The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of Two-Handed Higher Education

Series Introduction

The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Higher education has played a key role in the church’s training of true two-handed warriors since its earliest days. One could argue that the manner in which Jesus trained his apostles was so consistent with first-century rabbinic educational practices that the church was actually established with a ‘school’ at its very heart. And there is little doubt that the church began establishing more formal schools as early as the First Century when Mark the Evangelist and/or his disciples founded the world’s first ‘Christian College’ in the catechetical school connected to the Roman rhetorical university at Alexandria. Soon, this blending of the Spirit-driven early church with the truth-seeking Greco-Roman liberal arts tradition proved a powerful combination.

"One Athanasius against the world, was in fact, one Christian college against their culture." (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
“One Athanasius against the world,” was in fact, “One Christian college against their culture.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

College Against Culture

It is difficult to imagine what European civilization might have become without the integrative mindset fostered among the faculty and students of the Alexandrian school, including three of the most influential minds of the Patristic era: Clement, Origen, and Athanasius.  This single educational community provided clear-headed theological reflection and courageous cultural leadership in some of the most significant turning points in early church history.

This was particularly evident in their fourth century battle against the heresy of Arianism. By this time the Alexandrian school had grown into an academic powerhouse with strong secular connections and studies, so much so that Eusebius reports that even nonChristian noblemen entrusted their sons to instruction there. The school became the training ground from which their most famous alumnus, Athanasius, launched his attack against the official Roman endorsement of Arianism. Each time he was rebuffed and even excommunicated at Rome, Athanasius would return to Alexandria for counsel and prayer with the faculty and students of this robust educational community. The common perception that orthodoxy finally prevailed because of Athanasius contra mundum, “One Athanasius against the world,” is far too individualistic an interpretation.  The battle was actually, “One Christian college against their culture.” And the Christian college won.

Over the centuries since, Christian colleges and theological seminaries have often proven significantly more effective than local churches in nurturing faculty and students whose leadership is genuinely transformational. Although God often furthers his kingdom through unschooled saints, a surprising number of the names in the honor-roll of church history are intricately connected to the schools where they studied and/or taught. Martin Luther and the University of Wittenberg; Timothy Dwight and Yale; John Henry Newman and Oxford, Charles G. Finney and Oberlin College; Fr. Michael Scanlon and the Franciscan University of Steubenville; D. L. Moody and A. J. Gordon and the institutions that bear their names to this day, each stand as a monument to the extent and influence of Christian higher education.

The Life of the Mind and the Life of the Spirit

One of the keys to the influence of these learning communities is the surprising degree to which the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit can and often do coexist in these learning communities. Church-related colleges and universities birthed many of the most significant reformation and renewal movements in history, while most reformation and renewal movements have, in turn, spawned colleges themselves. This is particularly event in American higher education where more than half of our first 600 colleges were established by evangelicals. In fact, the broad historic definition of the term evangelical is best applied to movements who hold to both the power of the Holy Spirit to produce new birth and holy lives with the power of the holy scriptures to guide and shape the life and practice of the church.

It is in these renewal schools that the integration of the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind has achieved its greatest synergy. The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, when empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society. In other words, they were effective because they were able to train young men and women to become what we have called two-handed warriors. By cultivating both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit they were able to produce students capable of mastering both faith formation and culture making.

The Troubled History of Maintaining a Two-Handed Approach

John Wesley QuoteThis potential Spirit/Mind synergy is of particular importance to faith-based colleges at the outset of the twenty-first-century. The dawn of the new millennium finds the evangelical College movement emerging from a century of cultural isolation into a remarkable renaissance. Attendance is booming, endowments are up, intellectual respectability is growing, U.S. News and World Report ratings are climbing.  It is quite possible that the twenty-first-century will present the Christian college movement with the opportunity to articulate a distinctively Christian worldview in American society in a manner unparalleled in over one hundred years.

However, the history of American higher education is littered with colleges who have abandoned their lofty ambitions to train two-handed warriors for a decidedly more “one-handed” approach. Burtchaell (1998), Marsden and Longfield (1992), Marsden (1994), Reuben (1996), Benne (2001), Ringenberg (2006), Budde and Wright (2004) have carefully outlined how easily colleges lose their spiritual cutting-edge. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Reformed or Wesleyan, nearly every time a church-founded college or university manages to achieve societal respectability and financial independence they have immediately abandoned their integrative mission. Like prodigal sons, once they “received their inheritance” they have immediately “set off for a distant country where they squandered their wealth” and their ability to train true two-handed warriors. Their graduates go into the world with one hand tied behind their backs to the detriment of their own souls and the culture they create. It turns out that balancing a commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit even in a Christian college is not so easy as one would suppose.

The Twenty-First Century Challenge

Will the twenty-first-century be any different? Burtchaell’s (1998) chronicling of the demise of nearly every Christian college in American history (including at least two CCCU schools) reads like a modern-day Book of Judges. Knowing that within a few generations of the death of nearly every college’s founding leadership, “the people of God did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshipped other Gods” (Judges 3:7) is depressing reading for anyone who has given their life to Christian higher education.

Burtchaell concludes his book with a sobering challenge:

“The failures of the past, so clearly patterned, so foolishly ignored. And so lethally repeated, emerge pretty clearly from these stories. Anyone who requires further imagination to recognize and remedy them is not up to the task of trying again, and better” (p. 851).

Will the leaders of 21st century Christian colleges rise to his challenge? The future of two-handed higher education may very well depend upon it.


In future posts I will explore key movements history of higher education and how their educational philosophy and practices could help 21st century Christian colleges nurture two-handed warriors.

Next: The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: Education with Friendship and Heart

 

Notes

Benne, R. (2001). Quality with soul: how six premier colleges and universities keep faith with their religious traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Budde, M. L, & Wright, J. W. (2004).  Conflicting allegiances: the church-based university in a liberal democratic society . Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Burtchaell, J. T. (1998). The dying of the light: the disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churchesGrand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Holmes, A. F. (1975). The idea of a Christian college. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans.

Marsden, G. M., & Longfield, B. J. (1992). The Secularization of the academy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsden, G. M. (1994). The soul of the American university: From protestant establishment to established nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newman, J. H. (1852). The idea of a university: Defined and illustrated. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Reuben, J. A. (1996). The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ringenberg, W. C. (2006). The Christian college: A history of Protestant higher education in America, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: The Great Awakening and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture

The Greatest Day in New England History

Think the fiery Puritan who preached America’s most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God,” would threaten to dangle celebrities over the pit of hell?  Think again.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me Papa, paparazzi

—Lyrics from “Paparazzi” as performed by Lady Gaga

The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted 68% of the total population of greater Boston.
The streets of Boston course with life as a crowd greater than the city’s total population joins in celebration.

Commerce grinds to a standstill.

Women faint.

Grown men weep.

The governor joins the standing-room-only multitude on Boston Common and declares the festivities, “the greatest day in New England history.”

