I didn’t mean to write a fourth Christian higher ed post in four days, but… It’s all too possible that someone newer to the blog could read the first three and come away thinking that I’m thoroughly disillusioned about Christian colleges in general and disgruntled with Bethel in particular. Those feelings are there — as they would be, my wife reminds me about once a month, with any employer — but as I come to the end of an academic year and look ahead to my sabbatical, I want to extend this series long enough to share some of the reasons that I’m truly glad to be at a Christian college like Bethel.
After all, as I wrote earlier this semester, to think critically is also to appreciate.
Three years ago I wrote a post paying tribute to the people I work with, celebrating “the courage and dedication of just a few of my colleagues who, as Lewis claims for all humanity, ‘wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never came.'” “Lewis” there was C.S. Lewis, and I was quoting from his 1939 essay on “Learning in War-time,” inspired by a former colleague who recognized that we at Bethel had just gone through a significant economic crisis.
Once again, the “suitable moment” has yet to arrive, and I remain grateful to be surrounded by peers continue to seek “knowledge and beauty now.” I could talk about any number of people here — and that includes administrators who truly do value the humanities and seek to support them in the face of many challenges — but I’m especially blessed by my friends in the History and Political Science departments.
Even as — or perhaps, especially because — they grieved the loss of dear friends, Amy Poppinga, Andy Bramsen, AnneMarie Kooistra, Chris Moore, Diana Magnuson, Sam Mulberry, Ruben Rivera, and Fred Van Geest continued to encourage, support, challenge, and inspire me in many and various ways. I was reminded of this yesterday, when several of us took part in West by Midwest, an annual celebration of innovation in teaching that Sam has been organizing for four years now. My own contribution to that event was short and speculative, but I was happy to listen and learn as Sam, Amy, Diana, Andy, and AnneMarie shared ideas they had test-driven this year.
I’m also happy to see our department grow next year, as Charlie Goldberg comes on board not only to teach ancient/medieval history but to help us develop a program that serves (I think) as a creative response to the “humanities in crisis” talk that I’ve indulged in the last two weeks.
Every year I join a few especially close colleagues in celebrating finals week by going out to lunch together. Among other topics, our conversation always includes each person’s lowlight and highlight from the year. As alluded to above, the lowlights of 2015-2016 were depressingly clear and need not be rehashed here. But for the highlight, I lit up and started telling my colleagues about the Senior Seminar papers I had just finished grading.
It was a good group in general, but three papers stood out in particular. Though their topics had little in common, they each exemplified the skills our department hopes to hone: they asked good questions, conducted careful research to answer them, synthesized evidence from a variety of sources, and shared their findings through fluidly written narratives. But even more importantly, their papers radiated the values that we hope to instill in students: humility (all three reflected on the limitations of their research and the discipline of history), empathy and hospitality (all three chose to learn about people separated from them by language, religion, class, and other distances), and complexity (none of the three came to a tidy conclusion, and all said in their final presentations that they would love to keep struggling with their question).
Such capstone projects are especially wonderful, but my other highlight was the week in early May when students in my 200-level World War II course screened the 10-minute documentary films they had been producing all semester. HIS231L is a gen ed course; unlike Senior Seminar, its students are mostly not history majors, or even minors. Yet given the enormous challenge of telling a small but significant story from one of history’s most complicated conflicts, groups made up of accounting, kinesiology, education, and chemistry majors all rose to the occasion. Perhaps without realizing it, they had acted as historians, not just gathering evidence, but interpreting it and thinking creatively about how to communicate their interpretations.
Here’s the film students voted “Best in Show”; it told the story of a few Europeans who helped to save the lives of (or at least alleviate the suffering of) Jews fleeing the Holocaust — one of them the grandfather of one of the student-filmmakers.
“Don’t think about the students you want; think about the students you have” is a common piece of teaching advice that I especially need to hear in a week that saw me lament the decline of fields like mine in schools like mine. So let it be known: I’m grateful for the students I have, and that they allow me to challenge them to be good stewards of the past.
For all that I’ve written today, I also know that I’ll more fully appreciate my colleagues and students if I get a bit of distance from them. So finally, I’m glad to have the chance to take a sabbatical this fall.
Indeed, the anticipation of it lurked in the background of two of yesterday’s arguments. First, while I’m afraid Jamie Smith is right that Christian universities, like others, “build up a generally frenetic and frantic pace, rhythms of expenditure and exhaustion, with little room for sabbath” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 117), little room is different from no room. Yesterday I could write “no Christian college ought primarily to serve the needs of a market economy” in hope rather than despair because I know that the existence of sabbaticals keeps Christian colleges rooted in a different kind of economy.
Second, even as sabbatical gives me a time of rest, this particular sabbath enables creative work that is tied to what I yesterday called an “integral part of my calling… to serve as an ambassador between church and Christian college.” My primary project for sabbatical is to finish the book on Pietism that my pastor and I are writing, a book that flows directly out of similar work I’ve been doing at Bethel and now hope to extend to the larger church.
So while I’ve no doubt it would be an even healthier institution if it had many more history, philosophy, English, and theology majors, I’m glad to work at Bethel.
And I don’t use that adjective idly. I mean “glad” here in the sense that Frederick Buechner uses the word in his 1969 sermon on Christian vocation that I quoted in two different classes this week and have written about here before:
…the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness. What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness?
…In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad. (Secrets in the Dark, pp. 39-40)
May it be so for you all, as it has been for me.