An Open Letter to College Freshmen

Dear College Freshmen,

Congratulations on getting into the university of your dreams.  And if it’s not of your dreams, congratulations anyway.  You have the opportunity before you to join the 10% of people in the world who have a college degree.  That doesn’t make you smart, at least not on its own.  But it does make you rare, and that’s something.

I first wrote a version of this letter two years ago.  Two years is not a long time, even though in internet-time a day is like a thousand years.  This may be a good time to remember that the world doesn’t run on “internet-time.”   The whole business of digital tricks us into believing that nothing is permanent, that everything can be rewritten (like this letter!) or lost to the abyss that is Snapchat.  Yes, I have googled Snapchat and know what it is and why you are using it.  Yes, googling it demonstrates that I am old.  Yes, if I know about it then your parents will soon too.  And no, now that you’re in college you are not free from caring what they think.  They may be relieved to see you go, but they haven’t stopped caring about where you’ll end up.

English: A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egid...

Repeat daily:  ”Books are my friends, not my enemies.”

Don’t believe that business, though, about nothing being permanent.  Oh, all those selfies that you love snapping may not be, which is okay because most of them aren’t very good.  But you’re headed off to The University, where you’ll hopefully confront one or two things that are.  Take time while you are there to consider the great things in this world, and by the word I don’t mean the disinterested dismissal it sometimes is used for or the silly, hyperactive Tony-the-Tiger bastardization either.  I mean the music, literature, art, science, and so on that will overwhelm you, that will fill you with awe and maybe just a little terror, that will impress on you the undeniable sense that your soul is too small for the goodness of this world.  Take up the things that make you wonder whether your life will really amount to anything after all.  Allow yourself to feel the subtle but serious pleasure of distress that you have not yet done anything worthwhile.

Because, you know, you probably haven’t.  Not yet, anyway.  That will come later, when you and the rest of us are ready.  Or maybe never at all.  And that will be okay too, provided that by your character and integrity you are adding to the great store of goodness that makes up the foundations of the world.  The truly permanent things are found there, in the cultivation of courage and honor and justice and truth and kindness and love.  Of those there will be no end.  Make your home with them and though you may die in obscurity, the testimony of your life will be told and retold by those whose lives you have marked.

You should remember that you will need to find a job at the end of this season (you’re welcome, parents–you may pay me now). That does not mean you should only enter disciplines that are directly tied to work.  But it does mean that you should spend your summers well and look for ways to translate the work you do into other, more “practical” arenas.  ”Transferable skills” is a term I heard once, and it works here just fine.  Plodding through forgotten bits of Latin may never be “practical”, but the diligence and care you cultivate in doing so will be.  Someone is paying a good deal of money for your degree, so you should do them the honor of bothering to work hard.  It’s not summer camp you’re at, after all, regardless of the playground your admissions counselor used to sell you to come.

I am told, though, that people like lists these days thanks to Buzzfeed and all that.  So let me distill my advice into seven bits of unquestionably accurate, entirely worthwhile bits of knowledge.  You can thank me in four years, or whenever you finish.

1)  Learn to read things that don’t come in lists or use bold fonts.  See what I did there?

2)   The world is built on discipline.  Embrace it.  Yes, you can and should have fun.  Yes, you will cultivate deep friendships with people and enjoy many of the pleasures this world has to offer.  But discipline and diligence are commodities in high demand and if you neglect them for the next four years you will find yourself in a worse spot than when you started your education.  Start small if you must, and if you’re at all like me you probably must.  Take one morning class every semester that forces you to go to bed relatively early two nights a week.  Delight yourself in the joys of a quiet campus and of the morning weather.  You may forget everything in those classes in ten years, but the habits, disciplines, and joys you will carry with you always.

3)   Read intelligently. Some of the books assigned to you aren’t going to be as helpful to you as others, and you will save yourself a goodly amount of time and frustration if you learn quickly how to identify those.  Talk with people who have taken the class before to discern what should be avoided.

But don’t do that because you’re lazy and don’t want to work hard.  Rather, do it so you can linger over the rest, savoring them and allowing them to permeate your heart and your soul.  Odd language, I know, if you’re hanging out in the sciences or maths.  But don’t let the immediate task of memorizing formulas hinder you from what you’re really doing:  learning how to see the harmonious beauty of creation.

4)  Befriend people you disagree with.  College is just like any other environment:  you’ll gravitate toward the people who are like you.  And that’s not all bad.  But the expansion of our intellectual horizons often happens in the midst of talking with those who see differently than we do.  A harmonious opposition in the context of friendship is a great joy, one that you should consider pursuing while in the university.

5)  Your money matters.  Steward it wisely.  Credit card debt is a real thing, and those student loans you’re racking up?  They probably aren’t going to go away.  Money is easily frittered, especially when the pressure to hang out is very high.  You are an adult, so no one will call if you stay out late and spend every dime you don’t have.  But if you can’t pay your credit card bill, your phone will definitely ring with the sort of calls you’d be best off avoiding.  Don’t leave college any further behind than you have to.

6)  Find the good and praise it.  This is easier said than done.  But it is entirely worthwhile.  Anyone can be a cynic but it takes a humble soul to genuinely rejoice in the good, whether those goods come to others or ourselves.

7)   Save what you read.  Come across a phrase you like?  Write it down.  Hear a point you think is interesting?  Write it down.  You won’t remember most of the conversations you have, or what was said.  But if you leave college with a copious collection of the various excerpts and thoughts that struck you, for whatever reason, you will have a resource to return to for the rest of your life.  Use Evernote for everything you read on the web and a Moleskine for everything else.  Extra bonus cool points for looking like an “artist” with that Moleskine, too.

