Friday, March 30, 2012

"First Things" Perspective on Pannenberg

Browsing at Barnes & Noble last month, I noticed the new issue of First Things with an article about the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, who turns 84 this year. I purchased the issue so I could revisit my earlier interest in his theology.

When I was in div school in 1979-1982, one of our teachers (Robert Clyde Johnson) referenced Pannenberg in his systematic theology lectures and commented on his innovations and insights.  At that time I dipped into the Basic Questions of Theology. Then several years later, I was privileged to write a review of volume 1 of Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology---and also to see the review referenced in a couple books, like F. LeRon Shults’ The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology. In the review, I discussed some of Pannenberg’s “characteristic leimotifs: the historical character of understanding, the linking of universal history and ultimate reality; the conviction that theology is a science with universal scope; his eschatological approach to ontological issues; his careful biblical exegesis; his Barthian insight that revelation is God’s self-revelation and self-presentation, as well as Pannenberg’s demurral that revelation cannot be something outside normal human understanding and public discourse” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 61:2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 375-377, quote on p. 375).

In that First Things issue, Michael Root writes about “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg” (pp. 37-42). He covers Pannenberg's interests which I mentioned in my review (which, over the years, I'd forgotten). Root also notes how non-postmodern is Pannenberg in his concern for metanarratives, and how Pannenberg resists several prevalent concerns. For instance (sad to me), he disapproves of the church allowing for homosexual relations. He has also criticized the liberationist interests of the WCC as well as confessional focuses within his own Lutheran church.

Root's article provides an excellent summary of the theologian's interests and legacy.  I learned about the debate between Pannenberg and Eberhard Juengel: the latter theologian’s concern that Pannenberg lacks an “existential,” that is, a view of theology from the perspective of the self addressed by God (as in Luther’s theology), in favor of a “sapiential” dimension (like Aquinas’) which takes the view from God’s self-revelation. While agreeing with Juengel’s observation, Root argues that Pannenberg tries to “break with the turn to the subject that has been so determinative for over two hundred years” in favor of “a public history and a shared reason oriented to that history” (p. 41).

Root comments that a “virtuoso” element haunts Pannenberg’s work, that is, “the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow.” While Pannenberg’s own path has been somewhat different (though by no means disappointing), he nevertheless remained concerned with reshaping and reinterpreting aspects of the theological tradition with his own intention of addressing the present needs of the church (p. 42).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Barth and the Gruenewald Crucifixion

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth appreciated Mathias Gruenewald's "Crucifixion," so much so that Barth displayed a picture of the paining above his desk as he wrote his many theological works. As I worked on a lectionary devotion, I googled the painting to refresh my memory about Barth and the image.  I enjoyed this article enough to share it here!  It's by James Davidson, "Karl Barth and Mathias Gruenewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Obamacare Before the Supreme Court

Interesting op-ed piece in the Washington Post. This week's Newsweek, too, notes similarities of PPACA with President Nixon's proposals. As this Post writer puts it, ‎"The individual mandate was a conservative idea that President Obama adopted to preserve the private market in health insurance rather than move toward a government-financed, single-payer system. What he got back from conservatives was not gratitude but charges of socialism — for adopting their own proposal."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Moving and Sorting

Some professions require a certain amount of moving. You think of the military, of course. Some civilian companies like IBM and Purina have that reputation, as well as certain careers like the parish ministry and academia. My wife Beth and I have moved several times in our 27-year marriage: Illinois to Virginia, Virginia to Arizona, across town in Arizona, Arizona to Kentucky, Kentucky to Ohio, Ohio to Missouri, and this month (March, 2012) across town again. Except for going to school (Virginia), our moves have all been for Beth’s academic career....but the challenges of being a trailing spouse is the subject of another post.

The movers have come and gone, and once again, we are living amid boxes and clutter. Fortunately we dealt right away with the most complicated room for unpacking, organizing, and putting away: the kitchen. I took two loads of packing paper to the recycling place---paper stuffed into the back of my hatchback so that I couldn’t see out the rear view mirror.

In an effort to bring normalcy to the everyday routine, we soon focused upon clothing and bathroom supplies. In fact, since we moved only fifteen minutes from our previous home, we brought many things over to the new house in advance of the movers, so we’d have things we needed right away.

Currently we’re figuring out our office.  Every house has a different configuration of closet space and drawers, and so the process is not a simple one of unloading and putting away. You need to think about efficient and convenient use of the space, which is different from your previous home. That house, for instance, had a built-in desk with plenty of space (and a closet!) for supplies and files, but our new house has an aesthetically nicer office with much less room for sundries. At the moment, I’m not sure at all how to organize this room. For the time being, boxes of office supplies fill the guest bedroom, which in turn can’t be finished until the office problem is solved (and until the bed linens, currently missing among other boxes, are located).

That’s a discouraging thing about moving: not only is your stuff hidden in many boxes, but your progress in one room depends on your progress in another room and perhaps yet another room, all of which involves a lot of thought about use of space, as well as evaluation of your belongings (whether you need this book or this cup holder or this decorative item right away, or at all). It’s not a Rube Goldberg machine but it has that sense of laboriousness. You can choose to throw things into a certain space and hope to find time to sort it later, or you can take your time and figure it out now.

When you move, you realize how many little things you have: nicknacks that live in drawers, items you had posted on a bulletin board (but now you don’t have a bulletin board), things like napkin rings, decorations for window sills (which don't quite belong at the new place). Although a book is not a “nicknack,” if you have many books (as we do), the quantity and the many judgments of where to display all these books (and which are more urgently needed than others) overwhelms. I begin to have a sense of revulsion against too many possessions, and I want to donate or throw out everything that’s not substantial.

Another thing about moving: it’s very difficult to come to closure. You can’t spend your whole day working on the house (you’ve other work to do), and so you have to take a break from unpacking in order to get other things done. While not a “neat freak,” I do get tired of the piles of unsorted books, papers, etc. that wait for their time.

