DIALOGUE, ISSUE 26
"A New Rallying Cry"
Howard Culbertson, Southern Nazarene University
Seven years on the faculty of a coalition college had led this author to the conclusion that the phrase "integrating faith and learning" has failed to captivate the attention of Christian college communities. It may be time for a new rallying cry. This article proposes one: Ministry Across the Curriculum. It is a slogan that actually covers our holistic mission better than does "integrating faith and learning." It is also a slogan that lends itself to better assessment than does the faith/learning one.
We squeezed ourselves into the desks of one of our son's junior high classroom. Funny thing. School desks seemed considerably smaller than how I remembered them.
It was "Parents' Night" at Quisqueya Christian School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Clutching a copy of our son's daily schedule, Barbara and I were spending an evening being herded from classroom to classroom, mimicking in 10-minute segments what Matthew did each day. This was the math segment.
When everyone was seated, the young lady who had smiled at us as we trooped through the doorway asked for our attention. She nervously introduced herself as the math teacher. As she did so, I wondered if the ink might still be damp on her diploma from Wheaton or Dallas Baptist or wherever.
"I'm supposed to tell you how I integrate the Christian faith and mathematics in my teaching," she said. She looked down and hesitated.
"But I don't know what to say," she continued. "I can't see how two plus two can be taught in a way that is distinctly Christian."
Some of the parents chuckled and nodded in agreement. They could not see any specifically Christian way of teaching math either.
Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about that incident. This is my eighth year of teaching missions at Southern Nazarene University. Over these years, I've heard academic deans, department chairs and even fellow professors speak fervently about "integrating faith and learning." I've also watched and listened to students.
Here is the problem: On the one hand, I cannot remember seeing a single student enthralled by the grand slogan that supposedly sums up what we are doing at a Christian college. On the other hand, I have watched students impassively listen to great speeches on integrating faith and learning and then leave the lecture hall as bewildered as my son's math teacher was a decade ago in Port-au-Prince.
Sadly, I do not see our well-crafted phrase captivating incoming students. I do not recall meeting a single new student who said he or she had come to our campus in order to "integrate faith and learning." I have been concerned that I do not hear graduating seniors using the phrase to describe the impact a Christian college has made on them. Even more sadly, I cannot remember seeing very many faculty members enamored enough by the phrase that they use it as a rallying cry.
For a variety of reasons, "Integrating Faith and Learning" has not become , for the SNU community, at least , a vivid, memorable slogan. It was intended to epitomize what we are doing. It was supposed to be an "aha"-moment-maker for young scholars whose hearts also burn with the presence of the risen Christ. Alas, I fear the main thing "integrating faith and learning" produces is perplexity, not passion. For many on our campus, it is simply one more bit of academic jargon to stumble over.
Even proponents of our trademark phrase have sometimes done it great injustice trying to implement it. For instance, there have been well-intentioned, but peculiar attempts by Christian elementary and secondary schools to make the Bible the textbook for every subject, including math. To be sure, one can find some math examples in the Bible (Jesus words about forgiving 70 times seven or John's vision in Revelation of the 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel). But, forcing the Bible to become a math textbook is very artificial. For one thing, you cannot find the complete multiplication table in Scripture.
So, what do we do? Do we keep ranting and raving away, hoping the phrase will eventually catch on? Or should we listen to a cartoon character from the pages of a book given to me a few years ago.
Each year, our department chair, Dr. Roger Hahn, left a Christmas gift on each of our desks. One year, he handed me his gift in person. All nicely wrapped, it was obviously a book.
As he held it out to me, Roger grinned and said: "I hope you won't be subverted by all the calvin-ism in here."
My wife will not let us open Christmas presents early. So I had to take Roger's gift home and wait until Christmas day to understand what he meant. Of course, everyone who looked at Roger's gift under the tree in our home knew that I was getting a book. But, there it sat, awaiting its turn to be unwrapped on Christmas morning.
