catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 10 :: 2003.05.09 — 2003.05.22


Thorough converts

The Christian university as a participant in culture

Some time ago, when I was dean of the faculty at North Park University, I had the occasion to attend a potentially boring conference in southern California with other deans and academic officers. Moreover, I gathered with a subset of such a group, those who work in schools that are members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The fellowship of the marginalized there, and the in jokes which I can share neither with administrators nor faculty, caused me to think about the place of Christian colleges on the margins of American higher education. All of the schools represented at that conference would know full well that they stand squarely in the historical mainstream of American universities and, presently, in an academic subculture. You may think that deans from such places are overly serious, stern gatekeepers of the Christian tradition. That was my fear. However, the speaker who opened our Saturday morning session offered the following, surprisingly candid, pronouncement: "We meet here in Anaheim this morning to carry out our business, situated squarely between Disneyland and the Crystal Cathedral, I'll allow you to make of that what you will."

So I began to make of that what I would. I thought of the implications of being in between, and of what two poles we at North Park are between, exactly. Many public schools at this time are desperately attempting to recover the advantages we enjoy of a personal, liberal arts education based in the Christian faith. And yet, we don't exploit these advantages. It seemed to me that, rather than between Disneyland and the Crystal Cathedral, most of us were poised that morning between a place such as the Master's College, the home of one of the participants, and Chapman University, not a member of the CCCU but an historically Christian College.

The Master's College, located just northeast of Los Angeles, Baptist in its denominational sponsorship, represents one end of the continuum. Its admissions materials speak of preparation in communication and thinking skills that will allow its graduates to bring the gospel to the world around them, that is to engage the culture with the Christian message, but the very name of the college would appeal only to a very specific audience of potential students, donors, and prospective employers. It appeals to a very conservative Christian subculture and probably garners distrust, suspicion and some derision from the greater community: its President is fundamentalist pastor John MacArthur; its students are all professing Christians; and it seems to present itself to its prospective students, from a cursory look at its web materials, as a place of relaxed growth and fellowship, and to its prospective students' parents as a Christian safe house, a place where children will grow within the confines of a protected environment.

The undergraduate catalog of Chapman University claims that the school's "roots are firmly grounded in its historic covenant with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)." But one has to dig through some fairly firm ground to find those roots. Chapman's materials speak of its focus on the development of the ethical, spiritual, and intellectual person. "A variety of religion courses and activities are offered, but not required. The dean of the chapel oversees an active ecumenical program designed to meet the spiritual needs expressed in a diversity of religious backgrounds of the university's students, faculty, and staff." The structure is all there, if optional, but none of this is mentioned in the admissions material, and the paragraph to which I refer is tucked safely into an obscure corner of the catalog.

I take up these two colleges to discuss American Protestant Christian colleges and where North Park and those like us fit in that range of schools, but more precisely, to explore a matter of how these two schools engage, or do not engage, the broader culture. It seems to me that these two universities represent the current trouble of the prevalent types of Christian colleges. Neither can fully engage the greater culture in a discussion of Christian identity, of the Christian-informed intellectual life, of a Christian life of service that does not serve only Christians, of bridging the great cultural divorce that has resulted in a caricature of Christianity, and of how to approach a greater culture that no longer listens to the prophetic voice.

What then is the role of the Christian university in engaging culture? I will only explore our potential to address three areas. First, the continuum we see in Christian higher education finds its base, I believe, in the tension of St. Paul's declaration for us to be "in the world but not of the world" we, unlike others, have a unique opportunity to do that. Second, we are encountering a generation of students that reflects our culture's crisis with the integrity of language, a crisis central to our society's ethical structure, but even more important to the viability of academe. We must address that if we are to remain educators. Finally, only schools such as North Park have the ability to intentionally recruit faculty and produce students who are thorough converts, individuals whose heads and hearts are integrated, who are able to live a Christian life in a post-Christian culture.

