Historical Horizons: 2015 in Blog Posts

Happy new year from the Calvin College History Department!

We started this blog two years ago, in January 2014. In our second year of Historical Horizons, we’ve focused more frequently on current events, both on campus, in our nation, and around the world. Many of our most popular posts were those offering a historical perspective on the events as they unfolded.

Three of our Top 10 new posts this year were written by recent alumni of the department, and we are delighted to feature their voices here.

Here’s a look back at our Top 10 most-read new posts in our second year of blogging:

10. Lucy the Luthier
by William Van Vugt

book cover of Kalamazoo GalsEveryone knows about Rosie the Riveter, the iconic woman immortalized in the famous Norman Rockwell painting. She’s taking a lunch break, her muscular arm holding a sandwich, her heavy steam-powered riveter resting on her lap, and her foot resting on a copy of Mein Kampf. You didn’t mess with Rosie, who represented the millions of women working the home front while so many men were overseas. Rosie the Riveter helped win the war, and she is justifiably famous. But have you ever heard of “Lucy the Luthier”? I didn’t think so. But you should.

During World War II the famous Gibson guitar company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, like most companies, saw many of their workers go off to fight. In addition, Gibson proudly announced that they would completely re-tool their entire factory for war production, and they informed their dealers that they would take no orders for the duration of the war. Officially, Gibson would produce no more guitars while the world was at war. But there were back orders to fill, so Gibson quietly hired young women to do the job…. the guitars that the Gibson women — Lucy the Luthier — made during the war are widely acknowledged to be the best guitars that Gibson has ever produced. [Read more]

9. The Christian Historian and Empathy
by Dan Miller

empathyFew developments in the history of any group or individual can be reduced to simple matters of good and evil. Taking an empathetic approach to history means trying to understand the circumstances and perceptions that move people to action. None of us acts with total freedom or perfect knowledge. Our very consciousness depends on chemicals in the brain that can roil our emotions or make us hear voices. We are born into cultures that shape what we are able to see. We operate within institutions that limit our options and history sometimes presents us with a choice between various evils. As Reinhold Niebuhr argued so forcefully, unselfish virtue is not practical in a world where evil has access to power. Hitler’s legions could not be stopped by “turning the other cheek” and so the pacifists who called on the western democracies to disarm and foreswear the use of violence in the 1930s were less “moral” than the political realists who used military violence to halt fascist aggression. In light of that, it behooves Christian historians to avoid condemning others without first trying to understand them. [Read more]

8. Princess Mononoke and History
by Jonathan Hielkema

Lady Eboshi accompanied by armed soldiersFor our final session in HIST 356 (US Social and Cultural History) this year, coincidentally my last-ever Calvin class period, Professor Du Mez asked us to participate in some intellectual show-and-tell. Our assignment: present a text that contained meaningful commentary on “Christian history.” I chose a different tack, presenting the film Princess Mononoke because it embodies my core historical commitments. Because it’s a film, and animated at that, it’s not a manual about the mechanics of writing history––I read plenty of those at Calvin––but it gave me an ethos. Translated to sturdy English, Princess Mononoke taught me the emotions and ethics of my chosen discipline. And those two are rarely ever apart because emotions are always at the core of ethical motivations, for better and for worse. [Read more]

7. I, Too, Am a Southerner
by Eric M. Washington

People walk past a bunch of flowers left in memorial on the ground as they take part in a "Black Lives Matter" march past Emanuel AME Church on June 20, 2015

I, too, am a Son of the South, but of a different sort than Dylann Roof, the accused murderer of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to an op-ed published in The Chicago Tribune, one of Roof’s classmates stated that Roof “had that kind of Southern pride.” I, too, have Southern pride. I’m proud of my deep roots in southeast Louisiana. I have learned that my maternal grandmother’s family were slaves in Ascension Parish, Louisiana as far back as the 1830s. On my father’s side, my slave great-great grandparents migrated from Virginia after emancipation to settle in the bayous and cane fields of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. I’m proud of my Afro-Creole heritage. I will identify myself as a Louisianian quicker than I would an American. I, too, am a Southerner. [Read more]

6. History 294 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum
by Kate van Liere

Group of students in the museum atrium next to a train car.This past January, the students in my History 294 class collaborated with the Grand Rapids Public Museum in its ongoing efforts to digitize its museum collection. It was a rewarding project for the Museum, for the students, and for me as a teacher. The GRPM’s digitization project reflects a worldwide trend that in the last decade has transformed the way museums educate the public. It was great fun to learn more about that transformation while helping students to make their own small contribution to it. [Read more]

5. Why the Past Matters: Izmir’s Historical Amnesia
by Spencer Cone

Colossal stone sculpture of Ataturk's face on the mountaintop above hillside houses.

