The Joys of Research

The Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Illinois.

I’ve been at the Billy Graham Center Archives this week. It’s the first stop in what I am calling my midwestern tour. We’re in peak corporate suburbia. Alicia’s reaction when we arrived was priceless. She was genuinely disoriented by this world where “town center” is apparently a synonym for parking lots, and elaborate gardenscapes are not actually public spaces but are merely to be looked at from passing cars. Of course this wasn’t new to her, but we become accustomed to our normal lives and quickly lose touch with other worlds.

My advice to phd candidates with kids: if possible mix everything together and make memories while you’re researching. I thought this might be a disaster but so far we’ve had a great time, Alicia and I and the three boys. None of this is worth it anyway if it prevents you from enjoying your family.

Now, about the research.

Because my opportunities for travel are limited, I try to process as much material as I can as quickly as possible. Lots of jpegs. But you also have to take some time to enjoy it. I don’t want to give away the good stuff, but let’s just say there have been lots of “wow” moments this week in the archives. My dissertation is really going to put the “white” in “white evangelicalism.” Given the overwhelming importance of racial identity to the evangelical movement, it’s remarkable how little many historians of evangelicalism have paid attention to it.

Last night I woke up at 1am and couldn’t get back to sleep until 3am because my brain seemed determined to write the whole dissertation then and there. Information overload. But the multiplying questions, the dizzying expansion of understanding that the archives can bring, are a thrill. It’s especially fun when you come across those documents that you immediately know will be in the final product.

One example. I’ve been learning a lot more about Donald McGavran, the founder of the Church Growth Movement. My sense of who he was has continued to gather depth and nuance. But in the end, you need to deliver to readers some punchy descriptions. What was this person like? What was he all about? Then I came across a letter from a colleague of McGavran. He wanted McGavran to do a certain thing. But, as he wrote to a friend, “Actually, you and I both know we can’t control McGavran” (my paraphrase). Yes! That captured it perfectly. A man who was going to do what he wanted to do. With his church growth ideas he got the bit in his mouth in the 1930s and never let go for the better part of 60 years.

Tomorrow it’s on to my alma mater, and from there to Calvin College in Grand Rapids. It’s hard to believe we get paid to do this stuff.

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