Rules of the Game

Copyright 2002-2006, Telford Work (rev. August 17, 2006)
College is a time of change.... If it is any good, it will come down on you like a ton of bricks. It will make you question every conclusion you have ever reached. It will lead you to deny acres of assumptions and remake them. It will refuse to answer many of your questions, because you are asking the wrong things. It will shake your strong places and blow cold air into all your warm hideouts. It will laugh at your emotions and cry at your humor. It will crowd you into the best you think you can do, and then mock the results and crowd you further. For the first time in your life, you will know that learning can be soul sized.
—Rev. Timothy Healy, S.J., former chaplain, Yale University (via Julieanne Faas '05, one of my students)

I teach my classes with several assumptions in mind. If you are enrolled in my classes, you should be aware of them.

We are a team.

Look at the vision statement on your syllabus. I know that vision statements are the stuff of Dilbert cartoons, but I really mean what I say there. You are not just a collection of individual students who happen to be enrolled in one of my classes at the same time. You are not competitors in a contest for grades or my favoritism. You are participants in a class. Each class has its own personality, its own dynamic, its own culture, its own spirit. That spiritcan be holy or it can be demonic. I can influence it, but I cannot control it. Your contributions, your silence, your attendance, your absence, your integrity, your failings, and your attitude affect the whole. We are working together to learn and grow in our common educational task. Other teammates may serve as helpful standards of comparison by which to assess your own progress; but the point is how we do our task, not how you compare with them.

You are players.

We are not honeybees or worker ants; we are people. In human organizations — including the Church, athletics, business, politics, the military, and volunteerism — success is not a matter of one indispensable figure supported by a whole servile community or department or organization or party. It is a matter of leadership and teamwork. Even Jesus, the one truly indispensable figure in any healthy human organization, radically delegated responsibility for the affairs of his Kingdom to his disciples, and promised radical accountability on his return (Matt. 24:45-51).

I structure my classes accordingly. You are not passive recipients of my information and expertise. You are not even merely active recipients. You are players — contributing your precious time, gifts, efforts, and insights to the educational needs of your teammates, and honoring the contributions of others. This means that your fellow students and I are all depending on you to come through, as you are depending on us.

Moreover, you are adults. Your parents and teachers have dedicated years of their lives to developing your skills in active learning, responsibility, leadership, and initiative. Make them proud!

We are following Jesus Christ, whether or not we trust in him.

Teaching the Christian faith is always tricky. Students who are disciples are liable to think they are insiders who already know the subject or who have an advantage. Students who are not disciples are liable to think of themselves as outsiders, as disadvantaged, or as targets for proselytism. Both conclusions are wrong.

Jesus challenged everyone, whether or not they trusted in him. I teach this course to challenge everyone too, whether or not we trust in Jesus. Believers do not automatically have an edge. Veterans do not automatically understand the subject better. The teacher does not automatically have the last word. I have beloved students who are long-time disciples of Christ, and beloved students who are agnostic and uncomfortable in Westmont's dominantly evangelical atmosphere, and beloved students who once called themselves Christians but no longer do. All are welcome to enroll in my class as full and respected participants. I am honored to have each and every one of you, and you should feel equally honored to have each other.

Learning from a teacher demands that a student follow the teacher — perhaps critically, perhaps cautiously, and perhaps only for a time; but following nonetheless. It demands that students practice the subject — perhaps unenthusiastically, perhaps awkwardly, perhaps artificially; but practicing nevertheless. If this were an art class, you would need to pick up a brush, even if you were not an artist. If this were a music class, you would need to pick up an instrument, even if you were not a musician. As this is a class in Christian teaching, you will need to pick up your cross and follow Jesus, even if you do not believe in him.

Nonbelievers: You may not sit "on the fence" and observe the discipline from outside, any more than you can belong to a sports team while remaining in the bleachers. If you want to stay up there and you resent your school and teacher for forcing you to play the game of Christian faith, then you have my profound sympathy. I once felt the same way. But I still want you to get down here and suit up. Only this way will you have a chance at understanding what you don't believe.

