“As scholars we are known by the questions we ask.”

As scholars we are known by the questions we ask. Sometimes they are itty-bitty questions, and sometimes they are big questions. Tom Olbricht asked and addressed the big questions.

Carl Holladay, in a session about Tom Olbricht. Christian Scholars Conference, Nashville, TN, 10 June 2021

“I doubt there is any insuperable difficulty…”

Your idea for this book is excellent and I see no reason why it should not be produced. Nell and I never worry about the fact that we do not have money, for quite honestly that is not a genuine factor in life. We shall pray and if God wants your book printed He will open up doors like he opened up Red Seas, lion’s dens, and roads to Philippi….I doubt there is any insuperable difficulty to bringing out the book, and if we think more of the book than we do of profits or money (as we always do here) it will probably get going….it isn’t a complete failure, not even a near one yet.

W. Carl Ketcherside to Stan Paregien, 11 February 1970

‘…notoriously poor prophets’

“I try to be a historian, and historians, although we are reluctant to admit it, are not good at contemporary analysis and are notoriously poor prophets.”

–Everett Ferguson in ‘Churches of Christ: Who We Are and What We Ought to Be’ in Renewal Through Restoration: An uncommon call to Christian discipleship (2021), p. 135. Dr. Ferguson’s essay first appeared under the same title in Christian Studies 18 (2000-2001).

Those who wander from their training would do well to remember Dr. Ferguson’s caution. Not that one cannot, or should not, wander. But wander cautiously and beware all earnestness.

New exhibit now open — A Century of Great Songs: E. L. Jorgenson’s Remarkable Hymnal–(and some reflections on creating exhibits for archives and special collections)

I spent much of the last year reading and selecting items for the newest exhibit on display at ACU Special Collections. The result is below, which can be seen in person in Abilene and also fully online at the links below. The descriptive text accompanying each scan corresponds to the item labels in the display cases.

For what its worth here are some thoughts about how I built the exhibit, and I hope they are useful for someone like me who finds themselves doing exhibits on the fly without training. This is neither a how-to guide nor a philosophical reflection on any number of aspect of collection development or exhibition theory. It is a retrospective play-by-play. I don’t commend this as a model of what ought to be, rather it is description of what was. Your mileage may vary, take it for what it’s worth.

I learned exhibits like my mother learned to swim. As the story goes the family was enjoying a day at the river and I think it was an uncle who was throwing all the kids off a boat dock into the water. My mother protested that she didn’t know how to swim. He said, ‘sink or swim’ as he tossed her in. And so she learned to swim by swimming. Sometimes you take lessons, sometimes someone teaches or shows you, sometimes you hold your nose and learn to swim.

Several years ago I was told to replace an exhibit by a certain date. ‘Come up with some ideas and we’ll discuss it,’ functioned for me like ‘sink or swim’ did for my mother. So I learned exhibits by doing it. I did not take a course, did not go to a seminar, did not have a mentor or teacher. The prerogative to wave it off into a colleague’s lap or assign it to an underling was not mine to enjoy. I was able to hold my nose a little before I landed in the water.

I learned something then (actually learned a lot about a lot, but this post is about exhibits) that stuck with me. The process I used was simple and was born out of necessity. And since it seems there has been one deadline for a new exhibit after another, more or less, ever since, I remain guided by the same basic approach. Again, maybe it is helpful for you to hear me rehearse my process out loud, so here we go.

Having no idea where to start, I started with what I appreciated about museum exhibits. For me, as a consumer of exhibits, I like a good story. I also like an accurate and concise description.

What I realized, in about the same fashion as hitting the water for the first time, is that in practice…when it actually comes down to making an exhibit, those are mutually exclusive. ‘Good story’ and ‘concise description’ are mutually exclusive.

You will have to choose which will be dominant. And get over it that the other will have to be recessive.

