The Provincial, the Parochial, and the Public

Profile and Autobiographical Essay

This autobiographical essay was published in Contemporary Authors, vol. 194. The editors of this biographical reference series requested comment on the fusion of religious faith and the scholarly writing vocation.

Sidelights: Martin E. Marty is a theologian and historian of modem Christianity whose many books address issues of religious practice and its role in both private and public life. An ordained minister and a distinguished emeritus professor from the University of Chicago, he has written books that range widely from meditations on aspects of faith to wholesale histories of religion, even to studies on the intersection between religion, politics, and education. “People who go to the roots of their spiritual traditions and wrestle with the mysteries they find there are the sort of people Marty likes,” wrote Peter Hewitt and William Griffin in Publishers Weekly. His work, noted Mark Silk in the Christian Century, “offers readers the opportunity to wander through a copious garden of religious expression, observing the variegated blooms of yesterday. . . . But what Marty wants us to understand is that above the comings and goings of daily religious life is a public religious discussion—or perhaps a set of religious discussions-and we miss something critical in the nation’s cultural life if we dismiss these discussions as just so much chatter.”

Ordained a pastor within the conservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran church and active as such for two decades, Marty is nonetheless liberal enough to be in the vanguard of the Christian ecumenical movement and to act as contributing editor of the progressive Protestant magazine Christian Century. While juggling these two careers, along with those of professor and scholar, Marty has also found time to write or edit over fifty books on religious subjects ranging from Christian perspectives on health to the natures of friendship and grieving. Few academics in any walk of life have been more prolific than Marty. As Christian Century correspondent Richard J. Mouw put it, the author is “a trustworthy guide to what is going on in the rest of American religious life.”

Marty’s foremost field of expertise is religious history. His 1970 book Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America not only chronicles the course of Protestant religions in this country, but illustrates their influence on the course of national events as well. During the first hundred years of the nation’s history, explains Marty, the overwhelming preponderance of white, English-speaking Protestants created a virtual “empire” of values and beliefs. As the Civil War approached, however, Protestantism became divided over slavery and related issues. Waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants pouring into the country after the war further diluted Protestantism’s strength. Marty discusses the confused period that American Protestantism entered at that time and its eventual entry into its present stage, which, in his view, is characterized by a new search for unity rooted in spirituality.

Righteous Empire is “a notable contribution to an understanding of American Protestantism and American society,” asserted Christian Century reviewer Winthrop S. Hudson. Walter Arnold commented in Saturday Review, “That Dr. Marty has written such a book at all [considering Protestantism’s many forms and its long history in the United States], especially one so filled with lore and keys to understanding, is a tribute to his learning, industry and courage.” Among histories of this sort, Righteous Empire “stands out from the others by the evenness of its grasp upon sources and issues across the centuries and across the denominations,” maintained New York Times Book Review contributor Jaroslav Pelikan.

It is from the vantage point of the historian that Marty looks toward the years to come in The Search for a Usable Future. The book was published in 1969, at the end of one of the most tumultuous decades of the century, when conventional morals and religions were challenged as never before. Marty’s book probes the reasons for this phenomenon, examines the “new” theologies of the day, and suggests the direction that Christianity might take in order to meet the needs of a changing people, while remaining true to its precepts. “We know of no one better qualified to do what Martin Marty has done in this book,” pointed out Robert L. Short in the New York Times Book Review. Short added, “As a historian of the modern church, he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the vast cultural changes that have occurred in the past decade; as a theologian of no mean insight, he knows how to put this information together into a significant whole and project it toward the future; as an editor of one of America’s most influential Protestant publications, Christian Century, he knows how to express his conclusions with clarity, verve and wit.” Commonweal contributor Philip Deasy stated, “Written in a prose of unfailing readability, The Search for a Usable Future provides all the delight of following a first-rate mind in action. [It is] a rare and inspiring intellectual treat.”

One of Marty’s most comprehensive writing projects has been his five hundred-page work, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: Five Hundred Years of Religion in America. The author presents his history through portraits of individual figures in American history, “pilgrims who marked out new paths and pioneered new ways,” explained Christian Century reviewer Robert T. Handy. Critics in numerous publications praised Marty’s scope and his engaging style, naming his book an important contribution to religious history as well as an absorbing read. As Michael Kammen reported in the New York Times Book Review, Pilgrims in Their Own Land is “page for page . . . the most engaging one-volume history of American religion we now have. It incorporates more information than I would have thought possible, yet it does so with no sacrifice of readability. When Mr. Marty’s prose is not lucidly descriptive, it ranges from eloquent to chatty. Perhaps because of its biographical emphasis, the book has vigorous narrative drive. Despite some rather abrupt transitions, it draws the reader along with compelling force.” Catherine L. Albanese similarly observed in the Yale Review, “It reads like a book one would not mind curling up with on a winter’s evening.” Albanese concluded that Marty “has given Americans probably the first significant and comprehensive work in the genre [of public history] by an American religious historian.”

With the publication of The Irony of It All, 1893-1919 in 1986, Marty gave the public a first taste of his projected four-volume work, Modern American Religion. In a CA interview with Walter W. Ross, Marty explained that his goal in undertaking this project was “to describe the contours of twentieth-century American religion, a task which has never been done before.” Some critics have observed how closely religion and politics are linked in Marty’s work. Discussing the second volume of Modern American Religion, The Noise of Conflict, 1919-1941, in the New York Times Book Review, David M. Kennedy observed that Marty distinguishes himself from other social critics by insisting that the religious dimensions of America’s diversity have had serious political consequences. Kennedy summarized Marty’s thesis: “And the apparently arcane arguments that at times convulsed pulpit and pew, synod and minyan and presbytery, Mr. Marty insists, were ‘not mere tempests in denominational teapots.’ Eventually, these value-laden and deadly serious debates broke out of the confined precincts of sectarian squabbling and took on ‘geopolitical significance.’ Thus public issues including immigration restriction, labor relations, prohibition, birth control, pacifism or responses to the Great Depression were, Mr. Marty ecumenically claims, ‘based in religious beliefs and passions.’” Although James H. Moorhead contended in Chicago Tribune Books that there are few surprises in The Noise of Conflict, he noted that the story is told “with a verve seldom equalled.” The critic added that “The Noise of Conflict bears the usual hallmarks of a Marty book: a smoothly flowing narrative, passages studded with suggestive insight inviting further research, and apt quotations that capture the gist of complicated issues.”

Between 1996 and 1999 Marty directed a Public Religion Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. These meetings of scholars, religious and educational leaders, and political figures sought to delineate the importance of faith in a pluralistic society. Out of these efforts came three books: The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good; Politics, Religion, and the Common Good: Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation about Religion’s Role in Our Shared Life; and Education, Religion, and the Common Good:Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation about Religion’s Role in Our Shared Life. Mouw saw the three works as “a sustained plea for a wide-ranging public conversation in which many voices speak.” The One and the Many seeks to dispel both totalist and tribalist thinking—the one would impose a national identity to the exclusion of cultural differences, the other would avoid a national identity in favor of cultural absolutism. In National Catholic Reporter, Maurice Hamington wrote, “Marty recognizes the strength of diversity and seeks a method to celebrate difference while transcending factionalism. . . . He is a master storyteller who casts a wide net and writes in an accessible style.”

Both Politics, Religion, and the Common Good and Education, Religion, and the Common Good advocate a greater openness to religion in both the political and the educational arenas. Christian Century correspondent David A. Hoekema commended Marty for his “discernment of the legitimate concerns and ideals that lie beneath the surface of current political debates.” In her review of Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, Journal of Church and State essayist Elizabeth S. Carpenter concluded, “Marty’s analysis gives rise to his conviction … that believers should participate in political conversations, as their religious values and perspectives greatly enrich the dialogue. . . . This book deserves the attention of political believers, nonbelievers, voters, and all who are interested in the contributions religion makes to the justice and morality of our society.” America reviewer John A. Coleman likewise deemed Politics, Religion, and the Common Good “a wise and useful book for starting, continuing or refining a conversation about the legitimate role, but with limits, of religion in the public arena.”

The numerous writings and other career-related activities that take up the majority of Marty’s time led a Publishers Weekly writer to describe him as a “whirlwind whose productivity astonishes.” And in a letter to CA discussing these varied activities, Marty once remarked, “I like to think of myself as being in what Paul Tillich called ‘boundary situations,’ believing people have a perspective that best illumines the human situation if they are not wholly captive of a single situation. So my career has brought together at all times at least two vocations: minister and editor, professor and editor, administrator and professor and editor and all the time, writer.” Aside from his professional activities, Marty also stressed that “family has to be mentioned as a major interest; our house has always been open to others than our own four sons. We brought into the family a brother-sister foster pair, have taken in small boys from Uganda as grade-school ‘foreign students,’ I now have a step-daughter, and the like. We try to covenant with several other families in a pattern we call ‘collegial families,’ an echo of the extended family.”

