thomasdarttbecker

Some Writings and B&W Photos

Anomalies and Guiding Lights in Academia

fullsizeoutput_50dNote: At the risk of looking like the guy at the party talking way too loud about a topic he knows little about, I offer this reflection on Christian professors on secular campuses. It’s based solely on my personal history of attending a state university and working on or alongside several colleges since the 1980’s. No research; one decent book reference; a few memories. I wrote it for the Emerging Scholars Network (IVCF) at the request of a dear friend of The Row House, Inc. I’m not sure she could even use it, but it was encouraging to me as I thought of fellow Christians I’ve known who are expanding cultural horizons on campuses. Godspeed to them!

It used to be that a Christian professor in a secular university was an anomaly. My English teacher at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania was one of those. He advised our InterVarsity chapter, of which I was President for two years, and taught a course called “The Bible as Literature.” I recall that Dr. Bill Bailey wasn’t exactly a freak. He was known as a conciliatory, introverted, and gentlemanly type who attended the First Presbyterian Church. Still, he was unusual.

Another professor who was an active Lutheran starred in a stage production of Waiting for Godot, not exactly a faith-building night out. He carried himself with grace and humor. Good thing. In those days, the 1980s, I also met an eager, young Math professor at a different state university who was known for his outspoken, even charismatic expressions of faith. I did in fact think he was a true anomaly, but not in a good way.

I was a new Christian student then, but if I were a professor, I think I’d have feel like a soldier on the day after the battle, counting casualties and tagging bodies. The war for any kind of systemic Christian influence was lost to the Enlightenment-led, post 1960’s cultural elitists. For instance, Bloomsburg also offered a  course on Human Sexuality. It was all the rage. Why, who wouldn’t want to watch and discuss straight-up pornography in college? Of course, a lot of serious research was discussed as well.

Meanwhile, under the influence of significant cultural visionaries in the church like Francis A. Schaeffer and Pope John Paul II, a weather pattern of believing influence was building on the horizon. Ex-hippie professors were facing retirement (most of them are gone by now), and a new wave of academicians were in training. This time, many more Christians coming out of IVCF groups and the like were going to graduate school and heading back to the universities, not as missionaries so much but as culture shapers.

Two students I worked with come to mind: Jason Baker earned his PhD in theology and is now ensconced in the decently-respected Regent University in Virginia Beach. Marty Makary practices advanced laparoscopic surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and teaches health policy at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. You may have seen him on TV.

In the late 1980’s an enterprising gaggle of Christian academics called Probe Ministries was making the rounds. They would offer a few days of lecturing, garnering face-time in classrooms secured by Christian students. This did much to not only reach biblically illiterate undergrads with a worldview they may not have otherwise heard, it also emboldened the Christians. “Hey, I might actually have a ‘Reasonable Faith,’ ” as Anthony Campolo’s book of that era argued.

The Probe fellows were the ones that got me fascinated with the totality and inclusivity of the Christian faith. As the Psalmist says, “In your light, we do see light” (36:9). C.S. Lewis argues the same way, reckoning Christianity the lens through which all of reality may be viewed because it is the True Myth. And Abraham Kuyper, my hero in these things, went all the way to show us how. These educated, guiding lights were being rediscovered, and a lot more Christians were coming out of th Fundamentalist cocoon.

Young professors, even in the 1990’s, were emerging. For instance Michael Murray taught philosophy at Franklin & Marshal College, across the street from my current home. When I worked for IVCF at Bucknell, he was famous in our Christian group for speaking intelligently and passionately about the possibility of Truth in fraternity houses.

It’s not unusual these days to find Christians peppered throughout Academia. One of my seminary associates, Ned O’Gorman, earned his Master of Theology and skipped right off to Penn State to work on his PhD in Rhetoric. A few years ago, I noticed a fine volume by him on the “New Arrivals” shelf at F&M College. There he is, doing the work where it matters most, in the field of Political Rhetoric.

I’m sure there are rooms in the Academic library where Christians could be more involved, but I’ll leave that to those in the know. New challenges for the ancient faith exist these days too, but it seems the sheer number of available believers has increased to meet the opportunity. And for that I”m thankful.

