Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Nazarene Higher Ed

So, a number of Nazarene universities have been making headlines lately, not for the best of reasons. This typically brings up a lot of conversation about the purpose of such institutions, college in general, and the philosophy of education. I'm a big fan of the liberal arts. I believe the purpose of education is to form a person. The acquiring of skills and knowledge for a particular field or endeavor is certainly part of the process, but not the focus - at least from my perspective. Much of this opinion comes from my own experience, in which, although I received a stellar technical education in History at Eastern Nazarene College, far more important was the personal formation made possible by those classes and the atmosphere of the institution.

I went to school in New England - that bastion of liberal arts - at the only Nazarene school still a college, and proud of it (New England might be the only part of the country where achieving "university status" is considered a downgrade). Liberal Arts have traditionally been a luxury of the rich, although places like the Nazarene system were founded precisely to bring a liberal arts education to anyone who sought to work hard for it, and it is still a luxury, to be sure.

I get why people don't want to rack up debt for an education. That makes financial sense. Although I do wonder whether those disagreements are simply just a difference in perspective about education (with neither side being "wrong"). Even as someone who's now 12 years removed from college graduation and still paying one final student loan off, I recognize the value of a liberal arts education precisely because I experienced a really wonderful personally formative experience - the experience was worth the time and money, so whether the education was worth it is really irrelevant to me.

We talk about the Nazarene higher ed institutions being much less "Nazarene" than they used to be with some measure of hand-wringing. It used to be, in large part, if you were a Nazarene who went to college, you went to a Nazarene college, probably your regional school. That's just not the case anymore, for a number of reasons. There's a lot of disagreement about how we tackle that issue.

I imagine we've stopped selling the notion of a Christian liberal arts education as a value in itself. There is indeed more risk these days - you used to be able to literally work your way through college, paying as you went. Now, loans are a big deal, even with increased financial aid packages. Loans are certainly manageable if you plan well, but some unexpected trouble and they can be devastating (especially if you don't graduate). I think there's great value in the experience (and the education), but the idea has to be sold. We, as a denomination, aren't doing a great job of it (likely because there are fewer leaders totally sold on the idea themselves, which is, again, not necessarily wrong). But, if we just assume our kids will see the value of attending a Nazarene school on their own, then our Nazarene student numbers will plummet... oh, wait... yeah.

The other aspect of things, though, and this is where the real rub happens (sorry for making you wade through all the rest to get to my real point), is that our institutions are struggling to remain Nazarene, not just in student composition, but in purpose and mission. It's not just a "Christian" liberal arts experience (which is really important), but a specifically Nazarene one (which I, as a very biased observer, believe to be superior in a lot of ways).

A good portion of the scholarship funds at our Nazarene schools come from annual contributions from congregations. The schools depend on those resources desperately. Still, it's been known for a while that our denomination really cannot support all the schools we have in the US, but of course all of them have a history and a constituency and none of them want to close. The only alternative is to compete in the market with other schools. So long as our districts control the trustees (which I'm not against, but I do think accreditation groups will put an end to it in the near future), they're going to be relatively conservative Christian institutions - and to compete in that marketplace, some aspects of Nazarene distinction just have to be downplayed.

We're Wesleyan, and while I don't think you have to be Calvinist to compete in the generic conservative Christian college marketplace, our tendency towards theological progressiveness, creativity, and exploration is not always super convenient. A specifically Nazarene mission of extending the chance at college to kids who might not have done well in high school or come from difficult backgrounds - if we think they can hack it - doesn't look great to the ratings agencies - yet I find it hard to call a school Nazarene that isn't specifically looking to highlight and support the poor and marginalized. Moving to a more academically based selection process might make a school more competitive, but it MIGHT also make it less Nazarene (again, not in student makeup - I don't think that's as important - but in mission and purpose).