Although Marty once conceived of Modern American Religion as the culmination of his scholarly career, he later told CA that two events “came along to complicate my life.” In 1987 he was asked by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to direct the six-year Fundamentalism Project. Around that time, he was also asked to found the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics, which he says has “become one of the nation’s major medical ethics centers.” “Medical ethics is not my field,” Marty continued. “I contribute as an historian, story-teller, humanist, and theologian of sorts.” When considering the relation of religion to healing and the relation of healing to extreme militancy, Marty added, “Someone said, ‘Marty only gets interested in religion when it heals someone or kills someone.’ That is a hyperbolic statement, but it is a reminder to me of the potency, volatility, danger, and promise whenever anyone deals with the sacred, as I like to do.”

For a previously published interview, see Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Volume 21, pp. 274-278.


Martin E. Marty contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:


The Provincial, The Parochial, and the Public

I. The Provincial

An ancestor died by backing into a bonfire while protecting a potato crop from wild boars on a Swiss hillside. So at least goes a story the Marti family tells to remind ourselves that we are peasants from the provinces. This means there is therefore no Marti coat-of-arms signaling nobility. In a hall in Lyss, whence cabinetmaker and great-grandfather Benedict Marti came, there is, however, a house-mark. A spearhead for Mars, the god of war, is the mark; it is an ironical one for a peaceful family line. (“Marti” became “Marty” in transit to America.)

The line begins in America in 1869, specifically Nebraska, to which this “Evangelische Reformiert” family came, only to be directed to the rural “Evangelische Lutherisch” church. We like to say that our transfused but deep Lutheran strain thus resulted from the equivalent of a typographical error. There were stories of sod houses and dugouts and other unimaginably woeful residences in the ancestral pioneer Nebraska background. We still honor these speakers of a Swiss dialect we could never grasp. Grandfather Gottfried, a “prince” among farmers, some called him, in the 1930s helped shape my boyhood in ways that he could not have anticipated and I could never well define.

I remember and picture my other grandfather in the haze of Prince Albert pipe tobacco smoke thickened by that of his senior friends during their frequent Schafskopf card games. These were North German speakers of Plattdeusch, a dialect I never learned. One of their daughters, Anne Louise Wuerdemann, married one of the Marty sons, Emil, and I am their issue.

We Marty-Wuerdemanns try to picture the ancestral sod-house existence in cruel winters, when on the treeless plains the homesteaders burned cow-chips for fuel. And then my generation personally recalls prairiehouse existence in summers, when drought and Dust Bowl and Depression took almost everything of almost all the hardy rural descendants, our uncles and aunts.

Provincials we were. The word “provincial” has acquired a negative cast in cosmopolitan and pluralist America. The dictionary quickly moves from associating it with “of or belonging to a province” to “exhibiting the character, especially the narrowness of view or interest, associated with or attributed to inhabitants of ‘the provinces’; wanting the culture or polish of the capital.” A provincial “comes from the provinces” and bears their mark.

In 1949 at age twenty-one, the year I left the provinces of Nebraska and then, after five years in Sioux City, Iowa, “Siouxland” permanently, I was employed at a Pennsylvania resort whose clientele came from the “capitals” of New York and Philadelphia and Boston. What astounded us Nebraskans and Dakotans on staff there was how narrow had been the experience of some Manhattanites. Many had not seen as many sights of their island as we country folk already had. Many of them had less perspective on world affairs than did some who had grown up in Big Sky or Great Plains or Prairie Horizon cultures. How odd. But even to bring that up suggests a leftover defensiveness about provincial life, which I choose to view positively.

The province: Nebraska. West Point, as of February 5, 1928, at 325 N. Colfax, where I was born in our prairie-style home. Prairie, for my mother, did not mean “à la architect Frank Lloyd Wright.” Prairie meant windblow-through-the-boards-and-around-the-windowframes style. A biography of billionaire financier Warren Buffett, whose mother came from West Point, referred to it as a “dreary prairie town.” The author overstated the case about “dreary.” But even the WPA (Works Progress Administration)- sponsored authors of Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State (1939) gave the town only a few reduced-print paragraphs: “(1,313 alt., 2,225 pop.) . . . on the Elkhorn River. It was founded in 1857 . . . named by early settlers who thought of it as the western extremity of white settlement, suffered not only from Indian scares but also from wildcat banks. . . . Many of the settlers were of Pennsylvania Dutch stock.”

In 1939 we moved to Battle Creek, which was too insignificant even to make it into Nebraska: A Guide. The town was named for a battle that did not happen, down at the local creek. There Pawnee chief Pita Lesharu, as Nebraska Guide transliterated it, had wrapped himself in a U.S. flag and avoided conflict. How as a boy I wished there had been a battle, so that something at least could have happened to make the province important!

That year, under the tutelage of WPA teachers, I painted a sign: Recreation Hall/Theatre. Perhaps I thought then that that British spelling would impart class to our forlorn main street. Years later I saw a published photo of that rusty sign on the dusty street. Novelist-photographer Wright Morris, a favorite, had preserved this glimpse of my province and my pretension in his God’s Country and my People.

Summers we spent with grandparents near Columbus, then the site of the new Loup River Public Power District Project. This was “the little TVA” that brought electricity and irrigation to the world of grasshoppers and kerosene lamps. A Communist plot, that Project, my Republican uncle called it when he kicked apart a miniature dam my cousin and I had built in a brooklet near the orchard. A Communist plot’? This little TVA that helped give him and his peers power to survive. Perhaps his kicking that which benefitted him, no doubt in denial of its source, has led me to have had difficulty sharing his kind of Republican thoughts ever since.

Contemporary Authors presents its subjects as writers. So I look back. Was I already then not only a signpainter and reader but also a writer in the making? In the West Point years we were mindful that eight miles away was the home and study of John G. Neihardt, the Black Elk Speaks poet. This was at the edge of a Winnebago Indian Reservation, not one of whose residents we ever met.

Of course, I read Neihardt’s epics. But he also wrote some early lyrics that I memorized. Jejune and histrionic, they fed early adolescent fantasies and aspirations: “Let me live out my years in the heat of blood. Let me die drunken with the dreamer’s wine. . .” One should be embarrassed even to remember and quote such poetry. Yet it was one among many impetuses for me to write. Neihardt, who by then lived in Missouri, was the Poet Laureate of Nebraska. To me, that meant being something like Homer or Dante. I loved the ring of the words “poet laureate” and wrote poems, none of which, fortunately, have survived in scrapbooks.

Becoming an author meant being a reader, beginning with our father’s “Little Leather Library” and some other classics around the house. The recall of the smell of the leather bindings could prompt reminiscences as long as, but immeasurably less literary than, the remembrances of Proust when he recalled the smell of a madeleine.

Emil Marty had entered parochial school teaching after only two years of college. This was the pattern in the Lutheran colleges of 1920. He picked up the other two years of credit through summer schools in those Depression years. His annual absence occasioned our spending summers on the farm. In any case, he had no opportunity for gaining expansive learning, but what he knew, he knew well. Father favored American literature. He could recite and taught us to recite reams of Emerson and Longfellow and Lowell, and more.

This little memorizer, no doubt in casual fashion, was asking: What led these authors to write, and why did their writing, not all of it classic, move us so? I wanted to be one of the writers, which meant I had to keep on being one of the readers. I cannot recall having much interest yet in what I might have to say.

Writers need subject matter. Mine never came from the province, the plains. Far from that. History of religion, especially of Christianity, became my focus. Mention of it leads me to bring up the question of how and why I chose to pursue such an odd subject. Odd, that is, in settings that for more than half of my life have to be described as secular and pluralistic. Where, therefore, nothing is tilted in your favor because it is your topic and, say whiners among us-where something may even be tilted against you because of the topic. Where did religion, Christianity, faith come in?

At this stage of the story I was not yet a historian of Christianity in the West or a comparativist dealing with religion globally. Instead, I was still to be found in Nebraska, gaining perspective to view everything else from the provinces. West Point’s Curning County is even today 88.6% Catholic-and-Lutheran (47.4% Lutheran). It was even more so between 1928-1939, Battle Creek’s Madison County, which included the metropolis of Norfolk (population 10,717 in 1939), is more pluralist, only 72.2% Catholic-and-Lutheran (41.7% Lutheran).

That provincial circumstance led a child born there at that time, with only the Lincoln Journal and Norfolk radio as influences, to think the world was like our province. I did not know, or even know the name of, a Jew or an African-American in my childhood. For the record, however: despite stereotypes to the contrary, we were not taught to be anti-Semitic because Jews crucified Jesus, or that blacks were inferior. This does not mean that there were no ethnic prejudices. “The Polanders” across the hill, “The Bohemians” next door, and “The Germans” that we were—suffering stigma from World War I days—were “different” and “other,” after the manner of the human condition, but not to the point that incidents erupted. At least not to my knowledge.

