This review is of a book that focuses on the student’s end of the process of Christian learning, asking what it means to be a Christian learner. The review was published in Journal of Education and Christian Belief, vol. 13, 1 (2009): pp. 96-97. The book is available here.
Donald D. Opitz & Derek Melleby, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007 ISBN 978-1-58743-210-1 pb 144 pp.
With an explicit nod in the title and introduction to George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby aim to open the invitation to the Christian scholarly project to students as well as faculty. Supported by an online collection of ideas at www.academicfaithfulness.blogspot.com [Note: this seems to have languished since 2010] and a Facebook group, this slim volume seeks to orient beginning college students to their studies in a way that connects their faith to their learning and does justice to both.
The book opens by considering the problems with two common ways of imagining college, dubbed “Beer and Circus” and “Grades and Accolades,” suggesting that while both recreation and academic success are good things, they are all too easily made into idols. The next several chapters aim to lay out some basic starting points for becoming a student who is committed to serious learning, critical Christian reflection, and rounded personal growth. Reflections on the educational experiences of the biblical Daniel and his friends are used to ground a call to resist the culture of the secular campus. The approach taken to Christian learning involves appeal to the framing unity of the Christian story and exhortation to examine ideas encountered in college critically in the light of this story. The Christian story is summarized under the headings of creation, fall, redemption and consummation, and these are further correlated with integration (of faith and learning, of fragmented knowledge, and of knowing and doing), idolatry (as reflected in academic ideologies), investment (committing to learning as an avenue to service), and imagination (nurturing the prophetic impulse to envision society other than it is at present and work for transformation). The closing two chapters outline a range of practices that Christian students can adopt to enable growth into academic faithfulness, which is consistently presented as a long-term process requiring time, effort, and community. These practices range from prayer and fellowship to attentiveness and writing for multiple audiences.
This book differs in several ways from some other recent volumes apparently addressing similar goals. First, it is genuinely written for the average beginning college student, rather than leaning to the highly academic and philosophically inclined. The prose is lively, readable, and very accessible, and is punctuated by anecdotes and comments from students. Second, it does not attempt to induct the student into particular theories of the academy or philosophical debates (such as a critique of modernism or postmodernism), but instead settles for pointing students in the direction of connecting their faith and their learning without prescribing many of the intellectual outcomes. Third, the task of being a Christian scholar is not presented solely in terms of developing Christian concepts and positions, but includes a focus on practices that span the devotional and the educational.
The authors repeatedly remind the reader that they are only pointing to the way ahead in an introductory manner, and not trying to give an overview of Christian scholarship or a complete account of Christian scholarly activity. Perhaps inevitably, especially taken together with the book’s brevity and chatty style, this leads to some generalizations that readers already versed in the Christian scholarly debate will find too quick. Elements such as the claim that “A Christian perspective is fundamentally different from every perspective that is not Christian” (88), or the assumption that the Bible is best reduced to a single Story, and that in Christian learning we can “simply apply the contours of the biblical story to the challenge that is before us” (70), will at the very least require much more nuance as students move on to engage more closely with Christian learning. Whether these are inevitable simplifications that can be explored further at a later stage once students are engaged, or whether more space should have been given to other ways that Christians are thinking about the faith-learning connection in order to avoid the impression of a monolithic project is for readers to decide. I suspect that students who have had little or no prior introduction to the idea that there is a calling to be a Christian student that goes beyond extra-curricular religious activities will find the book a helpful and engaging place to start, even if it is transcended in certain ways by deeper reading; I also suspect that the authors might be happy with this outcome.