- Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Christian World by Philip W. Eaton
In Engaging the Culture, Philip Eaton proposes to offer Christian universities a bold vision for a new approach to education. It is immediately noteworthy that the book is genuinely pleasant to read, clear of overzealous statements of faith, and avoids any unexplained theological jargon. Eaton refuses a Christian defensiveness or separatism. And perhaps most impressively, he shuns any sense of denominationalism by drawing upon writers from across the Christian tradition, including John Henry Newman, John Paul II, Rudolph Bultmann, Jean Leclerq, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Stanley Hauerwas.
Eaton wrote this book while he was president of Seattle Pacific University (1995–2012). He has served on the board for the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities and has taught literature as a university faculty member. While these credentials hold out the promise of an insider account of the common quest for identity within Christian universities, Eaton sticks to describing the situation from the outside in.
His basic contention is a familiar one: Post-modernity has eliminated the power of traditional narratives to supply a culture with meaning. Since education has traditionally been a process for handing down such meaning-making narratives (p. 43), universities now find themselves unsure of their own purpose.
The book’s 18 brisk chapters might be helpfully divided into four parts. The first six chapters describe some of the salient problems of post-modernity, which Eaton chooses to articulate as a suspicion of any narratives that might provide meaning. Narratives, however, are a central lens for interpreting ourselves and our world. “The problem with our postmodern culture is that the lens itself has become the main story we are willing to affirm,” explains Eaton. As a result, rather than a genuine search for truth, it is the “shaping of knowledge by each culture, or each person, that has become the focus and attention of post-modern reflection and indeed the business of the university” (p. 44).
In the next five chapters, he offers interpretations of some of modernity’s core literary texts, such as “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and Flannery O’Connor’s [End Page 271] A Good Man Is Hard to Find. By doing so, he both substantiates his claim for the power of narrative while also showing that modernity’s own stories lament the loss of meaning.
A third section, three short chapters, offers some of Eaton’s core convictions about the power of Christianity’s own scriptural narrative. A final section attempts to envision what Christian universities must do to adopt such a narrative.
Eaton’s recommendation is quickly summarized, primarily because he wishes to hammer home a clear message. Universities committed to the “gospel of Jesus Christ” should take purposeful steps to transform themselves into institutions where both community and the academic pursuit of what is good, true, and beautiful are genuine. Evangelism is unapologetically at the heart of this proposal, but Eaton hints at a larger project: “If our universities fail to embrace a story of what is good and true and beautiful—and if we fail to present to our students and to the world a story of hope, actually to serve the world in this way—then we are failing to make a compelling and enduring case for the value of a university education” (p. 23).
Eaton, in fact, appears hopeful that Christian universities may become sources of transformation for a post-Christian Western culture. This book, however, focuses on the first task of making the Christian university a “grace-filled community” (p. 159).
Eaton courageously and imaginatively draws on two distinct models to indicate what he means. Describing the public jubilation present at the Sabbath reading of the Torah, he declares that “some such ritual of respect for our Scriptures might focus and energize the animating center of our learning” (p. 153). He also finds admirable...