Thinking About Pharisees

I’ve been rolling the idea for this post around in my brain for over a month but couldn’t quite get it to jell into something solid. I don’t think it’s quite there but it’s enough to at least begin a reflection.

In my earlier posts I’ve been calling for the evangelical church to wake up and recognize the changes going on in the culture, especially in light of what’s happening in the thinking of today’s generation of young people. Often I have come way too close to thinking about those unwilling to change as modern Pharisees resisting the movement of the Spirit. I’ve read similar frames in other blogs I follow or in the words of their commenters.

Two weeks ago, Jenny Rae Armstrong posted this piece about the importance of the language we use in making arguments. Her reminder that communication on important issues must be done with care was something that I needed to hear. I’ve waited until now to try to unpack my thinking.

While I feel strongly that the church needs to be willing to address the kinds of issues David Kinnaman writes about in You Lost Me (fear of science, lack of honest doubt, judgmentalism, overprotectionism), I need to be careful not to label those not moving as fast as I want. As I’ve written before, they may be afraid of the changes. But that doesn’t make them modern Pharisees.

Today is Good Friday. Not a high point on the Pharisee’s Facebook Timeline (their Easter status updates would have been interesting).  I decided to do a quick examination of some of the synoptic passages related to the Pharisees. This is decidedly amateur work and my new testament scholar friends can help me overcome my oversimplification.

Just looking at the books of Matthew and Mark, there seem to be multiple approaches within the group called the Pharisees. One approach is asking questions about the meaning of the law (why do you eat with sinners?, the meaning of divorce). A second approach is accusatory in their stance (you’re in league with the devil, what you say is blasphemy). A third approach is political (questions designed to trap Jesus, a plan to kill Jesus beginning as early as Mark 3). Clearly, these three approaches could be used by the same groups of people but I prefer to think of them as subsets of the larger religious response.

I need to make sure that I’m not confounding these approaches when I think about those who protect the current evangelical status quo. I can’t think of them as Pharisaical if they’re following the questioning approach. I’m a little more concerned when the folks on the blogosphere attempt to categorize someone as heretical before their book has come out, who distort positions, who ridicule assertions, who cherry-pick data. This accusatory stance is not properly representative of the Good News or the image of the Body of Christ. The third approach that sets out to use power to ruin people’s reputation, get them fired, or have them blackballed from events comes closest to the modern Pharisees.

Nevertheless, future productive dialogue requires us to be cautious in our use of labels. For a period of time, many arguments against Obama’s policies on Facebook were predicated on the “that’s what Hitler did” meme. But we all know — that’s not ALL Hitler did! Applying the parallel is disingenuous and conversation stopping most of the time.  It’s important that we leave Hitler in the grave.

So also with Pharisees. To label a position as Pharisaical (as I have done) is not to advocate for constructive change but to diminish and demagogue. The Pharisees didn’t post Facebook statuses celebrating Chick-Fil-A. They conspired with others to arrange for Jesus’ arrest, conviction, and crucifixion. That’s a difference those of us promoting change must keep in mind.

At the end of it all, Easter comes and the Kingdom bursts forth. Indeed.

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My Wesleyan Perspective on Christian Higher Education

What follows is the concluding section of a paper I’m presenting next week at the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings at Seattle Pacific titled Wesleyan Implications for Christian Higher Education. I’m glad to be participating but still feeling a little out of my element as a sociologist presenting to theologians. There are some references to people and arguments from earlier sections, but I think you’ll catch my drift. I eagerly covet any feedback (constructive or not).

So then, we are formed as Christians through understanding the broad strokes of scripture, through reflection on our experiences, through lovingly sorting through our past traditions, and through using our brains as enlivened by the Spirit’s leading. That means that the total of the Christian university experience is part of the whole of faith development. Sure, it’s easier to see that in chapel or in Old Testament class. But it’s also operating when students at Denny’s at 2:00 in the morning, are doing calculus homework, or are playing video games with friends.