Believers: You may not cluster together with people who agree with you (whether they are in your family, your church, your dorm, or this class) and innoculate yourselves against unfamiliar and threatening material, any more than you can belong to a sports team while disrespecting the coach and the other players and teams. If you want to huddle together and you resent your school and teacher for forcing challenges on you, then you have my profound sympathy. I once felt the same way. But I still want you to shake hands and play together. Only this way will you have a chance at determining whether that stuff is really as wrong and dangerous as you suspect. Besides, that little cluster over there probably feels the same way about you as you do about them!

These demands may feel wrong to you. How can I ask people to "pretend" they are something they are not? And how can I ask people to open themselves up to ways of life that don't seem right to them?

Well, first, I am not asking you to pretend you believe something you do not. That would be hypocrisy. I am only asking you to come along as a fellow traveler and go along with what we are doing for a time.

Second, stepping into a role with which we are not yet comfortable is something we do all the time. It is how we learn to speak, walk, write, dance, drive, date, marry, parent, lead, teach — to do anything that puts us in a new role.

Christian faith requires what philosopher of science Michael Polanyi calls "personal knowledge": a knowledge gained by participation rather than mere observation. Not to require your participation would teach you something else than the actual teachings of Christian faith (perhaps the watery substitute called "the Christian worldview"). To keep you comfortable would misrepresent my discipline!

Third, R.R. Reno claims that detached objectivity is a fiction that conveniently keeps us from being challenged by things that might turn us into different people. I think he is right. Part of your unease with my demand that you become followers even for just a few months probably comes from the fact that you belong to a culture that idolizes you "just as you are." It has trained you to immunize yourselves from others who might change you in any way other than what you already want to be changed. Both believers and nonbelievers strain to hold everything and everyone at a safe distance. We insulate ourselves against "fundamentalists," "liberals," "jocks," "intellectuals," or whoever does not inhabit our comfort zone. Whether we do this judgmentally or relativistically doesn't really matter; either way, it is self-defense. This insularity is an enemy of true education, and ultimately an enemy of our salvation.

Fourth, I do not choose material I consider fundamentally wrong, unhealthy to Christian faith, or unrepresentative of the Christian tradition. Letting me (or anyone else) be your teacher implies some level of trust that my judgment is not completely impaired. If you are worried by what you see here, then inquire about me and my courses to someone you trust: your pastor, your family, your advisor, the administration, your RA, or fellow students. Meet with me and share your concerns. If this does not ease your anxiety, you have my blessings to trust your theological education to someone more worthy.

The lectures, readings, assignments, questions, answers, and contributions of other students of this class are opportunities for the Christian faith to change you. If you want to embrace those opportunities, then get in the game and open yourself up to its challenges.

If instead you want to resist those opportunities and ensure that you remain just as you already are, then I respectfully suggest that you do it all at once and drop my course. Don't stick around and drag down the rest of the class with poor performance, dishonesty, or cynicism.

We practice what we teach.

At a place like this we are teaching the Christian faith to each other all the time. If I am shallow, then I am teaching that God is shallow. If you are ignorant, then you are teaching that God is intellectually vapid. If he is catty, then he is teaching that God is cruel. If she is manipulative, then she is teaching that God is ruthless. If they play power politics, then they are teaching that God is a tyrant.

Many of us are coming from dysfunctional churches, schools, and youth groups that have confused us (at least a little) about what Christian faith actually is. I have met with many students who have picked up judgmentalism, hypocrisy, heresy, selective ignorance, apathy, compartmentalization, and a legion of other bad habits that they consider part of authentic Christianity. And why shouldn't they? They were paying attention!

As if all this weren't enough, many of us are used to environments of destructive criticism or uncritical affirmation. Students trained in the former are timid and defensive; students trained in the latter are arrogant and defensive. The healthy alternative to both of these is discipline and grace to hold us accountable and to offer forgiveness when we fall short.

