Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Break Suggestions for Students

Over the past few weeks, I have been a regular contributor to an exciting new blog, Living Jubilee. As you may be aware, the Jubilee Conference takes place in Pittsburgh each year, seeking to give college students a vision for living out faith in all areas of life. The Living Jubilee blog has brought together a group of writers to help students think more intentionally about how to live out the Jubilee vision each day.

Living Jubilee author, Alissa Wilkinson, has recently offered college students some advice on how to make the most of Christmas break. Her thoughts are worth sharing with readers of this website as well. Alissa suggests the following seven ideas for students on break:

1. Relax, recreate, rejuvenate

2. Play with your food

3. Expand your mind

4. Be cinematical

5. Clean house

6. Serve

7. Seek your God

Read Alissa’s entire article here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Responsible Learning

In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock made a film called Rope. Based on a stage play the entire film is set in a small apartment, and the whole film is one continuous shot. But holding the well done technical aspects of the film together is an amazing story of an outrageous idea. In this story, two recent Ivy League graduates, Brandon and Phillip, decide to kill an acquaintance of theirs, David, who they see as an inferior person. They are attempting to test out the theories of their education. Believing that they are superior men, they have advanced “beyond good and evil,” and so they can kill and cannot be held responsible for the consequences, in fact they are doing society a favor.

Brandon and Phillip then invite over a few friends, the victim’s family, and their esteemed philosophy professor, Rupert Cadell for a dinner party. All the while David’s dead body is in a chest in the living room. The climax of the film comes when the professor returns because of the suspicion that something is wrong. He has noticed one of the killers acting strangely throughout the party. On his return he confronts his students. They defend themselves by repeating back the professor’s own Nietzschean philosophy. They say that they killed because they learned that if they really were superior to the victim than it is not morally wrong to kill him. The professor then has a critical moment of clarity and realizes that his theory has consequences- that his classroom extends beyond its four walls into real lives.

In the end, Professor Cadell tells his students that they have taught him a great lesson, that his ideas must be in line with his ethics, that ideas inform our everyday actions and decisions. He abandons his belief in superior and inferior people; he concludes that all human beings must be treated with dignity and equality and that everyone has worth.

We are not all that different from Professor Cadell. It is simpler to just separate out the ideas and theories that we discuss and argue about in the classroom, from our everyday routines of eating, sleeping, and hanging out with friends. And as Brandon and Phillip illustrate connecting ideas and actions can be dangerous, even criminal. The trouble is: How do we navigate the bridges and intersections of the ideas that we learn about and the way we live our lives?

What we need is a better story- a vision of what it means to be human in a world shaped by the knowledge of good and evil. We are not just minds in bodies. As whole creatures created by God we were meant to live lives of integrity, integrating our thoughts about how it should and can be with the way we live. Of course we have fallen, and now we live with the tension and struggle of working toward learning. We must be careful and responsible with our learning; it’s a fragile gift, not a license to kill.

--Greg Veltman

Greg Veltman is currently a PhD student, studying higher education and cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh and a Film Critic for Comment Magazine.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

90% and Failing

Recently I read two brief stories in which 90% was a very bad percentage. The first is a bible story from Luke 17:11-19. In this story Jesus entered a village and ran into 10 lepers. They kept their distance, but cried out to the Miracle-Man, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” And Jesus did. He sent them to show themselves to the priests, and on their way, they were cleansed. Only one came back. This one threw himself at Jesus feet and thanked him. Ninety percent didn’t come back. Jesus asked, “Where are the other nine?” No answer is given so we can only guess—catching up with family, tipping a pint at the village pub, who knows. Only one really got it—that a fabulous gift was given and gratitude is the right response.

My friend suggested this book to me, The First Year Out by Tim Clydesdale. This book is about higher education, and particularly about students. Clydesdale summarizes hundreds of hours of discussions with high school seniors, and then he continues those conversations with students in their first year out. Most have gone on to a college of some sort. And here is one of the major insights that emerged from all of this research—90% of the students in his project were not ready for college. The issue wasn’t that they needed better skills (reading, writing, arithmetic). The problem is even more fundamental than that. They were entirely disengaged and uninterested in what college had to offer. Clydesdale describes these students as having an “identity lockbox,” as having sequestered their deepest beliefs and stifled their curiosity so that almost nothing of lasting significance was taking place. In other words, only one in ten really got it—that a fabulous opportunity was available and engagement is the right response.

-- Donald Opitz

Looking to be more engaged in college? The annual Jubilee Conference is just around the corner and today is the last day to register at the “early bird rate.” Register now!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Skipping Class

College classes weren’t quite what I thought they would be like. I’m not sure what fueled my imagination, but for some reason I pictured deep discussions, reading important books, drinking coffee with professors, and debating with classmates. Now, this could be found on my campus, to be sure, but it wasn’t the norm.

I can remember the first time I had to choose classes. I considered consulting my advisor, but he was hard of hearing and English was his second language. So, a group of friends met in the computer lab (laptops weren’t the norm yet either!) and we looked through the course selections. Here was the criterion: nothing before 10:00, nothing after 4:00, no major research papers, the more standardized tests the better, especially if they’d been “standardized” for over 10 years! One friend told me: “If you have Dr. so-and-so write ‘go Cubs!’ at the end of every test. He will give you an extra letter grade.” I tried it and I think it worked. Seriously.

But then something happened. A local youth pastor gave me a recorded lecture by Ravi Zacharias, speaking at Harvard. I sat in my car to listen to it and skipped class to finish it. I was fascinated not just by his main point, that the Truth claims of Christ had a place in the academy, but by his underlying message: ideas matter. Ravi was serious about learning and his passion was contagious.