What the province suggested to us circumstantially, however, was that only Lutherans and Catholics mattered very much. Catholics were our religiously “different” and “other” people with whose children we played but whose teens we could not date. If that environment provided the mental furnished apartment in which we lived, all the furniture was indeed provincial.

I have often told my students—coming as they did from other provinces such as Jewish suburbs, black ghettos, or Harvard and Yale undergraduate scenes—that if I felt called in classes to describe the religious and cultural complex of my Nebraska childhood, they would find it remote and arcane. Yes, more marginal and odd than they would and did find the Dalai Lama’s Tibet or the heights of Machu Picchu.

Lutheranism provided my religiously provincial context. Because my father and benign pastors embodied and articulated the local version of that faith, I never received it in the kind of dosage that led me to teen rebellion. Nor did it inspire lifelong Oedipal-like reactions I have seen in so many authors who take revenge on their repressive Catholicism or Southern Baptisthood as they experienced or remember it from their childhood. But it was provincial and I would have to say unecumenical, even sectarian.

In that context, there was no sign of Martin Luther’s outrageous, daring, tumultuous, paradoxical, sometimes ranting, always existentially disturbing and thus in the end often comforting version of the faith. This was not the Lutheranism that bred a reactive Soren Kierkegaard or the high-risk German theologians or the artistry of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was scholastic, safe, sequestered. Talk about odd, from print and word of mouth and mien and manner we learned that our version, that of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States, a.k.a. “Missouri Synod,” was the true visible church on earth! Even Grace Lutheran Church, two blocks away and of the wrong synod, was visibly untrue, and barely church.

We children did not worry much about any of that. We could distill the drama of Luther and the beauty of Bach from the scholastic hardenings. and leavings. We saw around us in the small towns and churches and schools lives of moral aspiration, generosity of spirit and pocketbook, and good humor in the midst of, and partly in spite of, what looked harsh and walled-in to other Christians, other neighbors.

Were these Lutherans strict as their reputation and rulebooks suggest? They found ways to drink beer and wine through Prohibition and could somehow afford it in the Depression. Historian Richard Jensen called the Missouri Synod the “wettest” body in American Christianity. But the leaders did not permit dancing. I have always had the suspicion that they raised opposition to it chiefly because dancing led to meeting other dancers at roadhouses and proms. That meant the young would meet non-Missouri Lutheran spouses-to-be, and maybe turn Catholic. The sexual side of dancing had to be secondary. At least, chaperones on youth group hayrides winked or wore blinders in the face of almost-under-the-hay activities more intimate and writhing than dancing.

In the midst of all this, I was too unimaginative to rebel and do not even now react against the whole provincial package. Like everyone else’s province, this one had limits. But thanks to the reading encouraged at home and the imagination it stirred, some of us began to gain access to worlds remote and different. Wouldn’t it be nice to experience them, I must have imagined, to write about them?

Why spend so much time on the first fourteen years of life? I suppose that had I had a gift for fiction, I would have written about Nebraska childhood, as Willa Cather and Wright Morris and Mari Sandoz and other authors I collect have done. I dwell on it without nostalgia but because one learns scale and perspective in the childhood landscape. We measure other people in other times and places from there. This is why “place” became so important in my writing. Ortega’s claim, “Tell me your landscape and I’ll tell you who you are” may overstate the case today. Most people are mobile and electronic signals from everywhere connect anyone who wants to be connected with anywhere else. So landscape tells less than before. But there is still much to “place.”

So I have made much of George Santayana’s line, “for the freest spirit must have some birthplace, some locus standi from which to view the world and some innate passion by which to judge it. Spirit must always be the spirit of some body.” His loci were Spain and Harvard. Mine are Nebraska and Chicago. Santayana said of his “deepest legal and affectionate ties” to Avila that they “have left me so remarkable free” in “a happy circumstance.” So it is with my childhood and its setting. I have spent very little time on the plains since the 1940s. But that place still inspires “the freest spirit” in me and visits there evoke not nostalgia but “innate passion” for the world beyond that province, the world of other provinces.

Something philosophical stayed with me from what Cather called the “incommunicable past” on the plains and prairies, Novelist Wright Morris put this well for me, “The plain is a metaphysical landscape . . . Where there is almost nothing to see, there man sees the most.” More Morris: “In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow . . . the withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited. Faces sometimes peer out from the broken windows, or whisper from the sagging balconies, as if this place—now that it is dead—has come to life. As if empty it is forever occupied.”

My “dry places” led me to dreams of Jerusalem and Wittenberg and eighteenth-century America, and the places I left are “forever occupied.” How odd. How did this become so? I must have thought, and may still think: “I must become a writer and an historian to find out some part of the answer.”

Intermission: On the Choice of Selves

“Why do people write?” An undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where I later taught for thirty-five years, asked that. She kept on asking that, for four years in a program called “The Fundamentals.” In it each student pursues through college a question such as: “How does desire become law?” “What is the difference between ‘Pain’ and ‘suffering’?” The collegians ask their question in all kinds of courses.

“Why do people write?” this student asked in my courses, which were on history, not writing. What impulse, what need in their nature, leads humans to take what their remote ancestors told around fires through generations, and reduce it to script, and then to print? Is it a thrust of the ego that wants to call attention to the “I”? Is it born of a fear of chaos, of dissolution, and then developed in an attempt by diarists, letter-writers, notetakers, and published authors to try to give order to and render a bit more permanent the recall of events, persons, places, and thoughts?

The collegian who asked the question never came up with answers that satisfied her, or me. This was the case not because she was incompetent but because the answers are almost as wide and deep as those that deal with what it is to be human and to be human in social contexts. Let it remain a question that points to mystery, but one that elicits partial answers that tell something about the person who does the answering.

“Why do people write?” “Why do you write?” “How did you choose your genre, your mode, your voice, your subject matter?” “What do you think you have to say?” “How did you get started?” Far along in a career as a teacher and writer of history I came across an explanation by R. H. Tawney of why he had chosen the discipline of history. His answer went something like: “Because I find the world very odd, and I wanted to know how it got that way.”

Very odd. That describes the scene and the person, this person in my context. José Ortega y Gasset’s life motto, helpful to me, was “I am I and my circumstances.” Circum-stantia = that which stands around me, my Umwelt, my world, my environment. “I am I” would reflect egotism, solipsism. “I am my circumstances” would suggest determinism. “I am I and my circumstances” instead points to a dialectic, a never-ending interaction between self and all that surrounds or, in the case of the historian, “surrounded” and helped make us what we are.

Here comes an urgent question for anyone who writes about authorship in Contemporary Authors: “Is ‘being a writer’ or ‘being a writer of history’ or ‘being a writer of the history of religion’ the most or even the only important self-description?” At last a question has come along that I can answer, and can do so emphatically: “No.” Depending upon who poses the question and why she does so and in which context the query comes, answers from the same person will differ.

Marty, what is the most important thing about you? “I am a baptized Christian.” How very odd to start with that. Television producer and friend Bill Moyers during an interview in 1976, when President and Baptist Jimmy Carter helped bring the term “Born Again” into currency, asked on camera, “Marty, are you born again?” I answered “Yes.” When? “February 26, 1928.” Baptist-bred Moyers, puzzled, noted, “You don’t look that old.” A Baptist baptized in 1928 would have been born in 1918 or perhaps even 1913. We Lutherans baptize infants, and I was christened at age three weeks, February 26, 1928.

And that is the most important thing about you? Yes. Some Muslims will say that the will to submit to Allah is most important. Some Jewish men might answer that being circumcised, becoming part of a covenanted people, is their determining act. People of other faiths might point to some other originating rite or event. For me and my kind, being baptized initiates all that follows, And what follows includes much more than writing, than being an historian. For me it means making the sign of the cross each morning, to recall that I am “born again” today. That I was “buried with Christ,” and daily “rise with him.” How odd and again, how odd. It means burying yesterday—therefore I am not very good at feeling guilty, and am not a virtuoso in acts of worrying about tomorrow. I worry, naturally, but not “supernaturally.” I am ready, more or less, to face the day, the one present day and no more, reborn, and then to chronicle the ways people in the past spent their days.

One of the oddest features of my being Lutheran is that I really believed and believe the heart of its message. Today’s Americans know Lutherans through people like Garrison Keillor, who show them to be guiltridden, colorless, “do-l-dare” unforgiven and unforgiving souls. In 1983, when a news magazine chose to recognize the 500th birthday of Luther by writing not about him but about Lutherans, an interviewing editor asked me, “Tell me, Marty, why is Martin Luther so terribly interesting, and why are you Lutherans so goddamn dull?” Lutherans aren’t all dull by any means, but the cultural slot many have chosen or settled for is that of a passive, cautious, low-identity sort, often marked by overshadowing guilt.

