Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Billy Graham and Christian Athletes, from Gil Dodds to Louis Zamperini

I just learned that Billy Graham has died.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be no shortage of tributes and commentaries on his significance, influence, and legacy. Many of these will be written by Very Qualified People. I am not, by any measure, one of those people.

And yet, here I go...

When I talk about Graham in the context of religion and sports, I like to point to his relationships with famous Christian athletes. Bill Baker's Playing With God tells the story of Graham inviting world-class miler Gil Dodds—aka, "the Flying Parson"—to a 1947 Crusade crusade in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dodds dazzled the crowed as he ran an exhibition race and gave his testimony. A high-profile Christian athlete, Dodds’s presence at the event no doubt drew spectators. At a symbolic level, he also solidified a marriage between sports and evangelical Christianity in the South—a marriage that would go on to produce such notable offspring such as "Tebowing."


I recently came across another Graham/Christian athlete intersection while reading Laura Hillenbrand remarkably compelling book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

It's the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner who would become an airman during World War II.  When his bomber crashed over the ocean, Zamperini survived on a life raft before becoming a prisoner of war. There, he was exposed to a level of human cruelty that exceeded anything that one could imagine in their worst nightmares.

In the concluding chapters of the book, we witness Zamperini struggling to return to "normal" life in the United States. He was, to put it mildly, a mess. His wounds were physical and spiritual, leaving him awash in a darkened landscape of alcohol and depression.

And then, in 1949, underneath a circus tent in Los Angeles, he heard Billy Graham. This would prompt a turnaround—a conversion—that would help Zamperini to quiet the demons of his past. The two would form a relationship, with Zamperini being featured at Crusades for years to follow.

In hearing this story as Hillenbrand tells it, it's hard not to see how deeply meaningful and transformative this event was for Zamperini. I am reminded of Martin Marty, who in describing his own relationship with Graham, remarked:
I've often said, 'If Billy Graham had been born mean, we'd be in terrible trouble,' because he had so much power, so many gifts and so on. One of my distinctions in religion is not liberal and conservative, but mean and non-mean. You have mean liberals and mean conservatives, and you have non-mean of both. But he's not a mean. And I think you'd have to say that's just been an enormous influence on many people.
Indeed. Rest in peace Billy Graham.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Push-Up! Into New Habits

Over the weekend, Kate and I along with some friends did the Think Pink Push-Up Showdown. It was during halftime of a basketball game. We were one of a bunch of teams. Each member of our team did push-ups for a minute all in an effort to raise funds and awareness for cancer research.

So a good cause and a fun event...that I was taking a tiny bit too seriously. But that's a story for another day.

For now, let me explain why I was particularly eager to volunteer for this event--and to volunteer my wife too.

Our story begins in the wild, carefree days of the summer of 2017. On my drive into campus, I started listening to a Runner's World podcast wherein two of the staffers attempted an Air Force physical fitness test--push-ups and sit-ups (each for a minute) and a 1.5 mile run.

I knew that I could ace the running test, but I wasn't sure about the other two. Accordingly, when I arrived at my office, I hit the floor. The results were, to say the least, humbling. How could a former Marine tank an Air Force physical fitness test? The horror.

So I started doing push-ups and sit-ups. It wasn't pretty at first, but I stuck with it. Then in November, I committed to doing 100 push-ups a day. Since then, I have managed to hit 100 in a single set on two occasions.

As I look back, I wonder about the habits that I have developed and the ones that I haven't. Obviously, for most of my adult life, I have made distance running a priority. It's to the point where I don't really think of it as a habit. It's just a part of who I am.

When it comes to all of the other "stuff," though, everything from core and arm strength exercises to foam rolling and eating well have come and gone from my routine. I know that all of this will help to keep me healthy, happy, and fit. But the willingness to fully commit to them escapes me.

Until I started doing push-ups every day. What's the difference? For starters, I do the push-ups before I run. If I wait until after, I will find all sorts of excuses to "do them later." Also, I downloaded an app that tracks my push-ups and will remind (shame?) me if I don't do them.

