Out of the Zoo: “Just Mercy”

Just MercyAnnie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on the film Just Mercy. –JF

The best movie theater in the world is in Plainwell, Michigan. I might be a little biased, but I have yet to find a movie theater that can beat M-89 Cinema’s $2.50 ticket price for morning showings and $5 price in the evenings. M-89 even has popcorn buckets that you can refill for free on Thursdays and for just a few cents the rest of the week. Whenever I’m home on breaks from college I try to see as many movies as I can–over winter recess I went to M-89 four times. I saw Star Wars, Little Women, and Frozen II (twice).

I’ve found only one movie theater in Pennsylvania so far that’s cheaper than M-89, and that’s the one we have on campus at Messiah College. Every week there’s a different “Lost Film” (usually a movie that’s been in theaters for a while, but hasn’t yet been released on DVD) playing there for Messiah students to watch for free. This past weekend, hundreds of students flocked to Boyer 136 to see Just Mercy, a film that tells the story of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, a “nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.”

Anthony Ray Hinton, himself freed by the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, plugged Just Mercy a few times throughout his lecture at Messiah a couple weeks ago (read about it here). Inspired by Hinton’s lecture and determined to learn more about the EJI, I made plans with a few of my friends (most of them fellow history majors) to go see it Friday night. Parmer Cinema was packed. Those who couldn’t find an empty seat sat in the front below the screen, or leaned on the walls next to the side aisles. We all sat together for the next two hours, often in tears, and watched our nation’s all-too-recent history play out before us on the screen.

I left Parmer Cinema that night with the urge to do something. I’ve seen Hinton speak, and I’ve seen Just Mercy, so what now? Is there something, anything, I can do to help those wronged by the criminal justice system? I know men are still unfairly placed on death row across the nation (one such man is scheduled to be executed in Alabama tomorrow), but what can I do about it? I’m not a lawyer like Bryan Stevenson and I don’t plan on becoming one, so I know I cannot personally free innocent convicts from death row. I am not a millionaire with the ability to donate thousands of dollars to the Equal Justice Initiative, nor am I a legislator with the power to enact criminal justice reform.

I may not be a lawyer or a millionaire or a legislator, but there is still plenty for me to do. Because I am a historian, I can uncover stories like those of Anthony Ray Hinton and Walter McMillan. Because I am a future teacher, I can then share those stories with young people and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Because I am a United States citizen, I can vote for lawmakers who will protect the vulnerable members of society from injustice. Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I can pray and trust that one day, whether in this world or the next, all wrongs will be put right. Indeed, there is plenty of work to do. 

If you do nothing else, please go see Just Mercy. It will open your eyes.

A Day at Messiah College With Students from Georgetown Day School

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The Georgetown Day School students get a lesson on the history and identity of Messiah College in Hostetter Chapel (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

Last year some faculty and administrators at Georgetown Day School (GDS) in Washington D.C. contacted me about the possibility of bringing some high school juniors and seniors to Messiah College as part of the school’s “minimester.” What is a minimester? Here is a description from the GDS website:

Georgetown Day School’s mission calls us to challenge the intellectual, creative and physical abilities of our students, and to encourage inquiry and self-reliance in those students as they grow into “lifelong learners.” In February of 2020, GDS students and faculty will participate in a three-day program designed to bring that mission to life through an immersive and experiential learning experience wholly separate from the normal day-to-day academic program of the school.

We’re calling this experience Minimester.

On February 26th – 28th, GDS teachers will lead dozens of deep, creative experiences with themes sprouted from the passions and interests of faculty and staff — passions that may or may not fall within the purview of their academic disciplines. Students will select the Minimester course in which they’d like to participate, and will spend the allotted three days immersing themselves in their chosen topic.

The students who came to Messiah College on February 27, 2020 were enrolled in a minimester course titled “A View from the Other Side: Partisan Politics in Trump’s America.” Here is a description of the course:

Over the course of our minimester, we will explore the other side — meaning the political, social, economic world beyond the typical GDS view of things. A variety of speakers, from “explainer” journalists and commentators to those who inhabit the conservative spectrum, will engage with us as we dive deeply into the current political landscape and the operative theme of, “how did we get here?” We’ll also journey outward, exploring the world beyond the Beltway and the GDS bubble focusing on candidates’ platforms and what it is that people have not been hearing for years from either Democrat or Republican candidates. We will consider what the world looks like to Americans living in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and other parts of the country, and why they might take a chance on a non-politician who says, “No one cares about you, but I do.” One hoped-for outcome might be a service trip to Appalachia in the Spring. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “You have to go there to know there.”