These changes have been coming gradually, but consistently as a reality of the space the schools inhabit. There is some real necessity there. To compete in this broader marketplace, schools really need a "corner." You see Point Loma really embracing a social and environmentally conscious identity. ENC is working hard (and succeeding incredibly well) at embracing diversity. For any of the Nazarene higher ed institutions to keep moving they've got to develop these distinctives. One easy option appears to be "generically evangelical," competing with places like Messiah or Liberty or Wheaton (all good schools, mind you), and perhaps inhabiting a space that is less specifically Nazarene.

I believe a lot of these issues we've seen spring up of late fall under the category of searching for this identity, the right identity to thrive in the future. I don't envy those charged with managing these institutions. It's just a really, really difficult job. I'm not writing this to try and make some particular change or any change at all - it's more a (far too lengthy) explanation of why we find ourselves where we do that might, perhaps, help spur further conversation.

Our Nazarene schools have done a lot of great things, investing and training thousands of people to contribute positively to the world. They'll all likely continue to do this, but in the years ahead, challenges will make it difficult for them to be as connected to what it means to be Nazarene (if we know what that means anymore anyway) as they've been in the past. I hope and pray we'll find ways to meet and overcome those challenges.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

What is Your Business?

As Christians, one of the ways we've adopted the way of the world is our obsession with privacy. We're just as prone as anyone else to say, "that's none of your business." Yes, sometimes it's not. I think I have an old post here about the difference between privacy and propriety. But I do believe that depends on context, not content. I can't think of anything in my life, given the right context, it wouldn't be appropriate or necessary to share. Yes, those contexts may be few and far between, but they exist.

As a general rule, a Christian life should be open - open to inspection and question, suggestion and caution, open to correction, discussion, and outside influence. Privacy is not a luxury Christian enjoy. That's difficult for us, living in a society that prizes privacy as much as anything. We like the notion of independence, self-determination, and the ability to say, "that's none of your business." Building that wall around ourselves, one whose access is controlled by us, is comforting. No doubt.

I'm not sure it's helpful, though.

Recently, a large purchase by one of my denomination's leaders made waves because it got picked up by a big city newspaper. It was sort of unfortunate all around, especially because a lot of the discussion it spawned turned pretty personal, judgmental, and vindictive. That was sad. Obviously, one needs some sort of relationship with the guy to be able to truly ask questions about this specific purchase. At the same time, I was excited to see people willing to talk about something US society tends to avoid - money, spending, income, investments, giving, lifestyle, etc. I think these are important things, worthy of real examination.

Obviously there was a personal example floating around, so it wasn't like we could totally speak in hypotheticals - but I have some real internal conflicts between the way we're taught to behave with money (both culturally and within the Church) and the words Jesus used about money and the future and how we're best to respond to those things.

What became frustrating was how simply and easily such questions were shot down, even in the generic. I'd love to sit down and have a conversation with someone about my own finances, asking and evaluating exactly the same kind of questions we were asking about the leader in question. I think that kind of loving scrutiny can only help expand my perspective and energize my imagination for more and better attempts to be faithful.

One of the go to responses when people get uncomfortable with such conversation about someone else is, "why don't you lay out your checkbook for us and let us go over how you spend your money." In one Facebook thread I started to do just that - laying out some basic spending habits and decisions we've made for our family, with a promise of more detail if the discussion continued - I mean it when I say my life is an open book. The response was one of awkward negation, "I was only being rhetorical." I've had the same interaction with people many times, to the same result. It just seems like this kind of openness and examination should not only be normal, accepted behavior for Christians, but welcomed and encouraged.

There are problems inherent in this, especially when we're not culturally used to these discussions. They'll be awkward and floundering at times, but they're important. Yes, some people are too quick to speak and do so with unhelpful motives. But lots of other people are too reluctant to speak with equally unhelpful motives.

As Christians, the way we act, including what we make and how we spend it, is someone else's business. It's all our business, because we're accountable to each other and responsible for each other. I'm not saying it's easy, but we have to work hard to have personal discussions about things our culture generally names off limits. It's only going to do us good in the long run.