For the Jorgenson exhibit, I had a hundred-year-old hymnal that I wanted to celebrate. It also helped that it was not just old, and at a milestone age, it is an important hymnal. Anyone can keep printing something for 100 years, or a thousand, but really, is it even important? The Jorgenson hymnal is important, and that became the focus of my research as I tried to sift the literature and the displayable objects (anything and everything is not displayable) to see what emerged that could be deployed to tell the story. Actually, first step is to determine what story there may be. Or which story to tell. Obviously the ‘good story’ angle in this case was going to be dominant.

So I started reading and went where the footnotes led. The ‘suggestions for further study’ at the end of the link below consists of the first and best places I went to begin. But a lot of work was in turning journal pages, one at a time to get a feel for the story. Word and Work especially, but there were others. I found the Gospel Guardian ad, the World Vision, Christian Leader, Firm Foundation and 20th Century Christian, and the Christian Chronicle articles and ads only because I went looking. It helped a lot that as the project continued the digitized issues of Chronicle became available. What didn’t make the cut this time also came through page-by-page discovery: Gospel Broadcast, Gospel Advocate, American Christian Review, Macedonian Call, Christian Standard, Biblical Research Monthly, and more.

At this point I had the basic chronological and narratival structure in my head. The chronology helps a lot just for skeletal structure. The narratival structure depends on conflict and resolution at two key points in this story. First, look for the tension that produced the hymnal. Tension in the young Jorgenson, and tension in the landscape of the hymnal publishing world of the early 20th century. There is also some tension in how Restoration congregations sang their faith, and which vehicles (i.e. hymnals and hymn-books) they employed to do it, and the limitations of those vehicles. That tension is resolved by the publication of Great Songs. That ELJ did what he did, and what he did in doing it, resolved that set of narratival tensions. Then there is a tension internal to Churches of Christ over the book and premillennialism. That tension is resolved, ultimately, when the new publishers deleted ELJ’s name from the title page; also it seems significant that other and later books began playing the hymnal game by the standards ELJ set (sometimes literally lifting pages from his book to do so).

I do not explicitly lay this out in the exhibit itself, but I think a discerning reader can see it at work. The rising and falling plot tensions, and the resolutions, make for a good story and hook the reader.

The driving point of this exhibit is to address how this hymnal endured and why it was important.

As for practicalities about exhibit design and construction. I have four table-top cases, two a bit deeper, and two rather shallow. Each case needs to stand on its own as much as possible, and earn its keep as one stage in a larger sequence. I do not number the cases since our display area is only open when staff are available. So I can guide viewers from case to case. The arrangement from case-to-case and within each case took about a month. I set something up, left it, looked at it, then adjusted. Item placement and arrangement is one thing. Whether to prop them up (or not) and how is another. All of it is trial-and-error. I would work a while, then go do other things that needed to be done. Come back and revise.

Once I was fairly satisfied with how many items I could get by with (sometimes less really is more; sometimes more is more) I put everything back that I knew would not make the cut for display. That means what survives is ready for scanning. With this Great Songs exhibit, I wanted covers and title pages, and good high-res scans of all the articles. A student worker scanned them and followed a file-naming convention I devised so the scans would auto-sort into case order. Here is an example of that file-naming convention for the cover for the first edition, first printing of Great Songs:


I decided years ago that anything we scan that we have in our own collection gets ACU as a prefix. That is also a way for anyone who downloads it to know it is from ACU. We could utilize the embedded metadata features in the image file itself, and we probably should, but at some point you have to realize you can’t do everything they way you’d like. Especially not with a staff of two people. The other elements, and their order, in this file-naming sequence I think will make sense.

At this point I began drafting the lead text for each case. In these I tell the story and set up the items in each case. At the link below they are the longer thematic paragraphs before a group of photos. With those drafted I turned to item descriptions. The process here is to condense as much as possible, as clearly as possible, to get things down to a card that does not take up too much space at 18 or 20 pt font. The viewer has to see it in order to read it, and I’m not writing a book, only an item description. So, condense, condense, condense. Get to the point in as small a space as possible.

Then I print the text, cut to size and go back to the cases for another round of arrangement. The placement of cards in the cases changes the look of things, and that means another couple of days of trial and error.

Finally, at some point, decide to stop. Declare enough is enough, make sure everything is spelled correctly, items are in the final places, print the final cards and declare it finished.

