Pietist Vision Previews: Background

Cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationCopies are already being delivered, but one week from today is the official publication date of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy PersonsThe seed of the idea for this book was planted over eight years ago, so it’s beyond exciting finally to hold the book in my hand. But more so, to anticipate feedback from a wide variety of readers!

Throughout this week, I’m going to post previews of selected themes from the book. Then things will be quiet here once the book actually comes out, since I’ll be teaching a travel course in Europe from January 5-26. But I’ll come back with more book-related posts in February and March, including a series that starts to fill in some of what’s missing from this admittedly incomplete “vision” of ours. (“It’s just the beginning of a conversation,” I say at least once or twice in the book’s introduction.)

To start the previews, though, I thought I’d offer a kind of intellectual history of this project: some of which is in my acknowledgments and introduction to the book, some of which isn’t. I’ll organize my thoughts around a timeline:

August 2003: I arrived at Bethel University to take up my position as the new Europeanist in the History Department. “What’s Pietism?”, I asked (perhaps out loud, more likely just to myself), when that word came and quickly went during the Bethel history section of new faculty orientation. While I heard more about Bethel’s roots in “the Baptist Pietist tradition” from long-serving colleagues like G.W. Carlson (to whom we dedicated our book) and Stan Anderson, I can’t say I gave much thought to Pietism at a time in my life when I was busy developing new courses, spinning my wheels on converting my dissertation into a book, and meeting my wife.

Summer 2006: At the end of my third year at Bethel, I signed up for a multi-day workshop meant to help younger faculty start thinking through their tenure applications. Providentially, that particular workshop featured Jake and Rhonda Jacobsen (Messiah College), who walked us through their book Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation.

Precisely because I resonated so strongly with the Jacobsens’ core argument — that the prevailing “integrationist” language was so strongly Reformed as to sound foreign to non-Reformed Christians like me — I remember being surprised just how little they had to say about Pietism. (After all, Pietism is one of the three traditions named as part of Messiah’s hybrid identity.) Did Pietists have nothing to say about education and scholarship?

Jenell Paris
Now at Messiah College, Jenell played an important role in this project — not only as an early influence and eventual contributor, but because she suggested I talk to InterVarsity Press (publisher of her most recent book, on sexual identity)

My curiosity grew stronger after hearing a talk by our then-colleague Jenell Williams Paris, who had just published a Christian Scholar’s Review article proposing a Pietist model for thinking about her field, cultural anthropology. (An updated version of that article, I’m glad to say, is the third chapter of our book.)

By that point, I was pretty much fed up with my graduate school research and looking for a new project. While I had absolutely zero expertise on Pietism and had only dabbled in the history and theory of higher education, but two things happened to fix my new direction. First, getting to know my new colleague Christian Collins Winn (whose doctoral advisor, Don Dayton, had turned him on the the 19th century Pietists Johann and Christoph Blumhardt) convinced me that it was worth doing some reading on Pietism. Second, theologian Roger Olson returned to Bethel to offer a strongly pietistic response to the rather Reformed book we’d been reading for faculty retreat: then-Wheaton president Duane Litfin’s Conceiving the Christian College. (Roger updated that talk as part of the process of developing our Pietist Vision book. More on his chapter on Wednesday.)

April 2007: I emerged from a few months of reading feeling just barely confident enough to take a turn in Bethel’s “Not Ready for Prime Time” series of faculty presentations in the university library. By that point I was pretty sure that writers like Litfin, Mark Noll, James Burtchaell, and Robert Benne were missing something when they ignored or dismissed Pietism, but at that point, I didn’t especially know what Pietism did have to offer to the conversation. Here were my three rather vague theses: (for giggles, feel free to read my semi-polished notes from that talk, saved as a file with the appropriate title, “Not Ready Presentation“)

  1. “The Christian college is Jesus-centered.” That is to say, rather than being centered on Christ as a theological idea, it was centered on Jesus as a person to whom we relate through a convertive experience — borrowing heavily from Roger already!
  2. “The Christian college educates the whole person, not solely (or even primarily) the intellect.” This definitely stuck — you’ll see it all over the place in a book subtitled “Forming Whole and Holy Persons.”
  3. “The Christian college integrates learning with love and hope, not just faith.” A clear debt to the Jacobsens — whose book opens with a piece by Rodney Sawatsky on hope — and Jenell — writing on love… Those two virtues make recurring appearances in our book, but so too do humility, hospitality, truthfulness, and open-mindedness.