One thing for sure, though, as we move quickly to quiet those voices looking to challenge for selfish or unloving motives, we must be careful to just as quickly challenge those looking to maintain silence or exclusion in the interest of privacy. Questions are good. Discussion is good. New perspectives are important, valuable, and helpful. Yes we need relationship and context and all of those other things, but mostly we need to simply trust each other. If we really believe we're doing this journey called life together, we're going to get where we want to be quickest and easiest if we do it together.

It's not my business or your business; it's OUR business - and we can't forget that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Jesus and The Americans

So, my favorite TV show right now is probably The Americans. It's a fantastic story about two Russian spies in the US in the 80's - except they came to the US in the 60's and have infiltrated normal American life - two kids, house in the suburbs, the whole works. It's deep cover kinda stuff. The show is interesting because on top of all the spy stuff going on, they're just regular people with regular problems (and a whole extra set of spy problems on top of it all).

One of the interesting subplots in the show (and I don't think I'll give a ton away here, but if you're a super stickler for spoilers, you might want to have someone else read it first) is the daughter, Paige, who ends up rebelling against her parents by joining a church and becoming a Christian. It's difficult for her atheist, communist parents to deal with (the same thing every teenager and parents deal with, just interesting particulars). On a show filled with metaphors and allusions, this subplot is ripe for many of them.

We've just finished season three now and, as we've all been expecting, Paige finally finds out what her parents do. They've told her they're spies from Russia and if she tells anyone (even her younger brother), her parents will probably go to jail forever. It's a lot for a 15 year old to process. She has a really tough time. She always felt her parents were hiding something, but she never expected this.

There's a couple episodes where she's struggling with her identity - trying to figure out who she really is and what it all means. What's so fascinating to me, though, as a Christian, is that Paige's identity crisis is not about whether she should be loyal to Russia or the US, but whether she can deal with the reality of what her parents are/do and still be a Christian.

I mean she's a teenager, growing up in a house where, let's face it, her parents were not super patriotic. Now she's in a situation where her whole life, essentially, is a lie - and if she's going to continue to live it, she'll also have to be a liar. It's in direct contradiction with the faith she's chosen (and a faith that's provide some real depth and stability in her life).

As a pastor, it's this sort of decision about allegiance I try to communicate to people as necessary to wrestle with. The way of Christ is inherently different than the way of the world and culture around us (whether its Soviet communism or American free-market capitalism) - there are real choices we're forced to make revolving around what we believe and how we'll act in response.

To see this sort of identity crisis played out on TV is pretty profound. It's probably the most authentic representation of Christian faith you'll see anywhere on TV (including the "Christian" channels or all those bible-based miniseries out right now). This is what the gospels are all about - Jesus preaching a new way, something different from what we've come to expect. This is what the letters of Paul are all about - how to live differently in the midst of a contradictory culture. It's the sort of question our generic, americanized version of Christianity seems to be squeezing out of public (and Christian) discourse in recent years.

I'll be interested to see how much of this faith conflict makes it onto the screen in future episodes of The Americans. Based on how they ended season three, it looks like it'll be pretty important to the start of season four. This decision between finding identity in Christ and finding identity in family is an issue with a long, complicated history. One of the best books I've ever read When the Church was a Family by Joseph Hellerman, delves deeply into it. I've loved this book for a while, recommended it to many and passed my own copy on as often as I can. I just quite expected The Americans to become a case study for the ideas therein.

Just another good reason to spend some time watching TV.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Difference Between Hope and Optimism

I finished my first reading of Walter Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination today. I know, it's a classic and I am embarrassed for not having read it before now. So much of my seminary education was influenced by people influenced by this amazingly influential little book. It's also very dense. So much so that I'll be diving in again once I bust through a book review book this week. There's so much to learn there - I need a second go 'round.

Towards the end of the book there's a little off-handed remark (it might even be in parentheses) that hope and optimism are not the same thing. He didn't even explain it, really, but it struck me as particularly profound. Optimism, as Brueggemann says often, is a pacification technique used by those in power - it is the notion that things will get better (especially if we hold the course). Hope, on the other hand, is a recognition that things, as they are, are broken. Hope looks outside ourselves to something (some one) else to make necessary changes. There is still a belief things will be different (better), but hope builds within us and motivates for change - change within, but change from outside. It is the instilling of hope that helps make the changes in action that lead to a different world.

