Review: Campus Life

campus life

Campus Life: In Search of CommunityEdited by Drew W. Moser and Todd C. Ream, Foreword by David Brooks. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An expanded version of a 1990 Carnegie Foundation report on the basis for community on college campuses, with contributions from pairs of academic and student development leaders at six Christian universities.

Ernest Boyer, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published several important reports roughly thirty years ago on higher education. Perhaps one of the most profound of these that expressed a concern for the soul of the American university was Campus Life: In Search of Community. Out of his research findings he elaborated six principles that characterize flourishing learning communities on campus:

  1. Purposeful community: where students are intellectually engaged and where academic and co-curricular aspects are integrated.
  2. Open community: a place where freedom of thought and expression coupled with an awareness of the power of words to heal or hurt, a “sacred trust.”
  3. A just community: where dignity, equality, and equity are affirmed and practiced in bridging widening gaps between rich and poor.
  4. A disciplined community: where university governance protects the common good. Boyer advocated for clear codes of conduct developed by the community.
  5. A caring community: places where every student is supported, and where there is opportunity for engagement across generations.
  6. A celebrative community: a place held together by more than complaints about food or parking, but by remembering and celebrating traditions, including the traditions and contributions of its diverse student population.

Many of us who work around universities would concur that this still serves as an outstanding vision for and description of healthy university communities, and an agenda worth pursuing by all those who are stakeholders in an academic community. Thankfully, we don’t have to search online or in libraries for copies of this report. It has now been reprinted as part of an updated and expanded version, directed particularly for those working in the Christian college context but relevant as well, for both student life and academic professionals more widely.

The update includes six chapters, each co-written by a student life and an academic leader from the same Christian college. These parallel Boyer’s six principles, updated and contextualized to Christian colleges, and framed by a prologue by the editors on the search for renewal, and an epilogue, describing the challenging work of walking the “narrow ridge” of Christian calling and academic excellence.

A few standout ideas:

  • In the chapter on “open community” the tension of academic freedom and Christian orthodoxy was acknowledge. The writers proposed a distinction between “core beliefs that the college affirms and must be shared by educators and “privileged beliefs” affirmed by the college, but on which educators may disagree while being supportive of the college. They also acknowledge neutral beliefs on which the college has no stance. It would seem that clarity on which is which prior to faculty hiring is key.
  • Under “just community” the writers talked about the importance in seeking diverse, multicultural communities that this cannot be an instance of “you are welcome, but don’t move the furniture.”
  • The chapter on “caring community” had what I thought a helpful discussion of faculty and staff awareness of student health, and a constructive section on what happens when uncaring moments occur on campus.
  • On “celebrative  community,” there was encouragement both to learn from institutional history and tradition, and to developing celebrations that reflect the current student body.

So why is David Brooks, The New York Times columnist writing a foreword for this book? In addition to affirming the communal values outlined in Boyer’s original report and their elaboration by these higher education leaders, Brooks believes Christian colleges uniquely help students flourish in the committed life. He comments:

“When I go to Christian colleges, the students there strike me as especially adept at making commitments–sometimes too adept; they want to make all their commitments by age twenty-two. But they know how to commit, and they’ve been taught how to think about commitments” (p. xii).

This contrasts with the “expressive individualism” Brooks observes in the wider culture and he attributes the difference to the formative communities he sees at Christian campuses where he has spoken.