I still consider that day sitting in the car listening to Ravi as a milestone in my life of faith. For the first time I realized that being faithful to Christ included caring about learning. It would eventually take more than a taped lecture to push me to greater faithfulness, but it was a start. Ironically, I learned it while skipping class.

Go Cubs!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Curious George

The little monkey was always getting into trouble. He’d follow his nose into something interesting and soon he’d be in deep. That’s all I remember from the yesteryear children’s books and cartoons. The very young are more curious than George. Their capacious minds are open, they sense that there is much to learn, and they follow their little noses into the unknown. My best students are childlike (George-like?) in the same way; they are open, humble and curious. I love it when I encounter curiosity in the classroom. This is, sadly but understandably, the exception and not the rule. Most of my students are not actively curious. Curiosity has been wrung out of them by the struggle to fit in, to move on, and to get out. To stand out, to pause, and to get into something interesting is seen as the formula for eggheaded oddity.

Students learn best when their curiosity is piqued, and when they discover somebody else who shares their fascination. As you reflect about your own calling to be a student, I hope that you will experience:
  • awe—for this is really the beginning of wonder
  • meaning—the quest to connect the little things of life to the big and awe-full thing
  • insight—the discovery of the big thing right in the little thing under investigation

Curiosity isn’t monkey business, and it isn’t simply a quirky quality. It is a fundamental attribute of the disciple that wants to honor the Lord with all her mind.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Do You Pray?

Recently I had a great conversation about academic faithfulness with students at a nearby college. The students were honest and open about their own struggles to be faithful to Christ in academic pursuits. What hinders academic faithfulness? Many responded that they were overwhelmed, fragmented, lazy, and only motivated by grades. We then discussed what practices might lead toward academic faithfulness. Prayer was mentioned. I asked, “How many of you pray about what you are learning?” Again, the group was honest: academics is rarely on their prayer list.

What follow comes from page 105 of The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness. This is a challenge to us all as we consider how to pray to the Lord of education:

Would you be willing to commit yourself to a week-long prayer experiment? Pray for your professors, for your classmates, for your research interests, for wisdom. If you are part of a prayer or Bible study group, pray about taking learning seriously. Pray before each class. A brief prayer will do just fine, and pray before you begin to engage your readings and assignments. We think that this is a good place to start the journey of academic faithfulness and this is something tangible that you can do. We also think that this experiment will help you to establish an important practice that in time will change you. Saying a little prayer like this before a class or before you study would be a good start:

God, I trust that you have called me to this institution, this major, this class. Help me to discern the lies, to retain valuable insights, and to contribute humbly as I may. I ask for your wisdom as I learn more about your world. Watch over me as I study and engage this material. Through my work here prepare me to serve in your kingdom.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Marks of Academic Revival

Recently, my wife and I were given a book that has become the catalyst for rethinking the notion of revival on our college campuses. The book, Accounts of a Campus Revival, by Timothy Beougher and Lyle Dorsett, is an account of a spiritual revival that unfolded on the campus of Wheaton College in 1995. It records testimony from those at Wheaton and other colleges throughout the country who have experienced similar spiritual movements and revivals.

Accounts of a Campus Revival captured my attention because as these events were occurring I was an undergraduate at Geneva College, a small Christian school in western Pennsylvania. I distinctly remember the desires of many students and a handful of staff for a replication of the Wheaton revival. We prayed, sang, read the scriptures, and engaged in communal confession. When the dust had settled in the early hours of the morning, people were exhausted from crying out for the Lord to come. I staggered to my room and slept through both of my classes that day. These steps were repeated for a few weeks until, feeling as defeated as the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, I fell back into the normalcy of college life.

Over a decade later, I am reminded of that moment, of that event. In 1995, the question that haunted our minds was, "How do we create a campus revival?" Now, after years of working in campus ministry and having entered the simultaneous roles of student and teacher, the question has been reformed. Instead of asking how to create a revival (as if it were ours for the creating), it seems that the question more properly should be, "What is campus revival?" Or, perhaps as I want to pose here, "What is academic revival?"

Robert E. Coleman, in Accounts of a Campus Revival, defines revival this way: "to wake up and live" (derived from Psalm 85:6). Further, Coleman looks to Charles Finney in suggesting that revival simply "consists in obeying God." These are worthwhile and faithful pursuits. Yet, there seems to be an inconsistency between these definitions and the testimony of what occurred, what I hoped for. The accounts of campus revival consisted of a wildly irregular occurrence of the "spiritual," including nightlong prayer, healing, confession, and a diligent pursuit of traditional spiritual disciplines. Not to be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that those who inhabit college campuses should not pursue traditional disciplines, nor do I suggest that the hand of the Reviver was not at work on these college campuses in the mid-1990s (I cannot declaim this enough). But what I want to call on my friends and colleagues to pray for is a different type of revival.

A peculiar characteristic of the accounts of revival is that they had very little to do with the academy. The revival happened at a site, disembodied from the purposes, mission, and primary pursuits of the institution of higher education. I recall nowhere testimony of how the Spirit moved in the lecture halls, in library study carrels, late night study groups, or in the writing center. The revival or, better yet, the renewal that I pray for is one that is rooted in a place that is intimately connected with the intent of its locus.