But although you can complain about moving (as I’ve been doing here), moving is not a “trial” like serious illness, etc. It’s a temporary inconvenience and, if you approach it with the right attitude, a new adventure and a chance to start fresh. You can just “roll” with the process, try to think of it as a treasure hunt, and remember that it’s connected to new chapters in your and your family’s lives.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Beethoven's Last Day

Beethoven died on this day in 1827.  Amazing to me, if Mozart had also died in 1827, he still would've been just 71. When I was little, I loved the Peanuts comics and enjoyed getting paperback collections of the strips. Nearly every December 16, the story concerned Beethoven’s birthday and Schroeder’s celebration of it. Of course, Schroeder also performed Beethoven sonatas and other works on his toy piano. Other themes included Schroeder's large, scowling bust of the composer, which I tried to replicate with modeling clay. 

Thus inspired by a favorite comic strip, I liked certain Beethoven compositions when I was young. In those days, the Huntley-Brinkley evening news concluded with a piece by Beethoven. I wrote NBC to learn the title and got a letter back!  The piece was the scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth. Subsequently, I found a used recording of the symphony at our hometown library’s annual book sale. Eventually, I also found LPs of the fifth and seventh symphonies and some of his named sonatas. We had a Van Cliburn recording of one of the piano concertos, and an LP of the "Kreutzer" sonata performed by David Oistrakh. 

I liked all this music in a juvenile way, feeling a little "grown up" listening to it but genuinely enjoying it, too. I also took piano lessons but never managed the spontaneous, unpracticed skill of Schroeder, although I managed to learn the first and second movements of the Moonlight Sonata pretty well, and the ubiquitous "Fuer Elise." 

Our library acquired a copy of George R. Marek’s Beethoven: Biography of a Genius (Funk &  Wagnall’s, 1969) when it was published or perhaps the following year. I didn't read the whole book but I enjoyed checking it out. I was 12 in 1969, and at 13 and 14 I had unrequited crushes on a couple of girls, which unfortunately aggravated some childhood depression I’d had even earlier. Feeling scarily hopeless at such a young age, I found comfort in the fact that, as Marek discussed, Beethoven struggled for acceptance, too!

Marek’s chapter on “The Immortal Beloved” is interesting. Beethoven's letter to his “Unsterbliche Geliebte,” dated July 6-7 and later analyzed to be 1812, was found among his effects after he died. But who was the woman, to whom Beethoven wrote with such passion? Was the letter returned to him, or did he never send it? Reviewing the numerous women important to Beethoven---like Josephine Brunsvik, Guilietta Guicciardi, Amalie Sebald, Bettina Brentano, and Therese Brunsvik---Marek builds an interesting and convincing circumstantial case for Dorothea Ertmann, although (from what little I’ve read on the subject), many scholars argue for Josephine Brunsvik. From time to time I still leaf through my own copy of the thick book, which gives an excellent sense of the composer’s era and life.

My daughter is a big fan of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, including their concept album "Beethoven's Last Night." We have listened to it on our cross-country trips, and she has heard it performed live.  This Wikipedia article summarizes the story,

Saturday, March 17, 2012


As we dig out from our cross-city move this week, I thought about this post from three years ago.... In his book, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room, 2003), Robert Corin Morris relates a story (originally from Jane Goodall) about a group of chimps. A large shipment of bananas had arrived, eventually to be given one at a time to wild chimps. But the chimps, which are naturally cooperative in food gathering, became frenzied at the abundance, hurting one another, and fighting with an alpha male that had taken over the pile. But the alpha male was not happy: he was enraged and defensive (p. 140).

Morris finds this story a good parable for affluent, “much and quick” culture (p. 141). (As an aside, I think churches also succumb to “much and quick” thinking when, in an attempt to evangelize and minister, they expand facilities too quickly and cultivate an attitude of impatience toward parishioners.) Abundance isn't bad per se; the world itself is abundant and varied as God created it (p. 141). Certainly the Song of Songs gives us a biblical example of sensate pleasure (pp. 143-144). But the Bible also criticizes unjust gain (Ezek. 22:13, craving possessions (Matt. 6:24), and hoarding (Luke 12:15-21) while praising God as the ultimate source of positive gain (Deut. 8:18) (p. 142). Morris notes, though, that we start to think so positively of our abundance that we want more and more so we become taken over by craving and base our identities on desire and acquisition (pp. 144-145).

On the other hand, he tells about impoverished Christians he’s met who appreciated basic things like friendship, sunlight, food, and water. This is not to say these people didn’t suffer or that poverty is a good thing, nor that all poor people have their values in line; but affluent people (who, like the chimps, are possibly very unhappy) become surprised at the joie de vivre of people who have no special possessions to give them joy (pp. 147-149).

Morris notes that he has learned several lessons over the years which helped him put his own affluence in perspective (including times when money was tight but, nevertheless, available), and which also freed him to give things away that he once would’ve hoarded. Perhaps I’m being too individualistic, but I think that for many of us, simply being told to become less controlled by our possessions is only a first step. A sermon on giving may plant the seed; on the other hand, we may feel put-off by a comparatively works-righteous message on money. We may also have to catch the vision of living “non-possessively” through life experience. Perhaps we’ll pass through lean times; perhaps we'll discover that we can give more than we thought we could; perhaps God will lead us to new adventures so that we have to discard some “stuff.” Through our living, we discover how God helps us through varieties of situations. In turn, when God helps us, he commands us to put ourselves in the shoes of us so that we grow in concern and empathy. We “grow” a heart for the needy. We become less like those unhappy chimps, hating each other over bananas.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


As we move to a new house, these thoughts from our last move three years ago are still relevant.... Years ago I loved to watch The Mike Douglas Show. One afternoon, two actors visiting the show, a man and a woman, performed an excerpt from a play, essentially a bickering couple. I didn’t catch the beginning, but what I heard was, to me, loud and obnoxious. Afterward, Mike Douglas said that the play was by Noel Coward. I thought, impressed, “Oh! Noel Coward!” Then in the next instant I thought: “Why did I not like the play until I learned that the author is famous and respected, then suddenly my opinion changed?” Nothing about the play had changed. I knew more about the play, though.

