Liberal Arts for the Christian Life,
edited by Jeffry C. Davis & Philip G. Ryken.
Paperback: Crossway, 2012.
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Reviewed by Mark Eckel
“When you see a book with Leland Ryken’s name, buy it; ask questions later.” For the past 25 years this has been my mantra whenever anyone has wondered about books for the humanities. Leland Ryken’s 1981 volume The Christian Imagination brought together essential essays linking a Christianly coherent liberal arts viewpoint for many. Ryken’s small, exceptional 1985 introduction to a Christian interpretation of literature, Windows to the World: Literature from a Christian Perspective, stoked my own literary fires, lighting the torches of many of my students. Ryken’s study Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure still stands as the most direct, accessible work on the twin subjects ever written. Of course, his books on Bible teaching, the Puritans, Scripture as literature, and Christian interpretation of the classics add to the depth of any learner’s understanding from the pen of a world class scholar. Over the last decade, Ryken has committed his attention to Bible translation. The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (2002) gives explanation for his oversight of The English Standard Version (2001) including the first ever Literary Study Bible (2007). Lest one would think Ryken simply a writer, he has spent 40 years at Wheaton College training students to properly understand English literature from a Christian worldview. Consider the multiplicity of students who have had the privilege of Ryken’s literary erudition and expertise. How many homes and churches have a broadened understanding of life having sat under Ryken’s tutelage?!
Philip Ryken honors his firsthand knowledge of home learning from his father Leland with the new book Liberal Arts for the Christian Life. Dr. Ryken’s son, Philip, Wheaton’s current president, honors his father Dr. Leland Ryken with essays from the professors of Wheaton College. The essays are premised upon Leland’s 1984 chapel address “The Student’s Calling.” Written with undergraduate students in mind, Liberal Arts seeks to set patterns for young minds. Dr. Philip Ryken’s essay appears at the end of the book but marks the beginning of thought for new students:
In conducting this exploration we will exercise our theological imagination. But we will also make deductions that are grounded in the prophecies of Scripture, governed by the principles of sound doctrine, and guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as we gather together the strands of revelation that lead toward engagement in the liberal arts as an eternal enterprise (295).
Philip Ryken intones “the liberal arts are the liberating arts . . . within the transient we experience moments of the transcendent” (299, 301). So, curiosity and creativity for Christian liberal arts study should be given coherent comprehensiveness for the classroom. Terminology and background are established in section one. Jeffry C. Davis sets the historic connections for liberal arts study. Lisa Richmond gives an overview of broad learning in The West. It is Edith Blumhofer whose words about Evangelical learning in America set the stage for section two. Blumhofer notes “Debates about the authority of Scripture or the exclusivity of Christianity questioned the assumptions behind Christian liberal arts education” (62). Scriptural authority and Christian exclusivity form the twin pillars of biblical-liberal arts.
In like manner, the twin pillars bear the weight of a four-fold theological framework: human nature, loving God, redemption, and faithfulness. Duane Litfin reminds the reader that love for God begins within us; the affective objectives of learning. Roger Lundin argues that since we live “in the middle of things” we must understand our nature on that fulcrum between human dignity and depravity. Faithfulness to the task of learning is ours because we represent our King in His Kingdom, says Jeffery Greenman. Yet the spirit of theological commitment to study is best captured by Wayne Martindale’s quote of C.S. Lewis musing on “The World’s Last Night”:
Happy are those . . . laboring in their vocations, whether they were merely going out to feed the pigs or laying good plans to deliver humanity a hundred years hence from some great evil. . . .No matter; you were at your post when the Inspection came (99).
Our vocational gifting is born out of our habits and virtues: the thrilling third section of Liberal Arts is dedicated to the inner life of the student. Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant educational philosophy is promoted through Marjorie Lamp Mead: learn how to learn. Alan Jacobs is marvelous in his reintroduction of the reader to reading, focusing on focus. Other essays promote gracious living begins with grace given in listening; humility marks the sharing of knowledge; while community exists to encourage a collective way of living. And to the student who struggles with materialistic-pragmatistic cultural views of learning, let a quote from Arthur Holmes adjust the internal undergraduate barometer: “The question to ask about education is not, ‘What can I do with it?’ . . . The right question is rather, ‘What can it do to me?’” (121).
Only after the student is prepared internally can she focus on external scholastic disciplines. The exceptional essays of Dorothy F. Chappell and Henry Allen should be read in tandem. Students of natural and social sciences should not operate in competition but rather collaboration. Presuppositions in both essays establish parameters and patterns which should boundary all avenues of study. Music, art, and theatre—examples of those study venues—are also expertly explained in these pages. However, if one essay exemplifies the essence of Liberal Arts it is Jill Peláez Baumgaertner’s “The Humanities as Indulgence or Necessity?” Undergraduate parents should be tasked with its reading. Her line of reasoning, bolstered by poignant quotes, is beyond rebuttal: and her last sentence from her first paragraph made me laugh out loud!
Liberal Arts is necessary if for no other reason than it gives education its goal—a life prepared, fully, Christianly, wisely. As the fifth section’s introduction asks rhetorically, “Are the liberal arts only for a certain time and place, or are they for all times and all places, including the life to come?” (240) Read Mercer Schuchardt’s essay “Social Media and the Loss of Embodied Communication” is essential reading for our visually-saturated, text-glutted eighteen year old. Focus on external beauty is rightly tempered by Walters’ “Learning to Live Redemptively in Your Own Body.” Personal development (formation of one’s spirit is based on what one loves) and lifelong learning (living our words) are ultimate educational ends.
We have a factory foreman and a scholarship from Pella Windows to thank for the academic life of Leland Ryken. I can think of no other current academician in Christian higher education who has had such impact in his broad writing, expansive teaching, seminal Bible translation, and deep cultural interpretation. In charge of academic affairs at my own college, I purchased a copy of this Ryken festschrift for each of my faculty members. In 1984, Leland Ryken’s “The Student’s Calling” introduced me to the Christian reason for schooling. In 2012, Philip Ryken’s Liberal Arts for the Christian Life will introduce thousands of young minds to their kingly responsibility: their vocational glorification of The King in this life and the glory brought into The King’s City in the next (Rev 21.24).
Mark Eckel is V.P. of Academic Affairs, Director, Interdisciplinary Studies, Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis. www.warpandwoof.org
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com