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.

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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.

Governor McCrory, please meet Mr. Buechner

Higher Ed sources were abuzz this week when North Carolina governor Pat McCrory told Bill Bennett that he wanted to focus on education that led to jobs instead of the liberal arts. Specifically, he contrasted programs that lead to jobs with pursuing things like gender studies (which Bennett had been mocking). In the interview, McCrory suggested that “educational elites” are encouraging programs that won’t lead to jobs. This last bit paints a horrendous picture of faculty members, suggesting that we delight in our students pursuing liberal arts programs that won’t lead to jobs.

Many other people have blogged on McCrory’s remarks over the past few days. Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed (formerly Dean Dad) had one of the better autobiographical responses. Reed describes the ways in which his own liberal arts education benefitted him. He goes on to recount what data has shown for years — employers (read “job creators”) are looking for the skill sets that liberal arts provides. There really is little evidence of a decided advantage in majoring in the “get me a job” major without the breadth of experience and perspective that makes liberal arts education unique. (BTW, most accrediting agencies require that accredited institutions provide some breadth of general education programming). Others have rightly pointed out how having students aware of issues in gender studies could be of great value as we navigate the challenges of modern society (did the governor watch any news during the 2012 election cycle?).

This focus on jobs instead of preparation for the future is negatively impacting educational institutions, including and maybe especially Christian universities. We’re regularly told that parents are concerned about student loans and that we need to be prepared to share our “success stories”. I’m an idealist, but I happen to believe that all of our graduates are successes. Almost none of them wind up like Chris Farley’s character “living in a van down by the river”. Admittedly, college has gotten more expensive relative to inflation but it still reflects an amazing return on  investment. Data consistently shows that lifetime earnings for those with college degrees far exceeds those with only high school degrees. We’ve been telling our students that since they were young, so it’s no surprise that they have expectations of getting jobs when they finish their education.

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA conducts an annual freshman survey, exploring attitudes toward social issues, study skills in high school, and reasons for going to college. Here is the graph on reasons for college attendance from their 2012 survey.

HERI

The chart shows the changes over the last 36 years on three reasons why students go to college. Students are asked to evaluate a variety of reasons in terms of their importance. it’s critical to recognize that these aren’t mutually exclusive categories: they could rate all reasons as very important. The data shows some significant increase in those interested in better jobs and minor increases in terms of making money and general education. What strikes me is the relative stability of these three factors from 1982 to 2006 — not only are they all important but they are still supported as “Very Important” by over 60% of college freshmen. While it does appear that the economic downturn and college debt issues have pushed the job numbers up, the general education numbers went up as well, gaining roughly 10 percentage points in less than a decade.

I got some anecdotal insights into this tension in my senior liberal arts capstone class Monday night. I had them in groups trying to explain the SAU mission statement to a high school freshman. One of the groups responsible for “the study and application of the liberal arts” explained that breadth is good because you find things out about yourself along the way and might even switch majors to something you’re passionate about. I asked about the oft-repeated meme that general education courses were boring and nobody wanted them. The student responded that sometimes that particular course didn’t work for you but did for someone else. It was a wonderful testimony to why we study a variety of fields — even gender studies!

Embracing the liberal arts is especially important at a Christian university. We live in community and interact with others whose interests differ from ours. We have to know how to navigate that reality and we learn to do that through courses, chapel, and cafeteria conversations. Along the way, we’re expecting a light to turn on, for a student to say “I know what I’m called to do”. That’s not about their job but about their life.

Frederick Buechner puts it best. In his book, Wishful Thinking, he defines vocation like this: It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. … By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

Governor McCrory (and those other job-obsessed folks like him) meet Frederick Buechner. Please.

Framing a Positive Vision for Evangelicals and Higher Education

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.

The Value of Complex Questions

This morning NPR had this piece titled “More Young People Are Moving Away from Religion, but Why?”. It’s a 7 minute clip from what David Greene reports was a two-hour discussion with six young adults in New York. Three men and three women participated,  ranging in age from 23 to 33. They come from a variety of faith positions: Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Adventist, and undisclosed “Christian”. In listening to their comments several times, I was struck with how their struggles relate to questions at Christian universities.

All of these folks are older than my students and we weren’t told anything about where they went to college themselves. There are all kinds of questions I’d ask about sampling and representativeness. But still, there are interesting patterns in their answers. And those patterns align nicely with the kinds of things the Barna group found on evangelical young people. When you listen carefully to their comments, they aren’t rejecting religion per se. They are rejecting an overly structured apologetic. It’s not religion that failed them — it was the structure of argument that the were substituting for religion.