8)  Question well.  It doesn’t matter what sort of university you are attending:  if you want to get your money’s worth, you should find a community of people who are interested in exploring the world and not resting content with cliches or dismissive answers.  Simply throwing questions around won’t get you very far, though.  Inquire, but pay careful attention to where your inquiries come from and where they are taking you.  The fine art of questioning well  is a skill that will reward you regardless of what vocation you enter.  May I suggest you read my more full treatment on the subject?  (Protip:  The mere presence of a question mark does not indicate a real question is present.) 

Contrary to what you heard at your graduation, college is about as close to the real world as Jersey Shore.  (And if your college is anything like Jersey Shore, you will want to find a new college.)  You’ll never live in close quarters with that many people who have that much in common again.  Nor will you be around so many people who have all been simultaneously dislocated from their 18 years of relationships and dropped into a new environment.  That strange collision is partly what makes the university environment simultaneously so special and deeply dysfunctional.

But that environment, for all its problems, also presents an opportunity to broaden your horizons and enrich your soul through the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of the permanent goods.  There will be many distractions, many lesser goods and easier pleasures offered to you along the way.  But if you walk onward with your eyes ever fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, then college will provide to you a season of journeying into the deep things of God and his creation, and you will learn to savor them for the rest of your life.

Best wishes as you pursue the end of our exploring,

Matt

PS  And if you’re off to a Christian college, well, I’d encourage you to read these too.

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Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Modern Literature?

Back during the halcyon days of the Bush administration (ha!), I read a piece in Touchstone which bemoaned the dearth of Evangelical modern literature. Evangelical professor David T. Williams surveyed the fiction produced by his tradition over the past century and found a great deal of “schlock and kitsch” but nothing “recognized as having literary value by the literary world.” Williams noted Christian authors from other traditions finding success, specifically Flannery O’Connor, and attributed this lack to several hallmarks of Evangelical doctrine and practice:

Our failure to encourage our people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; and our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate, with our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.

I chafed.

I chafed mostly because I believe that, despite the prevailing stereotype, Evangelical aesthetics are well formed. For example, the musical tradition of Evangelicalism, from Watts and Wesley to Tomlin and Getty easily excels that of other streams of the Christian tradition. Why wouldn’t there be Evangelical writers producing creative works of fiction as well?Chris Tomlin

But while the piece stuck in my craw, I struggled to formulate a reply. After all, I couldn’t name a current Evangelical literary star either. Finally, this month, two articles combined to explain this phenomenon.

First, in First Things, Randy Boyagoda penned a piece with the following provocative beginning:

I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.

These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.

Boyagoda admits that every strain of Orthodox Christianity is batting .000 when it comes to producing a living literary giant. (Paul Elie made much the same point in the New York Times last year.)

Perhaps then, the failure of an Evangelical darling to emerge shouldn’t be so much of a surprise. Maybe the problem lies in the institution of modern literature itself. Continue reading

The Quick and the Dead

This is the final reflection in a series on questioning and education in response to Matt’s new book.  Cate MacDonald led things off, David J. Gilbert continued it, and Jonathan Mueller closes things down here.  Like them, Jonathan teaches in The Academy at Houston Baptist University

It is all too easy to deliver a bad speech. One reason for this is obvious—if the speaker is not skilled in rhetoric or the subject difficult, the audience may easily become disengaged. During this sort of speech, if you have the misfortune to be in the audience, you are likely to consider many things, none of which the speaker intends. Intellectual exchange between the speaker and the audience dies a horrible death, and though much is said, little is learned.

There is a second kind of deadening that comes about for the very opposite reason: a speaker may be so skillful in rhetoric that the audience becomes charmed to the point that they stop really thinking.  During this sort of speech, if you have the dubious fortune to be in the audience, you are likely to think many things: How convincing! How true! How amusing! You will walk out of such a speech feeling very clever, but if someone asks you what this speech was about, you may only be able to stammer out a few memorable lines before thinking well, you just had to be there. And that is true—but you have left the room, and the spell is broken.

But why should I call this a “deadening”? Isn’t this a sign that the audience is really listening to a well-delivered speech? Possibly, and I have seen that happen as well. But I choose to describe that scenario as “dead” because the intellectual activity in the room is one-sided, since at a certain point a charmed audience is engaging mainly by accepting rather than in lively exchange, that is, by thinking, reasoning, and questioning.

In Book II of the Republic, Plato gives an example of a bad speech that serves as the catalyst for the rest of the dialogue. Shortly after the quest for true justice begins, the proto-Nietzschean-sophist-extraordinaire Thrasymachus delivers a speech that champions injustice, calling it the “advantage of the stronger,” and decries any concern for true justice, as it is rarely beneficial. Socrates, through a series of questions and short speeches, gives a retort that completely silences Thrasymachus.  Glaucon, the brave young companion of Socrates, is dissatisfied by this exchange, and says “Thrasymachus seems to me, like a snake, to have been charmed by your voice sooner than he ought to have been.”

Glaucon then proposes to take up Thrasymachus’ argument in a dialogue with Socrates, so that they can better see where the argument leads. Plato’s move here suggests that dialogue necessarily imposes a certain amount of justice on its participants, more than may be attainable in a speech.  Any sophist can give a speech, but seekers must ask good questions, and follow the argument where it leads.

While the exchange between a speaker and an audience may become dead, the space between a good question and an answer is always lively (just think how lively the space is between the question “will you marry me?” and the response).  The best questions are ones that enliven persons, and cause them to seek out the truth. Matt  says it well in The End of Our Exploring: “questioning is a form of our desire… [Questions] make us feel as though there is something incomplete that we desire to resolve.”

This desire that spurs us on, that enlivens our hearts and minds, has the power to change our lives for the better in a lasting way. It draws us to participate with Truth itself; but this is a long and difficult path. Mattie Ross, the heroine of Charles Portis’ True Grit, points out that “There is nothing free except the grace of God.” All else is dearly bought, and well-worth a lifetime.

