Matthew 1

splash_matthew1As I pondered the first chapter of Matthew this past week, I couldn’t help but reflect on the genealogy that figures prominently in it.  Tracing a line from Abraham to Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph, it represents the long history of Israel and reminds readers of the faithfulness of God over hundreds of years.

It also features a significant list of individuals–heroes, certainly, but also (and more importantly) some very flawed and broken people as well.  I think here of Tamar, one of the few women listed.  A victim and actor in a sorry tale of abandonment and sexual trickery, she is very specifically named.  Then there’s Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, taken advantage of by King David on his journey down the path of adultery and murder.  David appears too, a man after God’s own heart who nevertheless has some serious flaws.  His son Solomon, whose vaunted wisdom is only equaled by his sometimes moral and religious stupidity.David-and-Bathsheba

Then we have a long list of the other kings of Israel, some of whom were counted by the Bible as “righteous,” but others who were simply dismissed as having done evil.  It’s a mixed bag, this long family history…but it is the adoptive family into which God sends Jesus.

Normally reflections on such genealogies end up talking about Jesus being born into our sorry humanity, and that’s true enough.  But as I was looking at Matthew 1 this week, I saw something else.  Because here, you see, it is actually Joseph who is said to share blood with this rogue’s gallery.  Not Jesus.  It is Joseph who has to cope with a family history full of greatness as well as shame.

In the midst of this, he finds out that his family history of disgrace may not yet be behind him.  His own betrothed is pregnant before they’re even married.  One more scandal.  One more sordid tale.  No wonder he has in mind to divorce her quietly.  But then an angel appears and shares with him the (amazingly bizarre) facts.  He decides to go ahead with things, even though, I suspect, many outsiders would simply say he was a chip off the old family block when it comes to messing up.

matthewYou might say I’m reading too much into this.  Perhaps I am.  But I think it makes sense to think about the way in which our past–and our family history–carries right along with us.  We like to say we aren’t defined by these things, that we can make our own way…but there is a deep sense in which the backstory is always with us and is a part of who we are.  Even as God calls and may help us transcend what has gone before, history is not erased.  Fear can threaten to rule the day.

When I consider my own past and the long story of my family history, I too see a mixed bag of success and failure.  I think everyone looking at these categories for themselves would say the same thing.  They make up a part of who we are.  But not all of who we might be.  That’s where Joseph’s story is interesting.  God’s intervention means that though the past matters, it is not all that matters.  And, if we’re willing to embrace this new thing, it may mean new history beginning right now.  That’s as true for Joseph even as it is for you and me.


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.

Let’s Have Some Fun, Church History

article-new-ehow-images-a00-07-pc-become-college-professor-800x800One of the great things about being a professor is that you have great latitude–indeed, almost total control–over the shape of the course content, assignments, and means of assessment.  It is a great responsibility but almost a tremendous privilege.

Among the classes I teach here at Northwest University is our two-semester Church History course.  Because it is a General Education history elective and is recommended for our ministry students, the course has a good mix of students…and every now and then, even a few history majors!  Understanding, therefore, that we have a lot of non-specialists in the course, I am trying this semester in “Church29085669 History I” to make the material accessible and engaging to all of those enrolled.

One of the major ways I am doing this is through our upcoming end-of-the-term project.  Students have had to select a historical topic (person, place, idea, etc.) and do some research during the semester.  They are then required to write a 10-page research paper OR develop a creative means of sharing the material.  In advance of the students turning in their final semester work, they will be presenting a thumbnail sketch of their findings and an introduction to their projects next week in class.  I’m excited to hear what they’ll have to share.

Some of their project ideas include:

  • A series of blog entries (imagine that) laid out and written about some of the “Doctors of the Church” (Augustine, Aquinas, et al.)
  • A scrapbook detailing some of the major themes and events of the life and ministry of St. Francis of Assisi
  • A possible film documentary about the life of St. Athanasius


  • A pop-up book about Thomas a Kempis and the Imitation of Christ
  • A lecture and Powerpoint presentation about the roles of women in the early Church
  • A group of songs written from the viewpoint of someone in the Fourth Crusade
  • A possible diorama (!) detailing the martyrdom of Polycarp
  • A research paper about John Wycliffe

I am well aware that the writing of a traditional research paper–while an important exercise in its own right–is not the best way for every student to engage the material.  By being flexible and letting them decide the format their work will follow, I hope students will truly be able to make Church History their own…and carry it with them after they leave.  We’ll see!

Understanding the Story, Part II

A “faith seeking understanding” in the field of history means that the discipline is not an all-powerful explanation of everything, but rather much more limited in its scope.  History properly conceived is meant to be read as story, powerful and descriptive.  It invites discovery more about the world around us, leading towards understanding of our existence in light of the existence of God.  Humble yet engaged, we must maintain an awareness of faith that considers it to be the base of all history.  Even so, there must be an openness to honest discovery and growth in the midst of these and related investigations.

With regard to my scholarship in both practical theology and Church history, I feel that taking the perspective of the storyteller fits well with my own “faith seeking understanding.”  Historiographically I feel it is my goal to help others develop an understanding of the past even while being aware that full comprehension is something beyond our grasp.  The writing and retelling of history is often a very personal endeavor as I seek to understand and broaden the narrative in which I find myself.  This personal relevance for me (and, I suspect, all historians) takes the form of those issues which I feel are important: not only religious history understood broadly, but the narrower field of Pentecostal and Charismatic history in which I completed my doctoral research.