If, as Finney asserts, revival is obedience unto God, then campus revival would be composed of the renewed pursuit of traditional disciplines. But the primary thrust should be distinctly marked by a passionate pursuit of living fully in the roles and vocations to which we are called as students, as professors, and as staff workers. To truly "wake up and live" on the college campus would see Christian students, faculty and staff chasing after university life, together. It would consist of students taking their studies seriously in a transformational way, and faculty members seeing their teaching as a holy calling from the Lord of education Himself. These things would be pursued as spiritual disciplines. Instead of skipping classes to take part in prayer meetings, students might even skip their fellowship groups to create and craft serious scholarly work that exemplified and added to the Kingdom of God.

I want to briefly suggest a working list of nine marks of academic revival in the hope that it can be built upon and added to.

1. Students' pursuing the vocation of learning
If this sounds self-evident, I would invite you to visit and talk with undergraduates at colleges and universities. Within the halls of learning many or most students are in college for the sake of acquiring a $100,000 ticket to a higher paying job. This desire is created and sustained by a culture of upward mobility. The dominant paradigm screams, "Get a degree, make more money, buy a big house and things you don't need." To engage in learning, in my experience, is clearly not the primary telos (purpose) of many college students.

2. Students and teachers' stewarding the resources of learning
There are many resources available that are radical, transformational, but eminently accessible. Students and staff alike should pursue books, online resources, conferences, and people who aid in the pursuit of loving God in the academy. Sources of learning would end not with a class syllabus, but would extend creatively "beyond." Those who are not within the contexts of classrooms pursuing a faithful study of disciplines from a Kingdom perspective would engage in double-study. They would not only work within the confines of their assignments, but they would also be working overtime to understand content from within the grand narrative of Scripture.

3. Students, teachers, and staffs making friendships
I do not mean that they would be buddies or merely congenial. I pray that students and staff would cultivate a deep care for one another, engage in dialogue, and push one another toward further faithfulness as co-laborers in their related vocations. I am delighted that I have had the benefit of open doors and standing invitations from professors. Some of the most memorable and substantial learning moments I experienced were in a professor's living room, drinking exotic teas and delving into the ideas and events of the world. Even more radically, this semester I was invited along with two other professors to have dinner and fellowship in one of the men's resident halls on campus. These young men had prepared an amazing meal for us, so as to show their gratitude and to ask questions regarding faithful living as students.

4. Students' "leaving" their colleges
One of the things I regret most about my time at Geneva is that while I was waiting for "revival" I did not take advantage of leaving. When revival comes, students will use their time to leave and see what is beyond: they will study abroad, they will use their summers to become wise, they will live off campus to live in communities so as to meet people embedded in life outside the academy and to remember what is beyond the walls of the learning.

5. Students' praying
They will pray about the things commonly seen as revival, but they will also pray for wisdom and diligence in their pursuit of knowing deeply, of working tirelessly, and of developing an understanding about what academics have to do with the entirety of life.

6. Students and teachers' engaging academic breadth
The future caseworker will plunge into the required earth science class, the engineer would drink of the humanities, and the special education teacher would taste the glory of God in their political science core class. Likewise, professors will be proponents of an understanding of the breadth of the creation through support of a strong core and the exploration of classes outside of their disciplines.

7. Working to the glory of God alone
In an environment where evaluation reigns this pursuit certainly is difficult. The majority of students are driven by grades, whether it is those who try to determine what is the least amount of work required to attain the best grade possible or those who toil vigorously for the sake of the highest esteem and opportunity beyond graduation. Meanwhile, many professors teach and publish for the sake of tenure and status. When academic revival sweeps through our college campuses, we will experience an excellence unlike any other we have seen before. As the apostle Paul exhorts the church at Colossae: "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men" (Colossians 3:23). This sort of wholehearted work will result in entrance into graduate schools, tenure, and positions of great significance, and will bring an "inheritance from the Lord" as our reward.

8. Desiring and praying for constant renewal
Revival is often marked by a sudden, irregular, and short-lived movement. Our hope and prayer should be for a deeply rooted, consistent, and lasting transformation on our campuses. Borrowing from Eugene Peterson, may our academic work be "a long obedience in the same direction."

9. Embracing the whole
Are we suggesting a revival limited to the academy? Let me say that this renewal will spring forth within the classroom and move beyond its walls. A responsible pursuit of the normative roles of educator and student is not one that merely casts aside other aspects of life. It integrates them. The roles of student and teacher include care for practiced justice, love of genuine relationship, and the appropriate practice of recreation and play, as well as academics.

In discussing some of these markers of revival with students and staff I know and appreciate, I have been met with diverse responses. Some are inspired and have begun the long journey. Others dismiss them as characteristic of the idealism of youth, as if it would take a miracle to see these marks realized. The former offer me hope. The latter are more correct than they know. It will be miraculous. And this is why we cry out like the psalmist to the God who administers miracles in our lives and vocations:

"Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?"

-- Keith Martel

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of CARDUS.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Born to Learn

My son Jacob Henry was born on November 12, 2007. It’s fun to watch him learn new things. Now, he hasn’t had any outrageous ideas yet or anything. He’s more in the discovery mode. Everything is new! That must be my hand. Oh, look at that light. Who is that guy making weird faces and talking funny? Jacob is a learner. Mostly learning fills the spaces between eating and sleeping.

In the beginning God created learners. It’s there in the text. God “took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Think of the learning involved in that task. And, remember, Adam couldn’t run to Home Depot for a shovel! In fact, you can trace “learning” throughout the whole Biblical story. The Psalmists speak of meditating on God’s law day and night. Proverbs is concerned with turning knowledge into wisdom. The Prophets decried that the people of God didn’t know God or his Word. Jesus came as a teacher and said we were to love God with our minds. The Apostle Paul told us to take everything we learn and make it obedient to Christ. Learning, it seems, is central to being a Christian.