I thought of that as I’ve sorted our belongings in preparation for our move. I’ve ten bookshelves of books in our finished basement. Earlier this spring I pulled all the books that I thought I’d not read or use and donated them to the Akron-Summit Co. Library book fair. Now I’m down to the essential books, I thought. But just this past week, anxious about our move, I went through the bookshelves again and pulled six more medium-sized boxes of books and donated them, too. Why had I earlier thought those books were essential? Nothing had changed except my attitude about how much “stuff” I want to own.

Similarly with other belongings. I’ve sold or donated items that, not so long ago, were keepsakes. But with the move imminent, we just didn’t need that stuff anymore. Emily sorted through her large collection of stuffed toys, for instance, and gave away about three-fourths. A year ago, though, she didn’t want to part with any.

I’ve been thinking about what makes a keepsake. We have some kind of experience or association with that object, or else it wouldn’t be important in the first place. Time is a big factor too: how fresh can that association/experience remain over the long haul? Value may or may not be a factor: given the choice between Grandma’s wedding ring and a plastic commemorative cup from a Ice Capades, one has both emotional and monetary value while the other is purely a cheap souvenir. Yet, if not forced to make a choice, we might hold onto both and cherish them in different ways because of their particular associations.

What makes a difference, though, is quantity: what if you have too many keepsakes? That’s where some people fall into the trap of clutter: their homes are packed with things they hate to discard because, for whatever reason, they’re meaningful items. Moving, inconvenient and emotionally disruptive though it is, becomes an excellent time to judge what are your more precious keepsakes. Grandma's ring stays; your favorite books stay; favorite nicknacks are carefully packed; but other things can be moved on. The difficult process of relocating your household can give you a change of attitude and, in some ways, makes you freer to enjoy your precious memories in a "lighter" way.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fourteen and counting

As prepare to move from one house in St. Louis to another fifteen minutes away, I remembered this post of mine from June 2009.....

We’re moving to St. Louis in a week. I’ve been thinking about different places I’ve lived. The list isn’t too exotic.

1. A small house on the north side of Vandalia, north of Interstate 70 (which didn‘t yet exist when I was born). My folks always called it “the stone house” because of its gray stone exterior. I forget the exact address but it’s near the small Reeter Cemetery. My parents already lived there when I was born in 1957, and we stayed there till 1959.

2. In 1959 we lived in Bonnville, Illinois in Champaign Co. while my parents had their new house built in Vandalia. Other than this year, I lived in Vandalia my whole childhood.

3. In 1960 we moved into the new house, 1216 W. Fillmore St. in Vandalia (although we didn’t have a house number then). My parents never moved again; Dad died there, in the kitchen, in 1999, and Mom lived there till she went to a nursing home in 2006. The house finally found a buyer early in 2008. I never had a definite moment when I “left home,” although the summer of 1980, after my first masters-degree year, was the last full summer I came home.

4. And 5. Two dorm rooms in Joy Hall in Greenville College, 1975-1977. Dorm life was miserable at GC; I never quite figured out how to have a happy social life at my college. I commuted my last two years.

6. And 7. Two dorm rooms in Taylor House at Yale Divinity School, 1979-1982. These were wonderful years; I still have Taylor House friends.

8. The Glendale United Methodist Parsonage in Pope County, Illinois, a wonderful parish position following my masters degree. I lived there June 1982 till June 1984. I was painfully lonely at first but settled in and enjoyed those years, from which I've still friends.

9. My wife Beth’s house on Bow Drive in Vandalia. We married in June 1984 and only lived there together for a couple months. Beth had lived there with her first husband for several years.

10. Our apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia during doctoral work, 1984-1987. The address was Barracks Road--it was the apartment at the far left end of the row of apartments at the bottom of the complex’s small hill.

11. A house we rented in Flagstaff, Arizona, where we lived Summer 1987 till Summer 1988. It was on the east side of town, on Oakmont. I remember the electric bill was so high (the place had electric heat) that we basically lived in one family room and kept the rest of the house at 60 degrees. A nice house but that aspect was unpleasant.

12. The house we bought at the southwest side of Flagstaff, on Shullenbarger Drive. The area was called University Heights; the streets were named for former Northern Arizona University employees. Lucky us. We loved the house and, whenever we had to give our address, had to spell the name each time. 1988-1991. This was the house where we lived when our daughter Emily was born in 1990, and thus the place has special memories.

13. Our house in Louisville, Kentucky, on Bingham Drive, where we lived in 1991-2000. I loved this little ranch house, although my memories of Louisville are somewhat mixed. 

14. Our house in Akron, Ohio, on Stonecreek Drive, where we’ve lived from 2000 until a week from now. So far, my favorite of our various homes, and these were very happy years.

People come in and out of our lives; obviously these folks exist independently of us, but we tend to recall them in terms of their relationship to us. So it is with places. Whose lives have been defined by their time in, for instance, that Bonnville house, or that Charlottesville apartment? I know that several families had lived in our Louisville house before we came, and only one before us in our second Flagstaff house and our Akron house, but the folks who purchased our Flagstaff home raised their children there.

No one will ever write the biography of a place with respect to the people who’ve lived there, but each place has such a history. “If these walls could talk …”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Exodus and Our Faith

A post of Bible study notes, from one of my other blogs..... I'm sure I knew about the Exodus before a memorable Vacation Bible School in 1967, when I was 10, at the Methodist Church in my small Illinois hometown. But the coincidence of the Six Day War lent an additionally epic quality to the stories of Moses and Pharaoh. Not only that, but we also took a field trip down U.S. 51 to the nearest synagogue, Temple Solomon in Centralia, Illinois. While I remember little of the visit, I do remember being interested, and I credit the trip with a lifelong appreciation of Judaism and the Jewish heritage into which, Paul writes, Christians are incorporated solely because of God's kindness and righteousness (Roman 11:17-22).(1) As an adult, I've been involved in ecumenical and interfaith efforts over the years; currently I'm a member of two interfaith groups, although neither meet this month because of Passover and Easter.(2)

We all know the story of the Exodus, of course. In my imagination the word “exodus” makes me immediately think of the splitting of the sea, but that event actually was a part of God’s greater accomplishment of saving Israel from Egypt, including the plagues, the escape, and finally their safety on the sea’s far side. A Midrash states, “it is said that the rescue from Egypt is equal to all the miracles and deeds that God performed for Israel."(3)

Coincidentally, as I was working on this post, "The Ten Commandments" was released on a new Blu-Ray and DVD edition.(4) Unfortunately, the movie gives us a love story (Moses and Pharaoh are both in love with Anne Baxter) and also God's spectacular possibilities (wonderful as they are) without clarifying what the Exodus means for us Christians. But that's our responsibility to figure out, not Cecil B. DeMille's.

