Tag: GK CHesterton

The Fearless Christian University


Sometimes the internet takes me interesting places. I’m just sitting here, trying to think of how to structure this piece that’s important to me. As I try to find graphics to illustrate my thinking, I happen across one of the serendipitous moments that brings together everything I was thinking.

Honestly, I just wanted a picture that communicated fearlessness. But the picture at the left led me to the website of the Case Foundation (chaired by Steve and Jean Case, formerly of AOL Time-Warner) and their Fearless initiative. Looking deeper, I discover that they had just given $100,000 to Georgetown’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative. But that led me to a new story about the creation of The Beeck Institute for Social Impact and Innovation and its new director, Sonal Shah. Two twitter friends had happily posted of Shah’s appointment but the import was lost on me when I read it this afternoon.

I’m happy for Georgetown. I really am. But the instruction to be fearless, take risks, be bold, fail forward are things Christian Universities can and should take seriously. Consider this quote from Jean Case from the Washington Post story linked above:

“When the millennials look at the world, they see daunting challenges that have dogged us for a long time,” she said. “This generation says, ‘wow, these are big problems, what’s the best way to find new solutions?’ And they don’t think in the old-style ways.”

She’s right, of course. This generation is looking to engage the broader culture in ways that are markedly different from prior generations. As I’ve written before, it is incumbent on Christian Universities to take bold steps, to risk conflict and criticism in order to free up our students to address the key questions that lie before the evangelical church.

One of the challenges of Christian Higher Education is that the academic sphere can often take a back seat to other elements of university life. Its not anti-intellectualism per se. It has more to do with the historic difficulty of competing with our research peers. We had fewer PhDs, hardly any research support, too many classes, few graduate programs, and so on. So the positioning of the university often seemed to involve life-long friendships, possible mates, rousing chapel services, and floor Bible studies. Yes we have classes too but we didn’t know how to talk about those.

Not surprisingly, that has made us overly defensive about tuition costs and student loans. We’ve tried to avoid the fact that the kind of transformation that Jean Case is calling for requires risk. There are those who claim the risk isn’t worth it, that degrees are overhyped, or that college degrees are interchangeable. That’s why a recent study sponsored by the American Association of Schools and Colleges was so important. They found that over the long run, liberal arts graduates outperformed their more technically oriented colleagues in both earnings and positional authority. Any gaps that existed in the short term were overcome due to the stronger critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills of the liberal arts grads.

Last week was Marx week in my sociological theory class. We were talking about alienation as the separation of work from meaning. Naturally, I turned the conversation to student learning and explored the ways in which the structure of higher education isolates student creativity (because the means of production favor mastery). Moving from that to a liberated approach to learning (as in liberal arts) requires upsetting the powers-that-be.

In another class this week, we spent a little time debriefing the Ham-on-Nye debate. It provided a sharp contrast to how G.K. Chesterton engaged those atheist friends like H.G. Wells or G.B. Shaw who disagreed with him on faith matters. He maintained friendship but was willing to banter on important issues. I think the class got the point — they generally saw the Creation Museum debate as a sideshow that didn’t lead anywhere.

A conversation with another group of students illustrated the need for fearlessness. The topic was a perennial one I’ve heard since I started teaching three decades ago: open hours. The students weren’t asking new questions, but they were asking with new insights. Who were the donors or trustees that were afraid of dealing with issues of romantic relationships? What generation were they from? There was a political tone (in terms of leveraging positive change) that was eye-opening.

Read the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Inside Higher Education and you come across the same arguments over and over. We need to move to competency-based education. The future is in non-traditional students. Three year degrees will be the rage. More vocational-technical training is called for. Lower costs and forgive debts. More adjunct instructors. Fewer administrators.

In my judgment, none of these take us very far because they ignore the central questions. How have we prepared students to engage the issues they’ve inherited from us? What factors contribute to their growth? How have they learned to deal with complex issues that are politically fraught?

Last week, Kent Barnds, an administrator at Augustana College in Illinois wrote this intriguing piece in Inside Higher Ed. Frankly, I think his prescription could have gone much farther but his diagnosis is in line with my search for fearlessness. He asks some good questions:

We need to ask ourselves: Why is the residential campus experience of utmost importance to a contemporary undergraduate education? We must identify the sorts of learning that can only occur in such a setting, and validate, or better identify, the learning competencies that occur outside the classroom on a residential campus.

For my money, he makes too much of the inside-outside distinction of the classroom. The real issue, as I see it, is to empower the students themselves to ask the right kinds of questions and for the institution to be brave, to risk failure, and to engage messiness just to see where that takes us. I think that’s what the Case Foundation means by failing forward.

I’m still working this out, but I think I can begin a list of questions students would engage if we’d let them. I hope my readers will add to my list.

