Joshua Harris’s Fall and Christian Higher Education

I kissed dating goodbyeIf you, like me, were a kid who was a teenager in church in the 90s, then you know the name Joshua Harris. He wrote THE book on dating, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I confess that I’ve never read the book, but then again, I didn’t need to. We all knew what was in it. Dating was bad. Courtship was good. Romance was dead. Christians should retrieve romance and courtship in their relationships, and all this should be done with a commitment to purity. At the time, it all made perfect sense. In many ways, it still does.

However, there were unforeseen problems. When Harris wrote the book he was only 21 years old—hardly experienced enough to opine about all dating and all relationships. The book also contributed to a broader movement that is sometimes called “purity culture”—a movement which prioritizes sexual purity in the ethics of the young, with the unfortunate effect of both minimizing other aspects of formation (character, charity, mercy, peacemaking, etc.), while idolizing sex and marriage. In some people, it appears—and especially in certain young women of the time—sexual purity came to be seen as a bargaining chip for a good marriage. Save sex for marriage, the logic goes, and God will bless you with both a great marriage AND great sex. Christian teaching undoubtedly holds that sexual purity matters, but to turn it into a kind of bargaining chip for God’s work in your future relationships is to try to leverage God. In this respect, it’s a kind of prosperity gospel: if I do this action in faith, God will bless me.

Like I said, I knew the basics of Harris’s thinking without having read the book, and if the prosperity exchange of purity for future pleasure was taught, I didn’t hear it.

The book, like the 90s, faded into memory, until once again Joshua Harris’s name came across my newsfeed. This time it was 2015, and Harris had announced he was leaving his church to get some formal theological education—something he’d never had, despite serving as a pastor for more than a decade. The reason it was of interest to me was because he would be attending Regent College, the seminary I had attended. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was a great thing. I’m always happy when Pastors get educated.


In the intervening years, Harris’s name popped up again—this time as he began to distance himself from the claims of his famous book. He helped to produce a documentary, called “I survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and eventually formally recanted the teaching of the book and asked the publisher to stop selling it. I read through the information at the time, and felt then that these seemed very much like the moves of someone coming into maturity. Harris was growing up, theologically speaking, and we should all rejoice about this.

I survived I kissed dating goodbyeThese changes weren’t without concern, however. A growing reaction against what had been “purity culture” was growing in the church. Women (it seems to me especially) from the 90s who had grown up on Harris’s logic were frustrated with how it had idolized sex and marriage, and how the realities of those institutions didn’t match up. Perhaps no greater image of the rejection of purity culture can be found that that of Nadia Bolz-Weber, gathering purity rings from her female members and (without any apparent awareness of Aaronic irony) causing them to be melted into he shape of a giant vulva. Those who had sacrificed themselves to purity would redeem the image of the vagina.

Harris emerged again last week, of course, with two subsequent bombshell announcements. The first (through Instagram) that he and his wife would be separating (apparently amicably? a kind of Gwyneth Paltrowian ‘conscious uncoupling’?), the second (also through Instagram) that he had left the Christian faith. Harris’s journey of ‘deconstruction’ (his own word) appears complete.


This was the (cheerful?) picture posted along with the instagram announcement of their divorce.

The news was met with grief (from Christians) as well as joy (from atheists and other former Christians). Naturally, the circumstances invite speculation, as well as unfortunate puns. What happened to Harris? Why did he kiss Christianity (and his wife) goodbye? I don’t intend to answer either of those questions, especially since the answers lie in Harris’s heart, to be discerned between him and God alone. But there are two things I want to point out as frames for thinking about his trajectory—both publicly known. The first is the nature of the church he came from, the second is the nature of Christian Higher Education.

First, Harris’s church home. Harris had been trained, and nurtured, under the direct tutelage of C.J. Mahaney, once powerful and respected megachurch pastor. Harris was, to my understanding, Mahaney’s chosen successor. Over the past several years, Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries has come under serious fire. There was a series of accusations from former members and leadership about Mahaney’s abuse of power and controlling nature, then a series of members (11, I believe) who accused the church of covering up child sexual abuse. The church has denied these allegations, but the fallout has still been immense—Sovereign Grace has lost a number of its member churches, a number of its members, and Mahaney has lost much of his influence (Al Mohler publicly severed ties with him). It was about this time that Harris left his ministry church to pursue education, declaring in a sermon that now he sees there were “flaws in the system.”


C.J. Mahaney

(As a fascinating, if tragic aside, when Rachael Denhollander, the Olympic gymnast, began to speak up about the abuse she had experienced, her church wanted her silenced, and she and her husband were eventually asked to leave their fellowship. That church was one of the churches which worked to restore Mahaney to leadership.)

It seems to me that the Sovereign Grace story is a key component to the trajectory of Harris’s faith journey. He was raised (homeschooled as well) in a very conservative, apparently controlling environment. Tutored under a controlling, apparently power-hungry leader. Educated on the job in a self-protecting institution which hurt its members. Neither Mahaney nor Harris were seminary educated, and it appears (from Harris’s own account) that Christian Higher Education was something actively dismissed by them.

