Liberal Arts for the Christian Life (Book Review)

College.  If you had to do your life all over again, would you go to college?  A different college?  Do college differently?  Take it more seriously?  I had a great college experience at my alma mater Virginia Tech.  I changed my major a few times—from Mining Engineering, to Accounting, before finally settling on what they used to call “Management Science” (which is just another name for Information Technology).  During my two years or so of indecision, I toyed with studying history and English literature.  But the siren call of student loan repayments, and the fear of ending up like Pauly Shore’s “eternal college student” character in the movie “Son in Law” compelled me to avoid settling into the liberal arts.  That’s not a regret, because I’m satisfied with the way God has directed my path.  In fact, I think that, for me at least, pursuing the liberal arts—especially the creative arts—has been more profitable after college since I’ve matured as a person and become seasoned in life.  Still, I wonder what my life would have turned out like if I had chosen a Christian Liberal Arts college like Wheaton where esteemed Professor Leland Ryken teaches in the English department.  So when I stumbled across a used book that has been on my reading list for a long time that promised to scratch the itch, I snatched it up for a buck.  Liberal Arts for the Christian Life (LACL) is a collection of essays by Wheaton professors and influential alumni that highlight the value of a devoting the college years to the liberal arts from a Christian perspective.  The book is a festschrift—essays in honor of Leland Ryken and his distinguished teaching and publishing career at Wheaton.  As such its audience is two-fold: (1) prospective college students considering the lifelong benefits of a Christian liberal arts education, and (2) people like me who want a guide and reminder why liberal arts are worthy of our attention regardless of whether we attended a liberal arts college or not.  In this sense LACL is a kind of introduction that makes the case for devoted and sustained attention to liberal arts.

Just as with any book arranged as a collection of essays by various authors, some chapters are stronger than others.  But that is the beauty of a festschrift: chapters that seems weaker to me might be your favorites. With such a variety of topics discussed, such as music, humanities, history, natural and social sciences, theater, and the visual arts, there is likely something here for everyone.  But those topics occupy only one of five sections in the book.  Thus LACL is not just an introduction to the kinds of courses offered at a liberal arts college.  Rather this book is a description, explanation, and defense of liberal arts education.  Its purpose is to answer the who, where, when, why, and how questions, not just the what questions.  One proven method for getting an idea of what a book is about is to inspect the Table of Contents.  Notice how the different sections are arranged to take the reader on a tour of the liberal arts from start to finish.

