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In the fourteenth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Timothy Larsen, the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought, Professor of History, and Director of the Faith and Learning at Wheaton College. Tim opens by talking about how his interests as an historian gravitated to the Victorians, what they knew, and what we can learn from them today. Todd and Tim then talk about his understanding of the academic vocation and how Tim goes about discerning what projects to pursue. They then close by talking about Tim’s magisterial effort, The Oxford Handbook of Christmas, and what Christmas as a season of expectation has to offer our understanding of the academic vocation.
- John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest is Timothy Larsen, the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought, Professor of History, and Director of the Faith and Learning Program at Wheaton College. Thank you for joining us.
Tim Larsen: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you.
Todd Ream: So you were an undergraduate at Wheaton, and in addition to continuing as a graduate student at Wheaton, you were a graduate student at both the University of Stirling and the University of Edinburgh. And in the end, you emerged as an historian of the Victorian era. What led you to focus so many years of your life on that period of history?
Tim Larsen: Yeah, I came to Wheaton College as an undergrad, as a history major, because I love the smell of gunpowder. I really wanted to do military history. But Mark Noll was in the department, and that led me to church history. But Mark’s an Americanist, and I was interested in Britain.
I was interested in Britain because the spiritual mentors in my life were from Britain. I was part of a network of charismatic churches based in Britain, and I really wanted to understand their spiritual formation and background. So that was the distinctive. They, the ministry actually hired me. And so I moved to England when I was 22 years old. And I knew I was going to do a doctorate.
And Mark Noll literally wrote a handwritten note to David Bebbington. And just told me, you’re going to study with David Bebbington. Here’s the note. And sent me over. Uh, they used to be called the mafia of evangelical historians back in the day. And I felt like I’d been transferred to a different branch of the mafia. Um, and of course Mark was right. David was the perfect supervisor.
And I came to David and I said, I wanted to do politics and religion in 20th century Britain. That was my idea. And he said, politics and religion is a great idea, but the action is not in the 20th century, it’s in the 19th century. That’s when religion really did shape legislation, where it really did divide people’s choice of party politics and how they voted.
So if you, if you are in the 19th century, you’ll be in the center of the story and you’ll have all kinds of ways to go in the field of history. If you do 20th century, you’ll be very marginal. You’ll do something that’s kind of a dead end and a niche thing. And he was right about that as well. So David shifted me to the 19th century for my PhD, and I’ve never looked back. I’ve enjoyed it enormously. The Victorian period is very rich and exciting.
Todd Ream: So in terms of being in the center of that action, then, in what ways, uh, is the study of the Victorian era critical to understanding the development of Christianity?
Tim Larsen: Yeah, history in general I love because I think It’s helpful to come at an issue in a refracted way. We often have our own controversies and things that bother us, and to take another time period, another place, where their kind of issue is their issue, but it can help give some indirect illumination on our thinking, seems to me a very valuable intellectual process. So, that’s why I love doing history.
And all of the issues, I think especially, the evangelicals, are kind of strolling with often, there’s a Victorian version of them. Everything is fermented there. It’s, uh, biblical criticism and creationism and feminism and just war and imperialism and pretty much anything you’re trying to figure out where you stand on or how to move forward on today, there’s a Victorian version of that story. And even sometimes finding the roots of how Christians have handled something can help you re-narrate it in a way that gets you going in a more fruitful direction.
Todd Ream: Yep. So as a product of the Victorian era, then, John Henry Newman is often thought of as the greatest commentator on the university. His theology continues to have wider and wider forms of impact to this day, but in terms of the university, is often thought of being its greatest commentator. And although he died in 1890, the lectures that came to comprise his Idea of a University are still today amongst the most widely cited of all on university life. In your estimation, why do you believe these lectures garner such appeal?
Tim Larsen: Well, I’m really pleased with the way you set that up because I make every single faculty member that Wheaton hires read that book, The Idea of a University, and they hate me for it. So I’m glad for your affirmation that it’s an important book.
Yes, and it’s very common for deans or provosts or presidents at secular universities, Research One, Ivy League, state universities to quote that book, a great deal. So why is that happening? I think there are two threads in it that they particularly value.
One is the idea that education is for its own sake, that it’s not merely utilitarian in a very kind of thin way that how does this lead on to a paid employed position in a particular field. And the other one is Newman’s emphasis on the whole circle of knowledge, that all the disciplines matter, that you need them all there to keep them in proportion and perspective.
