Review: “Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture” (Part II)

9780802867520In the second of my three-part review of James Moorhead’s Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture, I’d like to focus my attention on the book as a case study in historical writing.  Notable for many reasons, Moorhead’s monograph is a classic example of the way a religious historian can through diligent research and skilled writing not only depict the life and times of days gone by, but also provide an evenhanded and fair approach to the various historical actors.

At different points in its history Princeton Seminary was dominated by certain key figures, and Moorhead does well here to provide adequate attention to those individuals.  The seminary’s first two professors, Samuel Miller and Archibald Alexander garner attention early on.  As the story of the school moves into theimages middle of the 19th century, the life and thought of Charles Hodge becomes the focus of Moorhead’s writing.  Hodge is, of course, a controversial figure for many, and Moorhead does not shy away for some of the things for which he is remembered: 1) an “undiluted paternalism” (161) with regard to African-Americans and a tolerance for slavery (at least in the short-term), and 2) his rather conservative and traditionalist theology that today can be cariacatured as retrogressive.

But even of this latter reality Moorhead makes clear the Hodge should not be, as some have

…reduced him to conservative Presbyterian theology, opposition to Darwinism, or the debate over biblical infallibility.  All of these were indeed a part of his legacy; but understood in the context of his own time and not simply as a precursor to the Presbyterian conflicts of the 1920s, he was also much more and deserves to be remembered as such. (232-233)

b-b-warfield-portrait1Moorhead echoes this kind of even-handed treatment when speaking of another commonly cited leader of Princeton conservatism (and theological successor to Hodge) B. B. Warfield, not that he “does not fit easily into the stereotypes forged after the religious conflicts of the 1920s and ’30s.” (279).  This balanced and generous approach to history that seeks to explain rather than evaluate has long been one with which I have identified.  Jim Moorhead no doubt influenced me ever further in this direction during my studies with him.  To me it simply makes sense that we as historians are called to tell the whole story, even of people we might not entirely like.  For instance, even Moorhead’s discussion of the somewhat unsympathetic J. Gresham Machen manages to offer some context for this theological views and position on Presbyterian polity.

Besides this historiographic balance, another notable feature of Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture involves Moorhead’s discussion of one of the school’s presidents, John Mackay.  An influential figure at the school, in national politics, and in ecumenical affairs during the middle of the 20th century, Mackay’s life and mackaypresidential tenure have not yet been given all the historical attention they deserve.  Moorhead’s efforts in chapters 14 and 15 are a helpful corrective to this.  Most notably for me and my research interests, even Mackay’s connection with Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement is given attention within the text.

The fifth chapter, entitled “Princeton and the Presbyterian Schism of 1837” also stood out as a masterpiece of historical writing that I look forward to assigning for my students.  It is, quite frankly, a marvelous synthesis of issues in which the school, theological issues, and church politics are woven together in a fascinating pattern.  Moorhead’s treatment of what on the face of it might seem a rather boring episode in the life American Presbyterianism came across as an expert and engaging look at a number of cogent issues of great import.  As he says that the beginning of the chapter, Princeton’s decision to side with a particular side in the conflict “was a fateful decision, shaping the identity of the school profoundly for decades to come.” (119)

Because of the book’s great merits I consider it essential reading for all incoming students at Princeton Theological Seminary, both for its careful description of the school’s DNA and the way in which big ideas and large personalities came to dominate and define the course the institution in some sense still charts today.  Others too will accrue great benefit from considering the issues and themes Moorhead skillfully raises.


Grade Me Now

grade-cIn my Principles and Methods of Teaching course, I’ve asked our students to read through James Fowler’s classic Stages of Faith and write brief (300 word) critical reviews on each of its five sections.  Grades on the first assignment were not received well, and there was some concern from the students that 300 words simply was not enough space for this kind of discussion.  I argued for the virtue of being concise, but also made a promise: that I would write my own review for Section II of the book, and have students grade me on my work.  I also said I’d post my work on here and allow the world to grade me as well.

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts…grade away!

James Fowler confesses that earlier in life he had been “a citizen reared in the land of theology…try[ing] to earn dual citizenship in the new world of psychology of human development” (38).  While we as readers are often strangers to both worlds, if the rest of Stages of Faith is as helpful and insightful as this section has been, we should have no fear in relying on him as our trail guide through unfamiliar terrain.  Having spent his first few chapters discussing matters related to faith proper, in Part II Fowler turns his attention to three theories of human psychological development.  In so doing, he draws upon the thought Fowler Stages of Faithof Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erickson.  How we think, how we make moral evaluations, and how certain characteristics come to define us as individuals are essential topics here.

