Skip to main content

The Grad’s Guide to Surviving Stressful Times

The Navigators
Published by Think in 2011

Thriving at College: Make Great Friends, Keep Your Faith, and Get Ready for the Real World!

Alex Chediak
Published by Tyndale House Publishers in 2011

Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life and Learning

Derek Melleby
Published by Baker Books in 2011

The College Adventure Handbook: The Ultimate Guide for Surviving College, Building a Strong Faith, and Getting a Hot Date

Rob Stennett
Published by Zondervan in 2011

Parent’s Guide to the Christian College: Supporting Your Child’s Heart, Soul, and Mind during the College Years

Todd C. Ream, Timothy W. Herrmann, C. Skip Trudeau
Published by Abilene Christian University Press in 2011

Dale Goldsmith recently retired from Oklahoma Panhandle State University where he was Vice President for Academics for 8 years; prior to that he was Vice President for Academics and Professor of Philosophy and Religion at McPherson College in Kansas. He is also an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor.


The year 2011 saw the publication of a bumper crop of college “survival manuals” for Christian youth about to make that marvelous and terrifying transition to higher education. The presence of 19,712,690 students in college (per the 2011 Almanac Issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education) translates into a definite market niche, even if only about 72% of them are Christian. We will review the offerings, how they continue the survival guide tradition, and conclude with a look toward the future of the genre.

The Grad’s Guide to Surviving Stressful Times

NavPress is the publisher, but no author is given. A “project staff” is mentioned and “some of the anecdotal illustrations in this book are true to life and are included with the permission of the persons involved” (4). (I mention this curiosity because the issue of authority is crucial for this genre of book.) The back cover promises to help readers “navigate stressful situations confidently.” Stress – what is beyond our control – appears in eight of ten chapter titles. The sprinkling of humor throughout is promised to be a “stress buster.”

College guides occasionally offer scriptural personalities as models for Christian students to emulate. The Grad’s Guide is completely structured around the story of Daniel as a scriptural model for students to follow. The biblical hero who handled the challenges of leaving home and the subsequent stresses of a strange and hazardous environment is Daniel (and his male companions). Other “stress heroes” are cited along the way – Ruth, Esther, John, Mark, Timothy, Naomi, Mordecai, Barnabas, and Paul (39), as well as Joseph, Moses, and David (134) – but the quintessential example is Daniel, who resisted the blandishments of popular culture and political pressure to triumph in the supreme cauldron of stress. The author intends the reader to be drawn into the dilemmas facing Daniel; after all, they are all in the same situation (83, 89)—a radical displacement from home, a new diet, demanding work expectations, untrustworthy colleagues, financial demands, planning the future, and developing character.

From the beginning, the lives of the biblical “stress heroes” and those of the putative reader, also newly inserted into a new educational environment, are intertwined and play a point/counterpoint throughout the book. The important thing for both Daniel & co. and the new college student is to live to instruct others through one’s faithful example (chapter 2).

Chapter 3 addresses the question: When off to college, what should one leave behind and what should one take? Since college will be a place where the believer is ridiculed (48) and under assault (53), it will be important to take and hold onto what one has learned at home (assuming a home faithful to God), because college will try to get one to give that up.

The best thing to do is to plan ahead of time on the kinds of decisions one will need to make in the face of (godless) college dilemmas. When confronted on whether to accept the menu at the king’s table, and thus “defile” himself, Daniel had already decided on a “creative alternative.” The deal Daniel cut with the court staff to eat a healthy vegetable and water diet (which worked out fine) is NavPress’ example of the “creative alternative” approach that Christians might develop as they face difficult choices that have no clear solutions in Scripture. The issue of “defilement” is expanded to cover most issues presented by the surrounding godless culture of alcohol, drugs, and sex (67), and Jesus is the model/hero at this point with his ability to associate with sinners without adopting their behaviors.

By chapter 5, the parallel narratives have Daniel “graduated” and working for king Nebuchadnezzar and the putative reader out in a “real world” work situation. Both need a plan for life but they cannot plan for all eventualities. It could be that college is not a part of the Christian’s plan. So trusting in the God who knows all is a must. That God doesknow all is shown in Daniel’s ability to explain the king’s dream and get a big promotion. Chapter 6 faces the stresses of peer pressure to conform which are resisted by the stress heroes who have found a way to work for a godless boss (king) without imperiling their relationship with God. Surviving the fiery furnace underscores that walking that perilous path can work out for the best. Chapter 7 urges the reader to prepare for the eventuality of bad news (a death in the family, for example). Again, Daniel & co. offer excellent models for dealing with bad news.

Warning that “God is not a big fan of debt” (chapter 8), NavPress finds the poster child for two serious college challenges in Belshazzar, a self-indulgent, royal party animal and spendthrift. His debaucheries have drained the kingdom’s resources and the “handwriting is on the wall”—the gig is up and, again, Daniel is called on to explain God’s judgment to the king while the reader is cautioned not to run up a college debt.

The final two chapters get down to basic character issues. By now Darius is king and there is more conspiracy against Daniel—same old, same old: this time it is into the lion’s den. By this time it is clear that the stress heroes are men of character that they developed through the rigorous practice of good habits—especially of prayer. A quote of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:25-34) concludes the book; it contains five activities that will ultimately eliminate stress: (i) look at the birds and know that God provides for his creatures; (ii) look at the flowers and remember that God designed you well; (iii) focus on what God is doing; (iv) live life for God; and (v) live today.

NavPress has got it right. College is stressful: the abrupt, radical change, the food, the roommates, the lack of sleep and money, and overabundance of (opportunities for access to) sex, drugs, alcohol, and gambling. And it is good for the Christian to understand that others of God’s children have suffered stress. NavPress’ use of Scripture is creative and has an integrity that spot- or proof-texting lacks. The reader is drawn into a chapter of the larger biblical narrative in a way that no other survival manual does.

Who should read this book? The manual offers a provocative read for the Christian student with normal trepidation about the unknowns of college. It locates him within an exciting chapter of the larger Christian narrative. It provides a clear and simple strategy for dealing with all of those stresses peculiar to college: trust God.