This course included conversations at GDS with Juan Williams of Fox News, Kate Bennett of CNN (and author of the book Free Melania), and conservative Republican Washington Post writer Gary Abernathy, among others.

GDS teachers Lisa Rauschart (History), Sue Ikenberry (Politics), and Michael Manson (English) were familiar with my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and asked me if the could bring students up to Mechanicsburg to talk about why evangelicals support Donald Trump. They also wanted to learn more about a region that went heavily for Trump in 2016.  Throughout the course of the day, students and their teachers talked about getting out of the “GDS Bubble” and having an experience in a place that was unfamiliar to them. Most of these kids grew up in liberal and progressive Washington D.C.-area homes.

Fifteen students, the aforementioned teachers, and Gary Abernathy arrived at Messiah College by bus around mid-morning.  I took them on a very short tour of campus.  We stopped in the chapel to talk about Messiah College’s history and its connection to the Anabaptism, Wesleyan, and Pietist streams of Christianity.  The students seemed particularly interested in Messiah’s commitment to pacifism.  They were also surprised when I told them that the school, in accordance with its Anabaptist heritage, does not fly an American flag on campus.  These were bright kids destined for Ivy League and other elite colleges and they displayed a deep curiosity about Messiah’s roots and our unique approach to Christian education.  (I told them that if they liked what they saw and heard they should apply! 🙂 )

We treated the group to lunch at the dining hall (thanks Pete Powers and the School of Humanities) where they were joined by three Messiah students (including our own Annie Thorn) who were gracious enough to take time out of their day to visit with these high school students.

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L to R: Katy, Annie, and Chloe were great hosts! (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

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With GDS teacher Michael Manson and Washington Post writer Gary Abernathy solving the world’s problems in Martin Commons on the campus of Messiah College (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

After lunch we headed to downtown Mechanicsburg where we met local historian John Klinger at the Mechanicsburg Museum Association.  Klinger gave a short lecture on the history of Mechanicsburg and then took us on a walking tour of the town, ending at the historic Frankenberger Tavern on Main Street. The students got a full taste of the town, including one house that had a huge Confederate flag flying on its front porch. While I am no fan of this flag, it provided a wonderful educational moment.  I reminded the kids that they were no longer in Georgetown.

The day ended back at Messiah College with a conversation about evangelicals Trump.  I used the time to define evangelicalism using Bebbington’s Quadrilateral and tried to explain Messiah College’s relationship to the larger evangelical world.  I distinguished Messiah from Liberty University, a Christian school of which most of the students were familiar.  Some of the students had no idea that Christian colleges were not all alike.

I explained why I wrote Believe Me, said a few things about the central argument of the book, and then let the students ask questions. (Students received a copy of Believe Me as part of the minimester course).  This was the highlight of the day for me.  These kids wanted to talk about everything–abortion, gay marriage, religious liberty, immigration, and the way Trump was using evangelicals in the 2020 election.  I am guessing that many of them agreed with my conclusions about Trump, but disagreed with my reasons for opposing him. They were respectful and intellectually curious. A scheduled 45-minute session lasted close to 90-minutes and we continued talking as we left Boyer Hall.

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Why do so many evangelicals support Donald Trump? (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

Fea with GDS students

The conversation continued well after the former session was over (photo by Lisa Rauschart)

When we got on the bus, Abernathy thanked me for hosting the group and then told me, with a smile that could only come from spending a long today together, that he disagreed with just about everything I said.  I laughed and told him that he would get the last word with the students as they drove back to D.C. 🙂

At the end of the day one of the students asked me for some tips about how to overcome the divisiveness and partisanship in American culture today.  I suggested that we need more days like this one!  She agreed.  As these kids head off to college and find themselves in positions where they will be able to change the world, I hope they will remember their visit to Messiah College and their experience in central Pennsylvania.  Thanks for coming and letting us see ourselves through your eyes.  I learned a lot from the visit!

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.”

