Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 Year in Review: Music

Before I launch my list of favorite albums released in 2013, a few caveats: 1) I'm not a music critic. Worse yet, I don't even subscribe to Pitchfork. 2) I take the Potter Stewart approach to deciding what I like: I know it when I hear it. 3) I still think my list is better than yours.

9) Drake - Nothing Was the Same

I'm a hypocrite. I like to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Drake's existential crises: Am I too rich? Am I too famous? Why do my groupies settle down with real boyfriends? But Drake still makes great music, creatively channeling R&B and hip hop into one of the best musical acts in the pop world.

Best Song: Too Much

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Religion in Rap Music

I grew up in rural Nebraska, yet somehow I fell in love with rap music. By the time I graduated high school, I had listened to as many of the classic hip hop albums as possible and I can still quote line and verse from most of the classic songs. Now that I'm all grown up with responsibilities and a family and fantasy basketball to worry about, I don't have as much time to keep up with everything going on in hip hop. But I still try to listen to the major new releases, and there is still no more powerful form of music for me than rap.

Meanwhile, my graduate studies have caused me to increasingly become aware of the ever-present forms of religious discourse within American culture. Given how much I still listen to rap, it was inevitable that I would start to consider how some of my favorite rap artists discuss and understand religion in their music. I've already broached this theme once, when I discussed the ways that rappers tend to appropriate powerful religious titles for themselves as part of the competitive nature of rhyming. Here, I wanted to do something a little different. I've compiled a list of some of the most interesting (to me) mainstream-ish rap songs in which religion is a major and obvious theme within the lyrics. This is not an exhaustive or a "best of" list. Instead, think of it as a starting point for looking at the many ways that rappers understand and discuss religion in their music.

Common - G.O.D. (Gaining One's Definition)
from One Day It'll All Make Sense (1997)

Common could be the spokesman for the "spiritual but not religious" demographic (which, despite its name is still very much concerned with religion). Just check out the lyrics: "As a child, given religion with no answer to why" he raps, "Just told believe in Jesus cause for me he did die." But, for Common, "curiosity killed the catechism." Whether Jesus, Allah, or any other sacred name, "who am I or they to say to whom you pray ain't right?" Common is fully comfortable exploring religious ideas in ways that most establishment Christians or Muslims would find troublesome. For example, he speculates in this song that God might be black, and on other songs, Common wonders if God might be female. He's fully comfortable incorporating elements of Islam, Christianity, and traditional African religions with any other religious concept that he finds worthwhile.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era: A Preview

I'm now about one month into life as a PhD student, and it's been a blast. I've got three research papers underway, all of which I'm really excited about. Once I get those wrapped up, I'll probably get back to blog posting on a semi-regular basis.

In the meantime, my monthly post at the Religion in American History Blog is up. In it, I interview Ben Wright and Zach Dresser, the editors of a new collection of essays that explore the themes of millennialism, apocalypse, and providentialism during the Civil War Era. It's a fantastic collection of essays, and it features work from a number of scholars for whom I have great respect. The book is set to be published this November by LSU Press, for those who might be interested in checking it out.

Here's the link to check out what Wright and Dresser have to say about Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Religion in the High School Classroom

My August post over at the Religion in American History blog is up. Click over there to read more on a bit of research I did into the place of religion in high school American History curriculum. You'll also get to see why I created this beautiful word cloud:

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"The Foulest Ulcer on the White Breast of the Nation": Charles Savidge Takes on the Mormons

Some time ago, a time when I still lived in Nebraska and was not in the middle of planning and then executing a move to Texas, I made a few posts based on my (recently published!) research on an obscure Omaha pastor and called it the Charles Savidge stories series. Now that I am halfway unpacked in Waco, I've managed to squeeze out enough time to present part three of my indeterminately-long series. In this edition, the good Rev. Savidge holds a public debate with T.W. Williams, a local Mormon leader. 