Whether one accepts the Christian premises of the contributors in this expanded edition, Boyer’s six principles of community remain a challenge for all higher educators. These principles also provide a bridge for Christians working in public higher education to connect with what may be shared aspirations among student life and academic leaders. When Christians affirm purposeful and integrated learning, open and civil engagement, commitments to justice and equity in the university, to a disciplined yet caring community, and to sharing in and contributing to the celebrations of university life, they not only contribute to the communal health of their institutions, but they bear witness to the Christian distinctives that have helped shape flourishing institutions throughout history.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Second Mountain

the second mountain

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A book on our life journey, from the first mountain of individual achievement and success to the second mountain of rooted commitment to relationships and service.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has been on a personal journey and this book reflects that journey five years on from his earlier Road to Character (review) in which he describes the movement from resumé virtues to the eulogy virtues that describe a life of character. In this book, Brooks develops a further dimension that his first book did not focus on, perhaps because Brooks himself was not focusing on it–that dimension of our commitments and our relationality. He continues to think about the moral life, and particularly the idea of moral ecologies, a way of being, believing and behaving shaped by our context. What he contends for in this book is a thicker moral ecology shaped by relational commitments rather than what he sees as the hyper-individualism of our contemporary culture.

This is where the two mountains comes in. The first mountain is the individual journey focused on self-realization, personal achievement and success. It operates in a moral ecology of self buffered from others, a focus on one’s own feelings, one’s own god, a privatization of meaning, a dream of freedom and a central focus on personal accomplishment.

Often it takes the experience of the value of failure, suffering, and pain to awaken us to the second mountain. Often the valley is a crisis of meaning, increasingly, it is the experience of intense loneliness. Brooks talks about the valley, and its companion, the wilderness, where we listen to our lives.

He then speaks about the second mountain, which represents the committed life. He focuses on four commitments, giving a section of several chapters to each. The four commitments he writes of are to a vocation or calling, to a marriage, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. For each, he describes, not a moment, but a process of realization and development. He offers help in discerning a vocation, which sometimes comes down to saying “yes to every opportunity.” He gives sound principles for the growth of intimacy, including whether you really enjoy talking to one another, and can envision enjoying that for a life. I love his description of marriage as “the school you build together.”

His discussion of philosophy and faith is the section that seems most personal and occupies the most space. He describes his own spiritual journey both away from the mixed Jewish and Christian influences of his youth and his return, significantly through the influence of his research assistant, Anne. He writes of her:

“Anne answered each question as best she could. She never led me. She never intervened or tried to direct the process. She hung back. If I asked her a question, she would answer it, but she would never get out in front of me. She demonstrated faith by letting God be in charge. And this is a crucial lesson for anybody in the middle of any sort of intellectual or spiritual journey. Don’t try to lead or influence. Let them be led by that which is summoning them” (p. 239).

So where did he end up, for those who wonder? He describes himself as “a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” It also turns out that after several years apart, he and Anne, a Wheaton College graduate and committed Christian, married.

In his final section, he talks about commitment to community, to restoring the kind of communities where people have a sense of belonging to and being responsible to and for each other. He has critical words for programs focused on single problems rather than comprehensive approaches.

He concludes by proposing that the second mountain is the relational mountain, and offers a relationalist manifesto with enumerated points that serve to sum up the book. Everything but the kitchen sink is here, a grand sweeping vision for the second mountain life.

As I read this book, I felt both a deep resonance with much of what Brooks writes and that he was trying to do so much that I found myself wondering at times, “what kind of book is this?” I did not find that it had as coherent a structure as The Road to Character. The lengthy sections on each of the commitments, each engaging, felt like stand alone pieces, each of which could have received book length treatments. I wonder if less could have been written on each commitment and more on how the four commitments cohere, if not in every life, but in healthy societies.

That said, Brooks charts the journey into the second half of life well, of the commitments to be negotiated if one is to enjoy a rich and full, and not merely successful life. That he writes so personally and openly of his own journey into both faith and love is one of the most attractive and winsome elements of this work. The challenge he offers to the hyper-individualism of our culture is one worth considering. Will we recognize that we need one another? That may be one of the critical questions of our time.

