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The imposter and the infamous

Professor of History Chris Gehrz publishes his debut solo book detailing the flight and plight of American aviator Charles Lindbergh. 

By Rachel Blood and Joy Sporleder 

Chris Gehrz walked into the Lindbergh House, his 6-year-old twins at his side, none of them knowing the museum was dedicated to a white supremacist. Or that Gehrz would spend over three years of his life in Lindbergh’s world.

The Little Falls, Minnesota home-turned-museum commemorates American aviator Charles Lindbergh, with model planes hanging from the ceilings and a visitor center flight simulator that Gehrz’s daughter climbed in. The cockpit, built to resemble the interior of Lindbergh’s plane, “Spirit of St. Louis,” features computer screens simulating Lindbergh’s take-off from New York or nighttime approach to Paris, the monumental first nonstop flight across the Atlantic. 

Professor Gehrz stands before a small class of upperclassmen students, giving an in-depth lecture on Modern Europe. | Photo by Hannah Hobus

Soon after his Lindbergh House visit, Gehrz brainstormed with Eerdmans Publishing, a Christian-based Michigan publishing house, for his newest project: a spiritual biography. After writing his first book, “The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity” with Mark Pattie III five years prior, Gehrz wanted to write something on his own.

Even after completing graduate school at Connecticut’s Yale University and being promoted to Professor of History at Bethel University, Gehrz didn’t feel he’d done what he’d been trained to do: write a book in the traditional “historian” sense. 

“I wrote this book in order to prove to myself that I’m not a fraud,” Gehrz wrote in a blog post. “It’s not limited to my profession, but academics are prone to something we call ‘the imposter syndrome:’ the unshakeable suspicion that we’re not nearly as good at teaching, research, writing, etc. as other people think, that we don’t belong in the company of more brilliant colleagues and will eventually be revealed for the imposters that we are.”

Returning to Connecticut to get coffee with some graduate school friends in the summer of 2018, Gehrz still felt inadequate. His peers had all written and published books in the fields of European and diplomatic history. Gehrz purposely avoided seeing his old adviser, feeling as though he had nothing to show for himself.

So he decided to do something about it.

“You’re tall and Minnesotan,” Eerdmans’ editor said, thinking of Lindbergh’s Swedish ancestry and 6’3” height. “You should do Charles Lindbergh.”

Gehrz later discovered that his family trip to the Lindbergh House was not his first encounter with the pilot. Two months before, his mother dug up a seventh-grade history project. Gehrz had written about Lindbergh. 

“I don’t know that it [was] a divine sign,” Gehrz said, “but I took it as a sign that I should read up, and it did seem like it would be a good project.”

Assistant Professor of History Sam Mulberry has been a friend and colleague of Gehrz since the summer of 2005. They were brought together while filming a comedy skit for Christianity and Western Culture, which they teach together as part of a bigger team. 

Since then, they have traveled to Europe together five times, leading Bethel study abroad trips that study World War I and its impact on various European regions. The historically-oriented expeditions covered ground in London and caught midnight showings of Alfred Hitchcock films in Paris.

Gehrz worked on “Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot” from June 2017 to June 2020. Initially looking to create a biography highlighting the growing population of Americans who identify as spiritual but not religious, Gehrz planned to focus on Lindbergh’s upbringing in a family that didn’t attend church but was very spiritually and intellectually curious. 

While writing his book at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and during the national movement following the murder of George Floyd, Gehrz realized the importance of his research was shifting. He confided in Mulberry as he worked through the process of addressing that infamous side of a pilot who braved the first nonstop transatlantic flight.

Photo by Hannah Hobus

“I love that he is always thinking of ways to improve things, trying to make things better,” Mulberry said. “He is a great collaborator. He works ahead and is always thinking of new ideas and innovating.” 

Lindbergh was antisemitic and had ties to people who believed in eugenics, the process of controlling genetics through heredity in reproduction. 

“At its very worst, eugenics inspired the Nazi euthanasia program that murdered hundreds of thousands of children and adults with developmental delays and mental illness,” Gehrz said.

Lindbergh was deeply committed to the concept of white supremacy, and Gehrz knew he couldn’t write the book without addressing the issue of Lindbergh’s belief in the competition of races.

“Someone that famous can also be infamous for believing so strongly in racial competition, and specifically that the white race ought to prevail in that competition,” Gehrz said. “While there are parts of the story to celebrate, there’s a lot that is deeply disturbing,” Gehrz said. 

An afterword was added to the book to explain that concept. Gehrz wants his audience to recognize their own implicit and perhaps unconscious participation in the culture of race competition as writing the book helped him realize his own.

“I think one value of doing history, and maybe even more so biography, is [that] it does hold up a mirror,” Gehrz said. “You get aspects of your own life and belief, or at least maybe the kind of larger context of how our society or our culture or our religion shapes us.”

Three years after taking his twins to the Lindbergh House, Gehrz returned on his own in November 2019. In late fall and winter, the house is closed to tourists to allow for study of Lindbergh’s parents’ book collection.

“It was just good to get some experience of the house not as a tourist destination or historical site but as an actual home, where people lived and read and talked to each other about all the big questions that run through my book,” Gehrz said.

Alone in the home’s drawing room on a fall day, Gehrz wrote and wrote as he looked through family Bibles creased from dog-eared pages and underlined passages about evolution.

“I’m actually pretty proud of this book,” Gehrz said. “It’s probably one of the best things I’ve done.”

The Lives of Chris Gehrz

Designer: Bryson Rosell

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