Out of the Zoo: “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

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Anthony Ray Hinton

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on Anthony Ray Hinton‘s recent talk at Messiah College.  -JF

I love history, but sometimes the past makes me angry. Learning about Nazi concentration camps makes me angry. Images of chattel slavery, newspaper articles about lynching, and documentaries about Jim Crow all make me angry. No amount of historical exposure can prepare the human heart for the amount of sorrow, frustration, and rage that comes upon seeing images of slaves scarred by their masters, of innocent black men hanging from trees, or of Civil Rights protesters knocked down by fire hoses. Indeed, historians are no strangers to the fact that we live in a fallen world, broken by sin.

I came face to face with the fallen state of our world yet again last Thursday, when Anthony Ray Hinton delivered the keynote address of Messiah’s 2020 Humanities Symposium. Anthony Hinton explained that back in 1985, when two restaurant owners were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, he was wrongly accused—and wrongly convicted—for the crime. As a result, Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit; those thirty years in a five-by-seven cell, Hinton explained, were nothing short of hell on earth. Now an ally of the Equal Justice Initiative and a New York Times bestselling author, Hinton travels around the world sharing his story at places like Messiah College. 

Hinton had every right to be angry about spending thirty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, over and over again Hinton reminded his audience that we can’t let our anger get in the way of our compassion. Guided by his faith in Jesus Christ, Hinton forgave his oppressors, prayed for God to send him his “best lawyer” to reveal the truth, and shared the gospel with others on death row. Hinton even showed the love of Christ to Henry Hays, who was in prison (and eventually executed) for lynching a young black man. “No matter what anyone does, they still deserve compassion,” Hinton said. Even from hearing him speak for just a couple hours, I could tell Hinton lives out this truth each and every day.

Hinton’s lecture made me realize that sometimes I let my anger get in the way of my compassion—in my study of the past and in my everyday life. I find myself condemning people for their crimes, for their injustice and their hatred; I criticize others’ wrongdoing, and all too often forget that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I forget that all people, guilty or innocent or wrongly convicted, are made in the image of God and invited to be in a relationship with him. I forget that Jesus died for everyone—not just the ones who have their lives together or sit in church every Sunday. Jesus died for liars, he died for murderers, and he died for slave owners. I think that we as historians, and as human beings, need to remind ourselves of this truth daily.

In the wake of injustice, we are to choose love instead of hate. We are to choose light instead of darkness. And then we must trust that the God of the universe will work all things out for our good. It’s okay to be angry about oppression, and to be saddened by sin. But we cannot let our anger get in the way of our compassion.

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.

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”

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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.

Out of the Zoo: “I Am A Man”

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about experiencing the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 through a virtual reality experience. –JF

“I AM A MAN, a virtual reality (VR) experience”

The subject of the mass email stood out from the rest in my inbox. Normally when I log into my college email I’m greeted by a host of messages–Canvas announcements, grade updates, etc.–but this one stood out from the rest. I had no idea what “I AM A MAN” meant, nor had I ever tried a virtual reality experience, but I was intrigued. A quick read of the email notified me that the “I Am A Man VR Experience” was going to be held in Murray Library during Martin Luther King commemoration week. The announcement promised that the experience would allow participants to literally walk in the shoes of the civil rights activists who organized the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Fascinated by prospect of VR history, and realizing that time slots for the experience were filling up quickly, I promptly reserved a session for myself.

On a brisk afternoon the following week I made my way to the Library’s Athenaeum, where the experience was being held. The room was divided in two, with a floor-to-ceiling curtain stretching down the middle. I made my way to the other side of the curtain, which was empty save for the virtual reality equipment and a small X taped in the middle of the floor. The experience attendant fitted my VR headset, twisting the dial in the back until the headpiece was snug against my brow. He showed me how to hold the controls, and as I slid my hands through the wrist straps he explained which buttons I would need to use throughout the program. Finally, he guided me to the X in the middle of the floor, where I waited for the experience to start.

For the next 15 minutes, I lived the life of someone else.  Surrounded by history, I saw the world not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of a black man deep in the throes of the civil rights movement. Scenes faded in and out, interspersed with narrative interludes explaining the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. One moment I stood in front of a beeping garbage truck backing down an alley, and the next I watched scores of men marching down the street holding signs that read “I AM A MAN.” In another scene I stood in the parking lot at the Lorraine Motel and waved at Martin Luther King standing on the balcony. Seconds later, a gunshot rang out and the scene faded to black. The darkness receded to reveal the same street that I stood on earlier, now in shambles. Forlorn-looking men stood scattered along the street; the signs they once held with pride littered the sidewalk. President John F. Kennedy spoke sorrowfully from a television inside a barred store window about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots. My heart started pounding when police car headlights pierced through the fog, and quickened further when the officer inside demanded angrily that I put my hands above my head.

