The Value of Higher Education

So my other passion beyond theology, if you don’t know (and even if you do), is higher education. More specifically, higher education in the Western liberal arts tradition. There has been a lot of talk, on the news, in trade journals, and in blogs or on social media, recently about whether it is “worth it” to go to college–even the past two US presidents have been getting in on the action. I would argue that, in defiance of the claims and arguments about education and its value, there is a worth the liberal arts education completely excluded from the conversation; and this, while not a quantifiable worth, is nevertheless one of the most important aspects of a democratic society.

Frequently, the conversation is phrased in terms of ROI, or return on investment. That is, education is reduced to a mere utilitarian concept and is guaged useful if it leads to a greater level of material income, less lost costs of work, than if you went into work directly after high school. Most of these analyses show that, on a pure economics level, yes, the college degree is worth it. That is, if you factor in income lost over a 4 or 5 year period in a job without a college degree, and compare it to the increase in income from getting such a degree, and balancing this out with experience and promotions/raises associated with both scenarios, the college degree comes out on top. However, it is quickly noted that in general, especially if one takes 5 years to complete a degree and even moreso if you pick the wrong field, the ROI is not very high, and occasionally negative. In other words, college may only be “worth it” if you pick a utilitarian degree, if you graduate in 4 years, and if you take the highest paying job, ignoring all other factors. Also, usually included in these analyses, is the point that college tuition is going up, and soon it will not be worth it to go to college.

That’s all well and good, but I find myself looking at these studies and seeing a fundamental flaw in them. The assumption is that the only value in a degree, or a liberal arts education, is in what type of earnings it can potentially provide (and in the current economy, including future projections of it, that is not guaranteed). Here’s the problem: that’s not the only value higher education has. Such an analysis assumes that the college education is only a professional qualification; it claims that all education is vocational training. Implicit is the assumption that anything beyond vocational training is either a) easily done alone, or, more alarmingly, b) should only be undertaken by the elites of society. I would suggest that both assumptions are false.

The assumption by the first claim is that one does not need anyone else to learn. It implies an idealistic picture of a lone individual sitting in a room reading book upon book. While that may make for interesting movies, like “Good Will Hunting,” or compelling historical narratives, such as Bill Gates, such individuals are the exception, not the rule. Most learning requires a broader community and, along with that, an individual materially connected to that community who guides and leads it, giving it structure and substance. We learn from each other, and we learn best when we have a guide who is invested in our education on a personal level. In short, the best learning happens face to face, not through a book or on a video screen. Even though I value reading widely and rigorously, unless there is someone to guide us as to what we should read or watch, anything goes. “Zeitgeist” is an incredibly popular youtube video, but it is factually inaccurate throughout. Holy Blood, Holy Grail may be a bestseller on religion and Christianity with a compelling story, but it hardly qualifies as quality research. We need a guide, and we need a larger community to help us. As the biblical book of Proverbs says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” We learn from each other in dialogue, in disagreement, and through mutual struggle.

The second assumption, that learning beyond credentials is reserved for the societal elite, undermines the very nature of a democratic society or of a republic. Education should not be for the elite only, but for everyone. Soceities function best when all participants are educated as best as they can be. Only then can meaningful dialogue about the future direction of a country, or city, or state, occur. Only then can we actually discuss the merits and failings of various proposals without descending into angry animals barking at each other. Education, and in particular higher liberal arts education, encourages to see past empty rhetoric, to view the heart of an idea and evaluate its substance, and to see the point of view of those with whom we disagree. Only those who seek control and power over the masses would knowingly discourage such a practice or undervalue such education. The conversation in America should not be about the value of education, but about increasing access to it. And the increase in access should not focus on MOOCs, or the cheapest, or most cost efficient way to do so. Aside from the studies showing many of these forms fail when it comes to student success (MOOCs, Massively Open Online Courses, tend to show only 2-5% of students who actually learn the material or could pass with a “C”), such talk inherently encourages a two-tier system in education, with the elites (read: richest) getting direct interaction, and everyone else watching videos and left to struggle on their own. In other words, those least equipped to teach themselves would be those most likely to be required to do so.

