One fascinating nexus point between faith and history in the New Testament is the story of the “Wise Men,” or Magi. With the term over and Christmas approaching, this seems a good time to post my 2021 article on that topic from The Stream.
One fascinating nexus point between faith and history in the New Testament is the story of the “Wise Men,” or Magi. With the term over and Christmas approaching, this seems a good time to post my 2021 article on that topic from The Stream.
Unless you’ve been lost in Moria, you know that Amazon’s streaming series The Rings of Power has been the most-watched show in America (and much of the rest of the world) the last few months. What does this have to do with history? Well, J.R.R. Tolkien himself said that his world–whence came The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and several other volumes of fiction–may not entirely, well, fictional. “This history is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220); also “Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment….” (Ibid., p. 244). He even posits Middle-earth as the precursor to the actual history of places like Troy, Babylon, Nineveh and Rome.
RoP has come in for quite a bit of criticism, on a number of levels. Many of us who love Tolkien’s books and know them well have taken issue, in particular, with the egregious departures from the creator’s canon. I did so, a few weeks ago. But a much more in-depth critique of Amazon’s show hit yesterday. Ben Reinhard, an English professor at Steubenville University (OH), published “There and Back Again: A Rings of Power Postmortem” at Crisis Magazine. Read it yourself. It’s trenchant.
What’s particularly striking, for anyone enamored of history as well as Tolkien, is the following from Reinhard’s piece: “There is Tolkien in the show, to be sure–but only because the writers treat Tolkien’s work like the emperor Constantine treated classical Roman monuments. When he sought to erect a triumphal arch to rival those of his forebears, the great emperor found that he lacked workmen skilled enough to the task. the solution? To strip reliefs and figures from earlier monuments and use them to adorn his own: thus, the earlier monuments served not a a model for an inspiration but merely a quarry. The Rings of Power writers do precisely the same thing…. The result is, as Gibbon said of Constantine’s Arch, “a melancholy proofof the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony the meanest vanity.”
Finally, a fall 2022 Reinhardt history blogpost! Forgive me, but I’ve been busier than a one-armed Rings of Power forger. But herewith an overview, in his own words, of Reinhardt University’s new History Post-Doc–the first in recent memory: Dr. Andrew Jones!
“I’m a jack of all fields, master of Scottish Religious History. I received my PhD from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2018. My research for the last eight years has focused on religion, identity, and race in modern Scotland the Scottish Diaspora communities of the Atlantic World. I’ve published articles in Scottish Church History, International Journal of Bahamian Studies, and elsewhere and in 2022 published my first book – The Revival of Evangelicalism: Mission and Piety in the Victorian Church of Scotland – with Edinburgh University Press. Along with the postdoc project (see below), I’m also continuing to research the life and legacy of a famous 20th century Scottish-American Presbyterian pastor (and U.S. Senate Chaplain) named Peter Marshall. An article on his views on race and religion in the American South will be published in the Journal of Presbyterian History in 2023 and I hope to ultimately publish the first scholarly biography of Marshall to date.
While I love my research, I’m most at home in the history classroom. I’ve had the privilege to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in U.S. History, World History, Modern European History, History of Christianity, and African History. Along with readings and lectures, I love to use podcasts to complement and accentuate different assignments and – perhaps above all – highly prize group analysis and discussion of primary source documents. My students have typically reviewed me as “tough but fair.” My philosophy is that it should be hard to ace my class but also hard to fail it. You’ve got to work hard for the “A” but you’ve also got to pretty much check out and miss several major assignments to fail.
The Postdoc Situation: The NEH Postdoctoral Research Fellowship focuses on the Cherokee Voices Project, which seeks to re-center Cherokee narratives by transcribing and digitizing a set of Cherokee claims against the U.S. Government from the early 1840s. I’ll be working under the leadership of W. Jeff Bishop, the Director of the Funk Heritage Center and the former president of the Georgia chapter of the Trail of Tears Association. The “on the ground” work will primarily involve a) Hiring a team of undergraduate student researchers, b) Educating, leading, and managing those researchers in the transcription and digitization of the claims documents, and c) Interpreting the narratives/data we encounter in order to reach both general and scholarly audiences.”