I thought I knew what it meant to step into other people’s shoes. I thought that by studying history, by reading words and amplifying voices that I could effectively empathize with the struggle of others. Yet it was not until I literally stepped into an African American man’s shoes, until I literally saw the world through his eyes, that I was able to begin to feel what he felt–to comprehend the fear, stress and sorrow that people of color experienced in the 1960s and must still experience today. I thought I understood the struggle that marginalized people have faced throughout human history, but “I Am A Man” made me realize that I’ve only been scratching the surface.

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

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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.

Out of the Zoo: Meeting Minnijean

IMG_5938 (1)

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about meeting Minnijean Brown-Trickey,, one of the famed Little Rock Nine. –JF

Last week was Martin Luther King Commemoration Week here at Messiah College. From Civil Rights trivia, to a virtual reality experience called “I Am A Man,” to special showings of Harriet in Parmer Cinema, the MLK Committee packed the week with a wide variety of events that allowed students to remember the legacy of the late Dr. King.

The week kicked off with a campus service day Monday and a common chapel service on Tuesday morning. Students, some released early from their morning J-term classes and others gearing up for an afternoon session, filed into Brubaker Auditorium while Messiah’s gospel choir United Voices of Praise sang “We Shall Overcome.” The stands were packed with familiar and unfamiliar faces—most were those of Messiah undergrads and professors, but many more belonged to teachers and students visiting from nearby school districts. So many bodies filled the old gymnasium that someone instructed audience members to shuffle towards the center of their respective rows to make room for more people who continued to trickle in.

The morning’s speaker was Minnijean Brown-Trickey, and I had been looking forward to hearing her speak for weeks. One of the nine African American high school students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 in the face of tremendous opposition, Minnijean Brown-Trickey has since dedicated her life to continuing the fight against social injustice. I had seen Minnijean Brown-Trickey featured in several documentaries, read about the Little Rock Nine from textbooks and museum exhibits, and even used documents detailing Minnijean’s eventual expulsion from Central in a lesson plan. After Don Opitz, Messiah’s campus pastor opened the service in prayer, Minnijean was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation from the lively crowd.

Minnijean’s speech was a delightful whirlwind. She touched on anything and everything in that short half hour or so, from her first interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, to the principles of non-violence, to the puzzling mixture of religion and hatred that she first noticed in 1957 and continues to notice in the present. Minnijean told stories, a few jokes, and called her audience to action; she assured the crowd that there’s no shortage of things to do when it comes to fighting against injustice. I scribbled down notes in my journal throughout her address, trying to capture as many of her words as I could. I usually bring my notebook along to chapel, recording a few scattered quotations here and there. This time I ended up with three pages.

I cleared my evening’s schedule and came back to Hostetter Chapel Tuesday  night to see Minnijean speak again. Like Brubaker that morning, Hostetter was packed—filled to the brim with professors, college students, high schoolers, and even some elementary school children hoping to hear more of Minnijean’s story. After the scheduled hour of Q&A came to a close, Minnijean and her daughter Spirit warmly greeted anyone who stayed afterwards to chat. My friends and I waited in line to shake her hand—she insisted on giving us hugs instead—and to pose for the photo featured above. As history students, we were clearly in our element.

What a good day to be a Messiah College history major! I have never had the privilege to meet someone who truly made history, and last Tuesday I got to do just that. Someday when I teach my students about the Little Rock Nine, I will tell them that I met Minnijean Brown-Trickey. I’m not gonna lie, I’m still a little starstruck.

A Glimpse of Hope

Last night some of my history students showed up at my house singing Christmas carols.  For close to a decade, Messiah College history majors have been caroling at the homes of their professors.  It is a department tradition. We invite them in, give them some food (brownies and cookies this year), and have some conversation.

If you are in search of hope in these dark times, spend time with some really engaged Christian college students.  Our conversation only last about 30 minutes, but we had a great discussion about their experiences in evangelical churches and their attempts to balance critical thinking with membership in their religious communities.