Of course, both of these points I’ve made assume something about education. Namely: it is inherently valuable. To phrase discussion about education purely in terms of ROI is to miss the point completely. Let me argue by way of analogy. What is the value of having and/or raising a child? Unless you work on a farm in the middle ages, this has a terrible ROI. Yet most of us do not question that such a thing is valuable. Even if we do question it, the arguments tend to focus on more than return on investment. Or how about this: what is the value of voting? of giving to charity? of going to church? of reading beyond what is required for a job? of simply sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee/tea? These all have terrible ROI because you have lost opportunity costs (at the least, sometimes material losses as in donating to charity), and very little prospect of them producing anything to materially compensate them. Yet, are they valuable?

“Get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, gain understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)


What Kind of Fire is it?

Ok so yes, this is late. But it is still important.

If you haven’t heard, John MacArthur released a new book and he did so with gusto, including a conference advertised by this video:

Now, I can’t tell you everything that is going on in that video. There’s a whole thing with what appears to be random scenes from the bible enacted by action figures. (Is that Stephen at the beginning? And why is he missing a leg?). This much I do know, John MacArthur does not think the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement is part of true Christianity.

Now I should be clear about something up front. I like John MacArthur’s studies. When I first started to undertake serious study of the bible, MacArthur was one of my early entry points. While I don’t tend to read him as much today, I nevertheless think many of his studies and earlier sermons are invaluable.

Also, in case you were unaware, I should note that I am not a Dortian Calvinist. Look, I’ve got lots of friends who are. That’s fine. We can disagree on that and still speak constructively about the message of the bible and partner together for God’s Kingdom and to fulfill the works he has called us to and prepared for us (“that we should walk in them” as the Apostle Paul says). So already I’m in disagreement with MacArthur who has become increasingly vocal about Calvinism, and more intolerant of those who disagree with his position (sadly I have lots of former friends who are Calvinists in much the same vein).

I also would not characterize myself as being Charismatic or Pentecostal. “So why,” you might ask, “do you even care about this?” Quite honestly, it’s about unity. And the whole Strange Fire issue directly undermines the unity of the Church. I say this not to shun MacArthur, because one does not build unity by pushing others to the fringe, but to encourage other Christians not to write off what has become the largest and fastest growing area of Christianity today.

I get that there are certainly some abuses within the Charismatic church, largely centered around the so-called “health and wealth gospel.” If you are unfamiliar with that term, let me explain. The health and wealth gospel takes the focus off of the redemptive, transformative, revolutionary and radical power of the cross and empty grave and places it on personal material gains in this life. Does God want you to have joy? Absolutely. Does that joy consist primarily in being materially wealthy and physically healthy? Not remotely. Yes, it is true that the bible says “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7 NIV) and one verse later “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9 NIV). Yet it is the intervening verse that directly undermines the health and wealth message “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:8 NIV). This message, which is purported sometimes by charlatans and, more often than many of us would like to admit, by earnestly believing preachers who simply don’t know any better, is a dangerous message. It appeals to those who are desperate, tells them to focus on a false and quickly fading hope, taking their eyes off of the goal Christ has put before them, and blames the individual for not believing strong enough when things don’t work out. In this way it makes the poor even more poor and blames them for that, it encourages the ill to divert their funds away from genuine treatments (ones that God had a hand in making) and tells them to buy snake oil. It is dangerous and preys (either intentionally or unintentionally) on the most vulnerable. Yes it should be opposed because it is not the gospel.

Still, to argue that all, or even most, Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are part of this false gospel, as MacArthur very strongly implies, is grossly mistaken. You don’t reject all of them for the abuses of a minority. MacArthur, though, goes even one step further. He declares that members of this church are practicing “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” That is very serious charge! This comes from Matthew 12. Jesus says that anything will be forgiven, even blasphemy against the Son of Man (referring to himself), but blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. MacArthur, fully aware of the content of what that means, quickly passes judgment that millions, if not billions, of those professing to be Christians, those who have died to themselves with Christ, are consigned to hell, and will not be raised with Christ. But judging by the way in which he does so, you would think he is wholly unaware of this. Further, he explains that he is sure he is correct because, according to MacArthur, blasphemy of the Spirit is “assigning to God the work of Satan.” But right away there’s a problem.