All these are serious obstacles. But God is an even more serious remover of obstacles. This class will really work if we exercise the boldness to show healthy faith to each other, the humility to acknowledge and repent of unhealthy faith where we discover it, and the forgiveness to make fresh starts when things go wrong.

You are leaders.

On a team, every member has opportunities and responsibilities for leadership. American culture respects the benefits of decentralization and delegation in many ways, and it is one of our greatest strengths. But the insight is ancient, and woven into Israel's history:

Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" Moses replied to his father-in-law, "It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God." But Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (Ex. 18:13-18 JPS).

The task is too heavy for me. I have too many General Education classes, too many students in each, too many limitations, and too many other responsibilities to allow me to devote hour after hour to micromanaging your written assignments while you all stand around waiting for me.

As God intends that Moses be only one prophet in a kingdom full of prophets (Num. 11:26-30), so I intend that I be only the head of classes full of teachers. To provide opportunities and responsibilities for leading and following, I organize many classes into groups of three (or four) students. After all, "two are better off than one, in that they have greater benefit from their earnings. For should they fall, one can raise the other; but woe betide him who is alone and falls with no companion to raise him! ... A threefold cord is not readily broken" (Eccl. 4:9-12). Your group work together will be critical to our success as a class.

I envision the following group activities:

  • Each group chooses a captain whose sole additional responsibility is to make sure meetings happen and stay on topic. "Moses chose capable people out of all Israel, and appointed them captains" (Ex. 18:25, cf. Deut. 1:9-18). This is no more than an administrative capacity. Feel free to rotate as captains if the demands are too onerous.
    Other group members still take the initiative in discharging their specific responsibilities for each other.
  • A group meets together at least once a week to review the previous assignment in person, discuss how each member plans to answer the next written assignment, clarify course material, and identify problems and misunderstandings.
  • A group should always have at least one representative at each lecture. (This means a group should not have all of its members on an athletic team, choir, or student group that may miss certain class meetings.)
  • Group members peer review each other's written assignments. (By contrast, I grade only a sample of your work.)
  • Each group studies together at least briefly before exams.
  • I do not envision groups turning into Bible studies, prayer circles, accountability groups, devotional societies, churches, cults, monastic communities, ménages à trois, communes, terror cells, political parties, labor unions, rock bands, or drug rings. These are just arrangements for one semester of regular study together.
  • All of this applies just as much when groups develop conflicts as it does when teams get along. Some of your groups will gel better than others. Some of you will assume more than your fair share of the work. Others will start free-riding as the pressure grows over the semester. Some of you will encounter unforeseen challenges that will burden both you and the rest of your group. Don't run away from the conflicts! George Barna claims that effective leadership is a matter of creating as well as resolving conflicts among people. When you consider the career of Jesus of Nazareth, that claim makes a lot of sense. Much of the history of God's people has involved pressure, frustration, issues, and failure as well as relief, joy, resolution, and victory. Both are occasions for training in Christian theology and history.

I encourage you to discharge these responsibilities by helping each other even when you do not always feel qualified to do it. We teachers do not always feel qualified either. Nor did the disciples Jesus entrusted with the good news.

Every semester a couple of small groups fail because someone stops taking them seriously. Every member of the group then suffers. If you will not follow through with these responsibilities, then please do not take them on in the first place.

I am your coach.

The most intimidating task I face as a professor in a Christian liberal arts environment is to model faithful Christian scholarship. It might ease that task to clear up some misconceptions:

