Tag: Parker Palmer

Community and Conflict: My take on Schism and United Methodists

UMCI’ve been indebted to my Texas friend Richard Heyduck, who is not only reading my book, but periodically sharing bits of it on social media. This week, he pulled a passage out of chapter six which deals with community. The chapter is intended to articulate for students the complexities of building the kind of true community characterized in Paul’s writings. It borrows heavily from Scott Peck’s work (especially The Different Drum from 1987). Peck distinguishes between “Pseudocommunity” and the conflicting stages that lead to developing True Community. Richard shared this passage from the pseudocummunity section:

Surprisingly, a focus on emotionality, warmth, and belonging can actually inhibit the development of community. In a close setting, the primary focus of all members of the group is to smooth over differences by keeping them inside, avoiding conflict, and staying close to those others who already agree. The primary motivation is to maintain politeness.

Richard then pondered how this description could be applied to issues facing the United Methodist Church (news reports on potential schism or not are here, here, here, and here). The news stories describe how 80 United Methodist leaders from all five jurisdictions had released a statement saying schism was inevitable. This was followed by a larger group who signed a “Way Forwarddocument. The Book of Discipline makes clear that ministers officiating at same-sex marriages will be brought up on charges. This happened to Rev. Frank Schaeffer when he officiated at his son’s wedding (he was defrocked after a church trial). Following that case, other jurisdictions have announced that they will not bring charges in the future.

I am not a member of the clergy so some of these conflicts offer more sociological than personal interest. I defer to others who are attempting to find a way to handle the serious questions of same sex marriage in ways that take scripture seriously while offering compassion to all who seek after God. Two of my UMC social media friends have attempted to lay out paths forward (see Morgan Guyton and Zach Hoag).

But Richard’s original question has me thinking more carefully about Peck’s community stages. Pseudocommunity breaks in the face of what he calls Chaos. This is the stage where real differences come to light and where entrenched positions become exposed.

It is the most uncomfortable stage of community building. We find ourselves having to travel through the muck as a means of getting to better ground. If we persist, we move to what he calls Emptiness. In the words of Parker Palmer, “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” It is only when we give up trying to control things that Community begins to emerge.

My chapter goes on to explore Bonhoeffer’s ideas in Life Together. Bonhoeffer makes clear that Community is God’s work and not ours. He suggests that building our idealized form of community is doomed to failure because we will force others into our ideal.

It strikes me that Peck’s approach to community, like that of Palmer and Bonhoeffer, is best illustrated by small groups with the possibility for interaction. While Peck does attempt to broaden his approach to large-scale organizations and even nation states in a later book, it becomes much harder to visualize than with small groups.

So how does this work for denominations? What does it mean to be part of an international association of churches organized around particular theological and ecclesiastical priorities?

I still think there is value in Peck’s four stages. But too often denominational groups (as well as churches, but that’s another post) see Chaos as the enemy. They want to find ways of maintaining Order and Control and do so in ways that run counter to Christian community.

German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies wrote that the major shift occurring in modernity was a move from social organization based on community (gemeinschaft)  to that based on contract (gesellschaft). In the former, we knew people in the town and the family and assumed the best of each other. In the latter, we need written agreements to insure proper behavior. The differences are profound. Community presumes that people will stay connected. Contracts are written to explain what happens in the case of breach.

General Assemblies are exercises in Gesellschaft. They stipulate procedures and protocols that are enacted by votes by majorities of representatives. Those become binding across the denomination. They are (relatively) successful in controlling behavior to insure Discipline (it’s the title of the manual, for goodness sake).

How else could denominations and churches proceed? Perhaps we could risk Chaos. Perhaps entering into Chaos allows the Spirit to move upon the waters. Yesterday, Karina Kreminski wrote a wonderful piece on the Missio Alliance blog titled “Taking the Spirit Seriously“. She writes:

Often the Spirit will lead us to places that we don’t want to go, teach us surprising things about God, turn our theology around, and give us experiences that we would perhaps rather not have. Have we domesticated the Spirit to the extent that we do not experience his ‘wild’ character in our lives and in our theology? The Holy Spirit does not bring us discomfort and disorientation for the sake of it, instead he turns us inside out so that we might be more aligned with the mission of God in our world. God knows how addicted humanity is to control and self direction, so the Spirit functions in our lives to bring us into line with God’s good purposes for us.

