The Alt-Right is Hijacking the Middle Ages: Medievalists Aren’t Going to Let Them.

I was as disturbed as anyone tracking the reports of the “Unite the Right” demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend. Disturbed by the shouted slogans, the violence, the anger, the typically disturbing imagery of swastikas, confederate flags, and automatic weapons displayed alongside American flags. All that was sickening enough.

But then I noticed something else about the images; something equally–if not more–horrifying. It began as an uncanny sensation; the way it feels to stand in a creepy, abandoned house and still recognize, on some level, the traces of very familiar daily life that remain.

It took a little while for the reality to hit me: I was seeing images and concepts pulled from the area of study to which I’ve dedicated my professional life: the history and culture of the Middle Ages in Europe. The uncanny sensation came from the fact that, for me, encountering symbolism from the Middle Ages is what I do for a living every day, so I was literally reading those symbols in my knee-jerk fashtion as though they were appearing in the contexts in which they normally appear for me, familiar symbols with familiar meanings and connotations, encountered in the course of historical and literary study. The images had become so “normal” to me that the unusual context didn’t register at first, leaving me with a strange “something is off here” sensation that I could not, initially, put my finger on.

Then it hit me: I was reading those medieval images in my usual way, such that they were barely on my radar at first. It had to dawn on me that these were neo-Nazi thugs using these images and symbols in the service of their abhorrent ideology. The awareness of what they were doing grew on me through the course of the weekend, as I continued to study the images, and listened to what many of my fellow medievalist scholars were saying: This is what I study. None of these images and concepts have anything to do with the realities of medieval European history and culture. They are hijacking the Middle Ages.

Then came the next thought:

No.

Oh. No. You. Don’t.

I don’t know how effective I’d be as a counter-protester on the streets of Charlottesville. I’m not a politician. Honestly I’m pretty much an introvert. But this? This is something I can deal with. If this is a hijacking, it’s one for which I–along with my fellow medievalists–am well equipped to help mount a rescue.

Before I show you a few examples of what I’ve been noticing, as a medievalist, in the Charlottesville images, let me make one point of supreme importance:

The basic idea behind the neo-Nazi appropriation of the European Middle Ages appears to be the appeal to the idea of a “pure white race.” That is, the (entirely false) that Europeans in the Middle Ages were white people, that the Middle Ages in Europe resent a kind of “purer” time in which other percieved racial groups had not intermingled with and corrupted their “white” culture.

Here’s the key point: There was no such thing as “White People” in the Middle Ages.

The concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness, ” in the ways in which we understand those terms in our present time, place, and culture, simply were not present in the Middle Ages. To talk about “white” culture in Medieval Europe is no less anachronistic than it would be to talk about “fourteenth-century Flemish smartphones,” or “the space stations of Carolingian France.” This alone renders the alt-right idea of a purely “white” medieval Europe absurd from the get-go. Were that not enough, we know from many varieties of evidence (literary, documentary, archaeological) that one traveling through Europe in the Middle Ages would have experienced a wide variety of skin tones, and a wide variety of ancestries from all over the known (at the time) world, including the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa. It’s also the case that for much of the Middle Ages skin tone may well have had connotations that had more to do with social class than with anything approaching the concept of “race” as the Charlottesville demonstrators seem to understand it: a light complexion, for example, would have more likely indicated a person who spend more time indoors, not obligated, like a working-class person, to spend most of their time laboring outside. The light skin would have said “wealthy aristocrat” and not “white person.”

So, white supremacist misappropriations of images and ideas of medieval Europe are precisely that: misappropriations. They have nothing whatever to do with the historical and cultural realities.

Take a look at the following images from the Charlottesville demonstrations. I’ll try to unpack some of the salient features of each:

14SCENE-fader-slide-BKO1-largeHorizontal375

Edu Bayer, New York Times

This particular image has been reproduced and discussed quite a bit. Note the shield, the design of which is reminiscent of Germanic (Norse, Saxon) design. You might have seen Vikings carrying shields like these. The symbol on the shield is called a “Black Eagle.” Traditionally, it’s the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. Presumably these white supremacists are thinking of the symbol as something connected with the idea of a “white” pan-European power. However, as several commentators, including Joseph Livingstone at the New Republic have pointed out, and as just about any scholar of the Middle Ages will tell you, this appropriation is more than a little ironic: the symbol was originally that of St. Maurice, an early Christian, and also a soldier in the 3rd Roman Legion, who was martyred for refusing the Emperor’s command to harrass a community of Christians. The kicker is that Maurice was Egyptian, and looked like this:

StMaurice

Notice the left-hand shield in this image:

12dyson-master768

Edu Bayer, New York Times

The design is based on that of the Roman Scutum, the design favored by the Empire’s legions. These groups, apparently, also have a thing about the Roman Empire, seeing it, too, as somehow nostalgic of a purer whiteness. Again, this is odd, since the Empire covered a very great deal of territory, and even most natives of Rome would hardly have been fair-complected. While Caucasian-looking skin was not unheard of in Rome, it was at lease sufficiently unusual that a shipment of fair-skinned slaves from Northern England caught the attention of the 6th century Pope Gregory I. The medieval historian Bede relates that Gregory, upon hearing that the slaves were called Angles (Angli in Latin), remarked that they were “Non Angli, sed Angeli.” Not Angles, but Angels. Clearly fair faces were not the norm in most of the Empire. The symbol on the shield is even more interesting. It’s a character from a runic alphabet known as the Elder Futharc, a writing system used in Scandinavia in the 2nd-8th centuries or so, and which became the basis for a number of later runic scripts. It’s called an odal or othala rune. Phonetically, it sounds like the English letter “O.” Symbolically, it means something like “heritage” or “inheritance.” A version of the symbol was adopted by a unit of the Nazi SS in World War II, and has been appropriated by the present-day American National Socialist movement, mainly as a sort of less-recognizable (to outsiders) replacement for the swastika, in a sort of euphemistic re-branding. Of course, no ancient Norse person would have had any awareness of him/herself as “white,” and the ideas of heritage and inheritance had much more to do with the idea of the transmission of privileges and property within a family than anything having to do with “heritage” in its (thoroughly modern) nationalistic sense.

This last image is one that’s particularly upsetting to me as a specialist in Scottish history and culture:

rts1bjpu

Reuters

The sigil on the two (again, Roman-influenced) shields is known as the “Black Saltire,” and is the sigil of the Southern Nationalist movement, including, most notably, the League of the South, a group that advocates a second Southern “secession” and the establishment of a new state dominated by what they call an “Anglo-Celtic elite.”

The saltire image is telling. “Saltire” is also known as the Cross of St. Andrew (one of the original Disciples of Jesus, and the brother of St. Peter). Andrew is, among other things, the patron saint of Scotland, and a white-on-blue saltire is still the national Flag of Scotland. Already there’s some irony here, as both Peter and Andrew, as natives of Bethasida, in Galilee–and professional fishermen who spent most of their time on the open water–would have had swarthy Middle Eastern (and sun-darkened) complexions.

The shield on the right may be significant as well. While some media outlets have noted that other organizations that use the image of a lion, such as the Detroit Lions, have already denounced the use of the image, both present-day Scots, and anyone with a passion for Scottish history, should be even more horrified. The symbols of the “Rampant Lion” is another important Scottish symbol, none other than the Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland. In Britain, the use of the image of the Rampant Lion is so

Royal_Banner_of_Scotland.svg

The Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland (Wikimedia image).

important that its use is highly regulated, by the Court of the Lord Lyon, the body governing the use of heraldry in Scotland, where such a use of the image would be considered illegal (in addition to being simply offensive). It’s been the traditional symbol of Scots royalty since the early 13th century, and, as such representative of a host of ideas, none of which is that of “whiteness.” Its misuse in this context is nothing less than nauseating. 

 

It gets worse.

