Wheaton College Historical Review Task Force Report

Summary: A Wheaton College task force released its report on Wheaton’s history of racial issues on campus. 

I am a 1995 alumni of Wheaton College, and since my time at Wheaton, I have been interested in racial issues at the school. Part of recent interest was sparked by reading Jesse Curtis’ The Myth of Colorblind Christians: Evangelicals and White Supremacy in the Civil Rights Era. It was only then that the history of Wheaton that I thought I knew was wrong. I was aware of my experience of Wheaton in the 1990s, and I have followed many events on campus since that time, including the firing of Dr. Hawkins. (There is a feature-length documentary that can be widely streamed.)

Wheaton was one of several Christian colleges that initially accepted Black and other racial minority students and then segregated in the early 20th century before desegregating in the post-Brown v. Board era. During my time at Wheaton, I was never aware of a period of segregation; I was only aware of its early history as an early abolitionist school that accepted black students from its founding. The main reason for this report is that Wheaton is attempting to grapple with that largely forgotten or repressed history. I am highly supportive of initiatives like this, and I am well aware that many supporters of Wheaton do not like initiatives like this because it reveals a less flattering history. There is a real risk to the school and the potential for growth.

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How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South by Esau McCaulley

How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family's Story of Hope and Survival in the American South cover imageSummary: A memoir grappling with the role of Esau McCaulley’s father, his growing up and maturity, and how his community of origin shaped him. 

I do not remember what first drew my attention to Esau McCauley, but it was a bit before he became a professor of New Testament at Wheaton (my alma mater). From that point, I have read Reading While Black, his children’s book, and many articles he has written for the NYT and other places. (His book on Lent is on my to-read list.) Generally, if I notice an article that he has written, I make time to read it. If I see an interview or talk with him, I listen to it. I listened to all of the two seasons of his podcast. I have also done a Zoom class through Nashotah House that he taught. I do not “know” Esau McCaulley; he certainly does not know me, but I have a good sense of his writing style and general approach. The reality of the internet, social media, and writing is that one can feel closer to someone’s story than they are. John Dyer has called this ambient intimacy. It isn’t a real relationship or intimacy, but it feels real.

Good memoirs can create that sense of intimacy, but there is so much to the story that is never revealed in 200 or so pages. What makes a good memoir is editing what to share and what not to share. After I finished How Far To the Promise Land, I listened to McCaulley’s interview on the Seminary Dropout Podcast. That interview did an excellent job of framing the memoir and what he was trying to do without retelling the whole story. I will commend Esau’s writing and audiobook narration but avoid retelling many of the book’s details.

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The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future by Robert P Jones

The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future cover imageSummary: Changing how we think of the starting date of US history can help us see different patterns. 

The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy is the third book by Robert P. Jones that I have read (The End of White Christian America and White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in Christian America.) More so than the other two books, this is narrative-focused and less demographically focused. Jones is known for his work in polling and demography, and that number-heavy writing style is essential for making the case for current shifts in culture. But The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy is primarily a book of history, not demographics, and the writing style is more narrative.

The book opens with a discussion of the 1619 Project and how Nicole Hannah Jones has shifted the conversation to include a greater focus on slavery in developing the US as a country. Jones is not debating the 1619 Project as much as suggesting that an earlier date also needs to be included as part of the discussion. That date is 1493 when Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull, “Inter Caetera.” This papal bull and several earlier bulls are jointly known as the Doctrines of Discovery and are still important precedents to international law.

The Doctrine of Discovery is not just a theological and legal justification for European Christians to take possession of land (already occupied and controlled by others) but also justified the enslavement of those viewed as “pagans.” The book’s central thesis is that the Doctrine of Discovery undergirds much of American history because it was responsible for the European understanding of colocalization, land possession, and the enslavement of Native American indigenous people and Africans. Jones rightly notes early on in the book that the Louisiana Purchase is usually framed as one of the best real estate deals in history. Jones reframes the purchase not as a real estate deal but as the selling of the right to take possession (a subtle but vital distinction) directly rooted in the doctrine of discovery. The US, which was derived from Protestant England and officially a secular country, still recognized the legal authority of the Catholic Pope as an international lawgiver when it suited them.