Fowler uses a novel approach in this section: an imagined conversation.  In chapters 7-11, he posits what a discussion about human life stages from infancy through adulthood might look like from the perspective of his assembled experts.  These collected thoughts reframe what could be a dry academic monograph into a much more engaging confab amongst intellectual peers, pointing the way forward for a future discussion of developmental faith.  This said, readers dealing with such heady subject matter deserve better illustrations than the confusing models in chapter 10.  While Table 2.1 (immediately preceding chapter 7) is essential in comparing each scholar’s perspective to the others, the frequency with which readers must return to it again and again indicates: a) such a resource be featured prominently in each chapter, and b) the material even as mediated through the imagined conversation can at times still be a bit opaque.  Yet despite its few shortcomings, Fowler’s unique approach represents a worthwhile time investment and readers will be richer for having engaged the ideas within.

Review: “Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture” (Part I)

9780802867520Courtesy of the folks at Eerdmans, I’ve recently had the privilege of reading James Moorhead’s new book Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture.  Princeton Seminary holds a special place in my heart, as I earned both my MDiv and PhD degrees there over the course of nine years.  My doctoral work in the history of American Christianity only increased my excitement for the book.  The fact that Jim Moorhead was a favorite professor and doctoral advisor?  Simply icing on the cake.

There’s a lot to be said about this diligently researched moorhead-198083monograph, and as such I’ll be splitting my review into three parts over the course of the week.  For today, I’d like to think a bit about the central thesis of the book.  As Moorhead describes it, his desire was to discover what the leaders of PTS hoped for the school to accomplish together with “placing the seminary’s vision, and goals within the larger ecology of American religion, culture, and society.” (x)  On both counts he does a masterful job by weaving together the world the seminary made and its relationship to the world around it.  Quite deliberately, Moorhead here looks to George Marsden’s history of Fuller Seminary vis-a-vis American evangelicalism (Reforming Fundamentalism) as he attempts, in some sense, to look at American Christianity through the lens of Princeton Seminary.

As a uniquely national Presbyterian seminary, Princeton from its founding was committed to:

…and emphasis upon religious experience, a faith in solid learning and the Enlightenment, and an optimism that these forces together were improving the human lot. (xx)

Elsewhere Moorhead refers to this ideal as a Common Sense Realism commitment to both “learning and piety.” (63ff) Though clear in the minds of the founders,

the subsequent history of the seminary would in part be a narrative of the way in which these varying commitments played themselves out or how, like the design in a kaleidoscope, they shifted into different patterns.  It would not a trouble-free story, for the various loyalties sometimes fit together awkwardly. (xx)

richard_armstrongIndeed, the entirety of the seminary’s 19th century existence was dominated by maintaining faith and learning as twin paths of truth and orthodoxy.  Yet when faced with the critiques of higher criticism, theological liberalism, and advancing evolutionary theory the seminary convulsed.  By the 1920s the issues of fundamentalism and liberalism, writ large in the societal debate over evolution, sundered Princeton as well.  Yet as Moorhead has shown, this sundering did not negate the school’s commitment to faith and learning.  It simply renegotiated the relationship between the two.  This explains why Barth’s Neo-Orthodoxy found an early home at the school that persists to this day, and also why issues of faith and a specifically Christian spirituality–while sometimes contentious–have nevertheless been a persistent part of the school’s life.

In part, this journey helped me personally connect my experience of Princeton stuarthallin the early 21st century with its storied and Hodge-filled 19th century existence.  Moorhead’s closing quotation of missiologist Andrew Walls, that “we need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ” (509) rings true for the diverse new world of Princeton Theological Seminary and the Church it serves as it continues in an historic commitment to piety and learning today.