The message I received from childhood training, at least as voiced or on paper, whether enacted and heartfelt or not was: God takes God’s law very seriously. Grace is not cheap. But there is grace. And forgiveness. You are free. Friend Mark Edwards, former president of St. Olaf College, where I have chaired the Board of Regents, had a large wooden plaque in his office with two Lutheran words on it: Pecca fortiter. “Sin boldly.” Luther and Edwards and I, in descending order, were and are not out to charter wrongdoing and folly. But those two words remind us that life is to be lived at measures of passion and intensity, not least of all intellectually and spiritually, which are to result in freedom and adventure. I could take you behind the scenes and show you plenty of Lutherans who in their forgiven, sinning-boldly, expensively-graced lives are not “goddamn dull,” but not enough of them have gotten the message to make a large cultural dent.

A second choice important for the autobiography of a writer, this writer: Let someone else ask in a different circumstance the question about what is most important to identify you, and I would answer “being a family person.” Some years ago a publisher-editor asked a dozen of us Christian writers to produce short book length spiritual autobiographies in which we should get to the point, leaving out things like families. I responded, but in rereading the I-centered product I am chagrined to find what is missing when that “I” stands alone.

In many contexts nothing seems more important to this family person than to say that “I am the son of Emil A. and Anna Louisa Wuerdemann Marty, alias ‘Marti’ of Swiss-German descent. I am the brother of Myron August Marty and Mildred Louise Marty, siblings for whom I should be envied, and with whom I have been in touch the old-fashioned way, by writing and receiving objects called ‘letters’ fortnightly since 1942.”

Who are you, family person? I was the husband of Elsa Louise Schumacher, married June 21, 1952. Elsa, wife, mother of our children, beauty, complement, builder, nest-maker, enabler, empathizer, sufferer with and for, cancer victim in 1981. She remains part of the story in what “my” novelist Willa Cather calls “the incommunicable past.” Characteristically generous, she does not command more of that story or remembrance than is fitting since August 23, 1982, when I married Harriet Julia Meyer. Harriet: wife, effectual adopter of our children and grandchildren, who brings a daughter of her own. Harriet: beauty, complement, performer, traveler, enabler, empathizer, sufferer with and for, who brings music and beauty and curiosity and excitement into our life together. Harriet, widow of my college roommate, sister of a classmate, a friend whom I re-met after Elsa’s death and who writes new chapters in the book of life with me. How would I have been given time or freedom or impulse to write without them?

What is most important, family person? Son Joel, born 1955, and his wife and children. Son John, born 1956, and his family. Son Peter, born 1958, and his. Son Micah, literary partner and friend. Foster-daughter Frances Garcia Carlson, taken into the family in 1962, and her family. Her brother and our foster-son Jeffrey Garcia. Step-daughter Ursula. When people introduce me before lectures they add at the very end something to the effect that the Martys have an extended family of seven children, nine grandchildren, and a great grandson—and let the introduction go at that. But in the “I and my circumstances” of life, the family, as subjects and objects of responsibility and rewards, is most important.

A third self for autobiography: “What is the most important thing to say about you?” Upon my retirement from teaching at age seventy in 1998 an interviewer asked, “How would you like to be remembered?” It was a question one would like to rework. I do not want to be “remembered” yet for a couple of decades. And I am not sure being remembered is all that big a deal, or that long lasting. If you pursue the illusion that long-lasting remembrance is to be yours, be advised not to become an historian. Historians are most aware of what my Catholic priest and theologian colleague, my university study next-door neighbor, David Tracy, taught me: that we live under the marks of finitude, contingency, and transience. Transience: everything passes, including all traces of anything I ever will have written. The paper of Contemporary Authors will one day join all paper and become dust. Signals on today’s Internet will one day, perhaps soon, not be retrievable by later days’ technology. Still, “How would you like to be remembered?”

The question came in the context of university teaching, so I was prompted to blurt without reflection what I would repeat after pondering, “As a teacher.” Not that I was or am a legendary teacher, the award-winning or “favorite prof “ type, or attractor of a collegiate cult; anything but that. Still, in my circumstances, I took lessons from my best mentor, my father, teacher in a parochial two-room school—how odd to have been educated there—in Nebraska. My mother would have been a teacher, had she been born a generation later. My sister and brother, my two spouses, were or are teachers. Almost nothing brought up at dinner table or on vacation trips did not turn itself into a teaching and learning situation.

So to think of more than a hundred Ph.D.’s whose dissertations I got to guide; to think of hundreds more in whose development as teachers themselves I was privileged to have a role; to think of them dispersed across the academic and ministerial worlds, teaching and writing just as I carried on the work of my teachers, is the most rewarding element of a life for which I might like to “be remembered.” But Contemporary Authors is not Contemporary Teachers, and so the questions my colleagues in this reference work and I receive have to do with being authors, not being something else.

Fourth: “What is the most important thing to say about you?” In still other circumstances, I would have to answer, “Being an historian.” Why it came about that history became my curiosity, subject matter, approach. to intellectual questions, and passion is something I cannot answer. It is a modest discipline, not reaching the way philosophy and theology do, not precise and verifiable the way sciences aspire to be. Picture an epitaph on a tombstone after a life’s work: “He told stories.” That is what historians have always done, and most still do, and this one chose to keep on doing when many contemporaries in the discipline lost faith in narrative and drifted or advanced into theory.

“He told stories.” One of my models, historian of culture Jacob Burckhardt, said that being an historian was not being a philosopher of history, though philosophy may play a part in providing perspective. The historian concentrates on the human being, as he or she was and is and ever shall be; on the story-maker who is born, suffers, loves, dies. Being an historian plunges one into the mires of relativity, though not necessarily of relativism. We have no direct access to any past happening. We live off traces, all of which are biasing. So history has to be a modest discipline for anyone who seeks to impart The Truth, the absolutes. But it evokes imagination, art, and among the responsible, responsibility.

At a conference in Tübingen, Germany, in 1980, to which a dozen of the University of Chicago faculty were flown, the theology-minded hosts had to come up with descriptions for all participants. The badges we wore identified scholars as, variously, “Theologian;” “Theologian of History”; “Historian of Theology”; “Historical Theologian.” I cherished what they came up with for me, “Historical Historian.” They did not know quite what to do with someone who taught history, as I did, in a Divinity School, in a History Department located in the Social Sciences, and on a Committee on the History of Culture in the Humanities. I did not and do not know quite what to do with someone in such a situation, myself, except to enjoy and let the interplay of sub-disciplines and perspectives fuel imagination and complicate the enterprise.

A fifth self emerges: “What is the most important thing to say about you?” That I choose to live in response. For reasons I do not understand, I have conceived of vocation, of calling, as a circumstance of response. The little autobiography referred to above I called By Way of Response. It took impetus from an observation of another literary mentor, the Swiss-German-American (as am 1) Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. He did not believe that all learning comes as it did in early Western universities, focused through Anselm’s Credo ut intelligam. “I believe in order to understand.” Nor through modern universities, bred of the skepticism implied by Descartes’ Cogito ergo Sum. “I think therefore I am.” It has to be complemented by Respondeo etsi mutabor. “I respond although I will be changed.”

In the first of these, learning is perceived as of divine origin, to be grasped by humans. In the second, knowing is born of and refined by skeptical inquiry. In the third, there is a social dimension. We learn from our circumstances, and respond to them. Do you want to know something odd? I have never written a book except “by way of response.” That is, from the first two, which appeared in 1959, until retirement from university teaching in 1998, I never once said, “I think I’ll write a book about . . .” In every case someone came along and asked for a book more or less in my field of disciplined study and presumed expertise. Each assignment led me into fresh researches, but each fulfillment came because someone asked me. “Why do people write?” “Why do you write?” Answer: because people ask me.

Finally, and most odd to many peers: “What is the most important thing to say about you?” In some contexts I would say servant of the church. Such a notion sounds compromising to some who believe that to engage in religious studies one should be a-religious, noncommittal, poising one to stand at a distance. I have not found this to be the case among many whom I observe and admire.

One approaches life in the believing community in one mode of apprehension and then life in the classroom in another. They need not be in contradiction, though a person must always be clear about and make clear what the appropriate mode in given situations may be. So as a church person I have on occasion been involved in activities that demand commitment. Thus when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was being formed and during tensions, after 1969, in the Missouri Synod of my childhood, it would have been churlish and cowardly for me to stand by without comment as scores if not hundreds of colleagues were losing tenured posts and pulpits. And it would have been ungrateful of me had I not voiced awe for the thousands of lay people who with courage and insight spoke up and acted. So also I have accepted assignments from my later church body as an ordained minister, and been involved in many ecumenical endeavors. All this, I believe and hope, without compromising my dealing with people of other faiths or no faith, or my reporting on them and accounting for them.

There are other modes in which one can apprehend what is important about someone. I would think “citizen” or “person in association” would have its place Board memberships by the score through the years; Vietnam era draft counseling; participation in the civil rights movement; advancement of volunteer organizations; support of political measures are among these. In none of them have I been heroic or greatly inconvenienced. But all of them go into the package of experiences out of which one writes. None of them are central to an autobiography with an accent on one’s life as a writer.