Put simply, I identified a reasonable short-term goal, found a way to keep myself accountable, and I haven't made excuses. Seems like sound advice for all sorts of things--from push-ups to, oh, I don't know... writing and stuff.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Decluttering for Lent... Again (and Again)

Me "crossing the Tiber" (see what I did there?) on my morning run in Rome this past November. 

I thought I had learned my lesson.

For the past two years during Lent I have deactivated my social media accounts. As Ash Wednesday neared this year, I was pretty sure that I didn't need to do it again. I honestly thought that I had developed some better online habits.

But then this morning, with time set aside to work on writing, I decided to give Twitter a quick glance.

An hour later...

So I deactivated. Again. And for good measure, I decided to blow the dust off of this blog.

Sounds, contradictory, right? I'm taking steps to declutter my electronic life so I resume blogging. Square that circle, if you will...

All I can say is that writing in short bursts like I do here can be productive--it can loosen up my fingers and mind to better deal with my other writing projects. And I like blogging here--even though it wouldn't kill me to update the look and layout of this blog. I'm not sure that it could look more 2010. Maybe I'll get to that over Lent. Or maybe I'll just keep it this way until it becomes charmingly retro.


A quick rundown of what has happened since blogging last.

First, my family and I spent the fall semester in France. I could probably say more about that in future posts. But suffice it to say, it was a joyful, life-affirming experience that will continue to shape us for years to come.

Second, I am running and currently listed as "healthy." Most of my runs in France were along a remote, rural road that traced along the Tarn River. I will never forget the scenes and scenery, the quiet beauty that marked every mile. Since returning, I have been eyeing up a half-marathon in the spring some time. Not sure which one, but I should probably sign up for one soon.

Finally, writing... An edited volume that I have been working on has been sent to the press. Its proposed title is Gods, Games, and Globalization. I can't wait to finally see it in print. As for my own religious history of sports, well... I had some good momentum in France, but I kinda let it slip after Thanksgiving. To unlock my writer's paralysis, I submitted a proposal to a conference this April.

So if Lent is a time to reflect and reassess, it is probably worth limiting the distractions and taking stock of what really matters. Will lessons be learned this time? Heck no. But that's why Lent happens every year.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cataloging Old Podcasts #5: Samantha Baskind, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America

My friend and former co-host Kristian Petersen recently suggested that we store all of our old interviews at Indeed, this makes good sense.

So as I continue to re-post old interviews to this blog as well as to my "Podcasts" page here, I will be adding them to our page called MRB Radio Archive. Both Kristian and Dave Krueger have said that they will be including their interviews there also.

With that, then, on to the next interview...

This one is with Samantha Baskind, author of Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America

I will admit that prior to reading this book, I had never heard the names Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj. But Baskind introduces each of these artists to readers, bringing us to the intersection of their biblical art and Jewish heritage.

As Baskind demonstrates and the reviews have confirmed, such a focus on religion makes this book unique within the world of modern art history. Often these themes are overlooked or discarded. But Baskind puts the Judaism of these artists at the center of her narrative, emphasizing that any understanding them would be otherwise incomplete. Moreover, she does this with remarkable clarity so that even someone like myself who has a limited understanding of this field can follow along and profit from this story.

Take a listen...


Friday, July 7, 2017

Cataloging Old Podcasts #4: Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason

Micheal Sean Winter is a popular blogger at the National Catholic Reporter who has a longstanding interest in the ways that evangelicals and Catholics have forged political alliances, especially in the 1970s and 80s.

I first met Michael a few years ago when he visited Saint Francis University to deliver our annual "Ethics Lecture." I later interviewed him about his book on Jerry Falwell.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Michael's name came to mind after I interviewed Molly Worthen about her book Apostles of Reason. He graciously posted the interview to his blog and then went on to write a three-part review (onetwo, and three).