In that vein, one of my friends, Annalisa Crannell, mathematics pop star at F&M College, does more to advance Christ’s kingdom by her modest lifestyle and genuine compassion for people than she might if she tacked preaching onto her courses on Chaos Theory. Her vivid trust in Christ makes her a guiding light on a campus that is way “beyond” its German Reformed roots.

As James Davison Hunter argues in To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010), we don’t have the option to leave vast swaths of our culture fallow. We must get in there to influence, to lead, to do.

25 years ago, I began to be hopeful that Christians might one day be less like freaks and more like a generative community of brothers and sisters laboring for the common good and pointing to their faithful Savior in word and deed.

If you aspire to Academia, know that your calling is a high one. It could also be a dangerous one. But our world desperately needs a community of thinkers who still believe in the possibility of beauty, goodness, and truth found in our treasured Christ. Press on by faith. Many seekers, like myself, will thank you for being a guiding light.

Vocational Dysphoria

Bobcat
I was privileged last week to attend the Q Ideas convention in Denver. It was a great time for me. My life’s work,  The Row House, Inc., is a bit of a rare bird. I always appreciate rubbing shoulders with folk doing similar work in cultural engagement from a Christian perspective.

James K.A. Smith launched the Q Conference with this clarion call: Plant gardens in the cracks of secularism. Heavy stuff, and it never let up!

A custom-fit theme emerged for me amidst the myriad talks, videos, and new friendships. You might guess what it as I describe the content that stood out to me:

1. At a writer’s workshop in a glitzy co-working space called Galvanize overlooking downtown Denver, the leader suggested every author has an aspirational audience as well as an actual audience. For me, I might aspire to reach the millions of culturally-savvy, heavily-endowed of the world in my first book. My actual audience might be more like the few friends who get the thing at Christmas (from me).

2. On the plane from Philly, I finished Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Gay Celibate Christian. In it, he candidly describes the tension of pursing holiness as a chaste Christian who also can not escape his orientation toward men and women.

3. On my mind constantly: J Cole, Philly hip-hop artist, implores his audience (himself first?) to stop obsessing over others’ lives in his song Love Yourz (uncensored).

“There’s beauty in the struggle, ugliness in the distress.”

4. In one of the many Q conversations with Gabe Lyons on a nicely-appointed Ikea couch, Melinda Selmys, wife and mother of six, described her gender dysphoria. After her kids stopped nursing she reverted to experiencing a somewhat masculine reality in her own skin.

5. I was dumbfounded by a series of portraits hanging on the wall at Galvanize, the uber-hip office building I mentioned. Apparently, each of the tenants of the building were asked the same question: What do you fear the most?

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Did you figure out my theme?

Dysphoria perfectly captures it. Dysphoria is an unsettled sense, what the Greek term denotes as “hard to bear.” It’s the opposite of euphoria, a general feeling of well-being.

We all live in seasons of dysphoria. Unrequited loves, dead-end jobs, and unrealized dreams make up the human experience. Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this tension because purportedly we “live by faith and not by sight.”

I daily wrestle with figuring out a way to “be me and do good” that works financially for my family. I have to plow through a lot of shame, second-guessing, and confusion because what I do best requires a lot risk and patience.

My experience can’t be too far from from any other saint in the mode

Q Denver might’ve been an intimidating event, but instead it was inspiring. If for any other reason, it was great to be reminded I’m not alone. You are not either.

Curating, Gaga-ing and Healing

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I was asked recently to spend a morning with about 40 college Freshmen. The task? To create a workshop applying Christian philosophy to the real world for the OneLife organization.

My wheels started turning, and within a few minutes I had hatched a plan. Hee-hee!

The risk of a complete disaster occurred to me. I was reminded of the duck feeder I was charged to make as part of an “outdoor lab” class in high school.

The concept was stellar, but the outcome was nightmarish thanks to horrible materials, worthless tools, and a lab partner who cared even less whether the thing would float. It wouldn’t.

Turns out, what I pictured for the OneLife event came to fruition tidily.  I believe, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, the outcome was profound.

The theme, I told them, would be Discerning the Curing Power of Art in three parts.

Art Experience #1 began in the Square Halo Gallery at The Trust Performing Arts Center. I led the students in 20 minutes of silent observation of Mark Potter’s series of hardwood sculptures called Bone of My Bone.

