When reflecting on the past and future of the evangelical mind, we thought it fitting to hark back to a time not long after Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was first published. I (Jack) remember as a young teenager visiting the Family Christian Bookstore on Cornerstone University’s campus to buy CDs; I was an impressionable Christian teenager who wore a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet and a hat with Messiah written across it in imitation of the Mossimo brand script. I enjoyed browsing the music section because it was organized by genre, and I could relate to the small cards with preference tips, such as “If you like The Wallflowers, you’ll love Third Day!” Or “If you like Tool, you’ll love P.O.D.!” Or “If you like Jars of Clay, you’ll love Jars of Clay!” (Those of you who ever debated just how Christian the band actually was will get that.) We were sold Christian music and merchandise not for their own good or their intrinsic merit, but because they sounded and looked like secular counterparts. They were marketed as imitative goods copying secular standards of success and prestige.
Christian bookstores are not alone in branding themselves in such derivative, consumerist ways. In fact, we wonder if Christian schools often follow the same marketing strategies. Like this Christian bookstore, Christian universities tend to borrow their standards from secular models rather than developing intrinsically Christian goals for education and then embodying these goals in distinctive practices. Recognizing this default imitation allows us to take a step back and consider what the goals of Christian education should be and what practices Christian universities might cultivate to work toward these goals.
We live along the I-94 corridor in southern Michigan. Driving up and down the freeway, one can see many billboards advertising nearby institutions of higher education: Albion College, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, Jackson College, University of Michigan, Michigan State University. Even our own Spring Arbor University (SAU) is represented. Although each billboard is tailored to a slightly different demographic niche, they all offer remarkably similar messages, messages emphasizing the economic, career benefits of enrolling: “Aim Higher: Educating Tomorrow’s Social Workers in Detroit,” Wayne State. “Preparing Tomorrow’s Doctors … Today! College of Osteopathic Medicine,” MSU. “Jordan. 4.23 GPA. Mattawan High School. Lee Honors College. SMART RIDE,” WMU. “#1 BEST VALUE of Christian Universities in Michigan (ranked by The Economist),” Spring Arbor University.
Though all the signs embrace in some way the mantra of “upward mobility,” the last one is the hardest for me (Jack) to see on a regular basis because it is where Jeff and I invest our energies, our loves, and our time. Although we believe SAU does offer a distinctive, Christian form of education, this billboard mimics the economic standards by which secular schools market themselves. As Kelly, my wife, recently noted, such marketing risks making us look like a fast-food liberal arts university. “BEST VALUE” conjures images of overflowing burger-and-fry cornucopias procured for only a few bucks. “BEST VALUE” seeks to persuade families they will only need to put in a comparatively small amount of money when one considers the high return on their investment; and one has to assume the return is a high-paying job that justifies the expense and time. In the end, “BEST VALUE,” as assigned by The Economist, can be read only in financial terms. We certainly recognize the very real financial pressures on Christian schools such as our own. We are forced in some ways to play the economic-marketing game because finances have become the central driving force in higher education. At some point, however, marketing Christian higher education as a niche knock off brand erodes its intrinsic goals, goals that are in many ways inimical to our modern, consumerist economy. In much the same way that the music sections of Christian bookstores in the ’90s failed to articulate the intrinsic and distinctive values of evangelical artists, many evangelical schools have failed to articulate a robust vision of a successfully educated Christian person. Do Christian universities offer excellence in education? Or do they merely offer a safe alternative that is derivative of secular higher education?
We are thankful that many evangelical universities, including our own, do offer distinctive, Christian formation. But we need to do a much better job articulating what this distinctive brand of formation entails. What, after all, does a well-educated Christian look like? How might we imagine vocation so that it is not simply a lucrative career with a thin Christian veneer pasted on top?
We have wrestled with these questions in much of our work together—both in the classroom and in our scholarship.1 And we have found great help in the work of Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and writer. Although Berry calls himself a “marginal Christian,” his position on the outskirts of our dominant, consumerist culture gives him a perspective that many evangelicals with more orthodox theology lack.2 Perhaps the greatest threat to the evangelical mind today is not falling for some doctrinal heresy but implicitly adopting consumerist, secular standards of success. It is all too easy to assent to the right doctrines and recite the right creeds while inhabiting a counter-Christian narrative and loving money more than the kingdom of God.
If Christian universities are to foster genuinely evangelical minds, they will have to stop judging success based on income or celebrity; they will have to stop marketing themselves as a discount ticket to upward mobility. As Jack’s experience in the Christian bookstore indicates, imitating secular standards to increase profit is a fool’s errand. Instead, evangelical universities need to embrace a truly countercultural narrative and begin to imagine how they might form students to inhabit their places virtuously and restoratively—to tend the needs of their neighbors rather than to add impressive acronyms to their résumés.
What Is Christian Education For?