  • I am not an expert and you the ignorant who sit at my feet to absorb my learning. Your startling observations and my carefully hidden blind spots show me I really do not know all that much more about these aspects of the Christian tradition than you do.
  • I am not a captivating orator and you my rapt audience. Your faces and eyelids tell me I bore as often as I inspire.
  • I am not an evangelical genius and you the simple for whom I do the heavy intellectual lifting to defend the faith. Your intelligence and cleverness often exceed mine — to my delight. And theology is about much, much more than just defending the faith.
  • I am not a holy man and you my disciples. We are fellow sinners and (many of us) fellow disciples, and many of you are above me in our school’s informal spiritual hierarchy.
  • I am not your personal trainer and you my personal clients. With a regular teaching load of three classes and more than one hundred students, I have to assign more work than I can personally evaluate. That kind of doting is counterproductive anyway. My water polo coach didn't hover over us all season grading every pass and every lap. Often he would give us a task and then return to his office, spot-checking occasionally but waiting until scrimmages or game time to see how well we were doing. His absence gave us space to became responsible. My courses work the same way.
  • I am not your waiter, butler, nanny, or cruise director. This is not a shopping mall or spa or day-care center or amusement park. It is a college. As the father of four young children I am familiar with the difference between constructive criticism on the one hand and cynicism, defiance, truancy, surrendering, whining, pouting, grumbling, nagging, fuming, nettling, eye-rolling, and other manifestations of brattiness on the other. You are called and gifted to be associates, not consumers. Let us submit to each other only out of reference for Christ (Eph. 5:21).

Those are what I am not. I am called to be a teacher – a trainer, coach, and leader in the traditions of my disciplines – and you are called to be players, at least for a season. (If you cannot bear calling me "Telford," how about "Coach"? Students began doing that in one of my classes in 2002, and I have never felt more honored.)

As your teacher, my goal is to help you learn how to "play" in this tradition. My classes are designed to cultivate a love of the game, sharpen skills and practices, explain written and unwritten rules, channel enthusiasm, and encourage faithful creativity.

If (and only if!) learning to play also suggests you that this practice is involved in God's call for your life, — and I think it probably is for most of you — then I have further goals for our time together: conversion, transformation, and sanctification. My leadership aims then to show you how to become a player — someone whose life is characterized by involvement in this tradition — not just for a short trial season, but for a lifetime.

If you keep challenges in your life to acquire and extend these skills — not just for a semester but for, say, ten years — you will become more than players. You will become experts. According to the work of K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University (profiled in an article in Scientific American called "The Expert Mind"),

Motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports — all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing — professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families. Furthermore, success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation. ...

(The jab at "academic credentialing" is well placed. With some exceptions (theology not among them), the academy has not done nearly as well in advancing our fields of study as music, chess, or sports. That suggests to me that if school were more like music, chess, or sports, it would be a lot more effective not just for today's students but especially for tomorrow's.)

The Bible's many stories of unlikely people who became pivotal figures in salvation history bears Ericsson out. Was talent the key to Moses' success? David's? Paul's? Jesus'? It was part of the package, but the biggest part was sheer faithfulness. We are called to join such figures and share their legacies, because we belong to the body of Christ. You and I can do all this not just by our own efforts but by the Holy Spirit’s gifts. Some of those gifts include the challenges themselves and the mission to meet them.

I have the gifts for my tasks in this process, and you have the gifts for yours. I delight in your gifts as much as you. This class will try to discourage you from returning them unopened.

Our subject is an activity, not an idea.

Our culture has driven a wedge between what it calls "theory" and what it calls "practice." This allows some people to twist academic learning into irrelevant "head-knowledge," experience into unassailable "heart-knowledge," and unreflective practical living into authentic "body-knowledge."

Divorcing these things is a mistake, and a heretical one at that. To love God with all our heart, mind, self, and strength is one love, not four.

Furthermore, privileging your favorite over the others either makes you spiritually arrogant (if your favorite is your strength) or spiritually ashamed (if it is your weakness). Neither makes for true learning.

What we are studying is a life, not just a set of facts. It is a tradition. Practice comes first, but it never comes alone. Course material, tasks, and readings will return us to our churches, the world, Scripture, and our own relationships and devotional life. Then they will call us back into the classroom to reflect together on what we have learned. My classes are all about showing the relations that make these what they are.

Part of our work involves confronting and overcoming the compartmentalization of heart, mind, and strength that debilitates your generation as well as mine. You will frustrate the purposes of this class and impede your own progress if you insist on compartmentalizing these things or setting one above the others.