Let’s actually look at Matthew 12. In it, Jesus has just performed a miraculous healing on the Sabbath. For doing such a work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees begin their plan to have Jesus executed. Not too longer afterward, Jesus performs an exorcism, driving out a demon from a man, healing him of his physical maladies at the same time. The Pharisees declare that Jesus does this under the power of Beelzebul, another name for Satan. It is in this context that Jesus brings up the “blasphemy of the Spirit.” If anything, it is not assigning to God the works of Satan, but rather it is assigning to Satan the works of God, exactly what the Pharisees are doing.

However, I think the issue is much deeper than that. Jesus declares that “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” (v. 30) just before he mentions this unforgivable sin. I would argue that this sin has more to do with disrupting the unity of the Church. Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that John MacArthur has committed blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I am saying that there is a lack of caution here that should give us pause, especially when speaking about the broader Church. The Spirit works to preserve and unify the Church. As Jesus prayed in John’s gospel (ch. 17, NIV)

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

If what we do is damaging to the unity of the church, it should be abandoned. We should strive to work together with others, even when we disagree, so long as we have our eyes fixed on the cross of Christ, and not our own wealth or lack thereof. Pray for unity. Build up, do not tear down. May we all grow together into God’s building.

This was written in response to a direct question. If you have a question you’d like me to write about on the blog, let me know (comments below are a great way to do that).

Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross

This is somewhat an update to the Louie Giglio “drama”, about which I posted last week.

The ceremonial inauguration of President Obama’s second term occurred yesterday (the official one being on Sunday) without much in the way of scandal (sure the standard politicking occurred, but nothing major). A different pastor spoke, one more familiar personally with the President who actually does regularly attend church and, as best I can tell, hold a genuine, deep, and heart felt Christian faith despite any contrary opinions we

2013 Inauguration Ceremony. Photo by Farragutful via Wikimedia Commons

may or may not have politically (personally, I’m a bit more wary of the

increase in drone strikes, which have a much higher civilian casualty rate, than I am other issues, but yes, there are other disagreements).

But this is not intended as a political post. If you harbor ill will toward him, you should pray for him and yourself, that God change your heart and his. If you really like him, you should pray for him and yourself, that you not hold him in too high esteem (he is a human, and thus will make mistakes) and that he not believe all his own press (for the same reasons). But this is less about the president and our attitude toward him and not even really about Louie Giglio.

Yesterday, at Christianity Today’s website, they posted a piece on the state of Christian Preaching in America, though it could easily be applied to most other contexts. The substance of the article is that we have given up the scandal of the cross by focusing on the wrong things or pitching the gospel message in what we perceive to be a culturally palatable manner. In doing so, we have turned these other scandals into political fodder and not what they should be. As Christians we need to rediscover the scandal that is the cross.

Forgiveness offered unconditionally is scandalous to a culture that says we are all inherently good.

The cross is a scandal to a world where we are constantly trying to extend and improve our lifespan

The dead Christ who is therefore a king a scandal to a world that wants to cling onto the things of this world

The resurrected Christ is a scandal to people who fail to recognize they are dead already, but must die more truly.

If you have some time, I encourage to read the article in full (click the link at the end) and possibly leave your comments there and back over here.

Today we celebrate the second inauguration of President Obama, but we do so without the benediction of pastor Louie Giglio. In the controversy that erupted after his selection to and withdrawal from that honor, it became clear again how much the gospel has been sidelined, not in the culture, but in the church.

Continue Reading…


Is it right to be so focused, or do we risk losing something?

This post is about the Louie Giglio drama (and no I don’t mean Louie Giglio has come up with a play). I am not offering a political opinion (though I have some links in the post to some diametrically opposed ones). If you are unaware of the situation this is the gist of it:

Louie Giglio was invited to give the prayer at the inauguration of Barack Obama in his second term. The selection of an evangelical does not only follow the precedent of his first selection (of Rick Warren) four years ago, but was also a recognition of Giglio’s work against human trafficking.

“Think Progress” a more than left of center political group found a 20 year old sermon of his where he talks about the conflict of values between Christianity and “some” homosexuals. They  also mention that Giglio praised reparative therapy, a controversial treatment program where the goal is to remove homosexual desires, often attributing their cause to psychological trauma or (in rare instances) sin in the persons life.

As might be expected, there were protests regarding the invitation to Giglio.