The point is this: we might look at Harris’s story and conclude that he’s left our Christianity, but it seems far more likely to me that he’s left Mahaney’s Christianity. He’s left a Christianity of control, of fear, of rules, of power, of hurt, and of a lack of grace. If this is accurate, then Harris’s honesty (about his faith) is something that should genuinely be applauded. In his public statements he displays a remarkable self-awareness and honesty. Of course, that honesty is marred by two things—one of them being his divorce, which is fundamentally dishonest, the other being the snazzy marketing means of the announcements. Instagram is a weird place to cheerfully declare the destruction of all you publicly held important.

Covenant Life Church_Harris

Harris was pastor at CLC, a Sovereign Grace Ministries Church.

This leaves us with the question of Christian Higher Education. Mahaney and Harris are not alone in their belief that seminary—and with it education—is dangerous to faith. In this, they tap into a longstanding trend in American thinking: that intelligence is dangerous. John Erskine, famous American educator, wrote the following over 100 years ago:

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.

A certain kind of Christian piety continues to hold today that an increase in intelligence is cause for suspicion, that blind obedience is to be preferred to carefully thought-out action. To those pious reasoners, Harris’s loss of faith is easily accounted for: he went to school. If he hadn’t gotten that seminary education, he would have stayed in the faith.

pew+research+center+logoCuriously parallel to this is recent data from the Pew Research Center. In one study last year, they showed that there had been a significant uptick in those who identify themselves as religious “nones”—that is, people who claim no religion at all. “Nones,” Pew astonishingly found, account for as many Americans as Evangelicals. In a more recent study, from just a few weeks ago, Pew showed that Jews, Atheists, and Agnostics outperformed all Christians on tests of basic religious knowledge. One way to tell the story is to claim that education is linked to lack of, or loss of, faith.

While some read these data with alarm, I find it encouraging and challenging news. First, it is encouraging that if more people identify as religious ‘nones,’ then we are equipped with a better understanding of the evangelistic task. If these are the same people who previously identified as “Christian,” but now identify as not, then there is an increase in honesty of reporting. Too long has a kind of cultural Christianity swayed American self-perception. Honest answers frame an honest mission. Second, the gap between education and faith presents itself as a challenge. It appears that Christian education is sorely lacking in American faith. It suggests that, in the command to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we’ve opted instead for the wisdom of doves (and therefore the harm of serpents!).


But with education does come danger. And here we might return to Harris. I remember my own time at Regent, and the laments of my peers about the nature of their own deconstructions—learning that the Church was bigger than expected, learning that the text must be carefully interpreted, learning that the history of the church was more fraught than anticipated (and, in some cases, that it began before 1906). Through it all, the faculty wouldn’t tell you what to believe—that wasn’t the methodology—but would present, and leave the work in your hands. For many students, this new knowledge, combined with the freedom to think for yourself, was simply too much. In this respect, I don’t think the problem was completely Regent’s—I think the problem is the educational state of American Christianity. (And, for what it’s worth, I think Regent could have done a better job of shepherding people through this process.) Once again, I don’t think it’s right to speculate on the shifts in Harris’s heart, but it would not surprise me if he discovered, while educating himself about the Christian faith, that the faith he’d publicly believed in wasn’t quite the Christianity he was learning about. And if that’s the case—in fact, either way—it presents us with a mandate to pray.

“Super Why” is an Abomination that Causes Desolation

Ask any parent, and he or she will tell you that Children’s television falls into roughly three kinds of categories. In the largest, there is a wide swath of mediocre shows, with flashing lights and simple stories, which capture the attention of your children and allow you to clean your kitchen or take a nap. You don’t love letting your kids watch them, but you estimate the value of living in a clean house to exceed the relative inanity of the show.


No comment.

Then, there is a group of shows which are actually really good television. They tell good stories, or have fun concepts, and they’re so good you find yourself watching those shows with your kids and enjoying them. These are shows (at the moment) like Odd Squad, and Peg+Cat. These shows make you feel better about being a lazy slob and letting your kids rot their brains watching the telly. If you didn’t have anything to do, you’d probably rot your brain alongside them.

Then there’s a set of shows which are so stupid, so canned, so awful, that you suddenly understand why people might go insane. They’ve got flashing lights, and colourful characters, and loud music, and your children (who don’t have a discerning bone in their bodies) love watching them in the same way they’ll eat anything made of sugar, no matter how revolting. They are the nightmare fuel of children’s television.

PBS’s Super Why is such a show. And yet, Super Why is even worse.

Super Why_full cast

Super Why, in its most basic sense, is a storybook show which follows a precise pattern for each episode. A group of super friends encounter a problem in their world. This problem will require them to learn a lesson, and in order to learn their lesson they’ll have to “Look, in a book!” (The comma is there because they pause after saying ‘look’.) The super friends then suit up and dive into a classic fairy tale or storybook—Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or something else. The show progresses while they read through the storybook, reading the pages, looking for secret letter clues, and eventually solving the problem of the day. One character is a pig who digs up letters. One is a fairy who helps you spell. All well and good (apart from being mind-numbingly banal).

