True Friendship and the Search for Meaning: Teaching Augustine’s *Confessions*

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Most of my students have never heard of Augustine of Hippo. Very few of them have read a 5th-century text. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when we discussed parts of Augustine’s Confessions in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.

Confessions is the third reading in our “community” unit. The first two readings–Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone“–focused on community in the United States. The excerpts we read from Book II and Book IV of the Confessions focused on Christian friendship as a form of community.

As always, we started by sourcing the text. Here is a taste of my colleague Richard Crane‘s introduction to Augustine and his Confessions:

If you are a Christian, your faith has been profoundly influenced by St. Augustine, even if you have never heard his name. St. Augustine’s theology has set the agenda for theology in Western Christianity since the fifth century.  Born Aurelius Augustinus in AD 354 in what is present day Algeria, Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian.  His father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted to Christianity late in his life. Augstine was of the Berber ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, but his family adopted the ways of Roman culture including the language of Latin.  Augustine is best known for his church leadership and theological writings during the period in which he served as the Bishop of Hippo

The Confessions…is most similar to the contemporary literary genre we would identify as a memoir. The Confessions is a classic of Christian spirituality and theological reflection and is most likely the book that has been read by more Christians than any other Christian writing apart from the Bible itself. St. Augustine narrates the story of his conversion to Christianity and the course of his sinful life of selfish career ambition and sexual immorality prior to his return to God. He tells the story of his life before Christ as, paradoxically, both a flight from God and a disordered and misguided search for God.  But the most important part of the story for Augustine is his conviction that in spite of his flight from God, God was in pursuit of him all along and had so ordered his life as to lead him back to God.

I began class by reading from the opening prayer of Augustine’s Confessions: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” Why are our hearts restless? I challenged the students to draw upon past readings to try to answer this question. A few of them connected Augustine’s search for meaning to the effects of sin in the world, referencing what we learned earlier in the semester from Bruce Birch, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Alice Walker in our “Creation” unit. We are broken people, living in a broken world, but one day God will make this world whole (shalom) again. In the meantime, we find meaning, purpose, and happiness by patiently resting in God’s promises to us. This, it seems, is what we mean when we talk about Christian hope.

I used one of my favorite songs to remind students that we are all “tramps” trying to “get to that place where we really wanna go,” where we can one day “walk in the sun.” About 75% of my students had never heard this song:

I don’t know if Springsteen ever read Augustine during his Catholic school days, but I am sure that Augustine would have recognized the Boss’s yearning for something “real.”

If Springsteen did not help my students connect with Augustine, the opening lines of Confessions Book II, chapter 2 did the trick. Augustine writes: “My one delight was to love and be loved.” Such a statement speaks to both the 5th-century and the 21st-century soul. As we moved through the text, we talked about how Augustine tried to satisfy his quest for true love with sexual lust. (At this point I couldn’t help but reference our culture’s addiction to online pornography and casual sex). But just in case some of my students could not relate to Augustine’s disordered sexual life, I asked the students to read the text carefully and name some other ways people pursue happiness apart from God. In Book II, chapter 5, Augustine mentions a few: personal appearance, the accumulation of wealth (“gold and silver”), sensual pleasures, and “worldly success.” Human beings have been trying to find happiness through these things for a long, long time. Augustine was now starting to resonate with some of my first-year college students.

Even certain kinds of “friendship,” Augustine argues, cannot satisfy our restless longings for meaning and purpose in this life. He writes,:”The bond of human friendship is admirable, holding many souls as one. Yet in the enjoyment of all such things we commit sin if through immoderate inclination to them–for though they are good, they are of the lowest order of good–things higher and better are forgotten, even You, O Lord our God, and Your Truth and Your Law.” (Book II, chapter 5).  What does Augustine mean by a “lowest-order” friendship?

I asked my students to talk about the values or ideas that ground some of their own friendships. Some of them said they had friendships based on common interests–music, sports, hobbies, video-games, etc.  Others said that their closest friends were people they grew-up with, went to school with, or met in their college dormitory.  Augustine says that theses kinds of friendships are good. In fact, in Book IV he writes about one of his own friendships, a relationship cultivated through childhood companionship and “the ardour of studies” in school. When this friend died of an illness, Augustine grieved his loss.

But as Augustine reflects on the loss of his friend, he simultaneously pushes his readers–including my students–to consider a deeper or higher kind of friendship. In Book IV, chapter 4, he writes: “there is no true friendship unless You weld it between souls that cleave together through that charity which is shed in our hearts by our Holy Ghost who is given to us.” I think this was a tough pill for some of my students to swallow. They did not like Augustine’s suggestion that some their friendships–good friendships–were built upon “lower order” things and were thus not “true.” But I also got the feeling that some of them were willing to listen, or at least take seriously, Augustine’s invitation to foster a deeper kind of friendship.

In our remaining time, I tried to connect our readings on Augustinian friendship to our previous readings in the community unit. Was there a difference between Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship and the kinds of social bonds that Robert Putnam believes are essential to a thriving democracy? A few students argued that Augustinian friendships, built upon Christian love and the power of the Holy Spirit, could certainly contribute to a thriving democracy and create what Putman calls “social capital.” But most agreed that a strong democracy did not require such “true” friendships. “Lowest order” friendships would work just fine. In other words, Augustine was calling Christians to something higher than mere democratic friendship and the creation of “social capital.”

My students thought that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” offered a vision of community that was closer to Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship. They believed that friendships rooted in social justice and the dignity of the human person were essential to a healthy society.  Yet even these kinds of friendships did not meet the Augustinian standard of friendship unless they were guided by a love of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

After class, a couple of students approached me and asked if they could switch the topic of their upcoming “community essay” to  Augustine’s Confessions. I was pleased to hear this.

Thanks for following along.  We are on Spring Break next week and then our focus turns to Exodus 19-20, Matthew 5-7, Acts 1-4, and the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds. Messiah College has moved all courses online until after Easter. To be honest, I am not sure how I am going to reproduce these kinds of conversations in an online format, so this may be my last post for a while.  Stay tuned.

Teaching MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

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After a couple weeks focusing on “creation” in my Created Called for Community (CCC) course at Messiah College, we have shifted gears slightly to focus on the meaning of “community.” Our first reading on this front was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). We read it alongside “A Call for Unity,” the white Birmingham clergy’s statement criticizing King’s visit to the city. King’s wrote his “Letter” as a response to “A Call for Unity.”

There are lot of ways to teach “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In a history course, I would use this text to teach something about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While the past always teaches us something about the present, my primary goal in any history course is to provide students with a thorough knowledge of the past so that their engagement with the present might be richer and more informed.

CCC is not a history course. Since we read and discussed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as part of a unit about “community” in America and the larger world, my pedagogical assignment was to help students see what King might teach us about the meaning of this elusive idea.

But I remain a historian at heart. How could we approach such an important text without some historical context?  As part of the work of sourcing this document, I showed the class a short video from Voice of America:

We began our conversation with “A Call for Unity.” I asked students to read the affixed signatures to the document and tell me something about the men who affirmed it. Eight Birmingham clergy signed it–two Episcopalians, one Baptist, one Roman Catholic, one Jewish rabbi, two Methodists, and one Presbyterian. They were all white.