Similar desires carry over into my work in the practical theology of youth ministry, where working within and amidst students’ stories is imperative.  As ministers of the gospel we have been charged with announcing a Story that envelops all of Creation–and invites us to join our stories to it.  This alternative to the divergent paths we often trod at once redirects our wanderings even as it values important elements of the paths with which we have been gifted.  Theological reflection on youth ministry for me means working within the biblical worldview and our Pentecostal tradition to think about how students can both gain and maintain a faith seeking understanding, be it at the moment of salvation, during the long process of discipleship, or in the midst of desiring the part of our story that helps define the rest: a teenager’s divinely authored vocation.

No Love for John Tyler

In honor of today’s release of the film Lincoln, the folks over at did a little research about how many times the various United States Presidents have been depicted in film.  Lincoln is far and away the most popular, with some of the usual suspects (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Civil War favorite Ulysses S. Grant, and the villainous Richard Nixon) occupying other top roles.

Unfortunately, some other of our nation’s leaders have not been so lucky.  To Lincoln’s 130 appearances, World War I leader Woodrow Wilson comes in at only 13…and many others fall below 10.  Three presidents fail to even appear once.  There are reasons for this, however.  James Buchanan is widely considered to be one of our nation’s worst presidents.  Warren G. Harding was, well…to be honest, I’m a student of American history and I can hardly tell you anything about the man.  It is not surprising they don’t appear.

Warren who now?

What is more interesting, I suppose, is the absence of John Tyler from cinematic depiction.  While he too is winning no awards for “best in class,” a number of facts about his life would make for some dramatic viewing: he was the first VP to assume the office of President after a death, worked (unsuccessfully) to secure the annexation of Texas, narrowly survived an explosion, had a wife who died during his presidency, and around fifteen years after leaving office actually sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It would be interesting, I think, to read the top biography of each president in chronological order.  Some would be powerful depictions of great leaders and great times.  Others would be snooze-fests.  Tyler’s?  Well, at least it would have a little drama.

In any case, enjoy Lincoln and the chart below:

History Seeking Understanding

On Monday I wrote about the deep sense of humility and possibility for understanding one can derive from studying the past.  Now, a continuation of those thoughts:

Such claims are by design rather optimistic and expansive, yet have often reflected my own experience.  Where my ecumenical vision falters, however, is when historical research reveals not just differences in practice or theological perspective, but unveilings of the past that seem to—despite my relative distaste for such normative claims—call into question the moral rectitude of the Church and its members in places where 1) their actions are either clearly un-Christian or reprehensible and/or 2) their theological or chronological proximity to my own life and faith call into question aspects of my own perceived story.  Of the first category, numerous episodes such as the religious violence of the Crusades, heresy and witch trials, Church corruption, intra-Christian wars of religion, the sad story of Christian misogyny, and religiously justified racism all underscore the problem at hand.  While the facts of each of these situations are certainly more complicated than the popular imagination allows, each nevertheless points to a morally or ethically questionable aspect of historical faith and practice.

A sense of historical humility may allow me to understand why Christians may have arrived at these positions, but I yet have great difficulty in sympathizing with certain of these positions.  This said, giving my spiritual ancestors the benefit of the doubt is nevertheless easier the farther back one goes, chronologically speaking.  With regard to more recent developments with which I disagree—say, for instance, questionable anti-intellectual tendencies or damaging theological developments within Pentecostalism, the broad perspective I hope to convey is rather more difficult to enact—but no less important.  No matter the situation, the insight and understanding provided by a balanced and humble historical way of looking at things is always helpful.

Ultimately, I would like to think that my study of history has not only impacted my faith, but that my faith has had an impact on my scholarship as well.  Foundationally, it has directed me towards particular paths of research as I have sought out conversational friends, theological sparring partners, and sage guides throughout the past two thousand years of Christian history.  Quite really, I can say that the study of Church History has had for me an important devotional element.

My faith also reminds me that God is not absent from the historical narrative, despite how difficult it may be to see Him.  As my faith both informs and enriches my study of history, it keeps me from despair at the dark points of the human story and reminds me that there is a God who holds all of it in His hand.  That history has an “end” is a distinctively Christian understanding, and one which I hold dear.  Maintaining this faith perspective affects my scholarship, even as my scholarship affects my faith.  Constant dialogue with historical landscapes both local and foreign involves both continual growth and a deepened faith.  In the end, if a primary Christian enterprise is indeed as Anselm of Canterbury phrased it “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum), then in my estimation the task of history to which my scholarly career is oriented is a constituent portion of that vital journey.

Mormon Style

I’ve recently completed Paul Gutjahr’s monograph “The Book of Mormon”: A Biography.  Short and to the point, Gutjahr details the debated origins of the text that Joseph Smith found/plagiarized/completely made up in the first half of the 19th century, its development within the larger Mormon community, and its place in visual media and (briefly) the more contemporary American scene.  Particular notable here is Gutjahr’s discussion of the process and challenges of translation  together with questions related to Mormon biblical scholarship as they developed over time.

The book’s aims are modest: to tell the story of The Book of Mormon.  Despite the fact the narrative gets a little bogged down near the middle as it discusses details related to the various editions of the book, on the whole it is a succinct walk through the relevant topics.  Those desiring a more in-depth look at Joseph Smith or the history of the Mormon movement will be disappointed, but for those who want a brief introduction to the specific subject matter will be satisfied…even if this satisfaction only whets their appetites for more.

In this year of the Mormon candidate, it serves us to pay more attention to the LDS movement–a truly American phenomenon if there ever was one.  Historically, sociologically and religiously, they remain a fascinating study.  Theologically, both the Mormons and their book confront Christians with questions both familiar and unique: rather than just deciding what counts as the minimum amount of belief to be “in” the Christian faith, the existence of something like the book of Mormon also asks–in some ways–how much other stuff can you add on top of the Bible and still be a Christian?

I’d love to hear from (and perhaps be corrected by) others who are much more familiar with Mormonism concerning the challenges, questions, and issues posed by the existence of this growing sect.