But the book ended before I was ready to put it down. It does not follow its own insightful premise far or deep enough. A guide aimed at college students needs to challenge the mind that is being stretched in mathematics and chemistry and history classes. If going to college today is like the situation of Daniel in the very heart of an environment totally antithetical to God, then some issues need to be faced. Is the American college (=Nebuchadnezzar’s entire enterprise) fundamentally subversive to the Christian faith? (It would seem so.) Why should a Christian attend and how can the Christian rationalize his participation in such an activity? Instead of facing the challenge of its own premise, NavPress takes the traditional survival manual approach: a swipe at the big bad college, pooh-poohing the science that suggests a non-scriptural view of human nature (80-81) and making sure the reader knows that the “deck is stacked against Christians” (48) and that there are professors who are out to prove that “everything in your past is somehow false” (93).

Why not press the premise? Instead of taking protected pot shots at artificial targets, why not explore something like the hypothesis Walter Wink offers in his trilogy on the biblical powers? Wink’s argument is that the powers (mainly manifested in government, but also present in education) are given by God but in their earthly embodiment they deviated from their divine vocation (by individual and corporate sin). So the student finds himself in a divinely instituted but humanly corrupted institution, yet still accompanied by the God who is finally a redeemer of the situation.

To push the envelope a bit more, NavPress could utilize Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of institutionalized violence to offer an analysis of higher education in which the admittedly real surface stress is but the tip of the implicit curriculum, and the corrupting deep institutional structures could be brought into view addressed from an informed biblical/Christological platform.

Thriving at College

For Alex Chediak, college is an awkward time for youth but can be used to advantage by the adolescent to grow into a mature Christian with “functional independence” (108), able to become an adult in God’s world. The author hopes to help students do better than he did in school (xi, 291) although the constant presence of the auctorial voice – the pronoun “I” appears 16 times on the first page (xi) – is compensated for by a surprisingly positive attitude toward college and a substantial offering of pragmatic advice that relates primarily to college academics and makes this manual unique and especially useful.

The book is structured around the mistakes that Chediak admits he made in college. Which ones? The ones that almost left him permanently in adolescence. They deal primarily with choices or behaviors that fail to move one toward maturity. Thus the organization of the book into four arenas – foundations, relationships, character, academics – where ten mistakes retard maturation but can each be avoided by following a “thrive principle.”

Mistake #1 is the failure to take ownership of one’s own faith. The answer (thrive principle) is to grow closer to God by preparing for the inevitable intellectual and moral attacks on faith. Scripture is the fortress; it is reliable and accurate; it has “never been disproven” (8); it also makes good sense. Combining attention to Scripture with a tight grip on Jesus, and a wariness of tolerance, apathy, and the moral challenges of sex and alcohol can keep faith safe. And how do you know if you are a Christian? You are one if you can say “yes” to two questions: Are you ready to be ridiculed for your faith? Are your friends Christian?

Mistake #2 is clinging to pre-college (for example, high school) life and failing to attend to the four main challenges that distinguish college from high school: getting sleep (“personal maintenance”), working during work time, keeping pre-college life in check, and choosing friends wisely. These issues can best be addressed by creating and keeping a schedule (like a mature adult).

In the category of relationships (area 2), mistake #3 is the failure to be intentional and wise in the choice of friends. “Finding great friends” can be done by using Scripture as a guide and noting the desirable characteristics friends should have. It is well to avoid “classmates who make immoral decisions” (28). In conclusion, Chediak offers helpful suggestions on how to relate to professors despite the obligatory slap at some “overtly anti-Christian professors (6) … with secular agendas (28) … [and] their God-belittling worldview” (82); but refreshingly, he offers a picture of the professor as helper—unique in the survival genre.

Mistake #4 is injudicious dating and its consequences. Sex is for marriage and there is no such thing as “just sex.” He does offer a commonsense overview of the various approaches college students can take to dating with an emphasis on the motto: If a person won’t make a good mate, then they don’t need to be your date.The failure to develop an adult relationship with parents – failing to leave the nest (mom and dad) physically and/or emotionally – is mistake #5. The new phenomenon of “helicopter parents” (that is, parents not letting go or being immediately available) and the availability of social media (electronic umbilical cord) can invite irresponsibility. The third area of challenge is the personal/individual one. Mistake #6 is “being a flake” – someone who does not keep commitments – the failure of character. Advice: keep your commitments. Mistake #7 is lack of maintaining a balance between work and play. While each is good and important, neither should be distorted. Each should be seen to contextualize the other; they are related and balanced in the life of the mature individual.

So far, the book consists of good advice for the maturing Christian youth. The advice about relating to professors is very good, but the advice about owning one’s faith, letting go of high school, intentionality in relationships with parents, and relations with the opposite sex could be offered to any Christian youth—at work, in the military, or still in high school. “Roommate” is mentioned only one time (63).

Finally, in part 4 on academic matters, the reader has arrived to campus. The main problem (mistake #8) is in choosing a major. The appropriate answer: Do not be fearful or too cautious and wait too long; but also do not commit too early and without sufficiently informed advice. The goal is proper “academic development” (197) and the choice of major should be decided in the context of an understanding of vocation with input from others’ feedback and your interests and gifts. If your choice is bad, not to worry, God has a plan for each even if the choice of a major is mistaken (xxv, 27).

Mistake #9 is getting hung up on grades and overlooking the joy of learning. Good advice is easily accessible in this chapter as far as study, note- and test-taking, class behavior, and even insights into how professors see students. This is an excellent source of academic advice. But again, what is there about learning in college that can threaten the Christian faith? In 32 pages of advice, there are only 8 Scripture references and no Christological ones. The last mistake is that of missing the opportunities offered in college. Particularly a propos for the college generation famous for complaining, “there’s nothing to do around this place”—except internships, student government, mission trips, study abroad, debate team, sports, music, theater, service clubs, and any kind of part-time jobs. Again, this is generally helpful but has little specificity for a Christian other than mission trips.