Brandon Robertson raised similar issues in his Revangelical blog. His piece is titled “Loving our (Theological) Enemies” and speaks to the difficulty of managing disagreements. In my terms, he’s writing about being willing to risk Chaos. His words echo Karina’s:

Because when we chose to love, fear is dispelled. When we chose to love, our hurts can be healed. When we chose to love, we humanize the “other” and see them as who they truly are- image bearers of God who are earnestly seeking to follow Him and proclaim truth. And when you begin to see your theological other like that, everything changes. If all of us chose to follow the Spirits calling and love our theological enemies, can you imagine the power? After all, if we believe that we do have the right perspective, then the way to make a convert certainly isn’t through condemnation. It’s to love.

Bonhoeffer argues that the very basis for community arises not from our politics and plans, our book of Discipline, or even our Orthodoxy. It comes, he says, from Jesus Christ:

We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ. But if, before we could know and wish it, we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ, then we also belong to him in eternity with one another. He who looks upon his brother [sister] should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ. Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ.

So the challenge of avoiding schism doesn’t come from some accommodation or power moves or allowing regional variation. It comes from attending to the Spirit who is leading us to become that which Christ has called us to be. It’s hard, of course, but that’s what Jesus told the disciples the way forward looks like.

Tearing Down Walls

berlin-wall-tearing-downMy previous post explored the challenges of the Tower of Babel. Drawing upon the work of Brent Strawn, who argued that the motivation for the tower-builders was a combination of pride and fear, I suggested that contemporary issues within evangelicalism represent walled enclaves created for the same two reasons.

I had hoped to get this post up earlier, but was held up by two factors. First, I wanted to finish Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ, so that I could apply her lessons about overcoming social psychological barriers to intergroup interactions. Second, MY BOOK CAME OUT. So I was a little distracted.

In this post, I want to take my argument from the last one a little farther. I ended that piece echoing Reagan’s call to “tear down those walls”. Now I want to explore how we might do that.

Christena’s book, while speaking to issues of multi-cultural worship, looks much more deeply at issues of divisions across groups. These may be racial or ethnic groups. They may be separations between evangelicals or mainliners. They may be divisions between one group of evangelicals and another group of evangelicals (the central theme of my twitter feed lately). They may be separations among groups of high school kids (all the other divisions may simply be grown-up high school antics!).

It is not simply a critique of the “homogeneous church principle”, although that is there. It’s really an examination of why that principle works so well. The truth is that it depends entirely upon what we social psychologists consider to be errors in classification. These errors encourage us to overvalue those like us and undervalue those who are different.

After introducing the problems created by division, Christena works her way through dozens of Disunitysocial psychological studies. While these don’t deal directly with contemporary religious groups (that research needs to be done!), they are informative just the same. She shows how groups misjudge those outside the group by assuming that “they’re all alike” (while recognizing individuality within our groups). She writes of the tendency for groups to exaggerate their own abilities or orthodoxy (the Gold Standard effect).  She shows how group interactions impact our sense of identity, introducing great concepts of BIRG (Basking In Reflected Glory) and CORF (Cutting Off Reflected Failure). There is a chapter on cultural conflict, which suggests that competition over cultural dynamics results in fear and ambiguity (always a problem in social psychology).

In a myriad of ways, social psychological processes solidify the very walls that I wrote about in the previous post. And it is easy to see both pride and fear present throughout her argument.

She closes the book with solid recommendations on how to begin the hard work of bridging the barriers we create. First, she suggests that cross-cultural contact is essential. Individuals from different groups that can connect around common interests can find more similarity that they might expect. Second, leaders are critical in providing an understanding of why we need to bridge our separations. Key to this process is giving a biblical and theological foundation that shifts our focus to common identity issues. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is an excellent guide for where we find identity. Third, a commitment to justice for all parties is essential and will require privileged groups to go the second mile (that’s part of the definition of privilege). Finally, Christians need to embrace the interdependence Paul describes in his body imagery in Romans and Corinthians. We simply cannot operate without each other.