Short-term Missions Trips and Cultural Institutions

money and short-term missions

What is the best way for us to use our money to serve and promote the kingdom of God and the common good in our home places?

In a recent piece for Christianity Today, Doug Banister described one of the problems with short-term mission trips:

I spent many years taking mission trips to Tulcea, Romania. We shared the gospel, cared for orphans, and started a medical clinic. It seemed that God moved in powerful ways. Then my friends Jon and Toni moved into one of Knoxville’s marginalized neighborhoods. Jon invited me to go on prayer walks with him on Wednesday mornings. I saw syringes on playgrounds, prostitutes turning tricks, hustlers selling drugs. Our walks led me to volunteer at the elementary school in Jon’s neighborhood. I’d assumed all the schools in our city were pretty much the same. They aren’t. Kids with B averages in Jon’s school score in the 30th percentile on standardized tests. Kids with B averages in my neighborhood score in the 90th percentile.

Along the way, a pastor named Johnny began showing me what the city looked like from the front lawn of his cash-strapped inner-city church. As I spent more time in Knoxville’s at-risk neighborhoods, I realized that I knew more about poverty in Tulcea than I knew about poverty in Knoxville. I was pursuing the common good of a city across the world while neglecting the common good of the place where I lived.

Banister went on to talk about all the things that the $3,000 used to send one teenager or college kid overseas could do in Knoxville. And Banister isn’t the only one rethinking the short-term missions trip. Banister raised many of the most common objections to short-term trips and they’re all sound, but I want to expand on his point just a bit.

It’s common for evangelicals in thinking about the best way to use their resources to look for discrete, one-time actions they can take with their money. So we can spend three grand to go on a trip to Poland or we can spend three grand to buy books for a local school or put a roof on a widow’s house. These are all worthy pursuits and no reader should think that I’m condemning any of them. But just as we can say “spending locally may be better than spending internationally,” on these sorts of outreach, I want to push it still further and say “spending on local institutions may be better than spending on discrete, one-time events.”

To take only one example, what if instead of spending thousands of dollars on mercy projects for area families living in poverty, we started spending money to set up a vocational training program to teach home improvement, maintenance, and other handy-man type projects? Obviously we’d still need to do something different to help the elderly widow who needs a roof (and that may well be simply buying the roof), but what if you hire someone to teach workshops for people in your area on doing general home improvement projects?

By approaching it that way, you’re equipping people to promote the common good of the city from the bottom up, rather than the top down with one well-moneyed social body throwing money at social problems. You’re also empowering them to take care of themselves as much as they’re able, rather than depending upon assistance from some well-intentioned patron who can quickly turn into a tacitly dangerous paternalist.

But we can push this idea a bit further too. As Christians, we believe that any social problem is at its roots a worship problem. People misplace their love and that drives them to making socially and individually destructive choices. So what if we pursue setting up programs and institutions that help shape our loves in healthier, Gospel-shaped ways? Toward this end, I can think of few investments more worthy of our support than setting up inner city Christian schools that offer affordable–or even free–tuition so that poor families can send their children to a school that will train them to live well in God’s world. (On this note, may works like the one being done at Restoration Academy continue to flourish.)

Next to that, we’ll need to have educated leaders in our local churches with that rare combination of deep knowledge of the Christian faith and church and of the unique realities of life in their particular community. This will mean having something like seminary-level theological education available locally to church leaders.

And yes, everything I’m proposing will cost a decent chunk of change. But, to take only one example, sending myself and five friends to Zambia six years ago cost American Christians around $24,000. As much as I enjoyed my time in Zambia, I can’t help wondering if there may have been better uses for that money. Suppose American Christians simply scaled back their short-term missions trips and used that money to build local institutions–how much money would that free up? If the stats cited by Banister are accurate, even a 25% reduction in short-term mission trips costs would free up $400 million. I can think of a few seminaries and universities that could use that money–and a few cities that could use schools, vocational training programs, and seminary-type education who could use it too.

(For further reading: CT has covered the issue in the past and Relevant looked at the topic earlier this week as well.)

photo credit: epSos.de via photopin cc

The Surprising Similarities Between First Dates and Bad Textbooks

This is the second reflection in a series on questioning and education in response to Matt’s new book.  Cate MacDonald led things off and David J. Gilbert, who teaches in The Academy at Houston Baptist University, continues it here. 

Way back in the earlier days of the 21st century and the second year of my undergraduate career, I had a friend, Salvatore,[1] who made a list of questions. The list grew. A few times here and there he’d find me, check his shoulders, lean in secretly and knowingly whisper, “David, I’ve added to my list….it’s getting good.” So it had 50, now 100, now 150 questions on it.

And all the questions were his preparation for a first date with a girl.

“How many siblings do you have, and are you close?”

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

“Why did you choose your major?”

If my memory serves me correctly, Salvatore had never been on a date before. Or if he had, he still found it quite uncomfortable to summon the first date conversation–I mean, who doesn’t get that? And the anticipation of the date-convo was even worse—I am, of course, entirely sympathetic with Salvatore on this one.

Word has it, the date did not go so well. Word has it, the whole thing felt like an interview. Worse, an interrogation. Word has it, they did not see each other again.

I’ve thought of Salvatore’s list many times since the waning days of 2002. Sometimes I think I should write my own list of questions. Surely my own list of questions would counter the absurdly long quiet spaces that assault me on dates. It should have worked, Salvatore’s list, shouldn’t it have? Questions initiate the work of a conversation, right? So a whole lot of questions should directly proportion a whole lot of good conversations. Right?