Asking you to stop divorcing mind, heart, self, and strength is a tall order. It challenges some cherished cultural (and perhaps personal) assumptions. I am asking you to see an academic subject in practice, not just in books. I am asking you to judge bravely and honestly whether your assumptions, convictions, and even experiences might be wrong. I am asking you to see your world and your life in light of our course content, and vice versa.

Our subject is a challenge.

All this takes work — hard work — because it means we are rowing against the cultural current. The easiest thing in the world for me to do as a teacher would be to reduce these courses to some list of facts you would dutifully duplicate in your notebooks and reproduce on exams in the few days before you forget it all. I refuse to surrender to that temptation. Surrendering would both betray the subjects I would allegedly be teaching and withhold your education. It would perpetuate and even reward your immaturity and fragmentation. Ericsson argues that

what matters is not experience per se but 'effortful study,' which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence.

You will get a semester's worth of this, and it will be enough to teach you quite a bit. I hope it does more, though. I want it to kick-start a cycle of rigorous theological spirituality in your life in which you stay challenged long enough to become more than just an amateur theologian:

Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam — most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

Rather than just heaping facts upon you, I try to train you in ways of seeing and living that are substantiated by rich detail, in the hope that you will grow to see how the little pictures show the big picture and how the big picture gives meaning to the little pictures. As time goes on the details may fade, but the habits and big picture will remain. (If you stay with the subject, the details won't fade, and the habits will get stronger and stronger until you are a new person.)

I choose readings to challenge you, not just inform you. Some will be relatively accessible, others more difficult. Some will contradict each other and even contradict my lectures. All will offer constructive challenges to move you into greater maturity.

This may take some getting used to, because we are used to intellectual fashion rather than genuine intellectual challenge. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, exiled from the Soviet Union as a dissident, had this to say to the faculty of Harvard in 1978:

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the [communist] East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era.

This is even truer of western college campuses today than it was in 1978.

In my doctrine classes, my readings confront you with faithful challenges from evangelicals, postmodernists, liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, atheists, and others. In history classes, they confront you with honest reflection on the Christian past from secularists as well as various Protestants and Catholics. In world religions classes, they confront you with fair accounts of foreign religious traditions by their own adherents, by Christians, and by confessionally aloof scholars. Listen to these voices! Whatever they are, they are not a herd. Christians see things in wonderfully different ways, and even unbelievers have much to teach us. Get used to hearing different opinions! People often disagree for very good reasons. Don't flee to either the easy certitude of absolutism or the easy agnosticism of relativism. Those are dead ends, as well as cop-outs. (Yes, there is something else besides these two. You have been relying on it for your entire life. Look at yourself and you might discover what it is.)

I search for well written texts, because the hours you spend reading should bring you delight, and because you will write better if you read better material. (Sometimes I assign my own material anyway.)

Class time focuses on changing you, not just informing or amusing you. In this dark age, college degrees are passports to success, courses are commodities that consume tuition in order to fulfill graduation requirements, assignments are hurdles to be overcome or bypassed, class time is entertainment to be enjoyed or detention to be endured, and an academic transcript is a credential that doesn't necessary signify a true education. All this is a pity.

In the light of the Kingdom, class meetings are priceless settings that bring us into each other's actual presence and gather us for a common purpose. I try to make these moments of corporate transformation. In class I want us to inspire each other, help each other, learn from each other’s mistakes (mine included), and discover together the significance of our topic.

All my courses are writing intensive. Student writing either reinforces the relatively poor (and sometimes atrocious) writing habits you generally bring with you, or reinforces the healthy writing habits we all work so hard to instill.

While our classes generally have e-mail discussion lists, I have moved away from encouraging student interaction through e-mail, as it seems to reinforce poor syntax and sloppy reasoning. After having my fill of grading stacks of illegible, poorly reasoned in-class essays, I have moved away from these too. Reading poor written work is discouraging and debilitating, and I intend to do no more than is absolutely necessary. My exams are now multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank. These can be graded in class while the class still cares about the right answers.

