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.)

Four More (BIG) Reasons Young Adults Quit Church, by Christian Piatt

Part 5 in series A Place of Our Own: How Millennials Who Have Given Up on “Church” are Redefining Faith and Re-engaging Community

by Christian Piatt

There has been a surprisingly positive response to the article I published yesterday: “Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church.” And as I noted, it was hardly a comprehensive list. There were several others I thought were worth noting if I’d had the room, so I thought I’d continue with the same theme today.

And as I said in yesterday’s article: 

  • Although the answer(s) vary from person to person, there are some general trends that I think apply in most cases, and;
  • In the list below, when I refer to “we,” “I” or “me,” I’m referring to younger adults in general, and not necessarily myself.

#8 – We Don’t Want to Be “Talked At” Any More

There’s a very strong case that can be made for the value of sermons. Jesus did it. There are times when someone in a position of expertise has something they need to share with a group, and the best way to do it is didactically. But what if people stop listening?

I asked a friend of mine, who is a minister, if he was planning to attend an upcoming conference. He said no, not because the content was off-base, but because he said he couldn’t tolerate more passive learning environments where he sat back and was a receptacle for more information.

Our daily realities are becoming more interactive. Compare the passivity of reading your daily paper with the engagement a blog offers. We expect to be able to take part in the learning process now, rather than it being so one-sided. More churches are going with a model that reflects this, dispensing entirely with the traditional sermon. I’m not sure this is the answer, but more active engagement in one’s discipleship is a must going forward. (See, J.R. Miller’s post on Flipping Theology.)

#9 – Christians Are Seen As Hypocrites

From the scads of TV evangelists busted for impropriety to Catholic priests sexually abusing children under their care, there’s a face on Christianity in the media that says one thing and does another. Though this is hardly the baseline for all Christians, there’s a phenomenon of human consciousness that tends to seek out examples that reinforce existing stereotypes. Things that don’t align with our prejudice get filtered out. The result: everywhere we look, we see examples that reaffirm what we already thought about Christians.

This may not be fair, but it’s reality. And the only thing that tends to change a social stereotype as embedded as this one is a concerted, collective effort to break the prejudice wide open, not with a competing media campaign or by shouting louder. Rather, it happens one person, one story and one relationship at a time. It’s the same way other stereotypes are dismantled, so why should Christians be any different?

#10 – Church Seems to Lack Relevance

We are swimming in the wake of a self-help tidal wave that swept through Western culture over the past thirty years. This, combined with the custom-built media universes we’re able to construct for ourselves now, reinforce the question: How does this affect me in my life today?

But at the heart of the Christian message is a counter-cultural theme, particularly in today’s culture: it’s not all about you. This can be a tough sell. After all, who really wants to hear that it’s not all about them? And there are plenty of pandering prosperity gospel types who will opportunistically affirm that it is all about us after all.

But it’s not.

That said, we still to have to be mindful in church about waxing theological, while neglecting to identify with the humanity of the people around us in our congregations. At the heart of this connection is story. Not just telling them, but also making space for others to share theirs. And when I say “story” I’m not talking about some inspiring anecdote you plucked form a forwarded email; I’m talking about your story.

If you haven’t already, go listen to the recordings that are part of National Public Radio’s Story Corps project. It is the narrative of a culture, longing for meaning, belonging and to feel something. Church can do the same; we just don’t often enough.

#11 – Nobody Looks Like Me

A young adult commented on my first post on this subject, published on the Sojourners website, that they tried really hard in college to find a faith family that felt right. But despite visiting many churches, she said that all she seemed to find were older people, families with children and a handful of youth, but no other young adults like her. After that it didn’t matter how good the music, the sermon or the coffee were. She didn’t feel like she belonged, so she left.

This long-standing chicken-or-egg conundrum has been a challenge for churches for a long time. It’s kind of like trying to get credit when you don’t have an established line of credit. Where do you start?

First of all, you don’t start by hoping they wander in on Sunday mornings and magically feel comfortable, surrounded by people unlike them. Look into concepts like the ministry of “third spaces” meeting off-site, or spontaneously organizing “hang outs” to help people connect. But I can tell you that we don’t have to look any further than ourselves when wondering why young adults feel marginalized.

My wife, Amy, and I published a book about young adult spirituality a few years ago called “MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation (clearly and outdated title now, but what can you do?). We were frustrated when it was labeled on the back of the book as a “youth” book. Why? Because there was no such thing as a Young Adult section in most bookstores and catalogs.