Women’s History Month is almost over and I remiss in just now posting on it. In my defense, we were on spring break, and then I came down with bronchitis. In any event, according to “Big Think,” the 15 most powerful women in history were:
14. Cleopatra [VII]
12. Joan of Arc
11. Borte Ujin
10. Indira Gandhi
9. Margaret Thatcher
5. Maria Theresa
3. Catherine the Great
2. We Zetian
1. Elizabeth I.
Many of these were warrior queens who, if they didn’t engage in battle themselves, led their states into warfare. Which tracks with historical data, at least for early modern and modern Europe, that female rulers are more likely than the men to let slip the dogs of war. Even if they are less likely to cry havoc.
This post’s title derives from the battle cry of Tolkien’s perhaps most famous female warrior.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine. It’s the most serious conflict in Europe since the 1990s Bosnian War (not, as some commentators have claimed, since World War II). So far the death toll is in the hundreds, and has a way to go to reach the 80,000+ killed in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia. But if Russia continues pouring in troops, and begins attacking civilian population centers, the casualties will mount quickly.
St. Michael’s Cathedral and Monastery, Kyiv, Ukraine. (Public Domain, Wiki.)
Why is Putin doing this? No one knows for sure. Among proffered reasons: he considers Ukraine part of Russia; he wants to re-create the USSR and/or Tsarist Russia; the Russians fear NATO extension into Ukraine; Putin’s a “madman.” Short of a Vulcan mind-meld of the Russian leader, it’s impossible to ascertain. But Russian tanks, troops and warplanes are in Ukraine, that’s for certain. Here’s the military situation as of March 1, 2022.
Unlike many on social media (particularly Twitter), some of us are prudent enough to refrain from claiming expert knowledge of this horrible conflict. However, it doesn’t hurt to garner background information. In that regard, take a look at these articles:
The latter also has this very useful “Ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine.” (Blues shades are majority Russian speaking areas; orange/tan are Ukrainian speakers.)
Let us inform ourselves about the situation, support our leaders in their policies (and try to guide them if we think those amiss)–and pray, for the people and the leaders of both Ukraine and Russia that this war would end soon, and that, God forbid, it not widen either geographically or bring nuclear weapons into play.
Today is Presidents’ Day, 2022. Previously this holiday, which now commemorates all of America’s Chief Executives, marked the birthday of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or both. It remains a national holiday, with banks and federal offices closed–although many schools (and universities, like this one) no longer take the day off.
Presidents’ Day is the perfect time to take stock of our POTUS ranks. Perhaps the best ranking thereof was the one done by political scientists Brandon Rottinghaus (University of Houston) and Justin S. Vaughn (Boise State University). They asked 320 fellow political scientists to rate all the Presidents from worst to best, and 170 responded. (Here’s the actual study; here’s an article about it, with a handy graph part of which is reproduced below.)
The top top:
There are differences between how Democrat and Republican respondents ranked many of them. And the data is a bit skewed because 57.2% of professors that responded were Democrats, 27.1% Independents, and only 12.7% Republicans. (According to the latest Gallup data, as of the first week of January 2022 the party identifications for Americans overall were 46% Independent, 28% Democrat and 24% Republican.)
Still, it’s nice to know that both sides of the aisle can agree that Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves, and George Washington, the man who led the Revolutionary War, are our greatest Chief Executives. Personally, I think Ulysses S. Grant (#21) should be a lot higher; ditto for Grover Cleveland (#24)–the only man with the chutzpah to win the office twice, non-consecutively!
Addendum: Right after I first posted this, “Newsweek” ran a brief story about which Presidents since World War II have had the highest and lowest approval ratings while in office. George W. Bush can claim both. He hit 92% approval a few weeks after 9/11. But he also cratered at 19% his final year in office.