If one discipline is removed, the others kind of give answers that fit their discipline to take over that space. So you get an economic answer to a psychological question or whatever it is, because you’re not allowing the other disciplines to have their voice in the conversation. I think those two threads are the ones that are really attractive to secular people in higher education today. But the part that’s missing is Newman says theology is essential. It’s one of those disciplines you can’t get rid of, and they just ignore that part, which is a huge part of the book.
Todd Ream: And for that very reason, I’ve often wondered whether or not, um, the propensity, uh, on the part of these individuals to cite it, says as much about Newman as it does about them, or perhaps even perhaps more about them and what they’re trying to see in Newman, um, as a way of sort of affirming their understanding. But it’s, it seems to be at least both potentially.
Tim Larsen: Yeah, I mean, there’s something classy about quoting a kind of canonical author from the past, so I think it adds a kind of gravitas and a touch to their speech often, and it’s a very capacious book, so you can find in it the bits that you want, and there are, all of us, there are bits that are not serviceable to us.
Newman has a very elitist idea. He’s talking about gentlemen all the time. And he means that both in a gendered sense, that it’s only for men and in a class sense that it’s only for, um, men of a certain kind of station in life based on their father’s, um, rank and fortune. So there are, there are some parts that are more serviceable than others, and they’re, everybody’s picking out the ones that help them, I think.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. So Victorian history remains a focus of your work even to this day, but your work over time has branched out into several related directions. What process of discernment leads you to decide what projects to pursue?
Tim Larsen: Yes. I, I think the, the secret kind of thread, the best that I can see it is I’m particularly interested in commending the Christian faith, especially to the wider academy, especially to people who tend to have caricatures of it, to be dismissive of it, to have a false view of the faith that they then kind of bake into their own writing and thinking that actually is very assailable. So I’m looking for those kind of stories often where I can say, you, you’ve thought about this wrong. You, you, you’re making an assumption that’s historically just not true. And I can show you that and that hopefully will reorientate you.
The other thing, of course, is just how doable a project is. Can you find the sources? How much time would it take? Do you want to invest that amount of time? So I’m always asking that question. And then, uh, Ecclesiastes says that the person that God has blessed in their work, God keeps occupied with gladness of heart. And I use that as a test a lot. Is this a project that will keep me occupied with gladness of heart?
In other words, do I want to spend the years of my life reading and thinking about these things, or do I only think it would be great to have the end product of this process, but not actually enjoy the process? So the process is important to me.
Todd Ream: So amongst those projects you decided not to pursue then, which ones proved most difficult, perhaps to set aside, um, sort of pressed more on that criteria. You just, you just laid out there for us.
Tim Larsen: Yeah, well I haven’t retired yet so I’m not saying I’ve set aside anything permanently. I actually have a file of fantasy research projects, which is probably like 30 pages long. Uh, so I can always think, I’ve decided it’s not the next project, but it might be a project further down the line.
Um, but one that I, but what I said earlier about the process, so an idea that I really like that I think I probably wouldn’t ever do because of how, how, what it would take to go about it, which wouldn’t really work for me, is an idea I had called, “What the Victorians Knew.” And it would kind of turn it on its head, because we think, you know, we’re so much more advanced, and we know so much more, and it would just show all the things that, that the average Victorian knew that we don’t know.
So, like, the names and, of plants, and flowers, and the natural world, uh, a deep literacy of the Bible. It’s just extraordinary when you read the humblest Victorians, how biblically literate they are. There are so many things that they had as a base of knowledge that we’ve lost, and it would be a kind of way of turning that on its head, yeah.
Todd Ream: That’s really interesting. Yeah. So in addition to your service of students at Wheaton College, you know, you just mentioned a few minutes ago that, you know, you coordinate the faith and learning program and that part of what that involves is reading, uh, Newman’s idea. Um, I want to ask you though, how have you come to understand the Christian academic vocation?
Tim Larsen: I, I think that we’re a bridge. I don’t, I guess, I don’t want to necessarily answer for everybody, but certainly this is one aspect and it’s my aspect. I think we’re called to connect the people of God and what we stand for with the wider academy in the world of learning. And so we’re standing between those two things and that’s our vocation and our calling.
And it’s a, it’s a two way bridge. There are, there are bodies of secular knowledge that the people of God could benefit from if we can help them understand them and grasp them and come to them. And we’re trying to bring and commend the Gospel to the wider world of thought and the academy.
Todd Ream: So what components of such an understanding, if any, are unique to Wheaton College and the role that it plays as the flagship institution for evangelical higher education?
