O. Alan Noble, PhD, is an associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and author of Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, (InterVarsity Press, 2018).
Whether you describe it as a decadent society or a decaying culture or a democracy dying in darkness, 2020 has given us a taste for what Cormac McCarthy once described as “the frailty of everything revealed at last.” We have been frail for a very long time, but what we could deny before has been made glaringly manifest through a pandemic, racial injustice, social unrest, mass unemployment, and a highly contentious presidential election that earnest folks on both sides have described in existential terms. The foundations of our society are not quite destroyed, but they are cracking, and those cracks raise the psalmist’s question, “What can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3).
Part of the answer, I believe, is to support and rely upon Christian colleges and universities to serve as institutional anchors—spaces of transformation and education, discipleship and scholarship, cultural edification, and exhortation.
The default evangelical response to cultural decay has been to redouble our culture war efforts: elect people who will better pursue our agenda, boycott and denounce attacks on our values, and so on. And while I would be the last to dismiss the importance of Christian political participation and cultural criticism, I do worry that these focuses can distract us from the more basic work that needs to be done. We need to shore up the ruins.
When many evangelicals lack a robust idea of sex, marriage, and the human body as God designed them, it does little good for us to criticize the normalization of alternative lifestyles. When evangelical consumers and evangelical entrepreneurs are driven by the same basic belief in autonomous individualism as their secular counterparts, we can’t be surprised when sacrificing for our neighbors feels like an infringement upon our rights. When white evangelicals have little grasp of history or the trauma of generations of institutionalized racism, we should not expect racial reconciliation to occur. When evangelicals have abandoned the possibility of truth and the common good for identity politics, it is not surprising that the world does not take our moral authority seriously.
To shore up the ruins is not to retreat from society into private enclaves but to recognize that our house is not in order. Our walls will not stand. We need catechesis and discipleship, not quick culture war and political victories, or we risk letting the entire house crumble while we stand in the front yard waving memes at our digital neighbors.
The work of shoring up the ruins must be primarily done in local churches and within families and communities. However, Christian colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to be a major institutional framework for the catechizing and discipleship. They can and do equip and assist local churches, families, and communities in their work.
This is why I am particularly troubled by the significant challenges facing Christian higher education. At precisely the time the church in America needs cultural institutions that preserve what is good, transform lives, and prophetically challenge secular ways of being in the world, our schools are experiencing declining enrollment and layoffs. Sixty-five percent of our schools have seen a decline in enrollment between 2014-2018 and in the last decade, 944 faculty and staff positions have been eliminated. We are under pressure to reduce our education to efficiently targeted career training and certification rather than the cultivation of wisdom (a goal with a much harder to measure return on investment).
I do not believe that Christian higher education can save us. It can’t. But having spent 13 years teaching, the majority of which took place within Christian universities, I have personally witnessed the tremendous power of these institutions to transform the lives of students, to produce scholarly and popular work that builds up the church, and to be spaces of cultural renewal and preservation. Our schools, properly funded and supported, can be beacons of light for the church during a time of crisis. Or they too can crumble into highly efficient, baptized career and bureaucracy training centers.
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Source: Christianity Today