—————————

Way back in the earlier days of March of this very year and the third month of my new employment, I found myself pre-reading a popular textbook for high school students which emphasizes the importance of reading great texts and asking questions of those texts. I am a faculty member of The Academy at Houston Baptist University, a classics program for high schoolers. On paper, I should dig this textbook. But for some reason, in practice, the pages just irritated me. And that might be because the questions irritated me.

“What is the conflict set up by Homer in The Iliad?”

“Who was it between and what was it over?”

“In the Greco-Roman understanding of the the[2] universe, is there both a seen world and an unseen world?”

“How is the seen and the unseen world related?”[3]

My mind went back to Salvatore’s date preparation.

Now, in a lot of ways, I don’t want to knock my friend Salvatore, who was, generally, a strong conversationalist. For one thing, in the years since he collected questions for girls, he has gotten married to a wonderful woman; so the dude’s learned a thing or two. For another thing, I think getting in the habit of asking questions is not only a good habit, but sometimes a difficult habit to master. I mean, also, who’s gonna knock a guy for not being simultaneously and immediately good at dialectic and talking to a member of the opposite sex?

It seems that the problem with Salvatore’s list and the textbook’s irritating questions lies in a practical fallacy. In one sense, there’s nothing wrong with any of the questions either listed by Salvatore or the textbook. In a certain way these questions are legitimate and can contribute to a meaningful conversation.

However, there’re also problems with these questions. They feel tired. They feel easy. They feel inauthentic and robotic. They feel boring. They seem in ways to miss the point of questioning in the first place. In Salvatore’s case they feel scripted (because they were), and thus miss the opportunity to really get to know another human being. In the textbook’s case, they lack momentum to begin a real discussion.

I do not think that questions have intrinsic value, the way that people and goodness and truth do. But I do think questions are a major way to get to truth and goodness and relationship. And really good questions strike up really good discussions. And a really good discussion is one that invites interest, and human interaction, and concern about things bigger than our docile, default expectations and beliefs. If there isn’t a genuine curiosity in a dialogue or educational experience, there will be besting the other with one’s prior assumptions and expectations. Sometimes, at best, we’ll pander to what we think the other person wants to say. A really good question is not good in itself, but is good because it is the conduit by which we can peck at the hidden truths of God. And, you know, maybe after a bit, in the later days, we come to have some good answers.


[1] I always call my friend “Salvatore,” because it’s long for “Sal” and I always wanted to call someone “Salvatore” and plus, both are fake names.

[2] This is an actual typo in the text. I leave it because I find the lack of attention to the interrogative sentence indicative of the project as a whole—it’s also typed completely in comic sans. Granted, my evaluation of a given typo depends entirely on the quality of the book at hand. Sometimes, my reaction is loving sorrow paired with willing forgiveness; sometimes my reaction is, instead, lots of judgment. Also, these are actual questions listed in discussing The Iliad. I refrain from any commentary, like the kind my colleague offered when he heard the third question, and exclaimed, “What single Greco-Roman understanding of the universe?!?!!?”

[3] I guess the previous question was answered before publication?

A Reading Guide for 2013

In the Andersonian fashion of asking questions, I submit that one of our urgent questions is this: What are the possibilities of the vita contemplativa in the late modern world? In Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche lamented, “Because there is no time for thinking, and no rest in thinking, we no longer weigh divergent views; we are content to hate them. With the tremendous acceleration of life, we grow accustomed to using our mind and eye for seeing and judging incompletely or incorrectly, and all men are like travelers who get to a land and its people from the train.” What a sharp observation! We moderns view life from a train window – blurred. Nietzsche continues:

The farther West one goes, the greater modern agitation becomes; so that to Americans the inhabitants of Europe appear on the whole to be peace-loving, contented beings, while in fact they too fly about pell-mell, like bees and wasps. This agitation is becoming so great that the higher culture can no longer allow its fruits to ripen; it is as if the seasons were following too quickly on one another. From lack of rest, our civilization is ending in a new barbarism. Never have the active, which is to say the restless, people been prized more. Therefore, one of the necessary correctives that must be applied to the character of humanity is a massive strengthening of the contemplative element. And every individual who is calm and steady in his heart and head, already has the right to believe that he possesses not only a good temperament, but also a generally useful virtue, and that in preserving this virtue, he is even fulfilling a higher duty.

How, then, can we moderns, in our train-zooming and bee-buzzing world, undergo that “massive strengthening of the contemplative element”? In my own life, I try to slow the acceleration through five practices: lectio divina, liturgy, cooking, walking, and reading.

For this post I will focus on reading. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then after years of rapturous listening to Ken Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio, I’ve developed his gift of bibliography. Other than John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, I’m not aware of any contemporary Christian who has a more refined taste in books than Myers, who consistently brings forth treasures from his deep-sea diving in the sea of published works. Permit me to be a bibliographic fascist of sorts, dictating what new and forthcoming titles sound promising from various publishers.

My favorite American academic publishers are the trinity of Ivy League schools: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

From Harvard: Literary critic David Mikics demonstrated his virtues as a slow reader in The Art of the Sonnet, so I am excited to read Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (October 2013). As an instructor of literature, I goad my students to control their “ecosystem of interruption technologies” in order to develop the habits of deep attention, otherwise the reading of Great Expectations or Crime and Punishment is nearly impossible. Mikics shows “exactly how the tried-and-true methods of slow reading can provide a more immersive, fulfilling experience. He begins with fourteen preliminary rules for slow reading and shows us how to apply them. The rules are followed by excursions into key genres, including short stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays.”

If we follow Nietzsche’s exhortation to “weigh divergent views,” then every Christian should engage the secular humanism of philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (October 2013), she asks this big question: “How can we achieve and sustain a ‘decent’ liberal society, one that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all and inspires individuals to sacrifice for the common good? In this book, a continuation of her explorations of emotions and the nature of social justice, Martha Nussbaum makes the case for love. Amid the fears, resentments, and competitive concerns that are endemic even to good societies, public emotions rooted in love—in intense attachments to things outside our control—can foster commitment to shared goals and keep at bay the forces of disgust and envy.”

