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Essay

Memo to Jessica, Part II

By March 15, 2014 One Comment
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(Read Part I of the memo here. Read Jessica’s original post here. And yes, they’re related–Jim is Jessica’s uncle.)

Hi Jessica:

Your follow-up dispatch on grad school highlights the importance of fitting vocation (ok, occupation) to personality. Extroverts will have to work extra hard to get a dissertation done. But then introverts might encounter some extra challenges in talking in front of a class. Academe holds trials and tests for all sorts, as do—I suspect—hospital chaplaincy or denominational administration or parish ministry or any of your other options. So you might be facing an equal-opportunity dilemma whichever route you take. All the more reason to determine ahead of time to sculpt the paid position to your self and your calling. With self-awareness and complementary colleagues, this can happen in academe as well as anywhere.

As for those words in the ordination vows you once took and keep remembering—“Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God”—I’ll call your attention to the highlighted phrase and underscore the importance of the academy, specifically the church-related academy, in said edification and equipping. The missionary monks who brought Christianity to the stretches of Europe where our blue-painted ancestors were dancing around the old oak tree insisted above all on bringing along their books and founding schools as well as churches. Puritans in New England and evangelists on the 19th-century American frontier too. Book-stuff and teaching-stuff can be good church-stuff. If you want a disquisition on Abraham Kuyper’s theory of the church organic to warrant the point, I’ll be happy to deliver it. But maybe another time, as other readers of this blog might not share our enthusiasm.

Your original concern, however, focused on the kinds of research and writing academics do. I replied that these do not have to, and often do not in fact, conform to the Nicholas Kristof complaint that triggered your angst. Then I promised more on examples of long, soaring trajectories of scholarly work that not only add valuably to the fund of knowledge but that reframe knowledge, change the guild, indeed change the world. Perhaps a rare occurrence, but a heartening one and one worthy of our aspiration, for aiming so high will land us on a noble plane even when we fall short.

So, a summary tale of two historians who were in place when and where I went to grad school. One was C. Vann Woodward, whose Strange Career of Jim Crow was held up—literally—by Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.” That’s changing the world. Woodward’s further work left an indelible picture of the post-Civil War (“New”) South that lives on as the base from which his own students’ scholarship springs. Shaping the field.

I didn’t work with Woodward but I did with David Brion Davis, who last month published the third volume in his trilogy on the history of slavery—and, with it, of abolition. Volume one appeared in 1967; volume three in 2014; collections of essays and sub-topical volumes appeared along the way either side of volume two. Call that a work ethic. What Davis’s writing helped accomplish was to place slavery and its legacies square in the middle of U.S. history—indeed, of the story of the whole Western Hemisphere. Nobody can responsibly teach or write on the central narrative of this part of the world from 1500 to the present without taking these themes seriously, and without engaging the interpretations that Davis made of them and that others have confirmed or argued with.

What launched this long arc? Davis’s experience, as an 18-year-old soldier sailing to occupy postwar Germany, at encountering thousands of African-American troops being held below decks unbeknownst to him or the other white soldiers on board. Another time, I remember him saying, he saw young African women being boarded onto U.S. planes bound for Saudi Arabia, where they were to service the royals among our new best oil buddies. Such experiences triggered a stark realization in him, Davis recounted, and with that a sharp set of questions that would demand a lifetime to answer—and that would be driven all along as a process of profound moral reflection and moral criticism. It also happened—only it just didn’t happen—to speak to the central issue in American society in the postwar world.

Personally rooted, manifestly relevant, deeply researched, clearly written, oscillating between big tomes and more popular essays, Davis’s work demonstrates that one can be a thorough scholar and public intellectual, existentially engaged and consummately professional. It does take longevity, discipline, trust, passion, and perseverance. Calvinist saints-in-becoming like yourself are guaranteed confessionally to have the latter. The rest will come, I think, if you can find a noble theme. I have a couple of suggestions on that score too, but that’s for the third piece of what’s turning out to be my own trilogy.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It is just great to be in on this public Reformed conversation between two of my dearest friends. Yay team.

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