Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education

By Ronald A. Wells (ed.)
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1996). viii + 152 Pages.

Reviewed by
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 135-136

Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, once advised a colleague, “Colleges and schools of learning are to be cherished and encouraged, there to breed up a new stock to furnish the church and commonwealth when the old store are transplanted.” (“Advice to Sir George Villers,” The Works of Francis Bacon, [Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1851], 2:378). Bacon’s admonishment to cherish the colleges that train up the next generation of leaders is reflected in Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education. Edited by Ronald A. Wells, Professor of History and Director of the Calvin C enter for Christian Scholarship, this series of essays is important, not only to the Calvin College community, but to Christian higher education in general. Calvin College’s scholastic reputation, evidenced by its Center for Christian Scholarship, is viewed as a paradigm of Christian academic and scholastic excellence (cf. Wolfe & Heie, “Sample Models,” Slogans or Distinctives: Reforming Christian Higher Education [University Press of America, 1993] 46). Keeping Faith is a series of commemorative essays honoring the installation of Gaylen J. Byker as the eighth President of Calvin College. As such, these essays provide reflections both on Calvin College’s historical and theological heritage and on contemporary issues under discussion within Christian higher education, notably gender issues, secularization, social justice, and the place of popular culture. The essays commemorate the institution’s past, present realities, and future hopes as Calvin College launches into a new presidential era.

Following a brief editorial introduction, an inaugural sermon, a commemorative poem, and a presidential address, Keeping Faith launches into a series of essays addressing a relatively diverse set of topics and challenges to Calvin College specifically and Christian higher education generally. Potential readers will likely gravitate to those that interest them personally, as was the case with this reviewer. Several of the essays appear in various forms in other works. For example, Bratt and Well’s historical essay entitled “Piety and Progress: A History of Calvin College,” also appears in Hughes and Adrian’s Models for Christian Higher Education (cf. J. Gregory Behle, review of Models of Christian Higher Education: Strategies for Success in the Twenty-First Century, by Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian [eds], The Master’s Seminary Journal 9 [Fall 1998]: 234-36).

Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education offers the reader several intellectually stimulating essays that signal possible future directions for Christian institutions. The work is interspersed with references and illusions to Calvin’s historical and theological heritage which provide some coherence to the diverse essays offered. As the subtitle of the book suggests, the central essays reflect “tensions” within Christian higher education. Though the book is a mix of inaugural commemoration and institutional reflection, several of the essays attempt to project beyond Calvin College to broader issues impacting all Christian colleges. Gallagher’s essay “‘Once More Upon the Breach, Dear Friends’: Gender Studies and the Christian Academy” raises the issue of the present status of gender studies in the Christian liberal arts context. Monsma’s essay, “The Supreme Court, Societal Elites, and Calvin College: Christian Higher Education in a Secular Age,” examines legal aspects of the ubiquitous theme of secularization that appears in much of the literature. Botman’s “‘Dutch’ and Reformed and ‘Black’ and Reformed in South Africa: A Tale of Two Traditions on the Move to Unity and Responsibility,” discusses the issue of social justice, responsibility, and equality in the South African context. Finally, Romanowski’s essay, “‘You Talkin’ To Me?’: The Christian Liberal Arts Tradition and the Challenge of Popular Culture,” addresses the issue of relevance and cultural engagement on a popular level by exploring the tension between entertainment mediums and denominational hesitancies. The tendency of the Christian liberal arts tradition to retreat into the past and replicate a perceived by-gone era of education devoid of cultural engagement renders this essay particularly important in the tension between classical learning and cultural relevance. Keeping Faith concludes with an essay justifying the Christian liberal arts tradition from Nicholas Wolterstroff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, entitled “Should the Work of Our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College?”

Friends of Calvin College will undoubtedly enjoy the reflections and commemorations of their alma mater. Scholars interested in exploring the tension-ladened issues raised in Keeping Faith will find the accompanying essays thought-provoking. Though the subtitle of the work, Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education, suggests some level of acceptance of the tensions raised, there will be a cadre of readers who will likely disesteem the tension. Pastors who follow trends within the Christian college context as indicators of ministry directions will also find the essays informative and helpful. Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education is more than commemorative institutional self-praise, it offers individuals following trends within evangelicalism something to ponder.