How the Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind: A New Book to Be Widely Shared

I truly like books which are passionate, books which are compelling
and try hard to pull me in and win me over. I am sometimes teased for
being too enthusiastic when I teach about developing a Christian worldview,
or when I recommend particularly good authors; I get excited about writers
who brim with commitment. I like to think of myself as passionate about
God’s glory, about helping others explore the implication of God’s will
for planet Earth, about discovering new ways to faithfully live out of–or
into–the presence of the Holy in the ordinariness of life and times.
Even the most gaudy televangelists oddly intrigue me–what passion!
What cadence! What vision! Among friends, I rarely shy away from a good
argument about Scripture or Kingdom living. I especially like books with
extravagant Christian claims.

And yet, polemical books, even at their most sound and solid, sometimes
presume too much from some readers. And most evangelical authors–including
those who argue for integral Christian scholarship like the ones I often
mention here, such as James Sire, Harry Blamires, George Marsden or Mark
Noll–sometimes are just a tad too religiously specific to share with
non-evangelicals. Brilliant as they may be, they may not be the most appropriate
to give out to some who may be skeptical of our project of raising concerns
about intentionally integrated Christian thinking.

For instance, Jim Sire’s recent and altogether marvelous Habits
of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling
I would
easily share with any campus intellectual or professor whose heart is
even halfway open. He shares his own love of learning, his passion for
good books, and his sources are wildly diverse. Sire’s earlier great and
very useful book, Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God
in the Ways We Think
, however, seems more directly aimed at fellow
evangelicals; it includes good Bible study and is written in clearly religious
vocabulary. It may not be as easily accepted by those who are less familiar
with our evangelical lingo and approaches. Its clarity, passion and impeccable
call to overtly Christian thoughtfulness makes it ideal for those with
whom we are in mentoring relations: it makes it’s case biblically and
insists on a culturally-wise, whole-life response to God’s truth. But
you can see (unless you’re bolder than most) why such a book may not be
the one to give to your typical, mildly curious professor (church-going
or not) who has never thought much about a uniquely Christian sense of
chemistry, journalism, athropology or marketing. No, not every polemic
works, and not everyone responds to the full-throttle call to Godly obedience
and Christian discipleship.

Now this is the point in the essay where, if
you’re used to my style and flow, you will say to yourself, “Here
comes the clincher: see Borger deftly segue into (a) why Walsh & Middleton
can solve this mess, if only we would read and reread The Transforming
, or (b) Os Guinness is such a fine writer that you can give
his work to any book-lover on campus, or (c) ‘Boy, do I have a new book
for you!'”

And of course the answer is, well, (a) and (b)–but you all know
that already. So: “Boy, do I have a new book for you!”

Let me explain again. If you need a book to give to that uninitiated
Christian or seeking professor or administrator or residence life staff
or serious-minded student who may not necessarily warm up to a polemical,
evangelical call to “take every thought captive” and claim “every square
inch of creation” by serving as a uniquely Christian scholar with a full-orbed
Kingdom perspective of the Lordship of Christ, yada, yada yada, yada,
let me tell you instead about How Christian Faith Can Sustain the
Life of the Mind
by Richard T. Hughes (Eerdmans, $18.00). Unashamedly
Christian but without the in-house feel of many well-intended books on
the same topic, this wonderful book helps encourage intellectual inquiry
done in the context of faith and should earn a wide readership within
the typical collegiate setting. It is very, very good.

How can I tell you how utterly sweet this nicely written reflection is?
It is serious–at times radical, even–but always with a light
touch. Delightfully, it is quite overtly Christian without being the least
bit pompous or preachy. Hughes explores and meanders and examines religious
faith and its expression in higher education without condescension or
evangelical ideology. It is a gentle book written by, I can only imagine,
a true gentleman.

Perhaps one of the great strengths of this extraordinary little hardback
is its ecumenicity. That is, he happily is quite familiar with a variety
of Christian traditions and regularly illustrates how these denominational
heritages can undergird and support the intention of being a Christian
in the world of learned culture, higher education and the professions.
Hughes is a Lutheran who is deeply appreciative of the anabaptist ethos
of the Mennonites; he quotes Kuyper in his discussion of the Reformed
tradition and its contributions to the development of Christian thinking;
his work at Pepperdine puts him amidst Churches of Christ folk. It is
rare to see someone of his stature who really gets around this much, learning
from those with whom he journeys.