Still wondering why YAs feel ignored?

 

Next Post in Series: 15 Reasons I Left Church, by Rachel Held Evans

 

Read Christian’s Blog 

Follow Christian on Twitter: www.twitter.com/christianpiatt

 

Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church, by Christian Piatt

Part 4 in series How Millennials Who Gave Up on Church are Redefining Faith and Re-engaging Community.

by Christian Piatt

From time to time I revisit the question: why are young adults walking away from religion? Although the answer(s) vary from person to person, there are some general trends that I think apply in most cases.

In the list below, when I refer to “we,” “I” or “me,” I’m referring to younger adults in general, and not necessarily myself.

#1 – We’ve Been Hurt

I can actually include myself in this one personally. Sometimes the hurtful act is specific, like when my youth leader threw a Bible at me for asking the wrong questions. Sometimes it’s rhetorical, either from the pulpit, in a small group study or over a meal. Sometimes it’s physical, taking the form of sexual abuse or the like. But millions claim a wound they can trace back to church that has never healed. Why? In part, because the church rarely seeks forgiveness.

#2 – Adult Life/College and Church Don’t Seem to Mix 

There are the obvious things, like scheduling activities on Sunday mornings (hint: young people tend to go out on Saturday nights), but there’s more to it. In college, and before that by our parents, we’re taught to explore the world, broaden our horizons, think critically, question everything and figure out who we are as individuals. Though there’s value in this, it’s hyper-individualistic. But Church is more about community. In many ways, it represents, fairly or not, sameness, conformity and a “check your brain at the door” ethos. This stands in opposition to what the world is telling us is important at this time in life.

Perhaps an emphasis on a year of community service after high school would be a natural bridge to ameliorate some of this narcissism we’re building in to ourselves.

#3 – There’s No Natural Bridge to Church

Most teenagers leave home, either for college, to travel, work or whatever after high school. With the bad economy, this number is fewer, but it’s a general trend. But the existing model of church still depends on the assumption that communities are relatively static, and that the church is at the center of that community. Not so anymore. When I went to college, I was contacted by fraternities, campus activity groups and credit card companies, but not one church. The only connection I had with religion was the ridiculous guy who (literally) stood on a box with a bullhorn in the union garden and yelled at us about our sinful ways. I could have used support in how to deal with my own finances for the first time. I could have used a built-in network of friends. I would have loved a care package, an invitation for free pizza at the local restaurant or help with my laundry. What I got was the goof with the bullhorn.

#4 – We’re Distracted:

I shared a video by Diana Butler Bass in a recent post about a priest who took his Ash Wednesday service out onto the street. When people saw him, they reacted as if they had been shaken out of a deep sleep. “It’s Ash Wednesday!” they said with surprise as they asked for the ashes. “Lent is starting!” It simply wasn’t on their radar. It’s not that we don’t care; we have so many things competing for our limited time and attention that the passive things that don’t offer an immediate “interrupt” get relegated to the “later” pile. And we rarely ever get to the “later” pile, which leads me to the next point…

#5 – We’re Skeptical

We’re exposed to more ad impressions in a month today than any other previous generation experienced in a lifetime. I’m sitting in a hotel room writing this, and in this room (which I paid for in part to have privacy), I see more than a dozen marketing messages. If I turn on the TV, they’re there. Pick up my phone, they’re there. Online…you get the point. So whereas generations before us expended energy seeking information out, now it comes at us in such overwhelming volumes that we spend at least the same amount of energy filtering things out. This leads to somewhat of a calcifying of the senses, always assuming that whoever is trying to get your attention wants something, just like everyone else.

#6 – We’re Exhausted

I was lumped in as pat of the Generation X group, also known as the Slacker Generation. This implied, of course, that we were lazy and unmotivated. But consider how many of us go to college, compared to generations before us. And consider that the baseline standard for family economics requires a two-income revenue stream to live in any level of the middle class. Debt and credit are givens, and working full-time while also trying to maintain a marriage, raise kids, have friends and – God forbid – have some time left for ourselves leaves us with less than nothing. We’re always running a deficit. So when you ask me to set aside more time and more money for church, you’re trying to tap already empty reserves.

#7 – We Don’t Get It

Young adults today are the most un-churched generation in a long time. In many cases, it’s not that we’re walking away from church; we never went in. From what I can tell from the outside, there’s not much relevance to my life in there, and I’m not about to take the risk of walking through the door to find out otherwise.