Here’s the deeper point: Learning is central to being human. We were born to learn. God has graciously given us a whole world to explore and discover. There are always new things to learn. But here’s the flipside: if we are not learning, if we are not continually using our minds in God honoring ways, we’re not living up to our God-given potential. Do you know people like that? They’ve stopped learning. You know the guy who hasn’t read a book in five years. Or, the person who has everything figured out and figures she doesn’t need to learn anything more. I know people like that. Sometimes I go down that road.

And here’s the weird thing about our culture: school sometimes hinders learning. Imagine that. If we don’t have good reasons for learning, or if our learning becomes disconnected to everyday life, it can become boring or meaningless. Jacob is growing by leaps and bounds. My prayer is that he continues to grow as a learner.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

NEW Leader's Guide

While the book The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness can be used for individual study, we have found that students grasp the content of the book much more thoroughly when read under the guidance of a mentor, small group leader or teacher. The leader’s guide is designed to assist leaders in their preparation for leading discussions around the themes in the book. Our hope is to see a generation of young scholars take both their faith and studies seriously. May this new study guide help toward that end!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Advice for the Young: Develop a Craft?

Matthew Crawford’s new book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work makes a strong case for the value of “working with one’s hands,” or manual labor. With a PhD in political philosophy, Crawford has worked at universities and think-tanks, in what he calls “knowledge work.” But it was never satisfying. The “work” was too abstract, without much to show for it. When he opened a motorcycle repair shop things began to change. Not only did he find this work more meaningful and enjoyable, but he also noticed that it required him to think more. Repairing motorcycles was more intellectual in a richer, deeper sense of the word. (Click here to learn more about the book and to view a video of Crawford’s appearance on The Colbert Report.)

Crawford wonders, "Given the intrinsic richness of manual work - cognitively, socially, and in its broader psychic appeal - the question becomes why it has suffered such a devaluation as a component of education." Where have all the shop classes gone? As a culture do we tend to look down upon work and workers who do manual labor? In attempting to answer these questions, Crawford has some important things to say about education in general and higher education in particular. I think his concerns warrant consideration for those thinking about academic faithfulness. He writes:

“So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level 'creative.' To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.”

Readers of this blog are diverse. Some are current and former students, some are on faculty and staff at colleges and universities, and some are considering whether or not higher education is the best next step for them. I’m curious, what do you think of Crawford’s advice for young people?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Love Correction?

My guess is that since the invention of grading academic work, students have disputed with professors over their marks. But during my college years, more and more professors were noticing a shift in the way these conversations were going. Here’s the change: if a student was not satisfied with her grade, she would bring it to the attention of the professor with the expectation that the grade would be changed. After all, students are consumers and consumers know best! Some professors were even getting phone calls from parents of students complaining about grades.

Since working with college students for several years, I’ve noticed that the shift that had taken place when I was an undergraduate is now commonplace. Disputing and having grades changed (for the better, of course) is simply part of playing the “college game” well. Everyone is doing it. I was thinking about this recently as I was reading through the book of Proverbs. This one caught my eye:

“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1).

Eugene Peterson translates it this way in The Message:
“If you love learning, you love the discipline that goes with it— how shortsighted to refuse correction!"

Now, I’m sure that there are grades worth disputing. Students shouldn’t be reluctant to talk to professors about why grades were given. But this passage reminds us of something about academic faithfulness that is often missed: real learning comes through discipline and correction. We can’t shortcut the process by arguing our way to better grades. If you find yourself wanting to dispute a poor grade on a paper or test with a professor, begin the conversation by first asking: what could I have done to make this better?

Keep this in mind: if you hate correction the Bible calls you stupid. Don’t be stupid, instead, consider a bad grade as an opportunity to grow in wisdom.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Growing Up Well: Reconciling Piety and Engagement

The May/June 2008 issue of Relevant Magazine features key thinkers in the Christian community answering questions about “burning issues” like war, consumerism and homosexuality. Question number one is, “Is our focus on social justice out of balance?” A theme in the responses, particularly in comments made by Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne, is that social justice and evangelism should not be considered separate things that Christians need to attempt to “balance;” rather, they’re both part of an all-things, wholly encompassing faith in Jesus. Talking about balance assumes that one without the other can be complete. Wallis explains, “If we’re not calling people into deeper levels of personal relationship with God, we’re not taking the Gospel seriously. If we’re not engaging the world, bringing empowerment to the marginalized and addressing the specific injustices of our time, we’re also not taking the Gospel seriously. It’s that simple.”

For me, related to the question of balancing things that shouldn’t be separate in the first place is the false dichotomy of personal piety and cultural engagement. In my work with students at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I’ve met many Christian students who want to take personal piety and leave cultural engagement. These students, the Devotees, are kind and diligent and thoughtful. They attend chapel regularly and they strive toward daily disciplines like prayer and devotions. They are leaders in their dorm communities who readily head up mission trips and start Bible studies. I’ve also met many Christian students who want to take cultural engagement and leave piety. These students, the Engagers, tend to be well-read intellectuals with broad artistic taste. They like to do wonderfully nerdy things like discuss films and go to museums.

While both types of students are passionately living into a vision of Christian faithfulness, they’re both lacking a particular type of rootedness that threatens the fullness of their identity as followers of Christ. The Devotees have grown a deep taproot through scriptural study, service and spiritual disciplines, but lack the nutrients that can be gained by sending roots out into the soil around them, which eventually starves the whole tree. The Engagers, on the other hand, continue to send horizontal roots further and further out into their cultural context, but risk being blown over by a strong gust of wind because they have weak centering rituals reinforcing their primary story of faith.