So....what does the Exodus mean for us? This sacred month seems like a good time for another "journey" among some scriptures. (I'm leaving out the interesting subject of liberation theology for another time.) We know the Exodus is an important subject in the Passover holiday and thus is important for Jews, but the miracle means quite a lot for Christians, more than you might think. It is a profound theme within the Bible and part of the indispensable framework for both testaments!

1. The Torah

I found a 1962 article online by R. E. Nixon, "The Exodus in the New Testament," originally published by the Tyndale Press: Nixon elucidates the importance of the Exodus. He notes a line of development from the call of Abraham through the Exodus, the giving of the Covenant at Sinai, the wilderness years, the conquest of the land, and eventually David's capture of Jerusalem, all of which have to do with God's creation of the people and God's promise to them of the Land. Nixon points out that Moses serves as "the essential link between Abraham and David," and the Exodus itself is "the great moment at which Yahweh is revealed as who He truly is....It is through this mighty deed of salvation that Israel came to know Him in his essential nature." Furthermore, he writes, the Exodus and the Covenant comprised the events that truly begin Israel's scriptural history, and by which everything earlier in the scriptures is understood.(5)

The escape from Egypt and the splitting of the sea do not form the climax of the biblical drama but leads us straightway to God's creation of his people and his covenant with them (Ex. 19-24). The covenant, in turn, is so momentous that the scriptures even connect it to Creation itself. First, the covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. Also, the building of the sanctuary parallels the six days of creation (Ex. 24:15-18), alerting us that God’s work, after resting on the seventh day, continued in the creation of God’s special people. (6)

We find several other interesting connections within the Torah. All "those" laws of Leviticus, though which many of us fear to tread, connect back to the covenant events of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24. (7) God's covenant promise of the Land for Israel connect us to the stories of the spies and the rebellion of Israel in Numbers 12-14, which in turn connect us forward to the book of Joshua and set the stage for the long sojourn in the wilderness (which is not recorded but which happens between the end of the story at Numbers 17:13 and the beginning of Numbers 20). The story of Numbers 20 connects us back to Exodus 17, two similar rebellions of Israel.

Deuteronomy circles back even further, toward the Patriarch stories. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” says Deut. 26:5, meaning Jacob, and the passage 5-10 remembers Egyptian bondage, God’s salvation, and circles back again to the promise of the land, which the Israelites are about to enter.

The conclusion of Numbers circles back further still, for as commentators note, the passage describing the land of Canaan and its settlement (chapters 34-36) belongs to the “priestly source” which was the source of Genesis 1. Thus the promise of land for God’s people reflects God’s love of all creation and God’s desire for new human relationships.(8) Not only that, but the covenant and law comprise a new “Eden” in which the people can live, close to God.(9)

We also see connections of the Exodus and the Covenant toward the future. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives a long farewell message, instructing the people again about the importance of following God’s will and commandments. In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24), and sets the tone for Israel's future. As Anderson puts it, “…Yahweh’s initiative evoked a response from the people. It placed them in a situation of decision, summoned them to a task within the divine purpose. What Moses had experienced earlier at Sinai … was experienced by all the people at the same sacred mountain, and with far-reaching implications for the future.” (10)

If a Bible explorer has a good commentary at hand as she studies this material, she can also understand the hypothesized sources that preceded the finished narrative and the theological emphases of each source.

2. Following the Torah

We find many references to the Exodus throughout the Old Testament. Like the many prophetic connections to the New Testament, the historical and prophetic references to the Exodus are sufficient to keep a Bible explorer busy for quite a while! Interestingly, the prophets do not evoke Abraham and his covenant so often, but instead evoke the Exodus as the great event by which God established his covenant people (e.g., Amos 2:9-11, 3:1-2, Hosea 2:15, 11:1, 13:4, Isa. 43:16-21, 51:9-11, Ez. 2:5-6, 20:33-44, and also Deut. 5:6, 6:20ff, 26:5ff, Psalm 78, 81, 95, 105, 106, as well as the allusion in Joshua 3:1ff, and later in Neh. 9:6ff, Daniel 9:15, 1 Chr. 6:5, 7:22, and also references to the plagues and rebellions in Psalm 78, 95, 105, 106, and in Wisdom of Sol. 17 and Sirach 45:1ff.(11).

In his article, Nixon notes that the "Former Prophets" "use [the Exodus] as the starting-point of their era and a constant basis for moral and religious exhortation" (and he footnotes these passages: 1 Sam. 2:27; 8:8; 10:18; 12:6, 8; 15:2, 6; 2 Sam. 7:6, 23; 1 Kings 6:1; 8:9, 16, 21, 51, 53; 9:9; 12:28; 2 Kings 17:7, 36; 21:15). But "the Latter Prophets" also use the Exodus "as the point where God acted in history to make Israel his people," and thus the focal point for Israel's obligations to God and others (and Nixon footnotes these passages: Amos 2:10; 3:1; 9:7; Micah 6:4; 7:15; Hosea 2:15; 11:1; 12:9, 13; 13:4; Is. 11:16; Jer. 2:6; 7:22, 25; 11:4, 7; 16:14; 23:7; 32:21; 34:13) (12).