Tim Larsen: We’ve made the integration of faith and learning absolutely core to what Wheaton is. You run into it everywhere. So you spend a year long seminar with me when you get hired. Then you do a faith and learning paper or project. Every student evaluation has a question on it, talk about how the integration of faith and learning happened in this classroom. It’s part of so many people’s research trajectories and projects. So it’s very, very deep in the culture at Wheaton.
And I really want to say it that way. It’s not so much a, here is a model. Here is the way to think about this. It’s a commitment to the task that really is what we stand for. And that’s how I see it. Do you want to be in this conversation? Do you care about these questions? Are you wrestling with these issues in your own discipline and your own scholarship?
But it’s not, here is the right way. Here’s the theorists that you need to adopt. Here is the Christian way to think about X, let me hand it to you. But it’s, are you alive to doing this in your own life and work?
Todd Ream: So you’ve served on the faculty there, if I did my math correctly, which is always a question, uh, for 21 years. And the Faith and Learning Program is about to celebrate its 55th year here soon enough, uh, there. I believe it’s founded in 1973. So, you know, in what ways, if all, have that, has that understanding perhaps changed, uh, over the course of the Faith and Learning Program and in the, over the course of your years there? And in what ways has it perhaps stayed the same?
Tim Larsen: Yes, so, uh, Leland Ryken, who’s now retired, but taught English at Wheaton for many years, went to a Faith and Learning seminar in the summer of ’69, which they eventually made a great song about, but there is a longer history of what I’m saying, but even before the 70s.
Um, yes, I think that, um, partially because of their own life stories, there was a very strong, kind of- I don’t want to say it wasn’t a conspiracy. It just was the way it happened, that everybody who was really important in the conversation had a very strong reformed identity: Arthur Holmes, Mark Noll, Roger Lundin, people like that, all were, they all literally worshipped in the same Presbyterian church. And so I think it began with a kind of default reformed culture to it.
And I’ve tried much more to say that there are many Protestant ways to do faith and learning in different traditions and to emphasize that. And so I think it’s been a broadening out from that initial base into kind of a more of a plurality in that way.
Todd Ream: Since Wheaton established such a program, several other Christian college and universities have established their own programs that are comparable to that. Um, since you began leading the program though, are there elements that you’ve come to think of as sort of timeless? These are the things that we will sort of always do, or at least we’ll always do as I envision moving forward. Or are there things that have changed as faculty have changed, cultures changed, understandings of disciplines have changed?
Tim Larsen: Yes, both of those things are true and as I said, I really do think of it as an aspiration rather than a product and so we’re always questing. That’s how I see it. And so it does it always changes but the commitment to the integration is always there, but how you’re thinking about it, the way you’re exploring it- and many exciting things come up.
So I had several faculty members, for example, start writing about the spiritual practice of lament, how to use that in your classroom, how to think about that in terms of the hard things that you have to deal with in your discipline. The, the, the sinful things that come up. And that’s a much more kind of pedagogical kind of approach where I think the program began with a very theoretical kind of approach of like what are the underpinning worldview issues, your discipline and how do we tackle those.
And so there has been a move towards pedagogy a lot that I’ve noticed. Um, we’ve moved much more toward thinking about the global Church in the global context. Uh, there was a very default kind of Western, uh, canon kind of assumption with the way that it was taught in the past. And so that has been a, been a difference.
I’ve also emphasized much more kind of just gaining biblical and theological literacy. A shared biblical theological literacy is a core, um, value that I have for the program. I think that was kind of always there, but people didn’t want to name it. It sounded like you were kind of, um, telling people they had a deficiency.
Uh, but it’s just, you know, it’s just a reality that we all want to get better at that. And you can’t integrate if you don’t have one half of the equation.
Todd Ream: So Wheaton’s a non-denominational Christian college. And despite its direct lack of direct ties- it may have had, you know, these informal ties through a preponderance of faculty members, such as you were talking about, you know, to a particular Reformed, uh, church, uh- how does Wheaton navigate how theology is done on campus?
Tim Larsen: Yes, we’re regularly sent emails reminding us that we don’t speak for Wheaton. So I won’t say that I speak for Wheaton.
Todd Ream: Okay good, so it’s not just where I serve then.
Tim Larsen: But I will tell you how I think about that issue. And I’m trying my best.
Todd Ream: There’s, there’s a disclaimer.
