Category Archives: Blogging

Housekeeping

A momentary break from historical posts for a bit of news.

1. In July, at the annual Lipscomb lectures, I will join John Mark Hicks, Jeremy Sweets, and Mac Ice for a second round of presentations and discussion about the history of the churches of Christ in Nashville. Last year’s presentations were well received (you can find mine here) and we look forward to a good session again this time around. I’ll be discussing the local and theological contexts of the 1938 Hardeman Tabernacle Meeting. Hope to see you there if you’re in town.

2. None of this means, of course, that I have abandoned John T. Lewis and Birmingham. Work continues there on several fronts. I’m currently digging more deeply into the origins of both First Christian Church and the Fox Hall congregation. Additionally, a big thanks is in order to Phillip Owens, of the Shannon church in Birmingham, for the opportunity to work with a large quantity of JTL’s personal papers and photographs in his possession.

3. Lastly, I want to mention what a privilege it has been over the past few weeks to help in the effort to preserve the congregational records of the Riverside Drive Church of Christ. As some of you know, Riverside Drive closed its doors at the end of March after 77 years of ministry in East Nashville. The congregation’s records are extensive: there is a lot of detailed information going back to the very beginning (February 1937), and a full run of bulletins starting in the early ’50s. I hope to share some of this material with you in the coming weeks as there is lots of interesting material vis-a-vis the larger history of the Nashville churches. UPDATE: I’ve posted some photos of the interior of the building over on my Tumblr.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.

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Anniversary

I’m not much for this sort of thing, but it seems appropriate now. I was just reminded that 2014 is the tenth year of this blog’s existence. Doubtless, it’s difficult to back up from your own work and look at it critically. Moreover, how does one discern a narrative arc in a blog? Bear with me for a moment, though, while I give it a try.

Ten years ago, I was teaching Latin in suburban Atlanta and finishing up an M.A. Some of you, my longsuffering readers, remember those days: my preoccupation with ephemeral news items, shallow engagements with evangelical theology, and all of that classics-related miscellanea. The flirtation with emergent stuff, the interaction with ‘progressive’ CofC bloggers, the casual flirtation with the politics of the Evangelical Left — it’s all there fossilized forever on the Internet. Regrettable? Perhaps. None of it’s terribly compelling, a lot of it is more than a little embarrassing. At the same time, though, the permanence that the Internet bestows on our digital lives has its uses. It’s probably a good exercise for every blogger to go back and cringe for a moment at some clumsily expressed opinion or ill-considered book recommendation that sounded good at the time. It helps to nurture a humble spirit, if nothing else.

A lot has happened since then. I myself have changed. My wife and I recently passed twelve years of marriage. Our two girls are growing up: they started kindergarten this past fall. I’ve been through a seminary degree program and completed another thesis. A job in publishing that started out as a way to generate income with two babies on the way has turned into something that kind of resembles a career. There have been professional successes. I’ve benefited greatly from some close friendships.

There are roses in life and there are thorns, of course. The past few years have seen dreams pursued and thwarted. I’ve had occasion to see how cruel people can be. But I’ve also been the recipient of incredible kindness. I’ve been given gifts of support and friendship that I do not deserve, gifts that I can only attribute to work of a God who cares.

But back to the blog-iversary.

The nature of this blog has changed over time. After 2010 or so, it seemed best to take this thing in a more substantive direction. I didn’t exactly know what that would look like then, but in years since then I’ve given much more space to my research, and correspondingly less to the news of the day, internet disputes, and things of that sort. I can say without hesitation that that was a good decision. One of the unanticipated ironies of that decision is that the narrower my focus has become the wider the readership here has grown. I’m still processing exactly what that means. Growing my readership has never been the highest of my priorities. I can say, though, that I’m extremely grateful for all of your insights and comments on what I’ve written and posted here.

At the center of my shift as a blogger has been my research on John T. Lewis and on the Nashville churches. A reflection of this sort wouldn’t be complete without some attempt to take stock of that. In  large part, I have Mac Ice and John Mark Hicks to thank for my focus on these two topics: Mac for countless long conversations about Nashville and the chance to hang around the Historical Society; John Mark for historical and systematic theology classes that helped me put some things in broader perspective, for Kingdom Come, and for helping me see Lewis’ life and thought as a needed area of research.