One word to tuck in before I return to the next part of my chronological reckoning is one I pass on to anyone who asks about autobiographical writing. In the academy we are trained to shun autobiography, to be wary of the word “I” and to cover up traces to it wherever possible. We professors, most of us, shuffle and mumble, clear our throats and blush, raise a protective arm in front of the brow in expectation that “I-avoiding” colleagues will throw tomatoes because of our presumptuousness.

So autobiography even on the scale of Contemporary Authors entries is hazardous. Now for the motif I pass on to students, people whose work I edit, and inquirers about writing and getting published. It came from editor William Sloan, who said, in effect: If people read autobiography, they are not saying “Tell me about you.” They are saying, “Tell me about me. I will use you as a mirror, a measurer.”

Sooner or later an “historical historian” does what I just announced as “chronological reckoning,” chronology being at least one way of aspiring to coherence, to ordering a life. Being an historian, which means being in the “time” business, but also being one who has always been preoccupied by “space,” and particularly “place” (=circumstantia) I am doing this around three words that describe three successive settings. Let me capitalize them: The first we have already visited: The Provincial. Now the Parochial. Finally, the Public. I find it odd to see how decisive these contexts have been.

II. The Parochial

The first published writing I did was for the Battle Creek Enterprise, circulation 450. 1 reported on all football and basketball games played by the Purple and the Gold. A scrapbook somewhere has an unsigned story “Pilger 14, Battle Creek 9,” my first. Why write on athletics? Because Mr. Martin, the editor and publisher, asked me to. No one has asked me to do so since 1942, so I have not. End of that part of the story.

Battle Creek High School, population 130, where I spent my first year, was not uncongenial, but was limiting. Not wholly. My English teacher, Miss Rogers, one of the three best teachers of grammar and writing that I have had, lived into her eighties. In her retirement she remembered me, then in my sixties, as that freshman who had needed tutelage. Through the years I would receive pleasant, chatty letters about the Ladies Reading Club in Fremont, Nebraska. These letters would usually end with some correction or other of my recent writings: did I know that there were two dangling modifiers in that one long article? Surely, Martin—only she and my mother when disciplining me used “Martin” instead of “Marty”—would not want to be embarrassed when less friendly critics than she read my prose.

Back momentarily to Battle Creek: Some town seniors, including the Lutheran pastor, evidently tagged me as someone ready for less limited education. They arranged to put together some sort of package that enabled me to go to prep school. The words “prep school” signal Andover or Exeter or Choate in the minds of cosmopolites with whom I have shared university life. It was central to their experience. But since we are going to turn now from provincialism to parochialism, I shall have to do a bit of explaining. Our prep school was provincial and parochial. The two adjectives can both be turned pejorative, though for me the parish, from which we get the word parochial (“f. late L. parochia diocese, parish”) also has positive, promising, even beautiful connotations, as we shall soon see.

My parish from 1942 to 1947, through the rest of high school and junior college, was Concordia College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to which I entrained with four dollars in my pocket from Sioux City, Iowa, to which our family would make its Siouxland move two years later. Since almost no other Protestants had a system of schooling at all like it, this one takes some explaining. Those who recall the old-style Roman Catholic priestly training think of prep school not as a fashionable boarding place for rich kids but as a minor seminary, which meant, for most, pre-theological, preparatory to seminary and ministerial vocation. The school was borrowed from German models, transported intact and barely translated to the American scene as a gymnasium.

Whoever thinks of athletics when that word comes into view thinks wrongly, though athletics was very important in that cooped-up all male environment, where adults did what they could to wear us out and distract us from thinking about girls and, later, women and marriage. (In those years, these Lutherans permitted gymnasium-seminary students to marry only after graduating, a process that, including internship, took eleven years.) Gymnasium, derived from “gumnadzein train, exercise, lit. to train naked,” was not only a place for athletic exercises but also “2 a. gen. high school, college, or academy (obs.); b. spec. in Germany and other Continental countries a school of the highest grade designed to prepare students for the universities. Now often pronounced as a Ger. Word (gimnazium).”

Make much of that obs. for “obsolete” and spec. for “specifically,” for this model was specific to a few Lutherans in America, incomprehensible to most universities, and obsolete for many reasons. Among other things, it was so anomalous that our post-prep school seminary was unaccredited. Dean Jerald C. Brauer of the University of Chicago Divinity School when I studied there told me that the preeminent historian of Christian thought of our generations, Chicago’s and then Yale’s Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, and I were among the very few applicants to Chicago from unaccredited places. He said we could not have gotten in to any other university because others paid more attention to accreditation. The prep school must have served us well; Pelikan first and I second got through the schooling there faster than anyone else has done.

Why? That gymnasium training had prepared us. Whoever “did” six—I did five years—had six years of English, six of German, five of Latin, four of Greek and in slightly earlier times two of Hebrew before they entered seminary. Admittedly, most teaching was unimaginative, by rote and drill, demanding memorization and vocabulary workouts, at which I was never very good. Admittedly, while we were reading Plato and the Gospel of Luke in Greek as high school seniors, our teachers tested us for grammar and did not discuss content. But their prosaic approach did not inhibit some of us.

Thus Don Meyer, a Chicago provincial-cosmopolite and I began to room together, to read together, to write together. He was as philosophically unhistorical as I was historically unphilosophical, so we taught each other much. (This is the Meyer who lent his name to Harriet who was his wife and after his death, decades later, became my second wife. How odd a circumstance.)

Poetry had become my passion. Campus secretaries loaned us their streetcar passes and five afternoons a week Meyer and I haunted the Milwaukee Public Library. I wanted to read my way through the Modem Poetry Room collection, and chose also to read novelists, always through their complete works, then and in summers: Thomas Wolfe, Aldous Huxley, W. Somerset Maugham were among them. I was evidently not aiming for the heights, but the classrooms took care of that with introductions to Dickens, Dostoyevski, and company

Don and I were asked to edit the Concordia Courier, so we did. After losing a major debate championship as high school seniors (to a duo, one of whom was Thomas Stransky, who turned out decades later reincarnated as head of the Roman Catholic Paulist order and an adult friend) we and the victors worked with Junior Achievement and founded The Milwaukee Teenager magazine, no doubt short-lived. But the thrill of writing was there. And my high school and junior college teacher of writing, John Henry Gienapp, licensed our imaginations to take flight. As vivid as yesterday is the assignment for an essay he gave me, to write on John Keat’s line, “names not writ in water.”

Gienapp told me fifty years later that he had Don and me pegged as writers, and wanted me to reflect on aspirations toward existence that was less than merely fleeting, by pondering that line. He also assigned the only paper from my high school and college days that I keep in my files. He had us envision how we would look back on lives and careers in 2000. Mine ended with Robert Frost’s line, “They would not find me changed from him they knew/Only more sure of what he thought was true.” In more ways than I ought to be proud of and for reasons that have to be odd, given my immersion in worlds of pluralism and relativity, I think things turned out that way.

In those years I published a few poems in university magazines, all of them forgettable and forgotten and not to be disinterred. I would not yet have known I was to be an historian, though I thought historically. My prep school professors did not model what historians later on came to mean. But being a reader and a writer was the consistent focus.

We came of age the year the war ended, and finished accelerated junior college at the gymnasium a year and a half later, in January of 1947. During eight refreshing months back at home with my parents in Sioux City I took some piano and art lessons, went to business school and learned some accounting—how odd!—and typing—how non-odd—the latter art having stood me in good stead as a writer ever since.

For the next four summers I lived in blue-collar circumstances, in 1945 as operator of a drill press, counterpunching holes in Sherman Tank brake shoes six days a week, ten hours a day. I learned how long a day and a week could be, and became acquainted with good people whose vocabularies tended to be limited to one adjective derived from a frequently-used verb for sexual congress. I’d trust those co-workers anywhere. And for three years in the company of United Packinghouse Workers of America laborers we iced railroad cars. Later I was to serve some blue-collar parishes in Chicago. The combination of those circumstances helped me make political commitments, identify with laborers, empathize with people who put in long, hard days and get no strokes, and inspire a heart that aspired to turn pastoral.

Turn pastoral’? That means something theological, and I was at a pre-theological school. This was, oddly for the track we were on, the down side of the five gymnasium years. Religion was a scholastic, no-questions-asked, repristinated orthodox rerun through Luther’s Catechisms, which we all knew from memory before matriculating but whose dynamite was not allowed to explode in us. Chapel was deadly and uninspiring. The Christian gospel, or the good news of forgiveness, was given lip service but the real message was a drummed-in legalism. Others may have experienced it all differently, but so it all seemed to me. How faith and intellectual curiosity about faith survived those years I cannot explain. Somehow it did.

We also had fun and made some lasting friendships, so this parochia or parish was, despite the limits, a positive contribution to life for a writer.

