The Future of Christian Higher Education

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a Baylor conference on Christian higher education. I used the story of Ben Franklin and George Whitefield’s debate about the purposes of Franklin’s “Academy of Philadelphia” (see my post on this topic here) as an illustration to make several observations about challenges for Christian colleges and faculty today. A portion of my remarks are below. “My first observation is that those of us who are believers teaching at Christian institutions are especially well positioned to address issues of belief and spirituality. Our students obviously need some good shepherding on these matters, but the watching world also needs lots of believing scholars to be able to represent the promise and pitfalls of faith across the disciplines. Of course, there’s always room for strong Christian scholarship that makes no direct connection to faith—such as believing mathematicians or physicists whose work does not warrant frequent mention of the Lord in their publications, but who do their work to his glory. But it should be no surprise or embarrassment that many believing scholars and teachers will gravitate toward matters related to religion, virtue, and related topics. My hope is that Christian scholars, indeed, will have a winsome testimony by producing some of the highest-quality, most incisive and critical work on religion—I think of examples like the late Jean Bethke Elshtain in political philosophy (Elshtain’s library is now housed at Baylor, by the way), Alvin Plantinga in philosophy, and George Marsden (my doctoral adviser) in history as people who have garnered the highest recognition within their disciplines as people of open Christian profession. Aspiring to that status, and actually doing it, are of course not the same thing. But it can be done. If we don’t do our part, the gap will be filled by Christian popular… Read More

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Israel and the Role of Place in Christian Faith

My family and I recently returned from our first trip to Israel. We went with a group led by pastors from our church, Highland Baptist in Waco. As with so many who have gone to Israel, we found the trip to be spiritually invigorating and challenging. Seeing the archaeological digs, historic sites, and memorial churches gave vivid images and texture to places that I once only had vague (and often incorrect) impressions of. Caesaria Philippi, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee and many more locales will now come with a host of vivid memories when I come across them in my Bible reading. The remnants of the pagan Temple of Pan at Caesaria Philippi. Wikimedia Commons, public domain. As Christians, we are not spiritually obligated to make pilgrimage. Most Christians in the world will not ever have a chance to visit Israel in this life, though we Christians all hope for the future New Jerusalem [Revelation 21]. As Christians, we also believe that our faith can and is fully incarnated in cultures around the world, so we do not have the kind of connection to a specific place (or language) as do Muslims to Mecca and Arabic, for instance. Nevertheless, going to Israel reminded me of the utter importance of place to Christianity, especially in its Jewish roots. Being in Israel helped me to see that my upbringing in an American Christian context and longstanding familiarity with the Bible had taken away some of the radical edge of the Bible’s claims about what actually happened in ancient Israel, especially surrounding the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. If we forget about the grainy textures of particular places, we drain some of the immediacy of the miracles of the Bible. It is one thing to acknowledge that miracles happened long ago and far… Read More

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George Whitefield’s Gospel-Centered Hymn Book

We think of George Whitefield primarily as a preacher, but hymns were central to his vision of godly devotion and practice. Indeed, he and his associates became notorious for singing too much. One group of critics wrote in 1745, “We think the practice of singing hymns in the public roads, which . . . Mr. Whitefield and his companions in travels did, when riding from town to town, is . . . a piece of weakness and enthusiastical orientation.” I recently read Mark Noll‘s delightful chapter “Whitefield, Hymnody, and Evangelical Spirituality” in the book George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy, edited by Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones. (Before you complain about the price of the book, please read this.) Noll focuses on Whitefield’s popular hymn book A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1753), which went through dozens of editions and was used extensively among white and African-American evangelicals in Britain, America, and the Caribbean. You can see the whole 1758 edition here, in Google Books. In preparing this volume, Whitefield was functioning as an editor and curator of songs by prominent hymn-writers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Following Watts’s example, the hymns featured innovative meters and poetic framing of biblical themes, rather than the older Protestant tradition of simply singing the Psalms. They included a few titles that will be familiar to most readers today: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Alas, and Did Our Savior Bleed?,” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Not surprisingly, Watts’s hymns occurred the most of any author in the collection. Beyond Watts and Wesley, the hymn writers reflected a remarkable range of Protestants, from High Church Anglicans to pietist Moravians. The authors included at least one female author, the Moravian Anna Dober, and two Catholic writers of earlier eras. The range of authors… Read More

