Sunday, October 23, 2011

New Books

I'm pretty excited about a new book I co-edited with my friend and colleague, David Smith: Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, now available from Eerdmans. The book is a collection of case studies in which professors from a range of disciplines (including economics, physics, kinesiology, psychology, history, literature, and philosophy) extend and incorporate the pedagogical genius of Christian practices into the Christian college classroom. This grew out of a multi-year research group that was funded by the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith; but the book also includes chapters by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung and Paul Griffiths, plenary speakers at our culminating conference.

David & I were thrilled that Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra were willing to write a Foreword for the book. The back cover includes a snippet from that Foreword:
"If you want to see great teaching in action, read this book. If you believe that college classes can be communities of learning where knowledge of self, others, and the world is sought in response to God’s call and the world’s need, read this book. If you yearn for pedagogical wisdom capable of sustaining resistance to consumerist and instrumentalist pressures on teaching and learning, read this book. . . . This excellent book is one of the best we have ever read on the subject of pedagogy. It is also one of the best we know on the subject of Christian practices."
— Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass
I hope Christian educators across a range of disciplines and institutional contexts will find this book to be a helpful catalyst for new conversations about Christian teaching and learning.

Last week I also received copies of the new Korean translation of Letters to a Young Calvinist, which is now (I think) my 3rd book that has been translated into Korean, with 2 more in progress. I'm grateful that some of my work can serve conversations in South Korea where the Reformed tradition is alive and well. A couple of Korean friends have told me that my "faint praise" for the Westminster confession has generated some vigorous discussion over there.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Beware Bad Metrics: College Graduate Salary Statistics

One could easily imagine a college recruiting and marketing department latching onto the quantifiable data compiled PayScale's College Salary Report. The data paints a picture of starting and median salaries for graduates of over 1000 institutions across the United States. You can view the data by region as well (e.g., the Midwest). PayScale also offers an analysis of "return on investment," calculating the 30-year return on tuition in terms of salary income over a lifetime. (This latter metric yields some interesting data: for example, while some public universities might be cheaper 'up front,' they also don't offer the same return on their tuition investment as some private colleges with higher tuition.)

However, I would hope that Christian colleges and universities would at least be cautious in employing this data, since it is clearly a way of playing into the hands of economic pragmatism about higher education--one more way to simply treat a degree as a credential for employment rather than as a means for holistic formation of "prime citizens of the kingdom."

More importantly, this analysis of the data (let's just assume all the numbers are trustworthy) is simply reductionistic. It doesn't have room to recognize or absorb the fact that different kinds of institutions envision "success" very differently. To take just an easy example, many Christian and Catholic universities inculcate in their students a deep devotion to service, to the pursuit of justice and shalom. This often translates into social entrepreneurs who devote themselves to NGOs and non-profit agencies concerned with the marginalized and downtrodden. These colleges send into the world graduates who imagine the world otherwise, and who imaginatively launch new organizations, programs, and initiatives that counter hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy. These, too, are "successful" graduates, but their work and vocation isn't going to bump up the median salaries of our alumni any time soon. So be it. We're working with a different metric.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Mall-ification of America

A friend pointed me to this article on the "Mall-ification of America"--which dovetails with my analysis of the mall's liturgies in Desiring the Kingdom, particularly highlighting the assimilation that happens when we naively adopt what we (wrongly) think are "neutral" forms. Consider these concluding paragraphs:

There is some data to go on, though: According to the 2008 Hartford Institute survey,47% of megachurch income typically goes to employee salariesand benefits, compared to 13% for missions and benevolence. According to Leadership Network, a Christian nonprofit, pastor salaries in megachurches can reachas high as $400,000 a year. The IRS monitors salaries and specifically prohibits shareholder-like pay for ministers and church employees. Still, popular personalities regularly command higher salaries.

Churches maintain that monetary growth is just a means to the end of gaining new converts, not the other way around. On its website, Southland writes: "Some say, 'We don't need more churches. We're only draining the rolls of other churches.' Our hope is that we're draining the rolls of hell. More locations provide more opportunity for evangelism." For churches like Southland, paintball courts and letters to Britney are ultimately good because they help bring more people to God. Malls, similarly, are tools that bring in more members. But at what point does embracing commercial culture change one's religious message? While holding services in a renovated Dillards might not affect how worshipers see Jesus, giving away flat screen TVs and cars to new attendees as prizes on an Easter Sunday "egg hunt" probably does. (The hunt, hosted by Bay Area Fellowship of Corpus Cristi, TX, also served as a casting call for a new season of MTV's reality show "Made.") Even when they become shells of their former selves, malls' pasts never completely disappear, as Summer Grove's recycled mall Christmas decorations suggest.

Whether you fasten on a steeple or add a glass facade, Americans remember malls as childhood fantasy lands, where they could meet Santa Claus and play with any toy. Perhaps it's not a bad bet, then, that as adults, they might come back to meet Jesus.
Imagine the "Jesus" they'll be meeting.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Jobs, Dubya, and Leadership

From the completely random file: within just a couple of days I read a long essay on George W. Bush and then several obituaries for Steve Jobs and was struck by similarities in their leadership style--and how differently those similarities were evaluated.

The first essay, "Dubya and Me," by Walt Harrington, appeared in the Autumn issue of The American Scholar. I think only the most ideologically blinkered would fail to appreciate this intimate portrait of George W. Bush as someone with deep historical curiosity, particularly eager to find exemplars of leadership. One also sees Bush's swagger, brashness, and aggressiveness, to be sure. But these are recontextualized in this behind-the-curtain portrait. Harrington's account won't win any converts amongst the usual suspects of my "progressive" friends--but for those who are less ideologically constrained by partisan devotion, I commend the article for your edification.

But what's the link to Jobs, who is being virtually canonized in today's press? (I write as a devoted Mac user--penning this from my Macbook Pro, with my iPhone playing in the docking station and an iPad sitting on the coffee table.) What could the forward-thinking guru from the Silicon Valley possibly have in common with the 'g-dropping hunter from west Texas?

Well, I was struck by the way that leadership characteristics seen as faults in Dubya are praised as the necessary genius that Jobs brought to Apple. Consider, for example, Joe Nocera's (reprinted) homage to Jobs in the New York Times, "What Makes Steve Jobs Great," alongside the Times' obituary. Both note that Jobs' management style could border on the draconian: uncollaborative, single-minded, aggressive, and very top-down. He could unleash excoriating criticisms of his employees and was almost maniacally ("insanely"!) concerned with secrecy, flaunting that great liberal ideal of "transparency." And yet Jobs will be (rightly) praised as one of America's greatest innovators and entrepreneurs.

What I find curious is that the same traits that are praised in Jobs are held up as vices and character flaws in Bush (not by Harrington, but by oft-trotted-out caricatures that circulate so widely). I note this not to defend Bush or his policies, but only to observe that our evaluation of leadership styles is not some neutral affair: we bring our biases and presuppositions and ideological agendas to our identification of "best practices" and our evaluation of leaders and leadership style. If we canonize St. Steve, we might have to re-evaluate knee-jerk caricatures of POTUS 43.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Church and Pomo Reboot

The Church and Postmodern Culture conversation is moving to the hospitable environs of The Other Journal--a move that we hope brings new energy to the conversation. Update your bookmarks, visit the new site, and watch for info about a book giveaway. Most importantly, join the conversation!