I’ve been reading and thinking and writing about Lewis in particular with some regularity since 2010. That summer, I was invited to give two lectures at the Lafayette Church of Christ in Lafayette, Tennessee, one on Daniel Sommer and the other on Lewis. It was then that I began to think there might be room for a detailed study of Lewis’ life and work. It was not until 2012 that I had read and thought enough to begin to put together a proposal for a thesis on Lewis.

I think I’ve come to see, as I’ve lived with Lewis and his writings for the past year and a half that this project has always been about more than an indulgence in my love of research. It’s personal: it’s very much about who I am, who I was raised to be, and who I, for better or worse, have become. Constant interaction with Lewis’ thought has challenged and changed me. He’s given me many an opportunity for self-reflection, for reflection on my family and my religious inheritance. He’s been the starting point of some important friendships over the past few years, and the source of some courage in the midst of conflict and uncertainty. For all of that I’m thankful: to him, in a way, and also to all of you who have been here with me to help me process it here.

To be sure, I’ve never been the world’s most consistent blogger. It would be rash of me to promise that 2014 will be any different. That said, there are several exciting things on the horizon. Look for more details here in the coming months.

Brief Update

A brief update:

1. I spent last Saturday paging through the 1910 volume of the Gospel Advocate, following, among other things,  J. W. Shepherd’s updates (in his “Miscellany” column) on the extended and rather serious illness from which John T. Lewis was suffering in the spring of that year. Otherwise, my attention has been further afield. I just worked my way through Michael Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. I’m about to start Jonathan Sheehan’s The Enlightenment Bible. Odd choices for someone who’s writing on John T. Lewis, no? Here’s my thinking. The debate between Lewis and C. R. Nichol over 1 Cor 11 centers on Nichol’s use of a particular hermeneutical strategy — the so called “cultural argument” — to argue against the wearing of the covering. I want to try to get at the origins of that “cultural argument”: Who came up with it and when? When does it first appear in Church of Christ circles? Doubtless Legaspi and Sheehan will take me in other directions … we’ll see.

2. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve started a Tumblr. Somehow it seems like a blog like this should be for actual compositions, not just for quotes I’ve culled from stuff I’m reading. The Tumblr format seemed better for that, so that’s what you’ll find there, along with the occasional reblog from the half-dozen or so other Tumblrs I’m following.

That’s all for now.

A Postscript on “The Nashville Establishment”

I’ve been surprised over the past couple of days at the level of interest a recent post (“On the Nashville Establishment“) has generated, both here on this blog and in other settings as well. Most of this has been positive, and for that I’m very grateful.

The best scholarship pushes discussion forward and helps us to think about the evidence in new ways. I for one have been challenged by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine and the Tennessee-Texas-Indiana paradigm that they have set out for understanding Churches of Christ in the early 20th century. What I’ve tried to do in describing the “Nashville Establishment” is to provide a framework for understanding the history of Churches of Christ in this city. If what I have done here helps to advance someone’s thinking, then I will be satisfied.

That said, I’d like to address one theme that has shown up in a few of the responses. It’s really easy, I think, when dealing with the history of whatever period or group of people, to fall into the trap of sitting in judgment upon people who are not around to defend themselves, to hold those people to a standard that we ourselves have set. Avoiding this trap — the trap of overtly polemical historiography — does not release us from a certain tension. As a historian, I want to be fair to the Comers and to the good motives that undoubtedly drove them to set up the Church of Christ Foundation. I also want to tell their story accurately.

But I also want to be honest. I’m not telling this story in a vacuum. I’m not telling it for its own sake. I believe it has something to say to us about the role of money and power in the history of Churches of Christ in Nashville. Whatever one might think of Don Haymes’ analysis of the “Church of Christ Establishment” — whether he got all of the particulars right or not — he put his finger on something very important. Even as we loudly protest that we are not a denomination, we often act like one. To say this, of course, is to touch a sensitive nerve. A lot of us still believe that we are nothing more than a loose network of autonomous congregations.  That’s what we want to be, of course, but is that what we actually are? Is that how we actually behave?