3. Gospels and Paul's Letters

Brevard Childs writes generally, "[I]t is characteristic of the New Testament to place the redemption of Egypt into a new context which radically alters its meaning and function for early Christianity...Jesus not only participates in the history of the nation, but, as the true redeemer of Israel, he ushers in the messianic age which the original exodus from Egypt only foreshadowed. Moreover, it is characteristic of the New Testament to shift the emphasis away from the first exodus to the 'second'. This is to say, the Old Testament exodus tradition has been heard primarily through its eschatological appropriation in Ezekiel and II Isaiah."(13) Thus, we think more strongly of God's rescue (salvation) of us through Christ, the water of baptism, the meal of the Lord's supper, and the covenant of Christ, rather than the Passover meal, the escape through the sea, and the Sinai covenant.

But if you want to appreciate how the Exodus and Moses stories function as typology and framework for the Gospels, Nixon gives examples: Zechariah's "Benedictus," Jesus' very name (Joshua) and parallels in his life to Moses (his endangered life as an infant, his parents' exile to and return from Egypt), Jesus' forty days in the wilderness (compared to the Israelites' forty years), the parallel between Moses and the mountain and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the parallel of the wilderness manna and Jesus' bread of life, and others. A Bible explorer interested in digging into these texts can find numerous passages cited by Nixon in his article.(14) In Paul's letters, Nixon finds Exodus typology in 1 Corinthians 5:7f, 1 Corinthians 10:1ff, and 2 Corinthians 3.

Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:7-8).

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer (1 Cor. 10:1-10).

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:12-18).

Paul's words are painful for those of us who cherish friendships and dialogue between Jews and Christians but we need to remember the first-century context. Paul was validating his own ministry to the fickle Corinthians, compared to other ministries of the time, as the tone and content of the whole letter makes clear. Paul was also not denigrating Judaism per se but comparing two small, persecuted kinds of Judaism (followers of Jesus and those who did not); Paul could not have known the hostility, prejudice, and persecution that Christians would eventually harbor toward Jews, partly based on texts like these. Based on his own love of his people and heritage, he surely would've been horrified. Paul was also preaching the power of the Holy Spirit who makes possible both a knowledge of and a relationship with God, whether for Jews or Gentiles. For Paul, the fact that God had granted everyday people an even closer relationship to God, through the Spirit, than even Israel's greatest prophet could experience, was something unbelievable and momentous.

Paul's use of the Exodus and Covenant does not stop there. While working on a freelance project, I noticed a fascinating connection made by N. T. Wright in The New Interpreter's Bible. I noticed it partly because studying Romans 5-8, when I was a worthless-feeling young person struggling with faith, was quite momentous for me and helped me understand again how liberating is God's unearned love.

Wright notes that a common and traditional exegesis of Romans is to consider chapters 1-4 as addressing "justification," chapters 5-8 as addressing "sanctification," and chapters 9-11 as addressing the role of Israel within this new era of Jesus Christ. Wright, though, believes that the Exodus can be seen as forming the framework of Paul's letter! "Paul has retold the story of the exodus, the freedom story, demonstrating that the Egypt of sin and death has been decisively defeated through the death of the Messiah, and that the Spirit is now leading God's redeemed people to their promised inheritance."(15) Similarly, "The theme of 'new exodus' is a major topic in Second Temple Judaism. It is a central way by which Jews in Paul's day expressed, symbolized, and narrated their hopes for the future---for the time when, as the prophets had foretold, that God would repeat, on their behalf, the great acts whereby their forebears were liberated from Egypt (e.g., Isa. 11:11; 35:3-10; 51:9-11; 52:4-6; Jer. 16:14, 15; 23:7-8; Ezek. 20:33, 38; Hos. 2:14-23)."(16) Wright then quotes Jeremiah 23:5-8 as particularly pertinent for Paul. (17).

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land (Jer. 23:5-8).

As Second Temple Jews looked with hope toward the fulfillment of God's promises, so Paul, the Second Temple Jew who now preached Christ, saw the righteousness of God revealed in Christ, and the liberation of God's people accomplished in the "land" of Christ's salvation.

4. Hebrews

We also find Exodus typology very strongly in the letter of Hebrews, in ways similar to Paul's. Read Hebrews 3:16-4:11: here, the author warns about disobedience, using the Israelites as a guide. Although the two situations were quite different---the Israelites in the wilderness, and the persecuted second-generation Christians (possibly in Italy) to whom the Hebrews author wrote---the salvation of God came to them and could be understood by the term "rest." The risk is losing God's rest; for the Israelites, the offer came to them and was verified by God's miraculous salvation, but the people lost their rest (i.e., lost the chance to enter Canaan); thus the Hebrews author quotes Psalm 95: “As in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Heb. 4:3). For the Christian congregation, the threat was the possibility that they'd give up their faith in the face of persecution.

If you've patience to dig into the epistle, you'll notice that the author mixes metaphors and scriptural references as he goes: for instance, in 4:3, he uses rest in two ways, the Promised Land and God's Sabbath rest. (Hebrews is a Bible book that especially opens up with a good commentary in hand!) But as we saw in the book of Exodus itself, the Hebrews author links God's Creation, the Sabbath, and the Promised Land by linking together the Genesis 2 with the Exodus stories and also with Psalm 95. The Promised Land and the Sabbath are, for this author, kinds of rest that now point to a new kind of rest: Christ's salvation.(18)

5. Other New Testament Passages

I encourage people who might be interested in this subject to find Nixon's article online; I've cited and paraphrased a good deal of his interesting reflections already. Let me cite him one more time when he points out how rich in Exodus imagery is the book of Revelation! You may not realize that Revelation cites or alludes to more Old Testament passages than nearly any other New Testament writing. For instance, Nixon cites these passages: Rev. 2:14 and Num. 31:16; 25:1; 2:17 and Ex. 16; 3:5 and Ex. 32:32; 4:1 and Ex. 19:19f; 8:5 and Ex. 19:16; 8:7-9:21 and the plagues in Ex. 7-11; a possible allusion in 8:11 to Ex. 15:23, and in 12:16 to Num. 16:32; plus, the reference to the song of Moses in Rev. 15:3. Altogether, Nixon writes, "The first triumphant Exodus has prefigured the second and we are to look ahead to its fulfillment in God's victory at the end of time" (19).