For example, one young woman speaks of her Catholic schooling and how she had questions about what she was taught about premarital sex and homosexuality. But she says that she moved from her faith because she couldn’t support such “core beliefs”. The young man with a cross tattoo rejects “religious doctrines” (Greene’s phrase) of a literal hell and homosexuality as sin. The Adventist young man has issues with theodicy — he can prayer be effective when bad stuff was happening in his family and his prayers didn’t stop it. And if the failure of efficacy was him failing some test, wasn’t that as cruel as “burning ants with a magnifying glass?” The Muslim man struggles with a literal understanding of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Why would God expect such a thing? And isn’t someone who claimed that God wanted that somewhat unhinged?

These are all good questions. They are questions that Christian universities should be engaging better than anyone. We have the ability to separate “core doctrines” from the various social, behavioral, and scientific factors that present challenges. We are able to handle the ambiguity of scriptural texts, recognizing their difficult implications, without abandoning scriptural commitments altogether.

But if our approach to challenging issues is to offer up pat answers, we put our students at risk. Because if a few years, they will be confronted with others who don’t share the easy responses we offer. And when that happens, they run the risk of being in some NPR interview sometime in the future.

The key factors that arose in David Kinnaman’s work in You Lost Me (about disaffected young evangelicals) were judgmentalism, inability to deal with doubt, and lack of complexity (particular on issues related to science). Christian Universities should deal with the grayness of the complex questions. It leads to a deeper faith walk (relates to James Fowler’s stage 5 and above) that isn’t shaken when life challenges the pat answers we had folks memorize.

The Central Task of the Christian University

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which Christian Higher Education has unique characteristics compared to other segments of the higher ed universe. As someone who did all of my education at a land-grant institution (Boiler Up), I came to teach in Christian universities with some of the analytical detachment that comes with being a sociologist.

This morning my analytical antennae perked up when I saw this piece from Frederick Buechner on his stint as a visiting professor at Wheaton College in 1985. The first paragraph of his reflection (which comes from his book Telling Secrets) speaks of the rules he was expected to live by during his time on campus. The second paragraph speaks to the critical thinking and open-mindedness of the faculty who taught there. I realized that in this short contrast, Buechner captured some of the inherent tensions present in the Christian university. On the one hand, there are sectarian-like rules (some of these vary by institution in type and justification). They are designed to foster good Christian living and a harmonious community atmosphere. Sometimes they simply provide a way for students to avoid the perceived temptations of the large secular university. On the other hand, Christian Universities are populated by faculty members who want students to think for themselves, confront challenging ideas, and deepen their character in the process (this too varies by institutional form — some are more open and others are far more restrained).

What this suggests is that the Christian University, more so than other venues in higher education, stands between a protective view of the world and an exploratory view of the world. Like most organizational forms, these are matters of social construction: one knows you’ve pushed too hard or gotten too lax because problems arise. Short of that, you live in the ambiguity and accept the tension you’re living within. (Advice to young faculty: don’t use that contrast as a teaching point as it’s not always appreciated! Trust me.)

Two things stand out to me from this ambiguity. First, faculty members (and others) model to students how to navigate those tensions. It’s why autobiography is so important in teaching (and any good communicating). The relationship between faculty member and student is a key part of seeing the navigation happen — not simply in the delivery of content but in the greater sense of modeling (I read a lot of Parker Palmer). The second thing that stands out is the changing nature of our students. They, and their parents, have made decisions on various life issues long before attending the college. They made decisions about the social acceptance of wine. They have made decisions about acceptable sexual limits and necessary precautions. Increasing numbers of students will see “the rules” as hindrances and not as helps.

Managing this balance between structure and openness is at the educational heart of the Christian university. It’s why we hire Christian faculty, have classes that are smaller, invest funds in student life programs, and develop robust residential programs. This makes the education more expensive than your average state school (even though Christian universities are less expensive than non-religious private schools).

Many Christian institutions like the ones I’ve served have diversified their programs to include adult education, online programs, and graduate degrees. These are useful. But the key activity remains the set of relationships the students maintain with faculty, staff, and other students. In the midst of those commitments they learn who they are, how to ask questions even when they don’t have answers, and impact the larger world.

This is why so little of the national dialogues about higher education challenges and reforms speak to the Christian university. I’m a regular reader of Jeff Selingo’s blog in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. He explores the suggested innovations that will deal with rising costs, student debt, job placement, completion, and access. But few of these innovations speak to Christian higher ed. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) work well when you’ve got huge lecture halls and can explore issues of scale but not when I’m talking to the registrar about bumping my class of 24 to 30 and justifying how it won’t interfere with the personal contact the course demands. Online programs work well for people who don’t have access to traditional university schedule, but my most recent evaluations report that the students prefer to learn face to face. Increased focus on vocational connection may work to enhance enrollment at community colleges but won’t speak to the broader mission of a liberal arts institution. We want students to be employed but we want them to be of impact in thoughtful and creative ways.

The significant challenge for the Christian University is to find new and better ways of talking about our uniqueness. We’re not unique because we dont’ allow drinking for those underage. We’re not unique because we deliver lectures in cost-effective means to thousands of students. We are unique because we embrace the kind of open stance to faithful learning that models how to deal with a complex and changing world.