Insightful and thorough as one would expect from Michael, he concludes with the following...
Worthen has made an invaluable contribution to understanding the recent history of American evangelicalism and, if you don’t understand something of 20th century evangelicalism, you don’t understand America, and you certainly don’t understand how Catholics often get tangled up in debates framed in terms quite alien to our tradition but touching on the core issue modernity poses to all churches, the issue of authority. That these important issues come with a prose that is light and lively is a further blessing. Hats off, ladies and gentlemen: A genius has entered the room and her name is Molly Worthen.
I can only agree--fully and completely.

Moreover, since reading Apostles of Reason myself, I have enjoyed and learned greatly from Professor Worthen's many other writings in places like The New York Times. My personal favorite is her reasoned and reasonable defense of the lecture in college teaching. "Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people," she explains. "Professors should embrace—and even advertise—lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media."

Certainly not all of my colleagues agree with this. But Worthen presents a serious argument that we are wise to engage with, even when we hold competing views. The same is quite true of Apostles of Reason. 

Anyway, the interview... enjoy!


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Cataloging Old Podcasts #3: Carolyn Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975

Mississippi Praying is a powerful and important book; it is thoroughly researched, carefully argued and beautifully written. It sheds considerable light on the response of white Protestants in Mississippi to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and it dares to draw connections between those responses and the positions taken by conservative Christians in the state in the years since the 1960s. Many of these people continue to tell themselves and others that their dissent from more socially conscious elements of their denominations “wasn’t about race”; Mississippi Praying shows that the matter is not that simple.
And with this, Stephen Haynes concludes his review of Carolyn Dupont's book, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975.

I had solicited this review while I was still the book review editor for the Journal of Southern Religion. I also managed to have Carolyn review Stephen's book, The Last Segregated Hour. Then I interviewed them both for Marginalia Radio. Synergy?


Since interviewing Carolyn, her book has gone on to win the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize presented by the American Society of Church History. A well-deserved honor, indeed. She also took over my position as the JSR's book review editor, and has done outstanding work as evidenced by the extensive list of superb reviews.

We recorded this interview at her house in Lexington, as I just happened to be passing through Kentucky (as one does). Carolyn is a runner, so we both hit the roads beforehand. My memory recalls an almost perfect winter morning for a run. A light crust of snow on the ground, minimal wind, and temperatures in the mid-30s.

Then, all of that positive momentum carried over to the interview....


Friday, June 30, 2017

Cataloging Old Podcasts #2: Paula Kane, Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America

I reviewed this one for Choice, which means that I had a 190 word limit. Cruel and unusual punishment for those of us who use 500 words just to clear our throats.

Anyway, here's what I came up with...
Kane (Univ. of Pittsburgh) recovers the unique biography of an American stigmatic, Margaret Reilly (1884-1937). Raised in Manhattan to an Irish Catholic family, Reilly's body began bearing the marks of Christ in 1921, while she was on a spiritual retreat at a convent run by the Good Shepherd sisters in Peekskill, NY. Reilly soon joined the convent and assumed the name "Sister Mary of the Crown of Thorns." Some fellow sisters were suspicious of both her wounds and her supposed divine revelations from Jesus. But as word of Sister Thorn spread, she gained a following of lay and clerical Catholics. Her spiritual reputation expanded further as she embroidered Sacred Heart badges for friends and petitioners. Attempts to canonize Sister Thorn ultimately failed. And questions linger as to the authenticity of her mystical wounds. But Kane's rendering of Sister Thorn's life and afterlife brings into sharp focus the story of American Catholicism in the interwar years, while foregrounding themes such as modernity, ethnicity, gender, authority, urbanization, and assimilation. The clarity and accessibility of the writing is exceeded only by Kane's expert analysis. Summing Up: Highly recommended. 
For this interview, I traveled to Pittsburgh and met Professor Kane in her office, which is in the famed Cathedral of Learning. This is one of those great Pittsburgh landmarks, an image that one conjures when thinking of the city--right alongside chipped ham and the Immaculate Reception.

So it was a cultural experience, but also a terrific conversation.