Reading Versus Reviewing

twitter_reviewerOver the past several years I’ve transitioned from reviewing books simply being my way of remembering books to reviewing being a means of communication and dialogue about books through this blog. Along the way I’ve found that there are at least some aspects of reviewing that are in tension with just plain old reading for fun. A few of these are:

  1. The preference for new books. Reviewing tends to focus on recently published books. I was made aware of this the other day when I remarked that a book from 2009 (!) was an older book. When I was just reading, I paid no attention to these things.
  2. Reading to a deadline. This is particularly so if you request a review copy of a book. Most of the time, publishers hope you will write a review within 60 days. When you are just reading, you can get around to that book whenever you want.
  3. Thinking about the review while you are reading. Actually, I think this makes me a better reader as I am consciously thinking about the flow of the book, how I will summarize, what I want to highlight. I often don’t do these things if I am “just reading.”
  4. The temptation to read and review what people seem to be interested in. It’s fascinating that my most popular review of this past year was on Exposing Myths About Christianity. It wasn’t a bad book by any means but hardly the best I’ve read. Far less popular was my review of The Drama of Ephesians, which I thought a far better book. I just have to remember that I don’t get paid for this so viewer stats really don’t mean much. It’s what I’m interested in and even if just a few find out about a good book, it matters for them.

What all this does is help sharpen the focus of what I am doing. Above all, I am conscious that there are so few books out of the numbers being published that I can actually read in whatever life remains to me. I think about the exhortation of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I don’t see this as confined to religious ideas which sometimes can be as untrue, ignoble, corrupted, unlovely, and despicable as any trashy novel. In whatever I read, I try to choose books that explore the good, the true, and the beautiful in life–whether in matters of faith, good science writing, a well-constructed mystery, or a biography of someone who has lived a worthy life. My tastes range across all these categories and more which is why you might encounter a review of a theology work one day and a baseball book the next. One day I’ll review a current book, another day one ten or fifty or a thousand years old.

And that leads to what I’m trying to do in this blog. David Brooks, in The Road to Character (reviewed here) speaks of wanting to initiate a conversation about our moral ecology and about what makes a virtuous life. While I have nothing of the reputation of a Brooks, it is something akin to this that I’ve been trying to do, whether writing about books or my experiences growing up in Youngstown. Along with classic thinkers, I believe that the well-lived life is one lived in pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. In what I read, think, and write about, I want to explore the sources of goodness, truth, and beauty, celebrate the various expressions of that, and consider how we might pursue such things together in a civil society.

So, if you are trying to make sense of why I review the stuff I do, both new and old, and what might be behind the other things I write about, this is the best clue I can give you to the methods in my madness!

The Month in Reviews: July 2015

This has been a month of vacationing, of bookstore crawling, and even a trip to Mexico. So squeezing some reading in has been a bit of a challenge. But I finished a couple longish books and a total of nine this month. I read about walking labyrinths, searching for Sunday, pursuing the road to character, dwelling with God, and heeding the warning, “here be dragons”! I considered C. S. Lewis’s view of God, and that of seven American liberals in the 18th to 20th centuries. Along the way, I even managed a literary stay, as it were, at Bertram’s Hotel. Intrigued? I’ll keep you waiting no longer…

Walking the Labyrinth1. Walking the LabyrinthTravis Scholl. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. The book consists of a series of reflections over the forty days of Lent intermingling thoughts on the gospel of Mark, life, and the daily walking of a labyrinth in the churchyard of a neighborhood church.

At Bertram's Hotel2. At Bertram’s HotelAgatha Christie. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2011 (reprint). Bertram’s is a quietly elegant hotel from the Edwardian era that seems utterly respectable from the outside and yet is the center of a nefarious crime syndicate and a murder late in the story that Miss Marple and Chief Inspector (Scotland Yard) Davy attempt to unravel.

Is Your Lord Large Enough3. Is Your Lord Large Enough?, Peter J. Schakel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008. This book looks at the contribution Lewis made, particularly through the way his books engage the imagination, to the spiritual formation of Christians, exploring a number of the matters crucial to their growth in Christ.

Searching for Sunday4. Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015. As the subtitle suggests, this is a narrative of the author’s struggle between loving and leaving the Church, only to find her loved renewed through the sacramental practices that she sees at the heart of the Church’s life.