The Scots, as I’ve discovered, are of special importance to American white supremacists. The basic idea stems from a group known as the “Christian Identity” movement, which itself is a derivative of the idea of “British Israelism.” To make a long, tortured story short, the CI movement believes that medieval Celts are, in fact, one of the lost tribes of Israel. According to these groups, present-day Jews and Israeli’s are essentially impostors, and “Scots-Irish” descendants, in America, of medieval Celts, are really God’s Chosen People, the heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham, and the descendants of those they see as the last “pure white” race. Of course, this has nothing whatever to do with what we know from the documentary and archaeological records of where the Scots came from. And we most certainly know that even medieval Scots were a very ethnically mixed group, with influences ranging from Celtic and Norse, to Norman, to African (thanks to occupying Roman legions). In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, not even those living in Scotland could agree on who was really a “Scot,” and, especially in the late Middle Ages, the definition often hinged on political alllegiances more than on anything having to do with genetic history. The fourteenth-century poet John Barbour, in his poem The Bruce (about the life of King Robert I, 1274-1329), seems to think of Scottishness as exclusively a matter of allegiance to King Robert: Barbour even describes native-born Scots loyal to the English Edward I as “Englis,” and only when they, and even their English-born counterparts, swear allegiance to Robert does Barbour label them, “Scottis men,” no matter where they came from.

As both a scholar of medieval Scottish history, literature, and culture, and as an American of Scottish descent, I ashamed to see the Saltire abused in this way, appropriated to stand for things it never, ever meant.

For me (and for just about any medievalist), the Middle Ages don’t appear monolithic in any way, least of all monolithically “white” (as we, in the here and now, understand the term). Medieval Europe was a highly diverse time and place, much more connected to other parts of the world than, I think, most people are aware. One of the reasons for my own interest in the British Isles is that the population thereof in the Middle Ages was one of the most diverse I’ve ever encountered, a complex and vibrant mingling of languages, ethnicities, cultures, conflicts, and ideas. It is out of that diversity, because of that diversity, that the works of literature I love and study emerged.

I’m not sure precisely what combating the evil appropriation of the Middle Ages of the so-called “alt-right” is going to wind up looking like. There have already been some promising statements, such as this one, from groups of scholars of the Middle Ages. But certainly one strand of our response has to be to find ways to make sure these appropriations fall on the least-fertile ground possible, on the ears of a public sufficiently well-educated about the realities of the Middle Ages to spot the deception. That’s a challenge I’m ready take up.

 

Plain Text Writing Lesson Seven: Markdown Resources and Editors

The first six lessons in my series on plain-text writing should be enough to get anyone–even the least techy–started with a complete plain-text writing workflow, using Gedit, markdown syntax, and Pandoc.

typora

Editing Markdown in Typora, an elegant editor for Linux, Windows, and MacOS

But I’m not done with the series look for more to come on editors, operating systems (and why you should seriously consider Linux), more advanced editing and markup with the amazing text editor emacs and orgmode, keeping a plain-text note system, and even ways to ditch the computer altogether but still take advantage of digital technologies in your writing. Also look for posts on other, more fun things you can do, like creating a whole-house music server with an old laptop, creating a writing computer you can take into direct sunlight using an old netbook and e-ink Kindle, the joys of the command line and terminal, and lots of other geeky fun tailored to the non-computer-geek user and writer. My goal is to make this incredibly useful technology accessible to everyone, especially those who don’t always feel comfortable with the kind of documentation that’s usually found online.

In the meantime, here are a few sets of additional resources: a breakdown of my own series so far, some important general resources for Markdown, and some recommendations for exploring the wide range of editors out there to find the one that’s perfect for how you work.

My Articles:

Here’s a complete index to my complete series so far on plain-text writing:

  • Lesson One: Writing in Plain Text: A Tutorial for the Non-Techy Writer: A general introduction to plain-text and explanation of its potential benefits for writers, especially over and above the traditional word processor.
  • Lesson Two: The Editor: How to download, install, and use a good all-around text editor called “Gedit”
  • Lesson Three: Markdown Elegance: An introduction to using Markdown syntax, geared toward the total beginner.
  • Lesson Four: Pandoc Magic: An introduction to Pandoc, a tool that allows you to convert your plain-text, markdown-enhanced documents to any other file format you want (Word, LibreOffice, PDF, html, etc.)
  • Lesson Five: Detangling Your Footnotes: How to create footnotes within a Markdown document, and why doing so makes them easier to manage than with a traditional word processor.
  • Lesson Six: Citation Wizardry: For the harder-core academics, this lesson covers how to do more complex citation and documentation management, pairing your markdown text with a citation manager such as Zotero, RefWorks, or Endnote. Most importantly, the lesson explains why and how managing citations this way can get rid of a lot of common citation headaches.

Markdown Resources:

  • The definitive resource on Markdown syntax, from its creator. A little more techy than my explanation, but important as the font from which springeth all things Markdown.
  • A very handy Markdown cheatsheet on github. Especially useful for beginners, for reference until you get used to the syntax you use most often (which won’t take long at all), and too keep handy for those times when you need to look up something that you don’t use as often. Put it in a text file you can pull up in your editor, or have a printout on your desk for reference. You’ll find that you don’t really need it after only a few writing sessions.
  • A nice little interactive markdown tutorial: Another very beginner-friendly tutorial that lets you try things out right in the browser as you go. If you’re still nervous about learning Markdown, start here.

Some Good Text Editors

Taste in text editors varies between writers and coders like taste in flavors of ice cream. There are a lot of choices out there, making it worth your while to explore and find one you really like. Some are more general purpose, some more specifically targeted. The general rule of thumb is that the editors that are the most graphical and simplest to use are often one-trick ponies–good for one thing but not much else. Editors that are more versatile and customizable tend to have a steeper learning curve, but the reward for the learning curve is a lot more ability to customize your editor to your particular needs and style of working. I suggest starting with an easy-to-use, simple editor first, but then experimenting with some of the more advanced editors to see what they can offer. I learned both vim and emacs very slowly, just experimenting with each a few minutes at a time, looking around at online documentation, and not worrying about doing anything with them right away. As a result, I’ve discovered ways to enhance my writing process that I’d never imagined.

Here’s a set of links to the editors I’ve found the most useful:

Gedit: I think Gedit offers about the best balance of features, simplicity, and ease of use. Definitely my recommended editor for beginners, and adequate for more advanced markdown users as well. – Also on the “easy but less versatile” spectrum, but also very useful for beginners, are specialized markdown editors that provide features like a dual-pane view that gives you an immediate preview of your markdown.

Typora is one of my favorites, offering live preview, and the ability to convert your markdown to various other document types right onboard. Especially good for those who want to use Markdown but who find the command-line interface of raw Pandoc intimidating.

For Windows users, Markdown Pad is one of more mature go-to-options. It also features a dual-pane view, where you write your markdown on the left side and see a live

markdownpad2

Using the live preview feature in MarkdownPad for Windows.

preview of the result on the right. There are both free and paid versions. The free one is very nice as an editor, and the paid version offers automatic conversion features, among other enhancements.

For those who desire a very distraction-free experience, WriteMonkey is a lean and elegant cross-platform writing app, with versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux alike. WM is designed to give you clean, minimal, full-screen interface, and supports Markdown. While it doesn’t give you a live preview like the previous two, it does feature syntax highlighting, which helps you keep track of your formatting.

Another great condender in this category is FocusWriter, a ‘zenware’ editor that really concentrates on a clean composition experience.

If you need or want to be able to work from anywhere within your browser (working on a borrowed computer, a public computer, or a Chromebook, for instance), I can’t recommend StackEdit highly enough. It gives you a real-time preview, seamless integration with cloud storage services like Dropbox, and–most useful for bloggers–the ability to publish directly from the app to your WordPress account. Stackedit is a chome app that runs in your browser, so you can work from any internet-connected device.

Other editors offer a more technical approach and are oriented toward writers of both code and prose.