Fear of Questions, Distaste for Answers

To be blunt, I believe that there are two kinds of Protestant Christian schools: those who are convinced they have answers but would rather not take questions, and those who see questions as the meat of intellectual life and who find answers naive and distasteful. The former group separates itself from culture; the latter often sits comfortably in culture's fellowship at the expense of identity and substance. To illustrate the depth of this religious and intellectual tradition, I will name the first group the academic Pharisees, and the second the academic Sadducees. Professor Scot McKnight tells me that these labels would get me into trouble in biblical studies circles, but alas, I am just a layperson and an English professor who loves a good analogy.

So, from a layperson's application of the gospel accounts, academic Pharisees could be described thus: they stress the centrality of the Word of God to their mission but, to paraphrase Christ, replace the words of God with the traditions of men, augmenting faith commitments with long doctrinal questionnaires, and lifestyle statements about drinking, dancing and forms of entertainment. Yet they have done this for a reason. As the Pharisees were guarding Judaism against the culture of Rome, so have the academic Pharisees attempted to preserve Christian culture amidst social and intellectual pressures both threatening and appealing. Unfortunately, the result may be simply a subculture that, metaphorically speaking, calls people to obedience of the law but cannot tolerate healing on the Sabbath.

Jesus often confronted the Pharisees with questions, much to their despair. For in building the wall that separated them from culture, they had built a wall of answers. Good questions, such as, ?What is easier to say, "your sins are forgiven" or "get up and walk," or, "whose portrait is on this coin, and whose inscription," challenged certain agreed-upon answers and thus, in their minds, threatened the structure of that wall itself. This sort of Christian school may talk about evangelism, but it too often spends time tending its wall, and stays busy defending its choice of bricks. The creation of such Christian educational safe houses, or perhaps gated communities, will preserve the Christian sub-culture, and will produce some graduates and scholars who can articulate that subculture's strengths, but will produce few who can engage the greater culture and bring converts into its midst. Such an educational community may well become ingrown and suspicious, and may have difficulty answering another question: "Who is my neighbor?"

The Sadducees, those who had grown quite comfortable with Roman culture and who were rather embarrassed by the out-of-step cultural baggage of Judaism, loved questions. And, like their religious ancestors, academic Sadducees especially relish derisive questions that separate them from their naive, conservative cousins. "Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven men, since she was married to all of them in life?" Or, perhaps, in a more contemporary vein, "How can we claim the right to impose the values of our community on another?" Academic training produces scholars who critique more easily than they concur, and while this position is viewed often as "prophetic," a critique of culture, it is not prophetic in the style of the Old Testament prophets, who were often called to speak truth to power. Rather it is a safe critique, one that enjoys the backing, in academe of the majority culture. Non-majority critiques find quite different treatment. I remember in my doctoral program at a state university the discussion of one of Paul Ricoeur's books on hermeneutics, the last chapter of which offers answers to some of the problems it poses, and Christian answers at that. One of our professors noted that such answers are naive and, he said, after all, Christianity has no place in academic discourse. This is changing, I believe, with the advent of postmodernism and the accompanying respect for the presentation of answers within distinct communities. But the situation has not changed much, in part because of the prevalent caricatures of the Christian scholar and Christian community as being out of touch, na?ve, second rate.

But what chance does either of these Christian academic communities, the Pharisees or the Sadducees, have to actually engage culture in a substantial, Christian-informed discussion? Let's take, as an example, a potential discussion of American Beauty, the relatively recent film that won best picture in this country and has raised some fairly substantial cultural questions (see review and discussion questions in this issue). Academic Pharisees generally will not see such a film, will not encourage their students to see it, and thus cannot engage both its uncomfortable subject matter and surprising answers. These schools are like the Pharisees who kept themselves sexually pure by avoiding women. This is all well and good, but it makes it rather difficult to talk to the majority of the population. Conservative schools move the cultural dialog out of the classroom, and the classroom away from the culture they hope to affect.