If that sounds to you like a good description of the victory parade for the 2004 Boston Red Sox who vanquished a 68 year-old ‘Curse of the Bambino” with a World Series championship, you’re not far from the truth.  The Red Sox parade attracted an incredible sixty-eight percent of greater Boston’s population.[1]

However, these words actually describe something even more historic:  the 1740 farewell sermon of British evangelist George Whitefield–an event that drew 135 percent of colonial Boston.  No wonder Harry Stout has calls Whitefield “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity.”[3]

And Whitefield’s celebrity is no accident. It is the result of a carefully orchestrated public relations tour de force. Whitefield and his publicist, William Seward, worked tirelessly to promote the evangelist’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every work published in America in 1740. By the time he reaches Boston, all of New England is in a fever pitch. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, “virtually every New England inhabitant” has heard Whitefield preach face-to-face.[3]  

Sinners is the Hands of an Angry God

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards’ “Faithful Narrative” helped pave the way for Whitefield’s preaching tour.

One hundred miles to the west, fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards waits not with condemnation, but delight.[4] Rather than dangling the “paparazzi” of his day over the pit of hell, Edwards follows media coverage of Whitefield’s every move with growing delight. He even invites the innovative young preacher to fill his famous pulpit in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Edwards helped start this media sensation in the first place. His autobiographical Faithful Narrative [5] was an international best seller for nearly three years before Whitefield’s preaching tour, making Edwards a towering public figure in his own right. He has helped stoke a deep hunger for spiritual awakening throughout the colonies; a hunger now filled by Whitefield’s flamboyant preaching and growing celebrity.[6]

While many Christians today decry our shallow media-driven celebrity culture, leaders of the Great Awakening recognized that capture society’s imagination with spiritual realities required media-driven celebrity. And capture it they did. By year’s end, perhaps as much as fifteen-percent of the population of the American colonies professes conversion to Christ in one of the most transformative social movements in American history.

Edwards and Whitefield helped birth not only one of the most transformative cultural movements in America history—the First Great Awakening—they also helped launch America’s celebrity culture. Twenty-first-century culture-makers seeking to birth society-wide transformation on the level of the Great Awakening would be wise to pay careful attention to the lessons Edwards and Whitefield learned in using celebrity for the glory of God.

Celebrity

Celebrity is perhaps the most coveted and least understood concept in contemporary culture. While the billion-dollar celebrity industry seems to grind out a new subject for fifteen-minutes of fame nearly every fifteen minutes, the scholarly community (and the church) has scrambled just to stay current. Recent scholarship has produced many claims to the title of “America’s first celebrity,” ranging from John James Audubon (c. 1826) to Walt Whitman (c. 1850), Buffalo Bill Cody (c. 1885), Douglas Fairbanks (c. 1920), and Ernest Hemingway (c. 1925).[7] Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield certainly precede each of these contenders, but were they true celebrities? The answer is, perhaps, yes and no.

Celebrity as Star

If one takes the perspective that celebrity is a purely modern invention, then obviously Edwards and Whitefield can’t be celebrities. Many scholars find a strong enough connection between celebrity and modern media to assert that “there is no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.”[8] This school of thought is strongly rooted in film studies and the rise of the Hollywood star-making business. Before 1910, the motion picture industry sold story. However, studio executives soon realized that what they were actually selling was stars—men and women who moviegoers liked and personally identified with beyond the quality of their performance.[9]

Splash
Little known TV star Tom Hanks won the lead for Splash (1983) over hundreds of famous actors because he was the more ‘likable.’

For instance, producer Brian Grazer chose the little known TV star Tom Hanks over hundreds of famous actors vying for the lead in Splash (1983), not because Hanks was the most talented, but because audience testing proved he was the most likable.[10] Soon Hanks joined the pantheon of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Harrison Ford, et cetera—actors America loved not for how they played their role, but simply for who they were.[11]

Hollywood intuited what academic research later demonstrated: people personally identify not merely with the hero of the story, but also with the actor playing the hero in the story.  Media-generated personal identification evoked a public hunger for access to the private lives of stars. In small-town America, everyone wanted to know the gossip, slander, triumphs, tragedies of the  in crowd. But in the emerging global village, the most popular kids are found on the big screen.

Aided by the media-driven celebrity industry, stars quickly became what Richard Schickel calls “intimate strangers.” People wanted to know these stars and be connected to them personally. Graeme Turner asserts that we can actually “map the precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity”: when their “private lives attract greater public interest than their professional lives.”[12]

It wasn’t long before stars began to realize that they had become a commodity to be marketed and traded, not only by studio heads, but also by their own publicity people. Within a few short years, the public relations and celebrity gossip industries were born.[13] Soon Paparazzi was a household word. 

Since Edwards and Whitefield were dead for over a hundred years before the first Hollywood stars were born, it is hard to see how they are celebrities in this limited sense of the word.

Celebrity as Hero

However, other scholars adopt a broader understanding of celebrity, one that seems to better fit Edwards and Whitefield. These scholars root their understanding of celebrity in the Latin words for “fame” (celebritas) and “being famous” (celebrer) and in Western society’s desire to “celebrate” greatness. [14] Human beings need heroes to emulate.

Both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions developed strong “hero-making” story cultures. We tell the stories of heroes such as Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, David, Elijah, Esther, Mary, Paul, and Peter because they embody the virtues valued in our culture.

Yet for cultural heroes to serve as public role models, they need to be both virtuous and known. A virtuous man or woman whose story goes untold simply can’t be emulated. Therefore, the desire to be great and the desire to be famous are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As Paul boldly declares, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).[15]

Perhaps it is more helpful to follow Daniel Boorstin’s distinction between a genuine celebrity and what he calls a “pseudo-celebrity.”[16] Pseudo celebrities, as the Hollywood school of thought asserts, are differentiated mainly by the “trivia of personality,” whereas true celebrities are heroes who are distinguished by their achievements, virtues, and character.[17] Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit this second type. Although there is no universal consensus, celebrity studies seem to point to four distinct stages in the creation of a genuine celebrity: (1) A defining incident or accomplishment makes someone a “hero”; (2) some kind of identification with the hero’s character sparks admiration and a desire to connect with the hero; (3) intentionality by the hero (or someone acting on behalf of the hero) meets public desire for a greater connection by providing access to their “story” and their life; and, (4) the public’s identification with the hero exerts influence in other people’s lives that shapes their behavior.[18]

Heroic Celebrity

Edwards’s celebrity clearly fits this pattern.

(1) Edwards’s public story begins with a clear defining incident—a powerful revival among the youth in his church results in the conversion of 300 people, a quarter of the town’s population, transforming youth culture in Northampton.[19] Soon there is “scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world [. . . .] The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing man¬ner [. . .] and the number of true saints multiplied [. . . until] the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”[20]

(2) These events spark a profound identification, not only in America, but across the English-speaking world. Edwards’s church became “the talk of New England” and famous British cleric Isaac Watts declared, “We have not heard of anything like it since the Reformation, nor since the first days of the apostles.”[21] What minister (or Christian) would not want this to happen in their church? People wanted to know more.