Do you identify yourself with one of these types of believers? Most of us tend to have a bias one way or another, but a healthy, mature tree has both a strong tap root and diverse, widely spreading horizontal roots that help it flourish, different kinds of roots that all feed the same healthy organism. Mature believers, that is those who see the interconnectedness of all things in the Kingdom of God, contribute together toward a healthy, diverse forest of believers that serves the whole world as a manifestation of the Creator.

So how do we become such mature believers? Praying unceasingly might be a good place to start. And by unceasing prayer, I don’t mean only on our knees in the chapel where the Devotees might gravitate, or through exclusively intellectual exercise that is the specialty of the Engagers (though both activities have their places). Rather, unceasing prayer is a communal orienting of all of our branches and growth toward the Light. Eugene Peterson offers some clues about how to do this in The Message: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering” (from Romans 12:1). What would it look like if our choice of transportation to work were an offering to God? How could a meal itself—the shopping, the preparation, the eating—communicate our love for Jesus, in addition to a prayer of gratitude before we eat? What rituals can help us turn off some of the noise from both inside and outside of ourselves to discern the voice of the Spirit?

We all have unique callings in the Kingdom. However, what we all have in common is the call to devote our whole selves—heart, soul, mind and strength—to the God whose Kingdom has implications for every square inch of life. Personal piety and cultural engagement, social justice and evangelism are all aspects of, as Wallis puts it, “taking the Gospel seriously.”

--Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma and her husband Rob share the Research and Program Coordination position in the Student Activities Office at Calvin College.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Right Use of School Studies

"Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer… To make this the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies is the first condition to be observed if we are to put them to the right use.

The second condition it to take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which we have failed, seeing how unpleasing and second rate it is, without seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake or any of our tutor’s corrections, trying to get down to the origin of each fault. There is a great temptation to do the opposite… Most of us do this nearly always. We have to withstand this temptation."

--Simone Weil (1909-1943), Waiting for God

Monday, June 8, 2009

Finding Calcutta and a FREE Book

One aspect of college life that is pretty central to the experience is reading. There’s a lot of reading that is (supposed) to go on during the university years. Recently, it seems, reading has taken a hit. According to some studies, fewer and fewer people, especially young people, are reading. This is sad. Books can be transformative.

One of the best books I read last year was Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service by professor Mary Poplin. I had a chance to interview her about the book and when the interview was finished this thought occurred to me: Finding Calcutta should be required reading for all college students. Poplin tells the story of spending a sabbatical with Mother Teresa, learning what it means to serve the poorest of the poor. Poplin then explains how she integrated that experience with her work as a university professor at Claremont Graduate University.

Finding Calcutta is a powerful story with this central theme: All work should be done in service to Jesus and others. That would include academic work as well as future occupations. This book has transformative power. It’s the kind of book that I wish I read in college. Here’s the good news: I have one to give away for FREE!

Here’s how it works: First, “comment” to answer the question below. Second, if there are more than 10 comments, I will select a winner randomly (I typically put all of the names in a hat or ask someone to pick a number between 1 and however many people commented). Third, I will announce the winner in the near future and explain how to receive the free book. Here’s the question:

What do think was the most important book(s) you read in college?

Please, only one comment per person.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Academic Fruits of the Spirit

While there is some overlap, the gifts of the Spirit that are listed by Paul (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4) display a considerable range. Add to those lists the gifts of craftsmanship given to Bezalel and Oholiab for the making of the tabernacle (Exodus 31), and a picture of God’s lavish and diverse generosity is revealed. I am convinced that the college years ought to be a time for students to discern and develop the gifts that they have been given. Unfortunately, educational institutions are generally designed to provide a common education, not gift discernment and distinctive opportunities for each peculiar student—like you.

Instead of developing an approach to education based on gifts, let me make a more modest proposal. Let’s imagine an approach to education based on the fruits of the Spirit. There is really only one passage that employs this phrase, the fruits of the Spirit, and that is Galatians 5:22. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. The Holy Spirit wants to produce these attributes, these virtues, in every believer. Can you imagine academic work with these virtues in full view—where our studying is done for the sake of love, and it is done with joy, and pursued patiently and kindly with others? And I don’t imagine that these are the only virtues that the Holy Spirit is interested in producing in us.

Recently I was talking to some students, and we were trying to imagine a different list of the fruits of the Spirit, one that Paul might have written (in our imagination) for an academic community. No doubt the fruits listed in Galatians 5 apply, but what other virtues do students need to develop in order to honor the Lord of learning? We came up with a couple, and perhaps you will be able to imagine a couple more.

Humility. People who think that they know everything are not prepared to learn anything. Good learning doesn’t begin until one becomes a student—curious, open, teachable.

Industry. Learning isn’t like falling off a log. Granted, we do learn a great deal quite effortlessly. But by the time college rolls around, most of what we are trying to learn requires a good bit of effort. Good students work hard.

Collegiality. Good students not only work hard, but they work together. A number of qualities need to come together for you to become a good partner in the learning process. Humility and industry, along with kindness and gentleness seem like a good start. But I imagine that you can have these qualities and still be a bit of a loner. Being collegial first requires this—valuing your partners.

Wonder. Too much learning is merely instrumental—to get a good grade, a good job, a little prestige. And much learning is certainly instrumental—to solve a problem, to reach a goal, to benefit a community. These are more selfless goals. In my experience, however, learning comes alive when it is not merely a means to an end. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—or so the Proverbs remind us over and over again. Awe and wonder before God, and in the playfield of all that God has made, adds a depth and richness to learning. Sadly, much about our own education has wrung the wonder right out of us. It isn’t too late to find it again.