My favorite of these is SublimeText. It’s probably the most elegant code and text editor out there, looks fantastic, and is extensible in ways few can imagine. It can provide tons of functionality, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, but it’s not that hard. One

download

Elegant editing in Sublime Text (here in Ubuntu Linux)

drawback is that ST is not technically free software. You can download a fully-functional evaluation copy to use for as long as you like (it’ll remind you occasionally about buying a license), but if you decide it’s the right editor for you and use it a lot, do the honest thing and pony up the (expensive but well-worth-it) $70 license.

For windows users, another contender in this category is the venerable Notepad ++, which has been a mainstay of coders and writers alike for many years.

A newer player in this category of editors is Atom, and is probably the best-looking editor in this list. It has similar functionality and complexity to Sublime Text, but is free and open-source, which makes it a preferable options for many. Like Sublime Text, it’s primarily geared toward coders, but has extensions that make it quite nice for writing if you’re willing to deal with a bit of a learning curve.

The Hardcore Options: Vim and Emacs

One thing I’ve learned about software since learning to program my first-ever computer (a Commodore 64!) in junior high: it’s always a trade-off. The easier an app is to use, the less versatile and powerful it will be. The higher the learning curve, the more powerful the app, and the more customizable to your own experience. The question to ask yourself is this: Do I want to work the way someone else thinks I should work, or do I want to work the way I want to work? If the answer is the latter, you owe it to yourself to look into one of the editors that takes a little while longer to learn, but gives you undreamed-of control, flexibility, customizability (is that a word?), and speed. There are really two major editors that fall into this category. While I started out with several of the editors listed above, I have to admit that these two have become my favorites, and my go-to editors for almost everything. They take a little more time and effort to learn–but once you learn them, wow–gangbusters! Each will get a post of its own here, but for the being short descriptions will have to suffice:

Vim is actually one of the oldest pieces of software still in continuous development, initially developed as an editor for the Commodore Amiga in the late 1980’s. It’s come a long way since then, but it’s a powerhouse that many coders and writers alike still swear by. It’s an app that runs without a GUI (that is, a “graphical user interface,”although there are GUI versions available), which means that it runs, regardless of platform, in a

VIM

Minimalist and lighting fast, but still powerful: Vim running on my desktop.

terminal window. One advantage of this is that it makes Vim the most blazingly fast editor on this list. Up and running in a keystroke. Its interface is keyboard-oriented, which means you never reach for the mouse, keeping your mind and hands on your writing. It doesn’t look like much, but the advantage is that it gets the heck out of your way and lets you compose and navigate easily through even long, complex documents. There’s a great beginner’s tutorial here if you’re interested in getting started. Look for a post from me on customizing it for writing.

Emacs is the other biggie in this category. Like vim, there’s a steeper learning curve associated with emacs, but I can tell you this: when I finally committed myself to learning emacs and discovering what it could really do, my reaction was “where have you been all my life?” I’m a little angry with computer scientists and programmers, truth be told, because they’ve been keeping all the best writing tools for themselves without letting

spacemacs

This blog post in Spacemacs, a variant of Emacs.

we writers know about them! Emacs definitely has a learning curve, but, in conjunction with a plugin called orgmode, it is hands down the most powerful tool for both note-taking and composition I’ve ever found. In fact, I wrote this post in a variant of Emacs called Spacemacs. I’m going to dedicate a whole series to Emacs later on, but, for now, there’s a good introduction for beginners here.

That’s it for now–have fun playing with the various editors and discovering more. And, as always, happy writing!

Plain-Text Writing Lesson Six: Citation Wizardry

Note: if you’re new to this series or to plain-text writing in general, please refer to Lesson One of this series to get started.

libraryAs I mentioned in the previous lesson, one of the biggest pains for me in academic writing is dealing with what happens to footnotes and citations in Word documents over the course of my writing process. Every piece I write goes through many stages of life: it starts as random jottings, becomes a general “idea draft,” then becomes a conference paper or a blog post, then an article or chapter, then a presentation, etc. Each of these versions goes through several revisions and I don’t know how much editing and refining. This means that citations get dropped, added and moved around; whole sections of one version get cut and pasted into another, sections get moved around, etc. And, of course, as I adapt a certain course of research to various publications and audiences, the style and formatting of the citations changes: one venue wants Chicago style footnotes, one wants endnotes, one wants MLA, ad nauseam.

One of the main issues that drew me to a plain-text workflow was what kept happening to my footnotes in word processors (Word and LibreOffice, for the most part), as my writing went through all these convolutions: it seemed that every time I moved things around or changed formatting, something would get messed up. When I converted from footnotes to endnotes or back again, the process never seemed to work as advertised, and I’d spend hours cleaning up formatting and manually fixing citations, even when using a citation manager like EndNote or Zotero (and sometimes because of the ways in which auto-inserted citations can get screwy when edited manually). If I needed to change style from MLA or Chicago or back, I’d wind up needing to go through an entire document and redo all the notes from scratch. All of this is not to mention the “cascade” effect, which I suspect you’ve experienced, of changing something in one note only to somehow throw off the formatting of the rest of them, or having note formatting fail to behave as expected, or even having notes change position or show up in the wrong place. There’s nothing more frustrating than pushing a deadline for an article only to find one’s self wrangling unruly citations.

There’s a better way.

Enter Pandoc once again, with some special extensions.

As with other elements of markdown writing, the idea here is that you insert citations as plain text right in line with the rest of your plain-text document. This means, for one thing, that citations always stay where they’re supposed to, even when you’re moving blocks of text around. The actual formatting of citations into different documentation and note styles (in-text citations, footnotes, endnotes, MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.) is something that only happens after your document is finished and ready to be prepared for publication. Just as you can transform any markdown document, via pandoc, into any digital format (Word, PDF, html, etc.), you can convert the plain-text, inline citations in any markdown document into any desired documentation style, without changing the original text. If you output to Word format at one point and then, say, make major edits and move sections around in your original plain-text document, you simply convert the plain-text document again and everything stays where it should and looks like it should with very little, if any, fuss.

Making this work might seem a little bit complicated at first, but I’ll try to detangle the process for you here. It’s really quite quick and efficient once you get the concept.

One thing I’ll assume in this post is that you’re already familiar with or using a citation manager such as Endnote, Zotero, or Refworks (I prefer Zotero). If you’re not, you’re really missing out on a handy tool, so I’d certainly recommend doing a little research and installing a citation manager that works for you. Zotero is clean, effective, versatile, as well as free and open-source, which is why it’s my manager of choice. In what follows, I’ll demonstrate the process with instructions for Zotero where needed, but everything I do with Zotero should be easily adaptable to the citation manager of your choice.

Step One: Enhance the Magic Wand:

To make citations work with pandoc, you need one additional tool, an extension to pandoc called pandoc-citeproc.

In any Debian-based version of linux, you can install this simply be opening a terminal and typing:

sudo apt-get install pandoc-citeproc

If you already installed pandoc in Windows, you should already have the pandoc-citeproc package, since it’s included in the Windows MSI installer, which you can find here.

Step Two: Gather the Elements:

In order to fully process citations in markdown, you need three elements:

  1. A bibliography file in bibtex format that will live in the same directory as your main markdown document. This is the file from which pandoc will draw the actual bibliographic data.
  2. Your markdown document itself, with correctly formatted citation placeholders (concerning which more below).
  3. A .csl file containing the formatting information for whatever documentation style you need or prefer.

Let’s set up these elements one by one:

A Bibliography File in Bibtex Format

This is quite easy to do. Assuming you’ve been keeping your bibliographic data in your citation manager, all citation managers have the ability to export a collection of citations into Bibtex format. In the case of Zotero, the procedure is:

  1. Open your Zotero app
  2. Right-click on the collection you want to export and select “Export Collection”
  3. In the ensuing dialog box, select “Bibtex” as your format, and click OK
  4. Specify a location for your bibliography file–this should be the same folder in which your draft document resides.
  5. Name the file whatever you like, and make sure it has a “.bib” extension.

