We Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever

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From ‘The Seven Liberal Arts.’ Francesco Pesellino. 1422-1457 Florence, Italy. 

Here is a taste of my recent piece at Sojourners:

A nurse can learn how to insert an IV tube in a patient’s arm, but how will he develop the fortitude to enter a room filled with people suffering from infectious diseases? A medical doctor may know how to operate on a patient or prescribe medicine, but how does she decide who dies and who lives when ventilators and other essential equipment are at a minimum? A politician may know how to win elections, but where does he find the inner strength to offer hope in anxious and uncertain times? A successful businessman understands how to make money, but where does she learn to serve the common good during a pandemic? Engineers build things, but what motivates them to volunteer their expertise in the construction of a make-shift hospital? How do we sift through the array of COVID-19 information that endlessly crosses our screens? How do we know who to trust?

Some might say that the study of American history, sociology, religion, literature, ethics, statistics, physics, or musicology is irrelevant when people are dying from this terrible virus. This is one of those subjects where Christians and unbelievers share common ground. They tell us that this is a time for practical skills, not abstract theories, or academic luxuries. But such a view is wrong. We need the liberal arts now more than ever. Those who study these subjects, and wrestle with the questions they raise, are pursuing a high and useful calling. If the United States is going to get through this pandemic, and if the church is going to lead the way in a responsible fashion, we need more Christians who can remind us what is good, what is beautiful, what is heroic, what is just, and what is true.

Read the entire piece here.

On Teaching Writing, Christian Thinking, and Meaning-Making

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As many of you know, this semester I am teaching three sections of a Messiah College course called Created and Called for Community (CCC).  This is a required course for first-year Messiah students. They take it in the second semester at the college.

CCC has three main goals:

  1. It serves as one of two first-year writing courses required of all Messiah College students.
  2. It introduces students to Christian higher education and how Messiah College approaches the task of Christian higher education. This is a course on Christian thinking.
  3. It teaches students how to read and engage texts.  We challenge students to “make meaning”out of these texts through close reading and conversation.

On Monday, we spent the entire class period preparing students for the 500-750 word analytical essay they will submit at the end of the week.  The essay will engage a class reading on Christian education.  Students have three choices here: Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Go With God,” Ernest Boyer’s “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College,” and John Henry Newman’s “What is a University?”  Once students pick an article, they will narrow their focus to one central claim or argument and build an essay around it.  They will either write an “agree or disagree” essay or an “amplification” essay.

As I talked to the students about how to compose this essay, I warned them about separating the logistics of writing (thesis statements, summarizing, arguing, opening paragraphs, conclusions) from the other two stated goals of CCC.  Many first-year students don’t naturally make the connection between writing and thinking. They also don’t see writing as a spiritual discipline–a way of worshiping God with their minds.

We talked a lot about how to write in a nuanced, complex, and humble way.  First-year college students have opinions, but those opinions are not fully formed.  They are in no position to “agree” or “disagree” at any deep level with people like Stanley Hauerwas, Ernest Boyer, or John Henry Newman.  This should not stop them from trying, but such writing must remain humble.  I hope I did not offend students when I told them that they are not (yet?) as smart as Hauerwas, Boyer, and Newman.  Neither do they know as much about the subject of Christian education as these esteemed writers.  If they disagree with the central premise of one of these articles, they still must write as if these authors can teach them something about how to think Christianly about their college experience.  If students can develop this kind of nuanced and complex writing, and translate it to the way they engage the world, we may well be on our way to avoiding the kind of polarizing public discourse we find in the country today.

On Wednesday we are reading Boyer’s essay on Messiah College. Follow the class here.

Is Evangelicalism Populist? Should it Be?

Noll Scandal

After I wrote my recent post on Chris Gehrz’s treatment of evangelical populism, I pulled Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind off the shelf.  Some critics of Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editoral have suggested that evangelicalism has always been a populist movement.  Matthew Schmitz, for example, claims that evangelicals cease being evangelical when they break from its populist, anti-intellectual base.

Noll has some things to say about this premise.

For example, evangelicalism has a rich intellectual heritage:

p.4: Modern evangelicals are the spiritual descendants of leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to the mind. Most of the original Protestant traditions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican) either developed a vigorous intellectual life or worked out theological principles that could (and often did) sustain penetrating, and penetratingly Christian, intellectual endeavor.  Closer to the American situation, the Puritans, the leaders of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, and a worthy line of North American stalwarts in the nineteenth century–like the Methodist Francis Asbury, the Presbyterian Charles Hodge, the Congregationalist Moses Stuart, and the Canadian Presbyterian George Monro Grant, to mention only a few–all held that diligent, rigorous mental activity was way to glorify God.  None of them believed that intellectual activity was the only way to glorify God, or even the highest way, but they all believed in the life of the mind, and they believed in it because they were evangelical Christians.

