The scandal of the Ivy League mind

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I spent last week at a conference exploring the state of the evangelical mind. I’ll post more about that later in the week. As I was getting ready to leave I came across an article by Sarah Ruden that reveals the scandal of the Ivy League mind. You can read it in full here. I was unfamiliar with Ruden before this article, but she is a Harvard-trained philologist with an award-winning translation of Augustine’s Confessions to her credit.

In short, her thesis is that undergraduates from influential families exercise an disproportionate influence on the grades they receive. She writes,

Undergraduates emerged more powerful the more obnoxiously they behaved; they felt they owned the system — how else could they induce it to give them high grades certifying their excellence when their work was mediocre or nonexistent? — and so they would be likely to support it all their lives with large alumni donations. This, of course, levied high costs on everyone else and on what a university claims, in public, as its core purpose: intellectual achievement. Over and over, administrators decreed that the costs would be paid; in particular, pressure from above would be allowed, whenever convenient, to turn teachers into pushovers and lackeys. 

Of course problem students have been a reality of education since its beginning. One need go no farther than Confessions to demonstrate that. However, what Ruden is describing is something that is inherently anti-intellectual. Something where intellectual rigor is arguably reserved for those outside of the system–the impostors–who enter the institution lacking an elite pedigree.

This is something more problematic than obnoxious students, it is a system rigged to favor institutional survival over against that institution’s founding vision, that of veritas:

In fact, genuine rigor — which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students — isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.

As a first-generation college graduate, the sting of the reality Ruden critiques is familiar. The older I get and the longer I am around higher education, the more I realize that my assumptions about the purpose of college vary from the vast majority of others.

Somehow, and I’m not really sure where it came from, in my first year in college I fell in love with learning. I majored in philosophy and religion because these subjects were entirely more enjoyable to me than the prospect of learning accounting. And things haven’t changed much since I left college. I hope they never do.

 

 

 

Where have you been?

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Posts have been slow here over the last year as our family has been weighing and working toward a relocation and a change in ministry direction.

In November, Anna was named as Associate Editor for InterVarsity Press. We knew we needed to move to Chicagoland and so we began to pray about the possibilities for my next job. IVP graciously allowed Anna a long transition time that included working remotely part-time before beginning on-site in April.

I pursued several opportunities and, in the end, God pleasantly surprised us in providing the opportunity to join the marketing team at InterVarsity Press.

Next week I will begin a new position as Academic Marketing Manager. In that capacity I will develop and execute marketing plans for the fifty-some titles IVP Academic publishes annually. I will also represent marketing on the Academic Publication Committee, the team that decides which proposals will be contracted and published. There are other fun elements as well: working on titles, attending academic conferences to represent IVP, and working with a really wonderful team of marketing managers and publicists who love God and love books.

The IVP statement of values communicates clearly why this is a wonderful place where Anna and I hope to spend a great deal of the rest of our lives:

Our identity is rooted in our affections for and allegiance to God, whom we seek to worship in spirit and in truth. According to our Faith Commitments and Doctrinal Basis, we wholeheartedly affirm the authority and teachings of the Bible as foundational for our lives and for our publishing decisions. We love the church, respect, and feed on its rich heritage, and desire to serve it with grace and truth. We seek to influence, engage, and shape the university world and our contemporary culture for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom in the world. Aiming for thoughtful integration of the whole person and placing emphasis on the dignity of people and relationships, IVP practices beauty and stewardship in our work.

 

 

The suffering Christ and the un-suffering God

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Earlier this year I read a piece [subscription required] in Books & Culture: A Christian Review by John G Stackhouse of Regent College. I’m not terribly familiar with Stackhouse except through his small book Finally Feminist which I enjoyed immensely and would encourage you to read (it takes only an evening). While you’re at it, subscribe to Books & Culture too. It is a wonderful resource.

The subject of Stackhouse’s article was kenotic theology. This is a way of conceiving of Christ’s sojourn on earth that takes seriously the Christ hymn of Philippians two which tells us that Jesus “emptied himself.”
Stackhouse defines the school of thought like this: “[Kenotic theology] suggests that God the Son voluntarily relinquished his powers as an equal member of the Trinity in order to experience a genuinely human life and death in our place.”
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I have to confess not being all that familiar with the work of the any of the great theologians who emphasized kenosis. Having studied at a confessional and evangelical  divinity school, there wasn’t a great deal of space for left in the curriculum the study of kenotic theologians. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, all education is necessarily limited by constraints such as time, faculty, and students who are interested in learning the subject (unless it is required).
There are problems with kenotic theology when you look at it from a reformed perspective. As Stackhouse notes, it challenges both the impassibility of God as well as the immutability of God. In effect, it argues that there are changes that take place in the life God (and in humanity) that do not undermine God’s divinity just as suffering may be experienced without fundamentally altering God’s divine nature. It’s worth asking the question precisely how God can change without somehow undermining His divinity and how God’s inability to suffer (His impassibility) relates to His deep providential concern for His people.
 
Kenotic theology is appealing in a number of ways. I’m sure that what makes it chiefly appealing is its potential pastoral implications. It has long been a criticism of reformed theology that its emphasis on God’s otherness and omnipotence makes Him difficult to relate to. It’s also been noted that hyper-Calvinism has almost no place for Jesus — it’s almost as though nothing had changed in the coming of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
In the midst of suffering is it more helpful (and we can argue about what this word really means) to hear that God is suffering with you or that God is in control of your situation? 
 
