Bethel or Luz? The Christian College as the “House of God”

Bonhoeffer, Life TogetherThe enormous, blogging-unfriendly workload notwithstanding, there’s at least one clear benefit of teaching a course in Bethel’s three-week intensive known as “J-term”: when you spend nearly three hours per afternoon with students, class really does start to feel like a community. I’m not great at community-building, but I do appreciate the insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work, Life Together, one of which is that any family or other Christian community should spend time together in worship, prayer, and devotional study. I teach at 1pm, so I looked to his advice on midday prayer:

The noonday hour, where it is possible, becomes for the Christian family fellowship a brief rest on the day’s march. Half of the day is past. The fellowship thanks God and prays for protection until the eventide….

Noon is one of the seven prayer hours of the Church and the Psalmist. At the height of the day the Church lifts up its voice to the triune God in praise of His wonders and prayer for help and speedy redemption. At midday the heavens were darkened above the Cross of Jesus. The work of atonement was approaching its completion. And where a Christian family fellowship is able to gather together at this hour for a brief devotion of song and prayer, it will not do so in vain.

To guide our selection of psalms and other scriptures, I’ve been using the daily lectionary from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (remember: I’m almost one), with a particular emphasis on the Old Testament texts. (A war that kills 60+ million seems more OT than NT, most days.) It’s not always easy to see rhyme or reason for the selections, which have mostly ricocheted between the histories and prophets so far, but I’ve appreciated how surprising connections suggest themselves.

For example, today’s passage from Genesis:

God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes; then come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak that was near Shechem.

As they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities all around them, so that no one pursued them. Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because it was there that God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called Allon-bacuth. (Gen 35:1-8, NRSV)

That this story of Jacob ends with a sudden death certainly creates an interesting echo of my opening reflection on seeing “thick darkness” in the church’s season of light, Epiphany. Even where God reveals himself, there is darkness: Bethel, the house of God, neighbors Allon-bacuth, the oak of weeping.

Lundquist at Seminary Groundbreaking, 1964
Carl Lundquist at the groundbreaking ceremony for Bethel’s new campus, 1964 — Used by permission of the Bethel University Digital Library

But because we happen to be studying World War II at a university also named “Bethel,” another insight came to mind. This one courtesy of Bethel’s longest-serving president (and my frequent research subject), Carl Lundquist (1954-1982). Early in his tenure (1955) he wrote a brief meditation on this passage, “Bethel or Luz?”, noting that what the Israelites called the “house of God” was called Luz by Canaanites more interested in its almond trees than the presence of El. While Bethel was certainly the collection of buildings on a campus that we teach, advise, worship, play, and live in,

If this were all there were to Bethel, there would be little reason for her separate existence.

There is more, but spiritual discernment is required to see it. God is here also, meeting and transforming lives. Bethel’s faculty is Christian. Her course offerings are taught from a Christian frame of reference. Her view of man and the world is Christ-centered. The prevailing atmosphere of the campus is warmly surcharged with the presence of the Lord. Bethel believes that one purpose of an education is to help the student adjust to his environment. But that environment is more than cultural, or political, or economical, or social—it is also spiritual. God is an inherent part of men’s environment. ‘In Him we live and move and have our being.’

I don’t want to push this too hard, into a Gnosticism that denies the value in studying the world, let alone preparing to live and serve in it. (And if you’ve read anything else by him, you know that’s not what he’s doing.) But it does suggest an important corrective to how we think about, say, spending priorities, or even how we evaluate our performance. On the first day of class, I contended — again — that the most important learning outcomes at a place like Bethel are very likely the least measurable. I’m not sure that an exam, paper, or standardized assessment has been developed that reliably quantifies the transformation of a person’s heart or spirit.

Lundquist concludes by evoking the language of Genesis 35, which describes Bethel as the place “where God had revealed himself to him”:

An education is inadequate that doesn’t make us aware of the presence of God. The age-long quest for truth is shaped by the conviction that ultimate truth is to be found in Jesus Christ and His purposes. It is His presence that transforms the grove of almond trees into the House of God and changes what otherwise would be an ordinary campus into Bethel.

Even as we quest for truth in the “thick darkness” of World War II — whatever our facilities and even as I reach the limits of my abilities as a teacher and my students reach theirs as learners — I pray that God, already present, will reveal himself to us this January.

One thought on “Bethel or Luz? The Christian College as the “House of God”

  1. Hear, hear! and Amen! One thing that dismayed me at Bethel (1984-1999) was the use of secular instruments for evaluating teachers. I knew teachers who were not particularly strong by those standards but were great examples of Christian character to students and colleagues and contributed much to the community life of the college. Why, why do Christian colleges adopt secularly-devised methods and criteria? I remember one workshop where faculty were told “If they [the students] didn’t learn, you didn’t teach.” Huh? I was afraid to make a stink about that then, but now let me say that’s utter nonsense and quite contrary to the Bible and a Christian worldview. Jesus, for example, taught without many of his listeners learning. Too often people at Bethel (and elsewhere) adopted ideas about teaching from secular sources without adapting them properly to a Christian community.

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