(3) Edwards responds to this interest with acute intentionality. He publishes A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising work of God in the Conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. It becomes an international best seller reprinted at least ten times in three languages before Edwards’s death and over fifty times since.[22]

(4) Faithful Narrative provides Edwards with the influence and “international audience for which he longed.”[23] More than any other published statement, Faithful Narrative would “define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion”[24] and firmly establish Edwards as the “revival expert” with broad readership for his future publications on the Awakening. For over a century, it serves as a nearly canonical corpus for New England revivalism. More dramatically, it opens the door for interest in Edwards’s more scholarly works so that Edwards eventually comes to be known as “America’s greatest theologian.”[25]

Notice the key role that intentionality plays in Edwards’s celebrity. Without his providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity. Without Edwards’s providing a personal account of the revival—an incident he did not “cause,” but which spread to his church from the surrounding villages[26]—this “towering intellectual figure” could very well have remained unknown and unread.[27]

Whitefield as Heroic Celebrity

George Whitefield’s 1740 farewell sermon drew 135% of the total population of greater Boston.

Whitefield’s celebrity also appears to fit this four-stage cycle as well.

(1) Whitefield’s first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, creates an international incident that introduces him into popular imagination. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” (versus preaching inside churches) coupled with his profound dramatic gifts and unusual anointing create a sensation. His sermons are some of the most compelling theater of his generation, recasting “biblical history in a theatrical key.”[28]

(2) Whitefield’s preaching generates tremendous public identification. Theater is all but unknown in America, and Whitefield’s dramatic performances (in comparison to the logical treatises offered by most New England pastors) connect in an unprecedented way. People love Whitefield. They flock to hear him preach. They relish his willingness to take on the (ancestral hierarchical) establishment. They can’t get enough of him. Newspapers normally committed to business and political news are filled with accounts of his success.

(3) In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield demonstrates unusual intentionality in managing his celebrity. He fashions a clearly defined and “audacious” plan to build on his momentum and transform his revival movement into “an international event with himself at the center.”[29] He and his publicists unleash a barrage of publicity employing careful use of social networking and mass media. People are able to “personally” connect with him through him publishing his personal journals and maintaining a grueling schedule of personal appearances.[30]

(4) Whitefield’s growing celebrity soon grants him unparalleled influence. He is able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day (unconverted ministers). Whitefield becomes “the first in a long line of public figures whose claims to influence would rest on celebrity [. . .] rather than birth, breeding, or institutional fiat.”[31]

Like with Edwards, it is difficult to miss the critical role intentionality plays in Whitefield’s celebrity. His use of William Seward’s immense talent as a public relations officer is critical to his success. He certainly would have connected with people without it, but he could never have attracted such remarkable crowds without the tireless efforts of Seward and his network of advance men. As Stout asserts:

“Where other influential preachers. . . wrote learned treatises and preached in meetinghouses. . . to audiences totaling in the thousands. . . Whitefield wrote best-selling journals and drew audiences that must be totaled in the millions. . .  For comparison one must look to an electronic age and. . . movie stars.”[32]

Heroic Leadership

Both Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit the criteria of heroic celebrities. Without the celebrity account provided by Edwards’s Faithful Narrative, it is entirely possible that America would not have been primed for Whitefield’s publicity and preaching. From a human perspective, it is not unreasonable to claim that Edwards and Whitefield’s efforts helped initiate America’s first celebrity culture, and that celebrity culture in turn helped birth the First Great Awakening.[33] Mark A. Noll, arguably the most influential historian in our contemporary understanding of the First Great Awakening, notes that although revival can be viewed as the result of a movement of the Holy Spirit, it can also be interpreted as an effect of human agency and leadership:

“By taking note of the agents who, whether perceived as servants of God or merely adept shapers of culture, historical explanation adds the sphere of human responsibility to realms of theological principle.”[34]

The leaders of the First Great Awakening were young men of great natural gifts who preached, wrote, promoted, and built institutions with unusual force. Their actions mattered, regardless of their motivations or by what power they were energized. This in no way minimizes the Holy Spirit’s role in the First Great Awakening. Something truly remarkable occurred in this movement that no amount of human effort has ever been able to recreate (although not for lack of trying). However, it does emphasize that the Holy Spirit worked though human leaders who made wise use of the means at their proposal, including their celebrity.

Edwards himself came to embrace the importance of human leadership in the Awakening. One of his central contributions to religious self-understanding was his refusal to accept an either/or dichotomy between divine and human impulses. His first work in the midst of the Great Awakening, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion (1741), was an urgent appeal for human leaders to promote the work of God by wise and strenuous efforts.[35]

His first major publication in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, A treatise regarding religious affections (1746), was in many ways his “second thoughts about the first great awakening.”[36] Edwards claimed that Satan won a great victory in the Awakening because human leaders failed to embrace their God-appointed role in directing such a powerful “pouring out of the Spirit of God.”[37]

Edwards and Whitefield were not leaders who shirked their human responsibility. Their model points toward a possible future for leaders seeking to become “adept shapers of culture” in the twenty-first century. However, before we can directly apply the principles they employed in the eighteenth century to our contemporary setting, we must first account for a factor with which Edwards and Whitefield never had to contend: contemporary pseudo celebrity culture.

The Rise of Pseudo Celebrity

Paris Hilton provides ample proof that celebrity sells

The problem with the celebrity cycle is that it is essentially value neutral. The process that makes someone a heroic celebrity is essentially the same as the process that makes someone a pseudo celebrity. As the Hollywood school of thought contends, something went seriously awry with celebrity in the early twentieth century. It is as if somewhere we decided that if you can’t be a true hero without also achieving fame, why bother with virtue at all? Contemporary media makes it all too easy to skip heroism and jump straight to the stardom of a pseudo celebrity who is “well-known only for being well-known.”[38]

In pseudo celebrity, the inciting incident moves from important to trivial (and/or contrived); intentionality moves from important to critical; and identification moves from character to personality. The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”[39]

Dry Erase Girl

A good example of this phenomena is found in the “dry erase girl” resignation hoax. This meme serves as a great example of how the four-stage cycle can be applied to the creation of pseudo celebrities.

(1) On the morning of August 10, The Chive, a relatively unknown Web site, creates an incident by posting a series of pictures under the banner: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office.” The hilarious photos, received from “a person who works with [. . .] Jenny,” chronicle a young worker’s struggle with her boss’s sexual harassment, her subsequent resignation, and the outing of her boss’s odd Internet viewing habits.

(2) By the afternoon of August 10, the public’s identification with Jenny’s plight makes the story is an instant Internet sensation. The photos “soared to the top of Google and Twitter trends, and a group of Facebook pages popped up to honor” the brave underling.[40] Who wouldn’t root for this perky persecuted worker and her “heroic” actions? People were dying to connect with Jenny and know more of her life and future.