On the other hand, on what possible grounds can the Christian university that is afraid of answers meaningfully encounter American Beauty? This is a deeply disturbing film, one which shows the absence of communication between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends. It portrays a youth culture that has come to regard parental models as failures and to discard ethical reasoning in favor of utility, the most admirable young character in the film maintains his societal independence, living a life of existential good faith, by selling drugs and telling his father that he brings in huge amounts of money from part-time jobs. He does this and says this simply because it works. And here also are the answers that a school that only has Christian roots, and not Christian life and growth, would be profoundly uncomfortable with. The term "american beauty" ultimately finds its definition in a God who has filled the world with a hidden beauty that we could see and experience if we could just see past our materialism. And the term "american beauty" is initially, and falsely, defined in the film as a fifteen-year-old cheerleader, a friend of Kevin Spacey's daughter with whom the middle-age protagonist falls embarrassingly into lust. At the moment of Spacey's "opportunity" with the young woman, he comes to his senses, and the cinematographer reveals the young naked girl as just that, a very young girl in the presence of a man who should be her father. Spacey then refuses the opportunity, and establishes a brief bond with her as a father figure. It is the first and last legitimate parent-child relationship in the movie.

This cultural moment is a great opportunity for the Christian teacher and scholar to engage culture, but neither model of Christian university, either for fear of subject matter and difficult questions, or because of the distaste for discussing and promoting answers, can effectively deal with the matter. What is lacking is the model of a Christian university equally at home with the human and the divine indeed, an incarnational university, if you will, that understands the difficulties and beauties of human life, that eats and drinks with sinners and yet, in the midst of harlots and tax collectors, and Sadducees and Pharisees, can sit down and tell the story of the Prodigal Son.

The Problem of Being Incarnational in a World Without Viable Language

American Beauty also comments on a cultural phenomenon, the evidence for which is easily accessible at almost every turn, both in the broader public sphere and within the confines of the classroom. The film begins with Annette Bening?s (Spacey's on-screen wife) commercial, silly-sounding language in her quest to sell houses. And language continues as a motif through the film, from Spacey's socially unacceptable frankness to the neighbor boy's use of language to manipulate his father and avoid confrontation and consequence. Surely the boy has learned this from our culture, from our politicians' word parsing and theatrics and constant linguistic makeovers. The generation we now teach has been trained from toddlerhood that words are a means to an end, and that the best words are not those that are true, but those that evoke well, those that artfully sell the product.

Neil Postman prophetically called this condition the decline of the typographic mind, the character of the public mind in the "age of exposition" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The public nature of exposition, the ability and interest of the public in following the Lincoln-Douglas debates for example?brought with it certain disciplines, according to Postman:

. . . a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; a tolerance for delayed response. (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 63)

Why should a Christian university in particular be concerned with such cultural trends? I will not explore here the effect of the end of the age of exposition on our academic disciplines, but I will focus on two other concerns: the threats and opportunities these trends pose in the classroom, and the prophetic opportunity that only a Christian academic community engaged with culture can address.


Nowhere are the threats associated with the end of the typographic age more visible than in the composition classroom. Models of writing are key in teaching our students to write academic prose, and yet what models do we use for students who in the majority have lost the qualities Postman describes? These skills are not just foundational for academic work but for the understanding of one's religious traditions and faith position. So their prose and religious expression become more emotive and less ordered, and the gap between their skills and our academic expectations becomes wider.

At the same time, many of our disciplines have turned their academic discourses into an industry game, into a language aimed at only its educated participants and unfriendly to students, and the general public, we wish to influence. In an essay titled, "Before We Can Communicate," C. S. Lewis explained the hazards of academic language that no longer teaches.

