Tag Archives: Christian scholarship

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SEEING MORE CLEARLY WHOM WE SERVE

Sociologist Christian Smith–a believing scholar at Notre Dame, formerly at UNC–has spent most of his career systematically surveying American religious beliefs.  A prolific author, he is perhaps best known for his 2005 book (coauthored with Melinda L. Denton) Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Less well known outside academic circles is his 1998 study focused specifically on the values and beliefs of evangelical Christians in the U. S.–American Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving.

The book’s title nicely captures its main argument.  After undertaking extensive polling and conducting thousands of interviews, Smith and his team of researchers concluded that American evangelicals were thriving  in large part because they were embattled.  Evangelicalism was growing rapidly, in other words, “very much because of and not in spite of its confrontation with modern pluralism.”  Evangelicals see themselves as taking part in an ongoing struggle with an unbelieving culture, Smith found, and that sense of struggle has given evangelicalism much of its religious strength.

The sense of cultural struggle Smith alludes to has surely had its benefits for the life of the mind.  Most notably, as Smith points out, it has kept American evangelicals from either blandly blending into the secular mainstream or wholly withdrawing into fundamentalist ghettos.  That’s a good thing.  But when it comes to our engagement with the past, our sense of being engaged in a cultural struggle has been a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it has led countless believers to value the past, to believe that it is vitally important that American Christians not lose touch with their religious and national history.  Although we historians often bemoan our culture’s “chronological snobbery” and relentless present-mindedness, every time I attend a home-school gathering or speak to a private Christian school, I am reminded that there is an enormous population of American Christians who take history with the utmost seriousness.

On the other hand, the embattled mindset that Smith writes about has encouraged countless Christian leaders and thinkers to study the past with an agenda in mind.  The most influential contributors to the popular view that America was founded as a Christian nation are also among the most egregious practitioners of what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.

Although their intentions may be honorable, those who adopt this strategy are more interested in proving points and winning arguments than in gaining greater understanding of a complex past.  They know in advance what they want to find in their investigations, and they can already envision how their anticipated “discoveries” will reinforce values that they already hold.  I cannot overstate the costs of such an approach.  When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process. History loses its potential to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all. We learn nothing beyond what we already “know.

Conceiving the Christian CollegeHere is an extended quote from my commonplace book that calls Christians to a different standard.  The author is Duane Litfin, who for seventeen years (1993-2010) was president of my current institution, Wheaton College.  The passage is from his 2004 work Conceiving the Christian College.  In context, Litfin is exploring the possible motivations for Christian scholarship and challenging Christians engaged in the life of the mind “to see more fully whom we serve.”  Listen to what he has to say:

I am highly motivated to be about the business of cultivating our minds and our learning, but it seems to me that our first motives must be intrinsic rather than instrumental.  In other words, we must learn to love God with our minds, to use our artistic gifts for Christ, to embody him in serving our neighbor and our society.  But our primary motive for doing so must not be the transformation of our culture.  Our prime motive must be obedience to Jesus Christ.  Then, if the living Christ graciously chooses to use our efforts to mold our culture into more of what he wants it to be, we will be grateful.  On the other hand, if he does not so choose–and let us be clear about it, he does not always so choose–and the culture remains resistant, even hostile, to our Christian influence, we must not be cast down.  Our motivation is not dependent on the acceptance and approval of our culture; in the end we care preeminently about the approval of Jesus Christ.  Our goal is to love God with our minds, whether the culture comes to appreciate our efforts or not.

The Church and the Christian Scholar: A Tribute to a Friend

A good friend of mine had a heart attack two days ago.  For twenty-one years James Felak and I were colleagues in the History Department at the University of Washington.  For most of that time, James was my only close Christian friend in a research institution that boasted some three thousand full-time faculty members.  I haven’t been able to talk to James yet, but my understanding is that his prognosis is encouraging.  Yesterday he asked for coffee and a laptop, and I count that a good sign, if more than a little premature.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections on “The Church and the Christian Scholar.”  In that context, I want to pay tribute to James publicly, for he has both encouraged and challenged me greatly over the years as I have tried to figure out what it means to be a Christian scholar.  The Scripture calls believers to “walk worthy of the calling” with which we have been called, but it does not call us to walk alone.  In James, I encountered another Christian scholar willing to walk alongside me, and I will be forever grateful.