However, the critical dénouement of each episode is when the story reaches its crisis point. At that point, the hero (whose name is Whyatt) arrives with his special power, and “saves” the day. (Saves is in scare quotes for reasons which will be explicated shortly.) In the episode my children watched the other day, the real-world problem is that the main character wants to eat the same thing all the time. To solve this problem they look in a book called King Eddie Spaghetti, about a king, named Eddie, who only (as you might well guess) eats spaghetti. In the storybook page, displayed on screen, it read that Eddie only eats “spaghetti, and spaghetti, and spaghetti!”

King Eddie Spaghetti

Enter the hero, suited and ready to save the day. He announces, as a preamble to his actions, “With the power to read I can change the story!” (He says this each episode at this point.) He then proceeds to tap two of the three words, changing one spaghetti for beets, and another spaghetti for meatballs. The new sentence reads that Eddie ate, “spaghetti, beets, and meatballs!” Problem solved. Now we can return to the real world with our new secret word, Variety, and solve our problem. Yay!

Or not. Pause, for just a moment, and reflect on what has just happened. We are looking in books to find solutions to our real world problems. When we encounter a possible solution, we don’t actually read, and interpret the book, we’re going to re-write it. What is more, we’re going to sanction this re-writing process by calling it, “The power to read.”

What?! That’s not reading. That’s not what the word means. That’s not how we deal with texts. That’s not how we deal with the world, or people, or problems. That’s not how we manage data, or interpret information. On no account and in none of the possible worlds is that a proper way to deal with a set of data. In fact, it represents the absolute antithesis of what good reading is, and we’ve got a word for it: eisegesis.

Jefferson Bible sources

Thomas Jefferson famously removed sections from his Bible that he didn’t like.


Maybe you don’t know this word. It’s the process of reading what we want into a text, rather than drawing out what a text actually says. It’s the process of projecting our own fancies, desires, and needs onto a body of literature, reforming it into a more convenient package. It’s a bad word. It’s repulsive. You don’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Think plague, Ebola, Chicken Pox.

And yet, eisegesis is the kind of reading being taught to children through the monotonous rhetoric of Super Why. Jack and the Beanstalk? Let’s change the words so that the giant is tired and wants a nap, so that we can teach a lesson about using music to relax. Hansel and Gretel? Let’s change the candy house to a house of vegetables so we can teach a lesson about balanced diets. Humpty Dumpty? Let’s “use the power to read” to get him down safely and change it to a story about encouragement. In each case, a perfectly good story is mangled so that it can communicate an inferior message. And this, really, is just salt to the wound, because rather than finding a story and drawing a lesson from that story, however awkwardly, whatever real value these stories have is pressed through the transforming matrix of banal moralization. In addition to not learning how to read, your child is also being fed a diet of thin and watery stupidity.

Super Why_Variety

Your daily indoctrination.

Texts challenge us. Texts expose us to other worlds. Texts give us insight into other mindsets, other human perspectives, other viewpoints. Occasionally those viewpoints are comfortable; occasionally they are not. But in either case, learning to read is the process of learning what it means to wrestle with that discomfort—of taking texts, as best we are able, at face value; of refusing at all points to edit or change them to our liking, to project on them our own desires or fantasies. And in the end, the way we treat texts is a great deal like the way we have to treat people—each with a perspective, a vantage point, a set of understandings that are different from our own. We are no more permitted to project our desires on other people than we are on texts, and yet the people who do so are considered the worst of us. Imagine speaking to someone about lunch plans. “What would you like to eat today?” “I’d like a cheeseburger.” And his response, “Okay, we’ll go for pie, then.” That’s not listening, that’s simple projection. And that’s the kind of person Super Why is training children to be. It’s abominable.

Sorting Out Fear—BLM, Police, and Everybody Else

Last week, the “Black Lives Matter” movement was freshly galvanized in protests and outrage after two black men, in two separate incidents, were shot and killed by police. Days later, a black gunman in Dallas, Texas, who “wanted to kill white people” opened fire from building windows onto police officers below, killing five and wounding nine others. This in turn triggered counter protests, citing phrases such as “Blue Lives Matter,” and the alternative “All Lives Matter.” These events have resulted in no small amount of confusion, commentary, and rising anger. But one thing is abundantly clear: every party involved is afraid. Black people are afraid. Police are afraid. Pundits are afraid. Opponents of #BLM are afraid. Proponents of “All Lives Matter” are afraid. On all involved, an overwhelming umbra of fear has settled and is taking root. If we don’t begin to address our fear problem, I fear all our solutions will run foul.

blue-lives-matter-moreAt the heart, a pandemic of fear such as this one cripples the self. Fear foreshortens our perceptions, incapacitating us to see beyond our immediate needs for security. All things are measured in relation to my safety, my needs, my understanding of the world. In time, the need for safety and security begins to warp desire. Distrust bred by fear then drives individuals further inward. Where fear rules, humans become small, prisoners of their own limitations, prisoners of their fear as it grows ever larger, becoming tyrannical, dominating every thought and action.