Another divergent view that should be weighed is Albert Camus, the most honest atheist that I’ve encountered. Continue reading

Summer Reading for College Graduates

It’s late May, which means that across the world, twentysomething college students are graduating or preparing to graduate: departing campuses and communities that have shaped them deeply and venturing off into the wide open spaces of adulthood in a way that is (for most of them) wholly new. The transition from college to post-college life is a significant one for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that for many college grads, being a student (that is: being forced to read things, write papers and take exams for coveted grades) is all they have known for the last 17 or so years.

For many of them, “learning” has largely been something they associate with pressure, stress, and the confines of parental control and expectation. Education is something that has been prescribed, mapped out and scheduled-to-death for them as long as they can remember. To graduate from college, then, is among other things to liberate oneself from the notion of education as bureaucracy (curriculum checklists, units, requirements, pre-reqs, to-dos, tuition payments, etc.) and to replace it with a notion of education as a choice, or (even better) education as a pleasure. That is, if it is replaced at all.

The sad reality, I suspect, is that after degrees are conferred, many graduates consider their education to be concluded. Which I guess is the expected conclusion to an educational system primarily built around preparing students for the next thing, culminating in a college degree that translates into a job. If the telos of education is practical preparation as opposed to, say, the seeking of truth and the ability to ask questions well, then of course it makes sense that once a job is attained or a lucrative skill mastered, education ceases to be a priority.

But practical training and skill development are only part of education’s purpose. Degrees are not the end goal. Education should be a lifelong pursuit. To exist is to always be on a continuum of known and unknown, discovered and undiscovered. “We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T.S. Eliot.

That’s why, if I were to give one piece of advice to college graduates, it would be to find ways to keep the pursuit of knowledge and truth an active and lively pursuit in your life. One way to do that is to keep reading. Embrace the fact that, for the first time in many years, you can read what you want to and you won’t have to take a test or write a term paper about it. Learn to take pleasure in it. Make it a daily habit. Reading for “fun” is one of the most important things one can do to stay motivated to keep learning.

Read anything. Blogs, newspapers, magazines, tweets, billboards, poems (please read poems!), essays, journals, Wikipedia, and so on. Also, watch movies. Documentaries. Blockbusters. TV. Go to concerts. Museums. Take walks. Run. Travel. Try new restaurants. Develop an expertise or a habit. Discuss current events. Debate a friend. Sit on your front porch smoking pipes while discussing theology (or drinking scotch while discussing politics). Do any and everything you need to do in order to grow in your curiousity about the world and your desire to understand it more deeply.

Oh, and keep reading books.

On that note, I thought I’d give a few recommendations. The following are five books that have either come out recently or will be released very soon. They are books that I think are particularly inspiring and motivating for those of us who may be in a transition moment in life but still doggedly in pursuit of the good life: living, growing, thinking, believing and questioning well.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011), by Alan Jacobs

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionI can’t think of a better book to recommend to a graduate as a first venture into the world of post-college reading. Jacobs dispels the notion that reading should be a chore, or that only highbrow Great Books are worth our time. “Read what gives you delight–at least most of the time–and do so without shame,” he argues, making the case in characteristically elegant fashion that reading can and should be something that gives us pleasure. Happily, Jacobs’ own finesse and wit as a writer makes the book itself a pleasure to read.

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (2013), by Douglas Rushkoff

Present ShockI recommend this book as a companion piece of sorts to Jacobs’ book, with emphasis on the “age of distraction” part. Rushkoff–the media theorist guru behind the Frontline documentaries Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders–more or less attempts to connect every zeitgeist-defining thing in our world today (Instagram! Zombies! Tea Partiers!) to shape a unifying theory about how we are both more and less “present” than ever. Obvious at times but mostly quite insightful, Present Shock is the sort of “magnifying glass on your world” book that is important to read every so often because it thinks deeply and critically about contemporary life and, in turn, helps the reader to do the same.

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012), by Marilynne Robinson

When I was a Child I Read BooksMarilynne Robinson is my favorite public intellectual. She has that rare, C.S. Lewis-style combination of being both a winsome communicator and an intellectual heavy-hitter. She knows a lot about a lot of things, and can write better than just about any other living writer, in both nonfiction and fiction (read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead for proof). She is awesome, and her most recent essay collection is too. When I Was a Child I Read Books is not easy reading, to be sure. It’s challenging. But it will inspire you to want to think as broadly and as deeply as she does about a vast array of things: religion, contemporary economics, “new atheists,” science, literature, geography, Moses, hymnology, and yes, childhood reading habits.

Death by Living: Life is Meant to be Spent (2013), by N.D. Wilson

Death by LivingI had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this book (which comes out later this summer) and writing a review of it for Christianity Today. I can’t recommend it enough. Following and expanding upon themes in his Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson shows that he is not only one of his generation’s most gifted and original thinkers but also one of its best writers. Featuring some of the best prose you’ll see this side of Marilynne Robinson, Death by Living is a beautiful array of memoir, theological reflection and narrative vignette that oozes wonder about the world and humility before God. For college grads cynical about things like religion, purpose-driven lives and “making a difference”–and yet unwilling to abandon these notions entirely–Death by Living is the poolside reading I recommend.

The End of Our Exploring (2013), by Matthew Lee Anderson

End of Our ExploringIn a world where “dialogue” and “conversation” are buzzwords but rarely well practiced, and where doubt and questioning seem to be more about a scene than a search for truth, Matt’’s latest, The End of Our Exploring, comes as a breath of fresh air. Clearheaded, personal, witty and wise, the book presents a sensible framework for epistemology that is sorely needed today. How do we doubt, question, probe, debate, discuss and know in a more purposeful and productive manner? It’s en vogue today for young Christians to put on airs of intellectualism (you know: tweed sport coats, pipes, Jacques Ellul reading groups…), but the image of thoughtfulness is not enough. Matt’s book–a short, concise, engaging read–reminds us that actually being thoughtful is far greater (and more nuanced) than just looking the part.