We should not confuse optimism for hope, for there is little hope in optimism beyond whatever panacea brief, immediate peace may bring.

I'm sure I'll write more about the book as I tackle it a second time, but I'm energized by the notion of being a people of prophetic imagination - both unmasking the failures of the system in which we live and working to present an alternative more in line with God's intentions for creation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

All I Have Left to Say

As things have unfolded at Northwest Nazarene University, I've been watching closely. I wrote earlier about my concern over the message this sends to the denomination - a lot of people have picked up the difficulty we're having on this (and other) issue(s). There's a lot to be decided in the near future and we've got generations that really don't understand each other (a great message for a younger generation was delivered at my alma mater, Eastern Nazarene College, recently, by a friend and seminary classmate of mine - it's worth checking out). I think another friend and NTS classmate hit on the real importance of this situation - unity.

If you've made it through all those links, you're probably up to speed enough to understand what I'm saying. I think the real problem has been a conflation of many things, related, yes, but also separate, that is making any effort to do anything real difficult to parse. First, there is the difficult relationship NNU President David Alexander has had with his own faculty. It's not been a good relationship and there are a lot of issues to work through in terms of trust, communication, and collaboration. Second, there is the very real difficulty many denominational leaders in the Church of the Nazarene have with, at least, the way in which Tom Oord presents his theology. Third, there is the declining enrollment in NNU's graduate theology program, the failure of outsourcing recruiting, and how the school has chosen to address it. Clouding all three of these issues in the general tenor of distrust and protectionism that's been rumbling through the Church of the Nazarene at large in recent years.

All of these things are related, but none are necessarily connected (in the very strictest definition of the word: they don't HAVE to be addressed together). Because of this, it seems we have all manner of disparate angry people upset to different degrees about various elements of a complicated problem.

I don't have a dog in this fight - other than my place as an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, the son of an NNU Trustee, and a friend of Tom Oord. In other words, there are some larger, less tangible things at stake for me personally, but there're an awful lot of people I care about who are right in the middle of this. I'll try not to speak out of turn and nothing here is anything beyond my perception of the situation. My only hope and aim in writing about this one more time is to hopefully provide some clarity for those who may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the conversation.

1) I have very little to say about the relationship between NNU's President and it's faculty. The faculty are obviously pretty upset. I've known some faculty who've been upset for years. They're going to have to figure out a way to work together - and that means growth and change from both sides. I pray they'll be able to do it.

2) Tom Oord has chosen (as is his duty as an academic) to explore some areas of theology that break new ground. He's asking and attempting to answer questions that a lot of us wrestle with. I don't always agree with Tom - sometimes it feels like he's trying to put together the theological version of Stephen Hawking's Unified Field Theory and the missing pieces prove elusive - but I am encouraged by his efforts, because they are the same ones that intrigue and capture me. I hope what he's thinking and talking and writing about is not out of bounds - but I'm pretty biased on that account, since it would put me over the line as well.

Tom is a kind and gracious person, which is difficult to reconcile with claims that he leaves students with too many questions and not enough answers. I know they moved him to upper level courses in recent years partly because of these concerns. I do believe Tom does what many professors are (reasonably) leery to do, namely playing devil's advocate and challenging student thinking without always wrapping up the discussion in a nice bow of confidence. I think this is a fair and good way to teach (albeit with some inherent risks) - at the same time, I think having reservations about this style is also a fair position. There's a real (perhaps impossible) balance to consider when undergraduate education is involved. Tom's theology is far more controversial because he's a professor than it would be if he were a pastor in a local church.