Thus, in important ways, Christians share a similar position as the Israelites. In Paul's imagery, sin and death are our "Egyptian slavery" from which we've been rescued. The Israelites were rescued by God, not because of their superior faith and deservedness but solely through God's love and grace. But even though rescued, they had to look to a future redemption in the process of being fulfilled. Like the Israelites, we are called to respond with confidence to God's grace, since we too are prone to failure and forgetfulness. We risk God's sternness, too, when we persist in faithlessness (20)

But Christians also depend upon God's salvation of the Israelites for ... well, everything concerning our faith. Jesus and the other New Testament figures aren't just extra people tacked onto the Hebrew scriptures, but the people God created and, hundreds of years earlier, rescued under Moses' leadership. We Gentiles are part of this heritage through God's kindness and mercy (Rom 9:25, 11:17-22).

A Centralia friend tells me that Temple Solomon closed a few years ago because of dwindling membership. But the shul certainly blessed me during our brief encounter 44 years ago. In its memory, and for the upcoming Passover, let me appreciate Moses. Biblically, Moses stands as the great Old Testament lawgiver and the greatest prophet. He tends to be downplayed in the New Testament because of the concern of the writers to preach the primacy of Christ (Heb. 3:1-6); in Christ God has revealed the purpose and goal of salvation and has revealed a new attitude toward the law. But what a tremendous figure of intercessory love and compassion! He takes the side of the people, stands up for them, refuses to let God wipe them out. His own descendants became, in one writer's words, "just garden-variety Levites."(21) Any leader who identifies with Moses as an example of flock-leading cannot be aloof from  people's flaws. Rather, a leader who appreciates Moses must accept intercessory suffering and identify fully with the people. Moses is an honored teacher and true shepherd.


1. Several good books explain the anti-Jewish roots of Christianity, for example, Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); and Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006). My reminiscence of my rabbi friend and mentor is found at:

2. I'm sensitive to the fact that, although Christians can appreciate Passover, Jews find Good Friday and Easter, with all the holidays' anti-Jewish aspects, off-putting and even traumatizing. For an example of the tensions felt by interfaith families, see

3. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 485.


5. R. E. Nixon, "The Exodus in the New Testament," originally published by the Tyndale Press: Pages 5-6 in the source.

6. Brevard S. Childs, in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 112, notes that both Genesis 1 and Ex. 24:15-18 come from the “priestly source” that is incorporated into the narrative of Genesis through Numbers and also influenced Chronicles.

7. Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 53.

8. Thomas B. Dozeman, "The Book of Numbers," The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998), 267-268.

9. Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 37.

10. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 9-10; Childs, Biblical Theology, 82-83.

11. Anderson, 131.

12. Nixon, 9. 13. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 233.

14. Nixon, p. 13.

15. N. T. Wright, "The Letter to the Romans," The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 585.

16. Wright, 510

17. Wright, 511

18. My own lesson series, "Hold Fast to the Faith" for the Daily Bible Study curriculum, June-July-August 2004 (Abingdon Press, 2004), the June 19 lesson.

19. Nixon, p. 29.

20. Childs, The Book of Exodus, pp. 238-239.


Pastors and Chaplains

On Twitter this morning, I noticed this nice piece about the roles of pastors and chaplains.

Several years ago, there were discussions within the church that pastors should train parishioners to be the true ministers.  "Equipping pastor," "transformational ministry," and other terms were common.  I thought that some of these discussions (and books) were valuable.

But what distressed me was a sneering and egotistical attitude expressed by a few parish ministers about pastors who preferred traditional pastoral roles (or had fewer skills in the training of volunteers): "Oh, they just want to be chaplains."

While also expressing the iffy collegiality that one sometimes finds among clergy, that attitude---"they just want to be chaplains"---devalued both the chaplaincy and misunderstood the difference and similarities between chaplains and parish pastors.  This article, though, gives a good, short portrayal of both.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Responding to Church VIsitors

My annual conference's Facebook page contained this post concerning visitors to churches, and how churches can effectively respond to them.

On a side note, I've been on both sides of visitation: as a church staff person trying to fine-tune and monitor our "system" of visitation and to encourage congregational warmth toward visitors, and as a "church shopper" with my family in a new community. I get a little upset about this subject because it's such a basic aspect of ministry and so many churches screw it up---although I try to be compassionate, knowing how difficult it is to get everything in the right balance.  I've a friend who isn't a church attender but would attend if she could be assured she'd not be fussed over and pressured. Some churches don't even follow up on visitors. In one community to which we moved, the first church never responded to us, the second only responded with an email request for money to an emergency fund of some sort, and after we'd visited the third church, the pastor dropped by with a small gift. We did join that church after a year or so. We were interested in another church and finally had to ask for someone to provide us information about it after our third visit.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"A Shout Out for Social Media"

My blog post about social media, at

Lent and Depression

A post from last year .... Lent is an excellent period in which to renew one’s relationship with God...but if you're prone to depression (as I've been off and on all my life) the penitential aspects of the season could possibly make a person sadder than before.

This occurred to me as I was reading a book about God's nature. The book called attention to the vastness of God's mercy compared to the underlying selfishness of many of our prayers. So many of our prayers are, after all, "quid pro quo" prayers: God, if I do X, please do Y for me. God "sees through" our motives, however, and loves us anyway.

I actually got a little blue reading this chapter of the book, even though the main point was the mercy of God! That's because I felt compassion for people who are blue: when we're in the depths of sadness, our prayers can't help but have that "quid pro quo" quality--God, please help me to be happier, please show me ways to take away this sadness. We also beat up on ourselves even more than usual when we're depressed, and our prayers can feel self-focused because of our pain.

But a time of temporary or chronic sadness might be a powerful time to be reminded of God's vast love, including Lenten times. The psalms, of course, are wonderful prayers because many of them are quite forthright about the psalmists' distress! Psalms 42 and its companion 43 are examples. "For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?" (Ps. 42:2). What a terrible concern, that God is not only silent but has rejected the psalmist! Fortunately that isn't the last word, for the psalmist knows to "hang on": "Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God" (vs. 5). The psalmist isn't feeling praiseful now, but will eventually. During Lent, a depressed person might include psalms among devotional reading.

