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Between Athens and Jerusalem: Thoughts on Critical Commitment

19th April 2005

Thanks to the heads up on Michael Pahl’s blog, I took a look at the latest SBL Forum and read C. Drew Smith’s post, "’Between Athens and Jerusalem’: Reading Liberal Books at Church-Based Universities." As a professor at a faith-based university, I can sympathize with Smith’s experiences. I too believe that in a liberal arts education students should read and engage a broad spectrum of scholarship — both "liberal" and evangelical (As an aside, I really do not like expressing this in the form of a dichotomy, as it is not in reality two distinct sides. Every author writes from her or his own ideological perspective and we are want to discern that when we engage them in our studies or in our classrooms). What our goal is critical commitment, not indoctrination. As Smith notes:

Would we not, as Christian liberal arts institutions, want to rise above the increasingly entrenched dichotomy between conservative and liberal, offering opportunities to hear various voices speak? And in doing so, should we not be humble enough to admit that there are positive contributions made by those who think differently from us, even when such difference is vast? And if we can come to this point, have we not reached the true goal of education, which is to consider all the evidence and to draw thoughtful and critical conclusions from that evidence? This to me is the essence of learning in a liberal arts tradition.

While I haven’t had much protest from students in regards to textbooks, I have had to talk to local pastors who have had concerns. This has prompted me to put disclaimers in my syllabi indicating that these books are to be read critically, etc. (I’ve been wondering whether or not I should put such a disclaimer on my Old Testament Commentary Survey so that well-intentioned readers don’t think that when I say so-and-so’s commentary is the best of the bunch, I endorse it’s theological or ideological perspective as well — which I may or may not). I don’t really like having to put the disclaimers in (as I feel they are just stating the obvious), but if it helps first year students, parents, and local pastors understand a bit about what goes on in the classroom, then so be it.

On the flipside, I feel that the education students receive at a faith-based university may actually be more of a true liberal arts education than a non-faith based university. At a faith-based university we look at all perspectives — including faith-based scholarship, which I imagine is often neglected at "secular" institutions (again the dichotomy!). At any rate, I encourage you to take a look at the SBL Forum, and Smith’s post in particular.

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