Monthly Archives: April 2015

Scholarship Reconsidered

Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the ProfessoriateScholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate by Ernest L. Boyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What exactly do we mean when we say scholarship? On some level, it’s simply whatever scholars do when they’re not teaching or in meetings or preparing for class. It is, in the popular conception, research: spending time in laboratories, pouring through sources, writing out one’s thoughts– communicating creative ideas based on original research, meaningfully reviewed by one’s peers, and communicated with one’s field. It is the production of knowledge.

Yet (at my institution at least) there has long been discussion of other “models” of scholarship: the scholarship of integration, the scholarship of application, and the scholarship of discovery. (My institution being a Christian university, the scholarship of “faith integration” is often tacked onto this list as well.) I never quite understood what these distinctions were about, despite the fact that my own PhD was in an integrated history/philosophy program, and when discussion of the “scholarship of integration” came up in a talk with a colleague about a new university program, I realized it was probably time I familiarize myself with the work in which Ernest Boyer first lays out this model.

Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate  was published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a “special report” in 1990, the result of an extensive survey of American professors. The work itself is quite slender, with a large appendix containing data from the survey. Being twenty-five years old now I suppose qualifies the book as a “classic” in the field of higher education, but the things Boyer has to say still seem very relevant (though in parts depressingly unobtained).

Boyer’s study is local, an attempt to quantify and qualify the history and character of American higher education. This localism in his approach appeals to me, especially his emphasis on the need for small colleges to remain distinct and committed to their own unique missions, resisting the pressure of accrediting bodies or the example of larger research universities to conform to a undifferentiated approach to education. Different colleges and universities exist for different and complementary missions, Boyer implies; this tapestry should remain rich and diverse.

From Boyer’s overview of the history of higher education in America (which, though cursory feels composed of fairly safe generalizations), he claims the purpose and structure of higher education has changed over time. Boyer argues that scholarship at these institutions has always been broader than research alone (“scholarship of discovery” in his parlance). Early Colonial colleges were focused on character formation, land-grant schools of the mid-1800s were focused on application, and research colleges proliferated at the conclusion of World War II in response to the burgeoning of the large-scale scientific enterprise. To focus solely on the scholarship of discovery, he argues, at the expense of teaching, integration, and application or to prioritize pure research alone is to disproportionately skew what has traditionally been a much richer heritage of scholarship.

Many of Boyer’s claims made sense to me, especially having spent most of my career thus far working at a “teaching-based” university that purports to value quality instructional practices and evaluation. In such an environment it seems reasonable that a major portion of what scholars do is to reflect on developing and evaluating their own teaching techniques, ideally with the help of a scholarly community. Its identity as a liberal arts university (and my own scholarly background at the intersection between science and the humanities) makes me resonate even more strongly with Boyer’s “scholarship of integration,” the idea that active research can involve synthesizing and forming connections between various and even seemingly disparate disciplines.

The book is at its heart though a recommendation and call to action. Though it has many good things to say, and backs this up with frequent quotations from professors as well as the data of the survey itself, there isn’t much practical explanation of what these things look like on the ground. How is scholarship of integration evaluated by one’s peers when it crosses disciplinary boundaries, for instance? What is the relationship between scholarship of application and the commercial or economic pressures increasingly shaping the educational landscape? Boyer doesn’t have a lot to say about this, and I’m not sure where to go next. Who has taken up this model and written about how it does or does not work in particular institutional settings?

The Supper of the Lamb

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary ReflectionThe Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert Farrar Capon can come across a bit pompous, even pretentious, I admit. There were several times I cringed or rolled my eyes reading this work. He writes with a spirit of absolute confidence, and his tone is not mitigated (or only slightly mitigated) by the fact that he is so absolutely, insufferably, correct throughout.

That intro almost makes it sound as if I didn’t love this book. This is a cookbook that will change your life, and anything that changes your life– especially something that gets you to admit you’re only half awake and missing most of the important things transpiring around you because of your own laziness, ineptitude, and pure inattention– is going to be something that might rub you the wrong way a little bit. This is a book both glorious and terrible, but the older kind of terrible, when it meant something that could chew you up, not necessarily something simply of poor quality.