But the populism of the 19th and 20th-century have led to the “scandal of the evangelical mind”:

p.12: To put it simply, the evangelical ethos [at the time Noll wrote in 1994] is activist, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian.  It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.”

p.23: For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts–all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory–may be, in fact, sinful.

p.24: Fundamentalism, dispensational premillennialism, the Higher Life movement, and Pentecostalism were all evangelical strategies of survival in response to the religious crises of the late nineteenth century.  In different ways each preserved something essential for Christian faith.  But together they were a disaster for the life of the mind.’

It is telling how many court evangelicals come from these traditions.

More from Noll on the scandal:

p.52: …Manicheans divided the world into two radically disjointed sections–the children of light and the children of darkness.  Evangelicals have often promoted a Manichen attitude by assuming that we, and only we, have the truth, while nonbelievers, or Christian believers who are not evangelicals, practice only error.

p.71: The long-term effects of evangelical republicanism in America was to short-circuit political analysis.  So deeply entwined were republican and Christian themes that there seemed to be no need for reexamining the nature of politics itself.  It could simply be assumed that the American way was the Christian way.

p,124: One of the additional consequences from the dogmatic kind of biblical literalism that gained increasing strength among evangelicals toward the end of the nineteenth century was reduced space for academic debate, intellectual experimentation, and nuanced discrimination between shades of opinion. 

p. 125: …the fundamentalist movement reinforced the dogmatic power of populist teachers.  With the universities and their formal learning suspect, the spokesperson who could step forth confidently on the basis of the Scriptures was welcomed as a convincing authority.

This quote sums up much of what we see today–25 years later–in American evangelicalism’s embrace of Donald Trump.

p.141: In general responses to crises, evangelicals in the late twentieth century still follow a pathway defined at the start of the twentieth century.  When faced with a crisis situation, we evangelicals usually do one of two things.  We either mount a public crusade, or we retreat into an inner pious sanctum.  That is, we are filled with righteous anger and attempt to recoup our public losses through political confrontation, or we eschew the world of mere material appearances and seek the timeless consolations of the Spirit.

And this:

p.173: Whatever happens in the practicalities of American political development, however, evangelicals will almost certainly continue to exhibit in one form or the other, the activism, biblicism, intuition, and populism that had defined evangelicals for more than two centuries.  If they repeat the imbalances of their history, evangelical political action may be destructive and other political reflection nonexistent.

I think Mark Galli is a champion of the evangelical mind who knows what happens when Christians stop thinking deeply about politics.  He is concerned about what happens to the church when anti-intellectual populism gets out of control.

Is *First Things* a Populist Magazine?

FirstThingsCoverI check the First Things website every day and often link to pieces I find interesting.  But I stopped reading First Things regularly after Richard John Neahaus passed away. (I used to subscribe and read each issue cover-to-cover).

On Friday,  I responded to Carl Trueman’s piece at First Things suggesting that Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, was an “elite” and “out of touch.” Read it here.

Last night I read a piece at The New York Post by First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz.  It is titled: “Elite Evangelicals once again belittle their pro-Trump co-religionists.”  Here is a taste:

Evangelicalism has always been a populist movement, and its piety has always been closely tied to suspicion of religious and political elites. Movements as various as circuit-riding Methodism, Bible-thumping Baptists and black churches all encouraged the very American idea that the common man knows best.

This populist energy helps explain evangelicalism’s broad appeal, but it causes problems for the evangelical leadership class. It makes the phrase “evangelical elite” almost a contradiction in terms, like “Bilderberg proletarian” or “blue-collar Aspen attendee.” Those evangelical leaders who are recognized as leaders by the evangelical base possess a populist streak. They tend to have gained prominence through electoral politics, mass media or entrepreneurial forms of evangelism — all activities that require a sense of the crowd and a common touch.

By contrast, evangelical leaders who have come up through established institutions tend to acquire the training and tastes of the wider American elite. They often disdain the religious and political populism of the base. Whatever their theological convictions may be, these elites have ceased to be evangelical in a sociological sense. And evangelicalism is more exactly defined sociologically than theologically.

