Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Yet another example of race's tangled legacy in the United States:

As the article describes, a population of dark-skinned Appalachian residents described as "Melungeon" has been genetically determined to be of mixed African and European ancestry, despite historical claims by many in the population to be of Portuguese or Turkish heritage.  Researchers believe they are likely descended from European indentured servants and African slaves in the colonial backcountry during the 1600s; over time they claimed European ancestry to avoid the severe racial restrictions imposed by the Jim Crow South.

The story of the Melungeons demonstrates what Edmund S. Morgan masterfully explained in his paradigmatic American Slavery, American Freedom (Norton, 1974), and what I hope I manage to convey to my undergraduates in colonial history: prior to the late 1600s, racial categories in colonial America remained fluid.  While many African slaves were confined in chattel slavery (hereditary, descending through the mother), some were able to secure freedom after a given term of service and some even, alarmingly, went on to own slaves themselves.  Meanwhile, European indentured servants sometimes viewed their position as more analogous to African slaves than to those who held them in service.  Alliance across racial lines was far from unknown.  In fact, it was the very threat of this class-based alliance that helped determine the stratification of racial categories by the turn of the 18th century.  Class alliance represented a threat to European slaveholding (and servant-hiring) elites.

The way out?  Solidify slavery as a permanent, hereditary, racial classification -- and give poor whites a population against which they could elevate themselves, however rudimentary the actual elevation.  By clarifying the legal framework of racial slavery, European elites accomplished two goals: provision of a permanent labor force and consolidation of "white" identity in opposition to black slavery.  The poorest white could then share a feeling of "freedom" with the colony's governor.

The Melungeons' heritage predates the invention of ironclad racial classifications in American life.  As such, it helps us understand the contingency of race.  It need never have become what it did.  It is to our eternal discredit that it happened.  Stories like that of the Melungeons will help us better understand this reality--and perhaps, help give us the tools to deal with our past and address our present.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

fun fact o' the day

Reuters--the wire service--initially utilized a wireless approach in collecting the news:

Carrier pigeons.


(Source: Smithsonian, May 2012)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Relevant? Not really. Fascinating? Yes!

Fun fact to know and tell: in 1900, the 11-year-old Eiffel Tower* was repainted and electrified for the Paris Exposition.  The color of choice?  YELLOW.  While I have not yet had the honor of seeing the Eiffel Tower in person (note the "yet," significant other, should you read this), I am having a very hard time envisioning Gustave's creation in yellow...

* the tower was constructed for an earlier, 1889 exposition commemorating the centenary of the French Revolution.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Comparative Nostalgia

"Nostalgia, it can be said, is universal and persistent; only other men's nostalgias offend."
--Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)

I read portions of this book recently as background for a paper I've been writing on land-use planning legislation in the state of Oregon in the late '60s and early '70s.  (A Linn County farmer and state legislator--and, clearly, polymath--by the name of Hector Macpherson found Cambridge literature professor Williams' vision of the relationship between urban and rural useful in developing his planning vision.)

Comparative nostalgia... this is a subject worth several books.  Most of us have visions of the good to be taken from the "past."  All I have to hear are the first few strains of the theme music to "The Lawrence Welk Show" and I'm transported to a state of yearning, and my existence barely overlaps with the show's original run.  I long for something I never experienced, and yet I know that what I long for completely elides the realities of pantyhose, artificial homogeneity and the restricted opportunities for women that also characterized the era.  No; I miss people long gone now and the idea of living in the comfort of a large extended family, and Larry cues that world up for me.  I long for the world I've heard about and touched, however briefly, as a child.  Even that, I realize, was not the ideal I create, but that only serves to better demonstrate the way we manufacture our pasts -- we create our own nostalgias.

Your nostalgia, I'm sure, differs strongly from this example... I'm a very strange 33-year-old and I realize that.  To a certain degree this is harmless.  We hold to things that remind us of happiness, contentment, peace or security.  The problem comes when we start to impose too much nostalgia upon the present.  It's one thing to enjoy a rousing chorus of "Calcutta" (or "Stairway to Heaven," or "Johnny B. Goode"); it's another thing to decide X period represents all that was good and true in our past and we should therefore attempt to recreate it in the present.

Why is this such a problem?  The problem comes, I'd argue, in the reality that our present is manufactured from our collective nostalgias.  We combine my past with your past, and her past, and his past, and the product of all of our shared experiences and ideas, beliefs and understandings is today.  We bring our conceptions and our misconceptions with us through life.  The past is an essential tool for learning about our present and planning our future, but we can only do that well when we realize that the past -- despite our nostalgia -- is always going to be more complicated and contingent than our memory (real or imagined) preserves.