As the billboards posted along I-94 indicate, the narratives most universities—even Christian universities—tell about their educational offerings center on “upward mobility.” But, as Berry warns, “upward mobility, as we now are seeing, implies downward mobility, just as it has always implied lateral mobility. It implies, in fact, social instability, ecological oblivion, and economic insecurity.”3 Evangelical universities need to be more explicit about the telos or purpose for which they are forming and educating their students. As we have seen, too often their marketing language plays into these self-centered, damaging tendencies rather than challenging them.
We do not often see engraved on the walls of evangelical universities Jesus’s warning, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24 KJV). Instead, evangelical universities promise to educate their students “for lives of leadership and service in a global society”; they declare that they are “committed to changing the world”; they cast abstract visions declaring their students will “impact the world.” Although such language has roots in evangelicalism’s missionary heritage, it is largely congruent with the aspirations valued by a cosmopolitan, extractive economy. Too often, these promises encourage students to find significance in impressive (read lucrative) careers or far-flung influence. Colleges rarely tout their alumni who are faithful kindergarten teachers, skilled plumbers, or stay-at-home parents deeply invested in the lives of their neighborhoods.
This work of educating students to inhabit their places faithfully will require evangelical universities to re-narrate their purpose from career preparation to forming neighbors who can serve the shalom of their communities. Alasdair MacIntyre, in his seminal book After Virtue, argues one of the requirements for sustaining virtues is a coherent cultural narrative that gives context and purpose to our lives and to community practices.4 James K. A. Smith draws on this connection between narrative and right practices in his three-part Cultural Liturgies series. In his first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith outlines an “anthropology that emphasizes the primacy of love and the priority of the imagination in shaping our identity and governing our orientation to the world.” He also argues “that education is primarily about the formation (‘aiming’) of our love and desire, and that such formation happens through embodied, communal rituals we might call ‘liturgies’—including a range of ‘secular’ liturgies that are pedagogies of desire.”5 In other words, the stories we tell shape our practices, and our practices, in turn, shape the stories we come to tell.
One of Berry’s core distinctions might help Christian universities discern whether they are inducting students into a richly Christian story or a thinly veiled consumerist one. Following his teacher Wallace Stegner, Berry contrasts those motivated by the boomer desires for “greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power” with those motivated by the sticker desire for the health—the shalom, to put it in Hebraic terms—of their places.6 These contrasting motivations have drastic implications for the kind of education we offer our students. Much of our current educational system seems designed for students who have been told all their lives to “follow your dreams,” which usually lead toward glamorous, lucrative, influential lives: a college diploma is a ticket to a successful boomer life. What Berry proposes instead is that we tell students to “seek the peace of [your] city” (Jer. 29:7) and then design an education that enables them to do so.
An education for health, one that enables students to serve their homes, has to begin by reforming students’ affections and imaginations so that they will ask different sets of questions. As Berry explains, the boomer or [the] exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer [or sticker] asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it?)7
Berry articulates these contrasting questions even more simply in an interview with Bill Moyers: “The answers will come not from walking up to your farm and saying this is what I want and this is what I expect from you. You walk up and you say ‘What do you need?’”8 These different questions stem from different desires: a desire for quick profit or a desire for health. And these questions result in different complexities of accounting: one values only profit and externalizes costs and damages, and the other seeks to account for all things. Berry draws a similar distinction in “Two Economies” between our industrial economy, which “tends to destroy what it does not comprehend,” and the “Kingdom of God,” which “includes everything” in its comprehensive “pattern or order.”9
A consumerist education, then, trains students in techniques of extraction that enable them to get what they want from their places. It gives them skills so that they will be able to command a high salary and achieve a high quality of life. A Christian education, on the other hand, one that forms students to be participants in the kingdom of God, habituates students into the virtues and disciplines that enable them to serve the shalom of their places. Such an education will certainly need to move “virtue towards virtuosity—that is, toward skill or technical competence.” As Berry recognizes, “There is no use in helping our neighbors with their work if we do not know how to work.”10 The purpose for learning these employable skills, however, is not individual achievement, but the ability to better serve our neighbors. We certainly hope our students can make a living, but we also hope they will know the difference between making a living and making a killing.11
Rooting Education in Practice
To make these goals more tangible, we want to suggest three practical consequences that Berry’s vision of rooted service might have for evangelical universities: (a) how we narrate success, (b) how we order the curriculum, and (c) how we practice the Sabbath. We might consider these as three liturgies of “counter-formation,” to use Smith’s phrase, liturgies that form students to desire the shalom of their places.
Judging from the alumni who are profiled in college magazines and blogs, Christian colleges share a similar view of success with their secular counterparts. Alongside wealthy business owners and innovators, you might find stories about missionaries in far-off places, but all of the stories are about heroes, people who do extraordinary things. Yet Berry warns that our obsession with heroes obscures the kinds of challenges most of us will face in ordinary life. In particular, “There are two issues that [heroic stories] are prohibited by their nature from raising: the issue of life-long devotion and perseverance in unheroic tasks, and the issue of good workmanship or ‘right livelihood.’” And, as Berry points out, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”12 So perhaps our marketing departments could begin including profiles of alumni who courageously persevere in ordinary work, accomplishing it with skill and rendering a beautiful life from mundane service. And as faculty talk with prospective students and advise current students, perhaps we can find ways to praise lives of faithful service rather than remarkable examples of individual achievement.
