Final Thoughts on Evangelicalism and the Humanities: Rethinking How Christian Colleges Serve the Church

I’m pretty sure the world has heard enough from me for now on the subject of the “crisis of the humanities” in Christian colleges. At the risk of overreaching, let me just add a few closing thoughts:

First, that I appreciate the enormous response to the first two posts this week. They provoked some truly enlightening anecdotes, critiques, and questions.

Second, then, I hope that even half as many readers are interested in helping me take up the challenge that I set at the end of yesterday’s somewhat disgruntled post:

If I’m right about either fear and churches are forming their young people to minimize “risk” of a vocational/economic/material or spiritual variety, then I shouldn’t simply complain. I’d rather seek a solution.

And it probably needs to start with those of us in Christian higher ed, and especially those of us in the humanities, rethinking how we talk about what we do with the people of the church.

To start thinking through a constructive response, I’m going to revisit some the arguments that are actually at the heart of the John Fea piece that first got me thinking about the state of the humanities in Christian colleges. While my last post suggested problems with how evangelical churches prepare young people, I think John is right that those of us in Christian higher ed need also to look in the mirror: (emphasis mine)

Evangelical churches and colleges have failed to educate people on how to think Christianly about their role as citizens. They have failed to teach their constituencies Christian habits of acting in the world that allow them to make meaningful contributions to American democracy. Is it any wonder that so many evangelicals have cast votes for Donald Trump?

Smith, Desiring the KingdomInstead, continued John, “today we are training evangelicals for our capitalist economy. We are not training them for life in our democracy.” Or as philosopher Jamie Smith put it, even more pointedly, seven years ago:

To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder “from a Christian perspective.” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 219)

I think this has got to be the starting point: Every Christian liberal arts college ought to consider the extent to which it has participated in the “corporatization” of higher education.

Such institutions ought to heed sociologist Samuel Zalanga’s warning from our 2015 book:

The challenge here is that the vision of the market as we know it today and the vision of Christianity are not necessarily coterminous. Yet they often wind up in collusion because often the terms for survival of Christian organizations and believers in a market society are primarily dictated by the market with no regard for Christian priorities or sensibilities. (The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Educationp. 211)

Now, should we be preparing students for meaningful work that meets the needs of others? Of course. (I’d argue that history, like the other humanities, does this quite well.) Is it okay for Christian colleges to have business programs? Sure, though they should be embedded in a well-rounded arts and sciences curriculum and emphasize character formation as much as professional training. (That’s why I respect our business department.) Should our programs be responsive to economic change? Yes, so long as institutional leaders make the hard choices necessary to sustain that missional core of disciplines without which a liberal arts college ceases to be a liberal arts college.

But no Christian college ought primarily to serve the needs of a market economy. Nor to baptize capitalism (or any other ideology).

Not just the humanities or the general education curriculum, but every professional program — including those in marketing, finance, entrepreneurship, organizational leadership, etc. — ought to prepare students to identify, question, and, if necessary, challenge the values, assumptions, practices, and structures of the systems in which they will participate — even as they continue to serve their neighbors through such participation.

(And, if Smith is right, this preparation happens through something “thicker” than “worldview formation,” for “The reconciled and redeemed body of Christ is marked by cruciform practices that counter the liturgies of consumption, hoarding, and greed that characterize so much of our late modern culture,” p. 205).

But it’s very easy for a history professor to call for such a reevaluation. (And to pretend that it’s only a problem for business departments and boards of trustees.) For my part, I need to pay attention not only to the problem of corporatization, but to a couple more observations from John’s original piece:

It would be nice if evangelical scholars could play a more sustained role in their churches, but often times they are either too busy writing monographs or too tired from teaching students and serving their academic institutions to help people in the pews think more deeply about these issues.

Scandia Chapel
Bethel’s reminder of the church-college connection: Scandia Chapel, the oldest extant Swedish Baptist church in Minnesota was relocated to campus in the 1970s – Creative Commons (Bethel University Digital Library)

I know that time and energy are scarce commodities for academics, but I just don’t think there’s any way around this: Christian college professors like me can complain all we want about the church and its shortcomings, but we do not and can not exist in isolation from the church.

We are not churches. And we often raise their hackles, since the Christian college (in the words of Bethel’s longest-serving president, Carl Lundquist) necessarily “raises disturbing questions, engages in rigid self evaluation, expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and seeks less popular but more consistently Christian solutions to the problems that vex mankind.”