The Parochial, Part 2

I did choose to go to seminary, at Concordia in St. Louis, somehow evidently expecting to combine the writing life with the pastorate. Assigned with a busload of others to do Friday field work at an old-style tuberculosis sanitarium where we ministered to dying black patients, we dragged ourselves there sullenly each week—and rode home, happy for the experience, singing, and stopping for a beer. Parish field work assignments and summer youth work in the home parish nurtured the parochial interests. Writing would have to fit in to the parish ministry world. Again, Don Meyer and other friends and I edited the relatively sophisticated The Seminarian magazine, and were soon publishing notable theologians, all the way up to Paul Tillich. Other magazines, mainly church-related, began to ask for articles. My interests tended to deal with a preoccupation of then that stays with me now: visual arts and faith.

History as taught at the seminary was mainly doctrinal and, despite the dramatic potential inherent in Christian theological history, drab. So I would not have pictured myself as a writer of history. Theologically, however, we came alive. We were at the seminary at a time when it was in the vanguard of a church body that was beginning to recover or rediscover some of the liveliness of the Christian gospel as witnessed to by Luther and not the post-Luther-an scholastics. Luther talked of a “tower experience” that came from reading and believing the writings of Paul. Many of us, including my roommate and best friend for a half-century, F. Dean Lueking, would say that we had our tower experience reading Paul and Luther and being taught theology and preaching by Professor Richard R. Caemmerer and some of his colleagues. For the first time I entertained the possibility of writing in theological fields, but the nearness to Don Meyer, whose philosophical mind taught me what I did not know and could never learn, to “do” theology, performed the service of driving me to concrete, narrative, expression.

Internship at mid-century as an assistant in a parish three miles north of the White House, extended so I could take over in the Maryland suburbs when a minister-chaplain was called to service in the Korean War, gave me more taste for dealing with people in the pastorate and a rich and enduring taste for politics. Then President Harry S. Truman became and remains “my” president, however ambiguous I remain about his decision to drop the atomic bomb. Days off I spent in Senate galleries, hearing debates among what appeared to me to be giants in the earth of the Senate floor. Since Lutheran pastors did not involve themselves in politics they often sent me, the junior intern, to make the rounds with religious lobbyists. Ambivalent as I was about some of their positions and their understandings of church and state, I now came to see the urgency and validity of the theme “religion and public life,” which was to become central as years passed.

Back for a final year in St. Louis: having invented a theologian as a hoax on half the faculty and having published writings about him, I was disciplined by being deprived of an impending assignment to a London pastorate among displaced Baltic Lutherans. In the hope that I might become seasoned and mature and responsible I was assigned to a parish assistantship in River Forest, Illinois. There head pastor O. A. Geiseman, another major influence on my life and another who encouraged me to combine the pastorate with writing, had seen to it that all in the sequence of his assistants had to do graduate work toward doctorates.

By now I was drifting toward history, and chose to do Master of Sacred Theology work at a nearby school that has since become the Lutheran School of Theology. I chose to study Luther, but my bouts with late medieval Latin and Luther’s German taught me that I was not cut out to be a Reformation scholar. Meanwhile two historians of American Christianity, Jerald C. Brauer and Sidney E. Mead, who moonlighted or summer-sunned as professors at that seminary, arranged for me to come to the University of Chicago with a full fellowship. They had discerned in me what I had no idea about: that in their courses I had shown a propensity for and curiosity about American Christian history.

So, while keeping an assistantship without portfolio in the parish, I spent two years at the University of Chicago, intoxicated there with the subject and the setting, It occurs to me that I was twenty-six years old before I had even heard of proper nouns basic to my life work: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Walter Rauschenbusch, Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, W. E. B. DuBois and all the rest. Access to primary sources in the University of Chicago libraries educed an intellectual passage that led me to read voraciously and write much, in order to catch up with peers and gain a hold on some comer of American religious life. Why become an historian? Because I found the world in the America that I encountered odd, and wanted to find out how it had become so.

After completing graduate work I returned to parish ministry—oddly, my teachers said of a newly-minted and teaching-prone Ph.D.—to start a new congregation in the Chicago suburbs. While doing the graduate work I had served part-time in blue-collar and African-American congregations on Chicago’s changing West and South sides. There I had experiences that always made “church” as institution more vivid and more positive to me than it had been to many historians of Christianity whose whole life was only the academy. I am not saying that my approach was superior, but the experience lent color.

Frequently I have noted that Jonathan Edwards, Horace Bushnell, Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr. spent years and in some cases whole careers in congregational ministry. They were and remain mentors to me, also through four decades post-parish life. Perhaps the Aristotelian framework at the University of Chicago led me to admire phronesis, practical knowledge, the interplay of action and reflection then and ever since.

To finish the parochial theme: until 1963 I was founding pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. The people there, in their folly and their generosity of spirit and diversity, were living refutations of charges or shatterers of stereotypes that the post-War middle-middle class in new suburbs were all of a kind. They further quickened and thickened my sense of what human struggles and strivings, what communal and associational life, about which we historians write, mean up close.

The parish scene was an auspicious place in which to test the theology that had been forming in me, making it a never-abstract pursuit. Ever after, I have defined theology not as philosophy of religion dealing with Christian texts. Instead, it was “the interpretation of the life of a people in the light of a transcendent reference,” in this case, of God. And my interpretation henceforth would be not philosophical but historical. By the time I reluctantly left the pastorate in 1963, accepting a new call—through billions of particulars and not through a supernatural blinding flash, I like to say—to teach and do research and writing for the University of Chicago, I was well along in an authorial career.

The Point of It All

Schopenhauer says that we spend the first half of our life writing a script and the second half interpreting it. Kierkegaard has it that we live life forward but interpret it backward. In what follows I shall trace my writing and publishing career as a set of responses. It may seem idiosyncratic to spend time mentioning the auspices of books, the invitations to which I have responded. Yet not only have they been important to this provincial, but they also point to the way one comes to discern what a life, a career, a theme finds as its focus, its passion.

Here is another reason it is important: as one begins to teach and lecture and write, others gain a sense of where one’s competences and curiosities lie. No one ever asked me to write on the Serengeti lion or Berber rugs or e-coli. They came to ask about subjects whose edges I had skirted. Responding to them meant a lifelong learning and focusing task.

Let me try this another way. To students I like to paraphrase Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy: one book is about one thing, at least the good ones are. So, by analogy, are lives. We acquire or devise mental profiles of thinkers, at least the major ones, by seeing their preoccupying themes packed and condensed. Martin Buber is the I and Thou or Meetings thinker; Paul Tillich came down in the end to The Courage to Be. Albert Schweitzer, to Reverence for Life. We do this condensing with lesser figures as well, for example our professors, people who have greatly influenced us. And in the second half, the backward-looking half of life, we can begin to write our own profiles of what we think we are about.

What are my writings and my life about? Readers can see that my books follow two tracks. One set is expressive of faith, of faith even in particular—some call it “confessional”—forms. Books addressed to Christians as Christians, in some cases to Lutherans as Lutherans (on sacraments etc.), or books expressive of or advocating 44 “spirituality” grounded in a tradition make up one track. The other, the dominant one, treats history, the phenomena of religion, in what I hope are regarded as fair-minded—no, not objective—ways. Reviewers cannot find a faith perspective in books like my A Nation of Behavers and cannot lose it in A Cry of Absence.

Of course, one can lead two lives, speak with two tongues, be of two minds, and live with contradiction. But I have tried to work at intellectual issues that interrelate the private and the public, the personal and the social, the confessional and the pluralistic. I have come to relish the concept and realities that go with “pluralism.” But doing so, I have contended, need not lead to non-commitment, cynical detachment, or relativism. It is as pleasing to me to be honored as a “humanist” as it is to be recognized as a “Christian humanist” —sometimes by the same people. How one comes to this stance, this set of possibilities, is too complex and ill-defined to be treated here. It is something that gets worked out in a lifetime of responses to situations, But responding here does not mean being passive, letting others dictate agendas. It only means that they tease one into self-awareness. Especially because many of these stimuli come from colleagues through the decades, students with their new questions, and lifelong dialogue with my historian-brother, the questions and assignments come from people who know me well and can reach for otherwise hidden elements and latent curiosities that need developing.

So the “provincial” and “the parochial” themes survive and interact with “the public.” I’d like to say that when I write about University of Chicago-based pluralist themes, the soil of Nebraska-bred Christian faith is still firm beneath. And when I read of plains and prairie existence, I do come from the perspective of someone who has chosen to accept invitations into a public world enriched by wild heterogeneities and almost limitless pluralism. We can now trace how these interpretations unfold through a writing career.

III. The Public

As I have described my provincial and parochial lives, with their downsides and also their formative influence, the circumstantia of my vocation would hardly have predisposed me to be a teacher in a private, secular, pluralist university. The scholar of religion, we are often told, is taught to feel marginal in the academy. I have never accepted the notion that she should, and never found that the University of Chicago, by no means focused on or curious about religious history, was uncongenial to scholars of religion who could win respect for what they represented and accomplished. Through my years at Chicago the school gave me as many faculty-wide assignments, elected me to campus-inclusive office, awarded me cherished honors-never once reckoning my religious specialty as either a pro or a con element in scholarly or leadership assessments.

