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

writing-923882_960_720

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”

Image of God

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?”

IRELAND-DUBLIN-Custom-Building

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

4f769-boyer1

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

writing-923882_960_720

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?

37ec3-messiahcoveredbridge11

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.