I needed this tonight!

 

Out of the Zoo: Holidays Make Us Historians

candy cane lane

The beginning of the Christmas season in my hometown (Kalamazoo) is marked by the appearance of “Candy Cane Lane” in Bronson Park.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the upcoming Christmas season. –JF

It seems as if the Christmas Season is in full swing. While I (shamelessly) started listening to Christmas music and watching Hallmark movies on November first, on the day after Thanksgiving the entire world seems to turn shades of red and green. Michael Bublé comes out of hiding and sings out on radio broadcasts, coffee shops and supermarkets alike play festive tunes for their customers. Netted fir trees strapped atop SUVs become a regular appearance on highways, supplemented by the occasional Amazon or UPS truck packed to the brim with black Friday orders. Every year after Thanksgiving my family ventures into our dusty attic to retrieve our Christmas decorations; we pull out our snowy Disney Princess village, our singing Christmas clock, and our many, many farm-themed ornaments for the tree. 

I traveled back to Messiah on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was welcomed by a campus decked out for the Christmas season. After a long nine hour drive from Michigan I was greeted by house-mates Chloe and Amy, hard at work assembling a faux Christmas tree in our living room and stringing lights outside. I’m sure first-year dorms are busy at work decorating for Messiah’s annual “Deck the Halls” competition.

The Christmas season is pretty special on a Christian college campus. Once December hits Messiah’s worship teams dust off the Christmas songs in their repertoire and play them at chapel and other services on campus. Murray Library hosts a Christmas tea and crafting event for students each year, serving homemade scones and striped candy canes. Students flock to Lottie-Nelson Dining Hall for Christmas dinner the week before exams to stuff themselves with comfort food and seasonal desserts. Teachers tell students about their Christmas plans and share their favorite holiday traditions.

I love the Christmas season. I adore the lights, the food, all the time with family and friends; but one of my favorite things about Christmas is that it has deep roots in history. The task of the historian is to remember the past and to recreate it in the present; when we celebrate Christmas that’s exactly what we’re doing. As a Christian I believe that Christ’s miraculous birth was a real event that happened about two thousand years ago, a real event from the past that should be brought to life in the present for the world to see. When we sing Christmas songs, set up our nativities or light our advent candles, we do just that; we resurrect Christ’s story and remember that our God is not just the God of heaven, but He’s also God on earth, God with us, Emmanuel.

Christmas isn’t the only holiday with deep roots in history. All holidays have historical beginnings–even if they’re often entangled with myth, distorted by exaggerations, or littered with omissions along the way. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter, for example are all meant, in one way or another, to remember and celebrate an event that happened in the past and shape the meaning it retains in the present. When the holiday season comes around, we are all historians, in a sense. We remember, resurrect, and make meaning out of things that happened. Then, as historians, it is up to us to sort fact from fiction, reality from myth. We examine the events and the meanings that they hold all wrapped up in bows and lights and “Christmas magic.” Instead of getting caught up in all the glamour, we seek out what really happened.

“Out of the Zoo” is Back!

Springhill trailer

Each Springhill day camp team has a trailer they haul from site to site. Inside you’ll find anything from bins of tie-dye shirts, to high adventure equipment, to inflatable water slides.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Here is Annie’s first dispatch from the 2019-2020 academic year.🙂  –JF

 

After a long nine hour drive east from my hometown in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I’m finally settled in at Messiah College for the upcoming academic year. While I’ll miss the Mitten, I’m excited to be back in the Keystone State for another couple semesters of learning and growth. Before I share what’s on the horizon for me this fall, I thought I’d take this blog post to write a little bit about my adventure this past summer, and how it reminded me of what I’m learning here.

I spent the summer working for Springhill Camps, a half-century old Christian ministry that serves several thousand kids each year. Springhill has two sizeable overnight camp locations in Michigan and Indiana, but the organization also has over ten day camp teams. These teams, based out of West Michigan, Detroit, Chicago, and Ohio, partner with churches primarily around the Midwest to bring the Springhill experience directly to their communities. This past year was my second summer working with one of these day camp teams. I was West Michigan One’s high adventure area director, so I spent ten weeks setting up, inspecting, and tearing down the mobile rock wall we hauled between locations.