In time fear takes root and begins to govern perception. After all, where fear thrives, so also does distrust, and where distrust thrives, misunderstandings become rampant. From the dominating perspective of my fear I become incapable of truly seeing the other. In this way a pandemic of fear cripples relationships. From the illusory safety of homogeneous enclaves, fear warps my perceptions and makes it easy to judge those “outside,” those who are visibly different. Under the governance of fear, all differences are immediately suspect.

Black Americans are afraid—and however one might argue the origins of their fear, their fear remains real, and in its reality it has shaped and warped perception. Policemen and women in America are also afraid—and once again regardless of the warrants for their fear it is a fear that in time warps perception and shapes identity. Americans uninvolved with either of these groups have submitted to the authority of fear as well, and in fear they are giving vent to anger, taking sides in debates and dialogues, and winning talking points while missing the heart. Until the sources of fear are acknowledged and addressed, no real changes will take place.

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

In all this, Obi Wan Kenobi’s words to young Luke seem relevant, even poignant: “Don’t give in to hate.” The Dark Side looms alluringly in the background, striving to offer a simple solution, to run amok with the adverse passions of emotion. Yet if we would stem the bleeding, I perceive five sources of fear that must be addressed.

1) Ignorance. Fear thrives in a culture of ignorance as fruit flies gather around moldy fruit. Ancient mapmakers marked the boundaries of their knowledge with images of dragons; what was unknown was an occasion for fear. Today, where we are siloed into comfortable communities, arranged by suburb, or news sources, or circles of similar friends, it remains an easy matter to section off the other. Where ignorance thrives, tropes and stereotypes become our only sources of knowledge about others, and stereotypes can grow into racism when an individual clings to a stereotype in the face of new evidence.

Education is a powerful tonic against ignorance. The original Latin word educare means, literally, to lead out. It is the act of drawing out from a student thinking, information, and knowledge; it is to lead an individual out of his own small self-perception and into a broader world of perceptions and thoughts. To educate, then, is the antonym of “to silo.” The power of education is manifestly magnified in these circumstances by friendship—a sincere and prolonged relational “bid” for the other. Such a bid requires humility (I don’t know it all), patience (I’m willing to figure this out), forgiveness (you don’t know it all), and humor (the great equalizer). In fact, if we cannot laugh with one another about our differences, very few strides forward will be possible.

Black and White Children Together2) Bad Information. One of our primary sources of information about world situations and about other people is the mass media, but we are unreflective of the fact that the media has an agenda often at odds with good information. The “news” gives you precisely that—what is new. Not necessarily what is true, or reflected upon, or properly interpreted. From any given event we are offered a headline which proposes to be “newsworthy”—that is, eye-catching, interesting, compelling, and therefore often full of pathos, or tragedy, or outrage. The mass media specialize in presenting its consumers with first judgments. But as the Proverbs state (18:17), “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” In other words, every story sounds good until you hear the other side. The point is this: the media have specialized in offering one side of the story—the sensational side—and leaving off what might bring nuance, complexity, or actual insight. Thus, our perceptions of others are shaped by a continuous barrage of extremes, so that all our evidence falls within the outrageous, and little has been offered by way of counterpoint. In time, these sources of information become mingled with fear, and fear then buffers against alternative perspectives.

The old adage that everything should be taken “with a grain of salt” is true here. But in addition to that attitude of reflective patience, we should also heed Baron von Hügel’s advice to press on toward the “second clarity.” Consider his advice as follows:

…nothing in philosophy, still more in religion, should ever be attempted in and with the first clearness (what, e.g., journalists are content with, and have to be content with), but in and with the second clearness, which only comes after that first cheery clarity has gone, and has been succeeded by a dreary confusion and obtuseness of mind. Only this second clearness, rising up, like something in no wise one’s own, from the depths of one’s subconsciousness—only this is any good in such great matters. And this process is costly, humiliating, and very easily disturbed by rubbishy self-occupations. (Letters to a Niece, 135)

It is a difficult thing to strive for good information amidst the sea of bad, and yet no true answer to our fears can be offered otherwise. In all stories presented to the eye and ear, the discerning heart must strive for the second clearness, and never be content to settle with the first.

Hugging after Prayer

From CNN: Tyler Francis, right, hugs Shondrey Dear after praying together

3) Corrupted Affections. The “affections” refer to the emotional trajectory of the heart, and identify the shaping of the heart’s desires toward certain objectives. The affections are corrupted especially through what is entertained in the heart and through what is presented to the eye. In time, under these twin influences our perceptions are further warped. Cultivated hatred is a corrupted affection—corrupted, because there are things we ought to hate (like the fact that Black mothers have to teach their sons how not to get killed on the street). But instead of hating those things that are worthy of hate, in fear we give permission to hate things that are other, such as hatred of someone different than I, or hatred of civil authorities, or hatred of any other irrational and undiscernable kind. Where the desires of mankind are corrupted, chaos gains a foothold. Where my affections long for illicit things, I begin to project those illicit longings onto other people. Cultivating a spirit of dissatisfaction with life can begin to develop an affection which desires to make others small—I may become a bully. Prolonged feelings of powerlessness combined with a perception of my own deserving worth can cultivate an affection of revenge—I will do all in my power to get what is mine.

