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 scholars 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.

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.

Scripture and Culture-Making: What Christian Colleges could Learn from Rabbinic Higher Education

Part 3 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education
“Today’s Christian teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.”
-Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton

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

N.T. Wright concludes The Challenge of Jesus with a challenge of his own to 21st Century Christians:

“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who? And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”

Wright’s challenge begs the question whether or not 21st Century Christian colleges hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in as high a regard as the Jewish educators of Jesus’ day held the Torah. Like Greco-Roman higher education, Rabbinic higher education was deeply devoted to the development of the life of the mind in close-knit learning communities.  However, the distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinic Higher Education was not so much its pedagogy as its remarkable devotion to its subject matter–Torah. Whereas Greco-Roman students were expected to master the ever-changing philosophies of their masters, students in Rabbinic higher education strove for mastery of the unchanging word of God. The “words of Torah were essentially divine.  God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence” (Hirshman, 2009, p. 30).

Faithfulness Before Innovation

This devotion to the word of God resulted in a corresponding commitment to faithfulness versus novelty in Jewish education. “No one was free to choose his own credo or ignore the sage’s mediation in approaching the divine… The way of life was learned, and the worldview the product of particular knowledge and distinctive modes of thinking about and analyzing that knowledge.”  The object of Jewish higher education was “full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it…” resulting a intimacy with the words of Torah” written on the pages of the heart (Neusner, 1999, p. iii). Education, or more particularly, learning Torah, became “the Jewish religious pursuit par excellence…” (Hirshman, p. 3, 30). In short, they were true two handed warriors.

Jewish boys (and many girls) entered Beit Sefer (primary school) charged with mastering the Torah before the age of thirteen. This mastery often extended to the oral memorization of enormous portions of the Torah, as well as rudimentary reading and writing.  After their bar mitzvah, and the corresponding accountability for obedience to the law, the best students were allowed to go on to  Beit Midrash (secondary school, literally, “study house”), while they learned a trade. The Beit Midrash curriculum added the study of the Writings and the Prophets to that of Torah, and more importantly, Talmud, the art of Rabbinic interpretations comprised of both Midrash—inquiry into the sacred texts, and Mishna, the study of oral law independent of its scriptural basis.

Rabbinic Higher Education

Only the most remarkable secondary students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education, by obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi.  Teaching Rabbis made up a “collegium of sages” responsible for applying the law of God in new situations and for passing on the tradition of scriptural interpretation to new students. “Each begins as a disciple of a master, then himself becomes a master to the next generation of disciples, in a long chain of learning” (Neusner, p. iv).

The goal of faithfulness to the word of God drove the master-student relationship and teaching style of the study house. Rabbinic education was consumed with recitation and discussion, not merely because of pedagogical considerations, but also for theological reasons. The Rabbis so reverenced the written words of Scripture, no other texts were considered worthy of study. Rabbinic higher education was an oral culture, perpetrated and preserved by an ongoing high-level discussion that eclipsed even Socratic dialogue in its relentless back and forth nature.

Rabbi Hillel and his Talmidim (Unattributed)

In order to facilitate this dialogue, Talmidim were expected to follow their master night-and-day as they taught their tight-knit band of brothers in the study house, over meals, and in the market place. “Study was a process of unending repetition and ubiquitous recitation that transpired in almost every possible venue” (Chilton, and Neusner, 2005, p. 131-132). A good disciple stuck so close to his teacher that by the end of the day he was literally covered with dust kicked up by his master’s feet (Vander Laan). Through it all, Talmidim strove to attain the prerequisite mastery of Torah, Midrash, and Mishnah necessary to become sages themselves so that they too could join the unbroken chain of faithfulness. (For an outstanding discussion of 1st Century BCE Rabbi Hillel and his application to 21st Century culture making, see, Joseph Telushkin’s, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)

From Studying Scripture to Making Culture

Most importantly for our discussion, the goal of this remarkable devotion to the word of God was not privatized faith, but culture making. Rabbinic education was birthed in the cultural crisis of the Babylonian captivity and is certainly the best human explanation of how Jewish culture survived the Diaspora. While Moses commanded the night and day impartation of Torah to the next generation, leading Torah historian, Wilhelm Bacher, notes that Nehemiah’s reading the Torah before the post-exilic community in Jerusalem was the actual “birthday of ancient Jewish education” (cited in Hirshman, p. 121.) Jewish leaders were painfully aware of their society’s need for leaders soaked in the culture-making power of the word of God. “According to the Rabbinic ideal, all of Israel would be teachers, and ultimately masters, of Torah” (Chilton, p. 46). Only then could Jewish society reflect Torah in justice, charitable acts, gifts of first fruits and sacrifices (Hirshman, p. 19).