One day wonder ‘Dry Erase Jenny’ (aka, Elyse Porterfield)

(3) The role of intentionality becomes obvious on August 11, when the Web site TechCrunch reveals that it was all a publicity stunt. “Jenny-the-Dry-Erase-Girl” is really Elyse Porterfield, a struggling young actress hired by The Chive to perpetrate the hoax.[41]

(4) By the evening of August 11, Porterfield and The Chive editor have garnished sufficient influence to be interviewed by CBS News Entertainment to discuss their successful creation of the hoax. Thirty-six hours after the first posting, The Chive and Porterfield are hot properties. Could an acting role be far behind? (And of course, I’m pulling for Porterfield. She is so darn likable.)[42]

In less than two twenty-four-hour news cycles a hoax is: (1) perpetrated, (2) debunked, and (3) milked for enough publicity to become national news and achieve celebrity status. Porterfield is the paramount pseudo celebrity created via what Boorstin calls a “pseudo-event fabricated by the media and evaluated in terms of the scale and effectiveness of their media visibility.”[43]

Pseudo Celebrity and Cultural Currency

Notice, however, how the final stage of influence is still very much intact. In fact, the defining characteristic of the contemporary pseudo celebrity culture is the shallow but powerful nature of the identification it engenders. Pseudo celebrity endorsements are both effective and pervasive, because these superstars are integral parts of our lives and intimately tied to our greatest hopes and fears.

In a culture devoid of meaning and relationship, the pseudo celebrity system offers powerful images to direct our lives. Media outlets create an “illusion of accessibility and relationship.”[44] In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met.[45] When Lady Gaga sings, “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” she is eerily describing the zeitgeist of paparazzi culture. Through pseudo celebrity culture, we perpetrate a new American mythology: not the maxim that strong character, hard work, and perseverance will eventually lead to success and happiness, but rather be in the right place at the right time, with the right YouTube video and you too can be famous. The underlying story behind pseudo celebrity becomes: it could happen to me.

Not everyone can be a hero, but anyone can be famous. Accomplishments might put someone in a position to be noticed by the media, but only the intentional courting of the public eye can produce an ongoing celebrity. This is the underlying secret of our pseudo celebrity culture: it’s all about the Benjamins. Celebrities are needed to drive the economy, sell the products, and fill the airtime so as to generate advertising dollars to sell even more products. Pseudo celebrities are the ultimate wedding of consumer culture and democratic aspirations.[46] In a society cynical about truth, and without a clear sense of common good informing our ethical decisions, the pseudo celebrity system guarantees that even if I don’t know how to live a meaningful life, at least I’ll know how to dress.

On Being a Twenty-first Century Heroic Celebrity (and Not a Pseudo Celebrity)

Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism

Does this trivialization of celebrity mean that twenty-first-century culture-makers should eschew all celebrity and start dangling our own paparazzi over the pit of hell? Perhaps. But if the realm of celebrity is stripped of every true hero, all that remains will be pseudo celebrities. And a world without public heroism is a profoundly unbiblical idea. Without contemporary additions to the Hebrews 11 hall of fame, how can we expect a new generation to “Remember your leaders [. . . .] Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”? (Heb. 13:7). If we don’t have heroic celebrities who are broadly famous in our culture, then haven’t we lost our culture already? To put a twist on Edmund Burke’s oft-quoted aphorism: “All that is necessary for pseudo celebrity to triumph is for heroic celebrities to do nothing.”[47]

Still, some might argue: yes, we need heroes, but shouldn’t we leave hero-making to God? You would certainly think so if you read evangelical devotional literature. Even thoughtful historians often help perpetrate the myth that the Holy Spirit alone drew the giant crowds that followed the saintly Whitefield, as if he wanted only to be left alone with his Bible. Consider Stephen Mansfield’s hagiographic account:

“What could explain the crowds, always the crowds? It must be simply the grace of God and his decision to use a slight, squint-eyed boy to change lives.”[48]

My point is not that the supernatural impact of Whitefield’s ministry is difficult to account for except by the grace of God (more on this later), only that Whitefield carefully cultivated and judiciously utilized his celebrity for the glory of God. Why should twenty-first-century leaders be any different? Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism (Numbers 12:3). Nehemiah certainly wasn’t shy in trumpeting his own accomplishments. And David commissioned the telling of the heroic story of Ruth in order to clear up a public relations problem in his (Gentile) heritage. Yet Moses, David, Ruth, Nehemiah, Whitefield, and Edwards possessed at least three further traits that define their heroic celebrity and which might help mitigate against contemporary pseudo celebrity.

The Compelling Authenticity of a Life Well Lived

Edwards and Whitefield were men of remarkable integrity. Edwards was no pseudo celebrity scholar. He was the real thing. He was devoted to the calling of his craft, often spending thirteen hours a day in his study. Nor was he a public figure who wilted in private. He developed a profound contemplative prayer life, forged a beautiful marriage, and stayed deeply involved in the lives of his eleven children.

Although Whitefield never achieved Edwards’s “depth in his thinking about culture,”[49] he began each day reading his Greek New Testament and returned to finish his master’s degree at Oxford after already achieving much of his fame. He worked tirelessly to improve as an orator (and actor). More importantly, he was a man of profound personal and financial integrity. He raised staggering amounts of money while maintaining a Spartan lifestyle that bordered on asceticism.[50] Both leaders escaped moral scandal despite determined enemies and years in the public eye.[51]

This is not to say that these men were perfect; they both freely admitted their mistakes and misjudgments in their own writings. Whitefield wrote, “Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in [judging the] character, both of places and persons. . . I have used a style too apostolical . . . been too bitter in my zeal . . . and published to soon and too explicitly. . . By these things I have hurt the blessed cause I would defend.”[52]  But rather than repelling followers, such authenticity drew men and women to his celebrity. In short, they were actually men who could be admired; they were heroic celebrities who might be emulated.

Twenty-first-century culture-makers must strive for the same excellence in craft and character. Pseudo celebrity culture has bred cynicism regarding all celebrities. Americans crave authenticity but expect duplicity. We are looking for our heroes to fall, and the celebrity media industry is only too happy to pounce when they do. Those who would aspire to heroic celebrity must be absolutely certain that they are up to the task. Although pseudo celebrities sometimes become heroes over the course of time, heroic celebrities can become pseudo celebrities overnight. Ted Haggard became a national celebrity, not through his accomplishment of building one of the most influential churches in America, nor by his position as President of the National Council of Evangelicals; he became a household name by reason of his infidelity.

The bar is high, but authenticity is achievable even in an age of pseudo celebrity

This calls for a ruthless commitment to the compelling authenticity of a life well lived. Scholars, ministers, businesspeople, musicians, politicians, filmmakers, artists, actors, and publishers had best count the cost before they dare enter the world of heroic celebrity. They need a radical commitment to master both their craft at a world-class level and the spiritual disciplines, marriage, family, and relational habits required to shape their character toward the fruit of the Spirit.

Great artists, scholars, businesspeople, and ministers are not formed in a day. Great marriages, families, and friendships are forged with great intentionality. Heroic character cannot be instantly formed by sheer force of will, but the ongoing practice of key spiritual disciplines put us in a position to receive the transforming grace of God and be “incrementally changed toward inward Christlikeness.”[53]

This also calls for a countercultural commitment on the part of thoughtful media leaders and public relations specialists to work against the forces of pseudo celebrity. In addition to Edwards and Whitefield, leaders of the First Great Awakening included not only one of the pioneers of publicity and public relations (William Seward), but also three of the key forerunners in modern mass communication: John Lewis, Thomas Prince, and William McCulloch.[54] They were determined to use the power of the media to promote spiritual awakening through Edwards and Whitefield’s celebrity. Twenty-first-century media leaders must seek for the true heroes in our society and make certain their stories are told. They must also do everything within their power to insure that those they promote as celebrities are in fact heroes.