These changes free us to write more and write better. In my lower division classes I assign regular written exercises in a variety of genres. The writing tasks force you into a regular reading, thinking, and writing schedule. They hold you formally and radically accountable for writing well, citing sources properly, introducing and organizing your answer, answering the entire question, and drawing on all the requested sources. They also make you edit rather than merely write, and judge fellow students' arguments rather than simply develop your own. So editing makes for more conscientious writing. I strive to ask questions that force you to engage the material in deep, even life-changing ways.

In my upper division classes I assign seminar-style written presentations from each of you, and sometimes require daily reading summaries that force you into habits of critical reading, coherent writing, and insightful inquiry.

Learning requires lots and lots of practice. Remember, "'effortful study' ... entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence." This article explores the fact that we forget what we learn unless we practice it beyond the point of mastery. So you have not one or two papers but eight or more. You have not a few chances to read theological writing but many. Our written assignments do what problem sets do in math and science classes: they give you sustained experience in the discipline.

The experience itself matters more to me than the precision of the grades your exercises receive. (In fact, I do not even grade all your work, though I do record everything I receive.) On the work I do evaluate, you will receive much more feedback from group members than from me. While group members will offer fairly precise numeric judgments, my own grades will be 'rounded off' to conserve my own time and to help keep everything fair. The point is not for your work to earn credit; the point is for you to learn and remember the Christian faith. I only wish I could extend the training period beyond a semester. (In fact, maybe I will.)

The God-given structure of human learning places heavy loads on both you and me, but as long as the results are true educations and changed lives, I am willing to bear them, and so far you have been willing too. After all, the alternative is ignorance and ineffectiveness. I have been inspired and moved by the sheer dedication of my students in meeting the demands I place on you. After you get over the shock, you seem to love the challenge and appreciate the respect it implies. I certainly love the respect for you that it evokes in me.

Grades measure outcomes, not efforts.

A typical remark I receive on end-of-semester course evaluations of my grading is "tough but fair." I take this opinion as a high compliment (though many students think I am tougher than I do).

Still, occasionally a student will object that he or she has put in so much effort — (hours! days! even coming to class all semester!) — that a higher grade is in order. Would I please look over my gradebook and see what I can do?

Alas, Karl Marx's labor theory of value — the theory that value is a function of how much work goes into a product — is not how life works: not in America, not in Russia or China, not even in the Wonderland of academia. (Actually, "fortunately" rather than "alas", for if Marx were right there could be no true labor saving devices and productivity could never really increase.)

I sometimes offer extra-credit assignments that explicitly award effort, but I generally measure a student's progress by quality, not quantity, of thinking. Your grade reflects how well you have done, not how hard you have worked. This means that if a lot of hard work still "earns" you only a low grade, you can still be proud of yourself.

As for requests for a re-grade:

If you catch a mathematical or administrative error, by all means please bring it to my attention. I like to fix these!

If you believe the quality of your work has been unfairly graded, feel free to bring an assignment back to me for another look. I warn you in advance that a second look sometimes reveals problems that go unnoticed in the context of a whole stack of similar essays, and if I find them I may lower your score as a result. Not many people come away from an IRS audit owing fewer taxes. You should probably re-submit work only if you are truly confident that I have failed to see its strengths.

If you are just disappointed or frustrated with a grade and you suspect that you have been mistreated, then feel free to see me or write me an e-mail — but I recommend that before you press the "Send" button you wait until twenty-four hours have passed and you have given both the assignment and your message a second look. You may also want to run your case by your small group to see if they agree with you.

After the semester ends, please do not ask me to raise your course grade by somehow conjuring additional credit out of assignments whose grades you have already seen and accepted. I am not an alchemist and I am not corrupt. Requests like these really ruin a professor's day and reflect poorly on the students who make them.

Our subject is serious.

I try not to take myself too seriously, but I take the course topic very seriously. Every course I teach matters to me, and I want it to matter to you.