This file will simply live alongside your text file in the same folder, so the citation information it needs is always handy. If, in the source of revising, you wind up adding sources to the original collection in your citation manager, simply delete the old .bib file and re-export the updated collection.

Format Your Citations As You Write and Revise

Dropping in-line citations into your document as you go could not be easier. Start by opening up your exported Bibtex file. As with the other components of this process, it’s also essentially a plain-text file, with no hidden formatting. You’ll see that each of your bibliography items is recorded as a record with several fields, like this:

 @book{gransden_historical_1974,
    location = {Ithaca, N.Y.},
    title = {Historical writing in England},
    isbn = {0-8014-0770-2 978-0-8014-0770-3 0-8014-1264-1 978-0-8014-1264-6},
    number = {Book, Whole},
    publisher = {Cornell University Press},
    author = {Gransden, Antonia},
    date = {1974},
    keywords = {chronicle, laercost}
}

You see that the record starts with an indication of the type of source (book, article, etc.). The next piece of information in each record is the most important for our purposes, the one that reads grandsen_historical_1974. This is called the citekey for this record–the unique ID that allows pandoc to differentiate it from every other record in the file. Dropping a citation into your document is very straightforward:

  1. Open a square bracket: [
  2. Type an @ symbol followed by the desired citekey
  3. Add any needed text or page numbers before and after the citekey.
  4. Close the bracket.

So, a normal citation would look like this:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[@grandsen_historical_1974]

That’s it. That citekey will follow that sentence wherever it goes.

If you want to add other information, such as discursive text, page numbers, etc., just add that text where you need it. Separate the page numbers from the citekey with a comma:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[If you need some discursive text, just add it inside the brackets before the citekey. See @grandsen_historical_1974, pp. 147-52]

If you need to include more than one citation, separate the citekeys with semicolons:

Here is a brilliant sentence that requires a citation.[Some discursive text. See @grandsen_historical_1974, pp. 7-9; also @anzaldua_borderlands:_2007, pp. 153-8]

Easy, yes? Once again, these citation placeholders will follow your text no matter what you do with it, just like any other kind of markdown formatting.

Grab The .csl File For Your Documentation Style

This might seem a little tricky at first, but it isn’t. The .csl file is simply a file that contains all the instructions for how final citations should be formatted according to a particular style (Chicago, APA, etc.). You can get a pre-made .csl file for most documentation styles from the Zotero Style Repository here. Simply find the style you want, click the link, and download the file into the same directory as your main text file and your bibtex file.

And Now, the Magic: Creating Fully-Cited Documents With One Swish:

Okay, now that we’ve got all the materials together, it’s time to tell Pandoc to do its thing. Let’s start with a sample markdown document with some citation placeholders included:

MD_Citations

 

Now we just need to tell Pandoc to put all the pieces together. At this point we should have three files in our document directory: Our text file, the .csl file for our chosen documentation style (I normally need the Chicago Full-Note and Bibliography style, so I’ve downloaded that one for this example), and the bibtex file containing our references, like so:

MyDocument.md
MyBibtexFile.bib
chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl

Here comes Pandoc. Fire up a terminal and type:

pandoc MyDocument.md -s -S --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib --filter pandoc-citeproc --csl chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl -o MyFormattedDocument.odt

Let’s break down what each part of the command is doing:

  • pandoc simply invokes the pandoc app.
  • MyDocument.md tells pandoc which markdown document to process
  • -s -S These two tags tell pandoc to create a standalone document file, and to use smart quotes, respectively
  • --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib Points pandoc to your bibliography file.
  • --filter pandoc-citeproc tells pandoc to use the pansdoc-citeproc tool to process your citation placeholders
  • --csl chicago-fullnote-bibliography.csl tells pandoc to format your citations according to the information in the chicago fullnote bibliography csl file, and points it to that file.
  • -o MyFormattedDocument.odt tells pandoc to output to an .odt (LibreOffice, OpenOffice) file named “MyFormattedDocument.odt” If you want a different file type, just change the extension (.docx for Word, .pdf for Portable Document Format, etc.)

And here’s the reveal, your fully formatted document:

Screenshot_Chicago

But let’s say (alas!) one publisher turns down that manuscript. You want to submit it elsewhere, but the new journal to which you’re submitting requires MLA rather than Chicago style. No problem–and no need to do anything with my original text document. I simply download the MLA 8th edition .csl file from the Zotero Style Repository, and change the pandoc command to use that stye:

pandoc MyDocument.md -s -S --bibliography MyBibtexFile.bib --filter pandoc-citeproc --csl modern-language-association-8th-edition.csl -o MyFormattedDocument_MLA.odt

And my output looks like:

Screenshot_MLA

There it is! While this tutorial takes a little longer to explain the process than some of the others, I hope it’s apparent how easy and muss-free this can be if you set it up as your workflow from the beginning. As always, I’m glad to field questions about the process. Happy writing!

Prologue: White Supremacism, Scottish Identity, and the Declaration of Arbroath

I Am An Immigrant

There are few places in the world where I feel more rooted and at home than in my

Samuelson's_Confectionery

Samuelson’s Confectionary on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. Note the bilingual signage. 

“native” Minnesota. Even here, though, in my birthplace, I use the term “native” with great caution, almost irony: one can really only call oneself a “native” of this place if one is Dakota or Ojibwa. For the rest of us, the question is not whether we are immigrants, but only how many generations we need trace backward to the movement that made us immigrants.

Minneapolis is a city of immigrants, and always has been. In my own case, it was my great-grandparents’ generation who were the invandrara, from Sweden. Some started rural farms. Others ultimately settled in an area around Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis–referred to in those days as “Snoose Boulevard”–a district of recent immigrants, where Swedish was commonly spoken on the streets, where there were Swedish-language newspapers and theaters (as a colleague pointed out to me, the sign on the lower-left of the above image actually says something like “All Swedish language newspapers sold here”). My father remembers his early downtown-Minneapolis church where his grandparents’ generation still worshipped in Swedish-language services. Swedes in Minnesota in that era did not assimilate quickly, and made a point of maintaining dual loyalties–as naturalized Americans on the one hand, but as people still proud of their language and culture of origin on the other. This drew the usual prejudices that large groups of immigrants draw in any place and era. Echoes of the image of the “dumb Swede”, smelling of pickled herring, persist in present-day representations like Fargo and the lighthearted self-deprecations (read: Sven and Ole jokes) of we third-generation Minnesotans.

It might be surprising to some that Swedish-Americans, like many other European immigrants, and despite many generations of melanin-depriving Northern European climes, were not always initially accepted as “white people” in the germanic/Anglo-Saxon sense of the term: “whiteness,” of course, has never been a category based on biology, but a cultural construct made of many components. Being “white” meant being accepted as a certain kind of “us,” and Swedish immigrants were still initially regarded as a “them,” unqualified for (full) participation in the privilege of whiteness, regardless of skin tone. (This is not to suggest, of course, that Swedish immigrants were in any sense equally as oppressed as those of African origin who were violently captured and taken to the U.S. as slaves. My point here is about the ways in which “whiteness” is a cultural idea that is much more complex, such that pale skin per se did not automatically confer full access to that category.) First-generation Swedish immigrants were a community, in many ways, of “others” holding on to dual identities. By the 1930’s, less of that Swedish-language culture remained in the area, as Minnesotans of Swedish descent slowly became the cultural insiders rather than the outsiders, thus gaining the cultural status of “whites.” But they also held on to components of their Swedishness that had become unique to immigrant culture: I grew up with “Swedish” words and dishes that are incomprehensible to present-day Swedes. And the cycles of immigrations continue: The area around Cedar Avenue where they lived out those dual identities is still a place of immigrants who negotiate similar opportunities, problems, and stereotypes, the sounds of Swedish and German supplanted by those of Somali, Hmong, and Spanish (among others).