Christianity Today is a case in point. Ask an editor there what she thinks about Israel, Trump, feminism or Fox News, and you will get a very different answer than you would from most American evangelicals. The magazine’s young contributors more ardently desire to freelance for The New Yorker than to appear on Tucker Carlson, despite the fact that their parents would be more impressed by the latter.

These people hold less sway among evangelicals than the editors of liberal publications do among their constituencies.

They also have functionally ceased to be evangelical. There is no dishonor in that. As a former evangelical-turned-Catholic, I am well aware of the drawbacks of the evangelical movement. But writers who trade on an evangelical identity that they no longer really share ought to do the decent thing and admit it.

Read the rest here.

It’s late, and I still have grading to do, but I got some time last night to write a few tweets about this trend at First Things:

Again, I don’t read First Things regularly.  I have heard things about new editorial directions at the magazine and its new commitment to Christian nationalism.  If the magazine’s move toward populism is well-known among the conservative intellectual world, please forgive my ignorance.  I am just noticing this for the first time.

Maybe I am reading this the wrong way, but it seems like Schmitz is saying that once the people at Christianity Today (or some other evangelical institution) start thinking, they cease being evangelical.

Noll was a longtime contributing editor of Christianity Today. 

 

The Anselm House at the University of Minnesota is Hiring an Associate Director of University Engagement

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Back in March 2011, I had a great visit to the Anselm House (at the time it was called the MacLaurin Institute) at the University of Minnesota.  I gave a lecture on the U of M campus, met with campus ministers and members of the U of M History Department, and spoke at a couple of churches.  Brian Bademan, a Notre Dame Ph.D in American history and the director of the Anselm House, hosted my visit.  I blogged about those visits here and here.

I am happy to report that the Anslem House is hiring an Associate Director of University Engagement.  I have posted the ad below.  This looks like a great position for a person of Christian faith who has a passion for promoting Christianity and the intellectual life at a major research university.

Thanks to the generosity of many donors and partnering churches, Anselm House is beginning 2019 from a position of strength, having received more than $347,000 in support from individual donors between July 1-December 31. This outpouring of generosity represents 54% of our June 30, 2019 fundraising goal, putting AnselmHouse’s development efforts ahead of schedule. The study center is serving more students, faculty, and staff at the University of Minnesota than ever before, and this is all due to God’s generous providence working through the Anselm House community. On behalf of our trustees, staff, volunteers, and those whom we serve,thank you for your commitment to advancing this critical mission to the University of Minnesota!

We are also very excited to announce that Anselm House is seeking an Associate Director of University Engagement. This position is funded through a generous three-year grant, and we intend this position to become a permanent part of our team beyond the grant period. Please be sure to forward the announcement below to any family, friends, or acquaintances who may be interested!

The Associate Director of University Engagement will be responsible for developing programs that engage the most promising intersections of the Christian tradition with the research/teaching priorities of the University of Minnesota. This person will work closely with faculty, research staff, and graduate students from a wide range of disciplines. We’re looking for someone who is winsomely Christian, thrives in interaction with a wide variety of people from across disciplines and faith/non-faith backgrounds, and is skilled at giving voice to the breadth of the Christian intellectual tradition in a public university setting. This position will be of particular interest to recent PhDs, graduate students nearing degree completion, and other scholars interested in an “alt-academic” career that keeps them deeply engaged in the academic life of the university.

To see the full description of responsibilities and qualifications, please visit our website. We will begin reviewing applications Jan. 14, and the position will remain open until filled.

Rod Dreher Interviews Alan Jacobs on *How to Think*

ThinkHere is a taste from Dreher’s blog:

I initially thought How To Think would be a basic primer of informal logic. It’s not that at all, but something more interesting. What’s the book about, and why did you write it? 

Last year, when the Presidential election campaign was ramping up here in the U.S., and my British friends were being roiled about by the Brexit debate, I was working on a different book (an academic one), but kept being distracted by all the noise. It seemed to me that everyone was lining up and shouting at everyone else, and no one seemed able to step back from the fray and think a bit about the issues at stake. More and more what attracted my attention was what seemed a complete absence of actual thinking. And then I asked myself: What is thinking, anyway? And what have I learned about it in my decades as a teacher and writer? I sat down to sketch out a few blog posts on the subject, and then realized that I had something a good bit bigger than some blog posts on my hands. So I set my other book aside and got to work.

You write, “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” What do you mean? 