Here lies the intersection between nostalgia and history.  If nostalgia is singular, history is plural -- not universal, perhaps, but plural.  History is about the attempt to bring ourselves as close as possible to what really happened while realizing that we are humans living in the context of our lived experience.  My sense of nostalgia makes me a Welk-loving sentimentalist and I don't plan to change that... I doubt I could change that without losing part of what makes me, me.  As a historian, however, I understand and appreciate the complexity of the period during which the man "a-one, a-twoed" his way through ABC Saturday nights and years of syndication, and that helps me -- I'd argue -- attain a clearer-eyed vision for how the past informs our future.

History education, well practiced, will do the same.  I hope it is something I manage to do in the classroom, and I'd argue it is something we should be striving for in the wider polity.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tidbit: Victorian Vegetarians

This is a bit random, but I was reading a favorite blog on the history of food and cookery this morning and I enjoyed this post on 19th century vegetarianism.  The blogger, a British woman living in Australia with an accordingly great wealth of perspective on food history throughout the British Commonwealth and beyond, shares an article covering a late Victorian vegetarian gathering in New Jersey.  The period author's bemusement is obvious and the information is rather fascinating.  I am not a vegetarian myself, but I have many friends who practice the discipline... this post is a useful reminder that such "newfangled" notions have actually been around for quite a long time.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Principle and Pragmatism

Interesting Gil Troy op-ed piece on ideology and compromise in Republican presidential politics.  Troy argues that "culture warrior" politics is a drag on GOP electability.  This connects to some of the comments I made in my April 27 post.  Of course, I'd argue this could apply to both parties.  It was George McGovern's willingness to become a different sort of "culture warrior" that helped spell his doom in 1972.  Michael Dukakis' refusal to bow to pragmatism in episodes such as the infamous question posed to him about how he'd feel toward someone who assaulted his wife didn't exactly help his prospects in 1988.

Is it right and proper for politicians to avoid strident stands in favor of electability?  At this point we enter the realm of moral quandry.  Is the prize of electoral office and the opportunity (however circumscribed) to effect change once elected worth negotiating one's way through the door?  Or does principle outweigh pragmatism?  Will principle triumph over pragmatism under the right circumstances?  Tricky questions all.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Blog Tour: Christianity and Popular Culture

Welcome to the Thursday, May 3 stop on the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg's Blog Tour on Religion and Media!  As a historian, I am intrigued by the many ways in which religion influences American society (and vice versa).  I had the honor of posing a few questions on this subject to Dr. Mary Hess.  Dr. Hess is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and a Roman Catholic layperson with a background in both American and media/cultural studies.  She blogs at; more information regarding her publications and research interests is available on the Luther Seminary Web site.  Please join us in this conversation; we look forward to your questions and comments.

1) Where do you see theology most deeply expressed in popular culture today?  Has this changed over time, and if so, how?  What might this signify for the future?

Many years ago Christian historian named Margaret Miles wrote a book called "Seeing is Believing" where she made the argument that we tend to work out our arguments about moral action more often in the movies than in public philosophical arguments. I think her insight may be even more true today. Most of what we care deeply about is only engaged in complex ways in fiction. It's hard to find much in the news that allows for ambiguity, or that attends carefully to historical context. I don't mean to say that we only do this in film, or even that we do a lot of thoughtful work in films! But I think that in order to find places where real theological questions are being engaged in complex ways, you have to go to movies -- or better yet, to long form narrative television (that is, shows that spread their content over many, many episodes in complex narrative arcs).

That's a long-winded way of saying that I think you can find theological questions being raised in a lot of popular culture, but that the more sustained the narrative the more likely you are to find thoughtful reflection. Once I've said that, then I can turn to almost any genre of popular culture and identify interesting work. But theology in popular culture is never as systematic or clear as it is in philosophical arguments.

I'll give you some examples. I think of series like "Six Feet Under," "Deadwood," "Battlestar Galactica" and so on, as examples of television shows that ask difficult questions about human and divine agency; about loss, hope, despair; about forgiveness and reconciliation; about redemption and sanctification. But these shows don't offer uniform -- or even all that recognizable -- theological platforms. They aren't "didactic" about Christian doctrine, for instance. But they do evoke perennial questions, and offer thoughtful reflections.

There are a lot of popular musicians who do this, too. I think here of the music of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 to name just a few of my own favorites.

And there are novels -- the Harry Potter series, for instance, are perhaps our most current analogue to the work of C. S. Lewis.