So I am an immigrant from a city of immigrants. My Swedish great-grandparents were the products yet another, earlier, emigration: from Scotland. They were, in some ways, refugees, fleeing famine in Scotland by signing up for service in mercenary regiments that fought for Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War, and who, paid with land in Sweden by a cash-poor Gustavus, settled there. Members of the Scottish Family of Bruce, in turn, were also transplant: not a “clan” of indigenous Celts but a family of Anglo-Normans given land in Scotland by William the Conqueror after 1066. Those Normans, as the name indicates, were themselves immigrants: Norse Vikings who had settled on the continent. And back the line goes, in an endless cycle of removes, emigrations, and ever-changing ethnicities.

In the argument that follows, I’m going to speak from a particular position of identity and ethnicity: as a white, male, protestant of (in part) Scottish descent, who is both intensely interested in and proud of that Scottish component of my own heritage. I offer the foregoing personal history, as an immigrant at several removes, to try to lay bare, at the outset, the ethnic, cultural, and historical complexity–not to mention the artificiality–of what might at first seem a simple kind of identification. I am not a “white person” because of some kind of traceable genetic reality. The very concept of “whiteness” to which that previous statement refers would have been available to my great-grandparents’ generation. It might possibly (in an earlier, less-defined form) have been available to the seventeenth-century generation that emigrated from Scotland to Sweden (though certainly religious difference mattered more to them than matters of ethnicity or skin color). But that concept was certainly not available to the generation that emigrated from Normandy to Scotland, and all those generations that came before it. That “whiteness,” just like its companion terms such as “blackness” or “brownness”, is a product of culture and history, not of biology. This does not mean that such concepts are not real in the sense that they don’t have real effects on real people–they most certainly do. But it does mean that they are concepts that have been imagined into existence and not hardwired into human biology. When I claim identities like “Swedish-American” or “Scottish-American,” I want to recognise those things as important contributors to who I am, but I also want to recognise the degree to which they are artificial, and the ways in which such identifications can gloss over much more complex and significant realities. I also want to acknowledge the history that has created the present-day sense of those two ethnicities as “white” ones rather than something else, and the history of cultural and actual violence against those who didn’t fall into that category.

All of which is preamble to this: In the few posts that follow, I’m going to address what I think is an egregious–even evil–appropriation of something I value highly: that Scottish component of my own identity and ancestry. I’m going to focus on a particular component of that history, a fourteenth-century Scottish baronial letter to Pope John XXII known as the “Declaration of Arbroath.” I’ve worked on this document extensively as a student of medieval Scottish literature and culture, and became aware some time ago that there were white supremacist groups in the United States that printed and sold their own translations thereof, but I hadn’t looked into the matter deeply. Over the past few weeks, I have been doing just that, attempting to trace the history, sources, and reasons behind such a strange (mis)appropriation. The more I’ve delved into the matter, the more chilling the findings have become, uncovering traceable links from white-supremacist extremists to much more mainstream rhetoric, both about the Declaration and about Scottish and Celtic identities in general. This is why, for one thing, I’ve decided to publish the results of this work as a series of blog posts rather than as an academic paper: this information needs to be more widely accessible than a piece in a journal of which only scholarly specialists are aware.

Before I do, however, I want to make one additional prefacing point: I have been active, over the past decade or so, with several American organizations that bring together people of many different ethnicities and walks of life around a shared interest in Scottish history and culture. One, Family of Bruce International, is an organization that connects persons of that surname (or with interest therein) around the world. The other, The Minnesota Coalition of Scottish Clans, focuses on similarly bringing together “every Minnesotan who is Scottish by birth, by heritage, or by inclination.” Before I launch into a series about the appropriation of Scottish and Celtic identities by white supremacists, I want to acknowledge that I have not experienced any trace of the phenomena I’m about to discuss within them. These are organizations dedicated to the positive celebration of a culture and history and are not exclusive to those with some kind of imaginary “white” pedigree. They include diverse faces, skin tones, and origins. The people I have met, and with whom I’ve worked, played, and even shared my research, are a diverse crowd, and I’ve never experienced prejudiced attitudes. On the contrary, what I’ve witnessed has been an openness to anyone, from any background, who is interested in the history and culture of Scotland.

I mention this because I want, at the outset, to make a distinction between the downright evil appropriation of the ideas of “Celticness” or “Scottishness” for the purpose of naturalizing a false idea of a “pure white” biology and the positive celebration of interest in a fascinating set of cultures, histories, and individuals. A fondness for kilts and bagpipes does not a white supremacist make. At the same time, as I will argue, the fact that such American organisations can sometimes focus overmuch on stereopically “Scottish” phenomena (the kilts and bagpipes, haggis, etc.)–to the exclusion of a broader view of both historical and contemporary Scottish culture–may be part of what has left the ideas of “Scottishness” and “Celticness” strangely open to spurious white supremacist appropriations of those categories. In other words, I do fear that we of the Scottish American community may in some ways have (for the most part inadvertently) made American cultural ground more fertile for the extreme-right-wing hijacking of Scottishness.

In fact, one of my reasons for publishing this work in a more public space is to warn my colleagues in those organizations that such appropriations are taking place, and are–quite disturbingly–more prevalent than I had ever imagined. FOBI and MSCSC have long promoted historical and cultural accuracy and made specific efforts to counter destructive mythologies about the cultures and histories they hold dear. They are also effective vehicles for disseminating more accurate and balanced ideas to a broader public. I know that they will remain at the forefront of those efforts, and suspect there are ways we can do even more.

 

The Solarized Writer’s Desktop

elegant_solarizedIn two more weeks, I end my post-heart-surgery medical leave and go back to doing what I love the most: being with students, teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare, and studying the literature and culture of medieval Britain.

It’s going to be a bit of a transition after three months of focusing on healing, so I’ve been spending my weekend doing a little preliminary “gearing up”, sort of preparing myself psychologically to head back to work, now that my body can actually handle it again.

Since part of my job involves doing some pretty heavy-duty research and writing, part of that prep has involved thinking about ways to work on those projects, especially the writing, with a high degree of focus. The computer is of course both a blessing and a curse in this regard: it’s a necessary tool, to be sure, but it can also be mightily discracting, not only in the sense of offering online diversions (social media, etc.) but visual clutter as well. Our operating systems and browsers seem to be increasingly geared to be platforms for selling us things, which means notifications and message-boxes of various kinds can really proliferate (Windows 10, for example, drives me insane in this regard). With multiple windows and toolbars, computer screens can become a cacaphony of clashing colors and notification sounds, none of which are particularly conducive to concentration.

So, being a bit of a nerdy sort, and also someone who cares about recycling older gadgets to reduce e-waste, I decided to resurrect an old desktop computer to use as a dedicated writing machine. The idea was to make the interface as distraction-free as possible, visually elegant, and conducive to long work sessions while minimizing eyestrain.

There are of course many “distraction free” writing apps out there that try to fill this kind of niche (such as WriteMonkey and Writeroom), but I’ve never found them quite right for me: as an academic, I rarely write only what springs spontaneously to mind: I’m constantly looking at previous drafts of what I’ve written, paging through electronic notes, PDF files of articles, etc. I generally also need some consistent information, such as the time (so I’m not missing my next class!), my to-do list, and basic weather information. I also wanted to capacity to play and control music right on the desktop, since that usually helps me tune out other ambient noise. Dedicated distraction-free writing tools accomplish their task my simply filling the entire screen and blocking out everything else; I wanted a solution that would not blocking things out, but rather byu displaying only what I want. So, my idea was to set up a system that would be as spare and distraction-free as possible without cutting me off from all the information and resources I generally need to manage while I write.

