by John Wilson
God's Harvard: A Tragicomedy
The soundtrack is "Million Dollars Bail" from Peter Case's new CD, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John. Thanks again to David Dark for putting me onto this Case. Goes well with my re–reading of the Chandler canon. In fact, Chandler could have written a story around this song.
I was down at Baylor University last week to visit Brooks College, a new residential college that complements Baylor's strong Honors College. My hosts were Douglas Henry, the master of the college, and Brooks students Ben Collins (pre–med) and Justine Robinson (international business). The jewel of the college is Robbins Chapel. Be there for morning prayer if you are on campus. In addition to meeting with students, I had a chance to connect with old friends and new acquaintances on the faculty. All in all it was a most encouraging visit. As I mentioned last week, Mike Hamilton will be reviewing the Barry Hankins and Don Schmeltekopf–edited volume, The Baylor Project (St. Augustine's Press), in the November/December issue of Books & Culture. That will appear in a section also featuring Tal Howard on Stanley Hauerwas' The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God, Brad Wilcox on Michael Lindsay's Faith in Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Élite, and Bruce Kuklick on social theory in America. Stay tuned.
Speaking of higher education and attempts to penetrate "the American élite," Hanna Rosin's book on Patrick Henry College—God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America—has just been published by Harcourt. Many of you will be familiar with Rosin's work in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She's a sharp reporter, and when she's writing about evangelical Christians and their kindred spirits she makes more effort than most of her peers do to be fair. I hope she enjoyed a long vacation after completing this book, which required her to be "embedded" at the college (and the homes of students and so on) for eighteen months, a task I would find more daunting than a journalistic stint in Iraq.
Among those whose praise appears on the back of the book is Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, who says he finds Rosin's book "very unnerving." Coll's prizewinning book is subtitled "The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." I read it after Mark Noll recommended it to me. Obviously Coll is not easily unnerved. So as I was reading Rosin's chatty, fast–paced narrative, I kept wondering when I was going to get to the part that made Steve Coll nervous. It never happened.
The publicity material accompanying Rosin's book describes Patrick Henry as a "nerve center of the evangelical movement," which Rosin's "account captures … at a moment of maximum influence." Hmmm. This is a bit like homing in on a single madrassah and making ludicrously exaggerated claims for its centrality to the global Islamist movement. In fact, like that movement, evangelicalism—both as a global phenomenon and in its specifically American form—is radically decentralized. And one of the services that Rosin's book provides is to remind all of us—insiders and outsiders alike—how unwieldy and many–sided that movement is.
Very early in her book, Rosin describes Patrick Henry's students as "an elite corps" within the "third of Americans who call themselves 'evangelical.' " In fact, the students at Patrick Henry—and the adults who are wholly committed to the mission of the college—represent only a small segment of evangelicals, overlapping to some extent with fundamentalism. To many of these students and their parents, evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College, Calvin College, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Christianity Today magazine would seem to have lost their way, caught up in accommodation to secular cultural norms.
Rosin shows how difficult it is for Patrick Henry's students to pursue a strong commitment to conservative activism—requiring them to penetrate the citadels of the mainstream culture—without compromising their own understanding of Christian discipleship and what it entails. Indeed, she shows how even within the narrow, self–defined boundaries of the Patrick Henry community, tensions over how best to be true to the college's mission and the demands of the faith led to a devastating schism. It's a story many lifelong evangelicals will find all too familiar.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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