Yet this course is not just about you. In fact, it is not even primarily about you. Nor is it primarily about me. It is about the reign of God.

Why am I here? It sure isn't the money. Nor is it the enticements of grading stacks of papers, constructing test questions, serving on committees, or researching possible cases of plagiarism. It isn't even the thrill of hearing myself talk. I'm here for transformation: Not just my own transformation, and not just yours – and not just any transformation, but the specific transformation of all God's creation in the Kingdom of his Son and Heir.

"Do not be conformed to this age," Paul tells a church he has not yet met, "but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2). What keeps me up at night and gets me out of bed in the morning is the sheer joy of the chance to facilitate that transformation. You are offered this gift every day of your life, and right now you are highly favored to be given it in the form of a Christian college education. But transformation must be received as well as given. Beyond the considerable financial sacrifice and the army of faculty, staff, and fellow students, it demands hard work, patience, diligence, courage to face seemingly insurmountable challenges, personal and collective discipline, cautious submission to the authority of mentors, confidence to step into physical and theological adulthood, trust in the truth, openness to its variety, wariness about its rivals and deceivers.... Transformation demands all you have, and offers all you might become.

"Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them ... in proportion" (Rom. 12:6). I am not asking for more than God has given you; but God will not settle for less. I set high expectations on myself and on you, because our Lord has set even higher expectations on us all. If this is what we are called to do, then we are required to do it with all God gives us, and God has given us much. Moreover, the Kingdom’s economy offers us the extraordinary satisfaction of unworthy servants who have still done their work well and faithfully.

We are at war.

There is a reason that in the New Testament military imagery for Christian life is even more popular than athletics. Even after the victory of the cross, Christian life is a battle. We don't walk it so much as run it and fight it.

Don't let the movies fool you: Fighting a war is much more than just engaging in combat. An old military saying goes, "Armchair warriors study strategy, lieutenants study tactics, and generals study logistics." It involves funding, equipment, training, supply, coordination, leadership, strategy, defense, innovation, initiative, adaptation, correction, and lots of drudgery. What we do is usually difficult, often boring, and sometimes painful. The alternative is defeat. Which do you prefer?

We don't just fight an enemy "out there." More often the enemies are within: Sloth, boredom, apathy, frustration, incompetence, ignorance, insecurity, cynicism, pride, shame, envy, prejudice, distraction, heroism, cowardice, and impatience. Lackadaiscal standards pervade our educational system to the point that they are aften considered cool. Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist, was asked how teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy was different from teaching at his own Cal State school. He replied:

It's been a nice change of pace. In 20 years of teaching, I've never had everyone come to class. Here, nobody misses class. They are all on time, and they all stay. In California, 20% of the people don't come to class. Of those who come, 20% leave early. And another 20% come late. So that's what is different. I'm teaching just 40% of my students.

With Christian life a battle, Christian schools should be more like that military academy than that state school. Yet many Christians have simply deserted the battle scene rather than defeat these enemies from within. No wonder western Christianity is so weak! No wonder outsiders don't take it seriously! Why should they?

The irony is that the enemies are eminently defeatable, because God has given us the incomparably powerful Holy Spirit with which to fight. They prosper not because they are more powerful, but because we refuse to take them on and even lend them our own power.

The Christian tradition is always one generation away from extinction, and today many of our churches are closer to that extinction than we have been in a long time. Yet every new day is a fresh opportunity to get our act together and do the work Jesus entrusted only to us as we wait for his return in glory. Every new day the Spirit is here among us to turn the tide in the war already won. What more could we ask for?

Welcome to my class. If a grade is all you want, then when our time together is over and your assignments are all submitted, you can go in peace with a new letter on your transcript and with my blessings. I took classes myself in college that I felt that way about. But if you're after a transformation, an education, a preparation for the only battle that finally matters, then quit thinking of these readings, assignments, and class hours as demands put to you by an overbearing administration and a fanatical professor, and start thinking of them as sacrifices for exchanging who you now are for who God intends you to be — and through you, the whole creation.

Count the cost, and prepare to be changed.