When the cultural chips were down, Rabbis had the courage to contrast the culture-making power of the Jewish study house, not with the Greco-Roman education, but with the theatre and circus, “pitting the two against one another on the level of popular culture” (Hirshman, p. 121). In most Roman cities the circus/theater and beit Midrash were within blocks of one another. However, unlike the Romans, Jewish commitment to the word of God led to a stronger emphasis upon education than entertainment. Romans flocked to bread and circus, while Jews gathered to study. The Rabbis were confident that, in the end, their deep culture would triumph over Rome’s shallow culture. The beit Midrash had helped them endure the cultural onslaught of Babylon and Persia. Rome would be no match for them. And while the process took much longer than they could have ever imagined, it was a strategy that stood the test of time.

 

From Deuteronomy to the SAT

Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)
Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)

It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to envision how this principle might apply to twenty-first century educators seeking to develop two-handed warriors fluent in both faith building and culture making. Entrance into Rabbinical higher education required an oral recitation of the entire Torah. Entrance to most Christian colleges today requires little more than an SAT score of 1500.  Entrance to early American liberal arts colleges required a comprehensive grasp of the English Bible. Graduation from most Christian colleges today requires little more than a rudimentary understanding of Scripture. Is it any wonder that pop culture is shaping our students more than their faith?

Whether one is referring to Catholics or Protestants, today’s ‘Christian culture’ is a mile wide and an inch deep. Education is losing out to entertainment at every level. As much as I value the culture-making force of the entertainment industry, the arts nearly always follow the intellectual currents of the day (Hunter, 2010, p. 87-88), and the only intellectual current flowing in pop culture today is a narcissistic, consumer-driven, individualism.

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s research into America youth culture discovered that, “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” As a result, “a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives.” Their worldview is little more than “moralistic, therapeutic, deism,” or more specifically, “whatever.”

For Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities to be of any value in helping our faith communities resist this pop culture onslaught and grow into vibrant culture-making institutions ourselves we need to return to the wisdom of the Rabbi’s—a rigorous devotion to the word of God. Like Chaim Potok, the sages of the Rabbinic school might dare ask the leaders of today’s Christian colleges, “Do you have faith in the word of God?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. Our curriculum and campus culture certainly don’t appear to reflect that kind of faith. At least not in comparison to the Rabbinic schools.

Yet I suspect that our best hope for prevailing in the struggle for the souls of our colleges and universities may be engaging in a Rabbinic commitment to the mastery of the worldview-forming, character-shaping narratives of Scripture. I am not talking about a lightweight devotional band-aid, but an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching student-teacher dialogue that dominates our campus culture and captures the hearts minds our students. Anything less may result in a cultural exile from which we will never return.

Chaim Potok gave voice to a more modern expression of this sentiment in his novel, In the Beginning: “If the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

As N.T. Wright challenges us: “If the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?  If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

 

Next post in the series: With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God.

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To read series from the beginning go to:

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: Two Handed Higher Education.

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Notes

Wilhelm Bacher, Tradition und Tradenten in den Schulen Palästinas und Babyloniens: Studien und Materialien zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Talmud. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1966).

Bruce Chilton, and Jacob Neusner, “Paul and Gamaliel.” In, Alan J. Avery-Peck, ed. Review of Rabbinic Judaism. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

Marc G. Hirshman, The stabilization of rabbinic culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: texts on education and their late antique context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

James Davidson Hunter, To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Jacob Neusner, The four stages of rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 1999).

Chaim Potok, In the beginning. (New York: Knopf, 1975).

Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian life in history and practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

Ray Vander Laan, Stephen Sorenson, and Amanda Sorenson. In the dust of the rabbi: 5 faith lessons. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006). See also, Ray Vander Laan’s excellent website, Followtherabbi.com.

N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: rediscovering who Jesus was and is. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.)