When I visited Izmir as part of a Calvin interim trip this past January, I found myself unprepared for what I saw. As our bus drove through the heart of the old city and along the shore, we passed a Mount Rushmore-esque carving of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the Turkish general who retook Izmir from the Greeks and negotiated the population exchange with Greece) chiseled into the hillside commemorating the liberation of Izmir by the Turks in September of 1922. Almost nothing in the heart of the city predated 1922 and I could not find any memorial to the events of the city’s past. It was as if the city did not exist before the founding of the Republic. The huge carving of Atatürk and the large war memorial seemed an exaggerated way of intentionally reminding Izmir’s visitors that the city belongs to the Turks. Furthermore, the waterfront area which had once been home to Smyrna’s famous docks, and where over 300,000 Greek and Armenian refugees huddled in September of 1922, was covered in concrete apartment buildings, chains of stores, and a park. As I strolled through the park, I found myself searching for some sort of memorial or historic marker dedicated to the victims of the tragedy of Izmir. I found nothing. The unsuspecting tourist or uninformed citizen would have no clue about Izmir’s tragic past. [Read more]

4. Ask the Author: Tim Gloege on Guaranteed Pure
by Kristin Du Mez

book cover of Guaranteed Pure by Timothy Gloege

Several years back, I heard Tim Gloege give a conference paper on Henry Crowell, Quaker Oats, and American Fundamentalism at a meeting of the American Society of Church History. To this day, that talk stands as one of the smartest, most engaging papers I’ve heard presented at an academic conference. I know I’m not alone in looking forward to his book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, out this month with UNC Press. Tim is an independent scholar based in Grand Rapids, and he is currently teaching an online course for Calvin’s History Department. Here’s a sneak peek at his new book. [Read more]

3. The Gilded Age and Ferguson: Teaching Students to Weigh Evidence as Apprentice Historians
by Caleb Lagerwey

night scene of a row of armed police across from a group of protesters

The story of Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent grand jury decision was hard to ignore in my school in the weeks before the Christmas break. The subject came up before, during, and after a few of my classes, and I noticed that some of my students were rather one-sided about the entire event: they either took the side of Officer Wilson, laying the blame exclusively at the feet of an aggressive and belligerent Brown, or they took Brown’s side and decried Wilson’s trigger-happy bigotry. I decided to seize this opportunity to apply historical thinking skills to current events. As I told my students, to the expected chorus of groans, “Just like in our history investigations, the story in this case is rarely just black and white…pun completely intended.” [Read more]

2. The New Barbarism
by Frans van Liere

Sandstone relief showing vikings with raised weapons.

The study of Latin and Greek and the study of the classics, then, stand at the root of intellectual life in the Christian tradition. Today, this study is not endangered by marauding Vikings, but by neglect. It is a cause of great concern for me to see the knowledge of and interest in the classical heritage slowly erode. It is especially painful to see this erosion at Calvin and within the Christian Reformed Church, which more than other Protestant denominations in America has a tradition of robust intellectual engagement. The recommendation of the prioritization committee at Calvin College to effectively eviscerate the Classics Department at Calvin may seem a random act of vandalism to some. It is not. Rather, it is a difficult and painful decision that follows a decade of declining student interest in classical languages at the college and a general faltering of commitment on the part of the Christians to cherish their intellectual roots. If Calvin decides to do away with its two classical language majors, it will be one more step in this slow process of erosion. When you leave a weak educational structure, the risk is that that what is remaining will simply collapse. And we stand to lose more here than just an educational opportunity for a small number of majors. Latin and Greek stand at the root of the study of the liberal arts, and their loss at Calvin has a strong symbolic meaning. [Read more]

1. Christianity in a Time of Terror: An Advent Reflection
by Kristin Du Mez

peace is what i leave with you; it is my own peace that i give you. i do not give it as the world does. do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid. (John 14:27)[I]n the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, the fear of terrorism has only intensified. Add to that the threat of mass shootings, racial tensions, police violence, crime, and the context of an increasingly fragmented society, so that despite our relative safety and security, many Americans persist in seeing the world as a fearful place. In this season of Advent, I think it’s worth pausing, once again, to reflect on how this culture of fear relates to the historic Christian faith, and to consider how a circling-the-wagons mentality affects the Christian witness to the gospel of Christ—in this country and around the world. …

But what if American Christians simply refuse to be “terrorized”—if, like their sisters and brothers in the early church, they perceived the threat of failing to bear witness to Christ’s love a greater evil than the threat posed by terrorists to their lives and livelihoods? [Read more]

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