Cover

I also deal with issues of community in my book, though mine is not as research grounded as Christena’s. I argue that we must see our differences as the issues that provide strength. But drawing heavily on Scott Peck, I acknowledge that confronting those differences is painful and stress producing. It gets worse before it gets better, sometimes lots worse. But the other side of what he calls Chaos is Emptiness. In Parker Palmer’s words, we quit trying to fix each other. We don’t brush our differences aside but we make them the raw material for new discovery. We are not alone in this process: the Holy Spirit is working in our midst to allow us to see from another’s perspective. Only when we stop the fighting do we discover what commonality and community mean.

Bonhoeffer says that we cannot MAKE community happen. It is a gift from God. While he was talking about living in the monastery with Christian brothers, the general point still holds. We can find ways of living with difference that don’t require the construction and maintenance of walls.

What does this look like in real life? How do we avoid being driven by pride and fear? What can we do so that every issue isn’t a test between my group (upon which my identity rests) and your group (which is threatening that identity)? How can I focus on our commonalities rather than our differences?

For most of the past two weeks, my social media streams have been dominated by laws proposed in Kansas and Arizona regarding businesses and service to same-sex couples. If I reflect on the various stories (many of which were very well done), they still fell victim to the kinds of issues Christena discusses. One side sees a threat to religious freedom. Another group sees bigotry and bias. Other groups call out hypocrisy in selective enforcement.

But none of these dealt with the full range of the issues. First, it’s interesting that in both states the legislation did not become law. Maybe it would be best for us not to fight about the prospects of something happening until it was actually happening. Second, it’s important to acknowledge that civilly recognized same-sex marriages are uncomfortable for some people as they work through their own thought processes. Third, recent data shows that knowing same-sex couples significantly changes viewpoints toward marriage equality. So there is something about seeing the other as a real person instead of a stereotype that changes things. Fourth, it is important that we listen to the Holy Spirit to recognize the Image of God in the other; whether than other is the bakery owner or the couple buying the wedding cake.

At the end of the day, bridging walls comes because our trust in Almighty God is greater than our trust in our own Brickmasons.

 

Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Testimonial Evangelicalism

St. Luke by Andrea Mantegna
St. Luke by Andrea Mantegna

In my previous post, O Theophilus…..

Please forgive my “borrowing” from the Apostle Luke from the beginning of Acts. I’ve done so because I’m trying to figure out the nature of testimony.

Long before we studied Biblical Theology to figure out the systematic meanings of doctrines, the writings of the new testament were actually written from real people to other real people. When we say, “I just want to follow the Bible“, we need to remember that we’re following things particular people wrote as expression of what they had seen and believed.

I am not taking anything away from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when it comes to scripture. But the scriptures we hold so dear are full of reminders of personal relationship. While we don’t know all of the details of the house churches in Corinth or Rome, it’s safe to assume that Paul had particular people in mind as he wrote letters to those churches. When the letters were read in the church, the hearers would be remembering their prior conversations with Paul. His instruction carried weight because they knew him and his character.

This is where what I’m calling Testimonial Evangelicalism begins. At its heart we find basic communication between two human beings. The one sharing puts a priority on being understood by the one listening. That’s all. As Parker Palmer put it, “No fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight”. It is simply about the sharing of one’s experience with another.

This is different from actual testimony services I heard in church when I was younger. I don’t want to be unkind to those well-meaning souls who stood up and shared their struggles, but it often seemed to be an early form of performance art designed to elicit a duly sympathetic response — We’ll pray for you; hang in there and trust Jesus. Those collective settings stopped short of actual engagement between individuals.

Back to Palmer’s quote: the interaction between individuals in testimonial evangelicalism is not utilitarian. In other words, it’s not designed to bring about a designated end-product. Too much of evangelistic crusades involved orchestration to bring the end goal of coming forward. Too much of apologetics is designed to bring about the end goal of the listener acquiescing to the speaker’s argument. Too much of relationship evangelism was about being nice to neighbors so that you could bring them to church and then Jesus. (I always worried that the neighbors would come on some contest Sunday and they’d think they were there so I would win accolades.)