But Chediak has more to say—in a Preface, a lengthy Introduction, a Conclusion, two Appendices, some Acknowledgements, and end notes that bulk up the book’s 279 pages to a final total of 352. In addition, the text is dotted with 22 “Dear Abby”-type advice requests from students (along with Chediak’s often helpful answers) and 15 boxed inserts with “factoids” illuminating college life. The advice letters may be the most practical part of a practical book as they address topics ranging from study habits to college expenses, from relations with teachers to how to spend vacation time.

This is a good handbook for the Christian youth who needs to mature. Its best advice comes from the professor-author when he gives substantive academic advice. This is the only manual I have read that offers the possibility that college teachers can be a positive resource for the Christian student. With the Scripture as “the inspired, infallible guide for Christian living” (65) and all the advice that crowds the book, this manual offers help for the college student to meet Chediak’s goal of “finding your place in God’s world” (xvii).

However, there is no hermeneutic offered to the maturing student with which she can move from the 66 full quotes of Scripture supplied to a constructive use of other Scripture to meet other problems not addressed. Issues of faith seemed to be treated superficially. There is a rush to settle issues of faith too early (chapter 1) and too easily (faith is definitely provable and coherent, and completely resistant to intellectual challenges).

Make College Count

If you want “true success at college—and beyond” and you do not want to wade through all of the detailed advice of Chediak, and NavPress’ parallel worlds of Daniel and today, then Derek Melleby’s Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life + Learning may be the best choice. It is the shortest book but has the biggest assignment: to enable the Christian student to sort out and begin to address the really big issues of life. Melleby wrote to counteract what he perceived to be the negative advice given to Christians heading for higher education in other manuals. It is an “invitation to envision college differently” (13). College is a place to ask questions. Melleby claims his style is one of “playful seriousness” and he promises to avoid don’ts—except for one early zinger: “So don’t get drunk or have sex. And please keep reading. You’ll make my mother proud!” (14) So much for the social hazards of college.

Derek Melleby directs the College Transition Initiative, a ministry of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding and the Coalition for Christian Outreach. With Donald Opitz, he co-authored a 2007 survival manual—The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness. In this volume, the major foundation for achieving a college experience that “counts” for a Christian consists of asking, understanding, and answering seven basic questions. These questions provide the structure for the book’s seven chapters: What kind of a person do you want to become? Why are you going to college? What do you believe? Who are you? With whom will you surround yourself? How will you choose a major? How do you want your life to influence others?

Each chapter opens with a discussion of one of the questions then introduces one or two students (name, interests, favorite music, TV programs, movies, books, quotations) to address that question. For example, “Erin” (favorite TV: The Office, 30 Rock) is asked, “Researchers say that the college years are critical to your formation as an adult. Do you agree?” He agrees that college is transitional and help was available from others. He answers a follow-up question – “What changes did you see in the Erin that entered college and the Erin that graduated?” – by describing himself as someone who had transitioned from assured-without-knowing-why to one who realized that dialogue with others was important. This Q and A sets the tone for the answers in following chapters. (None of the student responses incorporated Scripture; only one mentioned Jesus.)

Chapter 2 invites the reader to locate him/her-self in God’s story – “a coherent story that offers a certain perspective on life … the story of the Bible” (31) – and sees college as offering benefits in this quest even though other narratives thrive in college and will tempt the Christian. Admittedly “following in the footsteps of … hero Jesus” will be difficult, but the commitment is worth it. Melleby’s earlier mention of following Jesus gives no specific content to such topics as: Who is Jesus? Where is Jesus going? Why should anyone follow him? Nor does Melleby explain or critique any of the competing narratives found in college (such as capitalism’s story, social class story as embedded in the college’s demographics, the “sport” story – worth through winning – or narratives that might be encountered in the study of history, economics, sociology, or philosophy).

Chapter 3 is the faith question. He offers the obligatory slap at those who would destroy students’ faith: the professor who “made it his mission to see that no one left his class believing in Jesus or the Bible (43) … [and] faculty who are hostile or indifferent to the Christian faith” (47). College is definitely a place where a student will be attacked (12). What exactly these attacks are we are not told nor are we told how – specifically, with Scripture, Christology, theology, anything – they might be countered.

Then Melleby almostdoes something that I have never seen in any survival manual. He almostrefers to Jesus as Teacher. He writes tentatively that “being a disciple literally means that we are ‘students’ of Jesus. We are all lifelong learners” (50). So near and yet so far. We are “students”! Why can’t the readers be real students instead of just “student”? What kind of a student is a”student”? If Melleby had taken the step of removing the quotation marks around the reader and taken the next step and called Jesus a Teacher, he would have moved the entire genre of survival manuals into a new and more powerful dimension.

Faith must face doubt, challenges, and the trekking of a journey. When another student, Pierce, is queried about challenges to his faith in college he answers that, yes, his faith was challenged. When asked how he responded, he answered that he responded by broadening his views. When asked what advice he would offer upcoming students, he advocated reading and talking with others to be more broadly informed.

I extend this critique of chapter 3 because Melleby is raising the critical questions for students to ask themselves, but the punch is pulled by providing generic, pat, banal answers. What actually happens to engaged and committed students in college – if anything serious happens – is specific and complex and full of content (that is, a powerful book; the prophecies of Amos; Augustine; a psalm; Bonhoeffer; pre-destination; a favorite gospel; a tormenting question; the holocaust, a specific teacher—the experiences that “blow you away”). Chapter 4 contrasts finding identity in Christ (with no detail on what that implies) with finding it elsewhere: possessions, appearance, associates, and achievements. The students questioned on issues of Christian identity answered generically: Yes, it was difficult, but with the help of God and Christian associates I came out alright.

In positive contrast to other manuals, Melleby correctly addresses the question of friends and relations by pointing out that “your story is not about you. It’s about finding your place in God’s story” (76). Thus finding a community that celebrates God’s story is an urgent priority. And, yes, the students’ interviews on this question affirmed that connecting with other Christians was important.

Which major (the sixth question)? Melleby answers this with another question: “How will this major increase your serviceability for God and others?” Finally—what kind of a lasting impact do you want to leave? Melleby leaves the student interview open this time; the reader will have to fill that in as life is lived out (hopefully) in service to others. Additional resources are included at the end.