Capon is a materialist in the grandest Christian tradition. For him, the world is holy. Material things are holy. We are not saved from the world, he writes, we are saved through the world. And the book itself, a melange of prose, recipes, reflections on life, and exhortations to excellence, is a celebration of the reality and the wonder of food and its preparation. It is Michael Pollan meets G. K. Chesterton, and it reads about as wonderfully and heavily as you would expect such a combination. Read it slowly. Try to put aside– as was difficult for me– the feelings of inadequacy next to Capon’s grandiose claims for kitchen life and entertaining.

Read this book. We live in an age dominated by two great heresies: on the one hand are the spiritualists who tell us (and many of whom claim Christianity teaches) that the physical world is insignificant. On the other hand are the consumerists who see in the physical world only material to be used, marketed and exploited. (Often these two hands are one and the same.) Against this stand the Christian materialists, in a long line upon the modern branches of which you will find Tolkien, Chesterton, and Lewis, among others. This is Capon’s lineage.

By the second chapter you know where Capon stands. He calls us to meet an onion– to actually look at it, examine it, spend time with it, and reflect on the wonder that it represents. After this there will be plenty of time for the ins and outs of how meat should be prepared and why knives today aren’t as good as they used to be. But the theme that begins here is central: the world exists to be appreciated, and man exists as the priest of nature, lifting it up and offering it up with thanks and humility to God. (If this sounds a bit like Schmemann, you’re not far from the mark.)

There is much to say, but perhaps it is simplest to trust to Capon’s own distinctive voice, from the concluding chapter, in which he offers his own solution to physical heartburn and then reflects on the deeper burning of the heart that will be familiar to any readers of Lewis:

For all its greatness, the created order cries out for further greatness still. The most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetites than they satisfy. They do not slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds. Dogs eat to give their bodies rest; man dines and sets his heart in motion. All tastes fade, of course, but not the taste for greatness they inspire; each love escapes us, but not the longing it provokes for a better convivium, a higher session. We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature, discloses cities more desirable still.

You indict me, no doubt, as an incurable romantic. I plead guilty without contest. I see no other explanation of what we are about. Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself– and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great. (my emphasis)

Read this book.

The Violent Bear it Away

The Violent Bear It AwayThe Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why are Catholics so good at making monsters? Our friend Daniel Otto Jack Petersen might eventually have some good answers for us, but at this point– having concluded my audit of the twentieth-century Catholic novels course taught by my good friend Dave (okay, not quite concluded as I skipped Brideshead Revisited and fell off the boat before our final novel, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins)– I can venture something along the lines of G. K. Chesterton’s “all is grist.” For the Catholic novelist, it’s all real and it’s all fair game for creation. There aren’t “bad things” off limits. All is useful for building stories, because all– even the dark and twisted– can be redeemed.

But the real, unlike for perhaps an agnostic or atheistic writer, extends far beyond the sanctity of matter to include the reality of the spiritual. Throw all that in the mix, and you get monsters out the other end. For a writer with the bizarre, piercing humor and science fiction tendencies of Lafferty, these monsters become the fleshy, jovial horrors of “The Hole in the Corner.” For the steady eye of Flannery O’Conner in the stagnant heat of southern woods, the monsters take on a stranger and more human aspect.

Because it seems to me that at the core The Violent Bear it Away is a story about monsters.

There are four monsters (five if you count the agent of the sudden, lurching violence of the penultimate scene). The first is the boy protagonist’s great uncle, who considers himself a prophet called by the Lord and who raises the boy to know the Lord’s work in a splendidly wild and woody isolation. His death at the beginning of the novel initiates the book’s plot. The second monster is the boy’s uncle, who considers himself the rational antithesis to the old prophet’s madness and who, when the boy finds his way to his doorstep upon the prophet’s death, sees the possibility of freeing the boy from the prophet’s mad shadow.

The third monster is the boy himself, who drinks himself to a stupor upon his great uncle’s death, refuses to bury his body, and instead burns down the home in which they lived before wandering into the city to find his uncle. It is this monster’s stubborn battle to resist both the compulsion to carry on the Lord’s work placed upon him by his great uncle and his “rational” uncle’s frenzied effort to reform him that forms the primary tension of the novel. The boy is taciturn, isolated, arrogant, and desperate to live out his denial of his great uncle’s holy legacy.