(For background on Savidge, you can refer back to parts 1 and 2)

From the Omaha Daily Bee, accessed via

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Imagination and the Intellect: A Quick Reflection on Reza Aslan's "Zealot"

I recently read David Burns’s The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus (You can read a more thorough review of the book over at the Religion in American History Blog). This Jesus was a pseudo-scholarly construction emerging out of biographies of Jesus written by Ernest Renan, Bouck White, and others in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The Jesus that they constructed was thoroughly secularized and did not believe himself to be divine. He was also a social and political revolutionary who argued for a nonviolent overthrow of the Roman system, and was suspicious of all religious institutions. According to the radical religionist biographers, this meant that the Christian church itself was not a true representation of the historical Jesus.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Radical Middle Path: The Jesus of Ingersoll, Herron, and Debs

Over at the Religion in American History blog, I posted a review of David Burns' book The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus. The book takes a look at conceptions of Jesus held by so-called American "radicals" in the late-19th and early-20th century. The radicals--figures like Robert Ingersoll, Geroge Herron, Bouck White, and Eugene Debs--combined modern biblical criticism with imaginative biographical reconstructions to create a human proletarian Jesus who vigorously protested the political powers-that-be. You can click on over to the site to read more. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Five Great (Recent) Books on American Religious History

I recently decided to look back and reflect on the books I've read in the past year. Since I'm a habitual list-maker, I ended up taking my stray thoughts and turning them into categories and rankings until eventually I ended up with this: my five favorite books dealing with American religious history that have been released in the past calendar year (yep, I imposed a completely arbitrary chronological boundary for my list). For those who might also have an interest in American religious history, but aren't quite sure what recent books to read, perhaps this list can be a starting point into the excellent recent work that has been published in the field

Monday, June 24, 2013

Looking Backward: Reliving the 1990 NBA Draft

There are only two types of NBA Drafts one should watch: one is the live-and-in-real-time draft, held every June.  The other type is the one in which all drafted players have ended their careers, and an assessment of their legacy can be envisioned as you watch the younger version of the NBA retiree march awkwardly up to shake David Stern’s hand.  Watching a draft from five years ago is an exercise in inanity.  Watching a draft from twenty years ago is an existential reflection on youth and innocence and society, a historical document in living color.  You may not believe me.  Thankfully, NBA TV exists, and they broadcast old drafts. I decided to jot a few notes down while watching the 1990 NBA Draft to illustrate my point 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

American Jesus, 1895: Francis Schlatter, the New Mexico Messiah

On a Friday night in early January, 1896, a Unitarian minister in Salem, Oregon lectured on the topic "Is Francis Schlatter the Lord Jesus Christ come for the second time?" The exact details of his answer to that question are unknown, but we can be sure that his final word on the subject was "no." More interesting than his sermon, though, is why he would even bring up the subject in the first place. Schlatter never set foot in Oregon, neither before nor after his rise to fame. Twelve months prior he was virtually unknown, wandering through the New Mexico desert. But by August 1895, newspapers from coast to coast were writing about the "New Mexico Messiah" and cracking jokes about a new sect of "Schlatter Day Saints."

Who was Francis Schlatter, why did he gain messianic status in the eyes of some, and what, ultimately, happened to him?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Niebuhr's "Children of Light," a Summary and Reflection

You may not know Reinhold Niebuhr, but you know Reinhold Niebuhr. At least you do if you've ever read that "man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary," or recited the prayer "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

Gary Dorrien, professor at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, has called him "the most important thinker of the past century concerning the relation of Christianity to problems of social ethics and politics." Time went even further, eulogizing him as the "greatest Protestant theologian since Jonathan Edwards." His career as a pastor, theologian, professor, author, and social commentator left an indelible imprint on intellectual life in the 20th-century United States.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Omaha's Crazy Religious Sects Pt. 2 (Or, the Figgites, Westboro Baptist, and Religious Freedom)