It may seem strange to think about the connection between the Holy Spirit and academic work. I don’t think this connection is at all strange. In fact, I think that God’s Spirit loves to connect people to truth, and to the one who is the source of truth and wisdom and knowledge (John 14:6; Colossians 2:3).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Creed

Why Are We Students?

We study in order to
Understand God’s Good Creation
And the Ways sin has distorted it
So that, in Christ’s Power, we may
bring healing to persons and the created order
And, as God’s image-bearers,
Exercise responsible authority
In our task of cultivating the creation
To the end that all people and all things may
Joyfully acknowledge and serve
Their Creator and true king.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Longing to Know

"There are some who long to know, simply for the sake of knowing, and that is shameful curiosity. Others long to know to show off before others, and that is shameful vanity. There are others who long for knowledge to make a fat profit from it, or to make honors from it; and this is shameful profiteering. But there are those who long to know in order to be of service to others; and this is love."

-- Bernard of Clairvaux, The Love of God, 11th -century

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

College Students Spend More Time Drinking Than Studying?

Outside The Classroom and NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education) announced that during the fall semester of 2008, first-year college students who used alcohol drank an estimated 10.2 hours per week, compared to studying only 8.4 hours per week. Students who drank represented 68.9% of the study sample, or 20,801 students altogether. Of these, 49.4% spent more time downing alcohol than they did studying.

Key quote:
“I’m sure most Americans – and even most college students – will agree with me that having so many students drinking their way through college is an intolerable state of affairs. It’s time all of us who care about higher education refocus on our core mission of educating and preparing young adults to be our next generation of great minds, leaders, and contributors to society. ”
--Brandon Busteed, Founder and CEO of Outside the Classroom

Do you think people are making too big of a deal about college students and drinking?

In what ways do you think the drinking culture on campus hinders students from taking academics more seriously?

Friday, May 8, 2009

On Being a Child of God

Few writers “read me” better than the late Henri Nouwen, making me a little nervous whenever I pick up one of his books. He delivers penetrating insights into the spiritual life, challenging readers to consider the deepest motivations behind their actions. This can sometimes be a painful process for me. Page after page of his writing reminds me that I have been created and loved by God but often try to find my value and self-worth apart from God.

Nouwen wrote from experience. After becoming an accomplished, prestigious professor of religion at Harvard, Nouwen engaged in a life of “downward mobility,” leaving his teaching post and moving to Toronto to work with the mentally handicapped; not because he had anything to teach them, but because they had everything to teach him. For the first time in his life, Nouwen began to wrestle with what it meant to find his identity in Christ alone.

The story is told in his award winning book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. In fact, the whole story never would have happened had Nouwen not become fascinated with Rembrandt’s famous depiction of the parable. He would spend hours staring at the painting, contemplating what God was trying to teach him. This reflection caught my attention:

“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father? I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me – my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts – and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God."

Developing our intellectual gifts, not for the praise of others, but for the glory of God. I needed to hear that.

--Derek Melleby

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Learning in the Crossfire

In the Shadow of the Big One (WWII) the esteemed scholar C. S. Lewis penned Learning in War-Time. This brief essay was written to encourage university students who were not risking their lives in the war effort. He knew that they felt insignificant and cowardly while their friends and loved ones fought and died. How can we continue to take an interest in the academy, he asked, when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? But Lewis realized that this was not just a question for war-time. It is an “all the times” question for the Christian. How can we study when at every moment lives are in the balance—eternal destinies—and we are studying literature or art or mathematics or sociology? Is academic work still important in the face of such national and eschatological realities? Or is it simply frivolous or selfish to invest in learning?

Evidently you have decided no—it is not frivolous. But is it a resounding NO? Do you really cherish learning, and does God? I am convinced that God made us to learn, and that our learning was to be connected somehow to God’s glory. Lewis argues that human culture has always existed under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself, and that there is no life apart from culture. In other words, we were made to invest in culture, but always with our eyes set on something beyond that culture.

Culture is our game, the human assignment. And academic culture is the special opportunity and challenge for college students. Faithful work on campus will be a battle, to be sure. Christian students are to be waging war with ideologies and intellectual lies (2 Corinthians 10:5)! The university is no place for cowards, and the work done on campus is far from insignificant. Fortunately, much of the time our work won’t feel like a battle. It will feel like we are doing the very thing that we were made for—loving the Lord our God with all of heart and soul and mind and strength.

What is Success?

One of my heroes is John Perkins. He was a sharecropper’s son who grew up in Mississippi amidst dire poverty. His mother died when he was 7 months old and his father left him shortly after that. Although he dropped out of school in the third grade, Perkins eventually moved to California, got a very good job, married his wife (still married after 55 years!), had kids, a nice car, and a very nice house. Perkins was the incarnation of the American Dream. But then Perkins couldn’t get a single phrase out of his mind: “Success isn’t enough.” The thought was so penetrating that Perkins moved his family back to Mississippi to engage in civil rights activism. He was beaten and tortured on his way to becoming the “Father of Christian Community Development.”

Success isn’t enough. I remember having a similar thought when I started taking academics seriously from a Christian perspective. I was good at the college “game,” figuring out ways to get good grades by doing minimal work. Academic success, for me, was seeing my name on the Dean’s list showing others how bright I was.

Academic success isn’t enough. If we are going to be serious about our faith in college, I think it will require a re-examination of how we define success. The novelist Walker Percy writes of the person who "gets all As and flunks life." The pursuit of academic faithfulness doesn't guarantee all As. It will lead, however, to a life worth living, a life lived on behalf of others.