Lent might be a good time to prayerfully focus upon scriptures that depict God as a "place" of help. God is our machseh, which means "refuge" (Deut. 33:27, KJV and NIV) or “dwelling place” (RSV). Psalm 46:1 affirms that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Imagine God as a welcoming "place" to go when you're downhearted.

A wonderful thing, which we don't always think about, is that because of the Holy Spirit, we're even closer to God than the psalmists! Jesus opened up for us the Spirit (John 7:39), and now the Spirit functions as a guarantee of God's eternal love (2 Corinthians 5:5). By all means, don't think that your sadness is a sign that God has withdrawn the Spirit. God hears our voices where we are now (Gen. 21:17), and God is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:19-20). Paul assures us that the Spirit intercedes for us when our prayers are inadequate or difficult to verbally express; the Spirit certainly isn't "put off" when we're weak, for those are the times when the Spirit steps in and takes our side (Rom. 8:26).

The church might (or might not) be a place where we can "come as we are," including times when we're tremendously sad. It depends upon the congregation: church folks might simplistically urge us to cheer up, to have more faith, to pray more, and other things that don't help at all when we're depressed, while other congregations might be places where folks uphold us amid our strong, sad emotions.

Lent can also be a time of getting things back into balance and in perspective. Speaking only for myself, my own blues are often attributable to something out of balance: I've been too busy and haven't taken time for exercise, for instance, or I've fallen into the trap of "what if" thinking, or whatever.

If you feel depressed during Lent (or any time), figure out things within your own circumstance and talk to people you know about your feelings; my thoughts here are simply to provide encouragement. Even in the best situations, we don't always give God "credit" for being as unfailingly, tenaciously loving as God is. In the midst of our difficult feelings, we perceive God as that uncomplimentary parent, that childhood bully, that difficult significant other, that fussy boss, or whoever created those "tapes" that we play over and over in our minds. But God is SO MUCH greater and better than that! I've drawn strength from this quote by Desmond Tutu: “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. God’s love for you is infinite, perfect, and eternal.”(1)


1. Lorraine Kisly (ed.), Ordinary Graces: Christian Teachings on the Interior Life (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), p. 192.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Bible and Birth Control

Here is an interesting short article about the Song of Songs. While the article's title may overstate the case a little, the author still makes interesting points about this Bible book which is sometimes neglected (in our own day, at least: Medieval monks and others have loved the book) or interpreted solely as representing God and Israel, and Christ and the church. What do you think about the article?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Wonderful "Gunsmoke" Episode

Thanks to, I know that my favorite episode of "Gunsmoke" aired on October 25, 1971. I was fourteen that year. "Gunsmoke" was regular viewing in our home, and this particular episode featured Victor French as the title character "Trafton." Within the first two minutes, Trafton robs a church and shoots a priest, who immediately before dying forgives him. This unnerves and changes Trafton, slowly at first and more so as the show progresses, until the final moments. A central story is Trafton's visit to a woman he had raped some years before. I always thought the story wonderfully depicted the power, cost, and difficulty of forgiveness---by no means a simple decision on our part just to forgive "because we're supposed to." It also illustrates the way divine power can unexpectedly enter our lives but we struggle to describe what has happened.

I was happy to discover the entire episode on YouTube: The show, written by Ron Bishop, also features the fine actors Sharon Acker and Paul Stevens.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Lonely Waters"

Many mornings, as I work at the computer, I listen to this piece by Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950).  Although an English piece, it reminds me of childhood days of lingering at my grandmother's pond, and by extension the area near where she lived, Four Mile Prairie in Otego township, Fayette County, Illinois.  What music takes you back to your "roots"?  

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Faith, Community, and the Common Good

The Center for the Congregation in Public Life has designed the curriculum "Faithful Citizen" for church groups interested in current global issues and biblical teachings about covenant and ministry. Check out the information on these lessons, which include an interview with Robert Bellah and also relevant film clips.

The Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. At the heart of the curriculum are two works, Robert Bellah and his fellow authors’ Habits of the Heart and especially Eric Mount’s Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. Bellah and his fellow authors note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the “freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life” but neglects the fact that our relationship with God “is mediated by a whole pattern of community life.”(1)

Eric Mount, who is influenced by Bellah, stresses aspects of American religious life reflected in his book’s title. Americans have always had a twofold drive: individual well-being and success, and a desire for the common good (2). While Americans are indebted to the individualistic tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(3) Mount quotes H. Richard Niebuhr, “Covenant [in early American thinking] was the binding together in one body politic of persons who assumed through unlimited promise responsibility to and for each other and for the common laws, under God.” Becoming a member of that society was not granted at birth, but (Niebuhr continues) was “always the moral act of taking upon oneself, through promise, the responsibilities of citizenship that bound itself in the very exercise of its freedom.”(4) Such a framework of mutual obligation in turns provides the underpinnings of public discourse and mutual responsibilities within the communities in which we live, as well as a focus upon the common good.

Throughout his book, Mount provides much discussion and material for thinking about how the church can help society regain a sense of community, and to help shape “the common life” of our society and the social “common good.” The nature of the common good will always be debated—for instance, how much should the government ensure people’s well-being and when should the government stay out of people’s lives.(5) But the church can season these debates with its example of service and its own debates about crucial issues. Mount emphasizes the theme of “better stories” (Robert Reich’s term) that narrative our commonality–and our sense of being “in this together”–rather than our individualism and our “us v. them” attitudes. (6)

Mount believes the church can be faithful to its own Gospel message while also being respectful of pluralism and diversity. “My own contention,” argues Mount, “is that those of us in religious communities should endeavor to interpret and shape the common life on the basis of our theological convictions, but that we should do so confessionally, not apologetically, as [Max] Stackhouse does [in his writings].” Mount writes, “[T]here is too much damage done when a particular theology is implemented as the reigning ideology of societies,” since after all, “[t]here is enough religious pluralism in our own land and in the global community to make one hope that we can discover some commonly affirmed civic virtues from a variety of stories sources, including our American political tradition, and even some reiterative universal norms through dialogue, without promulgating one’s theology’s norms as universal directives.”(7)


1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.

2. Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 3.

3. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 47-48.