But I think Lundquist is also right that those goals are best met where churches have “sturdy confidence in the spiritual and intellectual integrity of the school.” And the best guarantee of this confidence (at least for a Pietist Baptist school like Bethel) is not a long doctrinal statement and gatekeeping administrators and trustees, but the building of strong relationships in which the people of the college and the people of the church know, serve, and listen to each other.

So I’ve come to believe that an integral part of my calling is to serve as an ambassador between church and Christian college. In my case, that’s meant teaching at all levels of Christian formation, keeping a blog whose readers include numerous fellow church members, writing a book and doing a podcast with my pastor, and serving as a church chairperson and committee member. It takes a lot of effort (and I’m blessed with a department, administration, and promotion and tenure committee that value such work), but I’m not sure how I could dare to write to the church like I did yesterday if I weren’t fully a part of it.

Finally, I’d suggest that we — and here I especially mean those of us who teach the humanities — may need to be more intentional in preparing our students to serve a similar ambassadorial role. Back once more to John Fea:

Christian philosopher and educator Richard Mouw tried to explain [evangelical colleges’] impact in 1995 when he wrote: “Tens of thousands of young people in Christian evangelical colleges and seminaries are receiving a trickle-down effect from their professor’s work. These are future laypeople.”

I am sympathetic to Mouw and those who hope for an intellectual trickle-down effect, but such an approach does not seem to be working.

Intro to History students in Scandia Chapel
For example, earlier this month I brought our Intro to History class to Scandia Chapel for an exercise in choosing a historical topic and designing a curriculum for adult Sunday School or small groups

I think most of us have some broad sense that we’re forming the next generation of the church, but primarily via Mouw’s “trickle-down effect.” If I help students in our history courses and programs to ask good questions, to evaluate and interpret evidence, to listen to conflicting voices, and to communicate their findings, I trust that such skills will stay with them as they participate in multiple communities: from nation to neighborhood, with a church of some sort somewhere in the mix.

I would like our students to come out of a Christian college ready to model what the humanities mean in the mission, ministry, and community of the church. I’m not sure that’s happening right now. Perhaps — by discussion and assignment design or by encouraging internships in churches or faith-based organizations, for example — I need to prepare them more explicitly to translate their knowledge and skills in the context of a small group, congregation, denomination, parachurch ministry, etc.

3 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on Evangelicalism and the Humanities: Rethinking How Christian Colleges Serve the Church

  1. Chris – again, good thoughts. I personally don’t mind you blogging repeatedly on this topic. An idea I’ve entertained is – what if there was a feedback loop for Christian higher education? Say a person graduates. That person then gains more experience in the world, right? The person also generates more complex questions along the way. And say that there was some kind of “looping” system in which that person could return to Bethel and rehash things in the humanities? I’m puzzled at how – once we graduate – we essentially lose a relationship with the university…unless perhaps we have money or prestige to offer? I think it would be much more effective to develop a “looping” educational system. That way you wouldn’t have to work so hard to create perfection on the first try.

    Honestly I can see a lot of errors in looking back at my 4-year experience at Bethel. But a couple of relationships I’ve sustained with my professors has made up for what was lacking. I come back to them with my questions still. Without their listening ear, I am not sure where else I would turn? The church? I personally consider Bethel an extension of the church (“parachurch”)…

  2. So should they give socio-political witness or not? Justice Thomas’s recent remarks at Hillsdale seem to be on point–your first duty as a citizen is to keep it together, provide for your own family before setting out to save the rest of humanity. I don’t regret my liberal arts education in the least but what is wrong with first making sure you’ll be able to provide for your family? Shall the cobbler’s children go barefoot?

    There doesn’t seem to be a published transcript yet, but Justice Thomas seems to have bridged the confusion between the private and the public person. The Christian. To live as a Christian does not require a higher education.


    “As you go through life, try to be that person that teaches others how to be better people and better citizens,” Thomas said. “Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone bad with political correctness.”

    He told graduates he would not call on them to fight societal injustice and change the world. Instead, he urged them to practice good citizenship, which ultimately preserves freedom.

    “Having been where you all are, I think it is hard enough to solve your own problems, not to mention those problems that often seem to defy solution…

    “At risk of understating what is necessary to preserve liberty in our form of government, I think more and more it depends on good citizens discharging their daily duties and obligations.”

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