As a pastor, I think it depends.
It is, of course, foolishness to enter into the suffering of another with a pithy statement asking them to “let go and let God.” Likewise, it is foolishness for those of us who are teachers in the church to basically espouse what Christian Smith has called “moral therapeutic deism” from pulpit, table, and font before suffering comes and then expect our parishioners to somehow experience that suffering with their belief in God’s sovereignty, and indeed His goodness, intact.
Rather, the role of the pastor and of the church is to teach and live the Scriptures in such a way as to apply them to our life together and our individual lives as well as to communicate theology so that it becomes a set of lenses that gives insight and shape to our life and experiences.
Ellen Charry’s book By the Renewing of Your Minds suggests that theology is not an abstract academic endeavor alone, but it is also a pastoral, local, embodied, way of forming the way a people know, experience, and follow the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The contemporary church is in danger of forgetting this.
 
One of the great challenges of the parish is creating what Eugene Peterson has called a theological imagination. It is one thing (and certainly no bad thing) to be able to quote the catechism, but it is quite another thing to be able to see in one’s minds eye how God can be simultaneously loving, powerful, caring, and unsuffering. I doubt that any of us will ever be able to fully do this, perhaps some of the saint have come closest, but in the end the purpose of the church isn’t to make us happy so much as to make us saints.

Analog in an a digital age

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Many of us find ourselves drawn to every new Apple product released–they’ve been coming pretty rapidly too. I blush to admit how happy I was when I got this MacBook Air to replace my five year old MacBook with the shorted power connection that made it effectively a desk top. Journalist Gordon Martin harbors no such longing for the new and the speedy. He writes his copy for Vatican Radio using a forty year old type writer, as Stuart Hughes notes at the BBC News Magazine.

In the age of social media and digital diplomacy, Gordon Martin is a resolutely analogue journalist.

“I don’t have a mobile telephone,” he tells me with a slight hint of pride. “I don’t understand a lot of modern gadgetry and I think sometimes gadgets get in the way of clear use of the English language.”

For the Holy See’s reporter in Geneva, replacing his typewriter with a laptop or an iPad would be tantamount to heresy.

After all, if it’s not broken then why fix it?

Is Martin a dinosaur or a visionary, a luddite or a prophet? In the age of Snowden, analog communication is looking significantly more secure than many of the electronic modes of communication we take for granted. As more journalists turn to Twitter and other social media for first person accounts the opportunity for news to become propaganda has increased exponentially.

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Martin’s typewriter

More intriguing still is the relationship between technology and the act of writing and of reading. At the end of the day, writing is as much a physical act as it is a mental one. The way words are formed on paper or screen affects the experience of writing. That’s why some writer compose longhand and others use a laptop. Reading is much the same. For some of us, adjusting to a Kindle screen is taking rather longer than many thought possible. Others swear by their iPad or a computer screen.

Mediating these competing claims is difficult. Personally, I find analog considerably less distracting. A paper calendar is tactile in a way that’s just not true of iCal. A paper book has a texture and a smell that can be endearing. And in the end, that has to count for something.

And if you’re interested in an artistic critique of social media, check out this performance by Paul Sharpe of UNCSA:

Pick up and read…at whim!

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To be a Christian is to be one who is being shaped by the Word and by words. The Holy Scripture is nothing less than the God-inspired response of his people to works in the world in and through his covenant community. God chose to communicate something of himself through the medium of words. And centuries of Christians have used words to reflect of God’s word, creating a rich tapestry of tradition and teaching that fills out and helps to shape our own experience of God in Christ. Christians must value words. It’s impossible to value words absent reading.

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I’m currently enjoying Alan Jacobs’ book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011). In it he makes the case that, before all else, reading ought to be pleasurable and it ought to be whimsical. He contrasts this with the American populist tradition of Mortimer Adler’s, How to Read a Book. I confess there’s a copy of Adler’s book somewhere in our library, but I’ve not read it. Adler is part of the American self-improvement cult that subjects all endeavors in life to becoming more proficient, efficient, and ultimately wealthy. According to Jacobs, at the heart of Adler’s approach is the notion that there is a corpus of books which we have a duty to read. This deontological approach is central to Adler’s book–he admits it’s possible to read for pleasure, but that anyone can do that.

Jacobs, on the other hand, argues that the primary reasons for reading are pleasure and whim. The two are, of course, closely related. A whim is a sudden desire–the urge to pick up and read. Whim is the product of an underlying intellectual curiosity that enjoys entering into another’s experience and having one’s view of life expanded. Whim brings pleasure and where there is not pleasure, whim starts looking elsewhere.

Jacobs quotes a story from Randall Jarrell (p. 15f.) about a scholar he encountered who read Kipling’s novel Kim.

The critic said that once a year he read Kim; it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love–he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or an article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means–that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!

Jacobs points out the apparent contradiction in the quote. How can he commend reading for itself and at the same time reading a book because it changes me? Jacobs: “The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside what we usually think of as good reasons. It’s asking us to stop calculating. It’s asking us to do something for the plain old delight and interest of it….”

When was the last time you read something simply because it piqued your interest?