The Intellectual Life Together

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.

 

ZB

Beyond the Crumpets

27th April 2005 Image:Buttered crumpet.jpg image by LoopZilla This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

27th April 2005 Image:Buttered crumpet.jpg image by LoopZilla
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri J. M. Nouwen declares that “if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality” (44). He urges Christians to look beyond tea and crumpets to a practice of hospitality that will transform the hostility of the world around us, which makes us strangers to one another and even ourselves, into a welcoming receptivity to others that enables a mutual sharing of inner gifts (43-53).

Furthermore, Nouwen argues that education desperately needs to gain and grow a sense of hospitality: “One of the greatest tragedies of our culture is that millions of young people spend many hours, days, weeks and years listening to lectures, reading books and writing papers with a constantly increasing resistance….Practically every student perceives his education as a long endless row of obligations to be fulfilled” (58-59). As a professor just two years out of my doctoral program, I realize that my approach to teaching and research largely has followed the same pattern of thinking: identifying education, which I have always loved, as obligatory drudgery. My anxiety of finding my place in the workforce, and specifically in the academy, infiltrated my approach to teaching because I learned to be a teacher within a social framework that promotes finding one’s place in the workforce.

I have given serious thought over the past year to how I view the classroom. I confess that, for much of my teaching career, I viewed it as a space more of hostility than hospitality. As the teacher, I was the dispenser of (on good days) knowledge and (on bad days) information, and the students were the receptacles. During this 50 to 70-minute duration of dispensing and receiving, all manner of forces could intrude and impede. The students who fought against these forces were friends; those who accepted or embraced the forces were enemies. Learning was a battlefield, and I was the commander to drag us through it. Casualties were inevitable. Students’ worth was measured by their ability to receive, and mine was measured by my ability to dispense.

Operating from this perspective, I became increasingly alienated, from the students as well as from myself. More and more students were looking like the enemy to me, and I could tell the feeling was mutual. Students were coming in strangers and leaving strangers. What was happening? I was confident that teaching is my vocation—I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was five years old. But I was not at all the teacher I wanted to be, nor did I feel that I was on the way to becoming it.

Last November, as I was struggling through these matters, the Lord reminded me of my passion for hospitality. I began to think about spaces I’ve been in or read about, where people gathered and experienced great intellectual growth: Gertrude Stein’s salon at 21 Rue de Fleurus; Jacques and Raïssa Maritain’s Thomistic circles in 1920s Paris; Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri institutes; the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida; Brooks College at Baylor University. I want to be the host of such a space, to offer hospitality that enables people to develop their creative and intellectual gifts. I aspire to facilitate others in the use of their gifts to do great things. Only recently have I realized—this is what teaching is!

Let’s think about teaching in terms of a tea party. I discovered that I have concentrated too much on the crumpets—whether people eat them with a fork or with their hands, how many crumpets they eat, whether they like crumpets and why. I have concentrated on shaping people to be eaters and makers of crumpets so that they can go out in the world to make and eat crumpets with great proficiency. But why have I even made crumpets in the first place? Why are there people here to eat them? There is more that happens at a tea party than eating crumpets. The host and guest mutually offer themselves—their time, attention, thoughts, emotions. We talk with each other; we make connections; we form community. All of these activities have consequences when we leave the tea party. Don’t get me wrong: crumpets are an important part of a tea party, but if I focus exclusively on the crumpets during the party, I will have missed learning more about my guests, deepening relationships, and stumbling upon new ideas. Even worse, my guests will leave, alienated by their crumpets-obsessed host.

We meet together in a classroom to learn because we are engaged in more than simply dispensing and receiving knowledge. As Henri Nouwen points out, the classroom is a space for hospitality, “a free and fearless space where mental and emotional development take place” (61); it is a space “where [students] can reveal their great human potentials to love, to give, and to create, and where they can find the affirmation that gives them the courage to continue their search without fear” (62). If I want students to abide in my class, I need to show them hospitality: I need to show my students that they are welcome as the people they are, who have something to offer, and that I am a willing recipient. We’ll eat the crumpets, but won’t it be nice to eat them with friends instead of strangers?

zb

Nouwen, Henri J. M. Reaching Out. 1975. London: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

Frank and Ace

It’s been an honor to share with you this semester.  Thanks for reading.  I wanted to leave you with a Christmas thought for this final entry.  Blessings to you all.  Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

 

I’d just marked Thanksgiving off the calendar when suddenly Santa Clause and reindeer and wise men and shepherds marched into my neighborhood.  A plastic Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus even showed up across the street. But on this particular morning, none of the good cheer or “peace on earth, good will toward men” could penetrate my Scrooge-like armor.  This may have been because I’d just finished teaching Sunday school, and my wife was dragging me to Target to buy a gift for a bridal shower she was attending later in the afternoon.

I was hungry.  But Sharon was ready to shop. I feared lunch was going to be a long time away.

We entered the store and headed to the gift registry computer where Sharon typed in the bride’s name.  The machine spit out seven pages of possible gifts.  In situations like this, my buying strategy is simple. Get the list.  Locate the cheapest gift.  Buy it.

