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A Job Description for a Christian Scholar
in the Twenty-First Century:
A Review of the 2017 Lilly Fellows Program Book Award Winners
Jennifer L. Miller

As almost any college or university faculty member will tell you, the job of an academic requires wearing quite a few different hats. My calendar for this upcoming week confirms this. I move from class to committee meetings, office hours to faculty development sessions. My to-do list includes articles I want to write alongside department planning and syllabi I need to revise. A college faculty member is simultaneously a teacher, mentor, researcher, author, and advisor—not to mention possibly also a conference organizer, hiring manager, assessment leader, and instructional technology expert.

For Christian academics, both those at church-related colleges and universities as well as those at secular institutions, the number of hats worn is even larger. Not only does a Christian faculty member foster academic skills such as research, contextual understanding, and critical thinking, but he will also encourage students to consider the larger implications of what they are studying, the ways in which the facts and ideas they encounter speak to a larger purpose in life. A Christian scholar will develop a keen understanding not only of how her work fits into the larger context of her discipline, but also how both individual scholarship and the collective work of those in her discipline shape both students’ spiritual virtues as well as the overall character of religious higher education.

The finalists for the 2017 Lilly Fellows Program Book Award reflect this wide range of roles played by those in Christian higher education. These four volumes, which in turn consider the concept of vocation, explore the standard for truth in American Evangelicalism, offer reflective practices to renew classroom teaching, and analyze the historical place of women in higher education, together provide a sampling of the many facets found in someone working in Christian higher education. They also highlight timely themes and best practices for Christian scholars and teachers. At the same time, each volume, in its own way, provides insights that extend beyond Christian colleges and universities, contributing to broader conversations about the nature and purpose of higher education as a whole.

The first of these volumes, At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (Oxford, 2016), is a collection of essays that tackles a question central to the work of a Christian educator: “Can one ‘teach’ vocation?” (xiii). The collection, edited by David S. Cunningham, is the result of a year-long seminar sponsored by the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE), a group that arose in 2009 out of the Lilly Endowment-funded Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation. Recognizing the importance of helping students discern their calling beyond basic career counseling, the seminar participants compiled this volume to help campuses that are engaged in vocational discernment and to “engage the broader public in an ongoing conversation about the meaning, purpose, and relevance of higher education today” (12).

The essays in At This Time and In This Place recognize the ways in which Christian theology has shaped current conversations about vocation. At the same time, they acknowledge that many students and faculty come to these conversations without this set of beliefs. The result is a wonderfully varied collection that looks at vocation as a concept useful to students both within Christian higher education and outside of it. The essays engage with foundational authors in the conversation about vocation (Luther, for example) as well as slightly less expected figures (Malcolm X and J. R. R. Tolkien). The volume’s authors consider issues related to today’s students. Cynthia Wells, for example, begins her essay, “Finding the Center as Things Fly Apart,” with the recognition that the increasing reliance on technology by both students and faculty leads to dramatic changes in the way that they engage with the course material and with each other. In “Vocational Discernment,” Caryn D. Riswold challenges the ways in which identifiers such as race, social class, and sexuality provide limitations on the way students are able to think about their calling. And Charles Pinches opens his contribution, “Stories of Call: From Dramatic Phenomena to Changed Lives,” with Muhammad and Black Elk, illustrating how the experience of being called “spans religious traditions—in this case, Islam and Lakota beliefs”; Pinches also includes stories from the “more familiar” traditions of Judaism and Christianity (123). As a result, this collection truly considers what it means to talk about vocation in the twenty-first century, and is useful for those at four-year Christian liberal arts colleges, two-year public community colleges, and everywhere between.

worthenThe next of the finalists, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2014) by Molly Worthen, examines another key question for the Christian scholar—the nature of truth. In this volume, Worthen “takes up the riddle of anti-intellectualism” (2) in American evangelicalism that Mark Noll famously described in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. She provides an historical examination of the question of intellectual authority among U.S. evangelicals over the last seventy years. Worthen opens by laying out the conflict between the emphasis on revelation in evangelicalism and the Enlightenment ideals of modern intellectual life—a struggle to reconcile “heart with head” (2). Through an examination of evangelical leaders and intellectuals ranging from Carl Henry (first editor-in-chief of Christianity Today) to Noll himself, Worthen traces various standards of truth within the movement. While biblical inerrancy serves as the obvious starting point, both for Worthen’s book as well as for evangelical leaders themselves, Worthen also examines how post-World War II evangelical leaders turned away from the isolation of fundamentalism and, in so doing, connected with other sources of truth that complicated the relationship between American evangelicalism and intellectual pursuits. In engaging, elegant prose, Worthen examines forces such as Francis Schaeffer’s use of popular history as “a weapon in the culture wars” (216), the conservative Catholic argument of natural law, and the relativism of postmodernism, exploring how these forces stemmed from, conflicted with, and shaped a biblical worldview predicated on inerrant Scripture.

Through this examination of the interplay between a belief in biblical authority and various cultural sources of truth, Worthen concludes that “the problem with evangelical intellectual life is not that its participants obey authority,” but rather that “evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time” (258). The “anti-intellectualism” of American evangelicalism comes, Worthen argues, not from its emphasis on biblical inerrancy, but instead “from deep disagreement over what the Bible means, a sincere desire to uphold the standards of modern reason alongside God’s word—and the defensive reflexes that outsiders’ skepticism provokes” (261). In some regards, then, Worthen’s book offers an evangelical extension of a previous Lilly Fellows Program Book Award finalist: Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, which identifies the absence of a unified understanding of Scripture among various post-Reformation Protestant movements as inadvertently leading to the larger secularization of Western society. For Worthen, though, the attempt to reconcile multiple sources of truth pushes American evangelicals not toward secularization, but instead, toward an imagination that remains firmly rooted in biblical truth. Given the influence of American evangelicalism on public policy in the last several decades, as well as the role that Wheaton College and other members of the Christian College Consortium played in shaping the intellectual leaders of this movement, Worthen’s study should be of interest to U.S. evangelicals as well as non-evangelicals who are involved in broader conversations about higher education, cultural influence, and intellectual history.