I just finished the chapter in Molly Worthen’s book where the pentecostal movement “catches fire” (sorry, it was too easy) in American culture. The pentecostals, and to a lesser extent the holiness movement and the anabaptists, presented a challenge to the neo-evangelical structures that existed. The challenge comes because they aren’t looking to provide answers — they are sharing experience.

The Wesleyan in me wants that experience to be mediated by the rest of the “quadrilateral”. It must be tested against scripture. It must be seen in light of church tradition. And it must stand up to some measure of rationality. We don’t just have experiences — we use them to construct larger understandings.

This is important because those larger understandings are malleable. It’s not that we lack commitment. It’s that we build what Peter Berger calls plausibility structures: scaffolding which make sense of the experience. In his classic Invitation to Sociology, he has this remarkable passage about alternation:

The intellectual situation just described brings with it the possibility that an individual may alternate back and forth between logically contradictory meaning systems. Each time, the meaning system he enters provides him with an interpretation of his existence and of his world, including in this interpretation an explanation of the meaning system he has abandoned.

This is far different from the ideological certainty of Industry Evangelicalism. The point here is to tell of the experience is such a way as to best connect with the experience of the hearer. One cannot afford to presume to know their meaning system and seek ways to combat it.

Let me push a bit deeper. Proof-texting play no role in the kind of evangelicalism I’m imagining because there is no way to know a) if the hearer is biblically literate (or the speaker, but that’s another post) b) if their interpretation of the quoted passage matches the speaker’s, or c) if they prefer an altogether different passage that doesn’t align with the speaker’s view.

What then is the speaker to do? Perhaps it’s enough to explain why that particular passage is meaningful. Not that it’s right or the answer to all questions. But that it’s been borne out in the life of the speaker in authentic ways that the hearer can relate to, at least in part.

This is where the millennial focus on authenticity come in, even in the honest sharing of doubt. The conversation becomes about how each person makes sense of things. More correctly, this is an honest conversation that doesn’t always make sense. Things get left undone. All the pieces don’t come together all at once and maybe not at all.

But maybe fitting the pieces together isn’t the point. Maybe it’s enough to share the attempt. I mentioned earlier that I found it helpful to imagine the church in Rome hearing Paul’s letter read. When he gets to the point in chapter 7 where he says that he does not do the good he wants but finds himself doing bad, do they nod in understanding? Do they say, “oh yeah, like that time when…“?

I’m reminded of a book Bethel University professor Daniel Taylor wrote called The Myth of Certainty. It was used in a number of classes in schools where I’ve been. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read it. But I did read his Tell Me A Story. In the latter work, he examines how our lives unfold in narrative and what it means for us to act as characters in each other’s plots. I think that Certainty gets in the way of Story because it denies the possibility that there are perspectives I haven’t considered or experiences I can’t possibly imagine.

The most powerful pieces we read on the internet are not systematic explications of how this and such worked together. They are painful moments of real life: the miscarriage experienced by a young couple, the struggle another couple had with infertility, the sometimes crippling nature of depression, the happy couple in their first apartment, the birth of a grandchild, the completion of a doctorate.

And in the midst of all that is faith. Not a blind faith that says that “God has a plan” but one that says that God is present in the struggle and the joy and the accomplishment. Testimony of that sort can change the world.

Testimonial Evangelicalism is trying to Bear Witness.

It denies power because it’s not trying to prove anything. It doesn’t need celebrity because celebrity calls forth emotional distance in place of authenticity. And it can deal with the complexities and vagaries of life because it can leave closure to the work of the Holy Spirit, just like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.

In my next post, I’ll try to unpack what Testimony looks like in real life when set alongside Industry Evangelicalism.

People Like Me

I finished drafting another chapter for the book today. The chapter has the title of this post: People Like Me. I use that to explore the tension between two competing forces in our search for community: affirmation of individual identity and community built through recognition of others.