You asked "has this changed over time"? Yes and no. Theological themes have always emerged in popular cultures. At different times in history these themes have been overt and intentional or implicit and hidden. At some times there has been public condemnation of popular culture, and at other times popular culture has been valorized as an explicit carrier of theological content.

I think perhaps what has changed the most in our current era is that the tools for creating and distributing popular content are more accessible than at any previous time in our history. We are moving into what might actually become a truly "participatory" global culture. We're not there yet, but we have the possibility. Blogs, for instance, are a widely accessible form of sharing content. All you need is access to the net, and you can share content in a blog. Yes, we need to think about various digital divides. Yes, we need to be conscious of helping people access and use blogs wisely. But the bottom line is that we now have a medium that is accessible to just about anyone, and which creates a platform for global communication. That is unprecedented and we are only beginning to sense the possibilities.

2) What in the history of Christian engagement in popular culture might inform a thoughtful approach toward the media today?

The example I find myself using most often has to do with how Christian churches dealt with the advent of television, at least in the United States. Christian churches tended to respond in one of two ways. Either they were deeply excited about the possibilities for using television to spread the gospel widely, or they were deeply worried about the ways in which television content was damaging and potentially destructive of Christian faith.

At first glance those two positions might seem very different from each other. But if you think about it, both pretty much assume that the creator of the content controls its meaning. In the first instance Christians saw television as a way to pipe their content to many more people over a much wider area. In the second, Christians saw television as piping negative content directly into people's homes. Television was the "pipeline" through which content was poured, and the person receiving the content was considered to be a pretty passive recipient of that content. So more conservative evangelical churches helped to create the entire Christian broadcasting and publishing world, and more liberal Protestant churches focused on media literacy education, which was going to somehow "inoculate" people against negative content.

Frankly, I don't think either approach was all that successful in the long run. What we've learned, instead, is that media -- whether television, film, digital media, etc. -- are environments in which meaning is made, and the producer of a message does not control its reception. Media literacy educators learned, for instance, that far from "inoculating" people against negative content, we tended to inoculate them against religious community -- because people didn't want to 'give up' the television they loved, and were far more willing to turn their backs on religious community.

So a thoughtful approach to media today takes very seriously the "agency" of the audience. Scholars of digital media speak about "participatory culture" -- by which they mean that consumers of media are very often the producers of it as well. Spaces such as YouTube, flickr, facebook, and so on are the focus of more and more of our attention.

I believe that Christian communities -- indeed, any religious communities -- need to venture into these spaces and reflect on how religious meaning is made there. Rather than boycotting them -- which is something many Christian communities have suggested that we do (a stance which reminds me of early media literacy educators) -- or entering into them entirely uncritically (a stance which reminds me of Christian broadcasting) -- we need to support people in learning how to produce their own messages in these media, and in doing so learn how to be critically engaged with them (which is actually the stance of current media educators). (See, for instance, NAMLE:

3) What can new media teach the church?  What can the church teach new media?  

Wow -- what a huge question! I think I'll start by referring your readers to some wonderful books that explore the shifts that have happened, historically, as new technologies arrive. Books like Elizabeth Eisenstein's "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," or Jeremy Stolow's work, his book "Deus in Machina" is about to come out. A great short book which is very accessible, is Elizabeth Drescher's book "Tweet if you [heart] Jesus: Practicing church in the digital reformation."

I think part of what new media in OUR era (because there are new media in all eras) might teach us is how to take seriously people's desire to participate and contribute. As Clay Shirky suggests, new media help us to see and take advantage of our "cognitive surpluses." We're learning -- and here Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown's book "A New Culture of Learning" is particularly instructive -- that inquiry-driven, project-based, portfolio-assessed learning is more effective and compelling than our previous more teacher-centered forms of learning have been.

At the same time this more explicit attention to tacit learning requires us to think about what it means to learn through "indwelling" -- and this is one place where churches have much to teach new media. At our best, people in religious communities know a lot about how to shape meaning in spaces that are communal and collective. We know a lot about what it means to "know" when certainty is not the final goal. As Anne Lamott is fond of pointing out, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty. So how to shape hope in the midst of despair? How to think about ultimacy when faced with mortality? These are questions that communities of faith have much to bring to, and we lodge it most often in the deep bones of our traditions, in the ways in which we "indwell" particular spaces and particular questions. Those of us who are actively participating in new media have much to learn from these traditions.

Here's a question for your readers: What are the historical lenses you think most necessary to put on when thinking about new media and religion?