This is a book for the student who does not sweat the little things but is eager for the college experience to be constructively important. Melleby correctly identifies those questions and provides answers. Do not most of us (parents, pastors, teachers, even college administrators) want our students to ask the big questions and come to the best answers? Thus Melleby’s message is brief: put Jesus at the center and work out these questions. Period. The strength of Melleby’s method could have been greater if the answers to the seven questions had been more tentative, showed some struggle, had more explicitly Christian substance, and ended with their own further and existential questions. The questions stand out; the answers do not. Unfortunately, there is little guidance for developing answers that merit serious reliance on Scripture and on the living presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. (It is curious that none of the authors whose presence in his manual is palpable ever tells readers anything that he actually learned in college that really “counted” toward living a more faithful life.) Melleby stresses the appropriateness of friends, others, and parents as resources, but Christian maturity requires a lot wider engagement with available resources than he lets on.

Finally, and speaking of questions, four absolutely necessary questions need to be added to Melleby’s list: What is faith? What is college? How can Scripture help the Christian student? Who is Jesus and what does he have to do with college? These questions were not asked, but some of Melleby’s thoughts may be inferred: To (1), faith is “following Jesus” “believing in Jesus”—not an answer that should fully satisfy an intellectually curious college student; to (2) college: Not sure, (3) Scripture: Not sure, because of few citations (only 14 from as many books of Scripture) and no help with any hermeneutical skills that would have facilitated the independent use of Scripture by the reader; to (4), Jesus was not a player in the college reality; merely a static, one-dimensional figure, the virtually inanimate object of personal faith. Unfortunately these questions go unanswered, not just in Melleby’s book but in most college survival manuals.

The College Adventure

“Sometimes WWJD just doesn’t cover it.” admits the (back) cover of The College Adventure Handbook: The Ultimate Guide for Surviving College, Building a Strong Faith, and Getting a Hot Date. Jesus was never challenged by messy roommates, wild parties, or classes to pass. So Rob Stennett and Joe Kirkendall – they prefer simply Rob and Joe – pool their experience to provide a “unique blend of practical tips and spiritual advice on how to make faith a natural part of the college experience” with little reliance on Jesus or Scripture. The result is an edgy and humorous adventure yarn in the format of a one-stop fix for “surviving college, building a strong faith, and getting a hot date.” It is built for the student who wants a pocket guide to quick answers for 23 problems facing the college student.

The authors approach college as a set of problems which should be well within the capacity of the student to identify, diagnose, and solve. The resources drawn on by the authors include: their personal experiences with college (including talking with students and counselors); “TV shows and movies” about college; and finally, what they gleaned from pastors and campus leaders. The language is brisk and edgy (with occasional apologies to Mom and Dad) in an effort to cut through the formalities and get directly to an organized menu of suggested solutions.

There are five problem categories: incoming, faith, dating, parties, and miscellaneous. Each begins with pre-requisites which orient the reader to the lay of the human landscape: incoming problems can best be addressed by knowing the four types of student one will meet: the president, the Romeo, the artist, and the homework worm. Roommates are also categorized: the slob, the mom, the shadow, the gamer, and the plus one. Faith issues are more easily understood with a knowledge of the Christian types: the reverend, the backslider, the monk, and the skeptic. Incidentally, in these categorizations, Rob and Joe do not pick sides; each type is given its due in both the good and the bad columns. Approaching dating is much easier when you know the players: guys are stalkers, princes, or the “kissed dating good-bye” type. Girls are Jezebels, missionaries, or royal highnesses.

Once the groundwork is laid, the reader will know exactly where to look in the book – it is not necessary to read the whole thing (11) – for the particular problem one needs solved. Most of the (seven) “incoming” problems have to do with choosing the best college, leaving home and high school, dealing with roommates, and coping with loneliness. College is about putting oneself in the right place for the future (29, 201). That justifies addressing the selection of a major as an early problem to be solved. The sub-text seems to be do not wait around and waste time thinking too much about the possible choices.

Part 2 is the Faith Situation. Warning: your faith will be “like flat out assaulted” (69). The culprits? “Some professors [who] say horrible things about the Christian faith just to push your buttons” (83). So you need to find a church, read your Bible, and develop a hunger for God. The faith needs to be defended, at least on the absolutes, and the student needs the support of other Christians, a church, Bible reading, and God. Part 3 identifies five problems on dating—serious dating. Rob and Joe get right to it with problem 301: “How to meet the Smoking Hot Christian of Your Dreams.” If a relationship does not work out, there is a section on “breaking up”; if it does work, and a relationship develops, move on to problem 304: “Where Exactly is Third Base?” (that is, sex). The disinterest in helping Christians contextualize college problems biblically or Christologically continues, and it is striking that classic scriptural treatments of sex are not at least cited (Gen. 1; Matt. 5:27-30; 1 Cor. 7:1-9; Eph. 5:21-33). Rob and Joe almost make dating seem like it is the only thing going on at college. Dangerous situations occupy part 4: parties, pornography and three maintenance issues: food, time management, and budgeting. Part 5 (“Electives”) consists of a miscellany: go Greek or not; dorm room decor; a Freshman year bucket list; and a concluding letter to the parents of college students with warnings, assurances, and recommendations.

This book speaks specifically and directly to the reader. It is clear and easy to use. This book is for the student who wants quick suggestions for some two dozen problems that may face a college-going student. The offered solutions are neatly packaged, but cannot really be said to offer a consistent source of faith solutions—or a methodology (hermeneutics) for extending the use of Christian resources to face problems not covered. Substantively, one could wish for a more complex and faith-challenging view of college that had to do with academics and paid more robust attention to Christian sources and resources. The implication is that picking a major is the only academic challenge and that finding a red-hot date is the focus of relationships. What about alcohol, drugs, gambling? What about the dangers or helpful content of what is encountered in the classroom?