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Primer on an Evangelical Classic: “The Life of God in the Soul of Man,” by Henry Scougal

The short classic The Life of God in the Soul of Man originated as a private letter of spiritual counsel to a friend, but author Henry Scougal (b. 1650) allowed it to be published a year before he died in 1678 at the age of 27. Sixty-eight years later, in the spring of 1735, Charles Wesley (1707–1788), whose mother Susanna had commended it to her sons, gave a copy of this little book to his friend George Whitefield (1714-1770). Upon reading it, Whitefield was convinced he “must be born again, or be damned.” Whitefield testified that he “never knew what true religion was” until he read this book. Who Was Henry Scougal? Henry Scougal was a Scottish minister, theologian, and author. Upon his graduation in 1665 from King’s College, University of Aberdeen, the 19-year-old was appointed professor of philosophy at the school. In 1673, after a one-year pastoral stint, he became professor of divinity at King’s, where he served until he died of tuberculosis five years later, just shy of his 28th birthday. What Scougal Means by “True Religion” By “true religion” Scougal means something like authentic spirituality or genuine Christianity. He is at pains to defend the term from common misconceptions among Christians. “I cannot speak of religion,” he writes, “but I must lament that, among so many pretenders to it, so few understand what it means.” Three Places Where Religion Does Not Reside Scougal identifies three places where religion is incorrectly located. (1) Theological correctness. Some place religion “in the understanding, in orthodox notions and opinions; and all the account they can give of their religion is, that they are of this or the other persuasion, and have joined themselves to one of those many sects whereinto Christendom is most unhappily divided.” (2) Moralistic reductionism. “Others place it in the… Read More

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50 Years Ago: The Supreme Court Strikes Down Bans on Interracial Marriage

Mildred Jeter of Central Point, Virginia, was only 16 years old when she became pregnant for the first time. Her child, Sidney, was born on January 27, 1957. In June 1958, now age 18, she discovered she was pregnant again. This time the father was 22-year-old bricklayer and construction worker Richard Loving, whom she had become friends with when she was 11 and he was 17. The couple traveled 100 miles north from their hometown to Washington, D.C., where it was legal for an interracial couple to marry. Richard was Caucasian. Mildred self-identified on the marriage application as “Indian”—specifically,  Cherokee and Rappahannock, one of the ten state-recognized Native American tribes in Virginia. (Later she would also say she was “part Negro.” Years after that she would say, “I am not black. I have no black ancestry.”) At that time, 16 states prohibited interracial marriage (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia). Only 10 states allowed it (Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont). Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924—which passed the same day as the Eugenical Sterilization Act, allowing the state to involuntarily sterilize the mentally unfit and others—had introduced two changes for the Commonwealth of Virginia: (1) Everyone born in the state was required to receive one of two racial designations: “white” or “colored,” with any degree, even “one drop,” of African-American or Native-American ancestry counting toward the latter—although there was a loophole for the Virginia elite who traced their ancestry back to Pocahontas and John Rolfe. (2) The anti-miscegenation ban on interracial marriage was tightened to include criminalization for violation. Miscegenation is word coined in 19th-century America from the Latin misce[re] (to mix) + gen[us] (race, stock, species). A week and a half after they were married,… Read More

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Civil Religion and FDR’s Prayer on D-Day, June 6, 1944

When the Allies at long last launched the invasion of France in 1944, President Roosevelt explained D-Day in religious terms. Indeed, he did so not in a speech, but in a prayer for the soldiers and the nation. The prayer is the epitome of all that is good, and all that is problematic, about American civil religion. Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph. They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home. Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. And for us at home—fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas – whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them – help… Read More