The various insights and contributions of these different Christian
movements are mentioned so matter-of-factly that no one is slighted and,
surely, no one put upon or off. Unless some scholar somewhere is utterly
tone-deaf to the role of religion in America (and I know some of these
hard-boiled types are out there), this book would be a delightful introduction
to what we mean when we discuss the “integration of faith and learning”
or “biblically-informed scholarship” or “developing the Christian mind”
to gain a “Christian perspective.” It would be a fine book to help explain
to folks what the CCO is about and it certainly is a great book to better
appreciate more of the vision which sustains our work in the bookstore.

How the Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind has become,
quite by surprise, one of my favorite books of the year, in part due to
just how easily it can be shared with those unfamiliar with thinking about
such matters, and how much faith-infused common decency it carries. Like,
say, Parker Palmer, he is able to discuss faith and the meaning of education
without any sensationalism or preachiness, making it truly a delight to
read and ponder.

Of the many striking features of this graceful book I shall mention three.
Firstly, I am impressed with Hughes’ unapologetic claim (I almost said
“insistence,” but that sounds too strident) that Christian scholarship
is for the sake of peace and justice. Drawing briefly on the work of activist
historian Howard Zinn (People’s History of the U.S.), he
illustrates that teaching and learning is never socially neutral and the
victims of war and poverty and injustice are important voices in and for
our studies. Learning matters and, with gentle but firm examples, Hughes
asks teachers to reflect on the impact their teaching has upon the real
lives and commitments and values of their students. He thinks that teaching
can help form young lives into agents of social change on behalf of the
“upside down” values of Christ’s Kingdom. I am sure there are other conscientious
professors who share similar ideals who may not have seen their care as
a manifestation of Christian mission; reading and discussing Hughes will
surely help them be more clear about the meaning and task of teaching

Alas, a minor disappointment: I can’t believe he didn’t cite Steve Garber
here. Garber’s Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Toegther Belief and
Behavior in the University Years
surely has reflected on this
matter better than any other book and it is a shame that Hughes didn’t
point readers to it. Their visions and sensibilities, though, seem remarkably
similar and I am confident that Hughes and Garber see themselves as allies.
Surely Hughes means to say, as Garber often does, that to know is to care
is to be responsible for…

A second striking contribution: Hughes obviously has lived into the
tensions and questions that circle around those who raise the matter of
Christian thinking in various academic areas. (He has written on this
topic before, even, although the important Models of Christian Higher
, which he co-edited, is a collection of institutional
narratives, telling the stories of various church-related colleges and
how their denominational identities shaped their respective institutional
ethos.) In the new book, written more for the actual teacher and scholar,
he gets regularly specific in delightful ways. For instance, he reflects
on just what exactly we mean by “Christian scholarship” and what that
might look like to others. (Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach
is examined as a thoroughly Christian bit of scholarship, even though
neither Christ nor God are even mentioned!) He wonders if uniquely biblical
insights, when presented fairly and without unnecessary jargon, might
just be accepted by others (and, if that is the case, why all the mental
and spiritual gymnastics to try to get to a position called “Christian

Conversely, he asks what sort of proclamation typical academics might
be able to make–despite his desire for mutually respectable collegiality,
he knows enough of the biblical witness to know that believers are called
upon to share their faith when appropriate. His examinations of these
and other concrete questions about the practical matters of being a Christian
professor, especially at a public university, are convincingly posed and
helpfully answered, if only provisionally. As you might guess, he does
not think we need to wear our faith on our sleeves, nor be ostentatious
about our piety. Yet he is a strong advocate for nurturing uniquely Christian
frameworks and invites us to strive for integrity as people of deep faith
amidst secularized institutions. In other, more ostentatious words than
he might use, I think he’s got the whole in-the-world-but-not-of-it “roaring
lambs” thing going on big time. If only we could get other faculty
and staff thinking about such things with such clarity, care and prudence.

A final contribution that I shall mention is an original but wise insight
for a book such as this. He argues that we need, ultimately, to do our
scholarly work in light of the painful reality of tragedy. Without a moment
of sentimentality, he draws on the warm story of Tuesdays With Morrie.
I won’t spoil the narrative, but Hughes, deeply moved by that remarkable
book about a student and his dying college mentor, has his own story to
tell. Beautifully written, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life
of the Mind
is solidly academic yet utterly humane. And is that not
a key insight for those of us in campus ministry? Even the professors
and administrators with whom we work are more than their jobs or titles–even
if they may not want to admit it. Scholars are first of all human beings,
bearers of God’s image.

