Christian Higher Education. A Global Reconnaissance

Written by Joel Carpenter, Perry L. Glanzer, and Nicholas S. Lantinga, eds. Reviewed By Andy Draycott

Carpenter, Glanzer and Lantinga assemble a distinguished array of international scholars and administrators to help survey the global landscape of Christian Higher Education. Chapters cover the countries of Kenya, China, Korea, India, Mexico, Brazil, Canada and the United States, while Western and Post-communist Europe are treated as blocks of nations. Noticeably Oceania is left out of this global gathering for no apparent reason. The accounts offer brief histories of local expressions of Christian higher education with an analysis of present realities and challenges for the future. There is something humbling about traveling through these countries’ recent histories of Christian witness in the university and college setting, not least because, despite all manner of commonality, the differences between experiences, and between the cultural and social place of Christianity are massive.

Common questions inevitably emerge: How is ‘Christian’ identity established and maintained for an institution through time? How does the state sponsored massification of higher education affect Christian distinctives? The number of students seeking degrees in Nigeria is mindboggling! How should wider market demands determine what kind of education Christian institutions should offer? This last questions leads to one of the common conundrums. If, as the editors and numerous chapter authors assert, Christian identity is best maintained by a private institution (where accreditation allows), the very private nature of the institutions can lead them to follow market trends to a dilution of the explicitly Christian content of their course offerings. Survival can become a question of the demographic setting and the maturity of the church who may send students to these places for their degrees. Yet, the move from university education being a ‘public good to being a commercial commodity’ (p. 122) disturbs a number of contributors.

On the other hand, whether in Kenya, or Brazil, or Mexico, authors are concerned that particularly evangelical higher education becomes a vehicle for sustaining cultural isolation rather than contributing critically to the common good. Peter Tze Ming Ng (China), writing from a minority Christian context, demonstrates the way in which Christian higher education can pursue academic excellence as a witness to a largely Non-Christian culture—through the academically rigorous, honest, and open study of Christianity. In another Christian minority setting, J. Dinarkarlal draws attention to the competition (even conflict) between different Christian groups in higher education, when surely the existence of some state anti-conversion laws would present enough of a challenge.

In the UK and North America there is a widespread lament for increasing secularization. This phenomenon is also spreading world wide in higher education, driven in many ways by the market utility model of course and degree offerings. At the same time, in contrast to the global north, church growth and entrepreneurial spirit in the global south shows Christian agency able to stake a claim in new education markets. Problems abound, but there are also exemplary institutions and hopeful signs of initiative and Christian faithfulness.

Within the pages of this one book we find data documenting the raw numbers of students in Christian higher education and mapping the variety of funding models, all collected in historically rich and locally authored chapters. The concluding editorial evaluation does a sterling job of drawing together key insights. A temptation is to think that all that is needed for these growing number of students is an internet connection to an online product of Christian sourcing. While diverse distribution models have their place, the hopeful vision presented here testifies to the continued call for universities and colleges to be both Christian and pedagogically valuable, being embedded in their own cultural context to serve the local good.

If we go on to ask more specifically what kind of curriculum and teaching and research should a Christian university pursue, then we might do worse than dip into Christ Across the Disciplines. Part tribute to Arthur Holmes’s, The Idea of a Christian College, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), as also to Wheaton College as somewhat of a standard bearer for Christian higher education, editor Roger Lundin gathers a gaggle of disparate academic voices to speak wisdom from their disciplines of history, theology, and science.

Unlike the comparative uniformity across the chapters of Christian Higher Education, Lundin editorially presides over a pleasing cacophony. One can imagine walking from one classroom lecture to another and then bashing out the commonalities and divergences with peer friends long into the night. There really is no one exclusive ‘model’ for what the product of Christian higher education should look like. Although the back cover rather grandiosely claims that the essays will show how to ‘meet the present and future challenges of intellectual and cultural life in a global world’, this grandiloquence is not totally misstated. Notable essays include David Bebbington on the discipline of history’s neglect of Christianity in Britain (ch. 1), John Webster’s presentation of a theology of the intellectual life (ch. 4), Eleanore Stump on the external and internal contemporary challenge facing Christian scholars (ch. 5), and Jeremy Begbie’s recovery of Reformed Christianity’s relationship to art via theology (ch. 7). The cultivation of the mind in love of God and the world through these encounters is surely grandiose in its possibilities in face of a challenging world.

As ever, more and different voices will need to be heard, but it is the learning to hear and critically engage that will shape Christian higher education across the disciplines for an integration of faith and learning. For example, Katherine Clay Bassard’s essay on race and literature (ch. 8) took me straight to the bookshelf to follow her literary lead as the intersection of theology and race has become of significant interest, an essential feature of any meaningful Christian conversation of culture in the western world today. The book’s concluding chapter by Sujit Sivasundaram explores colonial evangelical missionary contributions to early anthropological and sociological accounts of race. While we may now find these accounts problematic, they nevertheless attested to a global vision among Christians that was not afraid to venture claims and theories for the world that were never meant to be sacrosanct but instead were born of a love of people and the diversity of cultures to be encountered.

Reading these two books together, it is easy to reflect that globally minded Christians in the global north still have a way to go to engage and showcase the insights their fellow academics in other parts of the world are producing as an effort, to use Sivasundaram’s term, of ‘trans-cultural scholarship’. At the same time there is hope that the wisdom of Christian disciplinary engagement is happening and can be harnessed even more throughout this burgeoning field.

Andy Draycott

Andy Draycott
Biola University
La Mirada, California, USA

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