For our purposes, I asked the students to imagine a different title to this document. What if we changed the name to “A Call for Community?” What kind of community were the white spiritual leaders of Birmingham defending?  Students noted several characteristics of this community:

  1. Birmingham was a community that had “racial problems.”
  2. Birmingham was a community that required members to obey the law. If people in the community wanted to change the law, they needed to do so through the court system. But in the meantime, the law must be “peaceably obeyed.” The law in question, of course, was segregation based on race.
  3. Birmingham was a local community. The people who held power in this community did not look favorably on outsiders telling them how to live. This was particularly the case regarding the aforementioned “racial problems.” These clergy wrote, “We agree with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can be best accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.”
  4. Birmingham was a community that did not want Martin Luther King Jr. coming to town with his “extreme measures” designed to undermine the social order.  Of course, white supremacy and segregation defined this social order. King’s “extreme measures” were peaceful protests.

I thought it was important to pause at this point and remind students that Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 was a community. When many of them hear the word “community” they think of something positive. Community is a warm and fuzzy feeling about togetherness and mutual care. Many students who enroll at Messiah College say they are attracted to the “sense of community” they feel when they visit campus.  This is all well and good. But yesterday I wanted them to see community in a neutral way. My students did not approve of the kind of community the Birmingham clergy defended in “A Call for Unity,” but it was a community nonetheless.

A few of them had a hard time attaching the word “community” to a segregated city like Birmingham. As Christians, many were bothered by the fact that the religious and spiritual leaders of this city defended such a community. Two students, in post-class conversations, made connections to the anemic state of the Christian church in 1963 and what they perceived to be the weakness of the white churches today in the midst of suffering, oppression, racism, the environment, abortion, political power, etc.

It was now time to turn to King. Why was King in Birmingham? Nearly all the students who spoke noted that the city’s African-American community invited him to come. Not everyone living in Birmingham was happy about the kind of community the white leaders were advancing in the city.  If Birmingham’s African Americans wanted to end Jim Crow, they would need some help. They turned to King.

Why else was King in Birmingham? King came to this southern city “because injustice is here.” We talked about his comparison to the Apostle Paul, a spiritual leader who left Tarsus and brought the Gospel to the Greco-Roman world. Paul was also an “outside agitator.” He challenged local gods and disrupted the peace in places like Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Phillipi, Athens, and Thessalonica.  Since some of my students are familiar with the Acts of the Apostles, I thought this might be a good place to linger for a while.

But I also wanted to get to the fourth paragraph of King’s letter.  He writes:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.  Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

My students were quick to note that the Birmingham clergy’s vision was local, but King’s vision was national.  We paused and reflected on words and phrases like “interrelatedness,” “network of mutuality,” “single garment,” “narrow,” and “provincial.” I thought this exercise was important for our understanding of “community.” When King says “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” it should cause us to think about local community with a little more complexity.

This was a lot to ponder, and time was running out. I said that I wish I could do an entire first-year seminar on King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because it was such an intellectual and moral feast. I only saw one student roll her/his eyes. 🙂

I continued to push the theme of community. Where do we look if we want to find the things that a given community values? One of the ways we do this is by examining a community’s understanding of right and wrong as embodied in its laws. King had a lot to say about this in the letter. How should we distinguish between “just” and “unjust” laws? Here is King:

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”  Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law….Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

We spent some time talking about what King meant by “personality.” With a little prompting, they began referencing Genesis 1 and 2 and Bruce Birch’s essay on the “ethic of being.” If we believe, with the Judeo-Christian tradition, that we are all created in the image of God, then the human person (“personality” in King’s language) is dignified.  A law is unjust when it strips people of human dignity.  Several students gravitated to King’s words about Hitler: “We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.'” King added: “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.  Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Powerful stuff.

With only a few minutes left in class, I pointed them to King’s understanding of American nationalism.  National communities make appeals to history. King invoked the ideals of the founding, including Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. If I had more time, I would have steered students toward something I wrote back in 2011:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like Glenn Beck (who despite his Mormonism has joined forces with many Christian nationalists), David Barton, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, or Newt Gingrich. All of these public figures have championed the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Their careers have been defined by the belief that this country needs to return to its Christian roots in order to receive the blessings of God.

Rarely, if ever, do we hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., included in this list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today. Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (June 14, 1954). It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail….”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

Read the entire piece here.

Today we discuss Robert Putnam’s classic essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” I want to bring my 6th-grade bowling trophy to class, but I can’t seem to find it.

Teaching Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”

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On Monday we wrapped-up the “Creation” unit in Created and Called for Community.  I began the class with a review.  Over the last two weeks we read:

  • Genesis 1 and 2
  • Bruce Birch’s theological commentary on Genesis 1-3: “The Image of God.”
  • James Weldon Johnson’s poem on Genesis 1 and 2: “The Creation
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”

We spent the last day of the Creation unit discussing Alice Walker‘s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” As is our custom, we began by “sourcing” the text.  Here is a taste of my colleague Kerry Hasler Brooks‘s introduction to Walker:

Alice Walker is a celebrated American writer, intellectual, and activist who has becoming a guiding voice of black feminism.  Drawing on her childhood in a small Georgia town gripped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow oppression, [Walker is the] author of more than 40 works of poetry, fiction, scholarship, memoir, and children’s literature.  Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning story celebrates the brave survival of black women assaulted by sexual abuse, racism, and poverty in the American South in the early twentieth century….

Walker’s essay added yet another layer of complexity to our understanding of creation and its implications for how we live. As we have seen, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth. I was pleased to see how many students made a strong connection between this Christian view of human identity and their critiques of racism, poverty, and patriarchy.

But I wanted my students to take a deeper dive into the text. I encouraged them to consider Walker’s story in the context of what we have learned about the Christian’s call to creativity.  I reminded them of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation.” God created the world. We are created in the image of God.  We should thus be engaging in the advancement of God’s creation through our earthly labors.  As Tolkien taught us in “Leaf by Niggle” (with the help of the eschatological reflections of N.T. Wright that I introduced), our creative work, even if incomplete or unfinished, will one day be part of what the New Testament describes as the “new heavens and new earth.”

Walker’s African-American women–including her own mother–showed creativity amid the worst kinds of systemic oppression.  I asked the students to provide examples from the essay of how the creative work of these women revealed their dignity as God’s image bearers.  Racism, poverty, and patriarchy has tried to strip these women of their dignity. But their creative impulses, born of the divine spark within them, could not be squelched so easily.  The creative impulse is resilient within us because it comes from God. I wondered aloud if this impulse might even be a way to prove the existence of God.

Several students wanted to talk more about Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.  Walker writes about the “contrary instincts” that Wheatley felt as both a writer  and “a slave, who owned not even herself”:

Yet because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was “so thwarted and hindered by….contrary instincts, that she…lost her health…”  In the last years of her brief life, burdened not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless “freedom” and several small children for whom she was forced to do strenuous work to feed, she lost her health, certainly. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies, Phillis Wheatley died.  

Wheatley wrote, she created, amidst her frailty and weakness. I asked students to bring Wheatley’s story into conversation with the final pages of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” All of my students agreed that the obstacles to Niggle’s creative energies were trivial when compared to Wheatley’s, but there were also some similarities. If Tolkien and Wright are correct, one day her poetry, which brought some light to the darkness of eighteenth-century slavery in America, will contribute to the new heavens and the new earth that creation “groans” for in Romans 8.  And that light will be much, much, brighter.

