Author: Glanzer, Perry L
Date published: January 1, 2012
Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Christian World. By Philip W. Eaton. Downers Grove, IL: JVP Academic, 2011. 203pp. $18.00.
In this volume, PhUip Eaton, president of Seattle Pacific University, adds to the growing Uterature addressing Christian higher education. Eaton's book proves original m that he spends Uttle time conversing with this Uterature. Instead, he attempts to set forth his own unique vision regarding the role of a Christian university m a postChristian culture.
This role, he beUeves, is important because the contemporary secular university proves deficient m a variety of ways. It lacks coherence because it provides no compeUmg or unifying story to guide us. Thus, we should not be surprised that the secular university is both losing its cultural influence and jettisoning the task of moral formation. The consequence for the larger culture is that it leaves us, in Matthew Arnold's words, with "neither joy, nor love, nor light/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pam" (p. 74).
Eaton, a Uterature professor by training, often picks passages from contemporary works that help iUumine the consequences of these problems in the university and the larger culture. He uses Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons to Ulustrate the hedonism mto which secular coUeges and universities have fallen. He draws on Ian McEwan's Saturday to expose the hoUow hope of a rationalistic and materialistic neurosurgeon (a type simUar to that which inhabits contemporary neuroscience departments). Ui this postChristian world, we are dealing with forms of nihiUsm and violence, which, as the sheriff says Ui No Country for Old Men, "we reaUy ain't never seen before."
Although Eaton's literary illustrations prove powerful, perhaps one of the limitations of using this literature is that it often provides rather stark portrayals of a culture without God instead of revealing the subtle ideological enticements the godless university actually offers students. Perhaps Eaton's lack of familiarity with higher education literature leads to this oversight. To paraphrase Chesterton, it is not that secular universities, students, or others in a postChristian culture merely stop believing in God or Christianity; they start believing in all kinds of other things. Thus, the university offers an array of powerful ideologies related to gender, race, sex, and politics to help fill the God-shaped void that the literature Eaton cites does not adequately capture.
To Eaton's credit he does much more than critique the contemporary cultural landscape. He devotes half the book to exploring some broad themes that provide a positive Christian vision of what a Christian university can be. The temptation for the Christian university, Eaton contends, entails attempting to separate from this culture, focusing on intellectual formation alone or using politics to retrieve the Christian culture of the past. Instead, he charges Christian universities with engaging the culture, setting forth a vision for holistic formation, and moving beyond political solutions.
To start, he suggests that Christian universities must cultivate a biblically formed, spirit-inspired imagination "to see beneath the surface of things, to see God's iUuminating presence shining out when we least expect it" (p. 107). Christians can then learn the language of their home culture and engage it with vigor. Such engagement involves building a culture of trust and not merely suspicion, cultivating communities formed by the reading and study of scriptures, modeling grace-filled community, and integrating theology into the whole of the university. Eaton presents these suggestions in engaging and winsome ways, drawing upon a variety of literary figures, such as Gerald Manly Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and Czeslaw Milosz, and biblical scholars, such as Richard Hays, N. T. Wright, and Walter Brueggemann.
What is surprising about the second part of the book, especially given Eaton's ao_iiinistrative role, is the lack of concrete examples of what a positive Christian vision might look like on an actual college campus. In fact, it is notable how few examples Eaton takes from actual university practice (his own or other Christian universities). Thus, Christian university leaders will find inspiration to help stir their imagination, but they will not find examples that could bring these dreams into reality. For example, Eaton's suggestion that Christian colleges and universities cultivate communities of trust and not merely suspicion deserves serious consideration, but he only suggests the road to take and does not give us guidance as one who has traveled along it.
Finally, readers of the Journal of Church and State wiU note how Uttle attention he gives to the increasingly difficult legal culture facing Christian higher education. Although setting forth broad visions may be helpful, recently proposed federal guidelines, as well as otUer legal developments, wiU make the reaUzation of such visions increasingly compUcated. Although America has traditionaUy contained numerous Christian coUeges and universities, but leaders of Christian higher education wiU need to consider more than generalized difficulties U they hope to survive.
Perry L. Glanzer
Advance Access PubUcation 19 December 2011