The real puzzle underlying the book is the assumption about the basis of authority for faithful Christian decisions. While Jesus is mentioned 25 times, the reader receives no clarity on how he functions or what relationship he might have to the college experience. The Jesus-never-went-to-college problem is a real one, but does that automatically disqualify Scripture and Jesus from positions of authority for the believer?

While NavPress is not deterred and suggests parallel tracking (Daniel and today’s student), Chediak virtually smothers the reader with Scripture, and Melleby affirms the big story of Scripture and invites the reader to make her developing story consistent with that of Scripture by answering the big questions, Stennett and Kirkendall simply insist on the gap between us and Jesus/Scripture and manfully fill the vacuum with their own advice. The choices for establishing some biblical or Christological authority are admittedly risky, but when one writes advice for Christians, the best authority sources are Scripture and the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ. For example, what about a leap of faith from the prideful, clubby, individualistic environment of today’s college to Corinth where Paul found the same problems, the solutions to which were found in Jesus Christ? Or what about the parallel between the interest in “first things” at Colossae and today’s academic community’s probing of ultimates on so many fronts? Is Jesus no longer foundational?

Christology originated in the earliest church as the faithful began to plumb the riches of just who Jesus was and what he was doing for them; Scripture is the story(ies) of how the faith understood the world and survived in believers who faced environments full of (internal and external) antagonists. We have continued to see Jesus (biblically and extra-biblically) as the one who redeems and strengthens us in every situation. Scripture is where we hear the stories of how survival and expansion happened. Failure to take the next step – into college – and at least attempt to bridge the “Jesus-never-went-to-college” gap and offer the rudiments of a functional hermeneutic for seeing Scripture’s value even on campus seems odd. That Jesus did not deal with a college roommate leads to the conclusion that Jesus did not know how to deal with anything not printed in Scripture; that, in turn, leaves us with the reductio ad absurdum that, “I guess I don’t need either Jesus or Scripture to help me deal with the challenges that I face as a Christian.” Rather than be dismissive of Scripture or Christology, advice-givers might want to see college as a great occasion to develop the skills and habits to develop foundations for building the Christian life of faith.

A Parent’s Guide to the Christian College

The focus of the final survival manual is the parent of a student heading for a Christian college. The authors of A Parent’s Guide to the Christian College: Supporting Your Child’s Heart, Soul, and Mind during the College Years are two professors (Ream and Herrmann) and a college student services veteran (Trudeau). Their goal is to facilitate parents wanting to continue to help their children grow, even after leaving home for college.

With the American college sitting precariously on what Stanton Jones (in the Foreword) calls “an inherently incoherent foundation,” the goal of helping a student to maturity is no easy matter. More than simply a parent’s manual, the authors have given us an apologia for Christian higher education. As one cover endorsement correctly claims, the book will explore the “layers of learning … inside and outside of the classroom.”

The book is informed by a coherent view of the Christian college with opening chapters on the three domains of community, academics, and the co-curricular. A diachronic examination of the four college seasons of arrival, success, crisis, and departure complete the book. Each chapter has three parts: first, a Hollywood movie is referenced in order to offer a popular/secular reflection on the chapter’s topic; then reflection on the chapter’s topic; then current literature is combed for the results of rigorous studies of the topic; finally, the authors give parents action steps to consider.

The reader is introduced to a remarkable thesis: “that the common worship of the Triune God is the definitive practice of the Christian college” (23)! Such a definition or foundation for an American college is extraordinary. The notions of common purpose and worship at the center of college life is one that startles and will serve as a standard by which parents and students – not to mention Christian college leadership! – might measure the school of their choice. The notion of college as centered in common worship is introduced with the secular 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind, chosen for its opening scenes of competitiveness for grades. What characterizes the secular campus is competitiveness; what characterizes the Christian campus is its realization of community and its self-consciously chosen identity as the body of Christ. The following review of the literature focuses on the reality and importance of spirituality in college students, arguing that a Christian college offers the setting best suited to develop the student’s Christian identity. Parents are urged to evaluate their intended college to see how well it does in maintaining such a worship environment.

The second dimension is academics, where the secular ideal pursues unfettered development of the intellect and the pursuit of inquisitiveness free from any constraints. The 2003 Mona Lisa Smile shows a young Turk instructress breaking new ground to help her students seek beyond the traditional and the expected. Good, say the authors, but in the Christian college, such seeking will be contextualized by the larger commitment to the worship and praise of God. The literature shows that rigorous testing of commitments (faith) can lead to growth given the certainty that “ultimate, knowable reality exists” (68). In a refreshing exception to most survival guides – and (please note) even a step beyond Chediak’s positive profiling of professors – the authors insist that the classroom is where Christian identity can develop and are not shy about recognizing that the classroom can be where beliefs are pushed and tested (crisis) and where ideas can mature into Christian character and commitment. The authors argue that pursuing such a crisis/commitment dialectic within the larger institutional framework characterized by Christian worship and praise of God can increase the student’s ability to evaluate truth claims with real confidence and skill. (Most manuals simply assure the reader that the Christian faith – whatever its content – is true and leave it at that, hoping that there will be no need to return to considerations of truth or doubt later in the college experience!) Sensitive to families’ economic constraints, the authors ask parents to consider a Christian liberal arts college as the best venue for promoting such growth.

Finally there is the extracurricular domain which ought not to be seen so much as extra- but as connected to the curricular. The all-too-(in)famous 1978film Animal House presents a view of college where the tail (here, the frat house) wags the entire institution and college is for the excesses of youth. The literature reveals the dangers of alcohol and expands to cite hazards of America’s secular party school environment (81-82). Importantly (and coherently) the co-curricular net is cast wide and includes dorm life (roommates) and opportunities to grow in that environment and branches out to opportunities for service and leadership. Parents are encouraged to check schools under consideration for institutional policies and to check themselves in terms of their attitude toward supporting or freeing their student.