Christmas day came and I finally got to tear off the wrapping paper. With my family watching me, I expected to unwrap a theology or Biblical studies tome. What I found instead was a book of Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoons. In his delightful syndicated work, Watterson portrays the life and times of a precocious little boy and a stuffed tiger who comes to life in the boy's imagination.
In one of that book's cartoon sequences, Calvin and his friend, Susie, are sitting at their school desks. They are holding papers the teacher has graded and returned.
"What grade did you get?" Calvin asks Susie.
"I got an 'A'," she says.
"Really? I'd hate to be you," says Calvin. "I got a 'C'."
"Why on earth would you rather get a 'C' than an 'A'?"
"I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep everyone's expectations," responds Calvin in the final panel.
One solution to our failure to captivate students with the challenge of "integrating faith and learning" would be to simply emulate Calvin. We could drop the lofty sounding words and retreat into a compartmentalized lifestyle where academia and religion are kept separate (as our culture would like for us to do). We could go back to teaching vanilla math.
This would be an admission that the problem lies in the reality of what we're trying to do. I do not think that is where the problem lies. I think we are doing better at producing authentically Christian scholars than is suggested by our slogan's failure to captivate people.
One problem with the phrase "integration of faith and learning" is that it makes faith and learning sound like equal categories. At times I even visualize eccentric professors placing funnels in students' heads and pouring in one cup of "faith" and then one cup of "learning." Of course, faith and learning are not equal categories like apples and oranges. Faith and learning are not like cake ingredients sitting on a cabinet waiting to be mixed together.
Our Christian faith is far more central and integral to our worldview than is mathematics. In fact, our Christian faith is the core of our worldview (or at least it should be!). Our goal as Christian educators, therefore, is to get students to consciously retain or embrace and sharpen a Christian worldview during the process of becoming competent scholars in some chosen field. We are trying to make sure our graduates do not go through life trying to balance two different worldviews.
A further reason I reject a slogan that makes faith and learning sound like equal categories is that it gives the impression these two items could wind up being separate but equal categories in one person's life. Christian colleges were rightly founded to bring wholeness to young believers' lives, to help them see there is no dissonance in saying "Christian" and "scholar" in the same breath.
Because I think the problem, therefore, lies with our slogan and not in the reality it expresses, I would like to propose a new rallying cry: Ministry Across the Curriculum.
There are several reasons I think Ministry Across the Curriculum has a better chance than "integrating faith and learning" of becoming a vivid, memorable slogan or rallying cry:
Those are some reasons I like Ministry Across the Curriculum as a slogan for Christian higher education. What would it look like, however? What kind of things would we be promoting under this banner? How would we assess whether we are succeeding?
1. Obviously, Ministry Across the Curriculum would make people think of hands-on, field ministry involvements by all students and faculty. It would be things like going to the rescue mission or helping serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. Each year we professors at SNU have to turn in a personal report to our academic vice president. The suggested list of activities we are to report on includes off-campus field ministry involvements. That the school expects us to report on our ministry in these areas implies that such ministry activity is expected of faculty.
2. Ministry Across the Curriculum would not be used to initiate some new program. Rather, it simply recognizes that we intend for an attitude of ministry to permeate all that we do on campus. Stephen Monsma said it well recently: "For a college or university to be truly Christian, a Christian worldview needs to permeate the curriculum."
We've often said that a college cannot be called Christian simply because it has mandatory chapel and prayer before classes. Ministry Across the Curriculum would help us further clarify that. It reminds us that faculty members must be continually conscious that they are believers whether they are doing something that is obviously "ministry" or not.
3. Ministry Across the Curriculum can also be assessed by evaluating the role modeling done by the Christian scholars on the faculty. As Albert Schweitzer has been quoted as saying: "Example is not the main thing in influencing others . . . it is the only thing." Effective Christian scholars are best developed as students see Christian scholarship being modeled by their professors and by fellow students.