One way professors can work to re-narrate success would be to advise students for homecoming. A few years ago, I (Jack) had the opportunity to advise a student who was wrestling with where he should attend law school. His LSAT score was high enough to get him into just about any law school in the country. But I sensed that at some level he wanted to remain in the Midwest, near his home. Of course, I could have advised him to get out of Michigan, to “make something of himself.” Had I done so, I would have been one small voice in the contemporary chorus singing the refrain that the best life is anywhere but home. Instead, I encouraged him to consider the local state university as one of his top choices; he did not need to go far away to make something of himself because he already was something. When I heard he had chosen the local state university after gaining acceptance into some of the top law schools in the nation, I was encouraged. Educating (even advising) students for homecoming does not mean simply telling them to return to their hometowns; it means teaching them to see goodness in local places and, when they find that goodness, to imagine how they might tend to its flourishing. It means not being afraid to put down one’s roots in a place.
Second, Berry’s vision for faithfully serving our places requires us to be responsive inhabitants rather than specialized professionals. This shift in dis position suggests Christian colleges need to reaffirm their commitment to a rich liberal arts education. Many Christian schools are reducing the general education requirements and setting aside more credit hours for professional or specialized courses. We recognize the economic pressures behind such shifts but graduates from Christian schools ought to be able to use their specialized skills to serve the needs of their places.
To accomplish this goal, Berry recommends that schools model their curricula on the long-standing image of knowledge as a deeply rooted tree.13 Students should begin with the roots and trunk—traditionally described in terms of theology and the liberal arts—before branching out into their particular subfield. Without this core education, they will not understand how their specific skills fit within a broader context. Specialized students might be able to code an effective computer program or design a structurally stable bridge, but they may not be able to judge whether their program or bridge helps its users and their communities to flourish. In this way, students educated in a robust and intentional liberal arts curriculum should be capable of making a two-part judgment: they will know whether the product of their work is good according to the specialized standards of their discipline and whether it is good according to the broader standard of the kingdom of God. This relationship between internal and external accounting weds praxis and theory, teaching students that their ideas and skills lead to tangible, practical results in the world. And once theory is embedded in local and particular ways, students may also learn responsibility; they will have to stand by their words and actions among people who live nearby and know them.
Finally, one of the simplest yet most radical ways universities can offer a counter-liturgy to the consumerism and heroism of our culture is to encourage their members to practice the Sabbath. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “Sabbath is the practical ground for breaking the power of acquisitiveness. … Sabbath is an arena in which to recognize that we live by gift and not by possession, that we are satisfied by relationships of attentive fidelity and not by amassing commodities.”14 When we put away our school books, turn off our Internet devices, and attend to Christ and his gathered body, we bear witness that we are not the authors or redeemers of the world. If God rested after creation, if he commanded his people to rest after he brought them out of Egypt, then we too can rest. We do not have to be heroic world changers or global leaders; we do not have to judge our self-worth by how much money we make or how many possessions we can afford. We have time to love our neighbors.
As professors, we can model this disposition by taking a Sabbath ourselves. One way that I (Jeff) practice the Sabbath is to avoid using my computer on Sundays. This can be a challenge in the midst of a busy semester when students expect quick responses to their last-minute questions, but establishing this limit frees me to spend time with my family and to redirect my attention away from the many distractions my computer provides: emails, sports scores, breaking news stories, social media. Perhaps all these are not as important as they claim to be; perhaps they do not need my immediate attention; perhaps reading the latest Internet news does not equip me to “impact the world” but rather just distracts me from my more immediate responsibilities.
Berry’s vision has many other implications for schools wanting to inhabit their places faithfully and redemptively. Such schools will get serious about keeping tuition low; they will challenge students and graduates to embrace manual, embodied work; they will cultivate a culture where faculty and staff stay at the same institution for decades; they will plant campus gardens. Through these practices, practices that will take different forms at different institutions, evangelical universities might form graduates who desire to serve the shalom of their places and who have the intellectual training to do so.
Cite this article
- For our extended work on Berry and education, see Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017). Portions of what follows are adapted from this book.
- Morris Allen Grubbs, ed., Conversations with Wendell Berry, Literary Conversations (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 192.
- Wendell Berry, “Major in Homecoming: For Commencement, Northern Kentucky University,” in What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), 33.
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
- James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, Cultural Liturgies, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 7.
- Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012), 11.
- Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), 7.
- “Wendell Berry on His Hopes for Humanity,” television interview by Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company, last updated November 29, 2013, http://billmoyers.com/segment/wendellberry- on-his-hopes-for-humanity/.
- Wendell Berry, “Two Economies,” in Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point, 1987), 54–55.
- Ibid., 73–74.
- “Wendell Berry on His Hopes for Humanity.”
- Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009), 277.
- Berry, “The Loss of the University,” in Home Economics, 76–97.
- Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 84–85.