After the introduction of the concept and the history, Jones moves on to three case studies of how traditional stories of anti-Black racism (Emmit Till, a lynching in Duluth, MN, and the 1921 Tulsa Riots) can be understood more fully by understanding the prior role of white supremacy (in the sense of racial hierarchy) concerning Native American land theft and violence that contributed to later anti-Black racism. With each case study, the narrative of the history leads into a more recent history of how various people came together to bring the repressed history of racial violence into the light and deal with the long-term implications of that history.

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The Ballot and the Bible by Kaitlyn Schiess

The Ballot and the Bible cover imageSummary: The bible has been widely misused. It takes intention to use it well, but it is worth the effort.

I do not know when I became aware of Kaitlyn Schiess. I am pretty sure it was during her time at Liberty University. I believe I came into contact with her via social media through Karen Swallow Prior and probably the Christ and Pop Culture Facebook group. I do not want to exaggerate our contact. I seriously doubt she knows who I am. However, I started to pay attention to her writing before her first book. I will embrace the creepy factor and say that I have watched her grow as a thinker and communicator over the past seven or so years with great expectations. She has continued to develop and illustrate wisdom and conscientious scholarship that takes her Christian faith seriously.

So I looked forward to The Ballot and the Bible and held off a little while on reading it because I wanted to get the audiobook that she narrated. But there were some delays, and when it became clear that the audiobook wasn’t coming out soon, I picked up the Kindle and read it quickly. Like my thoughts on her first book, there is more going on than you might assume in a relatively short book. The Ballot and the Bible is about how to read and understand scripture (commonly called hermeneutics), how to listen to history and culture to see if you are imputing cultural values on the biblical message (cultural anthropology), a brief historical overview of ways that the Bible has been misused (through case studies) and a book on the role of discipleship and public life. If you read my reviews regularly, you may be aware that I have recently read several other books on the Bible, Christianity and culture, and politics, and those impact how I read The Ballot and the Bible.

Most directly, The Ballot and the Bible is worth reading paired with Mark Noll’s America’s Book, a history of the public use of the Bible from 1794 to 1911. I think Noll’s book was published too recently to be included in The Ballot and the Bible, although several of Noll’s other books are cited. The two books are very different in scope and purpose. Noll’s book is an over 800-page history, while Schiess’ book is an under 200-page book that is primarily theological. But the combination of them is useful. Noll gives more examples of the use and misuse of the Bible than Schiess could give in a book of her size. But her book also theologically evaluates the history of the use of the Bible in ways that Noll does not do as a historian.

The center point of what Schiess is trying to do is to get the reader to step back and evaluate politics not as a consumer of imagery but as a Christian thinker. The Bible is often used directly or indirectly as a prop to signal that “the Bible is on my side” of a particular issue. Most examples are not as blatant as Trump simply holding up a bible outside of St John’s Episcopal Church without opening it, reading from it, or giving any purpose to its presence except as a prop. Many other examples throughout the book are more likely to be honest but unexplored use of the Bible to support the user’s prior positions.

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The Virgin Mary: A Very Short Introduction by Mary Joan Winn Leith

The Virgin Mary: A Very Short Introduction cover imageSummary: Mary matters, but the response to her is widely varied.

After finishing Jesus Wars, I wanted to pick up The Virgin Mary: A Very Short Introduction because I was surprised at how large of a role Mary played in trinitarian debates of the early centuries of Christianity (the idea of Mary, not the actual person of Mary). I have always been Protestant, and while I have some understanding of Catholic theology, I often miss the nuances behind the differences. And I have even less understanding of Orthodox theology. This book, in combination with Jesus Wars (and my current reading of Medieval Christianity) have helped to understand some of the nuance I previously missed.

A significant part of the early trinitarian debates were those that wanted to emphasize Jesus’ divinity, opposing those that wanted to emphasize his humanity. Almost everyone understood that Jesus was, in some sense, both human and divine. But the problem comes in figuring out how to talk about that. And when you add the culture of the era that was biased against women (some believed that women were malformed men) and that sexuality was inherently sinful (so how could God come from a sinful act, the Immaculate Conception is about Mary, not Jesus; to make Mary able to bear Jesus as a mother she needed to be conceived apart from sin) and that some of the philosophical conventions of the time also impacted these things could be talked about.