Throughout the week at day camp kids participate in a wide variety of adventure activities. Then, after each activity, whether it’s the rock wall or tie-dye or paintball, summer leaders guide their campers through debriefs. During debriefs, campers have three tasks. Their first is to share what they liked about the activity. Secondly, they cite what they didn’t like. Lastly, and most importantly, they find ways to relate the activity back to what they know about God and their relationship with Christ.

Debriefs are my favorite part about Springhill. We tell our counselors that without debriefs, Springhill just wouldn’t be Springhill. It’s true–because while the kids do come to camp to have fun and to try new things, they’re really there to learn what God has done for them, how much he loves them, and how desperately he desires to be in a relationship with them. They’re there to discover that whatever they do, whatever they learn, can be brought back to Jesus.

The best thing, in my opinion, about studying history here at Messiah College is that our instructors also find ways to relate everything we learn back to our relationship with Christ. Our professors here don’t just teach us history for its own sake, but rather they show us how reconstructing the past can relate to our faith. Studying history provides opportunities to practice empathy and compassion, and encourages us to turn our attention to all human beings–not just the ones we agree with or understand. It reveals the presence of sin in the world and the reality of its consequences. It also forces us to humble ourselves and accept the fact that no matter how much we know, there still might be something about the past only God can fully comprehend.

I could go on further, but you probably get the picture. Messiah’s history department does an excellent job of training young historians. If my school failed to show me how to do research or teach a history class, I would have transferred a long time ago. What’s more important to me, though, is that our professors ensure our education remains centered on Christ. Because while we may receive knowledge, a degree, or a fun college experience here at Messiah, we’re really here to bring everything we do, everything we learn, back to Jesus.

Day 1 of “Age of Hamilton” or Fea Enters His “Absent-Minded Professor” Phase

Frey

Frey Hall, Messiah College

Yesterday was the first day of my “Age of Hamilton” course at Messiah College.  I have nineteen students enrolled in this 300-level history course.  History majors get credit toward their major, but about half of the students are non-majors taking this course as a free elective because they are obsessed in one way or another with the Broadway musical and its cast album.  I also had one student who knew nothing about the “Hamilton” phenomenon sweeping the United States.  He decided to take the course because he liked some of the Hamilton songs I played last Spring when he was a student in my U.S. History survey course.

I have spent about nine months thinking about and preparing for this course.  I thought I was ready.  Yesterday morning I  woke-up, did some reading, went for a walk with the dog, wrote a blog post, ate breakfast, stopped at Turkey Hill for my coffee (McDonald’s is closed for renovations), and headed off to campus.  Joy, my wife, sent me a text that read: “Good luck on your first day of teaching.  Glad you are going to take your shot!”  My daughter, a college freshman who I have been torturing with Hamilton songs for the last nine months, texted from Grand Rapids to wish me luck.

I got to campus at around 10:00am–plenty of time to collect my thoughts in preparation for the 12:00pm start time.  But I had left out one small mental detail: the course was actually SCHEDULED FOR 11:00AM!!

So there I was at 11:15, sitting in my office goofing around online and drinking a cup of coffee when my department chairperson walked in.  “John,” he said, “I just got a call from a student.  You apparently have a class waiting for you in Frey Hall 241.”  I was so convinced that the class started at noon that I argued with him.  “That can’t be my Hamilton class,” I said, “it doesn’t start for another forty-five minutes.”  I looked at the syllabus, which was sitting in front of me on my desk.  It said that class started a noon.  It did not occur to me that I had put the wrong time on the syllabus.

Finally reality set in and I realized, embarrassingly, that my department chair and students were right about the start time and I was wrong.  I jumped-up and ran across campus to Frey 241.  It was a humid day in central Pennsylvania so by the time I arrived I was sweating-up a storm.  When I walked into the classroom I yelled “I AM HERE!”  The class started clapping and cheering.  They were just as eager as I was to start engaging with Hamilton and Hamilton.

I guess this means that we are off to a good start.  It also means that I may have entered the absent-minded professor phase of my career.  🙂

Here Comes the New Semester!

Class start today at Messiah College.  This semester I will be teaching the United States Survey to 1865 and an upper-level history course on the Age of Hamilton.  Stay tuned…

The new students arrived over the weekend and we are ready to go!

Move-In Week 2019 from Kai Yuen Leong on Vimeo.