The last half of the book turns to the seasons of college, the first of which is arrival. While secular institutions tolerate new students, Christian schools attempt to understand the new student’s situation and extend hospitalityin addressing the full range of problems. Secular entry to college pictured in the 1984 Revenge of the Nerds exemplifies the secular campus’ tendency to “welcome” newcomers with a range of strategies from harassment to tolerance, none of which really welcomes. The new student’s biggest fear is living with a roommate; depression and other related issues of mental health are what most commonly affect the newcomer. The landscape has changed for parents. Information is both more available (Cleary Act) and less accessible (FERPA). Parent-student communication is easier (cell phones). Cars and credit cards support new possibilities. Parents are on notice to try to understand the new college setting and be knowledgeable about their child’s particular campus and its resources.

Once settled at school, what will the student consider success? The Christian college offers a Christian definition that is not secular (in contrast to the 1994 movie With Honors where success initially means competing and performing up to the secular institution’s highest academic standards—which may mean disregarding the needs of others if they constitute an obstruction along the way). For the Christian, success can ultimately be found only in the worship and praise of God expressed in serving the needs of others. In the Christian school, teachers are responsible to lead students in that direction. This may mean leading students into a state of disequilibrium where students begin to realize their insufficiencies to meet challenges. It is in this domain that the selection of a major occurs, framed within the college community, processed in view of supportive parents, and aimed at the goal of praising God.

Chapter 6 faces the possibility of crisis, loss, and despair. Using the 1995 Higher Learning where a student shoots other students, the reality of sin – even depravity – is acknowledged, and – in a most un-Platonic fashion – the impact of human depravity even in the college setting is directly acknowledged. Intriguingly, it is precisely in this chapter where the authors provide their definition of college: we have colleges for “the church to help humanity more fully realize what it means to be created in God’s image” (150-151). But those colleges are “defined in part by an awareness of the fallen and depraved nature of humanity” (151). But Christian colleges are also about redemption (153) and parents are urged to find out about not only student behavior policies and crime statistics but also whether the colleges’ policies and support systems are redemptive in orientation.

Finally, what about the future? In the 1985 St. Elmo’s Fire, a group of college graduates cling together (that is the good part) as they stagger through sexual and alcoholic experimentation (not so good), presumably seeking identity and purpose. The literature understands that as a culture we have not yet defined the rite of passage to adulthood and suggests that colleges have both opportunity and responsibility to take this moment of transition seriously as part of the educational process. Parents are cautioned to take their change of role seriously: “You have gone from the director … to being a supporting actor” in the life of your child (186).

This book will help any parent (and student) prepare for college. It is an excellent presentation of issues—the relationship of college’s academic and social dimensions, the reality and presence of sin (or whatever the secular terms are for things that go bad), various ways to initiate students, run student services, and envision the student body. This is not without risk (but well worth the risk of critical thinking about faith and college); for instance: employing a body of Christ Christology as a template for understanding the worshipping-studying-recreating student body means … there is a lot to discuss at the college that takes this seriously. The book will be useful for Christian college administrators and faculty in holding their feet to the fire regarding their claims to offer unique educational experiences.

Despite its narrow focus (parents, Christian college), this manual is the most useful guide for understanding the college challenges generally in the crop of 2011. For parents (and students) heading for secular schools, the book offers a picture of what can threaten a good college experience. The triangulation of the movie conceit, “the literature” (rigorously established facts about higher education), and the promise of a Christian college control the message in ways that are organized and understandable. The use of published data on students and college is more useful than simple warnings about the dangers of alcohol even though the data can become out-dated.

Still, there are points where the book could be strengthened. One could wish that more authority were ceded to Scripture and Christology and that there had been less naiveté about the Christian-ness of the college as an institution. (Simply repeating the phrase “Christian institution” (for example, seven times on page 94) cannot make it happen or make the reader believe it, although the acknowledgement of epistemological implications of sin are clearly – but only briefly – offered.

The centrality of a body of Christ vision for the college is powerful, but additional Christological illumination could add to an understanding that Jesus is a player and has concrete functions in all realms of the college reality. For instance, the brief mention of general education (144) could have reminded readers (per Col. 1) that Christ is the cause and the center and the glue for everything—a comforting personal promise as well as a bold academic postulate that demands testing. In other words, Jesus as the reality behind everything studied in college could be approached in a whole new way—general education classes offer a variety of ways that lead ultimately to Jesus Christ. Instead the authors fell back on a (secular) canard that general education “produces well-rounded persons.”

(The conceit of reading a discussion of one aspect of college using a Hollywood movie at first seemed excellent. Then we [my anthropologist wife and I] viewed most of the films and found ourselves moved too far afield from the purpose of the book. So do not bother to watch the movies. Just read the book.)

Summary and Suggestions

First, a heartfelt “thank you” is the first order of business in any attempt to review the landscape. Each book was unique – as is each college and each student – and worthy of a close look. The most startling feature of the 2011 crop of manuals compared with those published in the preceding decade is the comparatively relaxed attitude taken toward the American college. In previous manuals, there were two main threats. In the social realm, it was the tolerance required or imposed so that students would be forced to associate with others (non-Christians, gays, atheists) and the threat they posed to faith. Sex and alcohol generally ranked as threat #2. One might have thought with the increase in the number of different kinds of students such fears would persist, but that was not the case.

The other problem was in the academic area. Biologists were a threat because they taught evolution with the result that students might conclude that God was no longer necessary. Sociologists were a threat to be avoided because of their propensity for accepting different kinds of people without pointing out the good from the bad; this mirrored the toleration found in the social arena, thus accentuating tolerance as the most dangerous fact of college life. Finally the philosophers argued that there might be more than one (kind of, way to) truth, thus threatening the preferred and unchallenged hegemony of the Christian truth. The response to these threats in earlier manuals was the exhortation to be strong in the faith and be a strong witness, even to those liberal professors who were out to take your faith away.

This last year, despite the increase in need for toleration of more different kinds of options in America’s colleges, there was little in the manuals warning about intellectual attacks and the horrors of evolution and relativism. There was almost none of the camouflaged arrogance of being so sure of the faith that one might convert the professor your parents are paying to teach you. In the group reviewed here this is softened into the general encouragement that each student is to be “salt and light.” These are all improvements and show that the main change is toward college being a little more positive (thrive, count, adventure are the key words) and the advice is how to grow up and mature; if this was the goal, the books I reviewed generally succeeded.