Now with scans and text complete, I turned an analog exhibit into a wordpress blog post. Some edits here and there. For example, in a display case I can describe an item below or left or right which will not make clear sense to a reader of a blog post. So, after another round of careful proofreading, I declare it, too, finished.

And with one exhibit finished, I begin to chew on ideas and prep work for next year. I leave main exhibits up for one calendar year.

Perhaps this outlay of my thought process is helpful for those among us who mount exhibits. Perhaps I’ll do it again in the future. Good luck.

Yours and HIS: Letters from W. Carl Ketcherside

Few individuals among Churches of Christ in the 20th century were as well-known as Carl Ketcherside (1908-1989). He described his journey as that of a piece-maker who became a peacemaker. He was for many a champion for the recovery of a lost unity amid a divided fellowship; for others, his voice represented a dangerous departure from historic restorationism if not biblical teaching. However his legacy is characterized, any interpretation of it rests on available sources: from a voluminous published corpus to archival materials from his own hand. On the one hand, ACU Special Collections holds a robust collection of his published books. Further we have copies or originals of as complete a set of his periodicals as is obtainable. On the other hand, we have numerous letters written by Carl to several of his associates. Never intended for publication, they shed additional light into his ministry and through his life, the wider story of Churches of Christ in his day. Each letter includes an attached transcription, and as a result of the typed transcriptions, the letters are now text searchable. We thank Ian Davidson, Cecil Hook. Hoy Ledbetter, Boyce Mouton and Terry Gardner for making the letters, transcriptions, and annotations available to ACU’s Special Collections.

During the 2013 ACU Friends of ACU Library luncheon during Summit I discussed the archival significance of this correspondence and the role archives play in the preservation and dissemination of our faith story. You can find this video presentation here.

Now, I was recently called attention to this speech. I composed it in haste, delivered it with some fear and trepidation, and then moved on. Fear and trepidation because this film captures the first time I spoke in front of an ACU audience, and on top of that Leroy Garrett was seated just in front of me. I also had a full plate in the fall of 2013 trying to begin to get the archive put back together after Donald, Chad, and I relocated everything to the lower level (in just four weeks) only 2 months prior. And we just moved into our house in late July and Laura and the girls started at school just a couple weeks before this Summit presentation. That was just the fullness of the moment. My plate stayed full since, and truthfully I did not really think about this speech again. Though the speech was filmed and placed online, I see now that I did not even take time then to link to it on this blog. I edited the ‘Spoken Word’ page to include a link.

But, I think it has aged very well. I listened to it again just now. I remember working very hard to condense it, to gain clarity, to maintain an even keel of tone and texture. But I do not remember the side line on archival practice. I like it. I’m glad I said it because it needed to be said then, and it needs to be said again. I like the way I said it, and I like what I said. I can see now that some of these thoughts filtered into an article I wrote for Restoration Quarterly.

So, here it is, my attempt to narrate a story about a man whose letters reveal much… much about him, his church, the imperatives which compelled him, and an archive which holds them in trust.

Footlong footnotes

I appreciate academic journal articles in which the author feels compelled to provide nearly a full page of footnotes for three lines of text.

I appreciate the philosophical approach this represents. I appreciate the close reading and comparison of texts and sources it requires. I appreciate the detail and perspicuity it evidences. I appreciate that the author takes the task, topic, and sources and reader so seriously that they unload in the footnotes. I appreciate footnotes which dialogue with other footnotes, which reference earlier or later notes, or which pit source against source, nuancing each other as they dance toward understanding. Kudos to anyone who composes a footnote dialogue so finessed that it is not complete without a contra this or that or a however here or there. I do not regard cf. or vis-a-vis as garnish. Rather, to my eye and appetite the reflect some meaty substance. They are signs of heft. Sure signs the author has homework under their belt. This person has served me a meal, and if I starve after reading it I have only myself to blame.

To some, that is puffery.

Yet, I read claims in which the sentence says ‘many’ or ‘some, or ‘most’ or some such. Yet lo and behold, only one item is noted in the reference.

You tell me which one is puffery.