Peter Enns and the Crisis of Evangelical Higher Education

At the theology conferences in the UK which I occasionally attend, the sizeable cohort of American evangelical expats, postragraduates scattered amongst the universities of (mostly) northern Britain, can usually be found gathered in tight-knit coteries, deep in cynical though light-hearted conversation.  And, along with the inevitable complaints about the bleakness of the British weather and the awfulness of the conference papers, one subject of conversation can usually be counted on to dominate: the grim prospect of the academic job market.  This should surprise no one, of course, but on listening closer, you would hear grumblings not merely about the quantity of the jobs available, but their quality, especially when it came to those on offer within the fortresses of American evangelicalism.  Beggars can’t be choosers, but many of these graduate students seem to look more kindly on the prospect of janitorial work than a job interview at an evangelical or Reformed college or seminary.  Why this hostility to the alma maters that taught them, nourished them and dispatched them to the hallowed halls of Old World learning, waiting expectantly for their return as Dr. Evangelical?  Is it mere snobbery, an infection with British academia’s contempt for American “fundamentalism”?  Is it ambition, a desire for employment in a context with more scope for upward mobility?  Occasionally, perhaps, but these would be unfair accusations to lodge at most members of this very down-to-earth cohort.

Evangelical black sheep Peter Enns has done a lot of ruminating (some might say ranting) on the subject over the past year, and one post, “If They Only Knew What I Thought,” is particularly illuminating (see also here and here).  Of course, many within the evangelical and Reformed world may be indisposed to take seriously any words of complaint from Enns, given his dizzyingly fast trajectory out of evangelical orthodoxy and into the fuzzy theological no-mans land of the Church of the Disgruntled, and the self-fulfilling martyr complex he has cultivated.  At first, it seems as if Enns’s complaint is merely against the restriction of academic freedom within evangelical institutions, the fact that professors must walk a fine and tortuous line between “institutional expectations” and “academic integrity.”  We may at first be inclined to dismiss this lament, and that of restless evangelical graduate students, as “so 1960s”—the self-righteous tirades of the misunderstood rebel, longing for freedom of expression, against the repressive constraints of established institutions.

After all, regrettable though it may be, tension between academic integrity and institutional expectations is nothing new, and hardly unique to evangelicalism.  Institutions have traditions and missions to uphold and must police certain boundaries in order to safeguard the integrity of those traditions, which means limiting to some extent the bounds of acceptable teaching within the institution.  This is true no less at Harvard than at Fuller Seminary, and it was equally true at Princeton in the 19th century, Saumur in the 17th, Padua in the 14th, or the Athenian Academy in the 4th century BC.  This is not to deny that such policing is often motivated by, or at least tainted by, petty factionalism, arrogance, envy, narrow dogmatism, or a host of other sins.  But in life under the sun, the freedom of expression which an individual scholar longs for will always exceed the freedom which an academic institution, with a tradition and a common good to safeguard, can grant.  There will always be tensions, and we who undertake the vocation of scholarship must bear them as manfully as we can.

Of course, one might go further and complain that while such tensions are unavoidable, many evangelical and Reformed institutions make them unbearable by their sheer narrow-mindedness and wilful contrarianism.  And certainly it is true that the gates to many of our higher ed institutions are obstructed by thickets of shibboleths and sacred cows, from six-day creationism to certain construals of inerrancy to confessional clauses from a bygone age that few even understand the significance of anymore.  Moreover, as Enns trenchantly observes, the whole posture of evangelical higher education, its whole raison d’etre, is defensive.  So many of our institutions were founded in the wake of the “fundamentalist-modernist controversy,” as bulwarks to defend the faith against the seemingly inexorable tide of unbelief.  The result is that we have little in the way of a positive vision to offer the culture but a very long list of epistemological “Thou shalt nots.”  All this could and should be said; narratives of how we got into this rut and suggestions as to how we might get out are urgently needed.  But complaints about intellectual failings of American evangelicalism, it must be said, are as clichéd as complaints about institutional repression, even if this is a conversation that remains urgently important.  What interested me particularly about Enns’s post was the charges of moral failings that it laid at the door of evangelical institutions.

 

Enns’s complaint boiled down to charges of hypocrisy and cowardice.  First, hypocrisy:

“Here’s the familiar scenario. The “best and brightest” students in Evangelical seminaries work hard and are encouraged and aided by their professors to pursue doctoral work. Many wind up going to some of the best research universities in the world.

This is a feather in everyone’s cap, and often they are hired back by their Evangelical school or elsewhere in the Evangelical system.

Sooner or later, these professors find out that their degree may be valued but their education is not.

During graduate school they begin to see issues from a different perspective–after all, this is what an education does. An education does not confirm what we already know, but exposes us to new things in order to broaden our horizons.

Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new for their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening–or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same  intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.”

In other words, these institutions want to have their cake and eat it too.  They want the prestige that comes from having Cambridge and Yale-educated faculty, but with the uniformity and predictability of Westminster-educated faculty.  They don’t want those faculty to have actually learned anything from their experiences in “the mainstream academy.”  They send them away, expecting them to keep their eyes and ears closed for a few years and come back unchanged, but with a sexy diploma.  Mr. Littlejohn becomes Dr. Littlejohn, but otherwise, save for the dark circles under his eyes, no worse for the wear.  Or perhaps, they hope that along with this education will come a capacity to offer bigger, better, stronger arguments for their predetermined conclusions; but bigger, better, stronger arguments don’t happen without a willingness to ask big questions, and asking questions implies a willingness to hear new answers.  In short, evangelical and Reformed institutions need to work out what they really want.  Either they need to embrace their inner caveman with gusto, be consistent fundamentalists, and say, “To heck with a degree from a respectable grad school,” or else they need to recognize that part of the reason that the degree has respectability, is because some very high-caliber thinking goes on at that grad school—thinking which should shape its students, and lead them to critically re-assess what they have been taught before.

