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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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

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.)

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.

 

 

Advice for Undergraduates Planning on Seminary

In April Fred Sanders asked me to write to some THI students who are anticipating seminary in their future. Today I officially started an M.Div. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, so it feels fitting to review the tips I wrote and share them here. I’d like to hear what others think (both Biola grads and not).

5 tips to chums considering the pastorate (with some personal examples):

1. Read your books: The people guiding your education right now know a lot more than you do about pretty much everything, vocational ministry included. Commit yourself wholly to their care while you have the opportunity. There will be occasions in the future when you can develop other important skills and affections, but resolve to consistently prioritize now what you can best do in this season of your life: carefully reading and talking about old books (writing about them is important too, but less important for now). With this priority in mind, do not let the syllabus, your classmates, or the general cultural expectations prevent you from thoroughly ingesting each text. If that takes reading some books twice, do it. Carefully attend to your own energy cycles and optimal conditions for study. Never again will you be able to read so widely and with such helpful support: be a good steward of this opportunity. A good indicator of this will be feedback from your mentor (and since success in Torrey depends much more on hard work than “a beautiful mind”-type insight, you should try to be in the top 5% of your class). If you start the program ahead, write more and periodically engage with stronger dialogue partners who will push you. A good quote on this topic: “When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don’t feel like that, then you aren’t working hard enough.”2013 - Logo - Torrey Seal (2738)

2. Develop aspirational relationships: There was a time when pastors were usually the best educated people in town. This is not true anymore, so you need to be thoughtful about charting a course that will improve on the standard academic route to the pastorate. Most people will become the average of their closest companions. And while Sutherland Hall is a wonderful place with many great people, it does not have a high concentration of deeply rigorous thinkers, so you’re going to have be proactive about building your friend base. I recommend a mix of people who are especially helpful given your current life-focus (see point 1) and then just generally wonderful people (given the likely longevity of many of these relationships). In addition to peers that will spur you on, regularly seek out the company of older students and alumni. Lunch once a month with a graduate student takes little extra effort and will be extremely helpful in keeping you humble and hustling. Note that this advice does not mean you shouldn’t be good friends with your roommates or the random person on your intramural volleyball team; you just need to head hunt too. I did this by intentionally making friends with older students I respected, presenting at academic conferences, doing fellowships through think tanks/other colleges, taking classes cross-listed at Talbot, and interviewing pastors about both their ministry and their preparation for it. I’ve kept interviewing since graduation and now have advice, recommended resources, and the contact info from more than twenty pastors. Continue reading

What’s unique about the Torrey Honors Institute?

That’s the question that I tried to wrestle with for Biola Connections, the alumni and friend magazine of the University.

I’m a proud Perpetual Member of the program, a title that is a curiosity to many people but encapsulates the idiosyncratic (and wonderful) culture that makes the program special.  If you want to know why I, now eight years gone from the program, still keep close ties there, this is a good place to start.

And yet, as I grow older, I am increasingly aware of how rare a community of learners with a shared history and common objects of love is in this world, and that is what Torrey provided us.

2013 - Logo - Torrey Seal (2738)Even though the story of the Torrey Honors Institute deserves a broader audience, the moment the point becomes about Torrey or Biola then it will no longer be worth telling. And here again I am reminded of the understated and subtle beauty of the Torrey ring. The friendships that we forged in Torrey, the books that we read, the joys and sorrows that we shared — they are voices calling us “further up and further in,” as C.S. Lewis would put it. The well that the program points to is not, ultimately, that of excellence but the one that springs up with eternal life and consummates the goods that we have begun to taste here below. And even if that story is never told or the world never comes to understand, those who call themselves “chums” and “Perpetual Members” will know well the goods we have tasted and be content in our longing for the day when we will see the Good, True and Beautiful in the face of Jesus Christ.

Meet Paul Spears, Torrey Honors Institute’s new Director

The news that John Mark Reynolds is leaving Torrey was a bit of a blow to those who attended the program.  John Mark’s personality and drive have left a mark on the program that will endure long into the future, even as he takes his talents to Houston Baptist.