Other students referenced Walker’s story about the “anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago” who stitched a quilt that now hangs (or at least it did in 1983) in the Smithsonian Institution. Walker writes, “Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” I have a few history majors in my courses so I asked them to tell us something about what life might have been like for Black woman in Alabama in 1883. They were gave their fellow students a quick lesson about segregation and Jim Crow America. This quilt teaches us, again, that race-based systems of oppression cannot kill the creative impulse. Why? Because such an impulse is part of our DNA as human beings created in the image of God. (Repetition is important in a class like this! 🙂 ).

Another student commented on Walker’s mother as a story-teller.  Here is Walker:

But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist.  For these stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion.  Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains.  The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years.

By this point in the class, several students were making connections between Walker’s essay and previous readings. The stories that Walker’s mother told have not only enriched Walker’s life, but will also enrich all of us in the coming Kingdom.

Walker ends the essay by describing how her mother brightened their “shabby house” with flowers and gardens:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible–except as Creator: hand and eye.  She is involved in her work  her soul must have.  Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life.  She has handed down respect for the possibilities–and the will to grasp them.  For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life.  This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.

For Walker, her mother’s gardens left her with a “heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength.” In “search of my mother’s garden,” she writes, “I found my own.” This is a wonderful reflection on how we connect with our personal histories. It should also inspire the work of the historian as she mines the past in search of forgotten stories of human beings–African-American women in Walker’s case–who engaged in acts of creation amid suffering. (And by telling these stories in compelling ways the historian also participates in the work of sub-creation). Walker’s essay should also inspire Christian historians to seek out these untold stories and interpret them as small glimpses of a coming kingdom where shalom will replace the brokenness of the world in which we create.

One day, hopefully soon, we will all get to enjoy the beautiful gardens of Alice Walker’s mother.

Today we move to the “Community” unit. We will begin with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Follow along here.

CREATE!: Teaching Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle”

LeafYesterday in Created and Called for Community (CCC) we read and discussed J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Here is a summary of the plot from Wikipedia:

In this story, an artist, named Niggle, lives in a society that does not value art. Working only to please himself, he paints a canvas of a great Tree with a forest in the distance. He invests each and every leaf of his tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every leaf uniquely beautiful. Niggle ends up discarding all his other artworks, or tacks them onto the main canvas, which becomes a single vast embodiment of his vision.

However, there are many mundane chores and duties that prevent Niggle from giving his work the attention it deserves, so it remains incomplete and is not fully realised.

At the back of his head, Niggle knows that he has a great trip looming, and he must pack and prepare his bags.

Also, Niggle’s next door neighbour, a gardener named Parish, frequently drops by asking for various forms of help. Parish is lame and has a sick wife and genuinely needs help. Niggle, having a good heart, takes time out to help—but he is also reluctant because he would rather work on his painting. Niggle has other pressing work duties as well that require his attention. Then Niggle himself catches a chill doing errands for Parish in the rain.

Eventually, Niggle is forced to take his trip, and cannot get out of it. He has not prepared, and as a result ends up in a kind of institution, in which he must perform menial labour each day. Back at the home to which he cannot return, Niggle’s painting is abandoned, used to patch a damaged roof, and all but destroyed (except for the one perfect leaf of the story’s title, which is placed in the local museum).

In time, Niggle is paroled from the institution, and he is sent to a place “for a little gentle treatment”. He discovers that this new place is the country of the Tree and Forest of his great painting. This place is the true realisation of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete version in his painting.

Niggle is reunited with his old neighbour, Parish, who now proves his worth as a gardener, and together they make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful. Finally, Niggle journeys farther and deeper into the Forest, and beyond into the great Mountains that he only faintly glimpsed in his painting.

Long after both Niggle and Parish have taken their journeys, the lovely place that they created together becomes a destination for many travelers to visit before their final voyage into the Mountains, and it earns the name “Niggle’s Parish”.

We read “Leaf by Niggle” as part of our ongoing discussion of creation and its implications for the way we live as Christians.  Tolkien’s short story is about the ongoing work of creation.  As women and men created in the image of God we are called to participate in God’s creative work. In John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens he called Christians to the work of “co-creation.” (Tolkien used the term “sub-creation” to describe something similar).  We can view Niggle’s painting as his imperfect attempt at co-creation.  As inhabitants of a broken world scarred by sin, our efforts to create will always be imperfect.  Our finest art cannot express all the beauty of God’s holiness.  Throughout our discussion of “Leaf by Niggle” I tried to get students to put the story into conversation with Bruce Birch’s essay, “In the Image of God.”

There are several ways to approach “Leaf by Niggle” in a course like CCC. This became abundantly clear when I surveyed the room.  Several students wanted to talk about the tension between competing goods.  Niggle has a gift for painting, but he is constantly distracted by his needy neighbor Parish.  Though Niggle often complains privately about assisting Parish, and sometimes he finds him to be an annoyance, he never ceases to help his neighbor.  How do we balance our call to create–through art, writing, entrepreneurial innovation, scientific discovery, the cultivation of ideas, feats of engineering, sports or dance–with the everyday demands of service to others that might get in the way of our creative efforts?  This question made for some good discussion.

Some students brought up Niggle’s lack of preparation for his “journey.” They pointed out that Niggle was a procrastinator and easily distracted. When death arrived he could have been better prepared. A few students were disappointed in him.  They wished he had finished the painting.  Others were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for his lack of preparation for the journey because he was so busy helping Parish and his wife. Whatever the case, Niggle’s story prior to his journey seemed to elicit much anxiety among my students. This, I suggested, is the anxiety we all feel as inhabitants of a broken world.

But as anyone who has read “Leaf by Niggle” knows, the story does not end there. After his purgatory-type experience, Niggle is brought to a place of great beauty (Niggle’s Parish). Here he encounters his incomplete painting in all its fullness. Here his relationship with Parish is transformed.  The anxiety gives way to peace and happiness.  All of the brokenness is made whole (Shalom).

I cannot teach “Leaf by Niggle” apart from my understanding of Christian eschatology. Lately I have been studying the writings of the Anglican New Testament theologian N.T. Wright.  Wright’s books Surprised by Hope and History and Eschatology enabled me to teach Tolkien’s short story in a way I was unable to do when I last taught “Leaf by Niggle” eleven years ago.

A major theme of Wright’s work is what Revelation 21 calls the “new heaven and the new earth.” Wright challenges longstanding Christian beliefs about heaven. The ancient Jews and the early Christian church never understood heaven as place distinct from earth.  God will not destroy this earth and “rapture” believers to a heavenly realm.  Instead, he will transform this earth.  He will one day make the post-Genesis 3 world whole.  Shalom will be restored.  We will rise from the dead because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning (I Cor. 15). The New Testament teaches that we will enjoy this new heavens and new earth with new resurrected bodies.  Read Romans 8: 18-25:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Wright argues that this new heaven and new earth, or the Kingdom of God, was initiated when Jesus rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we do creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom.  What might look unfinished or incomplete in this world will one day be made whole.  This, it seems to me, is what Tolkien is trying to teach us in “Leaf by Niggle.”