Now don’t think I’m asking for some carte blanche, a Rob-Bell-ian freedom to ask whatever questions we want without being too picky about what answers we might dream up.  I’m all for boundaries of orthodoxy.  Heck, my own inner caveman is alive and well.  But critical re-assessment doesn’t mean abandonment.  If they’ve really taught their students well, and are confident that they’ve been teaching the truth, these evangelical institutions should have confidence that these students will be able to learn from mainstream scholarship, and critique their traditions on certain points, without abandoning those traditions.  That they do not have such confidence betrays, it seems to me, a lack of confidence in the truth and strength of those traditions, a deep-seated insecurity.  This is the second problem that Enns identifies—cowardice:

“They [evangelical graduate students] often feel–and I’ve heard this many times–that they have been lied to by their teachers. I’d like to relay one anecdote. In one seminary I know a former student, now professor, felt ill-prepared by his seminary at the initial stages of his doctoral work. He had gotten straight As in seminary and done stellar work in his language classes. But he was lost in negotiating the new ideas he was encountering and had to do a lot of catching up.

He asked his former professor, now colleague, why he was sent to graduate school with so many gaps in his learning. The answer: ‘Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.’

I would replace ‘your faith’ with ‘our system’ and then I think we are closer to the truth.”

“Our job was to protect you from this information.”  Whatever happened to the faith in the power of truth?  If the evangelical understanding of the faith is genuinely true and strong and anchored in Scripture, then it shouldn’t need to protect people from exposure to dissenting ideas.  Children, maybe, but grad students?  See, I’m old-fashioned.  I have so much faith in the power of truth, the power of orthodoxy, that I believe that strong, well-nourished, well-grounded faith, that clings to Jesus Christ and knows how to think critically, will not go far astray for long.  Arm your students with the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit, and then give them a long leash.  They might charge off for a bit in some scary directions, but you should rest assured that whatever they bring back from their intellectual adventures will be fruitful new insights that nourish and strengthen the faith, rather than destroying it.

The cowardice that we find instead suggests that evangelical institutions don’t, deep down, think their teachings are rationally defensible.  The only way they can be maintained is by hiding all alternative teachings from view.  Again, this is a real problem.  Usually, it’s not as self-conscious and up-front as it was with that one professor, but it is pervasive.  Many evangelical institutions don’t bother to teach their students about many of the most significant rival viewpoints, and when they do, they only present a grotesquely distorted straw man, that looks self-evidently nonsensical.  When we teach students in this cowardly way, we make it a self-fulfilling prophecy that “they’ll go off to a mainstream university and lose their faith.”  Of course they’ll lose their faith, because they will realize that they were being coddled and deceived, and will assume that there must be no intellectual robustness in a tradition that was so fearful of engagement.

 

If we leave it here, though, we could find ourselves back at the 1960s critique of “the establishment,” “the institution,” laying all the blame at the door of university deans and gatekeeper bureaucrats.  Bureaucrats are favorite scapegoats, but more often than not, they, like their faculty, are well-intentioned people trying to do their best in a difficult situation.  They have their hands tied.  Why?  Because they have a lot of people to answer to, people with money without whom there wouldn’t be an institution to fight over.  And the two main sources of money for these institutions—alumni and parents (who often are also alumni)—are notoriously conservative constituencies.  Name almost any Reformed or evangelical institution of higher education, and I can bet you that most of its supporters and most of the parents who send their kids there are more prone to be reactionary than either its faculty or administration.  Of course, to the extent that they find their hands tied by narrow-minded alumni, perhaps these institutions bear some of the blame themselves, and are reaping the fruits of poor teaching in years past.  But in the case of parents, one can’t tread too carefully.  To be a parent, as I can attest from personal experience, is to be instinctively defensive wherever one’s child is concerned, and such defensiveness does not often lend itself to an ability to carefully distinguish between “encouraging critical thinking” and “undermining my child’s faith.”  Christian colleges are forever fielding angry calls and letters from alarmed parents about the crazy new ideas their children are being introduced to—I recall one time, when I was responsible for leading our school’s daily morning prayer using the BCP, and I had begun acknowledging saints’ days on the liturgical calendar, being called before the administration to answer charges from agitated parents that I was teaching students to pray to Mary.

But of course, if we want to move the burden of blame to parents, we will have to lay part of it on pastors, who ought to be working against the belligerent culture-war mentality in their flocks, and training them in the virtue of humility even while attempting to instill in them a firm confidence in the truths of their faith.  What we have among so many Christians today is an unstable blend of insecurity and arrogance—on the one hand, sure that we have all the answers, and don’t need to ask hard questions, but on the other hands, a lack of confidence, deep down, that our faith can withstand such hard questions.  But along with instilling such virtues of humility and courage, churches need to be actively educating their congregants in the actual complexities of many of the questions that we face—Christian faith and science, Christian faith and philosophy, Christian faith and biblical criticism, Christian faith and ethics.