We were all naturally curious who might replace him.  Today, Torrey has announced that Paul Spears, a longtime member of the Faculty at Torrey will become the new Director.  Spears is probably best known publicly for his excellent book Education for Human Flourishing

I couldn’t be more excited for Paul and for Torrey Honors.  Paul is a philosopher who thinks deeply about how education should look and is someone whose presence has shaped and guided the Torrey ethos in ways that are irreplacable.  He has been a friend and mentor to countless students and his steadiness in the classroom always made him a favorite tutor of mine.  I am excited to see how his deep wells of reflection about the nature of Christian higher education shape Torrey in the future.  He knows better than most what it is that makes Torrey so wonderfully quirky and so student-centric, and we have every reason to believe that he will continue to make Torrey Honors one of the most exciting places around.

Congratulations to Paul and to the alma mater.  Here’s to many more years of fruitful and productive dialogue within the Institute.

The letter from the Dean of the Humanities at Biola announcing the news is below: 

I am writing to you with happy news:  With the strong consensus of faculty and staff and the support of our Vice Provost, Provost, and President, I am appointing Dr. Paul Spears as the next Director of Torrey.  I wanted you to be among the first to know.

Many of you have known Dr. Spears as a faculty member and mentor.  Some of his time will still be dedicated to the classroom.  Dr. Spears has worked for Biola in Torrey since 1998; he is part of the history of the Torrey Honors Institute.  He knows the program and will carry forward the vision, mission, and values of THI and Biola.  Dr. Spears cares about program, but even more importantly, he cares about the people:  the faculty, staff, students, and alumni.  As the Chair of Morgan House, he has been a significant part of the leadership in Torrey and in this role has already demonstrated his capacity for caring servant leadership.

A few weeks ago, we learned that Dr. John Mark Reynolds, the Founder and current Director of Torrey, had accepted a position as Provost at Houston Baptist University.  We will miss him and the impact he has had on so many of us at Biola, and we also celebrate for him and for HBU.  Dr. Reynolds remains Director until he assumes his new position at HBU on June 25, 2012, at which time Dr. Spears’ appointment will go into effect.  We will ceremoniously invest Dr. Spears at the Torrey graduation in May.  This is a historic transition for THI as it is the first time the Director is not also the Founder.  The program is strong and thriving, and I look forward to working with Dr. Spears in the years to come.

I am particularly grateful to the faculty and staff who have so thoughtfully interacted with me about the appointment of the next Director.  Their care for the program, each other, and current and former students was clear throughout this process.

Cassandra Van Zandt, Ph.D.

Evangelical Universities and the Lingering Legacy of Fundamentalism?

Christopher Benson is a writer and educator living in Denver, Colorado.  He writes regularly at Bensonian, and submitted the following as a guest post. 

Thomas Albert Howard, who is the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College, and Karl W. Giberson, who teaches a science and religion writing workshop at the same institution and is the author of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age and Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, have co-authored an interesting essay for Inside Higher Ed, “An Evangelical Renaissance in Academe?

Their concern is that Evangelical colleges, despite a quarter century of “reclaiming a place within deeper traditions of Christian learning and at the table of American cultural life,” still reveal a “lingering attachment to some of the more dubious certainties and habits derived from Fundamentalism and hardened by the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 20th century.” For evidence of “fundamentalist baggage,” they point to the doctrinal statements at Evangelical schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), specifically Biola University and its insistence on pre-millennial dispensationalist eschatology and biblical inerrancy.

To their credit, Howard and Giberson recognize that the official creed of the institution may not be the actual creed of faculty and students:

While such statements should not be presumed to capture the actual range of belief on a given campus, they are crucial for understanding a school’s identity and history and how it wants to be understood by its constituents.  And since faculty at many evangelical colleges, such as Biola’s, are required to express agreement with doctrinal statements, they serve a gatekeeping function, even as they sometimes provoke dilemmas of conscience over the scope of possible interpretation.