I teach two separate military history courses here at Reinhardt University. In them, the first thing we look at is the state of the field within academia. This term I assigned for initial discussion an article by the British military historian/journalist Max Hastings, entitled “American Universities Declare War on Military History.” He points out that history majors now account for only 2% of male undergrad degrees, and 1% of those for females. And that within that small universe, students who take any military history classes are miniscule. Most American colleges and universities teach no courses on the the topic at all. (Hastings did not provide precise data on this. But I did look up, at the Society for Military History site, a list of US and Canadian universities that offer the MA/PhD in military history. There are 19 in this country, and three in our northern neighbor. This is out of 3,982 universities in America, and 97 in Canada.)
Why? Military history is popular with the public, with students, and with alumni. Hastings, based on his own experience and a number of conversations with prominent military historians, says it’s because (too) many academics detest the subject as “warnography.” That studying war somehow equates to approving it. And that it’s also racist. He quotes Tami Davis Biddle (PhD, Yale), former U.S. Army War College professor, that “many in the academic community assume that military history is simply about powerful men–mainly white men–fighting each other and/or oppressing vulnerable groups.” That would, of course, be news to the Chinese, Ottoman, Persian, Egyptian, Aztec and Arab armies of the past.
Mamluk Egyptian Warrior, c. 1500 AD. No doubt amused at the idea that only Europeans fight wars.
Hastings also points out that “our respective presidents and prime ministers might less readily adopt kinetic solutions–start shooting–if they possessed a better understanding of the implications.” Did no one in the Bush Administration bother to remember Vietnam before invading Iraq? (Or learn anything about Arab v. Persian and Sunni v. Shi`i, I might add?) Ditto for Britain leading the charge against Muammar al-Qadhafi. Yes, NATO bombing help overthrow him. But now Libya is a failed state, with several regional governments and an entrenched ISIS presence. “David Cameron….might have made less of a mess…had he accepted the advice of some people who understood both war and the Muslim world better than his ill-informed Downing Street clique.”
Hastings does admit that “it would be absurd to pretend that the study of the past is a guarantee against repeating its mistakes.” But we should be glad that JFK had read Barbara Tuchman’s WWI book The Guns of August not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis flared up. Kennedy was thus well aware that “a local flare-up…could precipitate a global catastrophe.”
Hastings opens and closes his article by invoking the coronavirus pandemic. No one thinks studying the effects of diseases on human history is “pro-disease.” Studying war should be just as important–and just as unobjectionable.
[The title of this blogpost comes from one of the lyrics in the great African-American spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” which dates back to the Civil War.]
Finally, First Floor Tarpley is active again. Dr. Jonathan Good passed the site baton to me–and after a litany of log-in misadventures, I finally have access. I will be making some changes to the site’s appearance in the coming weeks, but for now it will suffice to provide a quick update.
The department currently has 40 majors, and two full-time faculty: Theresa Ast and Kenneth Wheeler. Dr. Ast got her doctorate from Emory, and is a renowned specialist on the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. Dr. Wheeler is a Buckeye PhD (like me), getting his PhD from Ohio State, and a leader in the American history field in the South. Currently, Reinhardt’s two history faculty adjunct professors are Timothy Lumley and myself. Mr. Lumley has a MA from University of West Georgia. Yours truly (Timothy Furnish) obtained his doctorate from Ohio State, specializing in Islamic eschatology (end of world beliefs) and Mahdism (messianism).
The upper-division courses being offered by history faculty this term are:
HIS 498, Ancient & Medieval Military: Furnish
H336, History of the Holocaust, Ast
H356, American from 1900-1945: Lumley
H354, Civil War & Reconstruction: Wheeler
Several non-history, full-time faculty also teach in this department. Graham Johnson is an English PhD from Saint Louis University and teaches IDS (Interdisciplinary Studies)/History 314, a class on the Vikings. William Jeff Bishop, director of the Funk Heritage Center, is teaching IDS 332, Exhibits & Programs Design, in Museum Studies. And acclaimed author and writing professor William Walsh is covering Irish Literature and Culture in IDS 498. As a huge U2 fan, I hope he covers them!
Finally, I leave you with this fascinating article–which we discussed in my H120 World History classes, on how DNA evidence shows that wooly mammoths survived into the Bronze Age. Much later than formerly thought!