As a description of the theological, structural, and personal elements that went into making Princeton Seminary what it is, Moorhead has done his school a great service.  By offering this story in a way that connects with the broad stream of Christian faith with American culture he has helpfully informed us all.


v0gb5mij7c640q3pcuxeIt has been a busy week, and unfortunately I have let it affect my regular writing pattern.  Much of this has been due to the regular business of the semester, but at least part of my absence was due to a trip to California with some of our Northwest University ministry students.  Every year the group goes out-of-state to visit a significant number of churches in a weekend.  The goal is for students to experience and evaluate a variety of preaching and teaching styles in addition to understanding more about the diverse body of Christ.  During our trip, for instance, we visited a “hip” 20-something congregation, a new church plant, a huge African-American congregation, and a nationally prominent megachurch.  These and others formed an interesting aggregate as we attended a total of nine services in a weekend.  The experience will provide, I think, a helpful base for reflection.

The megachurch in question was none other than Saddleback Church.  Pastored by Rick Warren and having an attendance of over 20,000 per week, it is serious business.  The campus of the church is immaculate and immense, yet not, I think, overly ostentatious.  Not for a church whose pastor has written the blazing bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life or prayed at the 2008 inaugurate of President Barack Obama.

This lack of ostentation was on display in the person and the-purpose-drive-lifepresentation of Rick Warren himself, who spoke on the Saturday night service we attended.  It was a very basic and unassuming message without a lot of flash or excitement.  He spoke plainly yet truthfully.  It was the kind of message that seemed to fit with the feel of the congregation and the Southern California culture, yet would have been as expected in a church of 100 as it was in a 20,000 person behemoth like Saddleback.  My outside expectations were somewhat altered.

My favorite moment, I think, was when Warren spoke of service and humility.  Though I do not have the exact quotation, he talked about how so many people he meets wants to speak with him about leadership.  Considering the achievements that surround him, this makes sense.  All the same his answer was telling.  He basically said leadership isn’t about tricks, skills, or methods, so much as it is being a servant.  As he said it, many people want to talk to him about leadership; not a lot want to speak with him about service.  It’s a simple yet bold teaching from a man who could have said anything he wanted.  It is Scriptural.  It is truth.

It is encouraging to know that in our day of endless leadership book after leadership book, there are those in lofty places who do recognize and reflect upon those truths upheld by Christ himself:

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

Curriculum Scholae

latin-churchOne of the projects for our “Faculty, Faith, and Learning” course  is as follows:

Select two courses you will teach during the upcoming year and develop one assignment for each course in which content is informed by faith.

I cheated a little by choosing four, but I think they have some potential.  Tell me what you think.

1. Church History I: Students will consider the issues involved in the Christological debates of the early Church and work to design their own creed to answer the complicated questions of Christ’s divinity and humanity.  This creed may be no more than 250 words, and should address the major concerns of the various parties involved.  Students should supplement their creeds with 1-2 pages explaining their choices with regard to historical and theological issues as well as their personal beliefs.Luther2003FilmPoster

2.  Church History II: For this assignment students will imagine themselves to be a Christian believer during the Reformation.  Though born into the traditional Roman Catholic Church, over the course of their lives numerous changes will have taken place.  Among the new Reformation options include: the Lutheran Reformation, the Zwinglian Reformation, Calvin’s Geneva, the Radical Reformers, the English Reformation, and Tridentine Catholicism.  Based on their personal beliefs, students will be asked to place themselves in the midst of the reforming options of the 16th century by means of a three page personal narrative.

Students should be prepared to stake out their opinion on a variety of issues including, but not limited to, the relationship of Church and State, faith/works, Church tradition, humanism, communion, heresy, baptism, Scripture, salvation, and sanctification.  Students are not required to align themselves wholly with any one historic Reformation option, but must be prepared to justify their personal beliefs in light of the theological and historical climate of the era.  On the date the assignment is due, students will come to class and, based on their beliefs, align in small groups for dialogue and debate with believers of other persuasions.  Students will be evaluated on both the strength of their essays and participation during in-class discussion.

Saint Cecilia, in Saint Louis, Missouri - confessional3.  Discipleship and Spiritual Formation:  Early in the semester, students will be assigned a small gender-based group of 2-3 individuals with which they will regularly practice the practice of confession (see Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, for more).  Students are expected to meet weekly with their group and keep a journal of their experience and evaluation of its place in the practice of Christian discipleship.  Groups discussions are expected to remain confidential and journals will be reviewed in kind by the professor at the end of the semester.  During the last week of the course, a class session will be devoted to a discussion of the experience from students’ perspective.