Let me set aside biblical inerrancy for the moment. I agree with the authors that pre-millennial dispensationalist eschatology is a “dubious innovation,” but must all Evangelical colleges uphold the same views on controversial topics like the end times or the origins of life? That is their underlying assumption. The problem here, I suppose, relates to whether Biola – in its history and in its aspirations – is an institution of generic Evangelicalism, in which case dispensational theology or creationism does not properly belong, or an institution of confessional Evangelicalism, in which case those beliefs are acceptable, though not necessarily correct. Is Biola experiencing an identity crisis, unresolved about whether its fundamentalist heritage should also be its destiny? I cannot answer that question.

My alma mater, Wheaton College, is decidedly an institution of generic Evangelicalism, not situated in a particular ecclesial tradition or theology. There is much to respect about its “Statement of Faith” as an expression of beliefs that have united the Deep Church. Unlike Biola, Wheaton does not have an “explanatory note” that gets into eschatology, charismatic gifts, or abortion. Like Biola, Wheaton’s statement does include language about God “directly” creating Adam and Eve as “the historical parents of the entire human race,” which implies literal six-day creation and presumably denies evolutionary creation (or theistic evolution), even though a majority of the faculty affirm the compatibility of biblical religion and evolutionary biology. I contend that Wheaton would be truer to its heritage of generic Evangelicalism if it dropped that particularistic language from the statement.

Now I return to the issue of biblical inerrancy – one of the most hotly contested topics in Evangelicalism today. Just when I was about to throw inerrancy into the waste bin of useless words, Reformed theologian Michael Horton rescued the historic teaching for me in a persuasive essay that I encourage all inerrancy skeptics to read, “The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy.” Howard and Giberson are uneasy with inerrancy because, like my erstwhile self, they (wrongly) think—owing to the distorted propaganda of some progressives and the manipulative practices of some conservatives—that biblical inerrancy is a doctrinal anomaly in church history (“a pinched biblicism left over from Fundamentalism’s fiery struggle against Modernism”) and that biblical inerrancy has a built-in firewall against evolutionary theory, gender egalitarianism, or ecumenical cooperation. Biblical inerrancy, accurately understood, belongs to historic Christian orthodoxy and permits a variety of positions. Horton concludes his essay:

In evangelical circles generally, inerrancy was assumed more than explicitly formulated until it was challenged. Warfield and Hodge helped to articulate this position, which is more formally summarized in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Like any formulation developed in response to a particular error or area of concern for faith and practice, the inerrancy doctrine invites legitimate questions and critiques. However, its alternatives are less satisfying.

Howard and Giberson are mistaken, then, in making biblical inerrancy the enemy of progress in Evangelical colleges. Quite the opposite is true. Biblical inerrancy, which the Princeton theologians defined as the claim that “in all their real affirmations these [biblical] books are without error” (emphasis added), keeps Evangelical colleges faithful and obedient to “the good deposit entrusted” to followers of Christ—and what is progress without faithfulness and obedience? Sure, there may come a time, perhaps sooner than later, when the word “inerrancy” or “inerrant” may not need to appear in the doctrinal statements of Evangelical colleges because the teaching is not challenged as it once was during the church’s fight against theological liberalism. But as long as the teaching is challenged, Evangelical colleges are responsible to catechize their constituents about the Bible’s trustworthiness as an attribute of God’s trustworthiness.

No doubt, some Evangelical colleges suffer from fundamentalist intellectual habits. But I think the authors have greatly exaggerated “the unwelcome ghost of fundamentalism.” Speaking only for the Evangelical college that I know best, I deeply admire Wheaton College’s open and critical inquiry, distinguished faculty, superlative scholarship, and culture of academic seriousness. The future for Evangelical colleges lies not so much “with continuing to exorcize the ghost of fundamentalism” but with overcoming an inferiority complex about their marginal status in higher education. Rather than chafe against that marginal status, perpetually anxious about measuring up, more Evangelical colleges would flourish if they accepted it as a joy of Christian witness-bearing in late modernity.