Having spent a lifetime in both the church and the academy, I confess that I have never actually seen a student with a survival manual nor been in a church where anyone has thought to suggest one to college-goers. At the risk of claiming more than I know, the reason for this seems to be that there is a spectrum of thought about the dangers of college among American church-goers. On one hand are those who see the college experience as religiously benign. That benign-ness can take one of two forms. One is that college and faith are two totally different worlds (professional/vocational versus personal/spiritual) and the twain never meets. The other is that the college is much the same as the faith – all one happy, indistinguishable, alright thing – so there is no possibility that anything encountered in college is able to affect one’s religious faith. Neither of these versions will produce a college survival manual.

On the other hand are those convinced that college can be a dangerous place for faith and that students will come under attack in a number of ways and can and must be prepared for it. Thus the survival manual. The fact that I never saw a student with one or a church where anyone suggested one exposes my liberal bent. But the conservatives have gotten it right: college is a dangerous place. And if it is truly dangerous, then they have only gotten it partly right. If the main problems lie in growing up and selecting a major, that is one thing. But if it is the case that the American college experience truly poses threats to students’ Christian faith, then there must be a truly serious response in which faith needs richer definition, the nature of the danger(s) must be critically exposed, and the resources to resist, overcome, or circumvent the danger(s) – would that include Scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ? – must be set forth in compelling and useful fashion. That is why the preceding critiques of the current crop of manuals have called for more clarity about faith, more rigor in their critiques, and a richer use of Scripture and Christology.

If we are called to love God with all of our mind (Mark 12:30) and we can begrudge the college a divine vocation (albeit a sin-compromised one), the college experience may be recommended with qualifications to Christian youth, and they could think of attending college without feeling they need to get through as quickly as possible. So as long as there are colleges, and there are Christians concerned about the impact of that college experience on their faith, there should be manuals.

I close with four suggestions that would strengthen future manuals. (More than three manuals have been published on average every two years in this century.) First, since we know that college-bound youth are not overly sophisticated about what exactly Christian faith can be, manuals ought to be clear – and not overly concise – about it. Because faith is both simple (“Jesus loves me”) and rich (see Aquinas, Calvin) and because college is where a lot of growing and thinking goes on, faith ought to be acknowledged to have substance that can be expressed. Faith is active; it is a gift; it has substance, content, narratives, propositions. Surely the college student needs to embrace and be embraced by the rich complexity of a growing faith.

Second, books of advice depend for their ultimate value and impact on the validity of their authority. This is the “who sayz?” issue. The credibility and gravitas of the author or the authority to which the appeal is made is crucial. These books are written to young Christians facing what may be the most critical period of authority choice they will ever face. Thus these manuals bear an enormous responsibility for being credible and persuasive in ways that are generally consistent with a transparently grounded faith. While several manuals claim and all imply that Jesus and Scripture are of primary importance, it is not always clear that such is the case. A quick review of the objective data on Scripture use offers the following. These are rough counts of the times Scripture is quoted verbatim in full and the times it is only referenced in each of the reviewed books.

Of course the claim that any given citation is given with a specific motivation can be difficult to sustain. So I am out on a limb—but still clinging. The most common type of citation is a description or an agreement, saying what the author has said but in different words, or illustrating what the author has just written. A command is a citation that gives the reader a biblical behavior to do or to avoid. A promise is a citation that contains some good thing that God/Jesus has done or will do for the reader. Other functions are infrequent. However, NavPress’ use of the entire Daniel story is a unique (and positive) contribution.

If I am guilty of misinterpretation, I plead only that we readers are not given the hermeneutical tools to appropriate the authors’ strategies and are forced to construct our own method for understanding how Scripture is used in the manuals. None of the texts offered express an understanding of how Scripture might be a resource that provides an identity for an individual as a Christian college student or develops a Christian critique of the college experience so that danger points can be identified, or offers strategies to avoid or overcome difficulties. Of course, as Stennett and Kirkendall boldly and correctly assert, Scripture does not give answers to all questions. Therefore it is doubly important that college students (the best and brightest?) be given the tools to use Scripture constructively and faithfully to navigate the dangers of college when they enter those uncharted waters. NavPress’ suggestion of “creative alternatives” with Daniel’s meal substitution as example is a step in the right direction, but there is no methodology that the student can incorporate and move on to other problems. (If I give a man a fish I feed him for a day. If I teach him how to fish…) In other words, Scripture does not provide a fundamental narrative for any of the manuals so the authors are handicapped in using it in more of a proof texting than critiquing fashion.

The other authority that could be utilized – indeed that one might expect to be utilized – is Jesus. Table 3 is a summary of data on references to Jesus in each book. The display of titles with no appearance in any of the reviewed manuals may appear wasteful. It points to a wasted opportunity. How is it possible that there is not a Christology that is automatically commanding for a college setting? How ironic that Jesus is misunderstood as a teacher of religion and politics and personal morality among the religiously illiterate American public and yet when his persona as Teacher could insert him authoritatively into the jumble of higher education, we forget to bring him along. There is even some condescension toward Jesus as when NavPress writes “Jesus was exactly right when he said…” (90) or “Jesus made some interesting observations…” (141).

But what is/are the Christologies that inform the writing of college survival manuals? What role does Jesus (in any Christological iteration—even non-biblical ones such as A Bridge over TroubledWaters or A Man for Others) play? How does Jesus function in these books and how do the authors hope that he might function as authority, heuristic center, and leader for the Christian in the college experience? Unfortunately, with one exception, it is not clear.

Why, for example, do we not hear of Jesus as Rabbi or Teacher? Melleby (50) and Chediak (25) indicate – only one time each – that Jesus taught but where is the Jesus of Matt. 11:29a who declared himself a player: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me”? And a player at the center of all understanding: “…in him all things were created … through him and for him … and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). Jesus says, and Scripture adds, that he is central to any Christian’s efforts to learn about anything; Jesus is Truth. Jesus is the Word; cannot that help us address issues of writing, communication, and clarity of expression? Jesus is the Lord of the Dance; cannot that provide a Christian approach to campus social life and partying? Jesus is the Bridegroom; sex, anyone? He is not an extramural one-dimensional figure who occasionally supplies a word of support to the manual’s real authority—the author.