I’ve tried to offer insight into what might be done about a few of these issues as I went, but I invite you also to sit with the tension of not having the answers. Better yet, seek some young adults out, ask them if they relate to these. And see if they have ideas about what you (maybe not even “church” but you) can do to help relieve some of the challenges.

I think the conversation that follows might pleasantly surprise you.

Next in series: Four More (BIG) Reasons Young Adults Quit Church, by Christian Piatt 

 

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Follow Christian on Twitter: www.twitter.com/christianpiatt

Top Posts of the Year: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Paparazzi originally premiered in the celebrity issue of Mars Hill Graduate School's The Other Journal

It’s hard to believe that Two Handed Warriors has only been up and running for two months.  I cannot thank you enough for all the encouragement and support.

I started the blog in hope of fostering an ongoing conversation for professionals committed to both culture making and faith building. You have exceeded my wildest dreams.  Conversations have evoked marvelous responses from audiences as diverse as Ivy League professors, Hollywood executive producers, seminary deans, college students, pastors, student development professionals, campus ministers, film and television writers. Thank you!

According to Word Press Paparazzi in the hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture was the second most viewed post of the last two months.  However, it might really deserve to be #1 given the three follow-up posts it prompted: Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi, Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi, and guest post by TV writer Chris Easterly, Icons of Heroic Celebrity.

Bottom line: Paparazzi really seemed to hit a nerve. It turns out that there is a great deal of angst out there regarding how to maximize the potentialities of the electronic age without being drawn into the “dark side” of self-promotion. So this January I’ll be posting on ongoing series on Servant Leadership in an Age of Celebrity in hopes of teasing out the issues involved.  (Watch for the first post, “Lost” Lessons of Leadership: Sawyer, Jack and the Power of Gun, next week.)

I would love your feedback and questions in order to shape the conversation and explore if it is worthy of a future book project. (I SO appreciate all the emails directly to me, but if you could find it in your heart to post comments on the site it would help foster a broader conversation.)

Thank you again for letting me into your head over the past 60 days.  Lord willing, it is the beginning of a genuine community of two handed warriors in Hollywood, the Ivy League and beyond.

Happy New Year!

Gary

PS Special thanks to Identity Specialist, Lem Usita, as well as to Jon Stanley and the staff of THE OTHER JOURNAL for all their help in conceiving and lauching this project. Thank you to Chris Easterly, Kathy Bruner, Shun Lee Fong, David McFadzean, David Ridder, Dennis Ingolfsand, Peter Kapsner, Rich Gathro, Jack Gilbert, Clyde Taber, Brennan Smith, Jim Hull, John David Ware, Robb Kelley, Todd Burns, Bob Cornero, Tom Provost, Carol Shell Harris, and Michael Warren for helping get the conversation started. Thank you also to Scot McKnight, Key Payton, Keri Lowe, David Medders, McCoy Tyner, Ralph Enlow, and Ken Minkema, for their personal encouragement, professional input, and help in getting the word out. I never could have made it without you all!

Higher Education Responses to “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God”

The goal of Two Handed Warriors is to foster an ongoing conversation seeking to redefine, re-envision, and then reconstruct the relationship between faith and culture. Toward that end, I am posting a few responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God from leaders in the educational community in hopes that it might spur others to join the conversation. (Tomorrow, I will post responses from leaders in the Hollywood community.)

They raise some important questions both those who build faith and those who create culture, and more importantly, for those who do both.

Please read Paparazzi and jump into the conversation,

Gary

This is an interesting and colorful piece that nicely fits the Mars Hill venue. Scholars such as Frank Lambert and Susan O’Brien have pointed to 18th-century evangelicals’ ability to use media and communications productively, though their opponents became pretty expert as well–and there’s the rub.

Your overarching moral–that Christian leaders today should not be quick to dismiss the media, provided a proper perspective is maintained–is well taken. But of course the ability to maintain a balance between being as wise as the serpent and innocent as the dove is, I fear, a razor’s edge that few can walk on without being seriously cut eventually.

Kenneth P. Minkema
Yale Divinity School
Editor, The Works of Jonathan Edwards
Director, The Jonathan Edwards Center

Great article! I’ve struggled with this in my own career, and sometimes wonder if being overly concerned about self-promotion has limited my influence for the sake of the gospel.  (Have you seen the latest Leadership Journal?  It’s theme is ambition in pastoral ministry.) Thanks for fueling that inner conversation.