I describe the first idea by reading the title as People Like ME. Remember back when Al Franken was a comedian instead of a United States Senator? Does the name Stuart Smalley sound familiar?

Admittedly, Stuart tries too hard. Yet the sentiment of wanting to be known is common to us all. Set against that are the demands put on us when in groups. We want to fit in. I think of that by reading the title as PEOPLE LIKE me.

Pursuing both of these simultaneously requires Grace. Much of the chapter explores the stages of community building outlined by M. Scott Peck. His four stages are pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and then community.

Pseudocommunity is where we live most of the time. The dominant ethos is one of politeness. We don’t want to make waves. We want to fit in. Doing so comes at the price of the very affirmation we were looking for. If I tell people what I really feel, others in the group would be uncomfortable. There could be a scene. I might even be ostracized, thereby losing the sense of belonging.

Too many churches and too many Christian universities are characterized by pseudocommunity. It’s why we advertise them as “friendly, family oriented” places. In other words, nothing will happen here that will make you uncomfortable.

Sometimes, however, we’ve got enough safety to let a bit of our true selves out. We start sharing uncomfortable opinions. Some people won’t like what’s been said. There will be bad feelings all around. This is what Peck calls “chaos”. That’s probably a little melodramatic but it does characterize a lack of control and the introduction of uncertainty. You know then you’re there because suddenly a number of others try to squelch the discontent and restore the politeness norm.

Peck says that we can press on to “emptiness”. That’s another label that may be more Buddhist than intended, but it means to go along with the uncertainty. Parker Palmer says it requires adhering to a rule of “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” In other words, it means to live with the uncertainty without attempting to resolve the situation.

Then, and only then, do we get to community. Like the stage theories I explored a couple of posts back, these aren’t fixed in time. We slide back into earlier patterns and must repeat the process as we go along.

It’s helpful here to remember that Bonheoffer’s wonderful little book Life Together underscores that we don’t make community happen. Community, he says, is a gift of God’s Grace. It comes because all of us in the group stand in common relationship to Christ as the basis of our connections. It comes because we are together pursuing obedience to Christ.

I was wrapping up this chapter when the news broke that Exodus International was shutting down and president Alan Chambers issued a statement of apology. I haven’t been impacted by EI in any way, so my reactions to the apology and the end of the ministry probably don’t count as much as others. But as I look at his statements and those of others on Facebook and Twitter, glance at comment sections, and generally pay attention, it strikes me that Chambers’ statements certainly begin to push the edges of pseudocommunity. When you read reactions of those deeply scarred by E-I’s work over the years, we begin to approach chaos. When we add in the reactions of those who wouldn’t be happy with any apology, we’re getting really close to it.

Looking at community in this way suggests that the evangelical world can move back into pseudocommunity or forward through chaos. If the former, we’ll isolate into interest groups of like-minded folks where our identity can be affirmed without threat. Our groups can then comment about the wrongness of those on “the other side”.

Or we can venture on through chaos. We could choose to live with the uncertainties of those who are trying to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation on the one hand while others are tying to reconcile hospitality and scriptural authority. The truth is that the way forward is messy.

But if Bonhoeffer is right, and I’m sure he is, we aren’t making that journey alone. It takes courage to build community that isn’t based on safety, that affirms the identity of the other. It’s a courage well beyond our own capacities. But not beyond God’s.

P.S. As I was finishing this, Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation posted this response to the Exodus story which illustrates what I tried to say here at the end better than I did.

Why We Do What We Do

So I’m in the process of finishing up my grading for this year. Two sets of papers to go plus a couple of stragglers. Commencement is Saturday. This is the end of my second year at Spring Arbor. It means I’ve been here long enough to have significantly invested in the folks who will cross the platform to shake the president’s hand.

I knew something had changed about a month ago. I was at the spring play (starring one of my students) when one student I haven’t had told me he was excited to be taking my sociological theory class next spring. Shortly thereafter, I realized that a number of our majors had taken to calling me “Hawthorne“. Not Dr. or Prof or even John. Just Hawthorne. I realized that it’s what they use as a reference when they talk about me. And now they use it as my appellation. It means I have an identity in their universe.