The result is what you see in the screenshot above. I’ll explain the techy bits of this below for anyone interested in duplicating or improving upon my efforts, but here’s what you’re looking at:

  • To create a very customizable system that runs quickly on an older computer, I used the Linux operating system, specifically the Xubuntu Linux flavor. Xubuntu is designed to be easy-to-use with a minimum of system resources while still being a fully-featured desktop environment. A similar arrangement should be possible with Windows and MacOS, using a somewhat different set of applications and tools.
  • To make the whole thing very eye-friendly, I based all the colors on the solarized color scheme developed by Ethan Schoonover. According to Schoonover:

Solarized is a sixteen color palette (eight monotones, eight accent colors) designed for use with terminal and gui applications. It has several unique properties. I designed this colorscheme with both precise CIELAB lightness relationships and a refined set of hues based on fixed color wheel relationships. It has been tested extensively in real world use on color calibrated displays (as well as uncalibrated/intentionally miscalibrated displays) and in a variety of lighting conditions.

I’ve found this scheme to be truly conducive to long periods of staring at a screen. My idea was to integrate all aspects of the desktop within this scheme, so that both the desktop and its various elements (wallpaper, window borders, application backgrounds, music player, system information display), as well as all the applications I need, share this same set of soothing colors.

  • I set up the system to use two monitors: one directly in front of the keyboard that’s entirely dedicated to the text I’m currently writing (this is the lefthand side of the screenshot above, which combines the images from both monitors). Just to my right, the second monitor is dor displaying system and other information (weather, time, music), and also for displaying and managing ancillary documents like notes, images, and PDF’s. This keeps the focus on the main text while also keeping all those other materials ready to hand.
  • As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I love to write using plain-text tools, for a host of reasons that I explain here. My editor of choice for composing is an oldie-but-goody well-known to programmers but less so to writers, known as Vim. Vim is an old-school editor designed to run in a good old-fashioned terminal. There’s a definite learning-curve involved in using Vim, but it’s been worth it for me, as Vim has become about the fastest and most distraction-free tool for bare composition I’ve ever found. Since Vim runs in a terminal window, I simply have the lefthand monitor set up to display that single terminal window, made almost transparent, against the solarized background. This keeps the editor in the visual center of the monitor at all times, keeps my hands on the keyboard where they belong, and encourages a focus on what I’m writing.
  • The most prominent element on the righthand monitor consists of a system monitor tool called conky, set up to display the time, weather information, and basic system information.
  • To the left of the system information display, there’s a music player called ncmpcpp. This is another tool designed to run in an old-fashioned terminal. The beauty of this is that I can position a transparent terminal on the screen, and the music player becomes a background element of the desktop, always available but never in the way. Console applications also take up much less in the way of system resources than GUI apps, which helps to keep this older machine running smoothly.
  • The final element is my todo list, which I manage via a wonderful, elegant application by Gina Trapani called todo.txt. It’s basically a fancy way of keeping you todo list in a plain text file while still being able to manage it nicely, add and delete items, set contexts, etc. This is another console application, so it runs in another small, transparent terminal window right underneath the system information display.
  • Note management is a little more complex than simple composition, since it involves keeping track of many different small files at once (I keep my reading and thinking notes in small, plain-text files, organized into directories), so I use a more robust text editor for note management so I can easily switch between notes and have several note documents open at once. I accomplish this with the excellent Sublime Text. Note that Sublime Text (the other window in the right-hand part of the screenshop above) displays both my note documents in tabbed or tiled format, with a left-hand panel that shows the directory tree of my note directory, making everything readily accessible.

Those are the basics! Feel free to let me know what you think or suggest improvements. I’m also glad to work with the less-techy to set up similar arrangements of their own.

A few more details and resources:

Solarized Wallpaper:

Ncmpcpp documentation:

https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/ncmpcpp

Solarized Numix theme for XFCE:

https://github.com/gsnewmark/numix-solarized-dark-gtk-theme

Conky Harmattan theme:

https://github.com/zagortenay333/Harmattan

 

Saracen Lumps: Medieval Islamophobia Today

Yet another instance of the many ways in which ideas and texts from the Middle Ages are (erroneously) hijacked into the service of racial and religious hatred. I’m reblogging these, in part, to keep track of them, and will be adding a post on one of my own such discoveries (hopefully!) soon.

 

Googling the word “saracens”, the first three pages of results are mostly about sports teams. So when I saw this story about anti-Muslim hate crime in Cumbernauld, Scotland, I was struc…

Source: Saracen Lumps: Medieval Islamophobia Today

White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies — In the Middle

I’ve been absent from blogging–in the process of recovering from heart surgery–for quite a few months now. I also don’t often reblog others’ work, but in this case I’m glad to begin the process of re-starting Surfingedges with what I think is one of the most important blog posts in Medieval Studies for the coming year, highlighting the importance of medieval studies in combating racism and white supremacism. I’ll follow up with some of my own work on this issue next, but this article is certainly the place to begin.

A guest post by Sierra LomutoBy now we probably all know about the National Policy Institute, an innocuously named white supremacist think tank that held their annual conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC on November 19th. The not-so-subtle yet still coded conference title “Become Who We Are” served as a call to…

via White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies — In the Middle

Love is Never A Mistake: Christ and Augustine on “Doctrinal Correctness”

Note: I wrote this post in early July of 2017, only a few days after I’d been told by my surgeon that I had four blocked arteries and would need major surgery. I wrote this only a day or two before the surgery, not knowing if I would live to write another. I asked myself “if there’s only one thing I have time to say publicly, what would it be?” This was what came out. Nine months later, I’m still here, my health mostly recovered. I get to read more, think more, say more, for which I’m more grateful than I can express. But had this turned out to be the last thing I published, I’d be okay with that.

I’m not a theologian. Let’s take care of that one straight off the bat.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

I’m fascinated by theology, and love to read about it, discuss it, think about it–but at the end of the day, as a believing layman, I sometimes find myself wanting to simplify rather than complicate that belief. What does it really boil down to be a Christian believer in the world? When all the interesting theological thinking is done, what do I actually do to act on whatever belief I hold? Is there a simple principle that can guide my thought and action?

Luckily, it seems to me that there really is, stated in flatly unambiguous terms by my faith’s own central figure, in the Gospel of Mark:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’–this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34, NRSV)

The Bible is often a difficult text, rife with passages that require a lot of study and very careful interpretation, and upon which scholars have legitimate confusions and disagreements. But this isn’t one of those passages. It’s stone-cold clear: a scribe asks, essentially, “of all the various tenets of our faith, which one is the most important, the one that should trump all the others?” Jesus gives a twofold answer with stark clarity:

  1. Love God.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Boom. That’s it, folks, right from the Big Guy himself: the idea that that, of everything that we might think, believe, or do, this twofold commandment is the trump card. The concept that takes precedence over all the others.

St. Augustine usefully combines both these concepts into a single term, caritas.

Caritas is a Latin word, which is the root of the English word “charity”, but for Augustine means much more. He means precisely the two qualities Christ marks as the Most Important Thing Of All in Mark 12:

Caritas=Love of God and Neighbor

Augustine unpacks the importance of this concept in one of my all-time favorite books, called the De Doctrina Christiana (Concerning Christian Doctrine). The De Doctrina is ostensibly a book about how one should go about translating the Christian scriptures, but it also goes beyond that: it’s not just about linguistic translation, but about how the content of the scriptures–the Gospel itself–is best translated into our lives and cultures. How do we translate Caritas into everything we do?

Interestingly, Augustine takes the concept of Caritas as both his starting point and his main “razor” for both linguistic and cultural translation. In essence, he says that the end of scripture, its most important purpose, is exactly what Jesus says it is in Mark 12: caritas. Consequently, the most important rule of Biblical translation, for Augustine, is that any translation of scripture must ultimately convey that caritas. Even when we think we understand something in scripture, but our understanding does not lead to caritas, something is wrong:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all [boldface mine]…However…if he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity [i.e. caritas], which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.1

In other words, for Augustine, if one’s translation of scripture does not, ultimately, point toward and demonstrate love of God and love of Neighbor, that indicates that something is wrong, no matter how correct you might believe your translation to be. On the other hand, even if you make a mistake, if that mistake itself leads to the love of God and Neighbor, you’ve done little harm, as though you got lost in the middle of a journey but still wound up at the right destination anyway.