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Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins

esus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years cover imageSummary: A history of the early Christian political and theological history.

I am not sure that the book’s subtitle, “How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years,” helped my perception of the book. I have read two previous books by Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity and The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. I am mixed, even as I am glad I read them. I bought Jesus Wars on Kindle years ago but never read it. I noticed it was free as part of my Audible membership, but it was leaving the free section soon, so I picked it up. 

Jesus Wars is part of my reading in response to Christian Nationalism, especially Noll’s America’s Book and Whitehead’s American Idolatry. A point that many pro-Christian Nationalists attempt to make is that their expression of Christianity is more consistent with historic Christianity than those that oppose Christian Nationalism. If their point is narrow, that there have been some aspects of Christianity that are similar to their understanding of Christian Nationalism, then I think that is accurate. But not all expressions of Christianity should be emulated.

Philip Jenkins is a historian of Christianity who tends to look at significant trends and demographics. I appreciate how he draws attention to both geographies and times to parts of Christian history that are less well-known or ignored. In all three books I have read, he draws attention away from traditional Western (European and North American) Christianity and toward Christianity of Africa and Asia. He is not anti-orthodox (in the theological sense), but he believes that some of the lines drawn in the past were more about politics, language, and culture than theology. Jenkins wants to introduce the reader to what is often called Miasophite or Nestorian Christianity. The introduction discusses why those descriptions are inaccurate but still commonly used. He concludes that there were fundamental differences in approach with these early theological battles but that the disagreements were not only about theology but also language, culture, and politics. I think Jesus Wars and Christianity The First 3000 Years are examples of trying to do Christian history by primarily looking at the political and social history as a contributing factor to the theological history. This is important to Christian history because, so many times, Christian history is presented as solely spiritual. Christian history is messy, as Jesus Wars presents.

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Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

anne of green gables cover imageSummary: Anne, an orphan, is adopted and becomes a beloved family member. But there are SOOOOO many long descriptive passages that make it a less-than-great read-aloud.

I am not great about reading to my kids, but we do tend always to have a book that we are slowly working through. And this one was very slow. I picked it primarily because I knew there were several TV and film adaptations, and that has previously been a motivator to keep reading.

I read at least this first book of the series as a teen, but I really did not remember it beyond the broad outline of the story. I think I probably remember more from the TV adaptations than the book. I wanted to read an old book in part because I knew the vocabulary would be more of a challenge, and I wanted to introduce my kids to vocabulary they would not get with more recent books. And I got the vocabulary. The annotated edition is helpful both because I was reading on Kindle, which has a built-in dictionary, but also because the annotations helped beyond the dictionary.

If it were just unfamiliar words, that would have been fine. But what I did not remember was the pages of descriptions and the super long run-on sentences within those pages of descriptions. There were many examples of sentences that were several lines long. And paragraphs that were more than a page long. This is something that when I am reading myself, I do not notice, but when reading out loud, it is very noticeable.

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Women and the Gender of God by Amy Peeler

Women and the Gender of God cover imageSummary: Theological discussion about God and gender.

Women and the Gender of God has been on my to-read list since it came out. I have watched or listened to several interviews with the author, including this one at Holy Post and the 40-minute bonus episode. I eventually picked up the audiobook. The author narrates it well, as I prefer. But this is a book that needs a second reading, at least for me. I am not completely new to the topic, but neither trinitarian theology nor gender theory are areas where I have expertise. I have enough background to understand but not enough background to evaluate.

I remember as a teen going to a national youth conference (summer of 1989 or 90), and on one of the conference days, God was primarily referred to with feminine pronouns. I was not disturbed by it because I was aware that God was not gendered in a human sense, but I do remember thinking that it was poorly handled because there was no explanation or teaching around it; they just did it. And I spent a while talking through it with some of the people I was with because they were disturbed by it. That was probably the point, but disturbing teens without discussion is not how to address a history of patriarchal teaching.

Good theology should be nuanced, and Women and the Gender of God is appropriately nuanced. That nuance means I probably should have read this in print, not listened to the audiobook. The advantage of audio is that you can get a broad overview quickly, but it is hard to flip back and reread sections to ensure you understand the nuance.