All these characters are monstrous, twisted, and unpleasant to observe. And yet O’Conner pulls us along with them. We are captivated by their misery, by their mutual hostilities, by their failure to accept any sort of redemption from each other.

And then there is Bishop, the fourth monster, the son of the boy’s uncle. Bishop is a child, an idiot “waste,” who can do nothing but follow along innocently– uncomprehending and unconcerned– as the boy fights against his great uncle’s imperative to baptize Bishop and his uncle’s determination to break him of this compulsion. Bishop is the pathetic eye of the storm and the focus of the only genuine moments of pathos and tenderness in the novel.

This is an Old Testament story, and the god looming on the horizon of the boy’s mind is a god of blood and fire and fury, despite metaphors of the bread of life– that tired, stale bread the boy refuses to eat. As with Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, the conflict here is primarily in the mind of the boy, but this makes it in no way less real. It makes it instead more tight and tortured. And it makes it all the more terrifying for where it leads.

This is not a book to read for pleasure, unless of course for the simple pleasure of reading good writing. For the story itself, the only pleasure might come in assuring yourself how far your god is from the dark and stormy god of the warm, stagnant forest and how far you are from the pathways of the boy’s own mind– until, of course, you actually read the Old Testament and are forced to ask yourself how thin the line between madness and holiness might really be.

Ian Morgan Cron

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's TaleChasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I came to a realization reading Ian Cron’s work: Mystics are empiricists. They’re trying to meaningfully express experiences. I’ve always been a theorist. I try to fit my own experiences and those of others into pre-conceived patterns and structures. I had always imagined (without much thought) that this was the other way around. I imagined the mystics were the theorists and that my own thoughts were grounded more firmly in empirical evidence. Meeting and reading Cron made me realize that the true mystic always speaks from experience.

I say all this because I do believe Cron is a modern-day Christian mystic. He came and spoke at my university at the beginning of this semester, and I had the privilege of meeting him as he visited and had lunch with one of my classes. He is deeply passionate, well-spoken, and kind. His words and vision are compelling, and he left behind stirred minds as well as hearts, a campus buzzing with what he had expressed, and a stack of his books generously gifted to my class.

So it was I found myself reading Chasing Francis, a book several of my students assured me was “the best book they had ever read.” I’m not sure what I was expecting, but within the first chapter I realized it wasn’t this: Francis through the lens of the fictional disillusioned, burned-out megachurch pastor Chase Falson. Though my opinion on the text differs significantly from that of my students, I believe what Cron is doing here is excellent and immensely important: unpacking aspects of Catholic mysticism and social gospel through the eyes of a mainstream evangelical.

The basic premise of the novel (Cron calls it “wisdom literature”) is that a pastor of a successful megachurch has a crisis of faith and finds himself traveling to Italy to spend some time with his uncle, a Franciscan. In the company of his Uncle Kenny and a few other jovial monks, he lives for a time as a spiritual tourist, shuttling back and forth through the Italian countryside visiting historic sights linked to the life of St. Francis and taking up a correspondence of sorts with the saint through his journal. New characters are introduced as needed to explain to Chase aspects of the Catholic spiritualism Francis exemplified: the love of artistic beauty, community, peace-building, and service, for examples. Chase learns there is a lot more to being Christian than the conservative, consumeristic view of the Church he previously held, and he returns to his church a changed man.

First, the value of this book: if you want to learn about the life of Francis, there are better ways. If you want a tour of Italy and Church history, there are better ways. But if you don’t know much about either and if you’ve been raised in the kind of Christianity Chase’s character represents, this might be your window into a new world. For me, this is why– despite the flat characters and the forced plot-line– it’s still gratifying when my students tell me they enjoyed reading it. Because the perspectives they take away from that are important. For someone, for instance, who sees in the symbols and practices of liturgical worship nothing but empty form or at worse harmful superstition, Chase’s realizations are going to be essential.