The words of Jesus in Luke 6:45 are remarkably appropriate here, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” In other words, what we fill ourselves with in a spiritual, intellectual sense, bleeds out. Gorging our eyes on hateful media, praising criminality, objectifying women, these things corrupt our affections and combine with the overarching spirit of fear to poison hearts and minds alike. Not long ago, Late Show host Jimmy Kimmel produced a comedy spot where famous rappers re-edited their hits with child-appropriate lyrics. NWA’s famous, “F*ck the Police” was reedited to the lyrics, “Hug the Police”—the video showed children reciting the new lyrics while, indeed, hugging police officers. I couldn’t help but wonder, how would our tragic situations in the news be different if, indeed, all our children were singing about hugging the police rather than the alternative? How we train our affections has direct impact on our actions in the world.

Hug the Police4) Identity Disorder. For people who no longer know who they are or where they belong in the world, fear is a natural byproduct. Loss of identity generates loss of certainty. Uncertainty, I believe, compounds with fear and frustrated ambitions to generate outbursts of excessive violence. We kill people in acts of senseless violence because, fundamentally, we have forgotten what it means to be people at all. I intend to write much more extensively on this at a later point, but for now it must suffice for me to say that so long as humanity lives in rejection to its true identity, fear will be rampant, and mass shootings will continue.

5) Bad Fear. Fear itself is not a bad thing. There are things we ought to fear—such as high ledges, boundaries, civil authorities, and prison. But when fear is ascribed to the wrong objectives, we grant those objects power in our lives. Fear, after all, is a form of reverence—what you fear is what you worship, even implicitly. People who fear the other for whatever reason—whether the other be black, white, police, Muslim, LGBTQ, or otherwise—those people are very often giving an undue worship to the very thing they claim to despise. Their fear/reverence has come to dominate their life, their attitudes, their thoughts, their affections. They are turning from a truer humanity to a corrupted, diminished humanity.

The Proverbs again state the “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Retreat from ignorance, accumulation of good information and good judgments, development of proper affections, growing into ordered identities—these are each answered by setting our first fear in the right place. There is only One who is worthy of our fear—God—He who judges, gives life and takes it, and Who in time gives certain restitution for all the wrongs of humanity. But I fear that until our fear is anchored on Him, the pandemic of fear will continue unabated, and the shedding of blood will continue to testify against our unwillingness to grow beyond our fears. I pray for the day, when, rather than fear covering the earth like a flood, the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth, “as the waters cover the sea.”

Christian Education and the Bounded Set

Wheaton MottoI have been privileged to earn degrees from two institutions of Christian higher education. From Wheaton College in Illinois I have a degree in Ancient Languages, and I have a Master’s of Divinity from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Both are institutions committed to a form of liberal arts education. In other words, neither place is a doctrinal or denominational school; instead, both schools are committed to education from a Christian perspective. It is not so much a “Christian” education as it is an education provided by Christians and from a Christian worldview.

Both schools were (and are) places of conviction and faith, and I have positive memories of my experiences. However, my encounters with fellow former students often leave me mystified. In the teeth of the clearly expressed Christian convictions of professors, administration, and the institution, other graduates emerge with barely Christian beliefs. Some employ the tools for clear thinking in which they have been trained in order to think quite poorly. In turn, I am shocked at the number of vocal alumni who hold positions directly opposed to traditional Christian faith, and am further grieved by those alumni who have walked away from their faith entirely. But what might be most startling of all is when these alumni have the temerity to be shocked when the institution itself does not agree with them, apparently projecting back on the institution their own poor thinking. It is as if they didn’t really know what kind of institution they were attending in the first place.

Larycia Hawkins

Whatever the issues with Dr. Hawkins, the responses from Alumni were in many ways far more shocking.

This process was exhibited most vividly in the past months at Wheaton, where the drama surrounding Larycia Hawkins provided abundant opportunity for alumni to voice their opinions of the college. The idea that Wheaton, an historically orthodox Christian college, would discipline a professor who claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God—which as a statement is logically, factually, and historically untenable—was met with rank, ugly, and outright hateful displeasure. Alumnus disavowed the school, condemned the college’s commitment to narrow interpretations of Christianity, accused the administration of fundamentalism, readily labeled the situation as racist and oppressive, suggested that college trustees were simply protecting their financial interests, and any number of other unpleasant volleys as well. And while the recent situation with Dr. Hawkins clearly lays out this difficult situation, it is by no means the only exhibit of this dissonance between alumni and the commitments of these colleges. Many alumni actively wish to reshape these schools into an evangelicalism which reflects their own questionable convictions.

What is it that contributes to creating a situation like this? How is it possible for colleges with such expressly Christian commitments produce alumni with such flimsy Christian convictions? The answer, curiously enough, is perhaps found embedded in the goal of Christian higher education, and further in the unique restrictions which make attainment of that goal possible.