Our observable history in places like Nashville suggests otherwise. The story of R. W. Comer and his trust fund is by no means an isolated incident. To be sure, the role of the Comer and Burton families in Nashville exemplifies how the power structure functioned at its height.  But examples of the establishment’s treatment of (and concerted action against) those who got in its way can be found in many other places. Among those, we might mention the churches and leaders involved in the non-institutional protest of the 1950s and the African-American church leaders who fought the closure of the Nashville Christian Institute in 1967.

We could go further, of course. Let me close for now by saying this. If anything, I hope these stories can help us to reflect unflinchingly on who we have been, who we are, and where we might be going. I also hope they help us to pay attention to how easily, in our efforts to spread the good news of the kingdom, we can be seduced by the world’s methods and standards of success.

Thanks again for your participation.

Lewis pamphlets

A quick note to point you to some additions at this website. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am in the process of doing research on John T. Lewis for a master’s thesis. To that end, I have posted PDF scans of five of his published pamphlets over on the Texts page of this blog. In the coming weeks, I hope to gain permission to post at least two more.

Happy reading!

miscellaneous browsings

I’ve not been around here much; I’ve been busy trying to finish up some summer reading projects before classes begin.  Anyway, here are some of the things I’ve been reading and thinking about of late:

1) Some weeks ago, Rod Dreher (at his new, and very engaging, blog) linked to a New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande, titled “Letting Go,” about care for the dying.  Excerpt:

Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe. Reaffirming one’s faith, repenting one’s sins, and letting go of one’s worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence.

These days, swift catastrophic illness is the exception; for most people, death comes only after long medical struggle with an incurable condition—advanced cancer, progressive organ failure (usually the heart, kidney, or liver), or the multiple debilities of very old age. In all such cases, death is certain, but the timing isn’t. So everyone struggles with this uncertainty—with how, and when, to accept that the battle is lost. As for last words, they hardly seem to exist anymore. Technology sustains our organs until we are well past the point of awareness and coherence. Besides, how do you attend to the thoughts and concerns of the dying when medicine has made it almost impossible to be sure who the dying even are? Is someone with terminal cancer, dementia, incurable congestive heart failure dying, exactly?

I once cared for a woman in her sixties who had severe chest and abdominal pain from a bowel obstruction that had ruptured her colon, caused her to have a heart attack, and put her into septic shock and renal failure. I performed an emergency operation to remove the damaged length of colon and give her a colostomy. A cardiologist stented her coronary arteries. We put her on dialysis, a ventilator, and intravenous feeding, and stabilized her. After a couple of weeks, though, it was clear that she was not going to get much better. The septic shock had left her with heart and respiratory failure as well as dry gangrene of her foot, which would have to be amputated. She had a large, open abdominal wound with leaking bowel contents, which would require twice-a-day cleaning and dressing for weeks in order to heal. She would not be able to eat. She would need a tracheotomy. Her kidneys were gone, and she would have to spend three days a week on a dialysis machine for the rest of her life.

She was unmarried and without children. So I sat with her sisters in the I.C.U. family room to talk about whether we should proceed with the amputation and the tracheotomy. “Is she dying?” one of the sisters asked me. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I wasn’t even sure what the word “dying” meant anymore. In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.

This led me to reflect more upon how we die in America, how truncated our funeral customs have become — even in the South, where traditional funeral practices (open caskets, wakes, cars stopping for funeral processions) still obtain.  To that end, I’ve been reading Rob Moll’s new book The Art of Dying and Tom Long’s Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral.  Both have helped me begin to think through what it means to “die well.”

2) Two pieces from the New York Times in recent days:

What Is It About Twenty-Somethings? A lengthy, but well-done, analysis of one of the biggest problems among people my age and younger: the seeming inability to transition from adolescence into adulthood.

Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work. My own observations regarding this subject attest to how much of a problem this is in conservative churches of Christ.  How many congregations out there make provisions for this kind of rest for their preacher?

3)  An excerpt from William Robinson’s Completing the Reformation (1955).  Robinson — if you’re not familiar with him — was perhaps the premier writer and thinker among the British Churches of Christ in the first half of the 20th century.  The link will take you to a discussion of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper that is well worth considering.

vacation

I’m on vacation from work this coming week, so I’m going to start cranking out more posts over the next several days.