In response to his own near-death episode, Hughes writes:

“The question that faces me now is simply
this: How can I translate these experientially deepened convictions into
my work as a teacher and scholar? Can I translate my heightened sense
of finitude into a more determined search for truth? Can I translate my
newfound sense of radical limitations into genuine intellectual humility?
Because I have peered into the abyss that all men and women will eventually
confront, can I find a deeper sense of kinship with other human beings,
even those who come from cultures and religious traditions radically different
from my own? And now that I have an even greater sense of the paradox
of the Christian gospel, can I employ that sense of paradox as a fulcrum,
allowing me to find truth in conflicting perspectives and enabling me,
as a teacher, to encourage my students to do the same?”

He continues for a few rich pages–pages I have already reread–
reflecting on being pulled from the jaws of death and the resultant gift
of gratitude. And, significantly, he wonders how to help his students
receive a similar grace.

Is it possible that a book about being a serious Christian scholar can
be widely read as both a call to be God’s salt and light in the professions
and institutions of our modern world and also as a devotional filled with
reminders of God’s grace and sustaining presence? Without devolving into
a piety abstracted from the life of the mind, this fine book is itself,
finally, a gift of grace.

Now this is the point in the essay where, if
you’re used to my style and flow, you will say to yourself, “Now
here comes the big ending: the impassioned reviewer will tell everyone
to buy this book and share it with one and all, blessing many, advancing
the cause of Christ and helping said reviewer to pay his bills. See Borger
deftly segue into the earnest sales pitch, insisting that this book really,
truly needs to be ordered as soon as possible.”

Yep, you got that right. I am fired up about this gentle and wise book.
Richard Hughes has just become one of my new heroes, and this gem is a
pleasure to hold and to ponder. But dear readers, you more than I can
get it into the right hands within the unreached people group of academia.
Although Hughes might not be as idealistically grandiose as I, this could
literally save the lives of those who are dying from lack of such substance
in their book diet. Hearts & Minds eagerly awaits the privilege of receiving
your orders.


Those of us in the CCO should be aware of a very, very important issue
of the important journal The Christian Scholars Review.
(Get your college library to stock this heady journal if they don’t already!)
The Summer 2001 issue–a “theme” issue on the prospects and projects
of Christian scholarship–has a very, very interesting and well-written
piece by D.G. Hart which is quite critical of the Kuyperian and neo-Calvinist
worldview approach to the doing of Christian scholarship within the secular
univeristy. I found it quite provacative–it provoked me, all right!
Obviously, I take immense issue with much of it, especially as it goes
after Mark Noll, George Marsden’s Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,
Al Wolters, Walsh & Middleton and writers of that ilk. It is surely something
we should be discussing carefully, honing our arguments and seeking God’s

Further, and cause for in-house jubilation and the like, our own Derk
Woodard-Lehman also has a piece with a cool title published in this same
issue, where he takes issue with the whole point of much so-called Christian
higher education which, as he sees it, has been co-opted by the pagan
culture (and I thought the Hart piece was provacative!). If you’ve followed
any of Derek’s important critique of the CCO perspective lately, you’ll
know it is a seriously-written and deep bit of theological criticism.
That it was accepted for publication in such a prestigious venue speaks
of his scholarly contribution. Since Derek is a good friend of many of
us and a colleague within the CCO, it goes without saying that this is
an article we really should discuss amongst ourselves. I encourage you
to get it ASAP.

Lastly–and this, too, deserves a big, loud WHOO-HOOO–professors
Don Opitz and Dave Guthrie, formerly of the CCO Hall of Fame and now of
Geneva College, wrote a great little story (yes, it is a fable!) about
institutions of higher learning caring for their faculty. Although aimed
at those within colleges, it really speaks volumes for many of us who
care for and resource other’s professional and spiritual development.
If only they would have mentioned Hearts & Minds somehow.

Congratulations one and all. Let’s honor their work by getting a hold
of this issue of the CSR, even subscribing. It is, after all, the
premier tool of its kind. And while we’re applauding friends and co-workers,
you should know that former CCO staffer Todd Steen, now professor of economics
at Hope College, is the quite competant managing editor of said journal.
When you subscribe, tell him you said hi.

The Review has less expensive student rates, so email Todd at