Last week, Giglio withdrew his acceptance of the invitation to pray, suggesting the president pick someone else. His invitation was not revoked (though some media initially reported it that way), but the start came from Giglio

So that leads us to today.

In a post to the blog of his Church, Giglio reproduced the letter he sent the president and explained that he has now declined the invitation because the focus of the prayer would no longer be on God, on the prayer, or on his work against human trafficking, but on his position on gay marriage, something he decided not to make a big part of his ministry because, it seems, he thought there were other things of at least equal (if not greater) importance that needed to be addressed, and the gay marriage issue would have been too large a distraction from the rest of that. You can read that blog post here.

Yet despite his best efforts to steer clear of what amounts to a divisive political debate (at least in the way both sides are discussing it), the entire situation, and Giglio somewhat personally, has been used as political fodder to advance the political standing of both sides.

From the more liberal end, there is Think Progress and Americablog Gay (a Gay rights blog), both of whom are claiming a victory and that Giglio was actually ousted (though Think Progress changed their language when it became clear Giglio had actually withdrawn).

On the more politically conservative end, the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, and President of Southern Baptist Seminary Al Mohler both also claim he was forceably ousted by the current President (though, again, Al Mohler changed his language when it became clear Giglio had withdrawn).

The focus on both sides, it seems, is not really Giglio, certainly not his work against human trafficking or the gospel, and not even, it seems, really with the issue of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. The focus, it seems, is purely political. The focus is on the current administration, either as a “yay he’s for our side!” or a “do you see the kind of bozo we’ve elected?” kind of way.

For an interesting perspective, perhaps take a look at Rachel Held Evans’s Blog. I don’t agree with her on everything (generally or on that post specifically), but she does make some good points that might be worth considering.

I, for one, have always highly respected Louie Giglio, from when I was just in seventh grade and heard some of his sermons on cassette tape. And I think I still do. But, at this point, we have to ask the question: at what point does our focus become too narrow? Giglio said the reason he withdrew, and the reason he hasn’t made any definitive statements on the issue recently, is because he wants to focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and on ending human trafficking (clearly admirable goals). What I’d like to ask you is, was Giglio’s focus too narrow?

I mean on the one hand there is Paul, the Apostle, who is narrowly focused on the gospel. So much so, it seems, that while in Philemon he seems aching to say that slavery is wrong and that slaves should be our brothers and sisters and treated as equals, Paul refrains from going that far or being that clear, because it’s a battle he knew he couldn’t win at that point in history and he didn’t think he could afford the distraction. Countless workers for the gospel have taken this tact (and who, because of that, are largely nameless). The most recent of whom we might know is Billy Graham who, until very recently, withdrew from all politics and refused to make political statements lest they interfere with the Gospel.

On the other hand, though, there is Jesus Christ himself, who not only came to speak about this life saving kingdom, but enact it practically, seeming to have no bounds to his focus, the poor, the sick, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, and on and on. But was he different (i.e. the Christ, God incarnate, coming to transform the world) and so it doesn’t apply to us?

In between the two extremes (of one thing and everything) there are others in history, like William Wilberforce fighting to end the British Slave Trade, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Southern Baptist Pastor who sought to end segregation, and many others.

What is the right balance, then? Is Giglio’s focus too narrow (he should address other issues, like homosexuality)? Not narrow enough (he should only focus on the salvation of the gospel and not spend quite as much time fighting human trafficking, as terrible as that is, because of how important the gospel is)? Or is it right? Or is it something else? Add your thoughts below.

Housekeeping (another non-post post)

Ok, I’ve been a little bit more quiet than usual, apologies to those waiting (particularly since I left the science and religion Friday on a bit of a cliff hanger). It’s been a particularly crazy week last week. This week is looking no better as I have numerous application packets that need to be sent off tomorrow and Thursday. Since that is the case, I will try to get back on track with tomorrow’s post, but it may not be until Thursday or Friday that the regular posts resume. Apologies for those left in the middle of multi-part series.

Other than that, I’d like to bring up two things to your attention.

1) Remember to be in prayer for those who live on the East Coast as the massive storm bears down on them.

2) A friend asked to publicize a story about an American student who went missing during or after a trip she made to Germany (without telling anyone). The full story is here. If you are in Germany or have contacts in Germany, please click the link and look at the photo to see if you might have seen her. There is contact information at the bottom of the story if you have.