It took archival research at Bethel and North Park in the summer of 2008 to really sharpen my understanding of a Pietist model of Christian higher education. (Thanks to Bethel’s professional development committee for a grant that funded my trip to Chicago!) In January 2011, that research would take shape as a Christian Scholar’s Review article on former Bethel president Carl Lundquist and his North Park counterpart, Karl Olsson. But in the meantime, something else was brewing…

Lilly Fellows Program logo
I really can’t thank the people of the Lilly Fellows Program enough for their support at various points in my research

March 2009: While I continued my own research, Christian, GW, and I had teamed up to apply for a grant from the Lilly Fellows Program. It permitted us to host a research conference on “The Pietist Impulse in Christianity,” which drew over 100 scholars and pastors from the United States, Canada, and Europe to Bethel.

It was a pivotal moment in the history of the book that’s coming out next week for a few reasons.

First, multiple papers dealt head on with the theme of education. Two were published when our proceedings volume came out in the summer of 2011: Houghton College president Shirley Mullen’s plenary talk on John Wesley’s “Strangely Warmed Mind” and a piece on Karl Olsson and conversion by two then-North Park professors, historian Kurt Peterson and philosophy R.J. Snell (quoted by several of the contributors to our book). I couldn’t convince former Bethel philosopher David Williams to turn his talk into a chapter, but a descendant of it composes the first chapter of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education.

Significantly, David was just one of many current and former Bethel faculty to show up for the conference. Not only was Bethel becoming a center for Pietism studies (Christian and I put together a one-day sequel in April 2012, featuring Scot McKnight and Jon Sensbach), but I was struck how many of my colleagues wanted to learn more about their university’s founding tradition.

That observation grew into a realization that I discussed in our book’s introduction:

When I first began to research Pietist models of higher education, I had the notion that I’d one day write a Pietist version of Arthur Holmes’ Idea of a Christian College. But it quickly [well, within three or four years] became clear to me that such a work, if it were to reflect the ethos that inspired it, should not come in the form of a sermon but a conversation. If we are casting a “Pietist vision” for higher education, it does not belong to one person but to a community whose members worship, pray, study, serve, rejoice and lament together—people who have a common purpose, even if they’re rarely of one mind. (p. 31)

But how to make that conversation happen, and then bring it to the rest of the Bethel community and to other colleges and universities?

June 2013: Thanks to another grant from our friends at the Lilly Network (whose mission, I hasten to add, is not simply to fund Chris Gehrz/Pietism projects but to “explore and discuss the relationship of Christianity to the academic vocation, and strengthen the religious nature of church-related institutions”), I organized a summer workshop at Bethel on “The Pietist Idea of a Christian College.” (I’d previously spoken on Pietism to summer faculty workshops in 2007 — with Jenell on hope and love — and 2009 — on the “professor as pastor.”)

Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism
It wasn’t published in time for me to assign it in the workshop, but Douglas Shantz’s book on German Pietism proved to be another important source for several of our contributors

Twelve of my colleagues joined Roger, David, and me for two days of discussing books (our Pietist Impulse volume, Dale Brown’s Understanding Pietism, Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s Angels, Worms, and Bogeys), primary sources from Bethel’s history, and their own experiences of how Pietism — for better and worse — shaped teaching, research, service, and life together at Bethel. Before we parted company, people began to pitch writing projects: potential chapters in a book manuscript that I then began to shop to publishers.

By September, InterVarsity Press had said yes; by November, first drafts were in. To round out the eleven chapters from workshop participants, Jenell’s revised piece on anthropology, and my own introduction and conclusion, I recruited two Bethel emeriti to read those drafts and offer responses from fields outside the humanities and social sciences: Dick Peterson wrote about physics, and Nancy Olen about nursing. And Bethel alumna Jan Curry, longtime professor of geography at Calvin College and now provost of Gordon College, agreed to write an autobiographical preface.

(One intriguing leftover that didn’t make the book… Originally, David Williams and I planned to co-write a chapter based on Carl Lundquist’s notion that Bethel build its own off-campus retreat center and incorporate spiritual retreats into the college and seminary curricula. I think we were right to go with the chapter that David authored solo — it was an easy choice for chapter #1 — but I do hope the two of us will come back to the spiritual retreat theme before too long. In the meantime, you can catch a glimpse of it in my August 2013 post on “The Christian Liberal Arts as Spiritual Retreat.”)

So where did our conversation take us? What composes our (not “The”) Pietist vision for Christian higher education?

Come back tomorrow as I dig into the book itself with some of the themes that I highlight in our introduction. Then we’ll turn to teaching and conversion on Wednesday, take New Year’s off, and conclude on Friday with a post on community.

Read the next post in this series>>


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