College: What’s the Point? Embracing the Mystery of the Kingdom in a Postmodern World by David B. Van Heemst
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
At the university where I teach, David Van Heemst looms large. He’s a fixture in the political science department, where his enthusiasm and knowledge have shaped his program and continue to impact the lives of hundreds of students. In the years that I’ve been a part of this academic community, I have never once heard a student say a negative word about one of his classes. Van Heemst clearly has a vision of the Christian college experience, and it’s one that shapes his teaching and his interactions with his students. Not having been a student, I was curious about what this looked like, and the easiest way to find out seemed to be exploring the book he’s written on that subject.
College: what’s the point? is Van Heemst’s manifesto on the role of college as a series of opportunities through which students can become a part of God’s redemptive narrative during their four years at a Christian liberal arts university. The book encapsulates Van Heemst’s enthusiasm, his passion, and his mission in teaching. It’s built upon not only his broad knowledge on a variety of subjects related to higher education, social justice, healthy relationships, and Christian formation but also upon his experiences over the past decades teaching and observing college students.
Audience is important here, and I quickly realized that the book is not a work about choosing a college or whether or why college in general is important; it’s not a book examining the philosophy behind Christian education or attempting to answer the question of whether one should go to college or the relative merits between vocational and liberal arts training. The audience here is those who have already arrived, the students who for whatever reason have decided upon college and have found themselves at a Christian four-year institution. Now that they’re here, regardless of how they arrived, this is what Van Heemst wants them to hear: an impassioned call to making the most of these years, to grasping them as god-given opportunity to engage in god-given work.
For Van Heemst, there is one reason for college, one purpose behind the years spent in such a community, and it’s summed up by the book’s subtitle: “Embracing the mystery of the kingdom in a postmodern world.” Van Heemst begins the work by setting up the confusion and disillusionment that many students arrive to school with (though he may be overplaying this a bit for a place like Olivet, where many of the students seem to arrive quite content with the worldview they’ve inherited). He celebrates what he sees as the genuine desire of students for real meaning in their lives, a meaning he believes that the world at large has not been able to supply them with. That meaning instead can be found in a life of service to God and his kingdom. This is the primary message of the entire book– how to view and experience the formative college years in a Christian, missional context.
Van Heemst first explores three important questions a college student must explore: whether there’s a point to anything (his engagement with nihilism is an important theme of the book), what would happen if one didn’t go to college (or rather, what would happen if one wasted the opportunity college provides to become “a quality person”), and which worldview or narrative will shape one’s life. For this last question, he broadly outlines the appeals and pitfalls of the “ancient” (which he characterizes– a bit problematically– in broad terms as Platonic), modern, and post-modern views of reality. He contrasts these with a Christian view of reality and spends the second part of the book examining the Christian imperatives to work for peace and justice and to wrestle with God’s calling on one’s life to pursue these in a broken world. Finally, Van Heemst examines three primary ways in which a young Christian will be shaped socially and intellectually by his or her college experience: in mind, by friends, and in the search for a mate (more on this last in a moment).
As a political scientist, justice and peace-building play a huge role in this narrative, though Van Heemst implies that there are broader and more abstract ways these can be pursued than direct social engagement– such as through the arts or the natural sciences. Social justice is what he knows and is passionate about though, and one of the great strengths of his work is the testimonies he provides of students who came to college, had their eyes opened regarding the world’s injustices, and then went out into that world to begin the sometimes seemingly futile task of working for change. The whole work, but especially these passages, resonates with passion and hope; the book is a sermon, an appeal, to incoming students to not waste the time and opportunities that they are given but rather to see them all as sanctifying circumstances to grow as a person and as a servant. If you’re looking for a book that synthesizes the ideals of a private Christian liberal arts education– a place to gain tools, passion, and perspective– this is a good place to be begin.
There is, however, one chapter that to me seems highly problematic, and that’s the chapter on healthy sexual relationships. Here Van Heemst outlines the traditional view of Christian sexuality and challenges students to keep sex in the proper context of marriage. In the process, however, he makes explicit the assumption that marriage is the natural end-state of all Christian relationships. It’s the familiar mantra students hear again and again about coming to college to find one’s mate. As he states at the beginning of the chapter, “After all, the question isn’t whether you’ll have sex, the question is when you’ll have sex.” The option of singleness or a life of chastity– which has always been a part of the historical Christian tradition and often prized as a more excellent calling than the life of marriage– is reduced to a single hypothetical bullet point. There was a chance here to bring a new depth and dimension to a discussion that continues to alienate many young people, but it was missed.
Finally, in as much as the passion that bleeds through every page of this work is challenging and laudable– and indeed I found myself personally challenged by the author’s call to deeper social engagement, to seeking ways to bring peace and justice into my own community– the copy-editing for this volume is inexcusable. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a comma Nazi, but even with reigning in some of my normal pickiness the book is littered with sentences of rough, uneven, and sometimes downright unintelligible structure due to inconsistent comma usage. On top of that, there are proliferate typos of an extent that make certain entire passages unclear: god for good, up for us– even entire omitted words abound.
The ideas in this book are solid. Indeed, I would say that any incoming student– who has already committed to attending the sort of Evangelical school that Van Heemst represents here– should read and be challenged by this book. Van Heemst represents the ideal of a Christian education: college as an opportunity to have one’s worldview challenged, to have one’s comfortable bubble pricked and one’s eyes open to the depth of cruelty and injustice in the world, and as a place to be given the tools, the training, and the spiritual and social support over four years to do something about it. Van Heemst gives the call in this book to join and fully engage with such a community with his characteristic passion, depth of knowledge, and experience. These are not simply ideas; this is something he is doing with his own teaching and career. College: what’s the point isn’t simply an appeal to students; it’s the heartbeat of a Christian educator.