4. H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1953 address, “The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy,” quoted in Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 10-11.

5. Eric Mount, “The Common Good: It Takes a Community,” Public lecture at Davidson College, fall 2003; Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 47-48.

6. Robert Reich’s four “morality tales” are the Mob at the Gates, the Triumphant Individual, the Benevolent Community, and the Rot at the Top. All are essentially us vs. them “tales.” In the first tale, the mob are welfare recipients, illegal immigrants or any other group that threaten the common good and therefore must be dealt with. In the second tail, people are ultimately responsible for their own success and so the common good is best achieved when people are left alone to make their own lives. In the third tale, society and specifically the government has a responsibility to step in and help groups that are struggling, such as the poor who could benefit from relief programs. In the fourth tale, the common good is threatened by the powerful, whether they are the rich or the government, and therefore we need smaller government or a redistribution or wealth, or other solutions. See Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 98-102, and Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 43-45.

7. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 155, 156.

Friday, March 2, 2012

My First Book, and a Moral

Twenty years ago this week, I received my first copy of my first book, a history of my hometown when it was the Illinois capital. The title, echoing frontier travel writers' frequent description of the town, is High on the Okaw's Western Bank: Vandalia, Illinois, 1819-1839.  Lincoln began his political career in the town, serving as state legislator beginning in 1834.  Stephen Douglas also began in politics at Vandalia. In fact, the two men first met there. 

The book was quite a project. I did the research during my college summers (1975-1979), and a portion became my college honors paper.  After my masters degree, I wrote the manuscript (1983-1985), and submitted it to University of Illinois Press. The press was interested, but reader reviews indicated I’d have to change the manuscript to a topical rather than my original, chronological/ narrative approach.  I rewrote the whole thing (1987-1990) while also writing my doctoral dissertation in religion (groan).  I regretted the subsequent loss of what was to me interesting material about Illinois politics and government at Vandalia.  The town hosted ten general assemblies, seven Illinois governors, and several state supreme court sessions. But I compressed five chapters about those subjects into one.  My most original research, however, regarded the social dynamics and local character of Vandalia, an unusual frontier town in that it also had an official function.   

After it was published, a friend fetched two copies and gave them to Clinton and Gore when they made a campaign stop in Vandalia in 1992. This photo, taken by Rich Bauer for the Vandalia Leader-Union, has hung in my office for a long time. The book is out of print but I donate copies to two local museums to sell to folks if they're interested.  The book received a couple negative reviews and several positive ones, and it has been cited in articles and histories and a recent Lincoln biography.

I wrote it because of my affection for Fayette County, IL and its heritage, personal pride that my ancestors lived in town at that time, and a desire to give something back to Vandalia. I didn’t realize till later that the book qualified me to teach college history courses, which have been some of my favorite classes and students. 

The moral to this story is: Don’t give up on your dreams! Find people who believe in you, be flexible, and try not to be discouraged if your goals seem difficult to achieve.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

David Joneses

Davy Jones of The Monkees died yesterday of a heart attack, at the too-young age of 66.  I looked up the show on so I could remember when it premiered: September, 1966.  I was in fourth grade that fall, which fits my grade school memory of being in line in our classroom to adjourn for recess, and some of the girls were discussing which of The Monkees was the cutest.  The line of the theme song---"We'll maybe come to your town"---bothered me because I didn't believe they'd stop at our small hometown, and yet they said they might ....

I remember the show in context of other must-see shows like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Batman” but unfortunately not “Petticoat Junction,” which my mother wouldn’t let me watch because it conflicted with “Peyton Place.” I thought "The Monkees" was pretty good.  It picked up on the playful side of the early Beatles at a time when the latter group was becoming more experimental and psychedelic. (Only years later did I watch, on cable TV, the trippy comedy, "Head.") Somehow "The Monkees" didn’t chafe with the mean and restrictive codes of coolness that pervaded among the boys of my hometown, who made fun of my enjoyment of “Batman."

Strangely, neither did David Bowie, whose albums and performances had strong homoerotic themes and thus might have been disdained by hometown high school jerks, who would’ve bullied any fellow student remotely glam.  But Bowie’s albums also rocked, and his lyrics were more poetic and striking than most. Those of us who liked Bowie sampled the prog-rock spectrum that included King Crimson, The Mothers of Invention, Mike Oldfield, and others.

A month ago I purchased the February 2, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, with the cover story “How David Bowie Changed the World.” I hoped to see a reassessment of my favorite Bowie album, The Man Who Sold the World.  In high school I owned the album---with the cartoon cover---and had a homemade cassette recording that I could play in my car.  I love how the album rocked, with an oddly mixed, dystopian majesty. Alas, the article (while discussing Bowie's half-brother who inspired "All the Madmen") assesses the record the same way as everyone else: as a transitional LP.

The article praises the subsequent albums, all but one of which I missed as a teenager.  “When things came together [for Bowie], it all happened fast, like something inexorable. The albums in that period, from 1971 to 1974---Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs---amount to one of the grand epics of rock & roll: a chronicle about the fall of worlds within and without---the disintegration of ego and of society; and about hard-won new values that may or may not be salvation. Most obviously, though, the albums were about sexual realizations that popular culture had never permitted before” (p. 41). That is, Bowie “tapped into the concern about feminine masculinity” in a way that became “seismic” for gay musicians and gay culture (p. 42).  As a teen I was too confused about my own heterosexuality to sense this aspect of Bowie’s cultural significance, but as much as I enjoyed The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia and some of Yes’ long concept albums, I might’ve appreciated one more rock epic. “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, from 1972, followed Hunky Dory so closely that the two seem of a piece. Both works are faultless---in effect, they form one of the best double albums ever made” (p. 41).

Several of my Facebook friends have been posting fond comments about Davy Jones. One friend posted the last sentences from the New York Times obituary. (

“Perhaps Mr. Jones’s most enduring legacy takes the form of a name. The name belongs to another English musician, who burst on the scene some years after the Monkees. This man, too, had been born David Jones. But thanks to the Monkees’ renown, he knew he would have to adopt another name entirely if he was to have the hope of a career.

"So he called himself David Bowie."