Again sorry for the non-post posts, remember to my US readers to vote week or (if you haven’t already) by absentee/early voting if you will be away from your county. No I won’t tell you who to vote for, nor will I say you even have to pick a major candidate. But you should exercise your civic duty (be a good citizen Paul says) especially with local elections, where you probably have a lot more influence (unless you live in Ohio).

Getting (sorta) political

Well last night was the final US presidential debate (no I didn’t watch it I’m out of the country voting absentee). And roughly 2% of the US population is still undecided. During this election time, I think it would be helpful for us to keep some things in mind about the role our faith plays. I’ve indicated before that I believe a separation of church in state is admirable, perhaps even biblically  and philosophically necessary in a republic like the US, but is not genuinely possible in the most absolute sense (i.e. you can’t exclude someone’s personal religious beliefs from every decision they make, even if you limit it). As people begin to “unfriend” or “hide” “friends” on facebook over politics, as vitriol begins to be poured out on both sides, as others simply refuse to vote for one of the major candidates because they vehemently disagree with both, and as everyone gets called an idiot by everyone else, remember this: you are a Christian first and eternally, you are a US citizen second and temporarily.

That means several things

  1. The US is not the kingdom of God (and if you think otherwise we’ve got some serious issues).
  2. Your duty is first to your brothers and sisters in Christ. This encompasses the universal church, regardless of whether you share all the same theology. You are to care for and love other Christians as brothers and sisters regardless of who they do or do not vote for.
  3. Your duty is next to those marginalized by society. The poor, the immigrant (alien), the lonely (widowed), those who have no voice or only their own voice. This duty is not primarily political, but personal. You don’t get out of it by voting a certain way.
  4. Your duty is also to the unity of the church before it is to any political party or nation. You have a stricter allegiance to Christians of another denomination on another continent than you do to a secular political party.
  5. You should not assume ill of people unless you have very good reason to do so. If you do have good reason to assume ill of them, you should pray for them, serve them and demonstrate overflowing love to them. It was Christ who did the same for you while been murdered in the most horrific fashion possible because of your ill actions.
  6. If you are genuinely trying to fulfill all of these duties, you cannot vilify those of a different political orientation. People don’t tend to vote a particular way or run for office because they are out to destroy a country. Such a position would be ridiculous. People tend to believe they are doing what is best for a country by their political actions (I acknowledge some people may vote for purely selfish reasons, but people don’t tend to run for office for entirely selfish reasons). We should be able to see things from the perspective of someone else. A Christian who votes for a Republican does not automatically support disregard for the environment or militaristic intervention. Likewise a Christian who votes for a Democrat does not automatically support the carrying out of abortions. Remember, these are your eternal brothers and sisters, not your enemies.

It may be good, even necessary, for Christians to engage with politics from time to time. However, when we do so, we need to be careful not to be dragged under by political rhetoric. Both sides will seek to do so, all of it should be resisted. You are a Christian first, and secular citizen second. God is ultimately sovereign, not you or me, and He knows what He’s doing, even when we don’t. Let’s keep our focus on Christ and his Church, not on the US and its flag. In doing so, let’s remember the words of that hymn “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”


Coming back to the blog (for real) and new Soul Fusion article on Politics (AHH!)

Sorry again for the interruption. As far as an explanation goes, we had a very full house for two weeks followed by some drawn out illnesses at our house. Following all of that I was in full swing of grading/marking exams and so I haven’t really had the time or energy to devote to this blog for a while. My apologies for that. At any rate, I need to pick up and finish out the series I had previously been working on where our bible comes from. In case you missed my last post in that series, which judging from the page views most regular readers did, click here for it.

In the meantime, I’ve written the cover story for this month’s Soul Fusion magazine. It is about the relationship of the Christian life to politics, particularly in light of this year’s election cycle. Check it out here and let me know what you think. Unfortunately, due to editorial shifts, this month may possibly be the final issue of that magazine. This blog, though, will likely continue.

I’m currently debating whether or not to address the current “Traditional Southern Baptist understanding of Salvation” controversies going around the SBC blogs and some Evangelical Calvinist blogs (like the Gospel Coalition). I will state up front I am very sympathetic to the position presented in that statement, though it (like any such statement) has its problems. If you’d like to hear about it, let me know (like in the comments of this blog).