I closed my class on Monday with a quote from Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Niggle’s leaf, which ended up for a short time in a museum, became part of an entire landscape in the so-called “Niggle’s Parish.” Our creative work will one day contribute to the new creation as well. We don’t know how God will use it–1 Corinthians 13:12 says we see through a glass dimly–but it will be a part of the wholeness God will one day bring.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

Some Simple Ways First-Year College Students Can Improve Their Writing

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This week I graded sixty-eight 750-word analytical essays that students wrote in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.  Student essays responded to this prompt:

Write a paper responding to one of the readings on education (by Stanley Hauerwas or John Henry Newman or Ernest Boyer). Choose one point / claim / argument in the reading you choose, and respond to it using the one of the following invention processes: agree-disagree or define by qualifying or amplifying a point.

Since this is a designated writing course, I spend more time with each essay than I would in an average history course. After I returned the papers to the students on Friday, I took a few minutes to address some common mistakes:

  • Read the paper aloud. If a sentence sounds awkward to the ear consider rewriting it.  Even better, read the paper to someone else.
  • The real work of writing begins on the second or third draft.
  • Active voice
  • When a sentence ends with a quote, the period goes inside the quotation marks.
  • If a sentence is longer than three lines it is probably too long.  There is nothing wrong with short sentences.
  • Avoid phrases like “I believe” or “I feel.”  Just say it. For example, some students write:  “I really feel Ernest Boyer is right about community and I truly believe we should work harder at implementing his vision at Messiah College.” Just say “Ernest Boyer is right about community and we should work harder at implementing his vision at Messiah College.”
  • Don’t put too much bibliographical information in a sentence.  Avoid sentences like this: “Ernest Boyer, on page 17, paragraph 7 of the CCC Reader edited by Jim LaGrand, says….” This is why we have citations.
  • After the instructor returns a paper the student should read everything he or she writes on it.  If a professor puts a lot of red ink on a paper it is because he or she wants to help the student become a better writer.

Teaching James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation”

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class at Messiah College we discussed James Weldon Johnson‘s poem “The Creation” (1922). It is one of seven poems in his 1927 collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Read it here.

My colleague (and Dean) Peter Powers, a scholar of religion and the Harlem Renaissance, writes:

“The Creation”  is found within the collection of God’s Trombones, which Johnson conceived as an interlinked set of sermons modeled on the style of traditional African-American preachers. Johnson thought of these preachers’ voices, with all their power and emotional range, as God’s trombones,” and saw clear links between the preaching, writing, and music-making of African Americans during this time.  All three forms of expression conveyed originality and creativity, and so could serve as wellsprings of African-American aspirations of freedom .

In writing these sermons into poetry, Johnson sought to communicate both authenticity and dignity.  He was troubled by many writers of his time (both white and African American) who used literary conventions and cliched dialect that depicted African American speech as malformed and unintelligent.  Johnson felt such depictions could perpetuate racist stereotypes that African Americans were incapable of significant cultural achievements in written English.  So instead of deliberately using misspellings and outrageous grammatical constructions, Johnson evoked the oral tradition in a more nuanced way through sentence structure, syntax, and word choice.  The aesthetic choice suggests that the oral tradition is high art in and of itself, as well as the basis for producing other great works of art.  This idea–that great art should be rooted in the folk tradition even as it transcends it–became a signature aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance.                

“The Creation” is a sermon. It is meant to be preached. So I decided to play a reading of the poem by African-American clergyman and vocal artist Wintley Phipps. I asked the students to follow along with the printed text and try not to get caught-up with the images. I wanted this exercise to cultivate the moral imagination.

I asked the students to compare Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 with the actual Old Testament text they read on Monday.  Several students connected Johnson’s poem to the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-2:25), an account that reveals the personal and compassionate nature of God.

We talked about the poem as a product of Jim Crow America.  I wanted the students to see that James Weldon Johnson’s understanding of humanity was more theologically and biblically sound than the views of the Christian defenders of segregation.  We returned to Bruce Birch’s essay and talked again about the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.  Human dignity and worth has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Johnson knew this.

One student connected Johnson’s poem to Bruce Birch’s distinction between the “ethic of doing” and the “ethic of being.”  In “The Creation,” Johnson writes:

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at the sun,

And he looked at the moon, 

And he looked at the stars; 

He looked at the world

With all  its living things,

And God said, I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down–

On the side of a hill where he could think;

By a deep, wide river he sat down;

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought ,

Till he thought: I’ll make a man! 

This student noted that before God acted to create humankind, he thought about it.  Johnson says that God “thought and thought” with “his head in his hands.” It was an important reminder that we often need to engage intellectually with the world before we act in the world.

Finally, I told the students that Johnson’s poem serves as a wonderful transition from this week’s focus on the biblical creation story to next week’s conversations about creativity.  Johnson wrote a poem about creation.  But “The Creation” is also a creative work.  Because we are created in God’s image we are called to creativity.  More on this next week.

Follow along here.

The “Ethic of Being”

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This week in Created and Called for Community at Messiah College we are exploring the Judeo-Christian creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2.  On Monday we read the scriptural text and yesterday we discussed Old Testament theologian Bruce Birch‘s essay “In the Image of God” from his book (with Larry L. Rasmussen) The Predicament of the Prosperous

Birch begins his essay with a story:

A socially committed pastor once said to me after I had spoken on biblical understandings of hunger issues, “That was interesting, but we really don’t have time to be reading the Bible.  People are starving out there.”

I asked my students to respond to this story.  Some of them related to this pastor.  Others, it was clear to me, had never thought deeply about social issues and thus could not relate to the pastor’s sense of urgency.

Birch continues:

…Christian social witness in our time has become chiefly identified with the “doing” side of the Christian moral life. “What shall we do about _____? ”  You can fill in any issue of concern: peace, racism, poverty.  The emphasis is on decision-making, strategy, and action…The Bible, however, does not make decisions for us or plan courses of action.  Attempts to use the Bible as a rule book are not very successful.  There are, of course, broad moral imperatives, such as the command to love our neighbor, which are of central importance, but the church is left with the struggle to decide what the loving act toward the neighbor might be in a given situation.  Many issues our society faces–nuclear war, environmental damage–were not anticipated at all by the biblical communities.  Even when we share a common concern with those communities, such as feeding the hungry, we must make decisions and take actions in a complex global economic system totally unlike anything imagined in the biblical tradition.

While it took a few minutes for my Christian students to get beyond the idea that “attempts to use the Bible as a rule book are not very successful,” we all agreed with Birch that the scriptures do not offer specific strategies, action steps, or policies for how to deal with pressing social issues in the world.  Instead, I suggested, the Bible offers what I called (for lack of a better term) “first principles” for building specific responses to social concerns in a “complex” 21st-century world.

Birch writes:

Does this make the Bible remote or irrelevant to our Christian social concern?  By no means!  Alongside the concern for the ethics of “doing” lies an ethics of “being.”  Christian social concern requires not only that we ask what we should do in a broken world but also that we ask who we are to be.  The shaping of decision-makers is as important as the shaping of the decision.  As we enter and are nurtured by the Christian community, we form values, perspectives, and perceptions that inform our deciding and acting.  The identity we bring with us as Christians deeply affects our participation in ministering to a broken world.

There was a lot to think about here.  We returned to Birch’s story about the socially-conscious pastor.  While Messiah College is committed to service, and students will get multiple opportunities to serve during their years as a student, Messiah is fundamentally a Christian college–a place of intellectual and spiritual formation.  College is a unique experience.  It is a time to think, learn, and study.  Stanley Hauerwas and John Henry Newman have already taught us that college is a time to prepare for a life of service to the church and the world.  Students should not feel guilty about spending more time thinking and reflecting about the world than they do acting in the world.  The time to act will come, but right now they need to learn who they are.  They need to think about what Birch calls the “ethics of being.”