The Courageous Ambition of Genuine Humility

Genuine humility sometimes appears arrogant (David and Goliath by Jason Engle)

Edwards and Whitefield were also men of tremendous ambition to glorify God in the world. Early in his life, Edwards determined, “I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory [. . . ]” However, Edwards’s humility didn’t prevent him from developing a ruthless ambition to serve the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world. He continued: “[. . .] and my own good, profit and pleasure to do whatever I think to be my duty [. . .] for the good and advantage of mankind.”[55]

Edwards saw no conflict in these two aspirations, having also resolved to throw off anything smacking of “gratification of pride, or vanity,”[56] and he lived his life to maximally steward the gifts God had entrusted to him by establishing himself as a renowned intellectual force for good.[57]

Whitefield too was a man possessed of a deep passion for the glory of God with a corresponding repudiation of self-glory. Yet, he also held to a keen sense of the importance of his impact upon the world. Certainly, the hierarchical worldview of Edwards and Whitefield’s day helped them seize those opportunities in ways that our current pseudo celebrity, democratic, level-playing-field worldview does not.[58] They were encouraged to aspire to become “great men” from their youth, and their respective Yale and Oxford educations only reinforced the idea that they were God’s elite. They did not need to be asked to step forward as celebrities. They knew it was a responsibility entrusted to them by God and correspondingly seized the day.

Not so today. The cynicism of pseudo celebrity when combined with tireless assaults upon anyone who dares stick their heads above the democratic crowd has had a devastating impact on moral leadership. True heroes step back from the public limelight while pseudo celebrities push themselves forward. Those who do not possess true character and accomplishment manipulate the media for their own celebrity, whereas those who possess some modicum of humility shrink back. True heroes fear not only their own ego, but also the potential humiliation involved in having a target painted on their back. For instance, it is now a right of passage for nearly all intellectual, cultural, and spiritual leaders to have multiple Web sites devoted to their demise.

Overcoming our contemporary aversion to principled heroism will call for the courageous ambition of genuine humility on the part of twenty-first-century cultural leaders. Like Saul’s army before Goliath, unbelief sometimes looks a lot like humility. Genuine humility, on the other hand, sometimes appears arrogant. While lifelong soldiers cowered in fear, David was willing to push past his brother’s stinging accusation, “I know how conceited you are” in order to seize the heroic challenge (1 Sam. 17:28ff). Twenty-first-century culture-makers who wish to wisely use celebrity for the glory of God will also need to regularly weather the pseudo celebrity culture’s challenge of “Who do you think you are?” in order to stand as heroic celebrities.

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin: A morality tale on the danger of losing control of your public perception

This will also require careful partnerships with thoughtful public relations professionals and new media experts.[59] As media expert Phil Cook, exclaims, “If you don’t control your perception” and “the story that surrounds you [. . .] you’ll live the rest of your life at the mercy of those who will.”[60]

One need only look at James Monaco refers to persons who come to the public eye but fail to control their public image as “Quasars.” They are at the mercy of the media’s construction of their image, and that construction is nearly always bad.the “Tina Fey effect” in the last presidential election for a warning against the dangers of losing control of your own image.[61] Unlike the leaders of the Great Awakening, today’s leaders have allowed our culture’s perception of spirituality to drift at the mercy of the mass media’s construction. Oprah and Richard Dawkins have done more to shape mass media’s conception of faith (or lack thereof) than countless pastors and other spiritual leaders. Only by drawing upon the savvy leadership of the best public relations experts, journalists, filmmakers, television creators, and new-media mavens is there any real chance of reversing this trend.

The Unmistakable Stamp of Divine Exaltation

Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife at the midpoint of his descent into greatness (Rembrandt)

In the end, Edwards and Whitefield’s lives bore the unmistakable stamp of divine exaltation. Their personal lives and vocational success simply defied all human explanation. Although self-exaltation may lead to pseudo celebrity, there is a type of exaltation only God can bestow. As the psalmist declares, “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:7).

Celebrity did not bring David in from the shepherd field, release Joseph from prison, nor fill Mary’s womb with divine offspring. They were men and women who followed the biblical injunction: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).

Each hero waited in relative obscurity—growing in character while mastering the disciplines of their craft—waiting for the moment chosen by the God whose eyes “range throughout the earth seeking to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9).[62]

For some, like Daniel and Esther, this call came at a relatively young age. For many others, like Moses and Anna, the call came much later. In either case, these biblical figures were ready when their moment arrived.

Whether short or long, God used their time in secret preparation to forge in them the strength of character to support the weight of their calling. Edwards and Whitefield were men of similar character. When the divine moment came—in the 1734-1734 revival in Edwards’s church and the 1739 revival under Whitefield’s itinerant preaching—these two principal leaders of the First Great Awakening knew what to do. Once exalted by God to a place of celebrity, they were ready to bear the responsibilities it demanded and steward their celebrity for the glory of God. In doing so, they helped spark one of the most socially transformative movements in American history. W

ill the twenty-first-century be any different? We may never know how many potentially dynamic cultural leaders will be lured by the siren song of pseudo celebrity, impatiently squandering their youth seeking fame instead of steadily building the craft and character required for their divine moment. Still, we must do everything within our power to help foster spiritual depth as well as professional excellence. In an age hungering for the depth of genuine authenticity to counteract the shallowness of pseudo celebrity, waiting for God’s timing could make all the difference.

The Greatest Day in World History?

C.S. Lewis’ Edwardsean commitment to scholarship and popular culture landed him on the cover of Time

Will we see again the equivalent of the crowds that thronged Boston Common for Whitefield’s farewell sermon? Perhaps not. But if we do, that crowd will more likely gather in movie houses worldwide and/or at a massive Web cast than a single venue. A twenty-first-century equivalent of Whitefield is more likely a cutting-edge filmmaker, actor, or television producer than a traditional evangelist.

A twenty-first-century equivalent of Edwards might take the form of a C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar who built upon his prestigious position through popular writings and radio broadcasts that gave him a celebrity—the cover of Time magazine for The Screwtape Letters—that made his complex moral and theological arguments beloved reading for a generation of children and adults.  Either manifestation would certainly be a great day for the world as we know it.

In a media-saturated age marked by both an unhealthy appetite for pseudo celebrity and a deep cynicism toward heroism, it would be hard to find a better tonic than the courage and authenticity of Edwards and Whitefield, heroic celebrities unafraid to utilize their fame for the glory of God.

The thought that we can sit on the sidelines and call down judgment upon today’s celebrity culture may be as dangerous as it is naive. We are called to be missionaries in a media-driven culture. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make that fact go away. To impact our image-driven generation for the kingdom of God will require entering the fray prayerfully, thoughtfully, and with great excellence. And if all else fails, we can always dangle a few paparazzi over the fires of hell. Or, better yet, we can follow Whitefield’s example and hire them.  

Article adapted from version in print and online versions of  The Other Journal.  