Practicing patience because almost all of us live in a social-media environment that demands our instantaneous responses to whatever stimuli assault us in our feeds, and gives us the tools (reposts, likes, faves, retweets) to make those responses. Everything in our informational world militates against thinking it over. And mastering fear because one of the consequences of thinking is that you can find yourself at odds with groups you want to belong to, and social belonging is a human need almost as important as food and shelter. I’ve come to believe that our need — a very legitimate need! — for social belonging is the single greatest impediment to thinking.

Read the entire interview here. Learn more about How to Think here.

 

Alan Jacobs Teaches Us How To Think

ThinkBaylor University humanities professor Alan Jacobs‘s latest book is How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.  Over at Religion News Service, Jacobs talks with journalist Jonathan Merritt about the book and the state of Christian thinking.

Here is a taste:

RNS: What do you see is the core problem with many “thinkers?”

AJ: It’s hard to name just one thing — there are so many problems! So much bad thinking! But if I were forced to name one universal one it would be a lack of awareness of our own motives and incentives. A failure to realize that there are forces at work on and in all of us to discourage thought or even prevent it altogether.

RNS: What about American Christians, generally speaking? Are they good thinkers?

AJ: Ummm … not so much.

RNS: How can followers of Jesus become better critical thinkers? Give us one or two points that come to mind.

AJ: Christians of all people ought to be attentive to our own shortcomings, and the ways our dispositions of mind and heart and spirit can get in the way of knowing what’s true. After all, we’e the people who are supposed to believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things” and that sort of stuff. If we want to think better, then the first step should be to take those beliefs as seriously as many of us say we do, and to turn a ruthlessly skeptical eye on ourselves — before we turn it on our neighbors. There’s a line about specks in our neighbors’ eyes and logs in our own that applies here.

There’s a lot more to say, obviously, but I think self-skepticism is the place to begin.

Read the entire interview here and find out why Jacobs think it is impossible to
“think for yourself.”

Some Early Tweets on Alan Jacobs’s Essay “The Watchmen”

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Alan Jacobs

As many of you know by now, Alan Jacobs has written an excellent essay on Christian intellectuals in the current tissue of Harper’s Magazine.  It is titled “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals.”  I hope to do some posts on the piece very soon here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned.

Twitter has been abuzz with commentary on Jacobs’s article and Jacobs himself has joined the conversation. I have Storified as many tweets as possible here. (They are listed in chronological order and I have not commented on any of them in the story.  I did my best to capture some of the key threads, but my collection is certainly not comprehensive).

Some of the tweets are helpful.  Others are snarky.  Some are disrespectful.  Others are wise and insightful.  I will let you decide which tweets fit into which category! 🙂

Greg Garrett: A Christian View of Obamacare

I really like Greg Garrett’s thoughts on how Christians might think about the Affordable Care Act.  I applaud his efforts to reflect Christianly (and not just politically) on the meaning of the act.  Here is a taste:

How might Christians have a conversation about Obamacare that isn’t simply about political talking points and dueling statistics?

In Faithful Citizenship, I argued for the importance of identifying what we’re really talking about when we talk about politics, and discussed how we might make ethical decisions from our Christian core, not our secular culture. We often reason from the standpoint of freedoms and liberties, important American ideals, but they’re not necessarily preeminent for us as people of faith. While certainly we extrapolate an absolute value for each human being by the way Jesus loved and valued everyone, these rights and freedoms are book-ended for people of faith by responsibilities.

Liberty is always balanced, in the life of Jesus, against the needs of others, and his actions throughout the gospels show a continuing pattern: Jesus ministers to others; he goes up on a mountain alone or with close friends and takes care of himself; he comes back down and ministers to others; he takes—or tries to take—some time for himself. Jesus does have some boundaries—notice how he perceives when someone touches the hem of his garment seeking healing in Mark 5—but he also is on Earth intentionally doing selfless things on behalf of those who need his help: healing, feeding, teaching, casting out unclean spirits.

Taken together, these consistent actions of Jesus suggest a Christian attitude toward the issue of health care; if we take his life and teaching seriously, Jesus seems to indicate that healing and taking care of the needs of those who cannot take care of themselves are supreme Christian values. Jesus is a force of life and hope who empowers—and requires—his disciples to heal and feed and teach and restore people to their right selves. All of this argues that we may, as Christians, be called to uncomfortable places when we begin to serve our brothers and sisters, a place where our secular boundaries and values would call us to stop short.