Auctorial direction is good when there is a genuine understanding of the college experience plus the use of additional confident resources. Using one’s own

bad choices from college (Chediak, Kirkendall and Stennett) lends authenticity to the “been there, done that” street credany useful advice book needs. But the failure to offer the authorities of Scripture, Christ, and additional professional advice can keep any Christian advice manual from becoming a “bible” for doing college to a short-lived “do this because I say so” throw-away.

Third, another topic in need of more definition in the college manuals is college itself. What is college and what is it for?It might seem obvious to ask (and answer), but this is not the case. In most manuals, the college is simply background—fixed, remote, not above suspicion as possible villain. Thankfully, the manual tradition of “college is demonic and out to destroy you” book is not represented in the 2011 publications, but even the oblique critical jabs from a distance suggest that there is little appetite for a close-up engagement with the most insidious ways college can poison faith. The main impression is that college is there, it is what it is (whatever that means!), and the ideal is to get through and on with life as soon as possible with as little rubbing off as possible.

So what is college and what is it for? The rare positive answer found in The Parent’s Guide – that colleges “exist on behalf of the church to help humanity more fully realize what it means to be created in God’s image” (151) – admittedly might not be useful for State U or Local County CC, but it would be helpful for anyone college-bound to know what her school thought of itself, what the manual author thought it was there for, and how the student might think about why she is at that college. Once the college is characterized – at least with clarity if not with a view that convinces everyone in higher education – questions can be put to college, to student, to church, parent, pastor, teacher: What can we expect to happen? How do we equip our student to understand and respond to the reality? Or are survival and growing up and getting out the real goals?

Fourth and (almost) finally, the most egregious omission in the entire collective of college survival manuals is their continuing failure to understand and explain the facts of life about the American colleges’ implicit curriculum. This implicit or hidden curriculum is the unnoticed but extraordinarily powerful way by which American higher education carries out its most powerful pedagogy. The implicit curriculum consists of virtually everything that constitutes a school: its structure, history, lore, geography, motto, architecture, choice of curriculum, social life, institutional rules, mascot, recruiting (of faculty and students), public image, alumni, student aid philosophy, and so on. All of this expresses its power covertly (and overtly but unnoticed) to influence students into thinking and behaving in ways that are never subject to critical reflection.

The arguably most powerful and least noted (by the survival manuals) force in the implicit curriculum is athletics. Intercollegiate athletics is an insidious threat to the Christian faith of college students. It has been ignored by every manual. Or, more likely, everyone has happily assumed athletics to be benign. Melleby comes closest to touching on the issue when he admits that early in his academic life, basketball had given him his identity (63); then he realized that “God determined my worth” (64).

Although intercollegiate sport is not a reality on every campus, it is overwhelming on those campuses where it is found and, by its popular élan,colors all of higher education and has become arguably the most potent source of education in American higher education. At those flagship (largest, most publicized) institutions, with nationally reported and televised athletic programs, athletics occupies the largest facilities, pays the highest salaries, gets the most publicity, and assembles the largest audiences, with more agreement on values and outcomes (win!) than any other activity on campus. The pedagogy focuses on competition, winning, rankings, fame and fortune; it approves of a hierarchical world; physical strength is its coin. Yet virtually every aspect of college athletics counters the Christian narrative, its moral sensitivities, its methods, and its goals. And yet somehow not one single protector of Christian youth has noted the erosive seduction with which it embraces and infects the faith of virtually every college student. Is competitiveness a central “Christian value” found anywhere in Scripture? Yes, once where the competition has to do with showing honor to others (Rom. 12:10b). Does Jesus teach us how to be number one? Yes, but that only comes through service to others (Luke 22:24-26).

Attention to the implicit curriculum of the American college can unveil an entirely new world – the huge and pervasive secular – which currently goes its own merry way in teaching our youth the values of the secular world in ways so subtle that no one is recognizing it. There is work to be done at this level of education.

Until issues of faith, authority (Scripture, the Lord Jesus Christ), the nature and purpose of the college experience, and the reality of the implicit curriculum are addressed, the church needs to maintain vigilance and warn its college-bound youth of the dangers. The books reviewed herein do that in a variety of helpful and provocative ways. For that they not only deserve our thanks but our support. The liberal/mainstream church needs to take notice. It has work to do if it really wants to notice and alert its youth to the challenges of the college experience. Pastors, parents, students, and caring Christian adults need to think about the pernicious influences the college can have that deal with more than the boilerplate issues that have constituted the backbone of previous generations of college survival manuals: identity, sex, roommates, and (oh yes, finally) academics.

One final thought which could be politically correct. Why could not the next college survival manual be written by a woman? There were more females than males in colleges during the last academic year (11,199,927 women versus 8,512,762 men) and the rate of the increase of women is predicted to double the rate of the increase of men in the fore-guessable future (next year will see 11,715,000 women and only 8,683,000 men). At the same time, only three manuals published in the last decade were written by women (all by recent graduates: Freshman Fifteen by Julia McCarty and Fish Out of Water by Abby Nye in 2005, and Can You Keep Your Faith in College by Abbie Smith in 2006). The tone set by these young writers is generally more sensitive to interpersonal relationships and less focused on college as demonic environment. These books (even Fish Out of Water, which is an exceptionally virulent attack on colleges) are less interested in sex and more focused on the emotional dimension of relationships. The manuals in this year’s crop typically focus heavily on sex and one (Stennett and Kirkendall) refers to “college guys and girls struggling with pornography” (173, reviewer’s italics). It is hard to think that college girls are afflicted with a porn problem.

If the nature of college and its implicit curriculum can be featured in future manuals and if Scripture and Jesus can be given their due as the main resources for comprehension and survival, a female point of view could be an additional and refreshing dimension that could broaden our understanding of what the storms are that the Christian student needs to navigate in the American college experience.

Dale Goldsmith

Oklahoma Panhandle State University
Religion/Academic Dean, Retired