Liberal Arts for the Christian Life

Jeffry C. Davis and Philip G. Ryken, eds.
Published by Crossway in 2012

Adam Perez graduated from Trinity Christian College in May 2013, and Mark Peters is Professor of Music at Trinity Christian College.

Student Review – Adam Perez

Liberal Arts for the Christian Life is a collaborative and self-reflective view of the liberal arts from the colleagues of Leland Ryken, distinguished scholar and professor at Wheaton College. Ryken’s colleagues honored him by publishing this collection of essays aimed at helping undergraduates understand the distinctives of a liberal arts education for the life of a Christian. Though the book is introductory in nature, it will require a certain level of maturity that may not be shared by all students.

Arranged into five sections – “Terminology and Background,” “Theological Convictions,” “Habits and Virtues,” “Divisional Areas of Study,” and “Ultimate Aims” – the book tells the story of liberal arts education through history while engaging present cultural concerns in the liberal arts. Some essays engage these concerns (both positive and negative) in very deliberate, counter-cultural ways, while others are a more subtle encouragement to a better way of living and learning. The book offers both explicit and implicit ways of understanding how various disciplines fit into and express the philosophy of a liberal arts education.

I will offer just one such connection. In my own dual discipline of education and music, I find my mind being pulled back toward a more holistic view of education. While this book is particularly relevant and important for students at the undergraduate level, I think the implications of it go much deeper. This book can help shape the worldview and educational philosophy of students who study in education programs at Christian liberal arts institutions. From “The Countercultural Quest of Christian Liberal Arts,” to “How to Read a Book,” to “Theater as an Imperfect Mirror,” this book helps us to understand that school is for learning and learning is for all of life. A holistic view of academic life, as described in the book, can trickle down to secondary and elementary education practices in such a way that these future teachers can demonstrate the beautiful view of liberal arts education to another generation of students. In addition, this understanding can help shape the culture of education that (re)aligns with current educational standards being adopted across the United States including an emphasis on formation through collaboration, cooperation, interdisciplinary connections, and an expanded view of literacy. In turn, we can continue to cultivate the desire for, and blessing of, Christian liberal arts institutions.

One of the beautiful things about Liberal Arts for the Christian Life is that it helps reorient conversation about the telos of educational philosophies from depth versus breadth to one that values formation. Through the liberal arts we might learn how better to live a life of commitment to Christ, our discipline, and the ways it engages others and their disciplines. This book helps us understand how a Christian liberal arts education is a way of both preparing to seek understanding and practicing understanding as a way of life that reflects Christ.

One essay that I found particularly moving was in the “Habits and Virtues” section, “Educating for Intellectual Character.” This chapter talked about the virtues that need to accompany the pursuit of knowledge: humility, generosity, courageousness, tenacity, and autonomy. The way that these virtues were laid out in relationship with a “mature love of truth” was beautiful and convicting. I found it particularly relevant as I pursue a life in academia and am deeply concerned with the ways we use the knowledge that we pursue. I was also deeply encouraged by the way my Christian liberal arts education has already formed and aligned my pursuit of knowledge with these virtues.

From the perspective of a student, one regretful weakness is that at various points throughout the book, it seems as though some of the contributors do not use scripture as a beginning place, but rather as a mark of authentication for the ideas that they posit. It is as though they are appealing to us through logic and rhetoric and once they feel like we are taking the bait, they seal the deal with a connection to Paul’s epistles, Jesus’ parables, or nuggets of Proverbial wisdom. Though this is not inherently bad, it seems counter to the aims of the book in the way it tries to shape undergraduate students.

I could see this book being used in a number ways for faculty and students. In my particular institution, which is situated on the fringe of a large city, we have a very strong and committed core of full-time faculty but also a variety of adjunct professors who come in from the city or surrounding suburbia to teach various classes. Now, I know that it is not particularly practical to have a labor-intensive faculty formation for all new faculty who walk in and out of our doors, but should we not expect the same level of commitment, or at least respect, to the philosophy of Christian liberal arts education? At the same time, it is usually full-time faculty that teach core courses, but I think this book can help those new faculty by giving them an introduction to the commitments we hold both across the curriculum and in particular disciplines. This book can do that in both discipline specific ways (the “Divisional Areas of Study” section), but also in other formative ways so that new faculty can better understand the nature and goals of Christian liberal arts education.