Idea of a Christian College

Terrible cover. Interesting book.

To begin, the goal of Christian higher education is the formation of a Christian mind. A Christian mind is not necessarily a mind filled with doctrine, and the purpose of a curriculum in such an institution is not to complete a kind of doctrinal download. Educated Christians are not people who think “Christian” thoughts, but people who have the capacity to think any thoughts, in any situation, and to bring the Christian perspective to bear on that position and evaluate it accordingly. Ultimately—and I draw here from Arthur Holmes’s thoughts in “The Idea of a Christian College”—the goal of a Christian College is to cultivate students who are hungry for the truth, know and understand that the ultimate truth of all things is found in God, and furthermore can recognize the truth when they encounter it in any subject.

But to make this kind of training possible requires some unique constraints. First, and of extreme importance, the faculty must confess a common orthodoxy. Second, and equally important, the students must have permission to explore any question at all. Together, these two create the necessary conditions for achieving the goal of forming a Christian mind. But they also create the conditions for the troubles outlined above.

The faculty in this scenario provide the bounded set for student exploration. Their confessed convictions become the walls against which aspiring students will cut the teeth of their thinking. This reality can be viewed from several different angles. In the first place, there is the old preacher’s phrase that “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pews.” If the preacher is slightly unclear about something, you can guarantee that the congregation is lost in the fog. Clarity of conviction about the essentials of the Christian faith is an essential for faculty because their clarity must provide the beacons through which students can navigate in their own educational fog. In this, the faculty represent lighthouses—lighthouses that illuminate, yes, but also immovably mark dangers. To extinguish or to relocate a lighthouse is not a mark of intellectual honesty, but rather of imminent criminality. If the faculty can adjust Christian orthodoxy, they will likely shipwreck the faith of the students.


Another angle to consider this limitation is from the perspective of the student, whose free questioning must nevertheless be limited by the firm reality of Christian belief. Without those boundaries, student freedom is actually limited. This was illustrated in a number of psychological studies which set up two scenarios. In the first, children were given a task (for example, to find carrots) in a bounded environment. In the second, children were given the same task in an unbounded environment. The children with boundaries outperformed those without boundaries, and the implicit lesson is this: where there are boundaries for study, students are given permission to press against the reaches of those boundaries. Where there are no boundaries, the student flounders.

That these two conditions serve the goal of Christian education should be now be clear. The Christian mind is a mind formed within a kind of bounded set. We are sent out to explore the reaches of the world, yet while holding to our core convictions and measuring our data against those immovable anchor points of the faith. We are even granted permission to re-explore those anchor points, to query and examine them, precisely because we are convinced that their truth will hold. We are unafraid of questions because we believe the truth of our central witness. This process in turn reflects back onto the nature of faith itself. Each individual is free to accept or reject the Christian witness—we force no one into belief, preserving the central freedom that God has gifted each person in His image. Even the action of evangelism, then, is illuminated by this bounded set—I bring my firm and confessed convictions to any person, equipped to walk alongside them through any question that person might have, unafraid of the queries to my faith. Conviction held in the context of questions is precisely the attitude of the mature Christian mind, the formative goal of Christian higher education.

But if the faculty are bound in belief to a set of convictions, what does this mean for academic freedom? Arthur Holmes once again offers some illumination when he states that “Academic freedom is valuable only when there is a prior commitment to the truth.” In other words, we are free to the degree that our freedom is being utilized to explore, examine, and plumb the depths of the truth. He continues, suggesting that “Academic freedom may be defined, then, as freedom to explore the truth in a responsible fashion, to think, even to make mistakes and correct them” (The Idea of a Christian College, 69). Freedom, thus, cannot be separated from responsibility—responsibility to the pursuit of the Truth, to Christian conviction, to constituency, to the institution that provides the opportunity for these explorations, and also to the parents who have entrusted their children to you for instruction.Responsibility via Wikihow

But these commitments also produce two dangers that I will mention here. The first is that the college administration must enforce its doctrinal convictions without falling into dogmatic traps, that is to say, it must uphold both conditions above. In the complex world of intellectual exploration, and in the reverent world of our ideas of God, there are no truths that cannot be explored with more complexity, depth, and understanding. An administration must allow for this reverent study without stifling exploration. However, it must also be on guard, and here a confessional commitment ought to provide a bulwark against the allure of novelty, the popularity of conflict, and the “publish or perish” attitude that can drive a well-meaning academic into intellectual ignominy.

But the other danger is that the same freedom that makes intellectual inquiry valuable and profitable grants permission for graduates to think what they will. An education which provides the student not with thoughts, but with the opportunity to learn to think, also provides the opportunity for the student to misapply that thinking. Both are expressions of freedom—to think well expresses freedom in one way, to think poorly expresses it equally in another. And this, at last, brings me back to the beginning, where I lamented the attitudes of many of my fellow alumni. They return in their memories to these institutions and map back onto the school their own preferences, projecting their own heterodoxy onto the institution. But what they have neglected in this is the realization that their very ability to critique the college is predicated on the college’s provision of freedom to inquire within boundaries. To take one lesson—the freedom to ask questions—and apply it as a weapon against the other—the need for boundaries—is foundationally self-defeating. If they had their way they would not reform the college, but destroy it completely. God forbid that should happen.

