line of titles”?

Again, if it’s so great, then why are you making me cry?

If you want to be an academic, you have to learn how to deal with rejection. You have to find a use for all those rejection emails and letters. You can decorate your bathroom walls with them. But you can also use them to motivate you to press ahead with your ideas.

Sometimes a rejection of a proposed paper, article, or book is well placed. Yours might be a lousy idea. I know that has been true for me. I’m glad that some of my article submissions were rejected, because if they hadn’t been, I would be on record saying some pretty stupid things.

But sometimes, your idea might just need to find the right home. I have found that to be true also–and more so than I ever thought possible.

By the grace of God, and some hard work hitting the pavement and putting myself out there, I got a teaching position. My dissertation was published. Some national conferences have made a place for me behind their podiums. Some journals have found my writing to be persuasive and intelligent enough to include alongside other very good articles. And InterVarsity Press put me under contract for a book on the history and theology of American exceptionalism–my dream topic.

So keep at it. Despite the overwhelming number of articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education website that talk about how depressing the prospects are for ABDs and new PhDs, don’t let that discourage you. Despite the incredible number of rejection emails you’ll necessarily receive–some of them will be unbelievably rude and condescending (this is academia, after all)–keep researching, and keep writing. Despite the number of conferences you’ll have to attend after being rejected by them–maybe by even some of your colleagues–keep proposing paper ideas. Rejection humbles you in a healthy way. Rejection sharpens your thinking. Rejection means that you are doing something rather than nothing, and that’s good!

You’ll find, as I have, that it’s a numbers game. Be like old Abe Lincoln, and learn how to take rejection. Right in the face. Because you really won’t be rejected every single time. For every thirty rejections you get, that one acceptance is all the more sweet. And that sweetness makes it all worthwhile.

Hey, I just got an email. Wonder if my paper was accepted. Gotta go!

Asking Good Questions During Q&A

This summer, I am teaching an undergraduate survey of church history to a small group of students here at Southwestern’s Houston campus. Since it is a small group, the course can take more of a seminar format than if a large group of students were involved. We’ll have a great deal of discussion, writing, and presentation and it should be a great course.

There are a lot of great resources on critical thinking (see here and here for a couple of examples). I put together a little resource for my students that provides some general criteria for asking good questions. Since the students will be graded on the quality of their questions during the course, it seemed fitting to give something of a rubric for them so they’ll know what I’m looking for as they frame questions. I hope this set of criteria for good questions–as well as bad questions–is helpful as a general tool.

Asking good questions is the outward demonstration of critical thinking. A good question asked of a presenter reflects engagement with the material, the speaker, as well as broader issues that set the context for the presentation.

Good questions do not merely seek more information on a particular issue. Good questions probe the information that is already given. They mean to test the soundness of premises and conclusions and the connections between statements. They seek to reveal assumptions in the mind of the presenter, which are hidden not only from the audience but sometimes even from the presenter. Good questions generate reflection on the part of everyone involved in the discussion, reflection that contributes meaningfully to understanding issues and ideas.

There is such a thing as a bad question. I will not insult your intelligence by suggesting that there are no bad questions. Here are some criteria for good questions and bad questions, and hopefully these criteria will help you make satisfying contributions to class discussions.

Good questions:

-Are relevant to the issues being discussed or presented.
-Have the issue itself as the point of reference; seek objectivity

-Are based on the premises and conclusions of the argument being presented
-Utilize the raw information from the issues to probe stated premises and conclusions
-Seek elaboration and justification for points presented
-Bring assumptions, which are unstated, into the open for scrutiny
-Provide greater understanding not only for the questioner, but also for the presenter and the audience as a whole
-Contribute to the flow of the overall discussion
-Stimulate thinking resulting in further questions
-Are gracious and charitable in spirit

Bad questions:

-Chase rabbits; are not relevant to the issues being discussed

-Have the questioner or the presenter as the point of reference; are subjective

-Are based on the conclusions of the questioner, rather than those of the presenter

-Have little relation to the raw information from the issues

-Take the premises and conclusion of the presented arguments for granted

-Are laden with assumptions and bias

-Contribute little to nothing to the understanding of the relevant issues for anyone other than the questioner

-Do not move the discussion into a profitable or an appropriate direction

-Begin and end with themselves; do not encourage deeper thinking or further questioning

-Are combative, ingratiating, arrogant, sarcastic, flattering, coy, or insolent in tone and spirit