6 Reasons to Watch a 40-Minute Tribute to a 30-Year Old Western Civ Course

A list, but it can’t be click-baity with this kind of bait, right?

So this past Tuesday my friend Sam Mulberry and I got to co-host a special presentation in the Bethel University Library: a walk down memory lane for GES130 Christianity and Western Culture, a staple of Bethel’s gen ed curriculum for three decades now. While it was part of the library’s Prime Time series, we had conceived of it more like a late night talk show, with me playing some hybrid of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and (at the very end) Jimmy Fallon.

Now, some of Bethel’s most famous professors have been closely tied to CWC. Our first guest interviewee was course co-founder Mike Holmes, who’s merely one of the world’s leading authorities on the Greek New Testament and Apostolic Fathers. For years the theologians on the course’s two teaching teams were none other than Roger Olson and Greg Boyd.

But Mike’s appearance notwithstanding, it would be reaching to call Tuesday’s event “star-studded.” If you’re connected to the Bethel community, getting to hear from former faculty Neil Lettinga, Virginia Lettinga, and David Williams (plus current professors Dan Ritchie, Paul Reasoner, Sara Shady, and Amy Poppinga) is exhilarating; you don’t need any further convincing to watch something like this. But those names don’t mean much to most of my readers.

So here are six reasons why almost anyone in Christian higher ed who reads this blog should take the time to watch a tribute to a course that I’ve previously celebrated for “[preparing] people to serve the kingdom of God — living in the West, but most definitely not of it.”

1. You’ll feel good about the liberal arts.

My favorite piece of the presentation was the video-recorded greeting from philosopher David Williams, now executive director of Azusa Pacific’s High Sierra program. I hadn’t seen David since he came back to Bethel a couple years ago to run through a version of the chapter he contributed to our Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education book, and I didn’t know what he was going to talk about. But I resonated strongly with his closing comments about CWC having “sparked a love of interdisciplinary teaching” in him, as he learned to enjoy going beyond his field to teach history and literature. “I think it is one of the great things that Christian colleges do,” concluded David. “We have a lot of disagreements, and we have to work hard to find common ground. But we do have that common ground in Christ.”

Even as I’ve thrown myself more intentionally into teaching our department’s students about the disciplinary distinctiveness of history, I appreciate that each week in CWC I have the chance to help eighteen-year olds think (perhaps for the first time) about everything from theology, philosophy, and law to worship, theatre, and art. And how all those things relate to our shared faith in Jesus Christ.

2. You’ll want to teach as part of a team.

If one theme jumps out from the interviews with former and current CWC faculty, it’s that they treasured the ability to teach as part of that multi-disciplinary team. Too often, to teach in college is anything but collegial, but CWC gives us the chance to learn from each other, to rise to the challenge of lecturing in front of each other (and get constructive criticism when we fall short), to discover that weekly meetings can incubate rich conversation (really), and to form some of the most important professional and personal relationships in our lives.

3. You’ll be prompted to think about how courses like this can aid in faculty orientation and development at your institution.

I suspect that most new hires view an assignment to a required first-year gen ed course as something more like a punishment than an opportunity. But you’ll hear again and again in this presentation that most of us learned how to be Bethel faculty through teaching this course.

That’s certainly true of me. Having had no Christian college background, and just a bit more knowledge of church history and theology than my students, being part of the CWC team cemented my commitment to Bethel, filled in huge holes in my own education, and reshaped my sense of calling. It’s a big part of the reason that I’m now writing books and blog posts about Christian higher education and religious history.

4. You’ll find that it’s possible for a course to stay the same (in essentials) and adapt.

CWC TA T-shirt and sweatshirt
Some of the clothing worn by CWC TAs over the years…

Mike talked about coming back to CWC a few years ago for a last hurrah. It had been over a decade since the last time he’d taught the course, and a generation since the course debuted. Yet he found that its essential goals were unchanged; it was still helping build a basis for further general education courses, and it still equipped American Christian college students to think critically about how they lived in Western culture.

(Listening to Mike, I also realized that when I began this semester by talking with students about Hebrews 11, I was actually offering my own spin on a devotional pioneered thirty years ago by course co-founder Dan Taylor, who helped design the course at about the same time he was writing his best-known book, The Myth of Certainty.)

At the same time, I know from teaching with Mike that he appreciated what Amy and Sara pointed out: that CWC has not only integrated new teachers and teaching techniques in recent years, but has become more sensitive to those on the margins of Western culture and more empathetic about its diverse cast of characters. For example, they talked about having just given lectures on the Radical and Catholic Reformations, two Christian traditions that risk being overshadowed by Luther and Calvin on most evangelical campuses.

(They were too humble to say it on Tuesday, but as two of our campus’ resident experts on interfaith dialogue, Amy and Sara have also helped us think about how better to address the historical relationship between Christianity and Islam.)

5. You’ll see the relationship between institutional remembering and institutional health.

This academic year I’ve been at the center of several moments of institutional remembering at Bethel. Most have been rather somber. The two colleagues I eulogized earlier this year both came up in Tuesday morning’s presentation, as Virginia Lettinga recalled GW Carlson‘s catalytic role in making her the first woman on the CWC team and as I paused to remember Stacey Hunter Hecht sharing teaching advice after CWC lectures in my first year at Bethel. For that matter, co-authoring a significant digital history of Bethel’s relationship to modern warfare wasn’t exactly cheery.

But while “CWC at 30” was generally a celebratory, even silly, affair, it likewise reminded me how essential it is for institutions to invest time in such remembering. It’s an example of the “stewardship of the past” theme that I was playing around with last fall: not just preserving memories and artifacts of the past, but interpreting them together in such a way that we’re reminded who we are as people with a shared mission.

And here I need to reiterate my gratitude to Sam, who not only put this whole presentation together, but also spent months working with our colleague Kent Gerber on a new CWC collection for Bethel’s digital library, featuring recorded lectures, podcasts, and webisodes, with digitized course documents yet to come. (In addition to obvious benefits this has for Bethel and its faculty, Sam and Kent’s efforts have yielded a wonderful resource for future student projects in the digital humanities.) Sam even used social media to conduct an oral history project with some of CWC’s former teaching assistants. It’s organized as a digital timeline (click the screenshot below).

Screen shot of CWC TA Oral History timeline

6. You’ll see me rap.

Okay, that is truly click-baity. But if you’ve been waiting to see me give a live, unplugged performance of my version of “The St. Augustine Rap” (first introduced to the course by Profs. Ritchie and Boyd back in the late 20th century)… Well, you’re weird. But you’re also in luck: it’s how we ended the show.

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