A Call to Elevate Our Discourse

The Problem

If you are at all like me then you lament the ongoing state of Christian creativity, that is, of the specifically Christian imagination as it is expressed in both the public sphere and the Church. Christian cinema, Christian radio, Christian television productions, Christian media personalities, Christian artwork, Christian music—for each discipline appending the label “Christian” has the effect of qualitatively lessening the seriousness and effectiveness of the creative effort. Regrettably, a so-called “Christian” artist is almost universally not a very good artist.

Left Behind

This is an ironic state of affairs, especially since the Christian story truly is the greatest story ever told, tapping into the full range of human emotions and situations, possessing power to reach humans of any background, any socioeconomic status, any stage in life. Strangely, possession of this story has not succeeded (at least in this century) at making of Christians particularly good storytellers. Christians have at their disposal access to the immeasurable depths of the God who created the universe, but settle instead to pander about as intellectual infants. Christians have the capacity to speak with immense cultural resonance, and yet frequently appeal to the merely sentimental. We have the potential to instruct the heart in the depths of the knowledge of God, but instead choose to bludgeon the emotions with saccharine, simplified, and perpetually “safe” content. We have set as our standard the wisdom of doves, and the consequence is that at times our creative efforts are as harmful as serpents.

The Cause

A root cause of this situation is an overarching obsession with utility. In the Christian world, if a thing is not considered directly useful for the gospel, then it is not considered beneficial. To expand on this, if a media form does not fit directly within the narrow confines of a specific area of church life—such as evangelism, encouragement, or instruction—then it is immediately suspect. What use is a painting that doesn’t instruct? If it’s not about a specific Bible story, how can I know it is safe? What use is a song that doesn’t function in worship? What use is a radio station that doesn’t encourage? If a movie has “worldly” content in it, doesn’t that mean it is poisoning my mind and my purity? Our ability to categorize and appreciate creative efforts is thus sharply filtered through a lens which measures the inherent usefulness of the effort. Creativity has been enslaved to utility.

Jesus and the Businessman

This utilitarianism is augmented by a cultivated suspicion of things that are practiced. For some time Christians have concluded (falsely) that something produced by an individual without training is superior to something produced by another individual with training. We elevate the amateur on the grounds that he or she displays a special anointing of the Spirit—in other words, lack of credentials is implicit evidence of the work of God. This was brought into clear focus for me recently when I encountered the following passage in Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching,

As I begin to speak to you about literary style and homiletical construction, I cannot help once more urging upon you the need of hard and manly study; not simply the study of language and style itself, but study in its broader sense, the study of truth, of history, of philosophy; for no man can have a richly stored mind without its influencing the style in which he writes and speaks, making it at once thoroughly his own, and yet giving it variety and saving it from monotony. I suppose the power of an uneducated man like Mr. Moody is doing something to discredit the necessity of study among ministers and to tempt men to rely upon spontaneousness and inspiration. I honor Mr. Moody, and rejoice in much of the work that he is doing, but if his success had really this effect it would be a very serious deduction from its value. When you see such a man, you are to consider both his exceptionalness and his limitations. In some respects he is a very remarkable and unusual man, and therefore not a man out of whom ordinary men can make a rule. ~ Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, 146-147

DL Moody a friend of ECM in the Revivals of 1873 and 1880s026Brooks’s target is preaching, and in his view he has the powerful and popular ministry of D.L. Moody, the uneducated but globally effective evangelist. If we make a model of Moody, appealing to his lack of education to undercut our own requirements, then we are ignoring the uniqueness of Moody. Not all men are Einsteins, but the existence of a single Einstein does not lead us to conclude that any old person can give a lecture on advanced physics. Why then would we assume that untrained individuals are similarly suitable for Christian service? The source of such an attitude, in Christian praxis, is clearly a form of laziness; I will trust in the Spirit, that is, so that I don’t have to do my homework.

Laziness, let us be clear, is a form of utilitarianism. It states that I will only pursue those tasks which I find directly beneficial to what it is that I am doing. It foreshortens our ability to perceive of how the Christian faith might bear impact on a wide range of subjects. To put this another way, the lazy utilitarianism of the Christian mind sets a list of approved subjects for study; then, searching within that list, typically finds only what it looks for. And it is precisely this simplicity that generates simple-minded, emotionally monotonous media as well. Instead, the Christian mind ought to stretch out into the breadths of the world equipped with the depths of Christian understanding. The Christian mind is not a mind of Christian things, but a mind equipped with the mind of Christ prepared to encounter all the things of the world.