Tim Larsen: Yes, exactly. And I am trying to influence the culture as a whole. I will admit that.
So, I really want faculty members who are robustly standing in their own Protestant traditions. I am looking for them to be, uh, deep, more deep, more thoughtful, uh, more nuanced, more articulate in their own tradition. A better Lutheran, a better Pentecostal, a better Mennonite, a better Baptist, a better Presbyterian, a better Anglican, whatever they are. I want that to go farther. I want it to be in their research for, especially for their faith and learning paper, in their way of approaching their thought about their discipline and their research.
Now, obviously, Wheaton agrees that we have enough in common that we can work together collegially. And so if you have a kind of polemical edge where your, where your way that you express your identity is by being disparaging of some other tradition, well, that’s not going to work very well here. But you can be robustly “this is how a Baptist thinks about this,” without having to have a foil of some other tradition that you dislike and disdain or are making fun of.
So I’m really hoping for that and it’s some of the best projects that I try to get faculty members to lean into it. I had a wonderful art professor, for example, who’s a Mennonite, who did an art show about community for his project, community as a Mennonite value and how it was expressed in their theology. And that’s the kind of thing that I’m hoping for.
I do not want a kind of lowest common denominator generic evangelicalism. I want us all to make each other better by being better versions of our own traditions. If, you know, all of us, I think, you tend to, in your own church life, other groups of Christians get kind of caricatured, and you kind of have a dismissive, this is how those people think about that, or how they do that. And what you find when you actually meet them is that’s not true.
And so I want Wheaton to be a place where it’s like, well, no, you need to know what, how somebody who actually inhabits the tradition really thinks about it, which is different from your caricature, and that will make you not necessarily become what they are, but it’ll make you a better, more mature version of what you are.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. So have you actually seen over time that, you know, perhaps within a certain sense, the traditions represented on campus within Protestant Christianity have sort of broadened maybe or deep and or deepened?
Tim Larsen: Oh yes, we’re much more diverse than we ever have been in terms of denominational identities. Um, we are orthodox, we are Trinitarian, we are Protestant, but beyond that, it is pretty much every version of orthodox Trinitarian Protestantism that is out there, is here. And it’s often faculty members’ first experience of that diversity.
They haven’t realized that they’ve spent their whole life, you know, in one tradition within Protestantism until they meet people who inhabit others, which they’ve only kind of vaguely heard about, perhaps, but have never actually encountered. And I think that’s part of the excitement.
I had a I had a student in my office just a couple weeks ago who’s Missouri Synod Lutheran, and he’s very committed to his tradition, but he was so excited about being Wheaton, being at Wheaton because he’s hearing the real arguments, the real perspectives from the other traditions, and that’s helping him come with a more mature, robust way of articulating what he stands for.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. Yeah. Thank you. In your estimation then, uh, in what ways, if any, is the health of the Christian college, then, related to the health of the Church and particular traditions representing Protestant Christianity in Wheaton’s case?
Tim Larsen: Yeah, the Church has to be committed to forming the life of the mind and caring about the life of the mind. If you do not do that, you are cutting off your own future. So the Christian college is the one place where we are intentionally putting resources and effort into doing that. If we stop doing that, things will die on the vine in pretty dramatic ways. So it’s very important that that connection is healthy and alive.
Todd Ream: The reverse then in what ways is the health of the Church then tied to the Christian College?
Tim Larsen: The bridge is two way, as I was saying before. So I’m thinking, for example, uh, a great historian, uh, whose work I loved, uh, who’s dead now, Owen Chadwick, he had a comment once about how when one schoolboy says to another schoolboy, well, you know, Darwin has proven that God doesn’t exist. Then you have a problem.
And so in other words, it’s at a popular level. It’s not at a high elite level, but a conversation at the academic level has changed the popular perception and only having a robust Christian intellectual community who can do that work of defense and explanation and articulation will stop that from happening.
So I, why I’m emphasizing it that way is because evangelicals rightly care about populism. We want to reach every single person for the Gospel. It doesn’t matter how educated they are. It doesn’t matter how poor they are. We’re trying to reach ordinary people, which is the mass of people. And that’s absolutely right.
But if nobody’s doing the work of saying the Gospel is credible, and I can articulate that and defend that in this cultural context, eventually even the populace starts to believe that these rumors must be true. Christianity has been discredited. It’s been disproved. It doesn’t make sense. And so we’re serving the Church by doing that work. It’s not the only thing we do, but it’s one of the things we do.