I want to follow the pattern Richard Hughes set to suggest some educational implications of what we’ve seen in Wesley so far. First, Wesley suggests that the Spirit can enlighten our human frailties. Our task is to be responsive to the light we’re shown, whether that happens in chapel or in French class. Part of the discovery of one’s self in the learning process, of finding new avenues of exploration, or making connections others haven’t seen can be conceptualized as spiritual senses come alive.

Second, God is continually creating; new information, challenging reading, difficult conversations are the avenues through which this can happen. God is still in sovereign control and we need not feel like he must be protected from challenging subjects or situations. This is especially true in the tensions between Tradition and Experience mediated by Reason. Traditionalists may not like having certain questions of doctrine or textual criticism raised within Christian universities, but to deny such questions a community forum seems out of synch with our belief that God is leading.

Third, we must be attentive to the means of grace – not simply the expected “religious” ones like chapel or accountability groups, but to recognize the importance of the daily patterns of our life. Even issues like going to sociology class or doing accounting homework or sitting in on one more assessment committee meeting can operate like ordinary sacraments. That is, if we are looking with open eyes. Such regular patterns of practice can lead to the development of virtues, habits, and spiritual formation as James K. A. Smith observes in Desiring the Kingdom (2009).

Finally, Wesley’s “method” was thoughtful yet messy. There would appear to be a lot of space in the midst of the interplay between the factors. That interplay calls for a sense of tentativeness on the part of scholars and students. We explore what seem to be the best connections at the moment. Because we do so in community, the hearing of new ideas in tension with tradition is good for the entire group. The messiness is the means for common understanding and not the place where one draws lines in the sand (neither silencing dissent nor abandoning tradition should be a first step). One comes up with tentative conclusions and then must hold them loosely while testing them against the method of others.

In short, when we embracing Wesleyan perspectives as the framework for Christian Higher Education, we can come out at a very different place from most of the schools in the CCCU. I haven’t been a fan of all of James Davison Hunter’s books, but I recently came across a contrast in his work that underscores my thoughts.

I really liked his first book, American Evangelicalism (Hunter, 1983), and the most recent, To Change the World (Hunter, 2010). While I could quibble with certain arguments, there is story told over the intervening quarter-century worth attending to. The story is told in the subtitles of the two books: the first talks of “the quandary of modernity” while the latter refers to “Christianity in the late modern world”.

The evangelicalism Hunter describes in the first book is struggling with cultural identity against a backdrop of Weberian rationality. In it’s heyday, evangelicalism was attempting to set boundaries against the broader culture. This showed up in a focus on behavioral pietism, strong positions on particular social issues, and celebrity voices that could articulate THE evangelical worldview.

To Change the World speaks to the challenges of pursuing those efforts at boundary management. Hunter writes:

The irony is this: the idealism expressed in the worldview approach is, in fact, one manifestation of the very dualism its proponents are trying to challenge (27).

Hunter describes our past approaches to cultural engagement in three paradigms: Defensive Against, Relevance To, and Purity From.  Evangelical denominations like ours may have focused more on the first and third (although Hunter sees “seeker sensitive” movements as illustrative of the second). He says, however, it’s time for a paradigm of Faithful Presence:

A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. It is a theology of commitment, a theology of promise. It is disarmingly simple in concept yet in its implications provides a challenge, at points, to all of the dominant paradigms of cultural engagement in the church (243).

I think that Faithful Presence is found in Wesley’s theology. We recognize that the Creator God in the beginning is creating now and will continue to do so in preparation for the Coming Kingdom. When we engage others in Christian dialogue while listening for the leading of the Spirit, we are practicing the principles of that Kingdom that Jesus said was at hand (Mark 1:15). Howard Snyder concludes The Radical Wesley as follows:

What does all this mean of the life and experience of the church today? Primarily that we must determine our understanding of the Kingdom of God and of the church’s agency in the Kingdom of God on the basis of the biblical revelation. The body of Christ is to be an eschatological and messianic community of the Kingdom in a more fundamentally important sense that Wesley understood (p. 103).

The task of the Christian university is no more and no less than this. It’s true that we’re in the middle of learning and teaching and living. But that’s just what we’re doing. It may be a type of means of grace, but it’s really the place where we experience the current and coming Kingdom of God. Such a place values individuals, quests for new articulations of truth, and engages this postmodern world from a place of strength and not fear.