Preface/Philip Ryken

The Student’s calling /Leland Ryken

SECTION 1: TERMINOLOGY AND BACKGROUND

1.The Countercultural Quest of Christian Liberal Arts /Jeffry C. Davis

2. Liberal Education and Book Learning /Lisa Richmond

3. Evangelicals, Colleges, and American Nation Building /Edith Blumhofer

SECTION 2: THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS

4. Liberal Arts Education and the Doctrine of Humanity /Roger Lundin

5. Faithful Christian Learning /Jeffrey P. Greenman

6. Liberal Arts as a Redemptive Enterprise /Wayne Martindale

7. Loving God as the Key to a Christian Liberal Arts Education /Duane Litfin

SECTION 3: HABITS AND VIRTUES

8. The Lost Tools of Learning and the Habits of a Scholarly Mind /Marjorie Lamp Mead

9. How to Read a Book /Alan Jacobs

10. Writing for Life /Sharon Coolidge

11. Listening, Speaking, and the Art of Living /Kenneth R. Chase

12. Educating for Intellectual Character /Jay Wood

13. Beyond Building a Résumé /Stephen B. Ivester

SECTION 4: DIVISIONAL AREAS OF STUDY

14. A World of Discovery through the Natural Sciences /Dorothy F. Chappell

15. Exploring a Universe of Relationships through the Social Sciences /Henry Allen

16. The Humanities as Indulgence or Necessity? /Jill Paláez Baumgaertner

17. Singing God’s Praise /Michael Wilder

18. Learning to Perceive through Visual Art /E. John Walford

19. Theater as an Imperfect Mirror /Mark Lewis

SECTION 5: THE END OF CHRISTIAN LIBERAL ARTS

20. Social Media and the Loss of Embodied Communication /Read Mercer Schuchardt

21. Learning to Live Redemptively in Your Own Body /Peter Walters

22. Personal Formation and the Understanding Heart /James Wilhoit

23. Learning for a Lifetime /John H. Augustine

24. The Gospel, Liberal Arts, and Global Engagement /Tamara Townsend

25. Liberal Arts in the New Jerusalem /Philip G. Ryken

From my perspective, some of the most interesting chapters are “How to Read a Book,” “Theater as an Imperfect Mirror,” and “Social Media and the Loss of Embodied Communication.”  The last chapter, “Liberal Arts in the New Jerusalem,” was the most creative and speculative as the author attempts to discern how the liberal arts will survive this world and eventually flourish in the new heavens and the new earth.  Including an orientation address by Leland Ryken to new students kicked off the book in fine fashion.

But I almost stopped reading after the “chapter 1” essay concluded with a somewhat ridiculous example of the career path of the author’s college roommate.  Seriously, I’ve never encountered an illustration before this one that was so ill-conceived.  Did he mean to splash cold water in the face of wide-eyed freshman?  How could someone want to pursue a liberal arts education, including all of money spent and debt accumulated, after considering Quinn’s post-college career path?

So where did Quinn end up, after all that time, effort, and money in the pursuit of two degrees from two different liberal arts institutions?  Today he delivers mail for the United States Postal Service in a major metropolitan city.  That has been his career for over twenty years now.  He would be the first to say that mail delivery does not represent his calling, nor would he say his education went to waste.  To the contrary, Quinn uses what he learned every week during the 70.6 hours that he spends in relationship with important people in his life, especially his best friend—his wife—and his two boys.  Quinn’s calling requires that he serve the people whom God brings across—and onto—his path each day, and he does that better because of his Christian liberal arts education.  As he walks with a bag of mail, traveling his daily route, making deliveries, he maintains his physical fitness (aerobic exercise without a gym), and he keeps his mind engaged (listening to audio books and sermons).  And in his free time, he actively participates in the life of his church, attends his kid’s sporting events and dramas, takes care of his aged parents, and finds creative fulfillment as an amateur inventor. [pp. 42-43]

Now please don’t take this criticism as elitist or classist.  I’m all for people working for the post office.  I’ve had family members work there.  It’s an honest living, a good job for many that puts food on the table and kids through college, and for some perhaps a life calling.  Here’s my point: to use this illustration as an encouragement to spend years and money on a liberal arts education is just not attractive to today’s high school graduate.  I mean, this essay author himself didn’t have a liberal arts education!  But he gained one vicariously by means of bunking with someone who did.  Through many sustained conversations, the author gained a satisfying semblance of liberal arts training.  The moral of this story seems to be make friends with a liberal arts major and room with him/her.  That way you may be free to pursue your life calling also in your career—to separate job and vocation is not good for mental health and keeps you away from your gift-mix sweetspot in God’s kingdom.  My two cents: if Christian colleges want to make the case that you should commit your post-high school years to studying liberal arts, then they need to make the educational product they offer affordable and somewhat preparatory for specific vocational training/schooling afterward.  There are far too many liberal arts graduates still saddled with crushing debt loads who mortgaged their futures for the “ideal” of four years of liberal arts college studies that never promised the ability to pay off student loans in the first place.  So what’s an answer to this conundrum?  Purposeful, self-directed study and a life of enjoying the liberal arts without buying the line that they can best be experienced from a classroom.  Perhaps I didn’t miss out on so much after all!

Resources

Why and How We Should Value the Classics, by Leland Ryken

Read a sample of LACL (Chapter 9: How to Read a Book)

Read a sample of LACL (Chapter 2: Liberal Education and Book Learning)

The Creative Arts, by Leland Ryken

Articles by Leland Ryken at Reformation 21

Articles by Leland Ryken at The Gospel Coalition

Articles by Leland Ryken at Monergism.com

Leland Ryken Bibliography

Leland Ryken written and audio resources at Southern Equip

Leland Ryken talks and sermons at SermonAudio

Reviews

Amazon

Digital Commons at George Fox University

Englewood Review of Books

Gene Fant of Union University

Goodreads

Nate Claiborne

Society for Classical Learning

Warp and Woof

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