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This Is Your Life: Missionary to Ecuador Rachel Saint and Huaorani Convert Dayuma (June 5, 1957)

Here is an interesting evangelical cultural artifact from sixty years ago, when Rachel Saint (1914–1994)—missionary to Ecuador—appeared on the NBC television show “This Is Your Life.” The set-up for the program was that host Ralph Edwards would surprise his guests by providing a retrospective of their lives, including appearances by their friends and family. The young woman accompanying Rachel on this program was Dayuma (c. 1930–2014), who was born into the Huaorani tribe but had left for a season to assimilate with the Quechua people. Members of Dayuma’s immediate family were among those who killed the five missionaries—including Jim Elliot and Rachel’s younger brother, Nate—just 17 months earlier—attempting to evangelize the Huaorani people through Operation Auca. Dayuma was the first member of the Huaorani tribe to convert to Christianity and was instrumental in helping Rachel and others study and translate the “Huao Terero” language for the first time. Unsurprisingly, the host Ralph Edwards is clearly uncomfortable communicating with through translation to someone who does not speak English and does not understand American culture, and he displays many of the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural insensitivites one would expect from this time period. You can watch the half-hour show below: [embedded content] [embedded content] Rachel, trained by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and sent by Wycliffe Bible Translators, first served in Peru but moved to Ecuador in February of 1955 when she was 41 years old. The same summer that this television program was filmed, Rachel and Duyuma also appeared at Billy Graham’s Crusade at Madison Square Garden on July 7. In May of 1958, they returned to Ecuador, where Dayuma reunited with her family. In 1973, SIL sent anthropologist James Yost to investigate Saint’s work in 1973, and the resulting report was quite critical of her methods. In 1976, SIL asked… Read More

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When the Ku Klux Klan Tried to Shut Down Religious Schools

On June 1, 1925, the Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings ever on education and religious liberty. In its unanimous decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court struck down one of the most obnoxious state laws in American history, a 1922 Oregon statute that would have forced all children between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public schools. What makes that Oregon state law especially strange is that it was the brainchild of the Ku Klux Klan. We might be puzzled at the Klan’s involvement—wasn’t the Klan just a Southern thing? And didn’t they just target African Americans? Well, the Klan was certainly strong in the white South. In its manifestations during Reconstruction (1860s-1870s) and during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan’s terroristic tactics in the South were typically directed toward outspoken or politically active African Americans. But the 1920s saw a different kind of Ku Klux Klan that, though it remained hostile to blacks, directed much of its fury at immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews. Much of the Klan’s strength in the 1920s was in the Midwest and West, especially in urban areas that had large numbers of recent immigrants. The “Klansman’s Creed” in the 1920s ended with the declaration that “I am a native-born American citizen and I believe my rights in this country are superior to those of foreigners.” Klan leader Hiram Evans gave a speech before an audience numbering in the tens of thousands at the Texas State Fair in 1923, explaining why Jews, Catholics, and African Americans could never be “assimilated” into white Protestant American society. His speech became a popular Klan pamphlet titled The Menace of Modern Immigration. In addition to his derogatory comments about blacks and Jews, Evans explained that Catholics could never… Read More

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What Most Historians Have Gotten Wrong about the History of Pro-Life Activism