Those pieces are featured throughout this journal with much thanks to the artist and to their Curator, Ned Bustard.

I had removed all the labels. Their job was simply to take the pieces at face value, to truly observe, and make connections from what they were seeing.

The students were engaged and very talkative in our discussion. One student noticed a theme of imperfection running throughout the beautiful contours and gain lines of the polished surfaces. I was impressed.

Next I led a pretty straightforward devotion based on Matthew 8:17 (quoting Isaiah) in which Jesus heals many as the one who “took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” I told the story of my father-in-law’s experience of finally having his brokenness taken from him at his death.

I tied the curing power of Jesus to the work of the church, and we discussed the possibilities of art “curation” to heal the soul. It was OK, but I felt a bit underprepared.

Last came Art Experience #3. This was the risky one, I figured.I showed portions of a Lady Gaga video.

I made it clear I wasn’t trying to shock. The live performance I chose is a lot less racy than her studio videos. Plus it captures her attempt to be taken seriously as a performance artist (the premiere took place at an art gallery in Brooklyn), and it also conveys her affection for her audience.

The lyrics of Do What You Want With My Body also lend themselves to discernment. What’s the message? Sexual submission? Platonic dualism? Something else?

Discussion centered on her glaring vocal and dance abilities, her joy in performance, and her vulnerability. Like an Old Testament prophet, Gaga provokes her audience as a harbinger of some kind of good news.

It may be argued that her gospel is about self-acceptance and a good feeling of love for others. The students got it. They were able to tie back into the real good news of Jesus’ work and the good work of creation we observed earlier in the sculptures.

The risky part was over. The seminar leaders were pleased, and I was tired, expecting to pack up and go home.

Instead, six students gathered around me to thank me for specific ways in which the morning spoke to them.

After the other kids peeled off, one young lady approached me, smiling, but in emotional pain. She wanted me to tell her more about an off-handed comment I made about the church’s role in healing for those who’ve been hurt by others.

She tearfully disclosed she had been sexually wounded and was just beginning the long process of counseling and true self-acceptance.

Unlike most of the students who had never been hurt sexually, she got what Lady Gaga was saying with these words:

You can’t stop my voice ‘cause you don’t own my life. But do what you want with my body.

This lyric certainly has strains of Platonism, hedonism, and sexual perversion. But it’s also a call for women to reclaim their inner dignity in the face of sexual objectivization.

Gaga’s good news, complex, limited, and shocking as it is, made sense to this student in tandem with the themes of Scripture.

Profoundly thankful, I couldn’t help but hug her like one of my own dear daughters and encourage her to keep moving ahead.

 

Unsafe at Any Speed

vair hiney - b&w

I’m an expert in automotive design (in my house). I dabble in scapegoats, as well. Let me explain briefly yet thoroughly. When I was 15, I bought a 1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza for $50 to use as a “field car” at our hunting farm.

I know what you’re thinking: Unsafe at Any Speed,! That’s because you associate the Corvair with Ralph Nader’s 1965 book by that name. His target? The Big Three, especially GM. His tactic? Make the Corvair a scapegoat.

Scapegoat was coined by William Tyndale in the early 1500’s while translating the Hebrew Scriptures. “The goat that escapes” was released into the wilderness, after the priest confessed Israel’s sins over its head. Another goat was sacrificed.

Curiously, a German economy car of a similar design inspired the Corvair: The VW Beetle. In a rare color photo, Ferdinand Porsche delivers the “peoples’ car” to his giddy patron who came up with the idea. Ironically, Hitler, who scapegoated the Jews to fuel Nazism, himself became history’s Ultimate Scapegoat for all things evil.

Thanks to Nader’s first chapter, dedicated solely to the Corvair, the scrappy little Chevy was shooed-out into the wilderness of our cultural imagination where the Pinto would also end up. We’re due for another car scapegoat. VW diesels are looking promising.

It all started with Ed Cole, chief Engineer at Chevy in the late 50’s. He had a vision for an economy car for the American family. In a world of behemoth gas-sucking V8’s, the Corvair was a smart alternative for the growing, suburban middle-class.