For Responses to See:

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly Guest Posts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

 

Notes


[1] The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted an estimated 3 million out of 4.4 million in greater Boston (68 percent), whereas Whitefield’s farewell sermon drew 23,000 from of the city population of 17,000 (135 percent). Whitefield’s more modest estimate was 20,000 (118 percent). Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003), 79.

[2] Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), x.

[3] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.

[4] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 202.

[5] Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).

[6] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 137.

[7] Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Blake, 2004); David Haven, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2000); Richard Schickel, Douglas Fairbanks: The First Celebrity (London, UK: Elm Tree Books, 1976); Leonard J. Leff, Hemingway and His Conspirators: Hollywood, Scribners, and the Making of American Celebrity Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997). Other proposed contenders include: Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1855), see Renée M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gertrude Stein (c. 1900), see Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009); and Charles Lindbergh (c. 1940), see Randy Roberts and David Welky, Charles A. Lindbergh: The Power and Peril of Celebrity, 1927-1941 (Maplecrest, NY: Brandywine Press, 2003).

[8] Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 21.

[9] Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

[10] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co, 2005), 45.

[11] There are some who believe that Hollywood’s star-making days are over and are now being replaced by the experience-making of stadium theaters, 3-D glasses, concept movies, and CGI. Given the blockbuster opening weekend ($35 million) of the low-tech but star-studded The Expendables (2010), I suspect this argument will grow even more heated.

[12] See Schickel, Intimate Strangers; and Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004), 3, 8.

[13] Turner, Understanding Celebrity, 10.

[14] Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & its History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[15] See also 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9. All references are from the New International Version.

[16] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, or, What Happened to the American Dream (London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1861), 58; and Daniel J. Boorstin, “From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-event,” in David Marshall, The Celebrity Culture Reader (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 72-90.

[17] Turner, 65.

[18] These “stages” do not always occur chronologically.

[19] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 155, 160.

[20] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 11-14.

[21] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 161; and cited in Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, The Great Awakening, 36.

[22] C. C. Goen, The Great Awakening, 90-92

[23] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 171.

[24] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 80.

[25] Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), x. See also, Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards: Religious Tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

[26] Michael J. Crawford chronicles that between 1712-1732 the Connecticut River Valley alone experienced as many as fifteen revivals before the first of two “outpourings” in Edwards’s Northampton, Massachusetts, church (1734-1736, 1740-1742). See, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 108. To his credit, Edwards’s own account mentioned “nearly every church in Western Massachusetts and twenty in Connecticut.” See Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 162.

[27] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228.

[28] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 95

[29] Ibid., 87.

[30] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 200.

[31] Stout, Divine Dramatist, xiv.

[32] Ibid., xiii. Italics mine.

[33] For more insight into the use of media, publicity, et cetera in the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977): 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of Grace, 13ff.

[34] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 141.

[35] Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New England and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted. The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).

[36] Gary David Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758) Theology of Spiritual Awakening and Spiritual Formation Leadership in Higher Education” (PhD diss., Talbot School of Theology, 2009), 59. See also Gary D. Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Gerald McDermott’s Seeing God,” Christian Education Journal 3 (2006) and Samuel S. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).

[37] Jonathan Edwards, John Edwin Smith, and Perry Miller, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in three parts. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 5-7.

[38] Boorstin, The Image, 58.

[39] Turner, Understanding Celebrity, 55.

[40] Helen A.S. Popkin, “Suckers! Why you fell for ‘Dry Erase Board Girl.’” msnbc.com, August 12, 2010, accessed August 14, 2010.

[41] Alexia Tsotsis, “Confirmed: HOPA Dry Erase Girl Is a Hoax, Identity Revealed,” TechCrunch, August 11, 2010, accessed August 11, 2010.

[42] Shira Lazar, “Elyse Porterfield, HOPA Dry Erase Girl Exclusive Interview [Video],” CBS News, August 11, 2010, accessed August 11, 2010. [43] Boorstin, The Image, 57.

[44] Richard Dyer and Paul McDonald, Stars (London, UK: BFI, 2007), 17.

[45] Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.

[46] Marshall, Celebrity and Power, 10. See also Leo Lowenthal, Communication in Society. Studies on Authoritarianism 3, False Prophets (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997).

[47] Burke probably never used the precise phrase, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” but rather, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one [. . .]” Daniel E. Ritchie, Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990), xiii.

[48] Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield (Nashville, TN: Highland Books/Cumberland House, 2001), 64.

[49] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 108.

[50] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 122-123.

[51] This is not to minimize the doctrinal and methodological controversies that only added to their fame. See Stout, Divine Dramatist, 123.

[52] George Whitefield and Robert Backhouse, The Journals of George Whitefield (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 144. See also Dallimore, Whitefield, 333-354.

[53] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 82

[54] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 143-144.

[55] Jonathan Edwards and George S. Claghorn, Letters and Personal Writings (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 755.

[56] Ibid., 753-4

[57] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 134

[58] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

[59] James Monaco, Celebrity: The Media as Image Makers, And, In Order of Their Celebrity (New York, NY: Dell, 1978).

[60] Phil Cook, Branding Faith, Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), 10, 49.

[61] Edward Rothstein, “The Power of Political Pratfalls,” New York Times, October 12, 2008. See also, David Carr and Brian Stelter, “Campaigns in a Web 2.0 World,” New York Times, November 2, 2008.

[62] See also 1 Samuel 13:14; 16:7.

The College Chapel: Puritan Relic or Campus Hot Spot?

How the integration of revival and moral philosophy in the college chapel helped lead to what Mark. A. Noll calls “the great age of Christian higher education.”

Part of ongoing series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts

If James K. A. Smith is correct in asserting that Jesus establishes particular ‘hot spots of sacramentality’ and endues them with a special sense of God’s presence, then the Christian college chapel must become the campus hot spot once again.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Alumni Memorial Chapel, Johnson University (established 1893)
Alumni Memorial Chapel, Johnson University (established 1893)

Campus worship services convened in a literal college chapel building and/or a figurative chapel program remain one of the most distinctive and symbolic methodologies in the history of American Christian higher education. Rooted in the British Puritan understanding of the college as a vehicle for the ongoing reformation and revival of church and society, chapel services are as old as the nations’ first college (Harvard, 1626) and endure today in most overtly Christian colleges and universities, as well as in many denominationally affiliated schools. Often the symbolic center of controversy over changes in the soul of a given college or university,[i] college chapels serve as significant campus ethos-shaping institutions—especially where chapel architecture and/or compulsory attendance dominate the campus landscape and schedule.[ii] Even as contemporary Christian colleges and universities struggle for an adequate theology of worship in a learning community, chapel programs and their staff serve as hubs for most co-curricular spiritual formation and service-learning opportunities on campus.

The Origins of the College Chapel Program

Puritan Liberal Education and Revivalism The British Puritan penchant for Christian higher learning crossed the Atlantic with the first pilgrims so that George M. Marsden regards the Puritan founding of Harvard College just six years after their first settlement in the New World as “one of the remarkable facts of American history.”[iii] Following the model of Emmanuel College, Cambridge—the hotbed of English Puritanism—and the writings of Jonathan Edwards, early American colleges integrated a classic liberal arts education in the classroom with Puritan revivalistic worship services in a college church,[iv] consistent with how Puritans “combined highly intellectual theology with intense piety.”[v] (See, Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for Higher Education.)

