Century Marks

Century Marks

Retrenchment

Walter Russell Mead cites mainline Protestant seminaries to illustrate what is happening in higher education more broadly: a bubble is about to burst. The problem is a mismatch between the capacity to train more pastors and church leaders and the decreasing need for pastors in denominations that are shrinking in size. Students are also wary of taking on the debt needed to finance a seminary education. The bottom line: too many seminaries are recruiting too few students. Some will have to close, others must restructure and consolidate, and many seminary employees will lose their jobs (The American Interest, December 21).

Emancipation promised

This month is the sesquicentennial celebration of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, popularly thought to be the act that freed the slaves. In reality, it didn’t free all the slaves, only those in parts of the Confederacy that were in rebellion against the Union. Since those slaves were behind enemy lines, the proclamation couldn’t be enforced, at least not while the Civil War was in progress. The proclamation didn’t apply to parts of the South that weren’t in rebellion or to four border states with slaves who ­didn’t join the Confederacy. The procla­ma­tion, however, set the stage for the passing of the Thirteenth Amend­ment two years later, which outlawed slavery (USA Today, December 25).

Precarious state

Most Christians in Syria back the Alawite-dominated regime led by Bashar al-Assad. They prefer a flawed secular government to one run by Islamic hardliners. Syrian Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, are a significant portion of the business and professional classes. They do not fear bloodshed were there to be a regime change. What they fear is being treated like second-class citizens. A victory by the opposition forces could lead to the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Syrian Chris­tians (Current History, December).

Anonymous Christian?

Abraham Lincoln, a skeptic and a free thinker, never joined a church. However, he did have close contact with several Presbyterian pastors. James Smith, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois, preached the funeral sermon for Lincoln’s son Eddie. Afterward, Mary Todd Lincoln joined his church and Lincoln became his friend. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the New York Presbyterian Church, often visited Lincoln at the White House to discuss the Bible and theology. Lincoln frequently attended this congregation’s midweek prayer service. Lincoln sat in the pastor’s study with the door ajar, to avoid making a commotion over his presence (Presbyterian News Service, December 20).

Fiction without faith?

Writer Paul Elie says that if there is any portion of our culture which is truly post-Christian it is literature. There are no fiction writers today like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price or John Updike, who took faith seriously and gave it explanatory power. Faith in fiction is now largely treated as an artifact of the past. Even Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which portrays “the most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction”—the Rev. John Ames—is historical fiction, set in the past. “Belief as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things,” says Elie. “All that is missing is the believer” (New York Times, December 19).