To put it even more simply: A mistake that still leads to caritas beats something you’re convinced is correct but doesn’t lead to caritas, every time.

To put it even more simply than that: love is the trump card. If what we believe or do does not show and result in love, something is wrong, no matter how right we think we might be. If what we believe or do is mistaken, but still shows and results in love, then, at least, we’ve still ultimately managed to do the right thing. We did it in spite of ourselves, perhaps, but we still did it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that too many believers (myself included, sometimes) have become stuck in the idea that right belief–what we might call “doctrinal correctness,” is the most important aspect of our faith. I suspect this is because it’s easier to create a laundry list of propositions and then mentally check them off (“yep, believe that, check; okay, believe that other thing, check…”) than it is to make sure we’re truly showing and promoting love of God and Neighbor in everything we do. I see it in my own dealings with fellow believers on social media, when I snark at people who I think are wrong. I see it in the accusations that fly back and forth over issues like positions on the status of LGBTQ persons or gender roles: “you can’t really be a Christian if you believe x or y.”

But according to Christ himself, that’s not really the question, is it? What makes someone a Christian, at the end of the day, is our ability to demonstrate love for God and Neighbor. Period. If we don’t do that, we’re not succeeding, no matter how correct we might think we are. When I snark at someone with whom I disagree, I’m not doing it right, no matter how right I think I am. If I try, as a believer, to “convict” someone of something I believe is wrong or sinful behavior, and that person winds up walking away feeling more shamed than loved, I have failed, no matter how correct I think my belief about his/her behavior might be. If that person walks away feeling loved, I’ve succeeded, whether my belief about that person’s behavior is correct or not. If I’m not sure whether my words or behavior toward another person are right, or if I’m not sure whether my belief is correct, erring on the side of love is never, ultimately, an error.

It’s a freeing principle for we imperfect people, and easy to remember:

When in doubt, love. When  not in doubt, be more concerned about showing love than being right. Love is never, ever, a mistake.


  1. St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), pp. 30-31.  

 

On the (Self-) Coddling of Christian Universities

deathofsocratesA few weeks ago Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, released an open letter addressed to his university’s student body. In the letter, Piper appeared to take on the issue of “victimization” culture, railing against a student who apparently objected to the content of a sermon at one of OKU’s chapel services. A number of bloggers have already responded to Piper’s letter in various ways, chief among them my friend and colleague Chris Gehrz over at the Pietist Schoolman and historian John Fea, not to mention numerous commenters to the Pietist Schoolman post. While Piper’s letter won accolades from conservative commentators like Rod Dreher, who hailed Piper as “A Man Among Boys”, Gehrz, Fea, and a number of their respondents had more thoughtful responses. You can read the text of Piper’s letter here.

Rather than respond directly to the letter, however, I’d like to set it in the context of several other recent events involving Christian (especially evangelical) colleges. Briefly:

  • This past August, both Oklahoma Wesleyan and Union University withdrew their memberships in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities over the actions of two other then-member universities (Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College), who changed their hiring policies, after the Obergefell ruling, to legally married same-sex couples. The reason OKW and UU gave for withdrawing from the CCCU was not any sort of decision about the matter by the CCCU, but rather that the CCCU hadn’t moved to condemn EMU and Goshen quickly enough. This means, of course, both universities acted before even knowing what kind of response the CCCU (which had decided, not unreasonably, to discuss the matter first) might make.
  • In early December, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. encouraged his university’s students to carry concealed firearms, specifically in order to counteract a perceived threat from Muslim terrorists. The most chilling sentence in Falwell’s address was this: “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they, before they walk in and kill us…” Several commentators have already worried about the connotations of the phrase “those Muslims,” but the real problem, for me, is the before: Falwell isn’t talking, here, about responding to a threat that has already materialized; he’s talking about a pre-emptive strike: Let’s go out and get Them before They get Us.
  • Finally and more recently, Wheaton college recently suspended (or, to use their term “placed on administrative leave”) Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins, apparently, had committed to wearing a hijab during advent as a way of showing solidarity between Christians and Muslims. While Wheaton had no problem with the hijab, the college suspended Hawkins for part of her explanation, in a Facebook post, for why she was doing so, in which she stated that Christians and Muslims “…worship the same God.” Again, what was troubling to me was not that there was debate about that statement (it’s actually a very interesting question), but the speed of Hawkins’ suspension: according to the Christianity Today article covering the event, Hawkins’ posted that Facebook message on December 10–the Thursday, according to Wheaton’s academic calendar, of the last week of regular classes before finals week. It seems likely that Wheaton officials would not have become aware of the posting, or at least have been able to discuss what to do about it, until the next day (Friday); the 12th and 13th, of course, were a weekend, and Wheaton’s suspension of Hawkins, according to its own press release came on Tuesday the 15th, which means that there was only a single business day (the intervening Monday) between Wheaton officials’ becoming aware of the post and placing Hawkins on administrative leave. This means that Hawkins was assuredly placed on leave before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place. It also means that all the substantive conversation about the issue, for Hawkins, has taken place under that administrative leave–under, in other words, at least the implied threat of termination (were that not at stake, there would have been no reason for administrative action at all). Nothing like forcing the suspect to make her case À l’ombre de la guillotine.

It’s the repeated before that’s troubling. Union University withdrew from the CCCU before it knew what the CCCU was going to do about EMU’s and Goshen’s changes in policy. The problem wasn’t, at that point, that the CCCU hadn’t responded as they’d wanted, but that the response they were looking for wasn’t the CCCU’s immediate, knee-jerk response. Falwell exhorted his students, chillingly, to go out and “end those Muslims” before they walked in, calling not for a response to an act of violence in progress, but for a pre-emptive strike against those he feared might possibly commit one. Wheaton took administrative punitive action against Hawkins before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place, forcing any subsequent conversation to take place not between colleagues and fellow inquirers, but between the institutional power of the employer and the termination-threatened employee.

Bear in mind that these are universities–the places that we supposedly set aside precisely in order to creates spaces to inquire into and communicate about difficult issues, to ask questions and seek answers about complex and important matters. But the common element of all three of these incidents is that the institutions acted almost immediately not to ask questions or communicate about hard issues, but precisely to prevent substantive and unfettered communication and inquiry. While Wheaton’s FAQ about the issue asserts that Hawkins’ administrative leave is “…a time for conversation and assessment,” there’s surely a significant rhetorical difference between a conversation between academic colleagues that takes place without constraint and one that takes place under an official administrative action by the institution, and there’s no reason that Wheaton’s administration could not have chosen to have some of those conversations prior to taking sweeping institutional action, especially an action imposed at the beginning of finals week. In the absence of additional information, everything about the Wheaton decision smacks of placing action before thought.

It’s that sense of–quite literally–acting before thinking that makes all these incidents disturbingly strange for institutions of higher learning. It’s as though it’s not enough only to be orthodox; one must also be immediately and autonomically orthodox, with no room for asking questions or communication before an equally-autonomic institutional response must kick in.

To put it a simpler way, these seem like responses born in fear more than thought (fear of what I’m not sure). There appears to be a disturbing insistence on invoking institutional power right away to insulate the institution from ideas or persons its most powerful members think might be unorthodox or dangerous, without stopping beforehand even to ask whether or not that might be the case. In none of these cases was authentic inquiry allowed to precede institutional action. Doesn’t this begin to sound like the story of the student who insisted on not being made uncomfortable by the content of a sermon, not being forced into a situation where he/she must struggle with challenging ideas rather than maintaining his or her own “orthodoxy?”

Who, then, is really insisting on being coddled?

[Note: Lest anyone think I’m merely being grumpy about all this, I’m going to take some time in my next post to talk about what I think might be some better alternatives for thinking about and dealing with such issues in more positive and (to use the the term in vogue in some evangelical circles) irenic ways.]