Timothy R. Furnish
P.S. Any student of mine who can identify the source of the title of this blog and tell me will receive extra credit!
I wrote the piece below on the second anniversary of the attacks in 2003, at which time my wife and I were graduate students at the University of Minnesota. The attacks were fresh enough in my mind that I think it can count as a primary source, and I repost it here for the twentieth anniversary for interest’s sake. If there is any modification to be made at this point, it sure looks like Iraq was a huge waste of lives and money and that not all people “yearn for freedom” the way we like to think they do. The recent debacle in Afghanistan has also revealed the limits of Wilsonian world-building.
Note the changes in technology: dial-up Internet, television over the airwaves, photocopying documents to send them in the mail, etc.
I missed September 11. Anne awoke early to go into the university to teach, and I slept in until about 9:00 a.m. When I got up, instead of going onto the Internet as I often do, I finished off my lecture (I was teaching my own class on Tuesday evenings). I also wrote a letter to American Airlines: we had just returned from our honeymoon to South Africa and I was wondering if I could get the frequent flyer points for the entire trip and not just the officially American Airlines leg, i.e. Minneapolis to Chicago. I walked in to school around noon, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, either on the way in or when I got to the library to make photocopies of the boarding passes for the letter. I mailed it, and went up to the history department. As I got off the elevator I ran into the graduate secretary who told me that classes had just been cancelled for the rest of the day. I asked why. “Because of the World Trade Center coming down,” she replied. “What?” I said. “They blew up the World Trade Center.” “What are you talking about?!” “Oh, just go down to the lounge,” she said.
The lounge is a small room at the end of the hall with couches, a couple of bookcases full of books no one wants, a typewriter, and a small rabbit-eared television with a “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker on the top. I didn’t think that it actually worked, but apparently it did: a small crowd was gathered around, and it was showing again and again not just airplanes hitting the two towers of World Trade Center but the towers actually falling down. Falling down! Incredible! There’s no more World Trade Center! My friend Troy was there, and I asked him what the hell was happening. He filled me in: two planes were flown in to the World Trade Center, another plane had hit the Pentagon, and a fourth had gone down in Pennsylvania. Also, a car bomb had gone off in front of the State Department. He thought that it was probably the same type of people who had bombed the WTC in 1993. I was stunned. I watched the TV for a bit, and then went down to the computer lab to look on the Internet. Every single news site was full of information about the attacks. As many as 50,000 people could have been killed. The president was under heavy guard at an air force base somewhere. Fighter jets had been scrambled. All commercial flights had been grounded. Muslims were bracing for a backlash. Everyone was braced for further attacks. An email announced that an interfaith prayer rally in memory of the victims, and urging calm on survivors, was to take place on the Mall.
I went up a floor to see Anne. On the way I heard one professor saying that we shouldn’t cancel classes, but that we should use them to discuss the issue. I heard another saying, “This is big. This is Pearl Harbor.” I saw Anne, who was going to the prayer meeting with her advisor. I elected not to go: I had a suspicion that it would turn into an anti-backlash rally before any sort of backlash was apparent, which would have simply annoyed me. Instead, I just walked home. At this point I did notice the lack of airplanes in the sky, which is a novelty for Minneapolis since the airport is quite close to the downtown and planes are constantly flying overhead. Once home I turned on the television and sat hypnotized. I still wasn’t quite sure what exactly was going on, and that’s what I remember most about the day: the sheer novelty of it, how it didn’t seem to relate to anything that had ever happened before. Sure, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, but this seemed to be different in kind as well as degree. Such a reaction was shared by others: because no one knew quite what to think, an eerie calm seemed to pervade the reactions of people on the television. There was an interview with one guy who had been in the WTC and had gotten out, and who was matter-of-factly describing hearing the announcement, and simply walking down the stairs and out into the street. How much different from the Columbine massacre of two years previous: everyone knew then what a “school shooting” was, even if that was a particularly egregious one, so we had the usual images of teenagers hugging each other, soccer moms overjoyed to discover their offspring safe, grief counselors telling you that it’s OK to talk about your feelings, and almost instantaneous squabbling over whether it was caused by lack of gun control or whether it was caused by violent movies and video games. Mark Steyn wrote later that “it is very, very rare for the media to be caught so off-guard by an event that they lose control of their ability to determine its meaning,” and that was certainly true on the day.