 

Upon the Occasion of John Mark Reynolds Moving to Houston Baptist

My friend John Mark Reynolds just announced this evening that he is leaving his position as Director to become the new provost at Houston Baptist University.*

In the common parlance, I am an alumnus of the Institute.  But the program has dubbed me, and the rest of the graduates, Perpetual Members.  That may tell you as much as anything about the sort of place it is:  they’re brash enough to claim they’re building lifelong learners, and unabashed in giving graduates a status that fits it.  Torrey is a little odd like that, but odd in a classical and awesome sort of way, not the faux hipster way.  The program wears its idiosncrycies proudly, not ironically, which makes its draw a bit tough for outsiders to understand.  And all that is a direct reflection of its leader, John Mark Reynolds.

Because of that, it’s impossible for this Perpetual Member to have anything but mixed emotions about the news.  John Mark has been a friend and supporter, a silent godfather to this blog (it was he who introduced the platform to us), and a mentor.  He once delivered one of the best wedding homilies I have ever heard, even if it happened to be about my wife and me.  In short, I know well the sort of treasure that HBU is getting.

I do confess, though: the thought of John Mark being anywhere besides the program that he founded is about as plausible as colonizing the moon.  It will settle in, no doubt, and he will go on to have a considerable impact for the kingdom at Houston Baptist.  But as his friend, as his student, he will ever and always be the founder of a program that I have justly called the most invigorating academic environment in Christian higher education.  And for some reason, I doubt John Mark will mind that:  Torrey Honors’ existence would, after all, count as a legacy for most men’s careers. John Mark built it in only half of his.

Torrey itself will doubtlessly continue to motor on ahead with new leadership.  In many ways, the quality of the faculty that John Mark collected around him there is one of the best testaments to his abilities, and one of the best indicators of his future success as Provost.  Everyone knows of my undying admiration for Fred Sanders.  But Matt Jenson is also one of the best young thinkers I know, Paul Spears is a master in the classroom, Joe Henderson is a hidden gem, and I haven’t even gotten to my friends Melissa Schubert, Greg Peters, and…you get the point.  It’s a deep pool, and I’d still send my kid there before anywhere else.

While I’m saddened by the news, then, I’m eager to see the good that is to come for Torrey.  A voice and presence like John Mark’s is irreplacable, a word I do not use unadvisedly.  But as sometimes happens when charismatic figures leave, the new dynamic brings other voices to the forefront and a different goodness emerges.  As in when “the fourth” is absent at the opening of Plato’s Timaeus.  Socrates gets it wrong that the remaining interlocutors can replace him:  but the dialogue wouldn’t have gone forward in quite the same way if he was there.  Both would be good, but goods with different textures.

And yes, I just used Plato there.  How better to honor the man who wrote his dissertation on the book?  Perhaps by using an analogy from the other direction, Michael Scott and The Office.  The show hasn’t quite recovered its original glory, but the dynamic between Dwight and Jim and Andy has emerged nicely, and given the show a goodness all of its own.

Anyone who knows John Mark knows that this post could only be more befitting him if I moved over to Disney and threw in a little about the Russian revolution. (Let the Torrey student understand.)

But that’s just the sort of fellow that John Mark is–one moment, you’re toiling with the subtleties of Homeric interpretation, and the next you’re careening about trying to hammer out the nuances of Star Trek, or whatever the latest pop-culture fascination happens to be.  And somehow, it all works.  He may be Provost, but if Houston Baptist doesn’t demand that John Mark teach at least one class, well, then I for one question their otherwise unassailable judgment in their choice.

All that said, the road ahead for Biola is admittedly more difficult in light of the change.  The new Center for Christian Thought is a good thing, and I’m excited for the prospects that it represents for my alma mater.  But increasing pressure from online programs means that faculty and students’ experience will only grow in importance for schools that are charging $30,000 a year (and more!).  My hope is that losing John Mark will spur Biola on to redouble its efforts at cultivating and retaining faculty members who are committed not only to the work of scholarship, but the formation of students and the articulation of Christian principles in public.