Monday, May 4, 2009


"We couldn't be more impressed. The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness is serious, well-written, charming and challenging. It does this job--explaining the contours and the importance of a Christian vision of life and learning--as well as any book in print. . . . This book deserves to be acclaimed as it will change the lives of those who take it seriously, and could revolutionize . . . young adult ministry, campus work, and even high school fellowship groups. . . . This little book is unlike any other, and will make a difference, underscoring a movement of thoughtful Christians relating vocation and calling, work and career, God's ways in the real world. It may be outrageous to say this, but this thin, fun book, may be one of the most important books of the decade."--Byron Borger,

"Looking for a meaningful gift for a graduating high school senior? Check out this new book intentionally written for those preparing to embark on college careers. . . . What makes this book so appealing is its specificity. . . . This book is written for young persons graduating from high school, preparing to enter college, and wondering what role their Christian faith should play in this next phase in their lives. Opitz and Melleby . . . write as though they actually are talking to college students. Their engaging and thoughtful book requires intelligent reflection from the reader, never descending into the cute, trite or pedantic. It is intellectually stimulating and challenging--and at times quite humorous."
--George C. Love, Presbyterians Today

"Opitz and Melleby have written a book that is long overdue. Here is a plea for students to take their academic pursuits as part of their faithfulness to Christ. . . . The book provides a map of what it means 'to take every thought captive to Christ'--in their own words, a 'fitness campaign for the Christian mind.' It is a book that pastors, youth leaders, and parents should place in the hands of every starting college freshman. I'm sending a copy to my nephew. The next step is getting them to actually read it. If they do, they will be exposed to a vision of college life beyond their wildest dreams."
--David John Seel, Critique

"The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness asks questions about formation and faithfulness. Filled with rich insights and probing questions, it encourages students, through its accessible chapters and group discussion questions, to connect their faith with their studies, through all the excitement and trials of academic life."
--Gayle Doornbos, Comment

"This is an easy-to-read, interesting book encouraging students to take up the challenge of marrying their beliefs in God with the commitments to academics. . . . My favorite question the book asks is, 'Does God care about academics,' and the book builds on that question, seeking to help the reader develop a level of academic study that relies on the truth of God as well as adopting the principles of God."--Tim Baker, Journal of Student Ministries

"The authors use key examples from Scripture and pop culture to insightfully maintain the 'outrageous' idea that students can use their studies to better connect with God. In addition to these practical insights, Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby offer sound ideas on developing a present-future worldview founded in 'His Story.' Their language is both humorous and unassuming, painting clear guidelines for the seasoned Christian as well as the unfamiliar seeker. Each chapter ends with interactive questions and suggestions for further reading to continue the journey. A great gift to college-bound senior or those already pursuing their degrees, the authors have presented a solid and relevant guide useful on both the Christian and secular campus."--Tony Miles, YouthWorker Journal

"By all means read this and give it to your teenagers, especially those headed for a college or university. . . . I appreciate the way the authors frequently reminded us throughout the book that knowing also involves doing. . . . I also appreciate their emphasis that knowing is also relational--good perspective on Christian epistemology. . . . Buy this book! Read it and discuss it! Give a copy to any teachers, preachers, professors, and students."
--Equip to Disciple

"A clarion call for students to step out of hiding, fully commit themselves to honoring God and His Word, and embrace the concept of scholarship as an honorable act of worship. This is a primer work, an easy read of eight short chapters with thought-provoking questions and recommended readings at the end of each chapter. . . . Practical suggestions are made to enable students to strengthen their minds and discern truth. . . . The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness would be appropriate for students, parents, those who minister to the 'y' generation, and college Bible study groups. . . . An encouraging, uplifting, practical, and inspirational read."
--Jon Forlines, Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought

"This book is a must-read for students seeking the tools for success inside and outside the classroom during their time at the university. . . . Each of [the authors'] backgrounds is a clear contribution to the content and thoughtfulness of this work. . . . It is obvious that both experience and study inform their plea for Christian, academic faithfulness in the ivory tower. The format of the book is both useful and effective. Each chapter is introduced with a relatable story or pop-culture example and ends with questions for discussion. This book would be most helpful for students in a small group setting in the presence of a facilitator. However, it should also be considered for individual use. . . . Likely, this book would be of significant impact for a cohort of students entering into Christian higher education. However, since learning happens in a myriad of places, it would also be useful as a book study in any Christian sector because of the key idea it recognizes: that learning is full of impact and one should not enter into it passively. . . . The authors anticipate conflicting ideas that students will encounter in college and give them tools to navigate the conflict critically. . . . Christian professors, students, and staff members of any institution of learning will be glad they read this book. Short but thoughtful, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness accomplishes its goal to challenge and inspire readers 'to love God and neighbor' through learning. For readers who have never explored the place that faith has in learning, this is a must-read, and for scholars who have long been thinking about these concepts, it is a refreshing look at how faith should inspire a true change in our lives that manifests faithfulness in academics."
--Jessica Rimmer, Christian Higher Education

"This book differs in several ways from some other recent volumes apparently addressing similar goals. First, it is genuinely written for the average beginning college student, rather than leaning to the highly academic and philosophically inclined. The prose is lively, readable, and very accessible, and is punctuated by anecdotes and comments from students. Second, it does not attempt to induct the student into particular theories of the academy or philosophical debates . . . but instead settles for pointing students in the direction of connecting their faith and their learning without prescribing many of the intellectual outcomes. Third, the task of being a Christian scholar is not presented solely in terms of developing Christian concepts and positions, but includes a focus on practices that span the devotional and the educational."
--David I. Smith, Journal of Education and Christian Belief

"Do you have a son, daughter, grandchild or friend who is heading to college for the first time or returning for another year? If so, the book The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness is the perfect read for them before they leap into academia. . . . This imaginative guide . . . offers practical support to college-bound students."
--Susan Aungst, Hershey Free Press

About the Authors

Donald Opitz (PhD, Boston University) is associate professor of sociology and higher education at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous articles and has worked as a pastor as well as a campus minister.