True to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura and revivalism’s commitment to preaching as the primary means of conversion and grace, colleges preserved a time and place for students to sit under the biblical preaching of the college president. Compulsory attendance at two Sunday worship services (open to the public) and daily preaching and/or prayer services for the college community was central to the Puritan conception of higher education, and became the standard for Harvard, Yale, and the vast majority of American colleges that followed them. Since these services normally took place in a college chapel building (often the most architecturally dominant and symbolically significant structure on campus), they inevitably became known as chapel services.

The College Church and the Preaching President

When a college had an especially eloquent president—such as Timothy Dwight at Yale (1795–1817), Francis Wayland at Brown (1827-1855), Charles G. Finney (1852–1875) at Oberlin, or John McLean at Princeton (1854-1888)—“the effect on the students could be electric.”[vi] Yet, while most of college presidents were clergyman,[vii] few were remarkable preachers. The success of the chapel program often demanded largely upon periodic religious revivals among the students lest chapel preaching fall upon hard hearts and deaf ears. [viii] This only increased the influence of revivalism on Protestant Christian education, especially in the aftermath of the First Great Awakening, when the founding of numerous revival oriented colleges—such as Dartmouth, Princeton, and Brown—eventually led to the explosion of more than five-hundred revival colleges across the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840).[ix] (See, Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?)

Apologetics and Common Sense Realism

At the turn of the nineteenth-century, the challenge of European radical skepticism [x] led to a dynamic connection between revival colleges and the philosophical worldview of Scottish Common Sense Realism.[xi] Apologetic sermons on moral philosophy joined revivalism as the focal points of the college chapel program. Marsden notes that, “…these two programs, the revival and moral philosophy, were the chief collegiate supplements to traditions of regulated worship…”[xii] and laid the foundation for nearly a century of academic ascendancy that “may be called with justice the great age of Christian higher education in the history of the country.”[xiii]

Chapel services remained so integrally identified with American higher education that compulsory chapel attendance continued in virtually all colleges—even state universities—late into the nineteenth-century. [xiv] Today, many if not most historically denominational colleges maintain college chapel buildings, worship services, and chapel staff who aid students in spiritual formation as well as service-learning opportunities in the local community and global village. 

The College Chapel Program and the Soul of the American University

Secularization and the Demise of Compulsory Chapel Programs As the most visible symbol of faith on campus the college chapel has often served as a lighting rod in the well-chronicled tension between the educational and spiritual missions of Christian colleges. Since the post antebellum demise of the revival college movement (sometimes called the old-time college) only a handful of American colleges and universities have been able to overcome the forces of secularization and maintain their uniquely Christian soul.

Some scholars emphasize the demise of compulsory college chapel programs as a unique development in the transition from Revival College to Modern University. [xv] They point to the elimination of compulsory chapel at Harvard (1886) and Yale (1926) as key marking points in the forty-year secularization of the American academy.[xvi]

Other researchers emphasize the continuity of anti-spirituality pressures facing Christian colleges since Harvard’s faculty rejected the First Great Awakening in 1741.[xvii] They see growing pressure against chapel programs in contemporary Christian colleges as part of an ongoing pattern in the history of Christian higher education.

Managing the Tensions of Worship in a Learning Community

Both sides of this debate recognize that the dualism of post-Enlightenment conceptions of knowledge create a nearly inevitable force against the life of the Spirit in colleges committed to the life of the mind.[xviii] Today’s colleges chapel programs face increasing faculty pressure to become more denominationally-diverse, historically-rooted, and intellectually-challenging, even as post-modern, consumer-oriented, doctrine-phobic students demand more experientially-based, relationally-connected, and individually-catered worship experiences.[xix] Managing these pressures has led to two primary approaches to chapel in Christian colleges.

Chapel as an Educational Essential

Many colleges view their Chapel education programs as an educational essential of a Christian college—not unlike the general studies courses in a college’s core curriculum. As the Gordon College (MA) website states, “Because Chapel and Convocation programs are viewed as an integral component of a Gordon education, regular attendance is required for graduation, much like other non credit-bearing elements of the Gordon experience…”[xx] Similar to the Puritan college church, chapel services serve the broader educational mission of integrating highly intellectual pursuits with intense personal piety.[xxi] Chapel services are required of most students and held in a large often symbolically enriched worship space and at a protected time in the college schedule.[xxii]

Ideally, such chapel programs serve as a corporate spiritual discipline that both symbolically and educationally tie together the entire Christian college experience so that chapel is “foundational for university-wide commitment to integrate faith, learning, and living across campus.” [xxiii] However, just as in historic revival colleges, weak preaching and programming can quickly lead to student dissatisfaction, complaints, and misbehavior from the captive audience.[xxiv]

Chapel as a Student Service

Others colleges employ a model that views chapel services as one student service among many—not unlike other voluntary co-curricular activities. These chapel services are often (although not always) invested with the time, space, personnel, and financial support required to remain ethos-shaping forces on campus, but not because attendance is enforced.[xxv] As the Bethel University (MN) website declares, “Chapel is the heart and soul of spiritual life on the Bethel campus. Chapel attendance is not required, but we believe it’s a vital part of building community and learning about our shared faith.”[xxvi] Students may choose to voluntarily attend worship services to help them worship God in everything they do, but these colleges believe that such heart practices are best-pursued voluntarily.[xxvii]

Ideally, such an approach enhances the worship experience for all who take part and reduces the need to police student attendance and behavior. Practically, the threat of a conspicuously empty chapel often leads to tailoring worship to the tastes of the majority of undergraduate students and subsequently to great faculty and minority student dissatisfaction. The student services model is nearly always the first step towards to end of a vital college chapel program.[xxviii] they often start strong in the first decade after attendance is no longer taken, only to gradually dwindle to a small percentage of the campus.  Julie Reuben notes that once ‘critical mass’ is lost, college administrations often discover there is no going back from the ‘disaster’ of a voluntary chapel.[xxix]

The Heritage of the College Chapel

Two Theological Poles of Worship While modern Christian colleges have yet to develop a widespread theology capable of managing these tensions at the level of the Puritan model, [xxx] both sides in the debate agree that chapel programs should be a time when at very least a sizable majority of the college community gathers together to celebrate their common faith in meaningful expressions of corporate worship, learn the central tenants of the Christian faith, and consider together how to live out their faith throughout their campus community, scholarship, personal lives, and future calling.

Protestant theologies of worship have consistently emphasized that all of life and not just sacred times and places are potentially acts of worship. Commitment to the life of the mind required to forge a genuinely Christian worldview can make “the classroom as a chapel, scholarship as devotion,” so that, “Christianity at the base of the curriculum and suffusing all studies (is) the essence of Christian education.” [xxxi] However the affirmation that all of life can be worship need not discount our need for worship services that train our hearts and minds to worship and provides a means of grace by which the Spirit forms our soul in unique and intense ways. As James K. A. Smith asserts, “Jesus seems to establish particular hot spots of sacramentality and . . . endues them with a special sense of presence,”[xxxii] and there is little doubt that a Christian college chapel service should certainly be one of these hot spots.