4.  Family Ministry Capstone: Students will review their “Philosophy of 1295101748_157386121_1-Pictures-of--Creative-ministryMinistry” projects from your earlier ministry courses and be prepared to illustrate that philosophy in action.  Students will be expected to design an activity/event/curriculum/message that exemplifies their assumed priorities.  Assignments are expected to be written professionally and must both align with their stated philosophy and explain the nature of that alignment.  Students will present their projects for peer review and, following revisions, will include these as a part of their professional online ministry portfolio.

Concerning Megan Fox and the Holy Spirit

Eagle Eye Los Angeles PremiereIn a recent Esquire interview, actress, model, and international sex symbol Megan Fox discussed her own Pentecostal experiences and orientation.  Her revelation was surprising and incongruous to many.  In her words:

“I have seen magical, crazy things happen. I’ve seen people be healed. Even now, in the church I go to, during Praise and Worship I could feel that I was maybe getting ready to speak in tongues, and I’d have to shut it off because I don’t know what that church would do if I started screaming out in tongues in the back.

“It feels like a lot of energy coming through the top of your head — I’m going to sound like such a lunatic — and then your whole body is filled with this electric current.”

I won’t comment on what I think of Fox’s sense of Christianity except to say that the Scripture speaks of spiritual fruit in the lives of believers AND removing planks from our own eyes before judging others AND the fact that God’s ways are not our ways.  There’s a mystery to things that I cannot fully understand, so I’m content to leave ultimate matters up to God.

foxWhat is interesting about Fox’s confession is that, quite honestly, she might actually check the box entitled “Pentecostal” on a faith survey.  She, in others words, may very well be “on my team.”  For Heaven’s sake, she’s even into that classic hobby of Pentecostals, end-times prophecy:

“I’ve read the Book of Revelation a million times,” Megan Fox says. “It does not make sense, obviously. It needs to be decoded. What is the dragon? What is the prostitute? What are these things? What is this imagery? What was John seeing? And I was just thinking, What is the Antichrist?

Now, other than the obvious benefits for recruitment, what does this mean for Pentecostal self-identity?

I have to chuckle when I hear that someone like Megan Fox has had such experiences, or that singer and fellow sex Katy-Perry_2012symbol Katy Perry grew up in a Pentecostal minister’s home.  I chuckle because despite how strange that seems (considering traditional Pentecostal ethics and Fox/Perry’s sexual provocations and ubiquity), it fits in a certain way.

Pentecostalism has always carried within it the seeds of a very un-Gnostic message: that the body is meant to be linked to the Spirit, and that our faith is experienced and lived out in very bodily ways.  Tongues.  Dancing.  Shouting.  Falling down under the power of God.  A friend of mine in seminary once said that Pentecostals “twitch.”  I don’t like the word, but it is true we are a very embodied faith…for better and for worse.

Despite Pentecostalism’s generally conservative moral and social stances, it has also had its share of scandals involving the complicated matters of the flesh.  At the turn of the 20th century early founder Charles Parham was once accused of committing “unnatural offenses” (i.e. homosexual acts).  Aimee Semple McPherson of Foursquare fame once disappeared for a season in the 1920s, claiming kidnapping but more likely running away for a lengthy tryst with her lover.  And then, of course, can we forget the infamous Pentecostal sex scandals of the 1980s with Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker?

Understand me: I’m not trying to Elmer Gantrify my fellow coreligionists here or say that we are necessarily worse on this count than others (though this would be an interesting research project).  Indeed, there are an overwhelming host of Pelmer gantry.1entecostal ministers and laypersons who are sexually faithful to their spouses and their chastity.  I just think  it is fascinating that Megan Fox, as a frequent object of popular sexual fascination, is also in some sense Pentecostal.  It is a strange development, no doubt.  But also one that fits a certain understanding of my own faith tradition.  The body–our God created, though now fallen flesh–gives us trouble, but we Pentecostals refuse to give it up because it is a part of who we are.  Though it can cause us trouble (see above) we believe that it is a part of how God made us, how God redeemed us, and how God continues to work through us.  Such a flesh-spirit faith is an earthy and risky one, but it is richly biblical.  It can and does often go “off the tracks” from time to time, but Pentecostals are not ones to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

If David, Samson, and Solomon are in some sense all heroes of the faith and the writer of Ecclesiastes a source of wisdom in Scripture…and if the history of my own movement involves such risky openness to the body, perhaps Megan Fox can be Pentecostal too.

In a time when global expressions of Christian faith are becoming increasingly Pentecostal, Fox’s life is testimony to the fact that the term may now very well “contain multitudes.”

What a world.