So who are we?  What does the Christian tradition teach us about what it means to be “human? At this point I introduced my students to the word “humanism.” Back when I was a college student at an evangelical school, “humanism” had a negative connotation.  It was often preceded by the adjective “secular.” Secular humanists, we were told, lurked around every corner trying to undermine Christianity and convince young people to abandon their faith. Secular humanism was the work of the devil. It was corroding Christian values.  We studied “apologetics” in order to intellectually defeat secular humanism.

But I was pleasantly surprised to learn only one student–a thirty or forty-something non-traditional student–knew what I meant when I referenced “secular humanism.” The fact that my students did not come with the cultural war baggage of the 1980s and 1990s allowed us to explore more freely the historic meaning of humanism–the study of what it means to be a human being in this world.

Any exploration of Christian humanism should begin in Genesis 1 and 2.

Birch spends a significant part of his essay interpreting this passage. We did not have time to examine all of his exegesis, so I tried to narrow our discussion to a few of his points.  Birch writes:

We know the God of blessing not only as the Creator who called the world into being but in the ongoing reliability of the created order and in the divine presence that sustains life in all its week-to-week rhythms.  This aspect of God is present with us in all moments and is universally known by all humanity.  God’s intentions in creation is for all to experience shalom, a Hebrew word meaning wholeness.

We talked about shalom.  Some students identified it as a greeting.  Others associated it with “peace.” I asked them to call out some antonyms for “peace” and they responded with words like “chaos,” “war,” “conflict,” and “division.”  Indeed war, conflict, and division undermine shalom.  These things rip at the wholeness God intended for His creation.

Birch then offers four themes from Genesis 1 and 2 to help us think about “what it means to be given life as a creature and to live that life in relationship to God and the rest of the created order.”

  1. Humanity is created in the image of God.  On Monday, during our discussion of Genesis 1:26-27, I introduced students to the idea of Imago Dei. The Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, as New Testament scholar Scot McKnight shows us, translates the word behind “image” with the word eikon.  We talked about the role of “icons” in Christian worship.  Icons are paintings, statues, or figures that aid us in our devotion to God.  Genesis 1 teaches us that we are living eikons.  Much in the same way that monuments try to help us understand more fully what happened in a particular historic place, the creation story teaches us that our lives are monuments–eikons that should point people toward a deeper understanding of God.  We are image bearers. I told my students that the larger culture will try to tell them who they are, but Genesis 1 and 2 will always remind of them of their true identity.
  2. Genesis 1 and 2 also affirms the “goodness of creation.”  God did not create everything in His image, but everything God created is “good.” We talked a bit about the implications of this truth for our relationship with the animal kingdom and the environment.
  3. This passage also reminds us of the “interrelatedness of creation.” As Birch writes, “We are created for relationship to God, to others, and to nature.” In a college or university such “interrelatedness” manifests itself in the liberal arts curriculum and the way it challenges students to see the connectedness (to use Ernest Boyer’s phrase) of their general education coursework.
  4. Finally, Birch warns us about what he calls “the distortion of hierarchical thinking about creation.”  Over the centuries, Christians have misused “God’s commission giving humanity dominion over the earth” in such a way that has led to “a hierarchical  understanding that divided the relationship of the human to God and to nature.”  Birch adds: “Early in the history of the Christian church a subdivided hierarchy became the standard: God, males, females, other races than white, Jews, animals, plants, and the earth itself.  This hierarchical understanding of creation became the foundation for entire superstructures of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism.”

This last theme was the perfect way to open-up a discussion of the final section of Birch’s essay: “The Brokenness of Creation.” We are created in the image of God and called to pursue relationships with God and His “good” creation. But Genesis 3 teaches us that we are also sinners who have abused the human freedom God has given to us. “Sin,” Birch writes, “is the word we use to describe how shalom, wholeness, gets broken.” Or to use McKnight’s phrase, we are “cracked eikons.”  I wish we had more time to discuss the implications of sin, but there will be other opportunities later in the class.

In the end, I encouraged the students to see this discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 (with the help of Bruce Birch) as a starting point for both future class discussions and all of their future college work.  If time permitted, I would have asked students to think about what this “ethic of being” might mean for their college majors.  How does the fact that we are simultaneously image-bearers and sinners help us think about our disciplines and professions? (I tried to do this for the field of history in my book Why Study History?).  And how, in the wake of the Cross and the Resurrection, might we work to restore shalom to a broken creation?

Tomorrow we are reading James Weldon Johnson’s poem The Creation.  Follow along here.

Teaching John Henry Newman’s “What is a University?”

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University College, Dublin

Yesterday in Created and Called for Community we read an excerpt from John Henry Newman‘s “What is a University,” a chapter in his 1852 book The Idea of a University.  Newman wrote this book while serving as rector of Catholic University of Ireland. (today it is known as University College Dublin), a school that he helped found.

We started our conversation, as we always do, by sourcing the document. Who was Newman? Several students found it interesting that Newman was not welcomed to teach at Oxford University, an Anglican institution of higher learning, after he converted to Catholicism.  This was a great opportunity to think about previous course readings.  As we learned from Randy Basinger’s recorded lecture last week, Christian colleges and universities often place boundaries on faculty and students. These boundaries are usually defined by belief and behavior rooted in the particular school’s mission and understanding of Christian faith. In 19th-century England, Oxford was a Protestant institution. I pointed out that Oxford was not as inclusive as present-day Messiah College, a Christian college that hires Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers.  As we noted last week, other Christian colleges such as Wheaton College, Gordon College, or Calvin University do not hire Catholic professors.  If Newman were teaching at one of these colleges at the time he converted to Catholicism, he would need to leave.

We also thought together about Newman’s “What is a University?” in its 19th-century context. Students quickly noted that Newman was writing in a world where only men attended university.  His understanding of “diversity” was limited when compared to our modern understanding of “diversity.” For Newman, diversity meant different kinds of white men.

At this point I paused and explained how I might teach this document differently in a history course.  I imagined teaching Newman’s ideas in a course on 19th-century British history.  In such a course my primary goal would be to get students to think about what Newman’s essay teaches us about his world.  But in CCC, my primary goal is less about getting my students to understand the “foreign country” of 19th-century Great Britain and more about trying to get them to think about whether Newman has anything to offer our understanding of Christian higher education today.

This discussion allowed me to reinforce an important lesson about studying at a college (like Messiah College) with a robust general education program informed by the liberal arts.  Each discipline in the curriculum offers students a different way of thinking about the world.  I used global poverty to illustrate my point. In a political science class, for example, students might address global poverty by thinking about ways of alleviating it through public policy.  In a history class, students might reflect on the roots of global poverty or the kind of choices humans have made in the past that have resulted in global poverty. In a psychology class, students might reflect on the relationship between global poverty and mental health.  In a literature class, students might read stories of global poverty–fiction and non-fiction–that trigger their moral imaginations.  In an environmental studies class students might think about the links between climate change and global poverty.  And so on….  This is the kind of “connectedness” that Ernest L. Boyer described in his essay on Messiah College.