My wife’s approach is, of course, profoundly different.  First, Sharon examines the list and comments on the various items—“Oooh look, she wants sterling silver flat ware.  And steak knives with cherry wood handles.  Oh, and look at this, a Hamilton Beach blender . . . and she wants a red one!”

After commenting on each possible purchase, the browsing begins.  “We’re shopping,” she explains, “not hunting.”

I picture myself hunting.  I picture myself in the great outdoors cooking lunch over a campfire.

My wife’s voice pulls me back to reality.  “We’re looking for the perfect gift,” she reminds me.  Then she asks if I can hold the seven page printout and mark off the items we’ve examined so far.

About an hour into our excursion, my Sunday morning just-taught-Sunday-school smile was beginning to fade.  And when we finally approached the check-out line with our gift selection, I had only two thoughts left in my head: How much is this going to cost me and where are we going to eat?

We left the store and headed for a cafeteria down the street. We entered the restaurant only to confront a line winding around the aisle dividers reaching all the way to the front entrance.  I was not in a good mood.  A family near the front couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted their fish baked, grilled or lightly breaded.  My stress level was escalating.  And then I heard a voice behind me.  I turned around and saw an older gentleman wearing a powder blue jump suit.  “I was trying to beat the church crowd,” he explained, “but I don’t think I made it.”  I acknowledged his comment by mumbling something indecipherable and then refocused my attention on the slow-moving line.  My plan was to ignore the man in the jump suit.  My wife, however, had other ideas.  Sharon turned around and struck up a conversation.

I listened half-heartedly.  And after about five minutes, Sharon asked the question.  She voiced it suddenly and without warning.  And it went something like, “Would you care to join us for lunch?”  Those eight words lined up like the box cars of a swiftly moving freight train, and before I could derail them, they rumbled over the tracks right past me.  But then something extraordinary happened.  I watched as the man in the powder blue jump suit grabbed each one of Sharon’s words and held onto them tightly.  The invitation was a treasure to him—a precious gift.

His name was Frank.  He’d been married twice.  He lost his first wife to cancer after 25 years of marriage.  And his second wife of 34 years had just passed away.  Her death had left him reeling.  I asked him if he went to church, and he said that he didn’t anymore.  He was having a rough time making sense of the loss.  And he was having a rough time making sense of God.  Then he said quietly, “You know, my boy—my only son—he told me the other day, ‘Dad, you just seem mad at the world.’”

I looked at Frank and wondered what it would be like to be 84 years old and suddenly alone, and during the Christmas season, no less.  The sadness that settled in my chest tightened its grip.

But then the conversation brightened.  I looked up and Frank had a smile on his face for the first time.  Sharon had asked him if he had any pets.  He did—he had Ace—a white miniature schnauzer.  “In fact,” Frank explained, “Ace goes everywhere I go.  He’s in my truck right now.  I leave the engine running with the air conditioner on to make sure he stays comfortable.  It eats up all the gas, but it’s worth it.”  The tone of his voice seemed almost cheerful, and his eyes danced a bit as he talked about his little white dog, the only companion he had left.

After lunch, we all walked outside, and Frank invited us to meet Ace.  When we got to the truck, he opened the driver’s side door.  There, with feet planted firmly on the leather seat, stood the little schnauzer.  Sharon reached out to pet him and Ace snapped at her hand.  She screamed and we all laughed.  Frank dared me to try.  I approached Ace with my hand outstretched in a non-threatening manner, the back of it turned toward him.  Ace sniffed my hand.  I felt smug.  But when I attempted to stroke his head, he went for me too, with bared teeth and a gutsy growl.

The little thing was protective.  But it made sense.  After all, Frank needed protecting—he’d been hurt and was suffering deeply.  As we said our goodbyes, Frank climbed into the truck, and Ace settled onto his lap.  Sharon smiled, waved gently, and said, “Merry Christmas, Frank.”  He looked at us one last time, and softly closed the door without saying anything.  I watched Frank back out of the parking space and drive away.  Suddenly I wanted to run after him—I wanted to yell out—“God loves you Frank.  No matter how mad you are.  No matter how far or fast you run, God’s love is running after you.  God’s love wears sneakers Frank, and that love won’t rest until it catches you.”  Sharon and I both stood in the parking lot until Frank’s truck was a distant speck on Loop 281.  Finally, Sharon took my hand and we walked quietly back to the car.

On the drive home, as we passed Christmas lights and nativity scenes, I thought about God—the giver of gifts.  And I pictured God commenting on each item on His gift list—meticulously choosing the best ones for us.  I pictured Him as a shopper, not a hunter. And I thought about that first Christmas 2,000 years ago when God gave us the ultimate gift—not under a tree but in a manger.  Not wrapped in red and silver paper but in swaddling clothes—“good news of great joy for everyone” (Luke 2:10).

So, Frank, if I could see you again, I would tell you, “God is so in love with you.  Accept His gift this Christmas.  Open it.  Embrace it.  A Savior.  The Lamb of God.  The Wonderful Counselor.  The Prince of Peace.  Peace, Frank.  Real peace.”

 

skc