Last week I was in a meeting with the peer advisors who work with our freshman groups. We were talking about the nature of service. I wound up repeating a line I’d used for years: that the thing that makes a Christian residential liberal arts institution special isn’t that people know students by name — it’s that they know me. Not as the name at the top of the syllabus but as me.

I’ve invested myself in them and they’ve invested themselves in me. It’s what Spring Arbor means when we call ourselves a “community of learners“.  Those that leave us this weekend change that community as we go forward. I’ll feel a sense of loss (even though Facebook lets me stay in touch). And we’ve already begun investing in a new group of freshmen who came to preregistration last weekend.

This interpersonal dynamic is what Pete Enns was describing in this excellent post yesterday on the joys of teaching Bible classes at Eastern University. He wrote: Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college requires transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. It is my job as the professor–especially in teaching some potentially tough topics–to create that culture.

I’d take Pete’s point one step farther. To create that culture, he has to embody transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. As Parker Palmer has written in nearly all his books, that embodiment (incarnation) is game-changing. Students find the ability to dream, to take chances, to push themselves.

One of my students wrote yesterday that she’d always thought the integration of faith and learning was about balancing content. Now she thinks about seeing learning as an expression of her commitment to Christ. She’s still working on what that means for her, but it’s exciting.

Today Christianity Today had this editorial about the future of Christian Higher Ed. It tells the familiar story: rising costs, concerns about debt, ponderings about the role of distance education. The author argues that churches should care about Christian universities because that’s where ministers come from and how parishioners get benefits from Christian faculty in their midst (and who, in turn, keep aware of life in the pew).

Such a narrow vision of the purpose of Christian Higher Education will not serve us into the future. We don’t exist FOR the church by operating as some kind of leadership farm club. We exist AS the church reaching out into the highways and byways. Our graduates can go out and work in community to advance the Kingdom of God because they’ve been practicing faithful Christian living for four years.

We send out missionaries. Some of them go overseas. Some work in insurance companies. Some work at Starbucks while they figure out the right grad program to attend. But they’re all carrying something forth — the notion that a community of learners matters in shaping identity.

This is why MOOCs are not the solution. If having great content delivered by folks like Michael Sandel (and he is good — I use his book in my capstone class) was all that mattered, then the folks at San Jose State and American University need to get with the program.

But it’s not just about content. It’s about personal investment in lives. And that investment is worth more than the tuition we charge. The payoff comes when we see that timid freshman cross the platform four years later as a confident and thoughtful adult. It comes when we hear that the village he serves in the Peace Corps has been dramatically changed because of his investment in the people there. It comes when new ministry forms emerge that keep Young Evangelicals engaged in the local congregation in ways that are authentic and meaningful. It comes when their children show up at the college ready to go through the whole cycle for a new generation.

Saturday my students will cross the platform and I’ll stand and clap for them. I’m looking forward to meeting their families and talk about how much we’ve been through together.

But mostly I’m excited about who they are and where they’re going. The world will be changed by their presence in it. And I’m just humbled to play a part in God’s work in this place.

Christian Higher Education hasn’t lost its mission. We just need to do a better job of reminding ourselves that it’s been right here under our noses the whole time.

Five Rules for Educational Pundits

Last night I had a visceral reaction to David Brooks’ column in yesterday’s New York Times. I felt compelled to rant about it on Facebook. My reaction must have been even more extreme than I thought as it prompted my wife to make a FB post to make sure I was okay.

I’m attending the North Central Sociological Association meeting in Indianapolis with three of my students. The sessions have been generally good and the keynote speech by Sheldon Stryker of Indiana was very interesting.

When I got back to my room and checked on the day’s happenings, I saw Brook’s article, “The Practical University“. He begins by assuming that the point of education is preparing workers for the workforce. Beginning with this technical focus, he then begins to suggest that technical competence (being all that is necessary) can better be shared via technological media. Even the heart of the pedagogical process can be construed as a technical challenge — class discussion is about the skills required in group interaction (these will be valuable in future jobs).