Of course we all know now what “September eleventh” (complete with its assonance and amphibrachic rhythm) means. The attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, the same people who had bombed the USS Cole and the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Their operatives, armed with nothing more than boxcutters, hijacked four airplanes and used them as guided bombs against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and would have hit some fourth place had not the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 risen up against them and brought the plane down. Otherwise there was no bomb outside the State Department, only 3000 people were killed, and the anti-Muslim backlash was remarkably subdued. The only follow-up attacks consisted of anthrax in the mail to the likes of Senator Daschle and the National Enquirer, if these were connected to Sept. 11 at all.
And US foreign policy has revolved around it ever since. President Bush declared a “war on terror,” and since the Taliban regime of Afghanistan refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, he ordered it toppled, which the military did in fairly short order. After months of negotiations with the UN, it did the same to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, on the ostensible principle that Saddam had chemical weapons which he might share with terrorists, but also because he had never really fulfilled the cease-fire conditions of the first Gulf War, that Iraq could potentially serve as a model for a secular, liberal Arab state, thereby striking at one of the root causes of terrorism, and that he was a plain old fashioned tyrant whom the world is better off without. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. I supported the war, and I still have confidence that what will come ahead will be better than what existed before, but I can’t help but feeling that time is not on our side.
Otherwise September 11 made me even more of a news junkie, and a conservative, than I already was. All attempts to portray the attack as blowback for the past misadventures of American foreign policy or the injustice of the world economic system struck me as hollow, something that would appear to be true if you were deeply invested in leftist ideology but which simply didn’t fit the facts. The airplanes were not piloted by the families of the Chilean disappeared or the survivors of a Contra massacre, nor by anyone who expressed solidarity even with the Palestinians. They weren’t poor, either: bin Laden is quite wealthy, and the hijackers were apparently well-off, with other life options available to them. No, to me the event blew the lid off the polite fiction, pervasive in academia, that all cultures are equal, and no one is ever really to blame, but if someone must be blamed, it should probably be the US. Robert Fulford wrote that the event
challenged the gentle and self-deluded way we have thought about human relations…. We try desperately to be agreeable and to deny that ugly differences among us exist. In this milieu, the atrocity of Sept. 11 was a foreign object, hard as anthracite. Perhaps we can identify it with an ancient word, evil. That term frightens us: liberalism decided long ago that “evil” should not, if one follows liberal thinking, exist.
And Christopher Hitchens, no conservative, famously wrote that
What the terrorists abominate about “the West” is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific enquiry, its separation of religion from the state.
To express solidarity with or even to make excuses for al-Qaeda seemed to me to be a great moral and strategic blunder. The US, even when headed by George Bush, is not always wrong.
All quotes above, by the way, have been culled from my file of Sept. 11 material that I started to keep and which I have open before me. Some of the commentary was first-rate, and some of it was fatuous drivel, because the pain-feelers and concern-sharers eventually did arrive. There was a “message of support and recommendation from the International Students’ Office,” including:
Some of you may feel that you have not really faced harassment, but that you have experienced a change in attitudes or an unfriendly climate in your department or work place. Even though you may feel that there are no concrete incidents that you consider harassment, we are interested in hearing about your experience and want to discuss strategies you or we can take feel safe and comfortable during your studies here.
And there was this message from the MacArthur fellows:
On Friday, Sept. 28, a group of MacArthur students and faculty met to discuss how our community could respond to the events of Sept. 11. The clear consensus was that we have a responsibility to draw from the MacArthur program’s intellectual skills and resources to stimulate critical reflection on several issues — in particular, the ongoing anti-Arab and anti-Moslem violence and racial profiling; new challenges to our political and civil liberties; the militarization of the US state; and more.
