My first semester as the director of ETBU’s Honors Program is coming to a close. In my final post for The Intersection, I thought I’d share some of the highlights from this semester as well as my perspective on the role of the Honors Program.
Back in September, the Honors Program held a retreat at Shepherd’s Pasture, a beautiful retreat center in Jefferson, Texas. We spent time playing board games, watching (and obsessing over the details of) the movie Memento, sharing meals, sitting around a campfire, wandering in the woods, and playing basketball and volleyball. We also went into town and took a riverboat tour, where we learned about Jefferson’s past as Texas’s first major city and port. In January, we will visit San Antonio to attend the symphony and to tour the Mission San José.
Two Monday nights each month, my wife, Amanda, and I have met with students to discuss James K. A. Smith’s work Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, in which Smith asserts that the Church can gain valuable insights from major postmodern thinkers Jacques Derrida, Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. He believes that these theorists’ demolition of modernist preconceptions actually open up space for the Church to reclaim and extend its Scripture-steeped, liturgical, catholic, and incarnational identity. We have engaged in great conversation about the meanings of modernity and postmodernity, the character of the Church in the present day, and the challenges facing the Church in Western society. Our students necessarily will be grappling with the implications of these issues throughout their lives, and the conversations we’ve had reveal the personal stakes involved for them in these issues.
Each chapter of Smith’s book opens with a summary of a film that he feels provides a good analogy to the theories put forth by the philosopher covered in that chapter. Dr. David Splawn hosted screenings of some of these films in his home and led discussions about them with the honors students. This engagement with the films has helped the students see how these theories have infiltrated the culture.
Each Thursday, Amanda and I have opened our home for honors students to gather and chat in a more informal setting. These coffee hours have been enriched by visits from several faculty members: Rick Johnson, Warren Johnson, Jeph Holloway, Jerry Summers, Scott Bryant, Lynn New, Elizabeth Ponder, Emily Prevost, and Troy White. The students have greatly benefited from hearing professors recount how they entered their fields of specialty, how they approach teaching and research, and how their faith frames their work.
Both the Book Group and the Coffee Hours have been central traditions to the Honors Program over the years. My wife and I have felt strongly that these events should take place in our home, with armchairs and couches, with food and coffee, and with children running around and making noise. We want to show through our hospitality that the intellectual life flourishes when it shapes and is shaped by normal, daily living.
The phrase that best sums up my vision for the Honors Program is, “The intellectual life together.” It’s an amalgamation of titles from two books that have inspired me. In The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges describes the scholarly vocation in almost mystical language, charging those who are called to it to great focus and determination but with incredibly human balance. He understands that a life of study, which requires a great measure of solitude, nevertheless takes place in the world, among friends, family, and daily labor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins Life Together with a reminder to Christians that a worshipping community is a gift—to gather without fear of violence or persecution to praise the Lord in song and to read His word is a luxury that we often take for granted. As a result, we build up imaginary, “ideal” communities in our minds and grow frustrated with the flesh-and-blood community in front of us that doesn’t seem to measure up. We must rid ourselves of these illusions and participate humbly and fully in worship and service within the community that God has brought us to.
I am thankful to enter and oversee an already vibrant community bound together by traditions. I have loved getting to know these kind, funny, interesting, servant-hearted students who find so much delight in instruction, and I look forward to deepening these relationships through living the intellectual life together.