Divine Love and the Cloud of Unknowing, Part Three

In which St. Augustine and a medieval mystic show us how it’s done, and we realize John Lennon was plagiarizing both of them…

I ended the previous part of this meditationSaint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_Champaigne on this note: if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism.

The good news–quite literally–in this case is that God has already made this possible by accomplishing what was discussed in the first part of this meditation  the incarnation, where all that fullness, in a great and mysterious action, became one and the same thing as an embodied human being. That’s why the incarnation is so important. It means human and God can in fact be made one.

At the same time, that gap between what we can know and what God is is still there, so what takes us the rest of the way? It can’t be understanding. It can’t be knowledge. It can’t be human effort under its own steam.

But what might happen if we try to get to the point where we can work through those things: start with what we can sense, move up through what we can understand and symbolize, precisely in order to be so aware of those things that we can come into some kind of contact with that realm beyond it. Get past sense and signification so that we’re stretching our intent entirely toward that “Cloud of unknowing?”

St. Augustine gives us an interesting glimpse into what something like that might be like. The moment happens at a point where Augustine, after his conversion, is sitting in a garden, having a conversation with his mother:

From Confessions, Book Nine (New Advent Trans.):

We then were conversing alone very pleasantly; and, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, Philippians 3:13 we were seeking between ourselves in the presence of the Truth, which You are, of what nature the eternal life of the saints would be, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. But yet we opened wide the mouth of our heart, after those supernal streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You; that being sprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some measure weigh so high a mystery.

And when our conversation had arrived at that point, that the very highest pleasure of the carnal senses, and that in the very brightest material light, seemed by reason of the sweetness of that life not only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention, we, lifting ourselves with a more ardent affection towards the Selfsame, did gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven itself, whence sun, and moon, and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring Your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty, where You feed Israel for ever with the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made, both which have been, and which are to come; and she is not made, but is as she has been, and so shall ever be; yea, rather, to have been, and to be hereafter, are not in her, but only to be, seeing she is eternal, for to have been and to be hereafter are not eternal. And while we were thus speaking, and straining after her, we slightly touched her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there left bound the first-fruits of the Spirit; Romans 8:23 and returned to the noise of our own mouth, where the word uttered has both beginning and end. And what is like Your Word, our Lord, who remains in Himself without becoming old, and makes all things new? Wisdom 7:27

We were saying, then (my trans):

If the roar of flesh fell silent

silent the phantasms of earth,‭ ‬water,‭ ‬air,

silent the heavens

silent the very soul to itself,

so that it passes beyond itself,

not knowing itself‭;

If dreams quieted‭

‬and imagination,

and all tongues,

every sign,

each transient thing

just stopped–

since,‭ ‬if one hears,‭ ‬all things say this:

‏>“‎not for ourselves were we made

but for he who made us who dwells in eternity‭”‬–

and,‭ ‬having aroused the ear

of Him who made them,

they quieted down,

and He spoke:

Himself only,

so that we heard the Word Himself

not through carnal tongue

nor voice of angels

nor sound of a cloud,

nor cryptic metaphor–

If we heard only Him,

who we love through these things

but without them

(just as now

we strain

and in a lightning thought

touch eternal wisdom

dwelling above all‭)

And if this could continue,

purging all other visions

of far inferior birth,

and this alone ravish and absorb

the spectator,‭ ‬hide him

in inward joys,

so that eternal life was this moment

of understanding:

Isn‭’‬t this,‭ ‬and this alone:

‏“‎Enter into the joy of your Lord‭?”

What Augustine does, here, is give us a fascinating dual movement: he starts by sort of listing out all of the things through which we can begin to experience some sense of God through his sensible creation: the natural world, through which we have evidence of God’s activity–something that points toward God but is not itself God. Symbols that help us explain our conceptions of God but don’t express God himself. Even God speaking to us in words we can understand as words. Then he asks a really amazing question:

What if, for a single moment, all that stuff just shut up? What if all that fell silent and we just felt pure, unmediated communion with the thing all those symbols point toward but aren’t? What if we didn’t have to understand or experience God through these things (like pesky middlemen), but were right there, being with God as God?

Then he asks: What if that single moment–which he’d just experienced with his mom–wasn’t just a single, beautiful moment? What if it stretched out infinitely, an eternal, un-mediated being-present with the divine?

And the final humdinger: Wouldn’t that be heaven?

Notice that while Augustine didn’t get quite that far–to heaven, that is–he did get to that moment that, if stretched out infinitely, would be heaven. So what he he can achieve in this existence isn’t itself heaven–but it’s a a piece of it.

So how does one actually come to be in such a state? To commune with that part of God we cannot know?

Augustine gives us a glimpse: he and his mother start by being fully present in a moment with one another, and consider all those sense-able and knowable things we most often use to know and relate to God, but are present with them so completely that they are able to move beyond them into that space of what can’t be known.

So how, then might real people (who aren’t, you know, St. Augustine) reach toward this kind of communion? And how do we know that what we’re communing with is really the divine, and not something else?

Another mystic, the anonymous writer of a fourteenth-century Middle English treatise on mysticism called the Cloud of Unkowing perhaps helps us understand this process a little better. The Cloud author recognizes that “Cloud of Unknowing”, and his basic method is not to lament that there are things about God we cannot understand, but rather to stretch our awareness directly and fully to that “Cloud:”

Lette not therfore, bot travayle [work] therin tyl thou fele lyst [motivated, desirous]. For at the first tyme when thou dost it, thou fyndest bot a derknes, and as it were a cloude of unknowyng, thou wost [knows] never what, savyng that thou felist in thi wille a nakid entent unto God. This derknes and this cloude is, howsoever thou dost, bitwix thee and thi God, and letteth [hinders] thee that thou maist not see Him cleerly by light of understonding in thi reson, ne fele Him in swetnes of love in thin affeccion.

The Cloud author’s most basic and brilliant observation is that, while, as I’ve mentioned above, God in all his fullness cannot be known by a human mind, knowledge isn’t the only, or even necessarily the best, tool we have when it comes to relating to God:

For of alle other creatures and theire werkes — ye, and of the werkes of God self — may a man thorou grace have fulheed of knowing, and wel to kon [know] thinke on hem [them]; bot of God Himself can no man thinke. And therfore I wole leve al that thing that I can think, and chese [choose] to my love that thing that I cannot think. For whi He may wel be loved, bot not thought. By love may He be getyn and holden; bot bi thought neither. And therfore, thof al [although] it be good sumtyme to think of the kyndnes and the worthines of God in special, and thof al it be a light and a party of contemplacion, nevertheles in this werk it schal be casten down and keverid with a cloude of forgetyng. And thou schalt step aboven it stalworthly [stalwartly, bravely], bot listely [carefully], with a devoute and a plesing stering [stirring] of love, and fonde for to peerse that derknes aboven thee. And smyte apon that thicke cloude of unknowyng with a scharp darte of longing love, and go not thens for thing that befalleth.

Notice that what the contemplative is doing here is essentially reaching out toward that Cloud with loving intention, to “smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love”. Obviously that’s not going to get one all the way. But it does act as a way of clearing one’s consciousness of all the other matters–sensible and symbolic–that can’t lead toward that full relationship. And the good news–literally once again–is that the incarnation means that we do not need to complete the task under our own steam. What happens when we enter that contemplative state is that we clear the air of things that make us less receptive to the force that works the other direction, God’s own grace and mercy:

And therfore schap [determine] thee to bide in this derknes as longe as thou maist, evermore criing after Him that thou lovest; for yif ever schalt thou fele Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth alweis be in this cloude and in this derknes. And yif thou wilte besily travayle [diligently work] as I bid thee, I triste in His mercy that thou schalt come therto.

By stretching that loving intent and desire for God directly toward that Cloud of Unknowing, we put ourselves as purely as possible in the way of grace, and grace takes it the rest of the way.

A blessed Christmas to all.