Here be Dragons5. Here Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman. New York, Ballantine Books, 1985. The first of the Welsh Princes Trilogy set in the early 13th century, this book explores the conflict between John, the King of England, and Llewelyn, who sought to unify a divided Wales against the English threat. Their lives are intertwined by the daughter of John, Joanna, who becomes the wife of Llewelyn, finding herself torn between loves for father and husband, then husband and son.

The Religion of Democracy6. The Religion of Democracy, Amy Kittelstrom. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. This book traces the “American Reformation” of Christianity through the lives of seven key figures spanning the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, in which adherence to creed shifted to the dictates of personal judgment and the focus shifted from eternal salvation to ethical conduct reflecting a quest for moral perfection and social benefit.

dwell7. Dwell: Life with God for the World, Barry D. Jones. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A focus on mission and a focus on spiritual formation are often divorced from one another. This book argues for a missional spirituality rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, his dwelling among us to restore broken shalom that is revealed in spiritual practices that herald the vision of the kingdom that is both present and to come.

Why Christian faith8. Why Christian Faith Makes SenseC. Stephen EvansGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. Against the contemporary challenges by the New Atheists, this book explores why the Christian faith makes sense, even though the existence of God may not be proven, through the consideration of both “natural signs” and the self-revelation of God.

The Road to Character9. The Road to Character, David Brooks. New York, Random House, 2015. David Brooks explores the issue of character development through the hard-won pursuit of moral virtue, exemplified in the moral quests of people as diverse as Augustine and Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day.

Best book of the month: David Brooks The Road to Character is my choice for this month’s best book, both for the quality of writing and for the conversation he attempts to provoke with regard to the moral ecology of our country.

Best quote of the month: This from Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday, which is an example of her exquisite writing:

“…Sunday morning sneaks up on us — like dawn, like resurrection, like the sun that rises a ribbon at a time. We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground, God is here.” (p. 258).

Today begins a week on jury duty. Needless to say, I’ll have some books in my bag along with other work. One I won’t be carrying because it is a thick book but one I’m thoroughly enjoying is Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation, a chronicle of the spirit of the times in ante- and post-bellum America. Strikes me as eerily similar to today.

Hope you get some good summer reading in during these last days of summer!

[Links in this post are to the full reviews in Bob on Books. In those reviews, you may find links to publishers websites.]

Review: The Road to Character

The Road to CharacterThe Road to Character, David Brooks. New York, Random House, 2015.

Summary: David Brooks explores the issue of character development through the hard-won pursuit of moral virtue, exemplified in the moral quests of people as diverse as Augustine and Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day.

I’ve long followed The New York Times op-ed pieces of David Brooks. Brooks often has seemed to me to be a quiet, reasoned voice speaking against the prevailing cultural winds. I wrote recently about the qualities of charity and cogency in public conversation and have long considered Brooks an exemplar of such qualities.

In The Road to Character, David Brooks seeks to initiate a conversation about moral ecology, particularly that of the United States. Brooks contends that there are two moral ecologies, one that emphasizes “resume” virtues, the other that emphasizes “eulogy” virtues, and that the resume virtue (or Adam I) moral ecology is prevalent in our moral landscape. It is a moral ecology that emphasizes “the Big Me” and focuses on skill and human potential. The other ecology (Adam II) understands human beings as “crooked timber” (a phrase drawn from Kant), and recognizes that we often fail to live up to our own ideals, and are not always fully aware of the drives and impulses that shape our moral actions, for good and for harm. This tradition emphasizes a moral awareness that results in humility, a striving toward moral excellence while acknowledge the reality that we fall short of the mark.