James joined the UW faculty the year after I did, and we eventually became fast friends.  I remember distinctly the first time we really connected.  A few months after James’s arrival, Seattle was hit by a freak snow storm.  (It rarely snows there, and large accumulations are almost unheard of.)  I had walked to the graduate library after lunch on a cool, damp, overcast day, which is another way of saying that it was a typical winter afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.  After six hours of reading microfilm, I came out to find that there was already 8-9 inches of snow on the ground, the public bus system on which I depended was  effectively shut down, and I had no way of getting to my home some thirteen miles from campus.  Expecting to spend the night in my office, I went to the student center to grab dinner before the grill closed, and there I happened upon James, who was doing course prep at one of the tables there.  I knew that James lived a couple of miles away and regularly walked to work, and so I asked if I could sleep on his couch for the night.  He readily agreed.

I’ll never forget the trek to his house that followed.  Neither of us was dressed for snow, which was by now up to our shins.  We were walking in regular street shoes and thin jackets, the wind was howling, the snow seemed to be coming almost horizontally–so thick that we could hardly see–and what was most bizarre of all, the entire sky was repeatedly illuminated with truly awe-inspiring flashes of lightning.  I was miserable, weary, and more than a little distracted by the prospect of being electrocuted in a blizzard.

But not James.  James was energized by the opportunity to talk about ideas–his lifelong passion–and talk he did.  Although the wind and thunder were often so loud that he had to shout into my ear, James excitedly shared his views on Communism, socialism, Christianity, the Cold War, East European history, and the conjugation of Hungarian verbs.  I was simultaneously flabbergasted and enthralled.  We have been friends ever since.

The conversations that followed over the years were less memorable but more meaningful.  As we discovered our common faith, the focus of our discussions centered more and more on the question of calling, and in particular what it meant for us to labor faithfully in the academic contexts in which God had placed us.  These conversations were inspiring and revitalizing, and I could have them with no one else.

Most of the Christian scholars I know laboring at secular colleges and universities feel profoundly alone.  At work, they are surrounded by co-workers who cannot relate to their faith, who may even equate Christianity with superstition and ignorance.  In their churches, they are often surrounded by fellow believers who cannot relate to their vocation, who may even doubt whether  genuine Christians exist within the Academy.   As a result, they are soon worn down by what the late Harry Blamires called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”

God used James to spare me from such loneliness.  Over scores of brown-bag lunches, James loved me by listening.  G. K. Chesterton once warned that “thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.”   James’ friendship kept me from thinking in isolation, and it probably also pulled me back from any number of idiotic conclusions.   (I know that he thinks so, at any rate.)

Along the way, James challenged me in a number of specific ways.  First, he called me to take seriously the wisdom of Christian writers over the centuries.  Ironic for a historian, there was an element of “historylessness” (to quote sociologist Sydney Mead) in my approach to the faith.  Like most American evangelicals, I paid attention to the history of the early church as revealed in the New Testament, but once I finished the book of Revelation I jumped to C. S. Lewis and Billy Graham.  James invited me to meet with him regularly to discuss various Christian works, and the first suggestion on his list was the Confessions of St. Augustine, a sixteen-hundred-year-old work of startling contemporary relevance.

Second, James pushed me to broaden my scholarship with an eye to finding points of intersection with the interests of Christians outside the Academy.  The son of a mechanic and the product of a western Pennsylvania steel town, James has unbounded appreciation for the life of the mind.  In a way that I found bracing, however, he also scorned intellectual pretension and rejected the common academic view of scholarship as a closed conversation for privileged professors to have among themselves.  The latter was a view I had unconsciously embraced myself, and James tried to show me this by teasing me, which is his default way of relating to almost everyone.  (I lost track of the number of times he shared the eulogy he planned to deliver at my funeral.  It involved the audience wailing in grief as he read from my curriculum vitae.)

Finally, and most importantly, James encouraged me to believe that I had something to say to the church that was worth saying, that God could use me, as a scholar, to bless other believers.  The encouragement was priceless.  I wrote James just as soon as I heard a rumor that he was in the hospital, and I heard back from him literally in the midst of writing this post.  Not surprisingly, the e-mail was short.  “I’m alive–getting discharged today,” he began.  James went on to relate how the main artery to his heart had been 95% blocked, and that the attack that he suffered is the kind cardiologists refer to as “the widowmaker.”  “For years I’ve been afraid of living too long,” he confessed, “now I have the opposite concern.”  And then in the very next sentence, so characteristically encouraging and selfless, “I finished your book–fantastic job.”

Thank you, James.  Thank you, Lord.