But the prospects for Christian higher education more generally just brightened up a bit.  Pairing John Mark Reynolds with Robert Sloan is almost like Lebron joining up  with Dwayne Wade:  even if you’re a Cavs fan, you know deep down that it’s going to be pretty good basketball.  And when it comes to Christian higher education, no rose might smell quite as nice as Torrey, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let the rest of the thousand flowers bloom.  As Houston Baptist continues to expand and try to position itself as a premier institution, so much the better for the Kingdom and the rest of us.  And I have no doubt John Mark will play an instrumental role in making that happen.

And so tonight I look forward to the good that is to come at both Torrey and Houston Baptist while pausing to reflect with gratitude for all that John Mark has meant to Torrey, and to me.   There are few individuals whose lives have left a deeper stamp on my own than his, and few seasons of my life that were more profoundly influential than my time at Torrey.

But his greatest contribution was ever and always to point us all beyond himself, backwards to the saints and giants whose voices shaped his own and upwards like Socrates to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the face of Jesus Christ.

And for those of us within the Torrey community who, like me, are saddened by the news, relentlessly continuing that pursuit while cheerfully facing the future is the best and most effective way to express our gratitude for all that John Mark has done for us.  For we have much to hope for, and the road that leads further up and further in is marked with the boundless and everlasting joys of friendship and fellowship that distance simply cannot take away.

*If anyone is wondering how I wrote the post so fast, well, I caught wind of the announcement earlier today and waited until John Mark had written his.

One Book for College

Matt asked a few of us here at Mere-O to write a post on the one book everyone should read in college. Over the next couple of days some of the other writers will have their say, but today is my day, which means I have to actually come up with an answer to that question.

I was an English major in the great books based Torrey Honors Institute at Biola, which means that for me, college was all about reading. Every semester, I read until my eyes fell out and then I stuck them back in and read some more. I read at all hours of the day and night. I read in the cafe, and in my dorm room, on the lawns, and (on rare occasions) even in the library. I sometimes read books well, sometimes frantically, sometimes way past deadline, and sometimes missed some all together. Out of the hundreds of books I read over the course of those four years, a few stand out as exceptional and, since my college education was a good one, pretty much all of them were worthwhile.

And so I can think of only one answer to Matt’s question, and it doesn’t actually answer it at all. What’s the one book you should read in college? Whatever one you’re assigned.

Maybe you’re the Freshman who signs up for anything and everything, thinks that living in the same building with 300 people means a social obligation to talk to all of them, and pretty much loves life and forgets that they are actually in school. Or maybe you’re the Senior who has a job, a full load of upper-division classes, a senior project, a ministry or club to lead, and you just got elected dorm senator; in other words, you’ve slowly but surely built up a mountain of responsibilities so huge that there’s no surmounting it. Maybe you’re a Sophomore with her first boyfriend, and he happens to be much more fascinating then all those assignments you should be getting to work on. Or maybe your just burnt out, maybe you think your professor’s an idiot, maybe you don’t care about the subject. Maybe you’ve gained just enough education (and the accompanying arrogance) to think you know better. Doesn’t matter the reason. Start doing your homework. Start reading whatever you’re being told to read.

College is unique in many ways, but perhaps the most important is the fact that you are a student and there are these people in your life called professors. You have been given the privilege of spending four years of your life in intensive study of a subject of your choice, under the tutelage of those who have given their careers to understanding and advancing that subject. The best thing you could do in college is whatever they say.

If you’ve chosen your college wisely you’re in for a treat. Merely by diligently following the instructions of your professors (even, or perhaps especially, those general-ed guys), you will be able to explore whole new worlds of literature, philosophy, history, and mathematical theory. You will have at your finger tips what most people in most times of life long for: a set plan for bettering yourself, advancing your prospects, and deepening your mind. So follow the plan, read what you’re told, and thrive.