Reflections on Costs in Christian Higher Ed

Rarely a day goes by without some commentary about the increasing costs of higher education, especially tuition. President Obama raised the issue in the State of the Union. Newspapers and blogs abound with concerns about college costs, student debt loads, and stress on parental expenses.

There have certainly been dramatic increases in college costs, especially when seen in the aggregate. Rates of tuition increase at public institutions have been dramatic over the past two decades as states shift public support to K-12 education and to corrections. The news coverage focuses almost exclusively on percentage increases and not on actual dollar amounts (it sounds more dramatic).

The costs of Christian Higher Education have also increased over this period. But it must be remembered that the vast majority of Christian colleges fall in the bottom half of the distribution of private school tuition rates.

But the public perception of private schools is one of tremendous costs. Some years ago at a conference I met some great folks from Bennington University in Vermont. Bennington has total costs of $60,000 per year. They have fewer than 900 students, a student faculty ratio of 9 to 1, an average class size of 14,  and a six year grad rate of 65%. This creates pressures for all four year private institutions.

Institutions I’ve served have student faculty ratios above 13 to 1, had average class sizes in the upper teens, and had six year grad rates in the mid 50s. But administrators, trustees, and parents worry about how the public will respond to increasing costs.

Popular solutions to cost increases seem to focus on technology-mediated solutions. From MOOCs originating from MIT and Standford to Bill Gates suggesting that computer interaction can create mentoring opportunities, there are calls to “increase efficiencies”. John Warner of McSweeney’s had this post in Inside Higher Ed that rightly observed how this flies in the face of what we want teaching and learning to be about.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the economics of supply and demand are supposed to push instructional costs down while allowing other cost sectors to increase. In some ways it can all be seen in terms of classic supply and demand. If we see the purpose of college as only related to job creation, then how we get to the outcome is less important. (By they way, the idea that today’s students are eager to learn through technology is anecdotal and generally unsupported. They’re far more likely to learn from the ever increasing numbers of low-wage adjunct instructors.)

At the same time, as competition between colleges has increased, pressures to support retention, technology, and student life have also increased. Why do colleges need recreational facilities with climbing walls and day spas? What’s the driver for ever increasing band-width? Why do we build fancy new residence halls? Why do our chapels need to look like mega-churches? Because keeping enrollment up in a highly competitive environment requires that kind of student amenity on an ever-escalating basis. (Strangely, new academic buildings are too often seen as luxuries we want deep pocket donors to build.)

Supply and demand becomes an issue especially when Christian universities don’t challenge the national assumptions about the role of a college education. If my university’s goals are identical to those of the local community college or even Michigan State, we’re already in serious competitive trouble. There is simply no way to cut costs enough to play on the same field with publicly supported institutions.

But if we clearly state our purposes and goals, then we’re competing in a different plane. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to every degree program out there (certainly not the for-profits). It’s a matter of what one gets out of the experience provided.

There’s one more problem of supply and demand when it comes to college costs: we’re all competing for the same subset of the student population. We believe that the secret to success is to recruit the best and brightest of the high school graduates. But they are operating in a buyer’s market. They can play one school off against another and shop for the best tuition discount.

Sociologically, there are high degrees of correlation between high-school academic success and social class. Our move years ago from need based aid to merit based aid puts us at an economic disadvantage because we don’t have the resources to compete with the discounts at the elite schools.

Historically, faith-based colleges have drawn from a slightly lower socioeconomic level than is true for the Benningtons of the world (and, I believe, even the Michigan States). That is still a commendable mission. Given that the data still shows huge financial gains over a lifetime if one has a college degree, it’s hard to understand why we can’t make that message work.

As a life-long academic, I have to believe that there is competitive advantage in having the kind of academic, student life, and spiritual life experiences that allow students to see that the true costs of Christian higher education are more than worth it. While we should always be cautious about rapidly rising college costs, our conversations should be about impact, mission, and building God’s Kingdom. Otherwise, we aren’t competing at all.

