A Different World: Teaching Americans about European History

I have often taught courses focused on Europe, or in which Europe plays a substantial role (for instance, about the Second World War). Through the years, I have identified common themes where students need some help and additional explanation, and I usually introduce these in my first couple of sessions. I offer some of the lessons I have learned here. If they might be useful for you, please feel free to borrow them.One of the hardest points for Americans to grasp about Europe concerns size, … [Read More...]

The Saint as Marriage Counselor

One of the greatest Celtic saints was Colmcille, or Columba, who lived from c.521-597. About a century after his death, the scholar Adomnán of Iona composed a Life of the great saint, which is a treasury of information about the society and religious life of the time. Here, I want to explore one particular story, which tells us a great deal about church attitudes to marriage and sex in that time. It really raises some questions about historical context, on which I would request advice.One … [Read More...]

You Might Be a Mennonite If…

Ervin Beck, a folklorist at Goshen College, recalls growing up in a Mennonite congregation where his bishop once said from the pulpit, “People ask me why I never smile. The Bible never says that Jesus smiled. It says that ‘Jesus wept.’”Given the decidedly unfunny persecution narratives that have … [Read More...]

The Christmas Truce of 1914: Myth and History

My soundtrack this time of year invariably includes the heavenly sounds of the King's College Choir, whose Festival of Nine Lessons and Readings dates back to Christmas Eve, 1918. Reflecting its origins in the aftermath of the Great War, the 2014 service included a letter from a Scottish soldier na … [Read More...]

Indiana’s Other Claim to 2016 Fame

A big day is nearly upon us.  Not as big as Christmas, but not small either.  December 11 marks the 200th birthday of the state of Indiana.  Some Hoosiers have been celebrating all year already, but the rest of the country might whoop it up too. If you weren’t thinking that a state bicentennial was a … [Read More...]

The Problems of Writing Biography (Part 2 – Who’s Significant?)

"Do you think someone someday will write a biography about you?"Students in our Intro to History class don't say "No" when I ask that question. It's more like a collective "What, are you kidding me?"And that response has come to mind several times this fall, as I've been contemplating the pos … [Read More...]

Churches, Chapels, and Desirable Residences

At a recent Sunday service, my church sang the hymn “Come thou fount of every blessing,” with its line “Here I raise my Ebenezer, Hither by thy help I come.” This is a classic example of a line that made wonderful sense to a Biblically-literate audience, who knew that Ebenezer was a “stone of help” e … [Read More...]

The Crisis of Corporate Evangelicalism (Part 7 – a glimpse at the future?)

Justin is an evangelical of the millennial generation and may represent the future of the movement. He was born and raised in a Southern Baptist, church-attending home. The orientation of his faith reflects a corporate evangelicalism similar to Dwight L. Moody. He speaks of his personal relationship … [Read More...]

Bringing the Spirit of (Medieval) Santa Back to Christmas

Every Christmas in the yard of a house not far from us stands a manger scene. The Christ Child rocks gently in his small white wooden manger; his halo glowing from the spotlight. Instead of Mary and Joseph gazing at their holy infant, or even angels surrounding the yard with praise, an unlikely … [Read More...]

Happy New Year!

I've written a couple of posts this month about the Christian relationship to time, and how the ways that we steward that dimension of God's Creation can be quite formative. One of the most subtly powerful ways that we do this is by following the liturgical calendar. As philosopher Jamie Smith e … [Read More...]

Religions Dead and Living

In recent columns, I looked at what happened to a religion heavily focused on hierarchy and clergy when it was cut loose from those moorings – how in fact it reverted to what we might call a default kind of religion. I noted for instance the emphasis on sacred places and objects, on charismatic i … [Read More...]

The Passion of Martin Scorsese

After literally decades of planning and delay, Martin Scorsese has finally released his film of Shusaku Endo’s classic novel Silence, about the persecution of Catholic Christians in seventeenth century Japan. It looks magnificent. (You can watch the trailer here).In the New York Times, Paul Elie … [Read More...]

Where Did All The Pagans Go?

I have been posting about a source on religion in Wales around 1715 , which illustrates how Christian communities maintain themselves when church structures and institutions have been removed. The author, Erasmus Saunders, tells us a lot about the rural society of his time, and its religious life. … [Read More...]

Augustine and Thanksgiving

In Augustine's Confessions, at the end of a discussion of infancy and childhood, there is a beautiful passage about thankfulness. [Note the quotations that follow are from Maria Boulding's translation].Much of Book I baffles contemporary readers, who think that Augustine is rather too hard on … [Read More...]


Around eighteen years ago, my wife and I drove out into the countryside beyond Louisville to find somewhere quaint to attend church one Sunday morning. It's not hard to find quaint churches nearly anywhere in rural America and certainly not in Kentucky. We found a Reformed Baptist church.It was … [Read More...]

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving: A Call to Gratitude, Humility, and Empathy

I love turkey. And cranberries. And pumpkin pie.And parades and football and all the other trappings of Thanksgiving.Embed from Getty ImagesBut this year, I need more than trappings.I need to be reminded why Thanksgiving is the one festival of American civil religion that … [Read More...]

Education: What is It?

For a "think tank" of sorts, I find myself writing a white paper on education (yep, the whole shebang) and its current aspirations and ailments. It's a tough assignment, for how does one make sense of such a large category. Here's my first swipe at defining "institutional parameters." I welcome … [Read More...]

Singing the Faith

Western Protestants are familiar with the idea of Christianity as a faith of the book, of the word written, read, and proclaimed. Historically, though, a great many Christians have learned their faith through other means, including the visual arts and especially music, and such non-literary forms … [Read More...]

Hillary Clinton’s Spiritual Stamina

As the reality of Hillary Clinton’s unexpected defeat sinks in, as pundits jockey to offer the definitive postmortem and journalists attempt to decipher what, precisely, an impending Trump presidency might entail, public focus has largely shifted away from Clinton herself.For nearly four decades … [Read More...]

When Churches Fail

In Eastcheap, near Fenchurch St. in London, stands the medieval church of St. Margaret Pattens. Founded in 1067 and rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666, it slowly lost its congregation. It was closed as a parish church in 1952—more than 900 years after opening its doors. St. M … [Read More...]