Here’s my rant from Facebook: This is wrong on more levels that a FB post will allow me to unpack. First, the premise that education is about “technical knowledge” like biological recipes that nurses can use to deal with medical issues. The truth is that I don’t want nurses who know technical knowledge — I want them to think critically, deal with whole people, and know when innovation is lifesaving. Second, the notion of “boot camp for adulthood” is ridiculous on its face: made even more so by references to binge drinking, appropriate fornication, and “handing things in on time.” Third, seminars are not about seminar participation skills (which is why you’d videotape them and then discuss performance). They are the actual substance where learning occurs; learning for the students, learning for the professor, and learning by the entire community. When that happens and students practice engaging broader world in meaningful and life-changing ways, the university is as PRACTICAL as it can possibly be. Can we have non-educators please STOP pontificating on things of which they know very little?

Brooks’ article makes me reflect on how much of this tripe I’ve had to read over the last couple of years. In doing a very informal meta-analysis on these educational pundit articles (my definition is that they appear in popular print by people who aren’t professional educators), I think I found some patterns. If you want to become one of these pundits,  there are some general rules that can get you started:

1. Select a shaky metaphor and build your whole argument around it. Manufacturing metaphors are popular (importance of product). So are retail metaphors (students as customers). Whatever you do, don’t spend any time thinking about what most colleges or universities actually do. Don’t think about how you or your children feel about the college experience.

2. Pick an isolated fact and use it as an argument for how it changes everything. For example, have you noticed how today’s students like this thing called the internet? These kids are tweeting and texting and doing FB updates all the time. Surely they don’t want to sit in a classroom for 60 minutes and listen to a lecture when they’d rather watch YouTube videos! It is true that students are technologically savvy but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is their preferred mode of learning. Don’t consider the fact that we’re expecting people to use technology appropriately on the job without moving everyone to telecommuting.

3. Make sure to use an anachronistic understanding of higher education as your point of contrast. Ideally, you can pick on the worst teacher from your own college experience. Clearly, you argue, that folks like that guy can’t be the mode for future educational behavior. Don’t mention that he was abnormal even in the day. Whatever you do, don’t pay attention to people like Parker Palmer or read The Courage to Teach.

4. Pick one particular egregious example as an indictment of what’s wrong with the status quo. This is a strategy that has worked very well for people like David Horowitz. Write a book about Ward Churchill’s egregious behavior. Blog about the “stomp on Jesus” professor (which was a case study of this rule from the day the story broke). Identify that professor at the major research university who makes $170,000 but never teaches undergraduates. If these instances are generalized across academia, we clearly have major problems (of course, they are outliers and not at all representative of faculty in general).

5. Make sure you get the phrase “creative disruption” into your article. This allows you to argue that “this is a new world” and we have to leave our prior assumptions behind. Pay attention to MOOCs, online programs, the University of Phoenix, industrial training, and competency based learning. Don’t ask questions about how these innovations fit the incredible diversity of American higher education.

If you follow these five simple rules, you can join David Brooks and George Will to point out to all who will listen how higher education could improve if it weren’t for intractable faculty members. Since you are not connected to an institution or involved in teaching undergraduates over time, you will never have to put your ideas to the test.

Stryker’s keynote address was a reflection on what’s wrong with theory in modern sociology. He argued that there is a relationship between “frameworks” (broad theoretical perspectives) and “theories” which are empirical tests of predictable variable relationships. He said that we don’t focus on the connection between the two ideas because sociology has been overspecialized (he had a fascinating contrast between an early ASA meeting with 200 attendees who shared dinner and last summer’s ASA meeting with 4500 attendees who were divided across multiple hotel venues).

His critique of hyper-specialization makes me think of the pundit rules above. If my focus as a sociologist is within my own little research world, I’m not thinking cogently about the nature of modern higher education. More than that, I’m not explaining my work to the various publics with whom I engage.

My silence on these issues winds up empowering folks like Brooks and Will. Trustees, legislators, and parents are more likely to read a David Brooks column that they are to read this blog. That means I must write more and find more public venues to present the alternative view.

Maybe if I can do that more regularly, my reaction to silly pundit arguments can be less visceral. I think that would make my wife happy.

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.