On Building Bridges

I’m taking a break from my usual focus on Christian Universities, at least directly. This weekend I finished a paper I’m presenting Friday at the annual meeting of the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers (ANSR) in Kansas City. I’ve been part of this organization on and off for over 30 years. The paper is a continuation of what I’ve been exploring in my book and here on the blog and builds on the conference’s diversity theme.

Specifically, I’m exploring the dynamics of the under-30 generation as they relate to life in the local church and the denomination. As I’ve argued before, I believe that this is the first postmodern generation and that raises issues for those leaders of more modern sensibilities.

The paper summarizes Putnam and Campbell’s findings from American Grace, especially the rise in Religious Nones. It then draws data from the National Survey of Youth and Religion, conducted by Christian Smith and friends. Thirdly, it links challenges raised by David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, exploring issues young evangelicals are having with the local church. (Northwest Nazarene is doing a panel presentation on You Lost Me Thursday night — watch for the coming video).

I’m playing with connecting these themes to the dominant forms of social capital sociologists like Putnam have raised over the years: the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. The former speaks of how we build groups based on similarity while the latter crosses interest group boundaries. I’ve been thinking that our focus on youth ministry and life-cycle based small groups in the church reflect an over-reliance on bonding to the neglect of bridging. I conclude by exploring some personal ideas on what bridging might look like for the contemporary church interested in relating authentically to young evangelicals. I’m still playing with these ideas, so I’ll share them here as written. I appreciate any reactions.

Here’s a list of concrete things I’ve thought we can do to balance our bonding capital and our bridging capital. The list isn’t exhaustive and you may not like all of the ideas. Some are easier to pull off than others. But I really don’t want to write another ANSR paper that analyzes a situation without beginning some programmatic “so what” ideas. I figure making myself vulnerable is a first step in what the young evangelicals are looking for.

First, move from generation specific small groups to age diverse groups. This is not an opportunity for mentoring but a focus on open exchange relationships. Second, add curricula to your study groups on the Spiritual But Not Religious Phenomenon. We have to understand the perceived irrelevance of the church if we’re to address the concerns. Third, have your church board and district leadership begin a steady diet of young evangelical blogs: I’ve just begun trying to keep up – it’s an astounding bunch of faithful Christians. Fourth, Christian colleges should develop materials on how evangelicals can operate in a world without a presumed religious preference. This means moving from apologetics to engagement. Fifth, church leaders need to go with young evangelicals to the places where they go. What kinds of movies, events, concerts, and so forth are shaping their perspectives? Sixth, denominational leaders need to publicly express what they may well know privately – the world is a complicated place. There is no room for pretend certainty in the twenty-first century. Seventh, preachers and theologians must engage the reality of God’s story as it engages the culture of today. That means challenging Moral Therapeutic Deism with Kingdom of God understandings, calling out the dangerous of overdeveloped individualism, and recognizing the priorities of the prophets as opposed to those of modern religious celebrities. 

My list could go on. But engaging only a small part of my list will help younger people move beyond a dichotomous view of faith and culture and allow older people to engage a postmodern world without fear. The result of such engagement is a stronger witness of the church – a Faithful Presence in the world as it is and not simply an idealistic hope for the world as we wish it was.

Where would Jesus go to College?

 I know, it’s a presumptuous title. But I mentioned this in an earlier post. Spring Arbor’s Concept says that we are “committed to Jesus Christ as the perpective for learning“. I’ve been trying to find concrete ways on unpacking that phrase as a means of finding the affirmative vision for Christian Higher Ed that will speak to today’s postmodern generation.

Last weekend, the New York Times ran this story about Cedarville University in Ohio. The headline reads, “A Christian College Struggles to Further Define Itself“. The story documents the departure of the president and the vice-president for student life. It describes how diversity presented a challenge on issues of politics (faculty members wrote a piece in the student paper on why they couldn’t support Romney) and sexuality (there are concerns that the student life vp was too hospitable on same-sex issues).

I want to be careful here. It’s easy at any institution to do some interviews over coffee and come up with negative responses to university decisions, especially if one isn’t an insider. But the Cedarville issues, like the ones at Shorter and others, speak to the tensions inherent in engaging an ambiguous future a changing society.