It was now time to dive into the text.  I started the conversation by asking the question in Newman’s title: “What is a University?” Some students were drawn to Newman’s claim that a university is “a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse….” I asked them to suggest some ways in which “thought” is communicated and circulated at a university.  Students, of course, mentioned their professors imparting knowledge in formal class settings.  But I wanted them to think beyond the classroom.  We talked about the word “circulate.”  How do ideas circulate on a college campus? Like bees released from the hive, ideas should be buzzing constantly around the campus.  They should fly out of the classroom door and fill the sidewalks, cafeteria, and dorms–constantly circulating through conversation and discussion.

We also discussed Newman’s idea that the university is a place–a real, flesh and blood, place.  Newman writes: “The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life, which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”  In an age of online learning, virtual reality, and the internet I wondered if my students thought Newman’s call for face-to-face learning was still relevant?  I was surprised that so many students, struggling to keep their phones out of sight as they consulted an essay published on paper, seemed to agree with him here.

Several students wanted to talk about Newman’s idea of the university as a place focused on character building. We had a good discussion here about gender.  Newman often thinks of character in masculine terms.  He wants his university to produce good 19th-century “gentlemen” with proper “carriage,” “gait,” and “gestures.” But my students also agreed that some of the character traits Newman hoped students would learn in college were still relevant today.  My students wanted an education that helped them be more courteous and conversant.  They wanted a university to help them develop “the talent of not offending,” “delicacy of thought,” “happiness of expression,” “taste and propriety,” “generosity,” “forbearance,” and “candour.” These character traits, they argued, transcend time (the 19th-century) and gender.  The students universally agreed with my claim that the modern pluralistic university is no longer very concerned about character building.

We closed class by discussing liberal arts education as a form of “catechising.” Newman writes:

Truth, a subtle, invisible, manifold spirit, is poured into the mind of the scholar by his eyes and ears, through his affections, imagination, and reason: it is poured into this mind and is sealed up there in perpetuity, by propounding and repeating it, by questioning and requestioning, by correcting and explaining, by progressive and then recurring to first principles, by all those ways which are implied in the word “catechising .” In the first ages, it was a work of a long time; months, sometimes years, were devoted to the arduous task of disabusing the mind of the incipient Christian of its pagan errors, and of moulding it upon the Christian faith.

For most of my students, “catechism” is a foreign word.  They attend evangelical churches that do not offer formal programs of catechism designed to shape the mind, heart, and soul of young women and men in the congregation.  Catechism is an invitation to spiritual formation.  Spiritual growth seldom comes through the mountain-top experience at a weekend youth retreat.  It comes instead through the daily grind of practicing the spiritual disciplines–scripture reading and memorization, prayer, fasting, and other practices that take our focus off self and put it on God and others.

This is how Newman understands the catechizing nature of a liberal arts education.  Intellectual formation comes through repetition, discipline, questioning, requestioning, correcting, explaining, and the regular appeal to “first principles.” Yes, students may get temporary intellectual “highs” as they encounter an inspiring professor or attend an undergraduate conference, but the”arduous task” of “disabusing the mind” of errors and “moudling” it in truth takes time.  It takes a lifetime.

On Monday we start the “Creation” unit.  We will begin in a very familiar place.

Teaching Ernest L. Boyer’s Vision for Messiah College

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Ernest L. Boyer (1928-1995) is the most distinguished graduate of Messiah College and one of the most influential educators of the last century. He was a Brethren in Christ pastor, the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, Jimmy Carter’s U.S. Commissioner of Education, and the president of  the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  He also served several terms on the Messiah College Board of Trustees.  My colleague Cynthia Wells, the director of Messiah College’s Ernest L. Boyer Center,  writes:

Across context, Boyer created educational pathways for those disadvantaged by economic disparity and those left out of the education system.  He initiated a nationwide community service program whereby students could could earn credit by participating in hands-on experiences in their communities.  He advocated for a general education program that helped students integrate their educational experiences and make connections between their education and their lives beyond college.  He also developed a concern for Native American education, and worked to improve the Native American school system and to support tribal colleges.  His concern for those on the margins of American society became a hallmark of his educational vision.  Boyer deeply believed that education shaped society.

Throughout his career, he maintained a deep and abiding Christian faith, and there is clear evidence that his Christian faith influenced his commitments.  His convictions to serve those on the margin of society, as one example, reflects his Christian commitment to serve the “least of these.”

Yesterday, my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class read Boyer’s 1984 Messiah College convocation speech, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College.” In this speech, Boyer identified four virtues that have “shaped the quality and character of Messiah College.”  Boyer adds: “In each regard countless colleges and universities across America would be well served by following the model so effectively engaged on this campus.”

First, Boyer calls for a robust liberal arts curriculum.  Colleges must seek “connectedness” across disciplines.  “Unity, not fragmentation,” Boyer writes, “must be the aim of education, and most especially what one calls Christian education.” He adds: “In the Christian world view the so-called secular and sacred are distinctions without meaning since all truth should ultimately be considered sacred.”

In responding to this “virtue,” I asked my students to think about the difference between a professional school and a liberal arts college.  Messiah is not a Bible college or a place where students only focus on a specialized skill.  Rather, they are exposed, through a heavy general education curriculum rooted in the liberal arts, to a breadth of knowledge about the world.  If God is the source of all truth and beauty, then the study of science, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, philosophy, politics, and language are all ways of exploring God’s created order and ultimately worshiping Him.

Boyer delivered this speech 36 years ago.  Has Messiah College retained its legacy on this front?  I asked the students to consider this question from their own experiences at the college.  Most students could give specific examples of how faith was brought to bear on the liberal arts subjects they study at Messiah.  Several students said that their professors introduced faith into the classroom by starting class with a short devotional thought.  This is great, but I warned them that if this was the extent of how faith was integrated in the classroom it was not enough.  Starting class with a reading of the Bible and then teaching the subject matter in a completely secular fashion was only reinforcing the sacred-secular distinction that Boyer warned against.

Second, Boyer argues that community is an essential part of the Messiah College education experience.  Messiah must be a school where students learn how to be dependent on one another.  Relationships on campus should be defined by cordiality and compassion.  Messiah is a place that enables students to find meaning and purpose in conversation with educators, staff, and, of course, their fellow students.

Ernest Boyer attended Messiah College in the 1940s.  His gave this speech in the 1980s.  As a historian, I wanted to know if my students saw continuity or change over time as as it relates to community at Messiah. Did the college–now nearly 3000 students strong–still value community?  The response was generally positive.  Several students said that Messiah students, faculty, and administrators do a good job of talking about community, but they were not sure how consistently they live lives defined by community.  Others admitted that the search for community at Messiah College was difficult, but it could be found for those seeking it.  The strongest defenders of community at Messiah were transfer students–young men and women who had attended other educational institutions.  Several of these transfer students told traditional first-year students about the virtual lack of community at other colleges and universities.  Their message was clear: Messiah College is a special place–don’t take it for granted.

By this point, the hour was coming to an end, but I at least wanted to get Boyer’s third and fourth virtues on the table.

Third, Boyer says that Messiah College is committed to teaching.  I tried to get the students to consider the differences between a teaching college/university and a research university.   Many of them were drawn to Messiah (and smaller teaching colleges in general) because they did not want to take introductory courses from graduate students.  They wanted to have relationships with their professors.  Many were seeking mentors.

Fourth, Boyer extols Messiah College for inviting students to seek “connections between what they learn and how they live.”  Last week I challenged the students to cultivate their minds as spiritual discipline.  But Boyer reminds us that good Christian thinking always leads to service.  I wish we had more time to discuss this point, but there will be plenty of opportunities during semester to revisit it.