Todd Ream: And certainly, you know that was beginning to be questioned in a number of ways during the Victorian era for example. But you know perhaps along the lines of what they knew, um, that we don’t, uh, is, you know, ecclesiology, um, the Church was assumed, uh, to be a critical component of how they ordered their lives, um, again, under some strain.
Whereas now, I think we have to be more overt, you know, at times about that and think about that, uh, or it could slip into the background entirely.
Tim Larsen: Absolutely. And, and academic, Christian academics, an occupational hazard is them becoming disdainful of ordinary Christians and of ordinary church life, and that is an equally, kind of dangerous road to go down, for sure.
We have to nurture, um, a sense of honor for our brothers and sisters in Christ, of patience, of love, of connection. And the connection is hard work. It’s not like, oh, this is so easy. You’re going to have to put your effort in to say, I’m taking the time to get to know you, to understand you, to serve you, to value you and your gifts and your place in the body of Christ.
And it’s the, it’s a horrible thing that happens when Christians become academics, and then they start cutting themselves off from the people who discipled them, from the people who nurtured them in the faith, and start to look down on them rather than to honor them.
Todd Ream: Yeah, no, yeah, it’s very important. I want to turn now to one of your most recent projects, then, the Oxford Handbook of Christmas. And so just to paint a picture, uh, for our audience here, it weighs in at 656 pages. And this magisterial reference work includes 45 essays covering a myriad of topics related to Christmas.
From where did the inspiration come for such a project? Start there.
Tim Larsen: Yeah, and I could answer that lots of different ways. But what I was saying earlier about trying to commend the Christian faith to the wider culture, and particularly the academy, Christmas is the most accessible way into Christianity for secular people or for suspicious people. They all love Christmas.
I actually have a chapter in the book called “Secularity” and I deliberately asked a polemical secularist scholar, somebody who actually, you know, who works as an advocate trying to get the government to get religion out, who’s somebody who’s very much in the fight as a secular voice to write this secularity chapter.
And he actually came back to me at one point and said, I can’t do it. Um, I’m going to give up. And I said, no, just, you know, just try it. It can be a short chapter, see what you can do. And his chapter in the end, it was like, let’s just face it, even atheists love Christmas. Uh, you know, there’s nothing to argue with here. Uh, it’s a great holiday. So I wanted to do that, and so that’s what got me started.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. And it starts earlier and earlier every year. There may be Advent as a season, but then there’s the economic and anticipatory season that that culture has too, for itself. Yeah, uh, which, yeah, seems to almost start in October now. It’s-
Tim Larsen: Yeah and absolutely. And you know, people, you know, a certain kind of evangelical worries about Christmas being cancelled. And actually, Christmas is the one season of the year when it’s the easiest to hear the Gospel. Uh, I, you know, like you’re saying, we have a radio station in Chicago that just plays kind of top 10 hits all the rest of the year.
It plays Christmas music nonstop in the Christmas season, which starts for them on November 1st. It’s playing it all right now. And you can hear about a Savior being born. You can hear about sins being forgiven on this pop radio show for 10 percent of the year, every year.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. Why wait till Advent starts? Yeah. So despite the size of the work and the topics that are included, how did you decide what topics not to include in such a work?
Tim Larsen: Yes, I will. You know, the kind of to include, of course, was I was trying to find lots of ways to commend in the Gospel. So there is a lot of redundancy where you get another way of telling the story of Christ through a different chapter and a different lens. Part of it is just frankly, can you find a scholar who will actually do this?
So, as an editor, you tend to want to have a scholar who will take on a big survey topic for one chapter because you only have so many chapters. And scholars, of course, want to do just a little bit that they know perfectly. Uh, so I did have this wonderful French scholar who I gave her this assignment called “Catholic Europe,” and she did it. Bless her. I’m so grateful. And there are references to Italy and Austria and Spain and Portugal.
But I really wanted a parallel chapter called Orthodox Europe. Uh, but there wasn’t a scholar out there who could do both, kind of the Greek world and the Russian world. You know, usually they kind of know one or the other. Uh, so I ended up with just a Russian chapter. So you’re making those kind of compromises where, where you can imagine a better table of contents, but finding a scholar who can actually do it is a different question.
Todd Ream: I’ve always thought that edited projects, one of the greatest joys that comes from them is you get to make friends, that you haven’t made before in some cases and you learn from them. In terms of this project, then what lessons proved sort of predictable? Like I thought that was going to be the case and someone just put it in, in greater detail than maybe I had, but yeah. Which ones, you know, what lessons were confirmed by virtue of this project?