I am one of those people for whom Tom's loving challenges have helped to explore new areas of thought and find real confidence in a faith that might otherwise be shaky. I can name a number of close friends, many of them ordained Nazarene ministers, who directly attribute their continued faith to Tom's influence. We're seeing many of the people Tom Oord has impacted in this way coming to his defense rigorously. I'm not sure it's good in a situation like this to weigh help and harm - it is always regrettable for a student to engage academically and lose their faith - but for those intent on doing so, please consider the many who likely would not have remained Christians without the freedom and permission a professor like Tom Oord provides.

That being said, as much as I might personally disagree with which places in the denomination those with authority determine are appropriate for Tom's particular teaching, I do think those we've given authority to in these matters have a right to make such decisions. There is certainly nothing different in Tom's method or belief that what we routinely encountered at Nazarene Theological Seminary (a place, were Tom to need one, I'd love for him to end up teaching) - a graduate seminary like NTS is certainly a more comfortable place than an undergraduate institution in this scenario.

I hope, if Tom Oord does move on from NNU, there is some great measure taken by the denomination or another denominational institution to include him, validate him, and bless him as a worthy leader in our tradition. I desperately pray this situation will not be one of the appropriateness of Tom Oord's theology and only an issue of the appropriate place for it.

3) NNU's online graduate programs have been pretty groundbreaking and pretty darn respectable over the years. They went after this market quickly and with great aptitude. I know a lot of people who've finished degrees through NNU and really enjoyed the experience. That being said, there is a very limited market for graduate theological degrees in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. That's just a fact. NTS is doing much better in competing for these students after really falling behind at the beginning. Outsourced marketing or not, there was very likely going to have to be faculty cuts at NNU as a simple reality of the marketplace. I find it sadly ironic that NNU's pursuit of ATS accreditation for a fully online MDiv program was likely to hasten the problems they're having with enrollment. Once other seminaries were given permission to replicate this model, things were only going to get more difficult.

If a cut was on the horizon (and thinking outside whatever is the required, agreed upon plan for making such cuts - something that internal NNU processes will adjudicate and something I've got no understanding of at all), the difficulties presented by Oord's presence (and the continued complaints, founded or otherwise), plus his immense position in the academy (and the reality that he'll likely have no trouble finding another job) are legitimate considerations for choosing him (even if they're easy to disagree with). I'd personally, if I were associated with NNU, want to keep as many of our best, brightest, and well-known faculty as I possibly could, even if it meant more headaches for me - I'd consider that worth the trouble. I can also understand why some might not consider it worth the trouble.

4) The Church of the Nazarene is in a bad spot. We just are. There's very little patience left with the administrative structure of the denomination and even less trust. There have been real witch hunts (or as real as such things get without actually hunting witches). We have leaders on record not just disagreeing, but denouncing various people, theologies, and ideas. While some apologies were given, the reverberations of such are always much less than those of the original statements.

I really feel the future of the denomination is walking out the door. Many of us are starting to wonder whether sticking around is going to get us thrown out the door in time. I'm not entirely pessimistic. I'm really not. I think there are enough people with enough grace to make things work going forward. I have a deep and abiding belief in the love of God to make the world right and in the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth, to make (and keep) us one, and to provide for a bright and unified future.

I guess I've written all of this to say: I'd love to see Tom Oord stay at NNU. I think he wants to be there and I think it's good for the school to have him there, even if it creates headaches and problems from time to time. At the same time, I don't think Tom having to leave is the end of the world. It would be sad, certainly worthy of grief, but there are many setbacks in life and even Tom believes in a God who works all things together for good, a God who holds the future (even if God doesn't always know the details).

What would be a real problem, though, is for this to be a referendum on Open Theism or a theology of non-coercive love or Tom Oord himself. We can't afford that. We can't afford this situation to become a theological dividing line. I know it won't be such a line in all places within our denomination, but it also can't be such a line at the center of our denomination. We must keep our pursuit of Christ-likeness at the center of our fellowship, unified around the pursuit of a holy life, even if we debate, discuss, and disagree about the ways some people get there.

So argue and debate and protest and mediate, but make sure you're aware of the complexities and make sure you're keeping God's gracious hospitality at the forefront of your mind.