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Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi-The Story of Dr. Charles Johnson by Chet Bush

Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi; The Story of Dr. Charles Johnson cover imageSummary: A brief biography of Charles Johnson, a pastor in Meridian, Mississippi, and one of the witnesses in the Mississippi Burning Trial. 

I picked this up because it was free in the Audible Plus catalog. I am satisfied with the time I spent on the book because I was not aware of the story of Charles Johnson previously. But once I was about an hour into the book, I looked around for reviews to decide if I wanted to finish the book. This review discussed how this biography was framed as an old-fashioned missionary biography, giving me the language to accept the style. (I encourage you to read that link if you haven’t.)

The book opens with Charles Johnson as a young child. A white salesman worked in his Black community of Orlando. In his spare time, that salesman encouraged youth, occasionally hired them, and eventually opened a community center. Through his work, Charles Johnson became a Christian. When Johnson felt the call to ministry, that salesman helped him attend a Nazarene seminary in West Virginia. As the review notes, the Nazarenes were segregated, including their seminaries. So the only seminary Johnson could have gone to within the Nazarene movement was the one in West Virginia. Bush notes denominational racism several times in the book. Still, the book’s framing, even as it attempts to show how Johnson moved beyond the holiness pietism of the Nazarenes more generally, has that pietism in the background. He shows that Johnson kept to Nazarene pietism through the emphasis on evangelism toward the end of his life and in his rejection of acceptance of the invitation to the Carter inaugural ball because it served alcohol.

I have read many missionary biographies, and many of the genre’s tropes are here. They tend to be short; this was less than four hours in audiobook. They emphasize supernatural calling and intervention. They focus on the action, not the interior life or mundane everyday work. And they always talk about what was given up to serve God, including losing family or spouse. And the story of one of the KKK members who was convicted for the killings became Christian in jail and personally came to ask for forgiveness from Charles Johnson after leaving jail fits the genre’s tropes as well. I think of these types of books as hagiography. I can see how Chet Bush is attempting to subvert some of the genre by making Johnson the subject (he is Black in a predominately white denomination, and the story’s location is the US, not the international mission field).

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The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self by Curtis Chang

The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self cover imageSummary: Anxiety is part of how we were created.

Like everyone (and in keeping with how anxiety is talked about in the book), I have anxiety. I hate conflict. I do everything I can to avoid situations where I might be in conflict, especially conflict with people close to me. Curtis Chang suggests that anxiety is part of how we were created. We should have anxiety because we care. Part of how care for the world and those around us expresses itself is being anxious over the fear of loss. No anxiety at all would not show that we have great control over our emotions, but instead, it would show that we may not have appropriate care or love.

“Love: We suffer anxiety because we are vulnerable to losing what we most love. This further explains why anxiety is unavoidable for anyone who is truly human. To be free of anxiety is to be free of any love (which is capable of being lost), which in turn would mean becoming inhuman.”

Chang uses formulas to illustrate how he wants to talk about anxiety. “Anxiety = Loss tells us that anxiety is generated by loss or, more specifically, by our fear of loss. Every anxiety is the fear of some future loss.” Once that basic idea is explained, he expands on it to show how anxiety can be made worse: “Anxiety = Loss x Avoidance.” Fear of loss is something that we all have. And he also identifies that a certain level of anxiety is also inevitable. But the part that moves us from normal anxiety to dysfunctional anxiety is our avoidance. It is common to speak about fight or flight (and sometimes fawn) as responses to stimuli. Chang also speaks about them as tools of avoidance.

“CEOs tend to have high-functioning anxiety, like I do. Also, like me, they tend to default to fight mode. They often plunge forward with their own versions of firing off long emails to their staff at three in the morning. Too often, their colleagues don’t push back. Team members don’t realize their leader’s behavior is anxiety-driven. Instead, they feel confused, insecure, guilty, and blamed. Anxiety spreads like a contagion throughout the entire organization.”

Others (like me) tend to avoid our anxiety by pretending anxiety doesn’t exist or by avoiding situations where it might pop up. One of the book’s more helpful sections was the discussion about how different responses to anxiety impact relationships. Chang suggested that he tends to default to a fight response, and his wife tends to default to a flight response and that those different responses are interpreted by the other and a lack of care about their anxiety.

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