Derek Melleby
(MA, Geneva College) is the director of the College Transition Initiative for the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, through a unique partnership with the Coalition for Christian Outreach.


"The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness is the sort of book that should be read by Christian students going to college and studied in campus fellowship groups. It provides clear and accessible guidelines as to how to relate one's faith to academics. I hope it will be widely used."
--George Marsden, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame; author of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

"Deep yet easily accessible, this book reminds us why we study. Many students want to play a part in the great Story--redeeming all of life and building the kingdom in a hurting world. Such outrageous vision requires the wisdom and brilliance of the Creator in every field and discipline. The humility of a true scholar yields not only purpose but also curiosity and delight as we rejoice in the glory of God on the far side of every question."
--Kelly Monroe Kullberg, author of Finding God Beyond Harvard: The Quest for Veritas

"This book addresses numerous timely issues related to college transition, the place of academics in the life of the Christian student, and the development of a lifelong Christian perspective on issues of calling and vocation. Nothing I have seen yet addresses these particular issues with a combination of theological depth and easy accessibility that mark this book."
--Walt Mueller, president, Center for Parent/Youth Understanding; author of Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture

"From their own years as students and teachers, Melleby and Opitz have written a wonderfully imaginative guide for university students who want something more from their studies. Probing yet playful, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness is full of wisdom for those who yearn for their learning to move beyond mere labor to true love."
--Steven Garber, director, The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture; author of The Fabric of Faithfulness

"The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness is an outstanding book about how Christian students can learn to be faithful to their Lord in their studies. This volume shows them why and how. Its biblical moorings, fresh and clear language, and vivid stories give it transformative power. It is pitched at just the right level to reach its target audience. The authors have invested much in writing this insightful book. Those who read it--students and teachers alike--will reap genuine dividends."
--David Naugle, professor of philosophy, Dallas Baptist University; author of Worldview: The History of a Concept

"Opitz and Melleby's wonderfully outrageous little book will tickle, inspire, challenge, and encourage students to gain a real life--not just grades, degrees, and jobs. Their message is deeply biblical and splendidly relevant for today's learners and, truth be told, teachers. Well done, faithful servants!"
--Quentin J. Schultze, Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Faith and Communication, Calvin College; author of Here I Am: Now What on Earth Should I Be Doing?

"Papers and professors, labs and lectures. Few Christian books for college students even mention the central aspect of college life--academics and course work. This one, though, lays it all out, brings it all together. It is easy to read, fun, funny, and full of robust insight. There is nothing like it in print. Students who desire to truly live out the implications of their faith in the classroom setting will find this book to be an extraordinary help; campus ministers or faithful faculty wanting to assist their young friends in serving Christ in the classroom will want to have a stack of these on hand to pass out. It is on that short list of must-reads, essential for grooming Christian faithfulness in the college years."
--Byron K. Borger, Hearts & Minds Bookstore, Dallastown, Pennsylvania

"As you get ready to plunge into college, add this book to your reading list. It will help you navigate the common landminds that can trip up your faith, and it will give you the tools you need to sprint ahead."
--Kara Powell, executive director, Fuller Youth Institute, Fuller Theological Seminary

"The most difficult transition in the life of faith is from high school to college. As many fade away from the faith as come to the faith. Morals, vocation, and the simple development of the mind are each put to the test in a way unlike any time in all of life. This book, while it focuses on learning to think as a Christian, will prove valuable in each of the areas for any student who gives it the time it deserves. Read and listen, I say. If you do, you will rise up and call these authors 'Blessed!'"
--Scot McKnight, North Park University; author of The Jesus Creed

"We need this book! The idea of a Christian worldview has passed into common use, but we seem no closer to living what we supposedly believe. Opitz and Melleby assert--correctly I think--that we won't ever put legs on a biblical vision for all of life until we begin to learn differently. Other people have asserted the same, but I've yet to see anyone else make it so clear how this can be done."
--Daniel Dupee, president, Coalition for Christian Outreach

Book Description

Most Christian college students separate their academic life from church attendance, Bible study, and prayer. Too often discipleship of the mind is overlooked if not ignored altogether. However, authors Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby issue a clarion call to students to integrate their faith and learning in The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness. Colossians 2:3, after all, indicates that in Christ himself are 'all treasures of wisdom and knowledge.'

In eight succinct chapters the authors stress the importance of academic discipleship and taking studies seriously. According to Opitz and Melleby, a Christian worldview--or biblical gestalt--brings unity to the fragmented curriculum of higher education. Each breezy chapter concludes with thought-provoking discussion questions as well as recommendations for further reading.

Written for a narrative generation, this guide extracts illustrations from the Book of Daniel, The Lord of the Rings, the experiences of real students, and more. This book is an excellent gift for college-bound seniors in high school. It's an essential text for first-year college students, too. Last, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness will benefit professors, pastors, and parents.

Friday, May 1, 2009


The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness is available wherever books are sold, including the following online stores:

Hearts & Minds
CPYU Resource Center