Thanks to its air-cooled, rear-engine drivetrain and independent rear suspension, the Corvair was remarkable and unusual. It handled differently from conventional vehicles under certain conditions. After years of testing It debuted on Oct 2,1959 and hailed as Motor Trend’s 1960 Car of the Year.

The Corvair was a playful-looking American car with lots of trunk space, up front. It may deserve to be remembered as a scapegoat, but certainly not as some list-makers call it: One of the worst cars ever. If your mind goes there, I want to show you a different road.

What about safety? Well, Corvairs are not “unsafe at any speed.” Litigation lawyers jumped at the chance to exploit rare instances of drivers losing control of the Corvair while cornering due to over-steer. But by 1964, a stabilizer bar added to the rear suspension mitigated that possibility.

What about its looks? Bad cars are usually ugly. Any pop cultural image I’ve seen of the Covair is taken from its first generation, 1960-1964. I call these the cute years. The lines, admittedly, are boat-like and quirky. A scapegoat can’t be sexy, so this image tends to be the standard in most of our minds.

But in 1965 the second gen Corvair dropped, and it was sexy, not like Beyoncé; more like Danica Patrick. The sloping belt and roof lines prefigured the Camero, the Chevy that had a better chance at taking on the Mustang. It looks fast and strong and light.

My second Corvair, a ’65 Monza Sedan, went with me to St. Louis and then on to my current hometown of Lancaster, PA in 1999 on the back of a trailer. She was unrestored, understated, sleek and rare. I shot her with film for use in some publicity brochures. Sadly, maintaining her on my income was impossible. She was cannibalized for her engine.

What about its layout? A common myth is that the Corvair was unsafe because of its rear engine. Not really. In a head-on collision, do you want a dense piece of metal machinery pushed into your crotch? Or would you rather the front end crumpled on impact? Non-collapsing steering columns on every car in those days were ten times more dangerous than a rear engine.

It turns out the rear engine technology is pretty cool. It reduces the length of the drivetrain much as in a front-wheel drive car and allows for a lower hood line. Most rear engines are “flat,” like the 6 cylinder in the Corvair, enabling a low profile even in the rear.

If the powertrain of the Corvair were inherently problematic, then why do most car aficionados consider the Porsche 911 the ultimate car? It’s perfectly balanced. Form follows function. The engine is just where it should be in this modest yet high-achieving automobile.

What about overall influence? Bad cars are losers. In 1964, however, the Corvair line-up boasted 7 different models, plus three trucks sharing its platform. At its peak, 237,000 units were made in 1965. It was the only mass-produced, rear-engine car made in the US.Demand quickly dropped off, however, for two reasons: Nader’s unfair caricature couldn’t be uprooted no matter the Corvair’s improvements. Plus, Ford went head-to-head with the Monza, Corvair’s sport model, by delivering the Mustang as a 1964 1/2 model. Americans liked the Ford pony car better because they love a bit of sport with lots of predictability. Game over.

American cars went from bad to worse into the 1970’s, giving us a scapegoat that was also a bad car: The Pinto. Meanwhile, in Germany, the Corvair’s distant cousin continued evolving into what it is now. Think of that next time you drive past Autohaus.

Ralph Nader recently opened a museum in Connecticut dedicated to consumer advocacy. You can guess what his most popular attraction will be. His book paid his bills and launched a long career in protecting us from impersonal, corporate interests. He’ll go down in history as the High Priest with a very sharp pen.

And the Chevrolet Corvair (R.I.P., 1969) remains a fun and affordable collector’s car with a proud history. It’s a fading prophet crying out in the wilderness of our collective consciousness for smarter engineering and better economy.

Unsafe at any speed, indeed.

“My Church is So Awesome! Part 1”

IMG_1167At 12:15, Justin and Amber were left alone at the cafeteria table. Not unusually awkward, as they both kind of knew each other from their Students for Christ group at Broadway High School.

“My church is awesome,” Amber had quipped to Laura who was leaving the table after a long diatribe about her own church being utterly boring.

Justin was taken a little back by Amber’s enthusiasm about Family Community Fellowship. He’d visited there twice and found the place shallow like a mall.

He was fresh off Senior AP class in which Mr. Dougherty had been demonstrating, through questions of course, the Socratic method. He’d give it a try.

“What makes it so awesome?”