For students it would likely be most useful as a required text in a general education class, a first-year experience seminar, or a discipline-specific, introductory course. Adopting this text across the general education curriculum could have some wonderful effects. It would give students in various courses deliberate connections between those courses. As a Resident Assistant, my hope is that the book would give students easy ways of engaging in academic discussions beyond their classrooms and classmates and into the dining and residence halls. In this way, it could help deliberately encourage ways to bridge apparent gaps between “academic life” and “residence life.” At the same time, I think that this could help align the general education curriculum to have a clear basis from which professors can help deepen understanding with their students as well as with their colleagues.

Another way to adopt this text is as a must-read for incoming students. At my institution, we have some deliberate structures in place to help students adapt to life at our college. The primary way is through small group meetings during our multiple-day orientation program. This program also includes some summer reading and reflection. This text could be incorporated into the pre-college reading and used as a basis for discussion during those small group times. Hopefully, a text like this one might help students understand their purposes both in and out of the classroom as they seek ways of participating in the community life.

A third way may be simply to encourage faculty to engage various essays from this book in ways relevant to course content, particularly in introductory courses. In doing so, professors can see what works best in helping students engage the topics crucial to an appreciation and understanding of Christian liberal arts education that transfers across the curriculum and transforms students’ worldviews.

Regardless of how this is incorporated into the curriculum, I think that it is important to do it right at the beginning of students’ college career – what better way to start than by understanding the end? In fact, we could take this idea a bit further to suggest that we could reorder the sections of the book by putting “Ultimate Aims” toward the beginning of the book as a way of giving the reader a framework within which to place the other insights presented in this book.

Faculty Review – Mark Peters

I love the academic and scholarly tradition of the Festschrift, the practice of honoring a giant on whose shoulders we stand by publishing a book in their honor. I love this communal practice in which colleagues and students offer scholarship in appreciation for the gifts they have been given by a friend and mentor. Unfortunately, it often happens that such volumes end up only on the shelves of those involved, and perhaps in a few libraries, and that after its initial celebration the book is largely launched into scholarly oblivion.

Liberal Arts for the Christian Life is a Festschrift, a collection of articles published in honor of Leland Ryken by his colleagues at Wheaton College. As such, it embodies all that I see as good in Festschrifts: it is a compendium of essays by prominent scholars; it is written in honor of Ryken and clearly shows his influence in the lives of these, his colleagues; and it centers around a single topic, the Christian liberal arts college, creatively and engagingly encountered.

And given its creative approach to the genre of the Festschrift, Liberal Arts for the Christian Life will not suffer the fate so common to such volumes. For the authors did not write only for scholars in a single field; in fact, they did not write for established scholars at all, but rather for scholars just beginning their venture into Christian liberal arts. The book is intended for students in Christian liberal arts colleges and will thus serve professors well as a starting point for reading, writing, and discussing the idea of the liberal arts in Christian context.

Many – if not most – of the essays included in Liberal Arts for the Christian Life would best serve students early in their college careers, both in terms of the essays’ contents and their level of writing. I see the principal value of the collection as a starting point for conversation about the liberal arts in Christian perspective for students relatively new to the Christian liberal arts college. Therefore, I recommend reading Liberal Arts for the Christian Life with your students in mind, thinking of connection points – those passages, chapters, or even sections that your students would benefit from encountering.

In this review, I seek to convey that Liberal Arts for the Christian Life contains something of value for every Christian liberal arts college professor, recognizing, too, that the things of value will vary based on readers’ background and interests, as well as their disciplinary focus and the courses they teach. In light of this framing idea, I suggest (in keeping with the editors’ statement that one way of fruitfully reading the book is to “dip into” points of interest) (25), that Liberal Arts for the Christian Life is best read, not sequentially, but rather by engaging points of interest and connection. With this thought in mind, I will proceed by offering a map for entering Liberal Arts for the Christian Life, one way to engage the book which I feel opens up the best of what it has to offer.