John Henry Newman is up next.    Follow along 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.

What is the Difference Between Liberty University and Messiah College?

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The covered bridge on the campus of Messiah College

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community class at Messiah College we discussed different kinds of Christian colleges. We thought about the things a Christian college requires all faculty to affirm, the issues a Christian college “privileges” (but does not necessarily require faculty to agree with), and the issues on which a Christian college does not take an official position.  (Most of our discussion built on the work of Messiah College provost Randy Basinger).

Faculty at Messiah College must be Christians.  All faculty must affirm the Apostles Creed.  We thus have Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox faculty.  Other Christian colleges require faculty to affirm more than just the Apostles Creed.  For example, faculty at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan must affirm the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. Wheaton College and Gordon College do not hire Catholics.

Messiah College privileges social and religious positions that line-up with the school’s historic Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist roots.  For example, as a college with Anabaptist roots, Messiah privileges pacifism. As a school with Anabaptist and Wesleyan roots, the college privileges the ordination of women.  But a faculty member does not have to be a pacifist or believe in the ordination of women to teach at the college.  We have faculty who are advocates of a “just war” position and we have faculty from denominations (traditional Catholics and Orthodox, conservative Presbyterians, and complementarian evangelical churches) that do not ordain women.

And there are all kinds of issues on which Messiah College does not have a position.  For example, the college does not take a position on political candidates or parties.

All of this makes for a vibrant and diverse Christian intellectual community.

During our conversation in class, a few students brought up Liberty University.  What does Liberty require of faculty?  What positions and issues does Liberty privilege? What are the issues on which the university does not take a position?

For example, last month we highlighted Jerry Falwell Jr.’s leadership of VEXIT, a movement started by Virginia counties and localities who want to leave the Commonwealth and join the state of West Virginia. Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, is not happy with proposed legislation to restrict gun rights in Virginia.

VEXIT is getting a boost from Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, a think tank created to “equip courageous champions to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ, to advance his kingdom and American freedom”:

The Falkirk Center is connected to Liberty University.  In a January 20, 2020 piece at the Liberty Champion, student journalist Hattie Troutman writes: “The idea for the center was presented by [co-founder Charlie Kirk] when he pitched the idea to Falwell last year. [Executive Director Ryan] Helfenbein said Falwell received the idea well, knowing that if Liberty was to be in a partnership with the center, it must be rooted in the Gospel and represent Liberty University’s missional values.”

So there you have it.  The Falkirk Center is an extension of the mission of Liberty University.  The Falkirk Center promotes VEXIT.  It thus appears that Liberty University privileges VEXIT.

A quick read of the Falkirk Center Twitter feed suggests that the university also privileges gun rights, BREXIT, Donald Trump, free markets, and a pro-life position on abortion. If Messiah College is rooted in the historic Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions, Liberty University is rooted in the (very short) history of the Christian Right.

At Messiah College, we also have “centers” that support beliefs that the college privileges:

  • We have a center for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan studies that promotes issues related to peace, reconciliation, heart-felt conversion, and personal and social holiness.”
  • We have a Center for Public Humanities with a mission to promote the study of the humanities and “partner with our broader community in meaningful inquiry, conversation, and action.”
  • We have a center devoted to the work and legacy of former U.S. Commissioner of Education and Messiah graduate Ernest L. Boyer.  The Boyer Center “advances educational renewal for the common good.”
  • We have a center called The Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research.  This center has a mission to “foster justice, empower the poor, promote peace and care for the earth through applications of our academic and professional disciplines.”

Because Messiah College is a Christian college informed by the history and theology of the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan movements, the college supports centers that reflect the things the college privileges.  Liberty University also has a center that supports the things Liberty University privileges.

Not all Christian colleges are the same.  High school students and their parents should be aware of this.

The Created and Called for Community course continues next week with some additional exploration of Messiah College’s Christian identity.  Follow along here.

Teaching Stanley Hauerwas’s “Go With God”

9143b-hauerwas

Yesterday was our first day of discussion in Created and Called for Community (CCC). The students read Stanley Hauerwas‘s 2010 First Things essay “Go With God: An Open Letter to Young Christians on Their Way to College.”

After some conversation about how to read critically, I asked the students what this article was doing.  We would discuss what the article was saying eventually, but I wanted to start by identifying why Hauerwas decided to write this article.  What were the problems he was trying to address?

We concluded that Hauerwas was trying to address four major issues with this piece:

  1. Too many Christian undergraduates are losing their faith in college.
  2. Too many Christian undergraduates see college solely in terms of career preparation and the pursuit of wealth or, at the very least, a comfortable middle-class life.
  3. Too many Christians do not value intellectual work as a way of worshiping God.
  4. The Christian church is characterized by anti-intellectualism, which is why it needs Christian students to take their college studies seriously.

We identified the fact that Hauerwas wrote this essay in 2010.  Were the problems he identified in 2010 still relevant ten years later?  The overwhelming answer among my Messiah College students was “yes.” In fact, most students thought the problems Hauerwas identified were even more acute than they were a decade ago.

By this point, we were running out of time.  But we still had a few minutes to reflect on two key issues in Hauerwas’s piece.

First, we talked about what it might take to think about college as something more than the pursuit of a career.  What might it mean to understand college in terms of calling or vocation?  (We will pick-up on this theme later in the course).  Hauerwas writes:

In a world of deep injustice and violence, a people exists that thinks some can be given time to study.  We need you to take seriously the calling that is yours by virtue of going to college. You may well be thinking, “What is hethinking? I’m just beginning my freshman year. I’m not being called to be a student. None of my peers thinks he or she is called to be a student. They’re going to college because it prepares you for life. I’m going to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than I’d have if I didn’t go to college. It’s not a calling.”

But you are a Christian. This means you cannot go to college just to get a better job. These days, people talk about college as an investment because they think of education as a bank account: You deposit the knowledge and expertise you’ve earned, and when it comes time to get a job, you make a withdrawal, putting all that stuff on a résumé and making money off the investment of your four years. Christians need jobs just like anybody else, but the years you spend as an undergraduate are like everything else in your life. They’re not yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.

We talked about the counter-cultural nature of Hauerwas’s view of college.  Some students did not feel comfortable with the claim that the college years were not “yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.”  Some said God gave us free will.  But others pointed out that for a Christian, the goal is to bring one’s free will more and more in conformity with the will of God.

Second, we talked about cultivating friendship in college.  Hauerwas writes:

You can’t do this on your own. You’ll need friends who major in physics and biology as well as in economics, psychology, philosophy, literature, and every other discipline. These friends can be teachers and fellow students, of course, but, for the most part, our intellectual friendships are channeled through books. C. S. Lewis has remained popular with Christian students for many good reasons, not the least of which is that he makes himself available to his readers as a trusted friend in Christ. That’s true for many other authors too. Get to know them.

Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented. I’m not a big fan of Francis Schaeffer, but he can be a point of contact—something to agree with or argue about. The same is true for all writers who tackle big questions. Read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and not just because you might learn something. Read them because doing so will provide a sharpness and depth to your conversations. To a great extent, becoming an educated person means adding lots of layers to your relationships. Sure, going to the big football game or having a beer (legally) with your buddies should be fun on its own terms, but it’s also a reality ripe for analysis, discussion, and conversation. If you read Mary Douglas or Claude Levi-Strauss, you’ll have something to say about the rituals of American sports. And if you read Jane Austen or T. S. Eliot, you’ll find you see conversations with friends, particularly while sharing a meal, in new ways. And, of course, you cannot read enough Trollope. Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect.