The sun is shining in Nashville after a couple of days of hard rain.  My thoughts over the past few days have been with the Gulf Coast and the now-month-long oil spill.  Predictably, BP has acknowledged that the extent of the spill is much worse than they first reported.  (Here’s a brief summary of the latest news from the New York Times.)  Jason Peters at Front Porch Republic captures the issue well, I think:

…[T]hings could be worse. Not different, mind you, but worse, for it turns out that on our political landscape the difference between an elephant and a donkey—so far as energy is concerned—is a difference (if difference there be) of degree, not kind. The pachydermic Proboscidae and jackassic Perissodactyla are standing on our southern shores and looking at the most recent oil disaster as a technological rather than as a moral problem.

There is neither trumpeting from the former nor braying from the latter about how we shouldn’t be drilling offshore in the first place. There are only mixed noises about being more careful and better prepared should such an unfortunate technological malfunction (somewhat akin to a wardrobe malfunction) ever happen again. Hypermobility, long-distance exchange of goods, orange juice in the cold Fargo winters—these, as our former Vice President said, are non-negotiable.

But what we are staring at off our southern shore is most assuredly a moral rather than a technological problem. It is a moral problem because we have presumed upon the earth to provide for us a standard of living no one deserves or is entitled to, a standard that has quite obviously been acquired on the credit cards of the unborn. It is a standard that is nothing less than a sickness unto death.

Also relevant to how we got into this mess is Wendell Berry’s piece from the May 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine, titled “Faustian Economics.” Well worth reading and pondering.  What should Christians do if they agree with Peters and Berry that this is a moral issue?  How should the church be involved?  If we don’t accept the notion that the church as such should be involved, how then should the individual be involved?  How do we begin to preach “limits” from the pulpit?

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In other news, a friend of mine recently pointed me to the National Marriage Project.  You won’t be disappointed by the time you spend there.  This is an incredible resource for elders and evangelists about the state of marriage (and other living arrangements) in America.  I’ve long said that we should be spending more time in Churches of Christ focusing on how to sustain marriages than trying to figure out who to blame when they fail; this is a good resource for helping us do just that.

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Finally, I link to this last piece because I’ve seen so little engagement by members of Churches of Christ with the New Atheism.  This preacher reviews a couple of Alister McGrath’s books on the subject and concludes with a surprisingly frank admission: the uber-rationalism of Enlightenment-era Protestantism (including Churches of Christ) has squelched the possibility of experiencing the Divine either in corporate worship or individually.

A snippet:

The church grew strong in the immediate aftereffects of the Enlightenment and the emphasis on reason and the rational. When confronted with Evangelicalism and especially Pentecostalism, there was a strong reaction, to the point where many to this day deny that God works miracles today (or, for that matter, that the demonic has any power at all). Anything that was experienced-based, regardless of its relationship to the revealed standard, was just too subjective and too questionable.

None of this is to say that all the various experiences that people claim to have with the Divine or supernatural forces are acceptable. We are strongly warned to avoid the black arts (Galatians 5:19-21). Everything must be tested by the standard of the truth as it has been revealed through the New Testament (Galatians 1:6-9, 1 John 4:1, Jude 1:3). Most of what has been promoted as the experience of the Divine has not been according to that standard, either because it was idolatrous (cf. Romans 1:18-32), or because it purported to be something that has been fulfilled (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).

Yet there is nothing in Scripture that teaches us that we should not expect to experience the Divine in any meaningful way. In fact, there is much in Scripture that teaches us that we should experience the Divine! We have seen in Acts 17:24-28 that we should “seek after God,” and that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Our lives, therefore, should be saturated with the Divine in whom we exist and subsist.

There is a helpful acknowledgment at the end that we encounter God in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer.  One might like more detail and more discussion of the unique historical situation of Churches of Christ (I, for one, would like to see what he would do with Leonard Allen’s account of the dispute between Tolbert Fanning and Robert Richardson on this question in Participating in God’s Life), but this is certainly a start and it deserves to be discussed widely.