Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Messiah College Religion and Society Lecture or What It is Like to Give a Visiting Lecture Series at Your Home Institution

As you may recall from previous posts, I was the first Messiah College professor to deliver the Messiah College Religion and Society Lectures.  I am honored to be preceded in the lectureship by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Martin Marty, Stanley Hauerwaus, Stephen Prothero, and others. 

The day began in Messiah College chapel.  Chapel is close to mandatory (for students) at Messiah College so I was basically speaking in front of the entire college community.  My topic was the way Abraham Lincoln used the Sermon on the Mount in his Second Inaugural Address.  I don't think I have ever spoken to a larger group.  Messiah has about 2800 students.  Not all of them were present, but I am guessing that most of them were.  The speaking platform is a small island near the front of Brubaker Auditorium surrounded by seats and bleachers.  The only thing on the island was a music stand.  (See the picture above).  I felt a bit "naked" up there.

Speaking at a mandatory chapel requires a certain degree of patience with your audience.  While most of the audience was engaged, there were several pockets of students sitting high in the bleachers who could obviously care less about what I had to say.  Their body posture betrayed them.  So did their constant use of electronic devices.  I would never allow this kind of behavior in one of my classes, but when you have 2000+ students in the room there is little you can do about it.  Moreover, as I neared the end of my talk, students started to pack up their things--a clear message that it was time for me to wrap-up.  Was this rude and irritating and disrespectful?  Of course it was.  But to quote my recently deceased 103-year old grandfather: "Whaddya gonna do?"  I was at least happy to get encouraging words throughout the day from students I passed in the hallways and on the sidewalks.  Some students were indeed listening.

After teaching my Pennsylvania History class and guest lecturing in my colleague David Pettegrew's Digital History class, I attended a dinner with Messiah College colleagues where we discussed a recent paper I had written on David Barton for the Columbia Seminar in Religion and American History. As some of you know, I have been toying with the idea of writing a sort of memoir/travelogue about my encounters with Christian America while I was on "tour" for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation Several trusted colleagues discouraged me from writing the book.  Perhaps I will explain later why they were skeptical, but I found them to be convincing.  I don't think you will be seeing this kind of memoir anytime soon.

The day ended with my Religion and Society Lecture: "The Complicated Relationship Between Religion and the American Founding."  I was disappointed with the turnout (there is a lot going on this week at Messiah, including the Humanities Symposium. Or perhaps people here are sick and tired of listening to me talk about Christian America), but I tried to deliver a stimulating and enthusiastic lecture to those in attendance.  I thought we had a good Q&A session following the lecture and I was flattered that our president, Kim Phipps, and our Provost, Randy Basinger, were in attendance along with several members of the local community.

I want to thank the Religion and Society Lecture Committee at Messiah College for choosing me to give these lectures.