Then & Now
Religious historians take on the present
Don’t be fooled by the news out of Detroit: cities are cool again. One of the big takeaways from the 2010 census was that, after a century-long love affair with suburban subdivisions, affluent Americans are jumping back on the (worldwide) urbanizing bandwagon. For a new generation of hipsters, yuppies and retirees, city living is not only aesthetically and culturally preferable. It is an essential piece of a progressive lifestyle. This sensibility springs from a degree of historical consciousness.
When Barack Obama addressed the “Trayvon Martin ruling” Friday, he did more than offer his “thought and prayers” to the family of Martin, applaud them for their “incredible grace and dignity,” and narrate a history of racial surveillance that often leaves African Americans frustrated and even afraid. The president did more than acknowledge that the democratic judicial system had done its work, urge demonstrations to be peaceful, and call for close evaluations of “stand your ground” laws. Obama took a moment where the nation was viciously debating its most cherished values through the death of a child and cast a vision for a better future through other children.
In the opening scenes of World War Z, a news montage assaults the viewer. Clips document epidemics, wolves, global warming, reality television, pundits and others forms of dangerous nature. They evoke a world in seeming decline, in which one pivotal moment could lead to the global disaster from which we might not recover. Chaos and inevitable decline set the tone for the film. But what ends us in World War Z are zombies.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s marriage decisions, debates about the effects on religious groups have dominated the religious blogosphere. “Gay marriage fight now becomes a religious liberty fight,” claims the headline of one Washington Examiner column. Behind such headlines lies a far less univocal history, and no doubt a much more complicated present reaction among religious communities. From this perspective, the fight for marriage equality has always been deeply engaged in religion.
It begins in February. Parents scour websites in the often-competitive sport of hunting for summer camp options. The goal is to keep our children happy, occupied and perhaps even learning something during the long summer. Summer camps are a relatively new invention, introduced in the early 20th century.
“P.S. please excuse this scribble and burn it as soon as you read it. Good by.” If you spend days in university archives reading the chicken scratches of everyday folks from the 19th century, then you will run into lines like this. And when you do, your eyes may get big. A request to destroy or keep private a letter oftentimes means there is something juicy.
The musical The Book of Mormon portrays two naïve Mormon missionaries in Uganda proclaiming that “in 1978, God changed his mind about black people.” The joke isn’t mere whimsy; the LDS Church is widely perceived as racist. The irony is that had the church followed its initial trajectory, by now it likely would have become the most racially integrated and progressive church in America.
It has become cliché to note that we live in a world of information overload. Being cliché, of course, does not make it any less true. We professors are well aware of our inability to keep up with the fantastic production of new knowledge in our own specialties, yet the torrent of words overwhelms not only scholars but all readers. Who can possibly read all the books, magazines, journals, newspapers, blogs, tweets and posts worth reading? And what is worth reading, anyway? This deluge is often ascribed to the digital revolution, and indeed the internet and pervasive connectivity have greatly expanded our reading options. Nevertheless, the historically minded will recognize in our current situation merely the ongoing ripples of earlier information revolutions.
Holidays evoke moments of reflection. Americans just celebrated Memorial Day, a time to honor those who have fought and died in wars for the nation. Traditionally, people hold parades, gather in cemeteries and rally around monuments to fallen soldiers. Perhaps it was fitting, then, both that President Barack Obama delivered a signal speech on the war on terror last week and that Google bestowed the honor of “Google doodle of 2013” to Sabrina Brady, a Wisconsin teenager who depicted her father’s return from a tour of duty in Iraq.