Aware one has to be that in a world of sciences, arts, humanities, and social sciences that get described as secular, no one receives favors for being either a scholar of religion or a person of faith. Yet and again, numbers of scholars like me, and I, have been elected to fellowship or been awarded medals and other honors by the top humanities, arts and sciences, political and social sciences associations and by the nation, where again the regard in which a scholar is held is increased or diminished depending upon performance more than subject matter.

The experience of such circumstantia did and does, however, color one’s researches and outlook. The late Father John Courtney Murray, S. J., a pioneer Catholic teaching at a largely Protestant divinity school at a major private university, Yale, reported back on his positive experiences in partibus infidelibus, the provinces of those who do not believe. In the years when he forayed there and when I started teaching, a model of humanity and culture that dominated was characterized by Herman Kahn, Anthony Wiener, and the Hudson institute in The Year 2000 (1967) as having a “Basic, Long-Term Multifold Trend Toward” first of all, “increasingly Sensate (empirical, this-worldly, secular, humanistic, pragmatic, utilitarian, contractual, epicurean or hedonistic, and the like) cultures.” In respect to the “Sensate,” the authors added a dazzling set of adjectives that I shall simply reproduce as a description of the circumstantia:

“Empirical, Pragmatic, Operational, Practical, Worldly, Scientific, Skeptical, Tentative, Fallible, Sensory, Materialistic, Mechanistic, Relativistic, Agnostic, Instrumental, Empirically or Logically Verifiable.” Where in a world thus described was there room for people of my stripe? The scholars in my discipline are people whose work associates them with adjectives more appropriate to the study of religious history, as I was pursuing it, Get ready for another stunning or numbing sequence for this “Ideational” alternative (from Kahn and Wiener) as exemplified in the lives of many people and cultures who would be the subjects of my writings: “Revealed, Charismatic, Certain, Dogmatic, Mystic, Intuitive, Infallible, Religious, Supersensory, Unworldly, Salvational, Spiritual, Absolute, Supernatural, Moral, Emotional, Mythic.”

Today that second set of adjectives is culturally present, of course, as few pictured it ever again could be, as of the mid-sixties. What strikes me is how the two sets coexist and interact within the same culture and among and within the minds of the same people. Yet the society and not all individuals seem to be schizoid because of the coincidence of these apparent opposites around them and within them. From the beginning of my studies until now I have found that the familiar “religious” versus “secular” dichotomy is not very accurate or apt. Were the word not so inelegant, I would prefer to speak and think of ours as a “religio-secular” culture, in which individuals and groups are coming up with new mixes.

This certainly shows up in public life as I have written about it. Having chosen to live with the dialectic of provincial/parochial and public, I have argued that Americans misjudge reality when they reduce everything to the theme that “religion is a private affair.” Through the years I have seen reasons to attach the term and concept “public” to religion and cognate terms. Dean Acheson in a book title, quoting King Alphonsus XII of Spain spoke of being Present at the Creation. I was “present at the creation” and in some accounts by other scholars was the progenitor or publicist for, among others, the terms “public religion,” “public theology,” “public church,” “public ministry,” and more. There is now a Martin Marty Center for Public Religion at the University of Chicago and a Martin Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and for three years I directed and wrote for the Public Religion Project, a Pew Charitable Trusts-funded initiative at the University of Chicago. Whether or not to claim priority or inventor’s status is not the point: the identification is what matters here, as we focus finally on what became the accent, subject-matter, preoccupation, and indicator of a life-or vocation-theme in historical and other writings.

A word about what is meant by public religion. There is no effort by most who use it to homogenize the citizenry and invent a the public. If there is a the public, it is made up of many sub-publics. Similarly, there is no effort to downgrade the essentially personal and private dimensions of spiritual and religious life. Public religion can refer to a kind of “sacred canopy” over the whole society, something like “civil religion.” Writers of my camp will monitor it, report on it, and where that is in place, critique it. Or it can refer to religion-in-public. This means all its manifestations outside the sanctuary (where a congregation that gathers may also be a public!). It includes the mall, the gallery, the university, the market, the concert hall, the media, places overlooked by those who restrict religion to a dimension of private life.

How did the career as a teacher and then writer of American religious history come about and how did I come to my passion: the concern with “pluralism” and “the public”? And how did response to other requests by editors and publishers lead to writing in several other fields, as has been the case?

Writing and editing articles, columns, poems, essays, and the like was one thing. Conceiving of myself as an author of books was another. I cannot recall having thought of writing specific books until someone asked me. In 1956, while still a student and before the final seven-year parish pastor stint, I had been recommended to and asked by the Christian Century to become a Contributing Editor. The title eventually became Associate and then Senior Editor. My main duties were to be literary editor, assigner of book reviews and author of reviews of my own, and columnist. As such my name was getting around beyond the parish.

On Wednesday night, February 27, 1956, during a stroll around the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, where I had spoken at a conference, publisher Arthur Cohen, who had just invented the Meridian Books paperbacks, asked me for what became A Short History of Christianity, my first book and one that has been in print through several editions and from several publishers for over four decades. Why not go for a veteran, someone tested, mature, experienced, full of perspective? Cohen: Meridian wants new authors with fresh eyes and inexperience. Still alert to Christian history details from having had to pass doctoral examinations, I revisited my notes, wrote, and in April, 1959 the book based on them appeared. Odd that I could summon the chutzpah to write at the beginning of a career the kind one should save for the summing up period of life.

Today I would do something different with most lines in it. But here I shall resist totally any impulse to justify or appraise past works. They are finished, independent products, turned loose on readerships, and there is to my knowledge no tasteful way to speak well or ill of them. The only relevant point here is to note that this was already a “public” book. Cohen asked me to write as a believer in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church, but to write for non-believers in partibus infidelium especially.

More public was the other first-year book, The New Shape of American Religion, that appeared in October, 1959. Who asked for it? The Christian Century editors assigned me a series of articles on the state of religion in America as the Eisenhower era was ending. A postcard—this one I framed—from noted Jewish sociologist-theologian Will Herberg to Managing Editor Ted Gill in 1958 urged that the magazine reprint the articles so he could use them as required reading in his courses. Soon with Herberg and Gill prompting, Harper and Brothers’ religion editor Mel Arnold signed me to a book contract, and we were on the way. This was very much designed to be a “public” book in content and genre.

Arthur Cohen was soon back urging me to rework my dissertation for paperbacking. I had gone to Chicago in pursuit of the historical record concerning the infidel: the freethinker, the skeptic or agnostic or atheist. Europe had had its grand god-killers in figures like Darwin and Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. Certainly we must have suppressed their counterparts here, I thought. As often happens in historical dissertations, the data contradicted the thesis and demanded a reworking. America’s anti-religious thinkers tended to be trivial through most of our history. The churches found various reasons to make more of them than they were worth, as many still do when they speak of the Secular Humanist Conspiracy. My thesis had been called The Uses of Infidelity—a title that television producer Bill Moyers in 1998 at my retirement party announced that he thought would have been appropriate for the Clinton White House. Cohen published it in 1961 as The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion.

Later Cohen was back asking for and getting a more expansive treatment of the contemporary public scene: Varieties of Unbelief from Nihilism to Atheism, from Agnosticism to Apathy: Explorations in American Religion said the dust jacket on a work of 1964. A church related publisher, Westminster, for a series of studies in Christian Communication prompted The Improper Opinion: Mass Media and the Christian Faith, also back In 1961. Now I was thoroughly plunged into the public scene, and from researches back then down into the present have had public and publicity concerns through the media as a central historical and cultural focus.

One more book written during the parish years was a repeat for Mel Arnold and (now) Harper and Row. I wanted to call it The Displaced Christian, anticipating what has come to be called the post-Christian scene. Reminiscences of the name and evidence that I think in terms of “place” is obvious in that “Place” appears in four chapters titles and “Displacement” in three of the other five titles. Harper thought that, despite the theme and because of my non-whining tone. it needed a more positive title and it became, alas, Second Chance for American Protestants.

In 1969 two books came from Harper and Row, a sign that the publishers and I were not on bad terms despite my distaste for that one title. The Modern Schism: Three Paths to the Secular was the last book to show that I had been called to teach what today would be called modern “Atlantic Cultures” religious history. But the next year I became an associate dean, taught part time for five years, and was unable to pursue original research in Great Britain or on the continent. Needless to say, family duties and the Christian Century weekly obligations kept me from going to Europe for any sustained periods. Somehow I never got around to asking for or applying for or enjoying a sabbatical before retirement. Every academic year quarter from 1963 to 1998 1 was “in residence,” and five out of six of those quarters was in the classroom. That meant that my sources now had to be American, and they were.

