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.)

Partnership not Persecution: A Modest Proposal for the Future of China and her Christian Intellectuals

Why the current spiritual awakening on Chinese campuses may offer China with its best hope for a future of peace and prosperity.

If China’s political leaders forswore persecution and instead looked to partner with Christian intellectuals committed to a ‘faithful presence’ theology, the implications for China’s future could be earth-shaking.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD | Senior Editor

Obama’s current visit to China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit and his call for improved human rights in China at the same time when Chinese officials are in the midst of a crackdown on both student protests in Hong Kong and student-filled Churches in Beijing has thrown a media spotlight on the future of Christianity in China among its young intellectuals. (See, The rise of Christianity in China and Cracks in the Atheist Edifice.)

The Great Wall stretches for over 4000 miles, nearly as wide as the current divide between China’s government and her Christian intellectuals.

While the government has worked hard to erase public memory of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, images of crowds and tanks continue to haunt Chinese officials, especially in light of the global phenomena of social media driven revolution. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Political analysts have speculated that the government crackdown is a reaction to the protests across the Middle East, which leaders here fear could encourage similar uprisings.”

Since university students played a key leadership role in those protests, it is only natural to assume that Christian university students are a potential threat to political stability in China. However, as the number of Christians in China begins to surpass the number of communist party members, the broad spiritual awakening on Chinese campuses could actually offer a bright hope for peaceful engagement of Christian intellectuals in the future of Chinese culture-making. (See, Vibrant Faith Among Future Chinese Culture Makers: Christians Now Outnumber Communists, especially on Campuses.)

By working against a new generation of Christian leaders on many of China’s leading universities, the Chinese government may actually be working against the very intellectuals who might become their strongest allies against an Egyptian-style revolution.

A Call for ‘Faithful Presence’ Among Chinese Christian Intellectuals

While some Chinese Christian intellectuals may indeed choose to embrace “power-based” approaches to culture-making, many espouse the “faithful presence” advocated by University of Virginia Christian public intellectual James Davison Hunter. Based upon Jeremiah’s prophesy to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, Hunter calls for Christians to “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”[1] (See, CT’s excellent interview with James Davidson Hunter below.)

While written for the American cultural context, Hunter’s ‘faithful presence’ theology clearly applies to China’s current political situation as well.

Hunter’s faithful presence approach to culture-making emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. As Hunter asserts in his Oxford University Press volume To Change the World:

“If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”[2]

While Hunter wrote ‘To Change the World’ for the American cultural context, his ‘faithful presence’ approach to culture-making is clearly applicable to China as well.

The presupposition that the goal of Christian intellectuals is regime change is as mistaken as it is foolish. Christians intellectual leaders primary concern is only that “the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[3] They serve to remind God’s people to follow the scriptural admonitions to: (1) “be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,”[4] and, (2) pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.”[5]

Do you not need such citizens to make China great?

A Call for Restraint Among China’s Government Officials

Sadly, the current government crackdown could force Christian intellectuals into the unenviable position of choosing revolution over cooperation. As former Wheaton College professor Dennis Ockholm asserts: it is not Christians but governments who force the church to choose between “Christ Against Culture” and “Culture Against Christ” positions. [6] The last thing the Chinese government should do at this time is force their Christian intellectuals into this a position of cultural opposition.

Crackdown or Cooperation? Police usher worshippers onto bus at the site of a planned outdoor prayer service led by the Shouwang Church so popular with Christian intellectuals and top university students

Instead, I would propose that the Chinese government pursue a different strategy altogether. When Jerusalem’s first century political leaders first faced the powerful social-disruption often caused by Christian spiritual awakening, their initial instinct was a crackdown similar to current events in Beijing–incarceration, inquisition, and threats.

However, Gamaliel—a wise and honored leader—proposed a different strategy: let the Christians alone. He said in essence, “If the Christians are wrong, then their movement will eventually collapse on its own. However, if they are right and we persecute them, then we may not only find ourselves on the wrong side of history, we will be the ones who lose in the long run.”[7] Sadly, Gamaliel’s counsel prevailed only the briefest season when Jerusalem’s leaders quickly returned to their reign of terror—a reign that only served to strengthen and spread Christianity across the Roman world. Still, Gamaliel’s counsel is very much in keeping with the wisdom of China’s ancient tradition of the responsibility of each regime to act virtuously toward their citizens lest they lose their Mandate of Heaven to rule.

Two hundred years of Christianity in China have only proven the wisdom of Gamaliel’s counsel concerning Christianity in China. When Mao Zedong made it his personal mission to eradicate the one million Christians in the Middle Kingdom, the intense persecution he sponsored only served to strengthen and scatter Christianity throughout China. Today there are no less than 87 million Protestant and Catholic Christians in China, and no reason to believe that their numbers won’t continue to grow.

A Partnership for Peace and Prosperity

If China’s political leaders forswore persecution and instead looked to partner with Christian intellectuals committed to a ‘faithful presence’ theology, the implications for China’s future could be earth-shaking. Under-girding Communist egalitarianism and Confucianism ethics with the soul-strengthening power of authentic Christian spirituality could result in exactly the kind of revolutionary society the communist party first envisioned when it came to power.