Brooks explores the “road to character” through brief sketches of a variety of individuals who he believe exemplify this “Adam II” quest. He explores the lives of a diverse cast of people from Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, to the contrasting figures of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (the former one of iron moral discipline, the latter who struggled toward a moral life and commitment for much of his life). There are both the religious, such as Augustine, who recognized that our incorrigible fallenness could only be overcome by grace, and those who turned from religion, like George Eliot, and who strove in their own character for moral coherence. We have the outwardly sunny Dwight Eisenhower, who struggled with a volcanic temper, and the self-controlled George Marshall, whose sense of calling and greatness of vision meant often working in supporting roles and yet gave Europe the Marshall Plan, which he always spoke of as the European Recovery Plan.

The concluding chapter is a kind of summing up, contrasting the “Big Me” of our current moral ecology, with the “code of humility” of the crooked timber tradition. His statements in this section were for me worth the price of admission. One example:

“We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course–either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted….” (p. 265).

It seems this is an especially important conversation in this age of “Trumpery” where glitz and appearance seem to count for more than character. What I appreciate in what Brooks does is he engages us in a public conversation that includes both people of faith and those who would not identify with any faith but care about the moral character of our lives and public life. His exemplars are drawn from all of these backgrounds, and all are those who have had moral struggles and some reached moral conclusions that not all would embrace (for example George Eliot, who co-habited in a relationship with a married man).

It seems to me that Brooks is serious about this conversation. Not only has he appeared in various public and online media as well as his regular op-eds, but also he has created a companion website (The Road to Character) to the book. For my readerly friends, it includes a library of resources. He speaks in his book, borrowing a phrase from Eugene Peterson, of “the long obedience in the same direction.” It is my hope that Brooks will persist in this work, and find many companions on the journey.

Other People’s Stories

The Road to CharacterIt just occurred to me this morning that three of the books I am currently reading consist largely in telling other people’s stories. David Brooks’ The Road to Character focuses chapter by chapter on individuals as different as Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, and Augustine. None are perfect by any means but Brooks teases out the growth of their characters as they struggled with the conflict between noble aspirations and fallen nature that besets each of us.

The Religion of Democracy by Amy Kittelstrom focuses on seven classically liberal figures in American religious history and the beliefs and dispositions that shaped their lives. She covers figures as diverse as John Adams and William Ellery Channing (a key figure in the development of the Unitarian movement), to William James and Jane Addams, showing the development of an American liberal creed that was less doctrinal than focused around personal judgment and moral effort that included the benefit of one’s fellow human beings, encouraged within intellectual communities of the like-minded.

The Religion of DemocracyThe last is Miriam Adeney’s Kingdom without Borders which narrates the stories of Christians on every continent past and present who have developed Christian movements through compassionate character, personal sacrifice, and in some cases, martyrdom. For example, she narrates the life of Sadhu Sundar Singh, one of the most profound of India’s Christians.

You can look for full reviews of these books in weeks ahead, but I’m struck by the choice of each of these writers to develop the central themes of their books around telling other people’s stories. In each of these, the writers put flesh and blood on abstract ideas like compassion, moral restraint, or liberal notions of moral improvement. Often abstractions leave us cold, but when we see the stories of people who attempt to embody these commitments and shape their lives around them, it helps makes sense of these both as we relate to our own experiences past, and the life choices before us.

Kingdom without BordersWhat also strikes me as I read these three books is that they present differently grounded moral visions, sometimes within the pages as in Brooks’s book, although it centers around classic Judeo-Christian ideas. Kittelstrom’s and Adeney’s book give a sharper contrast, between the American Transcendalist tradition, and a global evangelical Christian one. One begins to see how different moral groundings sometimes lead to similar, and sometimes divergent ends. And since all of us in some way, either explicitly or implicitly, live toward some vision of a life well-lived, these narratives all help us assess both the beliefs and moral ends toward which we are living.

Is this not why we also read great fiction (if we do)? Whether it is Jane Austen, or Anthony Doerr, or even an Elizabeth Peters mystery, are we not immersing ourselves in a world where convictions, circumstances, and moral choices, and human impulse all come together, for better or worse? Yes, we can read just to be amused, and yet the truth is that the most profound works also hold a mirror up to us quietly posing the question, “how then will you live?”