I asked the students how they made friends during their first semester of college.  They mentioned that their friendships were built on a variety of things: sports fandom, musical tastes, common tastes in video games, membership on athletic teams, proximity to one another in the dorms, etc…  Very few students said that they were building friendships around the kinds of common intellectual pursuits Hauerwas describes above.  I challenged them to go back to their dorm rooms, find some CCC students who also read Hauerwas today, and go get some coffee and talk more about the essay. Some students seemed to be inspired by this idea.  Others thought I was crazy.

By this point it was time to go. Stay tuned. In the next several class periods we will be doing some reading on the history and mission of Messiah College.  Follow along here.

Created and Called for Community: “Making Meaning” on the First Day of Class

College-classroom

I am pretty old school when it comes to the first day of class.  As some of you remember from my post last week, this semester I am teaching Messiah College’s first-year course Created and Called for Community (CCC).  Yesterday I met with all three of my sections  and introduced them to the course.  CCC has a common syllabus.  This means that every first-year student taking this course reads the same texts.  It is the only course of this nature at Messiah College.

The first day is always about logistics–required textbooks, assignments, grading scale, office hours, etc…  But sometimes the syllabus offers opportunities to talk about the importance of such a course.  I tried to do that today.

The syllabus begins this way:

The Created and Called for Community (CCC) course comprises the second half of Messiah College’s curriculum for first-year students, as well as transfer students. Together, First Year Seminar and CCC are designed to equip you with the intellectual skills needed to succeed during the rest of your education at Messiah College. In particular, both “W” courses focus on the ability to write accurately, clearly, and convincingly that will serve you well in your college career (whatever your major), as well as the vocation and profession you enter following your college career.

This is a writing course.  I will be spending a lot of time this semester reading drafts and commenting on papers.  Today, I tried to convince these students–who represent every major at Messiah College, from Engineering and Nursing to History and Sociology–that one does not always fully understand what they believe about a particular issue until they start to write.

The syllabus continues:

CCC also introduces you to the particular kind of community and institution that is Messiah College. Messiah’s history and identity are rooted in three strands of the Christian church known as Anabaptism, Pietism and Wesleyanism. We hope that this course helps you become familiar with basic elements of Messiah’s identity, mission, and foundation. The course will encourage you to cultivate a climate in which there can be better, deeper, and richer conversations about important issues precisely because they’re informed by some common understandings and curriculum. Some of the common readings assigned are classic texts which have been read by generations of college students. Others are more recent and speak to various contemporary issues and concerns.

In tell the students that it is important to understand the identity of the college where they have chosen to study.  They do not have to agree with the mission of Messiah College, but they must understand that when the college administration makes decisions about campus life they do so out of a particular understanding of Christian higher education.  If students are unhappy with the way the administration handles a controversial issue on campus, their criticism of the administration should be based on whether or not the leadership is consistently applying the religious principles that inform the identity of the college.

Finally, CCC is an introduction to liberal arts learning at Messiah College:

CCC, then, is an inter-disciplinary and common-learning course, a course in “meaning-making.” It’s hoped that over the course of this semester, you’ll receive helpful resources to address the experiences, questions, and challenges that you’ll face in the future in an informed and thoughtful fashion. And it’s also a discussion-oriented course. One way to become equipped for this task is to meet and engage with people and ideas worthy of shaping you and your thinking. This semester, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your thoughts alongside other people–the authors whose works we read, your instructor, and your classmates.

Again, you can see the reading list here.  Today I told the students that there are 27 voices that show up to class every day.  25 of those voices are the Messiah College undergraduates who are asked to come to class prepared to discuss the daily reading.  As the instructor, I am an additional voice (#26).  My goal is to facilitate conversation and to raise important questions about the texts.  And one of the voices (#27) in the room is the author of the text we are reading on that day.  Those voices include John Henry Newman, Ernest Boyer, James Weldon Johnson, J.R.R Tolkien, Alice Walker, Martin Luther King, Augustine, Plato, and Dorothy Sayers.  I urged the students to show hospitality to these voices.  I want the students to listen to these voices before critiquing them.  I want my students to approach these texts with humility, assuming that these authors are smarter than them and thus have something to teach them about the world.

The readings for this course fit into three units. They are: Creation, Community, and Calling (Vocation)

Here is how the syllabus describes each unit:

Creation: The first words of Scripture in some translations say that “in the beginning God created…” And so it seems fitting that you’ll begin exploring the theme of creation and creativity by studying the account of God’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2. You’ll examine both the natural and human creation, including the moral and ethical implications that flow from the understanding that every person is made in God’s image (or, in Latin, the imago Dei) and so possesses dignity and status. You’ll also consider how to be faithful stewards of creation and ways in which you can express the creative impulse God has implanted in you.

Community: All human beings throughout history, each of them made in God’s image, have lived within various types of groups or communities: families, groups of friends, churches, college campuses, neighborhoods, nations, and the worldwide or global community. The process of community-building brings with it both great rewards as well as challenges. Communities are inescapable, yet they place demands on us. In exploring this theme, you’ll examine the factors that strengthen and weaken community, and the challenges of community-building in a variety of settings. Along the way, you’ll consider both inspiring exemplars of community-building, as well as times and places where communities have fallen short and succumbed to the practices of segregation or racism or isolation or violence.

Calling or Vocation: Christian vocation requires us to consider not only what we do but also who we are. We’re called to personal transformation by practicing spiritual disciplines and called to social transformation by addressing injustice in the world. Exploring this theme in CCC, you’ll view some of the ways in which various people have served, look at where and how they’ve found their place in the world, look at vocation in various settings, continue the process of discerning your own vocation and place in the world, and look at some of the characteristics of Christian vocation—especially service, work, leadership, and reconciliation.

Stay tuned.  We are discussing Stanley Hauerwas’s “God With God” on Wednesday.

Follow along here.

Teaching this Semester

Created and Called

This semester, for the first time in my eighteen-year career at Messiah College, I will not be teaching any history courses.  Instead, I will be teaching three sections of a required first-year seminar titled “Created and Called for Community.”  This course, which uses a common syllabus, is designed to introduce a Messiah College liberal arts education to first-year students.  It focuses on the writing, close reading of texts, biblical and theological reflection on human dignity and community, and the meaning of Christian vocation.

I will be teaching these texts:

Stanley Hauerwas, “Go With God

John Henry Newman, “What is a University?

Ernest L. Boyer, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College

Genesis 1-2

James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation

Bruce Birch, “The Image of God

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle

Alice Walker, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Exodus 19-20

Matthew 5-7

 Acts 1-4

Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed

Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (excerpt)

Alabama Clergyman, “A Call for Unity” and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone

Augustine, Confessions (excerpts)

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

Luke 10:25-37

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Desmond Tutu, “God Believes in Us

Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” (excerpt)

Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor

Henri Nouwen, “Adam’s Peace

Jerry Sittser, “Distinguishing Between Calling and Career

Jerry Sittser, “What We’re Supposed to Do”

Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?

I will probably blog about these texts as the semester moves forward.  Feel free to read or follow along.