Sociologically, what we’re seeing is the leading edge of pluralism running into the traditional authority of religious institutions. These are points of extreme uncertainty and tension (to mix metaphors, imagine them as tectonic plates). But the tension can be creative as well as destructive. To put it simply, what is the stance of an exclusive institution in a world that doesn’t recognize the preferred, privileged position of religious conservatives. How do we figure out how to engage the world from a place of identity and value without pulling the wagons into a circle?

What is Jesus’ perspective on learning? How did he relate to those who were “different”? He ate with sinners, angered the religious leaders of the day, and was willing to sacrifice himself. The point was to demonstrate love, not power. He was reflecting the Father and drawing people to himself. He said that if we attempt to save our lives (institutions) we would lose them but if we attempted to lose our lives (institutions) we would save them. He called on us to deny ourselves daily — that’s not just individually but institutionally as well.

We can fight the changing society and wished we lived in some imagined simpler time (which didn’t exist back then). Or we can bear witness as Jesus did. I know I’ve drawn a lot from Peter Enns lately but he keeps writing good stuff. Yesterday, he reminded us that “the most frightening verse in the Bible” is in 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God..

It’s a tall order. But it’s the only way forward for Christian Higher Education over the long run. And it’s where Jesus would want to go to school.

The Joy of Professing

Last month I wrote that we needed to articulate an affirmative reason for Christian Higher Education instead of a defensive, separatist stance. Such an effort requires retraining our thinking from a number of perspectives. It calls for us to stand somewhat apart from the expectations of the academic disciplines. It requires us to stand in some prophetic space with regard to denominations. That’s the challenge Robert Wuthnow presented to evangelical faculty 25 years ago. He said that we have the ability to be bilingual: translating new cultural dynamics of academe to others while honoring the theological commitments and worries of the church.

I’m beginning my thinking about affirmation on what I know best: teaching. In a recent edition of Inside Higher Ed, George Fox English professor Melanie Springer Mock reflected on the joys of teaching. She titled her piece “Don’t Sweat the 4/4” and discussed how her career focus was directed towards the kind of institution that shaped her. She doesn’t talk about the unique role of Christian higher ed in explicitly evangelical terms but she does celebrate what it means to be part of a true college: a place where community can appear (even if one has to make small talk with that one guy who drives you nuts).

I shared Melanie’s piece with our administration and with a number of faculty. Why did I do that? Wouldn’t this just allow “them” to see if they could push the 4/4 to a 4/5 or a 5/5? Wouldn’t new technology, blended courses, and MOOC’s allow us to do more with less? And, some say, if we faculty are known to do this because we love it, won’t we lose all leverage?

As much as I appreciate Melanie’s piece, I think it misses the boat just a bit. It’s not about teaching loads, advising loads, credit hours generated, or returns on investments. If those are the important metrics, state universities and for-profits have long ago put us in a negative competitive position.

The real issue is impact. The reason I teach four classes a semester is because I have students multiple times over the course of their studies. I get to see their growth. I know when they’re slacking. We actually have conversations that go beyond “will this be on the exam?”

Students at universities like mine will say that they like the small size where they don’t feel like a number and people know their name. But that misses the boat, too. The strength of the Christian liberal arts institution is that they know me. Some have met Elton when he came along to pick me up after my night class. Others know of my travails at different institutions over the course of my career. We can talk about stuff. Last night I wound up in a great post-class dialogue over environmental economics with a business major in my general education capstone class. Yesterday I filled out a recommendation for one of our majors that asked me “how many times I’d met with the student outside of class“. I realized that I couldn’t answer because our interactions are too frequent.

Friday night we were blessed to have Ambassador Andrew Young on campus. It would have impressive if he’d just been with MLK or just been mayor of Atlanta or just been in Congress or just been UN Ambassador. To hear him talk of all of those was amazing. But toward the end of his Q&A, he reflected on the role faith-based institutions had played in the lives of his parents, of Young himself, and of King.

It reminded me that what we’re doing isn’t just about teaching four classes a semester. It’s about the mentoring/apprenticeship relationship with our students that someday lead to accomplishments on a par with Andrew Young’s. I dare the best MOOC class delivered to a couple of thousand students or the most innovative competency based program to pull that off!