Of course, professors not only need to be conscious of the modeling they do, they also need to be pointing students toward other scholars in their discipline who were/are believers. An anthropologist, for example, would want to refer students to the work of Paul Hiebert and Alan Tippett. At the very least, my son's math teacher should have mentioned Isaac Newton's Christian faith.
Ministry Across the Curriculum means that we professors will show students how a Christian worldview has sensitized other believers to certain critical issues in our particular discipline. A sociology professor, for example, will help students see how Christian sociologists have struggled with issues like homosexuality. That is exactly the kind of thing being done, for example, in the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities programs in Washington, D.C. and Hollywood, California.
4. Ministry Across the Curriculum would emphasize our approach to the whole person. Because of their sense of calling, professors at Christian colleges are concerned about far more than simply teaching how to run a business profitably or how to calculate the distance to the sun.
A student's personal spiritual life also carries a high priority for faculty. Because of that, Christian college professors often find themselves praying with and for students.
Recently, for example, I found myself talking to a transfer student in my office. Something she had written in a paper suggested she was struggling with knowing how to establish a relationship with Christ. I wanted to see if I could help her in her spiritual pilgrimage.
We chatted some about the course she was taking from me. I asked her why she had transferred to our school. We eventually got around to talking about her spiritual pilgrimage. Just before we parted, I asked if I could pray with her. Then, as she went out the door, Cari turned to me and said, "No professor ever took the time to talk to me before."
This personal touch by faculty is a uniqueness of which we've long been aware. Ministry Across the Curriculum covers this in a far more direct way than does "integrating faith and learning."
Unfortunately, I'm afraid that our phrase "integrating faith and learning" has sometimes allowed faculty members to choose too narrow an approach in the way they view students. For instance, not long ago I was in a meeting where a professor from another Christian college expressed astonishment that finding a Christian spouse could be considered one of the valid reasons for attending a Christian college.
"We've neglected their minds too long," he pontificated.
That may be true. However, we are committed to dealing with students as whole people. We must not think of them as disembodied minds any more than we should skip over hard intellectual work to concentrate on co-curricular activities. The phrase Ministry Across the Curriculum can keep us from taking too narrow a focus.
5. Ministry Across the Curriculum reminds us of the necessity of stimulating our students to ponder how they define "success" in the light of a Christian worldview. Having Ministry Across the Curriculum as a slogan will make it easy for us challenge students to make "ministry" a key part of their definition of success. We've said that we want our graduates to have more than a thin frosting of Christianity over the same desires and ambitions fostered by our secularized, materialistic culture. Let's, therefore, use a rallying cry that continually calls everyone in the campus community to live the values of the Gospel.
The use of exit interviews, carefully written questionnaires and even the published and unpublished writings of our graduates could help us assess how we are doing at this point. We could also look at the way they choose to exercise their chosen vocation. For instance, do graduates in the medical field express a desire to find opportunities to serve the poor? Are our pre-law graduates looking to serve the underprivileged and dispossessed as well as the wealthy clients?
6. Ministry Across the Curriculum will call us to be not isolated individuals, but rather communities of faith in which scholarship is cultivated and nurtured. The use of the rallying cry I am proposing will be a recognition of how cross-pollenization strengthens us as scholars and as Christians.
We must do more than occasionally peek over the fences of each other's disciplines. There must be the recognition of the teamwork that the whole faculty must employ in developing Christian scholars and change agents. We must recognize the interdependence of our contributions, even as Paul did when he said: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it" (I Cor. 3:6, NIV).
Ministry Across the Curriculum will help us highlight the importance of the networks of fellow believers (students and faculty) which are established during a person's college years.
One may be tempted to "integrate faith and learning" in the solitude of a monk's cell. Ministry can never be done in isolation, however. Our use of that word will presuppose that we are seeking to be active Christian believers in all of life, not dichotomized believers trying to survive in two widely separated worlds: (1) chapel/church and (2) everyday life.
Let's give our students a phrase that will enable math teachers in MK schools to articulate clearly what they are doing. For that slogan I propose: Ministry Across the Curriculum.