From 1897 to 1907 in Omaha, a minuscule religious group caused a sensation for its habit of bursting into religious services (and sometimes other public events) and denouncing everyone present as devil-filled sinners. In fact, denouncing other religious groups seemed to be the main point of their existence. Known as the Figgites, the sect disappeared from the historical record within a decade of their first public spectacle. When I first came across the group in my research into Omaha's religious history, I immediately was reminded of a more modern example of a widely-hated lilliputian religious group with a penchant for public trolling: the good folks at Westboro Baptist. And while our society has changed dramatically over the past century in regards to protecting the rights of minority religious groups, the treatment of the Figgites and Westboro shares some rather strong similarities. But more on that later. First, a little background on Omaha's prequel to Fred Phelps' clan. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The NBA Comes to Omaha

Recently, a small-to-moderate number of eyes, all of them bleary from tuning into the late NBA playoff games, turned towards Sacramento, wondering if perhaps the Kings would be taking their talents (and terrible chemistry, coachability, and cohesion) to Seattle.  I, for one, didn't care one way or another. But if the Kings had ended up heading north, I would have felt no pity for Sacramento...after all, what goes around comes around.

There is no NBA franchise that has spurned more cities than the Kings. They began as the Rochester (NY) Royals in 1948, before moving to Cincinnati in time for the 1957-58 season. They ditched Cincinnati for Kansas City-Omaha in 1972 (changing their name to the Kings along the way), and then dropped Omaha in 1975. Ten years later Kansas City got the boot too, and since 1985 the Kings have found their home in Sacramento. 

As a resident of Omaha and an NBA junkie, I've always been fascinated by the fact that, for three glorious years, my city had joint custody of an actual NBA team. This post is for myself and for the tens of other NBA fans in Omaha (I think I've met all of you): a brief history of that time our mid-level Midwestern city kind of had an NBA team of its own. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Charles Savidge and the End Times

*this is part two of the indeterminately ongoing "Charles Savidge Stories" series*

On April 16th, 1892, Charles W. Savidge's father (Charles H. Savidge) took the pulpit at his son's People's Church in Omaha, Nebraska. His sermon topic was summed up nicely by the Omaha World Herald the following day: "Only Seven More Years: This Sinful World Will Then Come to an End, According to Dr. Savidge."

Monday, May 20, 2013

Yeezus Christ Superstar?

I read Edward Blum and Paul Harvey's fascinating The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America last year, and ever since, I've been thinking about the place that our images and perceptions of Christ have within American pop culture. So when Kanye West announced that his new album would be titled "Yeezus" it immediately caught my attention...not because it was a surprising title, but rather because it fits in so seamlessly with the regular appropriation of Jesus' name within rap culture.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Charles Savidge - Urban Revivalist

With the first post in this series on Charles Savidge, there is no better place to start than with the dour-looking fellow below.

Yes, the gentleman above is none other than the second greatest revivalist of the late-nineteenth century, Sam Jones.  For the purposes of this post, we'll ignore Jones' racism and New South political activism, and instead focus on his reform methods and connection to Savidge. Until the ascendance of Billy Sunday, no revivalist besides Dwight Moody could rival Jones' national reputation. With his quick wit and humor, Jones took the U.S. (and even Canada) by storm with a series of revivals in major cities in the 1880s.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Charles Savidge Stories

Charles Savidge was as a church planter, pastor, matchmaker, entrepreneur, revivalist, author, and social worker in Omaha from 1882 until his death in 1935. To date, he has been largely forgotten by historians, but his life certainly did not lack for excitement. To list just a few of his more interesting activities: he left the Methodist Church to start his own independent People's Church in the slums of Omaha; performed over 6,000 weddings and launched a matchmaking bureau; started a home for the elderly that is still in existence today; attempted (and failed) to merge his People's Church with a People's Church in Spokane; published four books; initiated an ill-fated campaign to cast the demons out of notorious pickpocket nicknamed "Fainting Bertha"; and received newspaper coverage from the New York Times, Boston GlobeChicago TribuneSan Francisco Call, and countless other newspapers across the country.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Religious Leader Attacks Socialism, Ignites Rebellion

Oh, and this 1960s religious leader was a Yemeni Muslim.  But before we get into that story, let's get the background first.