Historian Daniel K. Williams, in Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, 2016): Most histories of postwar American politics say almost nothing about the millions of Americans who opposed abortion before Roe v. Wade. They do not mention the African Americans in Detroit, the Lutheran wheat farmers in rural North Dakota, or the Catholics in Midwestern parishes who mobilized on behalf of the unborn at the beginning of the 1970s. They do not discuss the pro-life movement’s success in defeating abortion liberalization proposals in dozens of state legislatures and ballot initiatives in 1971 and 1972. Nor do they include much information about the pro-life movement’s failures in the late 1960s—or its quiet successes a few years earlier. Williams explains what most histories of postwar American politics do instead: [They] treat the pro-life movement—if they mention it at all—only as a reaction against Roe v. Wade, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, and the growth of federal power. . . . This consensus has largely been established by historians of abortion rights activism, and the activists they study have almost invariably understood the motives of their opponents. As a result, historians have mischaracterized both the chronology of the pro-life movement and its ideological origins. Williams shows why this is wrong: Pro-life activism actually began decades before Roe v. Wade or the formation of the National Organization for Women. And it originated not as a conservative backlash against individual rights, but as a defense of human rights for the unborn. Williams goes on to look at the consequences of getting the history wrong: Because historians have misunderstood the pro-life movement’s origins, they have been unable to explain why it remains a potent political force today, long after other socially conservative, religiously inspired causes, from Prohibition to… Read More

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Why and How John Piper Does Biography

Historian John Coffey, in an insightful, critical analysis of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s use of history, noted: Few pastors have displayed such a sustained interest in both reading and promoting church history, though a similar emphasis can be seen in the writings of the contemporary American Reformed pastor John Piper, who shares many of the same passions as Lloyd-Jones. One accomplished historian at an evangelical seminary does an opening lecture for his PhD seminar on historiography entitled, “Is John Piper a historian?” Looking at Piper’s approach to and use of history can be instructive. I will attempt to summarize and evaluate Piper’s use of history as a means of edification for the Christian life. Piper’s Attraction to Biography Piper’s relationship to biography can be analyzed in accordance with his use of biographies for his own spiritual nourishment and his production of biographies for the edification of others. “Biographies,” Piper writes, “have served as much as any other human force in my life to resist the inertia of mediocrity.” Upon becoming pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1980, Piper sought out biographies in order to charge his “pastoral batteries” and to give him both guidance and encouragement. There was a season in his pastorate when Warren Wiersbe’s Walking with the Giants and Listening to the Giants greatly encouraged him in his work. “The main reason these collections of mini-biographies have been helpful is that they showed diversity of pastoral styles God has chosen to bless. There have been great and fruitful pastors whose preaching patterns, visitation habits, and personalities were so different that all of us may take courage.” Piper recognizes that “many of the most faithful and fruitful missionaries are almost completely unknown, except in the all-important books of heaven. But the lives of some have been recorded on earth.” Piper expresses gratitude for… Read More

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Ben Franklin and George Whitefield Debate the Purpose of Education

Ben Franklin and George Whitefield were a true odd couple in the history of 18th-century friendships. Whitefield was the greatest evangelical preacher of the era, while Franklin called himself a deist and doubted basic points of Christian orthodoxy. As I show in my new religious biography of Franklin, Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin about his need to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. “He used indeed sometimes to pray for my conversion,” Franklin recalled, “but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard.” Franklin and Whitefield’s clashing ideas about faith also became an issue in the founding of the Academy of Philadelphia, a predecessor of the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin’s hyperactive mind was always planning new ways to do good. By the early 1740s, he had begun to toy with the concept of an academy for Philadelphia. After some failed earlier attempts, in 1749 he published a note in the Pennsylvania Gazette explaining the need for a school where the colony’s youths could receive a “polite and learned education.” Evangelical Presbyterians, allies of Whitefield, had founded the College of New Jersey (what became Princeton) in 1746, but it was originally located some 80 miles from Philadelphia. Franklin hardly envisioned the academy as a sectarian seminary, anyway. Statue of Benjamin Franklin in front of College Hall. Matthew Marcucci, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. Drawing on John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), Franklin’s Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749) laid out plans for the academy, with educational goals of virtue and practical service. Theology and ancient languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Latin) were de-emphasized. English grammar was a primary emphasis, because it was more useful than “foreign and dead languages,” Locke had written. Historical studies, however, remained at the center of the curriculum. History, unlike Greek and Latin, inculcated practical values.… Read More