David A. Ridder
Dean and University Vice-President

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Wow! I thought your article was excellent (no, I’m not just saying that to be polite.)   Rarely do I read articles that have such an immediate and significant shift in my thinking. I am the kind of person who would not even do very much to promote my own book because I have been uncomfortable with the idea of Christian self-promotion. Nor have I advertized the church I pastor very aggressively for the same reason.

In “one fell swoop” so to speak, your article made me see that as long as I am honestly seeking the glory of God and not just prideful self-promotion, I really should be more engaged in promoting and marketing.

Dennis Ingolfsand
Department of Biblical and Theological Studies
Director of Library Services
Crown College

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An excellent intersection of Truth with popular culture, without being minimalist: although the Message hasn’t changed, delivery and methodology must change in light of evolving cultural activity.

Richard L. Gathro
Dean, Nyack College, Washington D.C. Campus and The Institute for Public Service & Policy Development

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.WOW. Once again on this journey of faith I find myself confronting my own presuppositions. “Celebrity”, to me, conjures up images of red carpets, impeccable looks, and throngs of fans. Words like power, fame, and influence follow such people. “Celebrity” is therefore something to be avoided among those who follow Jesus as it is indicative of hubris and conceit.

However, you have redefined the word for me and I find my presuppositions changing. Understood differently, Jesus is the ultimate celebrity as he has been “exalted to the highest place.” His influence, fame and power are far beyond that of the most gregarious Hollywood figures. However, his fame and power came from the virtues of surrender and humility as well as the great paradox that ‘death begets life.’ We need not be ashamed, therefore, should “our name be known” for the right reasons.

Given this, I find myself captivated by your brief reference to the celebrities of Hebrews 11 as well. My wife and I recently discussed how we should initiate our children. We’ve decided we are not initiating them as Kapsners, Minnesotans, Bethelites, or Americans – as important as those stories might be. Instead, we want them initiated into the “great stream of eternity” that includes the stories of those who have gone before. Without the celebrities of Hebrews 11, we would know far less of the Eternal Narrative to which we belong.  But they are there. They stand.  They ask us to enter the story with them. And they beckon us to follow.

Thank you for pointing out the importance of the celebrities of our faith.

Peter B. Kapsner
Biblical and Theological Studies
Bethel University

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I think you’ve done a great job of balancing scholarly and popular appeal. Your research on Whitefield and Edwards appears thorough and reliable, and your writing style is totally engaging and accessible. I think your article was quite refreshing as you asked us to reconceptualize these historic figures as fitting the four-step framework for celebrity. You certainly had me reassessing my perceptions of these characters:)

I’m laughing as I write this, but my self-deprecating, anti-celebrity-seeking Norwegian heritage just won’t let me buy the 2nd half of the article. From the limited perspective I have on Edwards, I thought he delivered the “Sinners/Angry God” sermon in a feeble voice, hunched over the podium, reading the text with little eye contact or enthusiasm. And yet his pathetic performance led to an unprecedented (at least in that place) outpouring of the Spirit with people wailing in the aisles. If celebrity resulted, it was not because of Edwards’ performance, although his written text was certainly persuasive. I guess I’ve read history the same way as those who believe that celebrity is not to be sought. I’ve also watched and written about televangelism enough to think that the godly pursuit of celebrity or, frankly, even the pursuit of leadership, is so often thwarted by Satan preying on our sinful natures that I question whether readers will be able to pursue the preparation for celebrity in noble ways. Could your thesis unwittingly give some readers a license for self-centeredness?

In my Media, Faith & Culture class, I have students read Malcolm Muggeridge’s classic radio address about whether Jesus would have used the mass media. My classes typically conclude that Jesus, who became a celebrity, did not seek celebrity. Rather he often sought time alone with the Father to refocus on his Father’s will, not retool his public relations strategy. They often point out how celebrity earned him many enemies and ultimately death. Will those readers preparing for their time in the spotlight be willing to suffer or die if necessary? Your apparent optimism about celebrity-as-good-thing may be too Hollywood or maybe just too American for readers from the third world church.

Interestingly, when you ask me to reconceptualize modern celebrity and even call ordinary people like me to it, my conscience says no. It could be my own sin nature saying, see…there’s your justification for greatness. I can’t figure out how to embrace the idea with humility because I know myself too well. Thanks for this very revealing reading!

If you want to spark some lively debate, I think this is just the ticket. Curmudgeons (like me?!) could have a field day. I hope all of them think as highly of you as I do.

Kathy Bruner
Assistant professor of Media Communication
Media Communication program Co-chair
Taylor University