Back to the Future

These two poles of worship guided the Puritans in their integration of a liberal education in the classroom and revival in the college chapel precisely because the renewing power of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the chapel is the best defense against hard hearts and deaf ears and in the classroom. Perhaps it is not surprising that both voluntary student-service chapel programs and compulsory educational-essential programs work best in seasons of religious awakening,[xxxiii] nor that both types of chapel programs benefited from the last season of spiritual awakening on American college campuses (1995).[xxxiv] As the contemporary Christian college movement continues to develop deeper theologies of worship in learning communities there is reason to hope that such intentionality could lead them back to the future of a second “great age of Christian higher education.”[xxxv]

Adapted from, Gary David Stratton. 2015. “The College Chapel,” in George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport, eds. Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littleton Academic Press of America.

 

See Also:

With Prayer in the School of Christ

 

Notes [i] Widespread use word soul to describe the essence of uniquely Christian higher education was initiated by George M. Marsden in 1992 in his essay, “The Soul of the American University: A Historical Overview,” in The Secularization of the Academy, ed. George M. Marsden and Bradley Longfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). It was followed by Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), Stephen T. Beers, The Soul of a Christian University: a Field Guide for Educators. (Abilene, Tex: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008), and others. [ii] Benne, Quality with Soul, 11-12, 193-14, 213-14. [iii] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 33. [iv] William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 38. [v] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 44. [vi] Ibid. 64. [vii] In 1840 eighty-percent of all college presidents at overtly Christian colleges were clergyman, as well as nearly sixty-percent of state college presidents. Marsden, Soul of the American University, 81. [viii] Mark A. Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 53-60. Italics mine. [ix] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press), 499. George M. Marsden and Bruce Longfield The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 8-9. [x] Particularly David Hume and Voltaire. [xi] First proposed by Thomas Reid and developed by Princeton president Thomas Witherspoon, where Timothy Dwight studied. Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 93-113. Also, Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education in the early republic,” in Making Higher Education Christian, eds. Joel Carpenter and Kenneth Shipps (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1987), 58-64. [xii]  Marsden, Soul of the American University, 58. [xiii] Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education,” 64. [xiv] Ringenberg, The Christian College, 2003, 80-82. [xv] Such as Ringenberg’s The Christian College; Marsden’s The Soul of the American University; and Julie A. Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). [xvi] Reuben, Modern University, 119-122; Marsden, Soul of the University, 21. [xvii] Such as, James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), Michael L. Budde and John Wesley Wright, Conflicting Allegiances: the Church-based University in a Liberal Democratic society (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), and Benne, Quality with Soul. [xviii] Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 7-10. [xix] A youth group worldview described as “Moral Therapeutic Deism” by, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Also, Kendra Kreasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling Us about the American Church (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.) [xx] “Chapel Attendance Policy,” Gordon College Website, 2013-04-15. http://www.gordon.edu/page.cfm?iPageID=474 [xxi] Marsden, Fundamentalism, 44. [xxii] Benne highlights non-denominational Wheaton College and Baptist affiliated Baylor University as examples where this model currently appears to be working. Quality with Soul, 150. [xxiii] David S. Dockery, Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society Through Christian Higher Education (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 2007), 108. Dockery is president of Union University, an educational-essential chapel school. [xxiv]Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light, 232, 320. [xxv] Benne, Quality with Soul, 49. [xxvi] “Worship/Chapel at Bethel,” Bethel University Website, http://cas.bethel.edu/campus-ministries/worship/chapel, 2013-04-15. [xxvii] Benne highlights Calvin College (Christian Reformed), Valparaiso University (Lutheran), and the University of Notre Dame (Catholic) as examples where this model appears to be attracting a critical mass of students, at least to Sunday services. Quality with Soul, 145-149, 160-165. [xxviii] Benne calls this the third college chapel model: institutions whose voluntary chapel programs are marked by very low attendance and without a designated chapel hour in the college schedule, Quality with Soul, 49. [xxix] Modern University, 123-124. [xxx] See David S. Dockery’s discussion of the lack of thorough theology in Renewing Minds, 124-137. Encouraging starts towards such a theology are found in, Duane Liftin, Conceiving the Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004), Cary Balzer and Rod Reed. Building a Culture of Faith: University-wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012), and James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009)and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013). [xxxi] James Bratt, as quoted in ed. Paul John Dovre, The Future of Religious Colleges: the Proceedings of the Harvard Conference on the Future of Religious Colleges, October 6-7, 2000 (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 2002), 203. This “all of life can become worship” perspective is also prominent at many schools with required chapel. [xxxii] Desiring the Kingdom, 149. [xxxiii] Ringenberg notes this revival effect compulsory chapel programs, Christian College, 62ff, and Reuben in voluntary chapel schools, Modern University, 119. [xxxiv] In the 1995 campus awakening voluntary attendance at Hope College chapel jumped from a handful of students to nearly 90% of the student body, and student satisfaction with Gordon College’s compulsory chapel program jumped from less than 50% to over 90% in a single year. James C. Kennedy and Caroline Joyce Simon, Can hope endure?: a Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 188-195. Lyle W. Dorsett Timothy K. Beougher, Accounts of a Campus Revival: 1995 (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1995), 139-170. [xxxv] Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education,” 64. R. Judson Carlberg, “The Evangelical Vision: From Fundamentalist Isolation to Respected Voice,” in The Future of Religious Colleges, ed.Paul John Dovre, 231.

References

Balzer, Cary and Rod Reed. Building a Culture of Faith: University-wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012.

Beers, Stephen T. The Soul of a Christian University: a Field Guide for Educators. Abilene, Tex: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008.

Bennie, Robert. Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Budde, Michael L. and John Wesley Wright, Conflicting Allegiances: the Church-based University in a Liberal Democratic society. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).

Burtchaell, James T. The Dying of the Light: the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.

Carlberg,  R. Judson. “The Evangelical Vision: From Fundamentalist Isolation to Respected Voice,” in The Future of Religious Colleges, ed. Paul John Dovre. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Dean, Kendra Kreasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling Us about the American Church, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Dockery,  David S. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society Through Christian Higher Education. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 2007.

Dorsett, Lyle W. and Timothy K. Beougher. Accounts of a Campus Revival: 1995. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1995.

Dovre, Paul J. The Future of Religious Colleges: the Proceedings of the Harvard Conference on the Future of Religious Colleges, October 6-7, 2000. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Kennedy, James C. and Caroline Joyce Simon, Can Hope Endure?: A Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Liftin, Duane. Conceiving the Christian College. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004.

Marsden, George M. “The Soul of the American University: A Historical Overview,” in The Secularization of the Academy, ed. George M. Marsden and Bradley Longfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

__________. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

__________. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

__________. Fundamentalism and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Noll, Mark A. “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education in the early republic,” in Making Higher Education Christian, eds. Joel Carpenter and Kenneth Shipps. Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1987.

__________. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

__________. The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Reuben, Julie A. The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Ringenberg, William C. The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006.

Smith, Christian and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.

__________.  Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.