Reflection on Your Culture

Westmont students maintain a rather radical dichotomy between school and life.

On FaceBook, MySpace, the xanga.com Westmont blogring and the like, students talk about whatever you wish. You post about music, movies, tastes, travels, what you’re doing at that very moment, what video games you’re playing (mainly men), how you feel about how you look (mainly women), how stressed you are, and so on. But you almost never blog about your classes or what you are learning in them, except to make occasional oblique compliments for how you like a class or (more commonly) to whine about the demands classes or chapel are making on your sleep schedules.

Now I don’t expect students to be carrying your academic agendas with you wherever you go; and yes, I do remember what it was to be a college student. I myself did not give my studies a very high priority before graduate school, though I did think about the material I found interesting and talked about it with roommates and a few others. However, it still comes as something of a shock to see that activities that consume something like half of your waking hours are all but invisible on your on-line journals.

I think what makes these topics unimaginable is the boundary between school and life that you students impose on yourselves. Crossing the boundary in this arena (as in instant messages, table conversation, and casual conversation) is taboo among all but a few of you. School is not life; life is not school. Your worlds remind me of the old cartoon of Sam and Ralph, the sheepdog and the coyote who amiably punch in at 9 o’clock, wait until the whistle blows, and spend their work day protecting or stealing sheep and trying violently to outwit each other. At the 5 o’clock whistle the two stop immediately, punch out, and bid each other good night. Hey, it’s just a job.

Yet our course subject – and, in fact, college academics in general – is not just a job you should be starting and stopping as if you were flicking a switch. Your bifurcated lives lead to a variety of consequences, most of them bad.

First, the school/life dichotomy makes you less dependable to others. A graduating senior told me at her senior exit interview about “Westmont overcommitment syndrome,” in which at the beginning of the semester our students enlist in a whole array of extracurricular activities to get away from the mental pressures of school, then face academic crises or drop out as the demands of those extracurricular activities become unbearable. As a leader of a campus extracurricular activity, she found her fellow students flaky and frustrating. Moreover, she found the same phenomenon as an employer of Westmont students at a ministry in another city! She recommended that we look for ways to reintegrate life and classes – but only in ways that don’t just make further demands on students’ already packed schedules.

Second, the dichotomy makes Westmont less attractive to prospectives, current students, and alumni alike. As you know, our academics are rather strong, but our facilities are strained. Our weather is unbeatable, but other colleges' material resources are more luxurious. If our strengths suffused your college experiences, our weaknesses would be both less significant and more bearable. (For instance, you wouldn't miss not having cars.)

Third, the dichotomy leads to a lot of foolishness in how you spend their time. You think of learning and relationships as an either/or choice. An hour spent on “relationships” is by definition an hour not learning, and vice versa. That just makes for dry scholarship and shallow friendships. It takes you away from friends and studies at times that become detrimental to your lives and your academic records, makes studying a chore to be dispensed with as quickly (and as late) as possible, and makes time with others an intrusion on your studies. Whether "life" or "school" is your priority, choosing between the two ultimately makes you unhappy.

Finally, that dichotomy threatens the integrity of what you are learning in this class, because it effectively makes the Christ you study about in your coursework different from the Christ you trust (or don't trust) outside your academic life. As you should know, that is the Gnostic heresy.

This exercise is meant to rescue your academic Christianity from the impoverishment you impose upon it when you keep it disengaged from the rest of your life. (As an added benefit, I hope it also helps rescue your life from the impoverishment you impose upon it at the same time.)

Robert Barron's project is an exercise in restoring unity to theology and spirituality (12-14). Joseph Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity is an exercise in reminding a post-Christian west of the plausibility of Jesus as the Lord of its supposedly secular world. Lesslie Newbigin has presented a sustained argument of the incoherence of the common dichotomies between faith and knowledge, public facts and religious values, and secular and sacred. My own recent project on the Lord's Prayer is a self-imposed exercise in "prayerful theology" to keep the various aspects of my life in conversation with each other. Now it is your turn! To help train you against your own cultural Gnosticism, choose one of the following two topics:

What concrete difference has the atonement made, and/or could it have made, in the life of your dormitory section, living situation, friendships, or family in the past week? Pay attention to all of the several aspects of atonement we have explored in lectures and (less formally) in readings such as Wilson or Barth, Barron or Ratzinger, and Camp or Hauerwas. Anticipate objections from either Narciso or E.O. Wilson that would implicitly deny Christ's atonement as more than a mental construct or coping mechanism.

Or:

Choose one of your favorite films – from something as seemingly profound as Garden State or as seemingly vacuous as Napoleon Dynamite – or the songs of one of your favorite artists (Christian or not). First, figure out what its message or 'gospel' is and describe it in your essay. Then compare that gospel to the good news Jesus preaches in the gospels and the church preaches in the epistles. What does each story have to say to the other? Use lectures and readings as appropriate (and give special consideration to Narciso or E.O. Wilson in the challenge they might present).

Please keep your paper three pages, double-spaced, and follow the directions in my handout for writing papers. Remember, I want to see proper style, clear writing, a thorough answer to the question, and explicit citations of course materials.

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