Contrary to current Beijing policy, the specter of 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square is the best reason NOT to keep Christian intellectuals at arms length.

Such a synthesis might even form the foundation for the same kind of greatness that supported American society in its earliest days. The United States was not founded as a ‘Christian nation,’ so much as an unusual fusion of Christian ideals and Enlightenment intellectualism. America’s Christian/Intellectual synthesis (now nearly completely abandoned) helped form one of the strongest nations in history.

Might a similar synthesis be key to China’s future peace and prosperity?.

The World’s Next Great Nation

Western civilization is cracking under the weight of a rampant materialism made possible by our own failure to produce Christian citizens. It is a moral failure we invited upon ourselves by jettisoning our own Christian/Intellectual synthesis. And it is the same materialism that now threatens to devour China’s youth as well.

The moral strength provided by genuine Christian intellectualism could help shape the People’s Republic of China into the greatest nation on earth.

Yet in your very midst is the one community who might yet possess the key for a different future for China. Don’t destroy them. Embrace them. Foster an ongoing dialogue between government leaders and Christian intellectuals. Trust will be hard-won on both sides. But with so much at stake, it is trust that simply must be forged. Perhaps invitations to include top international Christian intellectuals might eventually enrich the conversation. [8]

No matter who the conversation partners might be, they need to listen carefully to one another in order to find the peace and prosperity so desperately desired by Christians and Communists alike. Who knows what fruit such a conversation might bear?

Who knows what a great nation might emerge from such a partnership?

 

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Faithful Presence

James Davison Hunter says our strategies to transform culture are ineffective, and the goal itself is misguided.

Interview by Christopher Benson in Christianity Today

Over two decades have passed since Allan Bloom’s famous polemic, The Closing of the American Mind, shook up the American academy. The time is ripe for another shakeup. Enter James Davison Hunter, whose latest contribution, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World(Oxford), promises to shake up American Christianity. An endorsement for Bloom’s book applies just as well to Hunter’s: It “will be savagely attacked. And, indeed, it deserves it, as this is the destiny of all important books … Reading it will make many people indignant, but leave nobody indifferent.”

Hunter, professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, is author of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America and The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America’s Children.

To Change the World comprises three essays. The first examines the common view of “culture as ideas,” espoused by thinkers like Chuck Colson, and the corrective view of “culture as artifacts,” as recently argued by Andy Crouch in Culture Making. Both views, argues Hunter, are characterized by idealism, individualism, and pietism.

Hunter develops an alternative view of culture, one that assigns roles not only to ideas and artifacts but also to “elites, networks, technology, and new institutions.” American Christians—mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical—will not and cannot change the world through evangelism, political action, and social reform because of the working theory that undergirds their strategies. This theory says that “the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals—in what are typically called ‘values.’ ” According to Hunter, social science and history prove that many popular ideas, such as “transformed people transform cultures” (Colson) and “in one generation, you change the whole culture” (James Dobson), are “deeply flawed.”

The second essay argues that “the public witness of the church today has become a political witness.” Hunter critiques the political theologies of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, showing that unlikely bedfellows—James Dobson, Jim Wallis, and Stanley Hauerwas—are all “functional Nietzscheans” insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals “the dark nihilisms of the modern age.”

The third essay offers a different paradigm for cultural engagement, one Hunter calls “faithful presence.” Faithful presence is not about changing culture, let alone the world, but instead emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world,” Hunter writes, “it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”

Christopher Benson, a writer and teacher in Denver, Colorado, spoke with Hunter about To Change the World. Benson’s work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christian Scholar’s Review, Image, and The City. Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, assisted in the interview…

CT: How does your paradigm of cultural engagement differ from the others?

JDH: All the paradigms speak to authentic biblical concerns. Yet the desire to be relevant to the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be defensive against the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on one hand, aggressive and confrontational, and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. And the desire to be pure from the world entails a withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. In contrast to these paradigms, the desire for faithful presence in the world calls on the entire laity, in all vocations—ordinary and extraordinary, “common” and rarefied—to enact the shalom of God in the world.

Christians need to abandon talk about “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” and “changing the world.” Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.

Continue Reading

 


[1] The Prophet Jeremiah: chapter 29, verse 7

[2] Hunter, James Davison.  To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[3] The Gospel of Matthew: chapter 6, verse 10

[4] The Apostle Paul’s Letter to Titus: Chapter 3, verse 1.

[5] The Apostle Paul’s First Letter to Timothy: Chapter 2, verse 2. (See also, 1 Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7)

[6] “Culture against Christ,” Evangelical Theological Society, San Francisco, November 1992.

[7] The Book of Acts: Chapter 5, verses 33-39

[8] Conversation partners as diverse as James Davidson HunterMiroslav Volf, Vishal MangalwadiGeorge Weigel, NT Wright, etc.