A First Repair: Recovering the Breadths of Christianity

How will we go about aspiring to such a mind, breaking the bonds of our utilitarianism? The first way to repair will be to recapture our conviction of the breadths of Christianity. Brooks’s words about preaching therefore bear impact here as well. He challenges ministers (and I extend this to all Christians) to be individuals who read widely and richly, to explore the depths of the knowledge of God as that knowledge is revealed in all the diversity of the world. This is to recover our conviction, in Arthur Holmes’s phrase, that “All truth is God’s truth.” Practically, this means that the particularly Christian attitude is not to assemble the list of preapproved and “safe” subjects for Christian study, but instead to search out how to expand our Christianity into every subject, to attend for those glimmers and glimpses of God’s revealed character as they present themselves to us in each and every matter. Paul, speaking in Second Corinthians to his actions as an apostle, hints at this process in a way that I think is fair to extend here, that “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). We are not specifically in search of only obedient thoughts, but we are striving to bring all thoughts into obedience to Christ.


If such an attitude is right, then it ought to change the Christian approach to art and creativity, thus elevating our discourse in society. Our focus will not be to be good “Christian” artists, but to be good artists who happen to be Christian. C.S. Lewis speaks to this in a talk he once gave on apologetics: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent” (Undeceptions, “Christian Apologetics,” 67). The supremely evangelistic task, in other words, while it is occasionally served by directly apologetical books (e.g., Mere Christianity), is in fact better served by the faithful presence of Christians doing their own individual work well as Christians. We need not Christian movies, but good movies made by Christians with their Christianity informing their work; not more Christian recording artists, but good music made by Christians with their Christianity bleeding out into their songs. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for expressly pedagogical Christian work. Just the other day I listened to some songs which were scripture, set to music for children. But the purpose of such pedagogy—and the purpose, I might suggest, of our public worship and education as well—is to expand the Christian mind so that it can encompass the world. Our education should not narrow, but broaden the mind, and it must begin by remembering that the Christian story envelops the whole of the world, past, present, and future. Until we regain a conviction of those breadths we will fail to effectively speak our depths into the deep needs of the world.

A Second Repair: Recovering a Conviction of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good

A second treatment for our utilitarianism is to recover our conviction of the true, the beautiful, and the good. If Christian creativity is not to be based on its usefulness, then its basis must be some other thing. We must create, in other words, because we are convinced that a thing is true, or that a thing is beautiful, or that a thing is inherently good, and our creative efforts ought to tether back to these factors. And yet it is possible that a key reason why we have retreated from these three transcendentals to the merely useful is because we have become deeply confused about what they are. Just recently I read an article in the Independent about students who struggle to read all their assigned textbooks. The closing quote was illuminating about the state of the human mind, “Lizzy Kelly, a history student at Sheffield added: ‘Students might be more inclined to read what academics want them to if our curricula weren’t overwhelmingly white, male and indicative of a society and structures we fundamentally disagree with because they don’t work for us.’” Books, in other words, are not worth reading on their own merits, nor because they might communicate something true, beautiful, or good, but because they ought to “work for us.” Utility thus assassinates the true.

TheRoadThere is further confusion even in identifying the qualities of these characteristics. A year ago I heard a Christian literature professor give a lecture on the image of God in Cormac McCarthy’s startlingly dystopic The Road. She persistently described that book, which remains one of the grittiest, darkest, books I have ever read, as “beautiful.” Now, I was willing to agree with her that the book was both gripping and theologically compelling, but to describe it as beautiful felt like a profound misapplication of terms. The book was decidedly not beautiful. The language might have been beautiful, and the contents might have illuminated something of the truth of human depravity and God’s faithfulness, but the contents themselves were fundamentally ugly, even hideous. She had confused the true and the beautiful, and the consequence was to muddy our Christian understanding of the world, rather than illuminate it.

I want to suggest that if we have failed to properly identify these characteristics, it is because we have left off educating ourselves in their pursuit. I find myself drawn again and again to the following passage in C.S. Lewis’s magnum opus, The Abolition of Man,

“Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful. ~ C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 28-29, emphasis added)

The point is that we must train ourselves to see those things which are worth seeing. We become hungry and on the lookout for truth, no matter where it might be found. We train our eyes to see the beautiful and strive to find it in all of life. We cultivate a taste for the good and are eager to experience it in all things. We admit complexity and nuance, that God is communicating to all people at all times, reaching out in love through all the world’s corrupted creativity to show something of His glory. And in this way we reject the simplistic, the saccharine, and the safe–exchanging them directly for the true (which is not simplistic), the beautiful (which is never saccharine), and the good (which is rarely safe).

Christian education—that process by which individuals who profess Christ are guided into deepened maturity in all the fullness of Christ, that process by which we are taught to feel pleasure and disgust at those things which are really pleasant or disgusting—is a weakened and sickly thing. We have retreated when we ought to have advanced, circled our wagons when we ought to have gone walkabout. The world is there, each stone eager to declare the glory of God. The furrows of the world are deep, anticipating the clear water of Christ to irrigate and bring forth fresh fruit. But it is only as Christians reject utility and commit to educating ourselves in the true, the beautiful, and the good that we will succeed in elevating the level of our discourse, and thus bring the full weight of our creative potential into the greater service of the Kingdom of God.