Smith FelchDavid I. Smith and Susan M. Felch explore the more reflective side of the life of the Christian scholar in Teaching and Christian Imagination (Eerdmans, 2016), a collaborative effort that brings together writing from six Calvin College faculty members. In this volume, the interdisciplinary team explores a variety of metaphors from the Christian tradition as a way of providing renewal for faculty in the classroom. As they explain in the introduction, rather than offering a how-to guide or technological resource, they are offering a more meditative road to this renewal. The book is “an opportunity to refresh your imagination, to step back and see differently. It invites you to explore how your faith and your imagination can dance together in ways that bring grace and truth into your daily service to your students and your school” (2).

To create this dance between faith and imagination, Felch and Smith, along with their colleagues Barbara M. Carvill, Kurt C. Schaefer, Timothy H. Steele, and John D. Witvliet, explore metaphors of journeys and pilgrimages, gardens and wilderness, buildings and walls. Each of these metaphors was selected because of the potential for “biblical echoes and Christian resonances” (7). In their examination of what sustains the intellectual journey, for example, the authors move from the story of the Hebrew people in the wilderness to Jesus’s commands of hospitality in the New Testament to Johan Comenius’s 1623 account of his pilgrimage, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. This variety of texts and influences helps faculty consider what to consume (either physically or intellectually) to sustain a journey, and also the importance of fellow travelers and places of rest.

While this volume uses the language and imagery of the Christian tradition, Teaching and Christian Imagination also offers practical classroom strategies alongside its metaphorical meditations, providing a way for faculty at any institution to pause and reflect. By thinking about the classroom as a way-station on a pilgrimage, the authors suggest faculty will need to develop “a more robust image of what it means to be hospitable” in the classroom; they will need to ask questions such as, “Have the students in this class thought about how what we are studying relates to their larger life-questions? Have I created tasks or experiences that encourage them to do so? Do students feel an appropriate sense of safety?” (71). While these questions get at many of the same ideas found in current research on pedagogical best practices, the more introspective nature of the volume invites faculty themselves to slow down and consider ways in which the classroom can be a space of rejuvenation both for themselves and for their students.

turpinThe winner of the 2017 Lilly Fellows Program Book Award, Andrea L. Turpin’s A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917 (Cornell, 2016), speaks to the multiple roles of the Christian scholar as well, both in content and in form. Turpin provides her readers with fresh scholarship on the multiple forces that shaped the development of American higher education in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while also creating a reflective space in which readers can consider how these debates affect the shape of their own institutions and pedagogical practices today.

In A New Moral Vision, Turpin argues that scholarship on the declining role of religion in American higher education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries overlooks the ways that the entry of women into these institutions affected this trend. Her study, an attempt to rectify this oversight, ultimately argues that, contrary to expectation, the entry of women into higher education did not lead to a “more egalitarian social order where women and men worked side by side for the public good” in a variety of fields. Instead, religiously liberal leaders at all types of institutions actually “articulated the moral purposes of collegiate education in more gendered terms than had past evangelical leaders,” which resulted in men and women being encouraged “to advance the public good in sex-specific ways” (4).

To ground her analysis of the religious and cultural influences on women’s place in higher education, Turpin proposes a new framework for understanding the shift from evangelicalism to modernism. Drawing on scholars who see this shift as a movement from belief to action, Turpin recasts these discussions in terms of “relational spirituality”—that is, focusing on “people’s ‘vertical’ relationships with God and their ‘horizontal’ relationships with one another” (17). This framework enables Turpin to account for the impact of religious belief on higher education as well as for how women’s entry into higher education intersected with gender roles and social reform.

The bulk of Turpin’s ambitious project, however, is her series of comparative case studies of institutions: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Oberlin College, Princeton and Evelyn Colleges, Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges, Wellesley College, Bryn Mawr College, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, to name a few. Covering women’s colleges, men’s colleges, and co-educational institutions, Turpin examines the various influences on these colleges and universities, including curricular offerings, institutional history, the background of campus leaders, and social roles for men and women on campus. While at times it can be difficult to keep the differences between institutions clearly delineated, the intertwining of various aspects of each institution’s treatment of both religious belief and female students actually enables readers to insert their own institutions into this complex narrative. Rather than simply writing an historical account of several key colleges, Turpin describes the conflicts and decisions made at these institutions in a way that invites readers to consider how these conversations play out on campuses today. As Turpin exhorts in her conclusion, “We would therefore do well to reflect on the implications—from the strengths to the trade-offs to the potential for unintended consequences—of the moral commitments exhibited by our own institutions of higher education” (271).

As a result, in both content and in framework, Turpin’s illuminating work embodies the ideals of the Lilly Fellows Program Book Award. Even more importantly, it acknowledges the multi-faceted nature of the work of the Christian scholar, inviting these readers with many hats to consider both the multiplicity of student identities at their institutions, and how the programs and courses that they offer respond to the influences of religion and gender roles in the early decades of the twenty-first century.


Jennifer L. Miller teaches English at Normandale Community College in Minneapolis.

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