These themes aside though, the story itself is a bit tedious. The characters– most particularly Chase himself– are caricatures. They have conversations about spirituality and faith and beauty, but they’re simply observers, even the group of Franciscans. Even the most emotionally powerful portion– the account from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide– is staged and somehow sterile: we’re sitting beside Chase as he listens to a lecture at a peace seminar. The entire book is like this: Chase is staring through windows, meeting people who deliver information and perspective. This sense of disconnect reaches its climax in the chapter on beauty, when Chase happens to meet a concert musician, and then they happen to meet an Anglican priest conductor who gives a lecture on the role of beauty in theology, and then they all go out for dinner.

There’s a deeper problem here though, and one that caused a nagging worry as I continued to read. Chase begins the story as a self-centered individualist who realizes the answers he had are no longer working. For the duration of the story he functions as a self-centered spiritual tourist (Cron uses the term “pilgrim,” but I remain unconvinced. Chase is a tourist. He never abandons the Western tourist mentality.)

Chase’s church had been the “Chase Falson” show; he returns to it with new and transformed ideas, but his goal upon his return appears to be to simply reinvent it into the new, improved Chase Falson show. Nothing about his idea of church has essentially changed. He has absorbed apparently nothing from the Franciscans about humility, menial service, church hierarchy, or putting oneself under the authority of a spiritual superior or mentor. Chase’s McMegachurch is certainly transformed upon his return– and some of the twists here will be familiar to anyone who has experience with church politics– but it’s not a transformation away from the dominant paradigm of one man with a dedicated cadre of followers. As the final scenes make clear, this will still be the Chase Falson show, now simply informed by some ideas of St. Francis.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir...of SortsJesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir…of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ian Cron is a bridge between multiple worlds. He’s a bridge between mysticism and everyday evangelicalism. He’s a bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism. He was raised in one world and now, from what I can see, identifies strongly with the Via media of the Anglican church. And in that position he can mediate between many of the traditions and denominational languages of contemporary Christianity. I saw this at my own university, where Ian on the one hand led our chapel in an ecumenical eucharistic service and on the other listened and tried to understand students expounding on the Nazarene view of holiness.

Wherever we are among these different worlds, we need people like this.

If Chasing Francis, his first book, felt flat and unreal even as it communicated important ideas, Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me is alive. In this memoir Chase Falson, the omni-man protagonist of Chasing Francis, is replaced by Cron himself, and the writing that had only a constrained glimmer in Chasing Francis explodes into three-dimensions in this memoir. Here is someone writing about something real. Here is a true mystic expressing true experiences.

The title of the book, as Cron relates in the first chapters, comes from his realization upon his father’s death that Cron knew very little about his father’s actual career, which apparently included time as a CIA operative. His father– an emotionally abusive alcoholic– remains one of the primary threads woven through the work, and it is clear a primary impetus in the writing was Cron grappling with his memories of his father and the way they shaped his childhood. This makes the book’s conclusion– which seems at first glance disconnected from the rest of the narrative– a powerful commentary on fatherhood in general and the lasting repercussions of both wounding and redemption.

Cron calls the book “a memoir . . . of sorts,” but this hedging seems to me to devalue the work itself. He writes in the beginning that he feels the need to qualify this because not every conversation is written from memory and many are recomposed in his mind as he believes they would have happened. But can any memoir be any more than this? Considering the blending of history and fiction that characterized his prior book, I was left by this qualification with a shadow of doubt about whether Cron had taken more than usual artistic liberties with his representations of his past. Otherwise why insist that it was only a memoir of sorts? This would be disappointing, as the whole thing has a vibrant feel of realism and honesty.

The book bounces around chronologically, beginning with his father’s deathbed and funeral, jumping back to Cron’s childhood and teenage years, and chronicling his own battle with alcoholism and his life as a father today. In between he writes about his first communion and the power and transcendence of that experience, which comes full circle as he recounts his own first officiating as an Anglican priest. The stories along the way range from hilarious to deeply troubling, but there is a constant theme of wonder, humility, and gratitude. The language, which seemed forced in Chasing Francis, flowers here into something much deeper.

Cron writes, speaks, and lives well. I hope he comes back soon.