The modern state of Yemen is located on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, just a plank-walk across the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea from Africa

Until 1990, Yemen was divided into two independent states: North Yemen and South Yemen. Both states were established in the late 1960s...before that, North Yemen had been an independent kingdom, until it was upended by a Nasser-led civil war that began in the 1960s. South Yemen, formerly known (in part) as the protectorate of Aden, had been under the control of the United Kingdom (it was one of the last, flickering lights of the glory that used to be the British Empire).

Now that we've differentiated between the two Yemens, forget all about the South. North Yemen is the setting for our story. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bracket Strategies From Your Favorite Evangelical Gurus

I wanted to share my bracket-predicting prowess with the world, but every time I published a blog entry on the subject this message kept showing up:

"[Editor's note: Nobody cares or even knows who you are. Try doing one single important thing in your life, and then maybe you can pretend that people are interested in your bracket strategies.]"

So instead of giving my own tips and tricks, I've decided to turn to Important People. And since we all know that filling out a bracket is more an exercise in prayer than in discernible rational strategies, I went straight to the people who are the most connected to God: a few of America's leading evangelical gurus.

Below are their strategies. It's not too late to adopt one of these and convert your bracket from the darkness into the light.

*just to be clear: all quotes below are fake.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Songs Only an Atheist Could Love

The title to this post is actually a lie.  I am not an atheist (not even an agnostic!), and yet all of the following songs have gotten serious airplay on my burned CDs iPod spotify playlist. 

It is very difficult, of course, to label a song an "atheist" song.  For one, some Christians would probably claim that any music that does not promote religious beliefs and values, is, in fact, secular or atheist.  That, to me, is a bit too inclusive.  I am a Christian after all, and if the national media has taught me anything about my beliefs, it's that I like my labels to be a little more exclusive than that. (*Cue Jon Stewart holding hand to fake-earpiece bit*) "What's that? We're supposed to only be exclusivist when it comes to who is on our team, but broadly inclusive when it comes to who is outside? Oh." (*and scene*)

There's also the difficult issue of knowing what the musical artists actually believe...if an artist is an atheist, does that mean every song they make is also atheistic?  Or does a song have to specifically promote or express atheistic ideas about life, god, purpose, the afterlife, etc? (I tend towards the latter view).

With that in mind, and with the caveat that this is not an exhaustive collection, but is rather a very subjective and personal list, I present the following list of five of my favorite atheistic songs (whatever that means).

Friday, March 1, 2013

Books on Books on Books (Pt. 1) - Linford Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening

It's been a busy past few months...between applying to PhD programs, teaching high school social studies, raising a beautiful little girl with my beautiful wife, and finishing up a research project (which is tentatively scheduled to be published in the summer 2013 edition of Nebraska History), I haven't had as much time to read as I'd like.  I have been able to sneak a couple books in, though, and I feel like writing about the good here we are, with me typing words onto a digital screen, and then hitting "publish," and then you, I guess, reading those words. First up:

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Best of a Mediocre Bunch, or Prerable Musical Stylings in 2013

It's been October since I posted anything here. In the meantime I was holed up for the apocalypse, which I assumed would happen either at the hands of the Mayans, the inept U.S. government, or a nuclear Iran.  It did not. So now that I've finally wiped the egg of my face, I'm ready to get back at the blogging thing.

Actually, the real reason for my neglect of this already-sporadically-updated blog is that in my "free time" I was busy doing important non-blog things.  Like submitting applications to PhD programs, finishing up a couple research projects/papers, and analyzing my fantasy NBA roster.  All that is done now, which gives me the freedom to finally write about the best rap album of last year.