A natural starting point for entering Liberal Arts for the Christian Life is Alan Jacobs’s “How To Read a Book” (chapter 9), for it gracefully and graciously orients us to ways of reading we should seek to instill in our students. Too often we urge our students to read critically, with little thought for the negative connotations of this word or for the antagonistic stance it could create between reader and author. Jacobs instead urges us to read with discernment, with attentiveness, with responsiveness, with charity, and at whim.1

After being urged to consider reading in this way, I recommend next reading the volume’s final essay, Philip G. Ryken’s “Liberal Arts in the New Jerusalem” (chapter 25). In concluding both the volume as a whole and its final section, “The End of Christian Liberal Arts,” Ryken explores the ultimate end, the eschatological yearnings, of the liberal arts, which he characterizes thus: “The liberal arts are not for this life only but also for the life to come, when God has promised to make a new heaven and a new earth” (293). Ryken argues that the liberal arts not only serve the present world, but “also participate in the everlasting kingdom of God” (294). Through artistry, creativity, discovery, and worship, we anticipate the eternal goodness of God’s kingdom. Ryken points us to the significance of the liberal arts, and his essay encourages us to frame our teaching and learning in the broader perspective of the new creation.

In light of this perspective, I recommend next reading Read Mercer Schuchardt’s “Social Media and the Loss of Embodied Communication” (chapter 20), the opening essay in Section 5, “The End of Christian Liberal Arts.” Schuchardt uses “end” here in a very different sense than Ryken. While he does not explicitly address the liberal arts context, Schuchardt’s essay is framed by the idea of the possible end of the liberal arts college as we know it and by the consideration that one reason for this is that “the contemporary media environment discourages deeply reflective thought” (239). Schuchardt further grounds his essay in the argument that, in a world in danger of becoming increasingly abstracted, passive, and disembodied through virtual media, the liberal arts’ call to “promote and celebrate the growth of what is truly human … is now more important than ever” (243). “Social Media and the Loss of Embodied Communication” provides an excellent starting point for conversations with students about the challenges that our increasingly virtual world poses to our dwelling together in Christian community.

Only at this point would I recommend reading one of the volume’s framing essays, one which is intended to introduce foundational ideas of Christian liberal arts education. One option is Jeffry C. Davis’s “The Countercultural Quest of Christian Liberal Arts” (chapter 1), which provides a broad historical introduction to the liberal arts and highlights such key ideas as education for all of life, education as service to the church and the world, wonder and curiosity as starting points for learning, and education as quest for truth. Another introductory essay which treats many of the same themes and, I feel, does so in a way with which the reader can track more easily, is Marjorie Lamp Mead’s “The Lost Tools of Learning and the Habits of the Scholarly Mind” (chapter 8). Drawing upon the writings of Dorothy Sayers, Mead both introduces students to the idea and history of liberal arts education and calls them to embrace such an approach to learning.

I recommend concluding this opening foray into Liberal Arts for the Christian Life with two essays which, I feel, most successfully apply an understanding of the Christian liberal arts and the book’s larger project to particular contexts. Jill Peláez Baumgaertner’s “The Humanities as Indulgence or Necessity?” (chapter 16) does so on the divisional level, artfully positioning the humanities within the Christian liberal arts enterprise and skillfully arguing for their crucial place in a higher education culture that seems to be increasingly focused on marketable skills.2 Baumgaertner particularly calls students to the kind of learning that not only promotes self-discovery, but also – and more importantly – calls us to lives of empathy and service. Finally, E. John Walford’s “Learning to Perceive through Visual Art” (chapter 18) models an excellent disciplinary approach to the liberal arts in Christian context. Walford masterfully interweaves a Christian perspective on the visual arts with the roles this discipline is called to fulfill within a liberal arts education.