Tim Larsen: Well, it’s certainly how overwhelmingly important Christmas is. You can turn anywhere you want to. So I went through, like, the arts, for example, you know, and I knew, of course, there are lots of Christmas films.
But you could do it with any art. There are lots of Christmas poems. There are lots of Christmas short stories. There are lots of Christmas novels. There are Christmas paintings. There are Christmas plays. So yeah, it was just how much this holiday has permeated whatever way you want to slice culture, it is there.
Todd Ream: What, what lessons then proved most surprising to you? Um, these friends, you know, that you assembled, you know, of the ones that brought you these chapters. Was there anything that surprised you or took you?
Tim Larsen: Yeah, well, I guess I really kind of rethought an issue by doing this process and certainly reading the chapters helped me enormously. A lot of evangelical Christians have this kind of vague, gnawing guilt that maybe Christmas is somehow tainted by paganism, or it’s somewhat pagan, or it’s not really biblical.
And when you, when you start to really drill down on what, why people say that, it doesn’t work. It really just falls apart. And I became much more confident in answering those kind of anxieties or critiques. When you really know the material, it’s not what often kind of…
And a lot of those things are actually deliberate rumors started by polemical atheists who want to tweak Christians. And so, uh, you know, they’ll, you know, they’ll tell you like, you know, a Christmas tree is a, you know, a pagan symbol or whatever. That stuff, um, it is not what it sounds like at all.
Todd Ream: What were some of the most rewarding components of this project then?
Tim Larsen: What I told you earlier about, you know, can God keep you glad, occupied with gladness of heart with the project? So another way of answering your first question about this was, why did I do this?
And it was like, the culture was so depressing in so many ways. There was so much conflict and anger, and it was just going on for years and years. And I think on some level, I asked myself, what is the happiest thing I could think about in my scholarship? And Christmas was a pretty good answer.
And spending years of your life foregrounding, thinking about Christmas, rather than kind of, you know, whatever you want to be outraged by, and reading every article you can to be outraged by what the other side is saying and how horrible it is, it was really, really kind of delightful and wholesome to front and center the story of Christ’s nativity and the joy and celebration of a Savior being born, Emmanuel, God with us.
Todd Ream: That’s beautiful. As we, uh, get toward the close of our time together than today. I want to ask about Advent and Christmas then, and how it relates to the academic vocation. And in particular, in what ways is it perhaps fruitful for the formation of one who’s been called to the Christian academic vocation?
What are, what are the formative components of Christmas that may otherwise escape us, but are there and nonetheless present?
Tim Larsen: Yeah, that’s interesting. And I’m not an Advent purist like some of my friends and colleagues are. But Advent is a season of waiting, really. And that is so important for the scholarly vocation and the scholarly life. It was what I was saying earlier, again, to connect that.
What we do as scholars is really about process. It’s not about product. We spend our lives on the process. The process is the journey. It is the waiting. It is the time in between. And so Advent, I think, as a spiritual reflection and meditation, teaches us how to live our lives in the period of process, in the period of waiting. And then if you take Christmas proper, the insight of Emmanuel, God with us. If you read the story, it’s quite, really, um, startling in so many ways.
I preach a Christmas sermon every single year. I’ve done so for 20 years and I, and I have a kind of game that with my senior pastor that I’m supposed to find a new theme that nevertheless relates to Christmas, but it’s different from anything I’ve ever done every year. Uh, and so that’s kind of really let me kind of focus in.
And what do we have in the story? We have, uh, Caesar Augustus, this kind of, you know, rapacious Roman empire, um, conquering people, gathering taxes. Uh, you’ve got Herod. You’ve got the slaughter of the innocents. There, there are some dark parts of that story, but in it is God with us. That is the light of the Gospel. That is the hope and the Light has come and it cannot be overcome.
And so if we’re going to be Christian scholars in the real world, then what we do is not deny that there’s darkness out there. That there are things to confront that are evil, that are so distressing. And yet we have inside us a hope that Emmanuel, God with us, has arrived, that the Light has come and the darkness will not overcome.
Todd Ream: Yeah, that’s beautiful and a great way to end our conversation today. Thank you, Tim. Our guest has been Timothy Larsen, the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought, Professor of History, and Director of the Faith and Learning Program at Wheaton College. Thank you for taking time to share your insights and your wisdom with us today.
Tim Larsen: It’s been a joy to be here.
Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.