One of the faculty members who got my Melanie Springer Mock e-mail was a new professor at SAU, Jeff Bilbro. While Jeff is as concerned as the next faculty member about teaching load, finding time to write, low pay, and being under-appreciated, he had a different read of Mock’s essay. Jeff had been Melanie’s student and considers her both mentor and friend. If Jeff is any indication of what Melanie does at Fox, it’s good stuff. It’s the only good reason to do what we do.

The Opposite of Critical Thinking is Fear

I’ve always said that biblical scholars have it rough because they know stuff. They know that the context of that verse we like to throw around doesn’t support what we want it to mean. They know that there are many nuances in the original language that our translations and paraphrases don’t capture. They know that there are many interesting theological, psychological, sociological, and political questions raised when we seriously examine texts.

Knowing stuff (and asking the questions that help them do that) opens them up to criticism from those who have more of an apologetic bent. The latter are quick to find fault for even asking the questions or exploring the difficult territory. The challenges of critical thinking have been on my mind over the past week as I read Peter Enns‘ blog. Pete had asked Eric Seibert, Old Testament professor at Messiah College,  to guest write three pieces dealing with violence in the Old Testament. Seibert raises some interesting challenges dealing with triumphalism, power, and Jesus. The posts were provocative but dealt carefully with the challenges that faithful believers find in the texts. I have colleagues teaching a course on the theology of war and piece and gladly shared Seibert’s blogs — not because I fully agreed but because I thought he asked fruitful questions for class discussion.

The first response I saw in the blogosphere showed up last weekend in this piece by Owen Strachan of Boyce College. Strachan asked how it was that Messiah could allow Seibert to even teach there, given that Messiah’s statement of faith includes a commitment to the authority of scripture (others have pointed out that other parts of Messiah’s statement celebrate the importance of inquiry). Friday, Christianity Today posted this piece discussing the posts by Seibert and mentioning Strachan. Strachan linked that in another post that says CT sees “controversy” while he uses a somewhat obscure passing remark by Scot McKnight as his title.

Yesterday,  Pete posted this amazing link. Apparently a commenter to the previous series had written as if he were Jesus (I’m giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t really him — the sentence structure and illogical argument do not represent The Lord well). Other commenters suggested that asking such questions would find Peter without faith somewhere in the future. I mentioned last week that Spring Arbor is committed to seeing “Jesus as the perspective for learning”. I’m certain this is NOT what it means.

Pete Enns, Eric Seibert, and I work in schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Owen Strachan teaches at a Bible College (all the BA degrees are in Bible and they have a certificate for seminary wives) affiliated with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Boyce is a very different place from Eastern or Messiah or Spring Arbor. CCCU schools run the risk of using critical thinking as a tool of faith. Many Bible colleges (but not all) prefer to deal in tight arguments explaining how things fit together.

It’s not just biblical scholars of course. Biologists have to deal with issues of evolution. Sociologists have to deal with the changing nature of the Modern Family. Nobody worries too much about the economists or the chemists or the music theorists.

When we don’t ask questions it’s because we’re afraid of what happens if we do. If we tug on that particular piece of fabric the whole garment might come unravelled. Much is lost when the fear keeps us from exploring the Truth. And, to stay with my metaphor, we wind up walking around wearing garments with threads dangling all over the place — not very attractive.

Many of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees involved matters of interpretation vs. letter of the law (“why do you heal on the sabbath?”). Thomas asks questions we would today see as blasphemous (“you expect me to believe he was raised from the dead?”). Why do we ask such questions? In order to better understand. To not ask them is to hide from difficulty. But asking opens up valuable conversations. It lets us figure out the complexity of the world and keeps faith engaged.

I don’t know if I agree with Seibert’s positions or not. But I certainly appreciate him asking the questions. As I listen to other responses and perspectives, I’m better for it. We would only act to stop his comments if we were afraid of where they’d lead. But if the disciples weren’t supposed to fear a raging storm, why would Christians fear the writings of a college professor in Pennsylvania?

To critics like Strachan, questions are problematic because they could upset the entire apple cart. Liberal Arts institutions know that the apples are only good when you take them down and eat them.