Less strictly historical and more in the line of the culturally descriptive and the programmatic was the other book of 1969, The Search for a Usable Future. It grew out of several lectureships at other schools. I should say that all my historical writing grew out of graduate seminar teaching, and was heavily reliant on mutual research with students, from which I learned much-and came to the edge of unwitting over-dependence sometimes.

When people asked me how I got so much writing done, I would answer a) by marrying well and having a happy family life and a cooperative spouse who does well in the division of labor and a bit of moonlight editing and much suggesting, and b) by teaching mainly in graduate school, where every seminar and class has to be original, so much incentive and many new materials do turn up.

So: why do people write? Why does this person write (chiefly) American religious history? Answer: because people ask me and because my teaching and lecturing is done in response to assignment of topics and common inquiries.

Arthur Cohen, later at Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, asked for one more book before he went off into novel writing and faced premature death. This was for a series on world religions, and he asked me to undertake Protestantism. By then Dial had asked me for a work in American religious history for a Bicentennial series. John Cogley did one on Catholicism and someone named William R. Taylor was supposed to have done one on the evangelical half of Protestantism—he never delivered—while I was to take the “mainstream.” The editor now was E. L. Doctorow, later to emerge as a notable novelist. The book was Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America. I conceived it during a visit to Israel. Outlining it on that scene, I asked what part religion plays in the shaping of public life, and translated that to the very different American pluralist scene. It won the National Book Award in 1972.

How did a Bicentennial book appear in 1970, six years early? Dial hoped many authors would write early, through the seventies, and I was among the early deliverers. Maybe that aspect should lead to a c) to go with the a) and b) above: how get so much writing done and why do people ask you? In two words: meet deadlines. My Swiss heritage, some psychological drive—is it ADHD?—and ownership of two watches and many calendars may help explain the odd answer to the question why I kept getting asked to write books: perhaps punctuality and deadline-consciousness are part of a genetic or cultural package. Publishers like it.

In 1976, the bicentennial year, A Nation of Behavers appeared, and stays in print. It was a more theoretical and programmatic, less narrative book than most, designed to stress the way religious movements cluster and are perceived in public. The University of Chicago Press chartered this one on the basis of some journal articles. Beacon did the same with the only other collection I have done, Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance in 1987. Whoever has read this far in this autobiography will know why “circumstance” is there, and “public” is obvious in “republic” and in every chapter.

The University of Chicago also asked me to do a kind of summa of my teaching and writing, to do a first book by anyone that aspired to be synthetic—one cannot be comprehensive—about pluralism and public religion. The result is Modern American Religion, now in three volumes. The story carries from 1893 to 1960, so there should be one more volume. But I have retired from teaching and am not in the university library daily, so if a fourth volume appears it will take a different character from the other three. I was also inhibited in that the first three volumes dealt with people who with only one or two exceptions were dead. History feels very different when one deals with the immediate past and with living, ever changing people whose stories I would rather not have to tell insofar as they might prompt literary feuds-no part of which have I ever chosen to enjoy in our too-short lives.

I will also mention Pilgrims in Their Own Land, 500 years of American religion in 500 pages. A public television producer asked for a narrative that could serve as a basis for a TV series, and as I delivered the manuscript we did write scripts to match it. But public funding did not come through, and my calling to be at my wife’s bedside through seasons when she was stricken with cancer preoccupied me, and the moment for the series but not for the book had passed.

Who asked for The One and the Many? I accepted the offer to deliver a lecture at The Library of Congress without having read the fine print: that according to the contract Harvard University Press expected a book to be based on it. This book is very much to the “public” theme, if slightly less religious in accent than most of my other books.

Here I have resisted the impulse, born of agenda anxiety, to list many more titles, these from the churchly, theological, and spiritual sides. Let me only mention one whose title makes it belong here obviously, The Public Church: Mainline-Evangelical-Catholic, done at the request of Crossroad in 1981.

From the Parochial phase and directed to an audience it implies came a sequence of books on the Lutheran approach to theology and life. In response to a publisher who liked to hear us talk about the familial side came works like Friendship, on a theme and reality that sustains me when “public” is remote and abstract. After my wife died, I was asked to write A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, for Harper and Row. It moved to Eerdmans, a religious house with a public conscience with whom I have enjoyed working. This spiritual accent is obvious also in a series of four books done with photographer Micah Marty, whose work my meditations complement: Places Along the Way, Our Hope for Years to Come, The Promise of Winter, and When True Simplicity Is Gained. As I have moved into retirement and as publishers make requests in this line, we may well do more. “Spirituality” is a hot topic for writers, just as it was stone cold in 1963 when I began teaching or in 1967 when The Year 2000 was written. My own interest is in “moored” versions, that is, in spiritualities based in traditions, scriptures of various faith, and communities. This as opposed to “unmoored,” entirely individualistic and entrepreneurial and idiosyncratic versions. But for me talk of the spiritual is never a retreat from public life.

I should mention two other directions in which my writing has gone. In the early 1980s, after I had served on hospital boards, experienced care at the side of my ill wife, and done some historical writing on faith, a hospital system asked me to help found an institute that became the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics in Chicago. I have served it as author of a full-length book, co-editor of a large series and editor of its journal Second Opinion, and thus continue to deal with the address to healing in religious communities. In today’s world, that is anything but accenting private life; public issues are at stake.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked me to direct a six-year study of militant modem religious fundamentalisms around the world. I remained a full-time teacher and worked with associate R. Scott Appleby to produce five large volumes for The Fundamentalism Project at the University of Chicago Press.

The Marty “Vanity and Archives” Wall of bookshelves at our home includes scores of books that I have edited, more scores that include forewords that this no-blurbs writer has done, and by now, it is safe to say, a couple of hundred books in which a chapter by me has appeared plus thousands of journal articles. For forty-five years I have been writing for the Christian Century; for thirty-five years was coeditor of the professional journal Church History, for thirty-three years I have edited the newsletter Context. In cases too frequent to mention, I have stressed the “public” theme.

The rationale for doing all this appears on the pages of the writings and does not belong in a short autobiography. The accent serves as a nudge or plea to scholars of religion to be, more frequently, “public scholars.” This does not mean strivers for relevance of attention. It does mean seeking to speak clearly, to have the nerve to take risks in the academy and to aim for publics, to help demonstrate to publics the places of religious faith and communities in the culture, and to aspire to be not only teachers and researchers and writers of hidden documents but to reach for expression that will attract many in our society who want to make sense of pluralism.

Theologically, my programme elicited by those who assign articles has nothing to do with proving the existence of God or expounding Christian doctrines. It has much to do with focusing on how people who come with religious convictions can hold to them and refine them while being open to the others-and not lapsing into casual tolerance that leads to eventual indifference. No one has figured how to bring all this together, which is why a lifework in the face of “finitude, contingency, and transience” implies appeals by my generation of specialists to colleagues and successors to continue to come forward and to live writers’ lives that will address the hungry hearts, the distracted minds, and the searching souls in American private and public life.

Biographical/Critical Sources


Dolan, Jay P., and James P. Wind, editors, New Dimensions in American Religious History: Essays in Honor of Martin Marty, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI). 1993.


America, November 15, 1997. John David Dawson, review of The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good p. 28: July 15, 2000. John A. Coleman, “Religion Goes Public.” p. 24.

Best Sellers, January 1. 1971.

Charlotte Observer. January 21, 1995.

Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1995.

Christian Century, February 17, 1971; May 20, 1981; July 29, 1981; August 26, 1981; September 7, 1983; September 16, 1984; January 29, 1997, Mark Silk, review of Modern American Religion, Volume 3; Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960. p. 105; June 7, 2000, Richard J. Mouw, review of Politics, Religion, and the Common Good: Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation about Religion in Our Shared Life, p. 468; January 3, 2001, David A. Hoekema, review of Education, Religion, and the Common Good: Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation about Religion’s Role in Our Shared Life p.30.

Commentary, May, 1969.

Commonweal, March 28, 1969-1 February 22, 1985; November 29, 1985; March 13, 1987: May 17. 1991.

Journal of Church and State, Spring 2001, Elizabeth S. Carpenter, review of Politics, Religion, and the Common Good: Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation about Religion’s Role in Our Shared Life p. 374.

Library Journal, October 7, 1970.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 24, 1984; April 19, 1987; December 27, 1992.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997, Maurice Hamington, review of The One, and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good, p. 32.

New York Review of Books, October 28, 1976.

New York Times Book Review, March 25. 1969; March 14, 1971; November 11, 1973; January 21, 1977; April 19, 1981; June 17, 1984; January 4, 1987; June 16, 1991; January 26, 1992; May 31, 1992.

Publishers Weekly, February 20, 1981.

Saturday Review, January 4, 1969; May 10, 1969; February 6, 1971.

Society, July, 2000, A. Javier Trevino, “Sharing Democracy’s Community,” p. 78.

Times Literary Supplement, March 2, 1973.

Tribune Books (Chicago), June 23, 1991.

iFebruary, 1993.

Washington Post Book World, July 1, 1984.

Yale Review, summer, 1969; winter, 1985.


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