One holds, or thinks one holds, a particular view . . . [and] you can go on for years discussing and defending it to others of your own sort . . . . All seems well. Then turn and try to expound this view to an intelligent mechanic or a sincerely inquisitive [student]. Some question of shattering crudity will be shot at you [and] the crude question turns out to be fatal. You have never, it now appears, really understood what you so long maintained. (God in the Dock, p.256)

It is the act of teaching, of explaining to those who don't know the language, that keeps us honest, both intellectually and spiritually. Here is the hanger for both the academic Pharisee and Sadducee, for the school that never brings the broader culture into the argument, and for the school that argues only within the safety of academe. This is why, for North Park, the phrase much used in our own marketing materials "the city is our laboratory" must be taken very seriously. Laboratories are places to discover what something is made of, to test its worth. And so, in engaging the arts in Chicago, in serving the poor, in interacting with non-majority cultures, in being present to our own Covenant churches, we will find if our research and our teaching and our faith pass the test, whether they can contribute to culture, and even how they should contribute to culture. The audiences we find ourselves faced with in the classroom, and in the broader culture, if Postman's analysis is accurate, often have not been intellectually equipped for the conversation. I do not have answers for this problem, except to suggest that faculty must cross the bridge and invent ways of leading students over to our side of the chasm. And I would call not only for a campus-wide, co-curricular effort in training students in the expectations of academic life, but understanding that we need to make it our business to figure out how to speak to people outside our own walls, represented by the students who come here to learn with us.


But in the midst of this crisis in the lives of our students resides our opportunity: this generation, much more so than my own, is made of highly relational creatures. We may encounter suspicion in our classrooms?a sense that students are evaluating us before they will grant our words credence, but this is a suspicion that is a preparation for, and highly hopeful of, establishing a relationship with a trustworthy mentor. North Park has opportunities here that other institutions of higher education covet. We are small enough still so that students are not merely numbers; they are human beings whose development we may witness and influence in ways that typically do not happen at large universities. We are increasingly ethnically diverse, and with this comes opportunities for dialog that models reconciliation and prepares our students for the realities and tensions and blessings of a diverse world. Moreover, to return to my original point, we are in between, neither Biola nor Loyola, not The Master's College or Chapman University. We are in a place to defy stereotype, and in a generation that has grown suspicious of language's integrity, numb to claims of identity, and aware of the closed Christian right and the ineffectual Christian left, we are in a place to stir up the pot. We will have a chance, if we embrace and define and announce this "in-betweenness" to affect a group of people looking for a viable alternative. Of course, it all comes down to what one does with the chances one is given.

Thorough Converts

I have spoken about being "in-between" in two contexts. As a Christian university we are in between the stereotypes of the Christian right and the nominally Christian. As educators we find ourselves in between our students' preparation and our expectations for the academic enterprise. But there are two kinds of "in-betweenness" as well. There is the intentional kind, the one that positively defines a position in between and stakes out a course of action based on that definition. And there is the "in-betweenness" that results from a lack of definition, from a fear or a disinclination to choose what, exactly, you want to become.

The personality and circumstances of the Old Testament patriarch, Jacob, speaks to me in this matter. Jacob spent his life in a state of being in between: between the disfavor of his father and the favoritism of his mother, between the rage of his brother Esau and the abuse and trickery of his uncle Laban, between the desires of Leah and Rachael, between trust in the God of his fathers and fear in his circumstances. He wrestled with the angel and lost, thank God, and in that moment found definition, he was named. Yet being in the undefined in-between was the condition of most of his life, so much so that, upon finally recovering the son that he had long thought dead, he stands before Pharaoh, having lived a hundred and thirty long years, and tells the king, "the years of my pilgrimage have been short and difficult."