Note the smug elision between “we’re smart” and “we hold the correct opinions.” How about using your superior brainpower to come up with ways to prevent this sort of thing from happening again? As for the International Students Office, the theme of that message was clearly: “Please make us feel important! Please justify our jobs!” I wanted to tell them that although I was shocked by the attacks, I was very pleased that something good had come out of them, namely that the “climate” in America had changed vastly for the better: the country was united as I had never seen it before, and all the petty crap that normally fills its consciousness (that summer: Gary Condit, Chandra Levy, Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and Survivor) was placed firmly in perspective if not entirely forgotten, and finally that their patronizing and intrusive concern about the state of our emotions was not helping. Fuck off, you wankers!*
But I dare say Sept. 11 has been forgotten, in its way. Mark Steyn is fond of designating obsolete or trivial things as “so Sept. 10,” but in its way Sept. 11 has become Sept. 10. Time marches on, of course, and the first anniversary placed a natural moratorium on expressions of grief. But it seems to me that the Iraq war was more important in this respect. A few people protested the Afghan war, but many, many more people protested the war on Iraq, on the principle that it wasn’t retaliatory but “preemptive,” therefore ushering in a dangerous new era in American foreign policy. That the administration decided to seek UN approval for this adventure gave plenty of time for the anti-war movement to organize itself, and its failure to get that approval looked particularly bad. Furthermore, the controversy over the war shattered the unity that we had in the fall of 2001, and completely overshadowed any sympathy the US may have won abroad. If for a brief while it was cool to be American that moment has long passed, because the US has reverted to type: no longer the victim, it is once again the bully. Thus it has traded good will for “results,” in much the same way that the Jews, in founding the state of Israel, decided that they weren’t going to be nice anymore, and are quite unapologetic about killing their enemies.
Was it a good trade? I admit that it’s nice to be liked. Do you remember U2’s performance in memory of 9/11 at the Superbowl in 2002? Last summer my wife and I were visiting my parents in Canada, and we had a rental car with Minnesota plates. We had gone downtown to do some shopping and parked on the street; when we returned to the car we discovered that we had a ticket, only it wasn’t a ticket at all but a free parking pass issued by the Chamber of Commerce, on which the meter maid had written, “God bless America!” I’m not even American and I got choked up at this, but I wonder if anyone gets this treatment anymore. I personally don’t ever want to see another attack on the order of Sept. 11, and I am gladly willing to forego the good will of others to do so. The question, of course, is whether the war on Iraq and the other facets of the “War on Terror” have made another attack not less, but more, likely. Frankly I think there’s a lot to be said for the notion that we have crippled al-Qaeda and that they have been reduced to fighting in the Middle East only — we’ve taken the fight to them. But can we afford to stay there? Who knows? Americans are a can-do people and this project may just work… or it may not.
Meanwhile, on cue, Americans are back to their usual self-absorption. With the victory in Iraq things are back to “normal,” and so they have retreated to Plato’s cave and the comfort of stories about Laci Peterson, Kobe Bryant, and Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore. Sigh.
Allow me to say, in closing, that I’m quite embarrassed actually to have sent a letter to American Airlines asking for frequent flyer points, dated on a day that they had far, far more important things to worry about. (The reply, I’m relieved to say, came about two weeks later and was polite: they could give me points for the transatlantic flight, but not the London-Cape Town flight.)
* Of course I think that anti-Muslim prejudice is stupid and ugly, and if expressed physically met with the sternest possible punishment. It’s just that the assumption that most ordinary white Americans are latent racists, just waiting for an excuse to act on their hatred, is a gross libel. And longtime readers will know that I don’t care much for aggressive victimhood, either. Dirty looks and name-calling may be hurtful to schoolchildren, but adults should know how to ignore them.
Recently spotted in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota: a memorial to 9/11, in particular to Tom Burnett, a native of Bloomington and leader of the Flight 93 revolt.
Earlier on this blog we noted a Business Insider story that claimed that an iron cap placed atop an underground nuclear test in 1957 shot upwards at a speed of 125,000 miles per hour, allegedly becoming the “fastest manmade object ever.” Whether or not this actually happened, the record has been decisively broken by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which “was clocked at over 330,000 miles per hour as it zipped through the sun’s outer atmosphere.”