1. How do we engage questions of sexuality in this complex world? More pledges and platitudes are not sufficient for a generation that has sexuality permeating the culture. “Just wait” will be an increasing challenge for these students who, if they follow trends, won’t marry for another 5 years after graduation.

2. How do we have conversations about alcohol? Can we dispense with slippery slope arguments and acknowledge the normality of alcohol in the evangelical world? What steps can we take so that students uncover the space between teetotaling and binge drinking?

3. How do we engage complex political questions? What can our students teach us about how they view issues of poverty and human trafficking? Why are they so much more engaged and passionate about the topic?

4. How do we reconcile a vibrant faith with scientific literacy? What’s the role of technology? Is everything progress?

5. What does a simple lifestyle look like? Why are my students attracted to intentional community and what does that suggest about a consumerist society they engage?

In each of these questions and many others we could suggest, the key will be for us to have the courage to let them explore their answers. If we’re bold enough, they just might lead us to where we all wanted to go in the first place.


The Borg, The Force, and Maddie Weston: Thoughts on Principalities and Powers

Most of my classes last week dealt with the large issues of social structure and power. The Race and Ethnic Relations class was my 400 years of history. The criminology class wrapped up social disorganization theories. Spirituality, Faith, and Justice was, well about Justice from a Christian perspective. I spent today reading Paolo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” which explores the nature of oppression and what is required to create alternative possibilities.

Of course, in the broader social context, we’ve been preparing for government shutdown, debt ceiling votes, and implementation of ObamaCare. Contrasting the national news with my courses has led me to reflect on some larger issues of why we can’t deal with the large-scale issues facing us as a society.

For some reason, my mind went to some popular culture references. Two references are old science fiction pieces (geek alert) and the other from the end of Burn Notice. If I wanted to be truly relevant, I’d be blogging about Breaking Bad but I haven’t gotten into it (yet).


I was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not so much as to watch reruns all the time, but enough to like the story lines. One of the greatest antagonists in all of television were the Borg. An interconnected web of consciousness, the Borg continually learned from experience and adapted almost immediately. Any creative response made by the Enterprise crew worked for a short time until the Borg adjusted. It seemed to be a logical advantage that was theoretically unbeatable.

This is a common technique in drama. The enemy is all powerful but through some small quirk in the otherwise flawless development, the good guys can prevail. I first read it in War of the Worlds, when the Martians proved allergic to salt.

There’s another movie technique we like. Through some individual’s purity of thought or special ability, the otherwise infallible foe gets beaten. Most famously is Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting system and taking Obi Wan Kenobi’s advice to “trust the force”. So he fires the torpedo down the shaft “the size of a womp rat”, blows up the Death Star, and seriously damages the Empire.

But even then, I’m stuck with my Borg problem (I know, Star Wars happened first). The bad guys are just too powerful that it takes tons of suspending disbelief to allow the good guys to win.

I think that Borg and the Emperor are more accurate versions of what Paul called Principalities and Powers. Those sources of oppression addressed by Friere’s Brazil, America’s racial history, contemporary economic injustice, and the alignment of religious and political power. These forces are bigger than our planning, our elected officials, our academics, and our theologians.

Which brings me to Maddie Weston. If you weren’t a Burn Notice fan, it’s hard to summarize seven seasons in a paragraph. Michael Weston and his team are always battling principalities and powers without never knowing who is pulling the strings. Michael’s mother Maddie winds up drawn deeper and deeper into their schemes and strategies. At the end of the series, the bad guys are coming and will kill Michael and troupe, but especially Maddie’s young grandson. (Spoiler alert) Maddie determines that the only way to allow everyone to have a fighting chance is to detonate explosives that will get the seemingly invincible bad guys but kill herself in the process. Her sacrifice, her abandonment of personal security for those she loves, is the only thing that makes the plan work and saves her loved ones.

It strikes me that too often the evangelical church has attempted to deal with principalities and powers with the mistaken belief that if we could just get enough power, then we could do God’s work in society. But then we become just another one of the principalities. Or we hope that some influential individual will have the right combination of gifts to make a persuasive case for good. But when we do that we wind up putting our gifted spokesman (normally a man) against those of the other side. We wind up arguing talking points and points of evidence and want special consideration because of our faith.

What Maddie Weston understood is the true source of power the church possesses. In fact, this is the trump card of the Gospel. It is when we sacrifice our power on behalf of the powerless, the sinful, and the underdeserving, that the principalities begin to fail. They really aren’t versed at sacrifice. In fact, sacrifice undermines the entire social structure.

Imagine the role a sacrificial church could have played in fostering racial equality, in promoting economic justice, or in supporting medical care for the needy.

It reminds me of that famous G.K Chesterton quote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”