It takes a lot of energy to remain in the negative state of in between, to escape identity, and the result can be a hard and fruitless pilgrimage. If I may be bold: if we decide to be a university that defines itself negatively and if we decide to be Christians who define ourselves negatively, neither "this" nor "that," and if we form no positive definition as the foundation of our actions, we will constantly fight the battles of disorder, we will feel tired and overburdened, and we will come to the end of our lives as educators and scholars and Christians and say, "the years of my pilgrimage have been short and difficult." I have no desire to echo that lament. Our other choice is to live in the defined in-between, to live the integrated life?what one of my favorite poets, William Blake, would have called a life of vision. Of what may this academic vision consist? I spoke briefly about becoming an incarnational university. Let me now, in closing, put at least a little meat on the bones.

C. S. Lewis's editor, Walter Hooper, once commented that "Lewis struck me as the most thoroughly converted man I ever met." What made for being defined as a "thorough convert." Well after his death, Lewis and his writings have become the darlings of Christians and institutions that I placed earlier on the far right of the continuum, among the anti-cultural "academic Pharisees." I can only assume that these people have not really read Lewis, and not studied his life, or have done so selectively. Lewis was a person who liked his beer (and thus would be ineligible for employment at many Christian colleges and universities), understood art and beauty and loss, suffered through a childhood that was probably abusive, perhaps sexually abusive, and bore the scars of those experiences into his adult life. He had difficulty with church yet called it a necessity, called hymns "fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music" and yet measured his own spiritual paucity against the piety of the uneducated laborer sitting next to him singing with his heart. He took on both the academic and the religious mainstream of his day, questioned the inspiration of some of the Psalms, and was viewed with suspicion, a favor he returned by both evangelical contemporaries and secular academic colleagues. He made statements that I am confident, if read today, would not endear him to either the right or the left.

But, because of the thoroughness of his conversion, Lewis was able, with heart and mind fully engaged, to enter into dialog with his academic discipline and just about every aspect of his culture. His Christian identity, based at neither end of the continuum, but thoroughly and positively defined, resulted in an energy that made his relatively short career incredibly productive, and the fruits of that productivity rich and enduring. I think that one of the most unfortunate results of the modernist-fundamentalist debate in this country is a suspicion, held by all parties, that defining oneself as Christian, the very act of making a public definition at all, automatically aligns you with the fundamentalists. No wonder that Christian intellectuals unfortunately make peace with nominalists, for the guilt by association with the Christian right threatens, in the eyes of the unchurched, our claim to be academics at all. But to live one's life in the undefined middle is a sort of slavery of avoidance. Energy comes from freedom, not the freedom to not seek definition, nor a freedom from culture, but a freedom to exist, incarnationally, as a divinely-charged creatures living in culture among our sisters and our brothers.

North Park University is a Protestant university that seeks a diversity of energized Christian expression, a place of thorough converts and that identity is critical, who are then free to live out their conversions and whose freedom to do so is protected. Most colleges, unfortunately, do well with a form of the Protestant model of governance and community: faculty play the role of the early reformers and question administrative doctrine, and administrators in turn play the role of bishops and cardinals in repressing the troublemakers. But what I am talking about here is a Protestant college in the sense of another Protestant idea, "the priesthood of believers." Such a university, both corporately and individually, does not look inward, focusing on issues of survival, attending to the walls that insure its separation from culture or conflict or colleagues or students in a false hope that this will add to our years, but looks outward, engaging culture from the strengths of identity and definition. Simply, it has much, both corporately and individually, to bring to culture's table.

Such a freedom is captive neither to academic nor legalistic correctness. It becomes, through exercise, a presence in a city and a culture and a church that needs us, and which we need as well. I see the potential of such thorough converts in each of us, and would like to imagine the dynamic ability to engage culture of an institution that, like Jacob after his encounter with the angel, has discovered its name.

Some questions for discussion:

Given the inadequacies of both fundamentalist and nominal Christian positions, how do we go about "naming" a position between "conservative" and "liberal," in education, in politics, in all areas of life in which identity is such a crucial issue? Is it desirable to have a named and defined position in the middle or would having a name simply lead to the same problem "conservatives" and "liberals" have of being defined as a group by limiting cultural definitions that lead to dangerous groupthink?

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