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On This Day in 1926: The Scandalous Disappearance of Preacher Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944) was a flamboyant, controversial, immensely popular preacher who the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel—a Pentecostal denomination which still exists today (with 1,600 churches and a quarter of a million members and adherents in the U.S.; and 75,000 churches with 8.7 million members and adherents in 136 countries). Ten years ago, Matthew Avery Sutton, the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor and Graduate Studies Director at Washington State University, produced a fascinating study entitled Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007). More than a standard biography—like Edith Blumhofer’s Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister or Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson—Sutton’s work not only tells the story of Sister Aimee but also explores her theology, culture, influence, and legacy. It is a fascinating work that I highly recommend. The PBS documentary series American Experience based their Sister Aimee on Sutton’s book. He kindly answered a few questions about this enigmatic figure of fundamentalist-evangelical-Pentecostal history. I keep thinking of the tag line for the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series that begins, “What if I told you. . . .” If they did one for Aimee Semple McPherson, perhaps they’d say, “What if I told you that one of the most famous fundamentalist preachers of the 1920s and 30s was not a man but a woman, and not just any woman, but one who went through two divorces and who became something of a sex symbol.” So how did something like that happen in that day and age? It happened precisely because of the day and age. McPherson represented so many trends of the era. She helped drive the rise of a new mass media, celebrity culture. She launched her career on the heels of the first wave of feminism and the coming of woman suffrage. And she embodied—in every way—the… Read More

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Should Donald Trump Be Removed from Office?

In light of the revelations about Donald Trump ostensibly revealing classified intelligence to Russian officials, and asking James Comey to back off the Michael Flynn investigation, some conservatives (not to mention liberals) are raising the possibility of having Trump removed from office. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat has provocatively floated what he calls the “25th amendment option,” instead of impeachment. A president, Douthat argues, must possess “a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control. And if a president is deficient in one or more of them, you can be sure it will be exposed. Trump is seemingly deficient in them all.” David Brooks similarly argues that Trump is fundamentally childish. Douthat notes, “A child cannot be president. I love my children; they cannot have the nuclear codes.” For Douthat, these deep deficiencies rise to the level of a need for removal. He advocates employing the 25th amendment, which offers a scenario where a president can be deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Others have called such talk dangerous and elitist. What should Christian readers think about the possibility of removing Trump from office? Obviously, we should work and pray for a government that functions as well as possible, while also being realistic about the limitations of any human institution. Whatever we think about President Trump, we should certainly be praying for him and his administration in these troubled times. Anyone who has followed my writing knows that I was in the #NeverTrump camp in the fall, and Trump’s presidency has given me little reason to re-think my opposition to him as the Republican nominee. Aside from some impressive appointments, including what… Read More

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The Ultimate Imperative

Introduction Having spent quite some time thinking about the New Testament’s use of the imperative mood, and after exposing what a wide range of meanings it is used for, from requests to military-style commands, my thoughts turned to what could be called the ultimate imperative. Which is, of course,God’s own use of the command. The proclamation which does not ask for obedience because His word in and of itself has power to achieve what it declares. For example, the creation word which begins the whole Bible, and the book of Genesis – the book of ‘beginnings’. “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”(Genesis ch 1 vs 3) That’s some imperative. Literally, it says “LIGHT – BE!” We just don’t have the tense flexibility to represent it properly. When you think about it, this is command at a level which is not possible for humans at all. Only God’s word can accomplish what He sends it forth to do – without agency. When we humans issue commands, we are completely dependent upon someone else receiving our command and executing it – an ‘agent’. Even if it is just the dog! Another living being has to be the recipient of the command and decide, whether coerced or not, to fulfill it. Without which, it doesn’t get done. But God doesn’t have that restriction at all. The Faith Factor  In fact, the whole essence of faith is the realisation that everything depends on this invisible word of the Almighty. Hebrews tells us: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (ch 11vs 3) That can only be ‘seen’ by faith. It’s a tacit realisation that this is the way things work. Mind-blowing, isn’t… Read More

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