Having thus entered Liberal Arts for the Christian Life and considered a sampling of its topics and approaches, I urge the reader to explore further points of personal interest and connection. The volume’s table of contents is clear and straightforward, outlining the five broad sections of the book and specifically detailing its contents through helpfully particular chapter titles.

Discernment, however, is necessary in engaging Liberal Arts for the Christian Life and determining how best it will serve students in the classroom, as the challenge for the book’s authors – to write a clear, concise essay for college students that engages a particular topic within the Christian liberal arts context – is not met as masterfully by some as by others. Some chapters focus strongly on liberal arts but provide a less clear Christian perspective (see, for example, Lisa Richmond, “Liberal Education and Book Learning”). Others provide an excellent biblical perspective on a topic, but less clearly address the liberal arts context (see Michael Wilder, “Singing God’s Praise”). Still others are less lucid in their writing style and could pose challenges for student engagement (see Jay Wood, “Educating for Intellectual Character”).

A more significant criticism of Liberal Arts for the Christian Life is its insufficient treatment of an essential topic in liberal arts education, that of community. In reading the volume, students could get the impression that a liberal arts education is focused on them individually, that their personal success is key, that such success lies in their taking responsibility for their own learning and living out the ideals of the liberal arts in their own life, and that the Christian version of such learning adds to this equation their own personal relationship with God.3

To be fair, themes of learning in Christian community do appear in Liberal Arts for the Christian Life, mostly in the language of love for neighbor. But in the midst of an otherwise quite comprehensive treatment of the Christian liberal arts, I am disappointed not to see a more direct and deliberate discussion of one of the principal challenges – and potential blessings – of the Christian liberal arts college, that of living in, engaging, and being formed by a Christian community of scholarship. The editors would have done well to include an essay specifically treating this theme and also to have incorporated it more explicitly throughout the volume. We can clearly see real, physical community – such as that lived out at a Christian liberal arts college – as a thing of great import in a culture that is increasingly abstracted (see Walker Percy4) and distracted (see Neal Postman5). And we, as Christians, should of all people be focused on communal life, on living and learning and growing together as the body of Christ.6

Despite these criticisms, Liberal Arts for the Christian Life provides a valuable starting point for students to engage the liberal arts in Christian perspective. It offers a compelling vision for “doing learning differently” (25) and calls students to enter and embrace such an approach to learning. Liberal Arts for the Christian Life welcomes students into the conversation that is Christian liberal arts education.

Cite this article
Adam Perez and Mark A. Peters, “For the Classroom: Liberal Arts for the Christian Life”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:1 , 75-81

Footnotes

  1. It is interesting to read Jacobs’s essay in conversation with Heidi Oberholtzer Lee, “Critical Thinking or Just Critical?: Reintroducing Humility to the Literature Classroom,” Christian Scholar’s Review 39 (2010): 421-437; and David I. Smith, “Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy: Enacting Charity with Texts,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, eds. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), 43-60. For a more extensive treatment of the topic, see Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  2. See also Wendell Berry, “The Loss of the University,” in Home Economics (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1987), 76-97.
  3. If not read carefully, there is a danger that Liberal Arts for the Christian Life could appear as a Christian complement to Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2012), with its almost exclusive focus on a student’s personal success and on a very individualized, self-centered approach to learning.
  4. The theme of the abstraction and alienation of humans from each other, from the world, and even from themselves permeates Percy’s writings. His most extensive treatment of this idea is Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983). For a briefer introduction, see Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature,” in The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has To Do with the Other (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975), 46-63. This idea is also central to much of Percy’s fiction, including the novels The Moviegoer (1961) and Love in the Ruins (1971).
  5. Neal Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985).
  6. Classic texts to engage students around community in Christian perspective include the Rule of Saint Benedict (http://www.osb.org/rb/); Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996 [1939]); and Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955). More recent writings include Parker Palmer, “A Place Called Community” Christian Century (March 16, 1977), 252-256; Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 117-173; Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999); and Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012), 19-33.

Adam Perez

Duke University
Adam Perez is a student pursuing a doctorate in theology at Duke Divinity School.

Mark A. Peters

Trinity Christian College
Mark A. Peters is Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Teaching and the Good Life at Trinity Christian College.