Christian Scholarship: An Outrageous Idea?

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

I had grand plans to read volumes during my extensive Christmas vacation.  As usual, though, these plans have amounted to very little.  Although I can indeed say that I nearly 200 pages through the first of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I must sheepishly admit I have never read before), and have done a variety of activities that I may never get to do again, the only other book that I have to show for my once admirable goal is my completion of a short, 111 page book entitled The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, written by George M. Marsden.  I finished it last Tuesday in the airport in Thailand, and had intended to write a few thoughts about it earlier but…well, I’m on vacation.

This book is used as a textbook in one of the courses offered at my school–which I had hoped to take but sadly is being offered while I am abroad.  Keeping that in mind, I can’t help but think that the book would be valuable to read in an academic setting with the opportunity to discuss among other like-minded history (or other) majors, as we together try to work out what exactly Christian scholarship would look like in our discipline.

Needless to say, the book itself is indeed thought-provoking, if not somewhat on the defensive side.  Marsden, writing from the background of a religious academic, spends the book wrestling with what exactly “Christian scholarship” means.  He spends the first portion of the book trying to justify the presence of Christianity in an often hostile academic and secular realm, battling some presumptions about Christianity that make it seem incompatible with the present postmodern thought processes.  The latter portions of the book discuss how Christian scholarship can benefit academia, how a Christian worldview might shape one’s academic outlook, and what some forms of Christian scholarship might look like.

Two thoughts stand out in my mind in response to some of the premises of the book.  In the first half of the book, during which Marsden spent his time justifying the need for Christian scholarship, I couldn’t help but think that, in some ways, Christians have brought the intolerance of others upon themselves by refusing to engage in meaningful discussions and putting on a hostile front themselves.  Marsden does acknowledge this, but I think it’s important to understand that a change in how the secular academic world views Christian scholars is not going to happen over not.  It’s going to take Christians who are solid in faith and open to dialog to break down walls of hostility that were built long ago.  This doesn’t meant that Christians should compromise their core beliefs–absolutely not.  But theres a difference between standing firm in your beliefs while engaging others in discussion and belittling those who possess contrasting beliefs.  Christian academics have a large world to witness in if we can break down the barriers that have been built long ago.

A second premise that seems to come out in the book is that so many Christians have compartmentalized their faith so much that, for those academics who are Christian, it just doesn’t seem to affect their academic life (because of the mentioned hostility).  It saddens me that it can be that simple for us to compartmentalize our faith, but we do it all the time.  God’s love doesn’t just apply to our families and friends, but it applies to our co-workers, even if they work in a hostile academic field.  Even if you’re not allowed to say anything explicitly Christian in your academic community, attitudes like God’s love should carry over.

So what does Christian scholarship look like?  There’s not cookie-cutter answer, but in my humble opinion, it’s an attitude difference.  In history (my passion), it would involve among other aspects a hope that the world is coming to more than merely nations warring with each other.  It means that, while humans act with freedom, historians can analyze with the confidence and assurance that nothing happens that has not already been allowed by the Supreme Ruler.


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