“Oh, my Gosh. I don’t know where to…I mean, OK: Our pastor, Arnie, is just so cool. My Dad says he’s the most practical speaker ever. Our Sunday service ends with his sermon. He just gets right down-to-earth, you know? And then he’s like, ‘God bless.’ And then you got a lot to think about.”

Justin is not only a budding interlocutor, he’s also a bit of a skeptic, for a Christian, not easily taken in by sentimentality or heaving emotion. Reserved, he appreciates The Onion News.

“Yea, my pastor, Dr. Horne, has some of that, but I think he’s too humble to just drop a sermon before we leave. We always end with communion and a blessing. Then it’s coffee.”

Amanda smile-frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry about that. Wait. You guys have a coffee shop too?”

“Uh, no, just a fellowship hall and some older ladies manning the pots. Styrofoam cups and stuff. I don’t usually go; I play with the kids.”

“Well,” Amanda continued her thought, “Our Kingdom Expansion, I think it was 2.5 million bucks, included a huge coffee shop and lounge. And, Gheez, you can buy anything there. I always get the cafe latte skim. Me and my Youth SURGE team hang out there before Sunday School. It’s super chill.”

Justin warmly mused, “Wow, I’d love to see that. Sounds great.”

Turns out, Justin also admired his church, First Presbyterian, for less sexy reasons. Amber’s family had her baptized there, and they were members there till five years ago when they “transferred membership” to MCC. They were looking for a church with more life.

Seems about 1,000 others from this rural part of the state have done the same over thirty years. Historic churches have been folding or skimming along for just as long.

Justin delighted in Amber’s bright, green eyes, and at this distance, her girlish shampoo danced in his nostrils. He had no sisters. The effect on him was tantric, but he tried to play it cool. Amber was actually kind of cute, he thought.

Sixth period was still a long seven minutes away, and a somewhat awkward silence ensued. Justin conceived of a format for comparing the awesomeness of their church experiences to kill time and extend it simultaneously.

“Tell you what, you list each thing you like about FCF, and compare each one with what you remember about First Church. For example, if I were to make a list from my point of view, I’d start like this: ‘I feel like I’m rooted in history at my church; At FCF, everything is now, current, relevant. I feel disoriented there.”

“What are you trying to do?” asked Amber, playing her own Socrates.

“I don’t know. I guess I hear lots of complaints about old-fashioned churches like mine. Don’t you think FCF beats the pants off First Church?”

“Ha! You’re funny! I don’t think Christians should compete with each other or be hateful. It’s not nice, Justin.”

“Whoa. I’m not asking you to be mean, just honest. What makes your church so awesome?”

“Alright, for one, it’ comfortable. The seats are nice. I feel like I’m in a living room or at a show. Yea, it’s like a really cool concert mixed with God. Everyone is so enthusiastic. Or if you’re not, it’s OK. People come as they are. And the screens are awesome too. It helps me follow along, and…”

“Wait, one thing at a time!”

“Ok, it feels nice. First Pres has hard pews, no screens, and it’s not really cozy. It feels way too serious.”

“Next?”

“OK, I’m concentrating now. Next, FCF is all about learning what it means to serve God. Arnie always says something like, ‘This is what we need to do if we’re Christians.’ First Church is all creeds and ritual about Jesus.

“Besides that, FCF is all about the Bible. Pastor Arnie’s sermons are in the bulletin. It’s all verses from the Bible about whatever subject he’s preaching on. I get confused at First Church because it’s like a whole sermon from Joshua or something and nothing practical. Well, or not as much. It’s always focused on something else like God or Jesus, stuff I know already. I need more direction than that.

“And then there’s the awesome new building. It’s like wired and really cool like a mall. (Justin grins). First Church is old and brick, and the windows are beautiful but they’re distracting. It’s like, Eh. Who wants an old dusty place in town when you can have a new place that’s awesome?”

“Is that all?”

“I guess. My brain hurts.”

(BRRRRAAAA). The Sixth Period buzzer sounded. Justin and Amber sorted their trash on their trays, then they bid each other goodbye in the high school way.

She stood up first, glanced at him and said, “OK, see ya.”

“Later,” replied Socrates, putting down his rhetoric for the moment, wishing desperately she’d come back.