Last weekend I drove from Michigan to Massachusetts to attend the North Shore Writers Retreat sponsored by Eastern Nazarene College. It was a great time, with presentations by Karl Giberson, Peter Enns, Alissa Wilkinson, Jonathan Merritt, Lil Copan, John Wilson, and hosted by Jonathan Fitzgerald. Some of these people I’ve followed over the years. Others were Facebook friends I’d never met in person.
There were some very good between-sessions conversations about Christian Higher Ed. We had attended such schools and/or taught at them. We all shared some similar questions about the unique challenges of the Christian university.
I came away from the last session with Jonathan Merritt reflecting on two ideas he shared. First, he said that the postmodern world is drawn to story and operates inductively where the modern world operates deductively through argument. I need to be far more attentive to the stories of my students and my colleagues to really build an image of what Christian higher education can look like in the future. Jonathan’s other point that struck home: It’s not enough to draw attention to a problem; you have to offer the compelling alternative.
On the drive home and in the midst of starting the Spring semester Thursday, I’ve been thinking of my arguments about Christian Higher Ed. What I’ve argued is that the past models aren’t sufficient and if we don’t change we run the risk of alienating a generation. But change to what? What does the non-negative vision look like?
The past few days have had me focused anew of the shortcomings of evangelical culture, and by extension, the universities that exist within that culture. On Thursday, Rachel Held Evans posted this blog titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. Drawing on language from Mark Noll’s 1995 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, she argues that there’s a real challenge with compassion when “right belief” fosters ambivalence to suffering. Friday, Peter Enns posted a blog also building on Noll’s book. Pete suggests that a problem for evangelical academics is that we can be “free” to pursue ideas as long as they don’t lead to uncomfortable conclusions. Last night I finished The Great Evangelical Recession by John Dickerson. Dickerson makes some interesting points that have been made elsewhere but ties them together in some useful ways. He draws comparisons between the housing bubble and the exaggerated influence of evangelicalism and suggests a number of structural factors that present great risk (loss of youth, segmentation, financial strain, lack of discipleship, etc.). Today I read Ron Sider’s The Scandal of Evangelical Conscience. Sider effectively documents the statistical similarities between evangelicals and the broader culture on a range of issues like divorce, sexuality, abuse, finance, materialism, and so on.
Taking these pieces as a package, I’m left with a vision of American Evangelicalism which is 1) struggling, 2) culturally uncertain, 3) insufficiently prophetic, 4) interpersonally harsh or condemning, and 5) often very afraid. If these diagnoses are even half on track, this suggests some hard days ahead for traditional evangelical institutions.
So what’s the positive alternative? It’s fine to suggest “don’t be those bad things” but that doesn’t provide us much to go with. Dickerson calls for a return to biblical authority and a focus on discipling. Sider (like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others) suggests we need a better understanding of how Jesus was initiating a Kingdom and not simply providing a way to get to heaven.
There is something about Kingdom language that can be of value to Christian higher education. I’ll unpack some of these thoughts in future posts. For now, let me suggest that the key is to see the Christian university as a place where the Kingdom is in operation. This doesn’t occur in separation from the larger culture as it did in past times. It occurs because we embrace the theological significance of Jesus’ model of sacrificial love, of challenging pharisaicalism, of reaching out to the powerless, and of building a community that takes Paul’s body metaphors seriously. Toward the end of his book, Sider writes, “Indeed, the church ought to be not just different but far ahead of the rest of society.” That’s something I’m continuing to ponder about the Christian University.
Jonathan Fitzgerald, who did such a fine job organizing the Writer’s Retreat, just published an e-book titled Not Your Mothers Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. I really think his idea of the New Sincerity has power. It’s something for us to consider in Christian higher education. We need to present the world as sufficiently complex, to investigate our past positions without abandoning our faith commitments, and above all to tell the truth.
Spring Arbor’s Concept contains the phrase “total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning“. I’m coming to realize that this phrase is far more complicated than “What Would Jesus Do?”. It’s not just affirming a Christian identity. It’s really seeing about seeing the Kingdom that Jesus saw. The more we can learn to do that, the stronger our educational perspective will be.