 

In short, then, there is plenty of blame to go around, and trying to apportion it strictly is probably not too productive.  After all, I would suggest that much of our problem is systemic, rooted in the rift between church and academy.  Where Enns seems to worry that the problem with our evangelical higher ed institutions is that they remain too tied to the church’s apron-strings and are unable to step boldly forward into the academy proper, I suspect that the problem is the opposite.  Having cooperated with the gradual exodus of theology from its proper ecclesial setting, evangelical institutions have been unable to exorcise the deep-seated suspicion of “the academy” to be found in most of our pews, which has hardened in many quarters into a settled posture of anti-intellectualism.  So long as our young theologians are spending more time publishing abstruse articles in prestigious journals than teaching Sunday school classes in their local congregation, suspicion of learning and hostility to open-minded inquiry are likely to predominate in many of our churches.  (It is worth noting in passing that the new generation of Rob-Bell-ian evangelicals, forever questioning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth, is only superficially different from their parents in this respect despite its pretensions to sophistication; both generations harbor an anti-intellectualist bias that is wary of sustained critical reflection.)  And as long as that is the case, our colleges and seminaries will remain pulled in two directions, and their faculty members condemned to a schizophrenic and hunted existence.

The problems evangelical education faces are manifold, then, and the solutions are likely to be as well.  But I would like to propose, at the top of the list, a concerted attempt to break down barriers between church and academy, by providing ecclesial homes for serious theological work, and by marshalling the ranks of our graduate students for the much-needed task of lay theological education in our churches.  Pastors, students, and college/seminary administrators all need to take the initiative in making such programs possible, with creative determination to put the gifts of each member at the service of the whole body.

(If I may be permitted a plug, I would commend to your attention the early efforts in this direction of the “Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh” which I’ve helped launch over the past year, as a fledgling example of what such church-academy engagement might look like.)

On Teaching Lambs

I lie awake at night, overwhelmed with the fear that I am participating in the greatest and most dangerous hubris, to think that I should teach.

When I took my job at Houston Baptist University I knew, of course, that teaching was entailed. I love teaching, or so I thought. Turns out, what I have loved is watching people learn. Teaching is another thing altogether, a thing fraught with peril.

John Mark Reynolds, Holly Ordway, and I are partnering in a new podcast (soon to be released by HBU). We recently discussed the subject of teaching, and John Mark described himself as teacher as merely, “a cruise director on the Love Boat of knowledge.” I laughed at him at the time (obviously), but then feared that I was not worthy to do even this, to point out the many splendors of the world as we sail by.

English: Houston Baptist University

For who is? What could possibly qualify one to take young souls and minds into their hands and say, “Look here: this is worth knowing”? I think mostly we just choose people who are a bit smarter than the rest of us, but oh my goodness is that an inadequate qualification.

I’ve been teaching a class on heroic literature to eight high-schoolers this semester. They’re all brilliant, funny, thoughtful and opinionated. Our classes are Socratic and based on the Great Books, which means it’s my job to help my students discuss some of the greatest pieces of literary art man has created and the biggest ideas he’s put on paper. Next semester I will be teaching seven classes of who knows how many students. This terrifies me. Continue reading

Day One from Oxford: A View from The Kilns

When I first named “Mere Orthodoxy,” I started from a very simple question:  which writers had lived and written in such a way that I wanted to emulate?

The answer was as immediate as the question was simple:  Chesterton and Lewis, Lewis and Chesterton.  Their most famous book titles played nicely together, and Mere-O was born.

The two titans of twentieth century Christianity (insert your own joke about Chesterton’s girth here) have played very different roles in my Christian life.  I remember being on camping trips as a young boy and pleading for the next chapter of The Horse and His Boy and even then remember feeling too keen a fondness for Puddleglum.  In high school, I read all the Lewis our little church library had–and then some.  I understood little, but I suspect it was from him that I gained my vague distaste for the sort of loose relativism that my youth pastor preferred.

I met Chesterton much later, but my affection was instantly more arduous.  It was a particularly hard time for me when I first picked up Orthodoxy, and the effect was…powerful.  I know I didn’t see his argument there–I don’t much remember caring.  All I remember is that those sentences, those incredibly witty sentences, kept me swaying between pondering and laughing to the point of seasickness.  Also, it was fashionable to love Lewis as an undergraduate, which is why I preferred Gilbert.  He was less read, and more quotable, and so I took him as my point of reference.

But still, it’s impossible to downplay Lewis’ effect on me.

Sometimes when young folks read a lot of old books, they wake up one day and think that C.S. Lewis wasn’t really all that insightful.  ”It’s all in Plato,” the Professor in the Chronicles says.  And there’s a temptation for us to think that all of Lewis is there, or in Augustine or Dante.  But try writing at his level and with his clarity and the awe returns, with a vengeance, and makes a mockery of the hubris that ever dared doubt Lewis’ ultimately unquestionable brilliance.  To synthesize several strands of Western Christian thought and then package the whole into a children’s book series?  Unless your name is Tolkien, you ought to be astonished.

Which is why I feel like you need to know that I am living in C.S. Lewis’s house.  Like, The Kilns.  The place where he did the bulk of his writing.  The place where he spent time walking and thinking and smoking his pipe.  For the next nine months, at least, we’ll be here.  And maybe, if they’ll have us, for longer.

kilns-banner

The house is currently owned by the C.S. Lewis Foundation in California, and if you go through the proper channels you can come enjoy a tour.  I haven’t been on one yet, but I’m assured they are splendid.  And having met some of the folks around, I’m already persuaded.  The Foundation is one worth supporting and I’m grateful for their willingness to allow my wife and I in to the place (not everyone would be so bold!).

It’s a dream, really, to write at a blog named in part for Lewis’s most famous books to have the chance to live where he lived.  I know that sort of brilliance doesn’t quite rub off as easily as I might hope, but still, it’s humbling to be in the shadow of a man whose success with the written word has touched so many lives.  If I were a better writer, I might be able to find words for how grateful I am.  If I was Lewis, I mean, I would find those words.

I am going to be posting photos throughout our time at Oxford and at The Kilns on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, for those who are interested in following along.  And for everyone else, well, normal blogging returns…soon.