Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Enchanting, profound, elegiac, epic, beautiful. As a man with a PhD in Divinity and professor at a seminary I will tell you that the missiology and anthropology of religion in this book is penetrating and deep. As a priest and pastor I found it incredibly moving, sometimes to the point of tears.
Anyone interested in the history of the West of the USA or missiology should read this book or listen to the audio version.
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Dr. Erin Bartram has written a beautiful indictment of American higher education. She has composed a post wherein she explains how she gave up trying to get that treasured tenure track position in American higher ed. She tells us of her sense of calling to be a professor, her joy in sitting on committees (commendable), and her sense of despondent letdown in never being hired to that coveted tenure track position she felt was her destiny.
It resonated with me.
I have never shared a response to someone else’s blog post here before, but here goes:
I was deeply touched by your wonderful, melancholy post. I have a PhD in Divinity from Edinburgh, which I’m not sure is elite or not. The thing is that while doing the PhD (awarded in 2014) and through now I have been continuously employed but as a minister and missionary in the Anglican Church, which means I always had a steady if humble income (probably similar to yours as an associate professor).
But I, in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, have always tried to keep one foot in the world of academia–teaching “The God Class” (think “Survey of the Christian Faith”) here, “Intro to Philosophy” and “Bible as Lit” there. Most recently my cutting edge research into the lived theology of converts from Islam to Christianity led to teaching–wait for it–“Research and Composition”.
Two years ago I was asked to consider moving to Spain to plant a church here and do some other stuff. With a wife and three young kids it was a big ask. Sharon and I prayed about it. I felt like I had to really investigate all options in higher ed before committing to such a move and so I did. I did the CVs and teaching statements (“I don’t actually know what that is.” –Pinkie Pie, My Little Pony, sorry for not using Chicago….), I did the “make a video and send it to us…” I did the interviews via Skype or what have you. I did the hours of composing a detailed custom q&a document because I had made it to “the last round”–and that while in Mexico for a wedding of a friend from middle school. Some people encouraged me, saying that my area of research (ex-Muslims) was so avant garde, who could resist? Others said that my main area of research was politically incorrect, as it implied that maybe something was lacking in Islam. Anyway, like you, nothing. Enormous amounts of time. Enormous amounts of energy.
My story is different, though, because for me that served as confirmation that God (the same one my Catholic sisters form the 19th Century were concerned with) was calling us to Spain, where we have now been for half a year. But I did feel that hurt, especially at first. Some positions I didn’t care about. But a few of them just seemed…so good. Like such a right fit. Also, I have friends from Edinburgh who, like you, felt that calling–that vocation–to be a professor, but have not been able to secure those positions. So what you wrote touched me.
I don’t know the answers either, but I do know there is something deeply flawed in higher ed in the USA today. There is something evil in telling everyone they must go to college, for it makes the BA or BS little more than the high school degree of yesteryear. There is something foolish in the proliferation of administrative positions in the American university while the number of professors remains more or less stagnant. There is some transgression in practically forcing young people to accrue large amounts of debt so that they will not be able to move out, get married, and have kids if they so wish. In sum, I do not offer any advice, but I offer compassion–a ‘suffering with’–though not to the full extent that you have suffered. It is limited. But it is real.
And here, for your enjoyment, is that most excellent Pinkie Pie quote (this is what comes from having kids…)
I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the Rev. Chuck Huckaby on Two Stories of Everything: The Competing Metanarratives of Islam and Christianity recently. The two-part post has his review and then an interview. This is from the interview:
CH: You write: “After living in the Middle East for most of a decade, I must say that I find the public religion of Muslims (and Eastern Orthodox Christians) compelling and refreshing. Yes, sometimes it can be confrontational, but the introspective Christianity of the West with its quietism and compartmentalization strikes me as defeatist, bland, and feeble-hearted.” This relates to one of the key elements of secularism, the internalization of belief. You expanded on this in the book, but I wonder if you have seen this done in a Western context?
DM: The word introspective is from Latin and means looking inwards. The response to this is public religion, meaning an expression of religious commitment lived out in the midst of the people. I have seen baby steps towards this in America—it is easier in Europe. A church opened its grounds to local families for a movie night and it was well-attended, for instance. But that was still on the church grounds. I remember doing theology at the pub in Edinburgh with a local church. The deacon, who was quite liberal I’ll say, and I went to buy pints at the bar and this old Scotsman just saw his collar and started telling him about God. The point is he wore his collar in public, and that allowed a space for witness.
I’m in Spain and I wear my clericals several times a week because our cathedral is a very busy place. One day an old Spanish lady stopped me in the street and said, “I’m glad to see a priest wearing a collar! They used to do that all the time!” So obviously she thought I was a Roman Catholic priest, not an Anglican deacon, but it doesn’t really matter. We need to find ways of bringing the presence and reality of our religious commitment into the public world. No, we don’t need to be confrontational and abrasive—though we should realize that God may indeed call us to that sometimes. And here is me as the evangelical preacher who wants a practical application for everything: be deliberate about saying grace with your family when you eat out. Hold hands, bow your heads, make the sign of the Cross. Not to impress people. But to witness to Christ. To witness that his Church is still alive and well and it’s there at Applebee’s or Taco Cabana.
Read it all at his blog Disciple Making in the Historic Church.
I Was a Minister in the Nation of Islam by Alexis Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have read many books by ex-Muslims over the years, as religious conversion from Islam to Christianity is one of my main areas of academic research. But I had never happened across a book quite like this.
First, I did not realize how different and heterodox the Nation of Islam (NOI) is. The most interesting aspect of the book for me was learning about the NOI and what I found to be frankly bizarre stories about its founding figures. I would have liked some more quotations directly from NOI sources, but I always say this about conversion narratives. I want to read a well-documented, properly researched treatise, the convert wants to tell their story.
Second, the main purpose of the author in this book is clearly to warn American churches and Christians and black people against what he sees as the propaganda of the NOI and specifically Louis Farrakhan. He spends a good amount of the book explaining why, in his opinion, the NOI and Minister Farrakhan are not what they appear.
Another goal of his is to offer a salvation that is not based on race or ethnicity. The universality of the offer of salvation in Christianity is balanced by a very real awareness of injustices suffered by black and brown Americans, and the sometimes patronizing (if well-intentioned) behavior of white Christians. Thus he avoids the trope of self-victimization while also not ignoring the reality of racial injustice in the past and the present.
Strengths are the material on the founder of the NOI and the rather graphic and gritty description of his life in the drug trade before his conversion to the NOI. Weaknesses are his lack of sourcing his material (sometimes) and a rather disjointed final chapter.
People interested in the Nation of Islam, racial relations and religious conversion will find this engaging and well-crafted book of interest.
Duane Alexander Miller
Nazareth Seminary, Israel
(Originally Published as a NETS Book Review at nazsem.blogspot,com.)
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