Review: The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Sometimes I skip to the end of a book review when I’m reading it in a rush. I think I’ll try that while writing one: don’t buy this book. Get Al Wolters’ Creation Regained instead.
Now on to some substance. Gene Fant has a lot of it. But I just don’t see how that substance is very Christian, precisely because it isn’t very biblical. To be clear, I’m not sure I detected much if anything that was un- or anti-biblical. But neither can I imagine how an undergraduate student could read this book and come away with a truly biblical vision for the liberal arts. I do not see how this book helps “reclaim the Christian intellectual tradition,” as the series title promises.
There are multiple Christian traditions, not all of them intellectual. There’s only one I know that, in my humble estimation, manages to claim the title “biblical” when it comes to the liberal arts. And Fant wasn’t reclaiming that one. How do I know this? Because the most biblically fundamental reasons for studying the liberal arts were entirely absent from this book, and it is the genius of that (hitherto unnamed) Christian intellectual tradition to draw on those biblical reasons. These reasons stand at the beginning of the biblical record: the image of God and the creation mandate (Gen. 1:26–28).
Here is everything Fant says about the image of God:
Perhaps there is something to the notion that our creative and inventive abilities are a part of the image of God that we bear. (81)
Here is everything Fant says about the creation mandate:
To learn about God, we must undertake research into his creation, from the humans who have a specific form of dominion over the world to the animals, plants, and even elements that fill every nook and cranny of the universe. (60)
Book reviewers aren’t supposed to complain that they didn’t get the book they wanted. But how can you write a whole book reclaiming a Christian view of the liberal arts and fail to explore these foundational points? It would be like a book about basketball basics that only mentions dribbling and shooting in respective footnotes. Dribbling and shooting are the organizing principles of basketball, the two practices built into the sport without which none of the other practices make sense. Likewise the image of God and the creation mandate.*
Fant speaks broadly and generically, glowingly, about the Christian view of the world. He also, to be sure, has numerous insightful and intelligent things to say about that view. But I couldn’t discern an obvious method of organization toward a big point, and certainly not toward a scriptural point.
Let me share with you a few of the quotes that struck me as valuable insights:
Scientific pursuits must never become detached from other disciplines, particularly ethics. Science is the best means we have in telling us what we can do, as it describes the mechanisms of the physical world (e.g., we can study chemicals and design drugs that can cause our bodies to undergo changes). The scientific method, however, is ill-equipped to tell us what we may do in terms of ethics or practicality (is it ethical to use a drug to end the life of a person who is suffering from depression or to terminate a pregnancy?). Moreover, science as a discipline is completely unable to tell us what we must do (must we force a patient to undergo a drug treatment that can save a life but that the patient does not want?). Rightly understood, science is a tool, not a philosophical system. (70)
As Augustine once pointed out, math is discovered, not created. (61)
Much of the perceived conflict between faith and science is really an issue of data hermeneutics. Scientific materialism treats the universe in much the same way as literary critics detach text from authorial intent. If the universe has no author, then it has no intentionality, which means that its meaning is found only in the minds of its interpreters, those who analyze scientific data. The intentional fallacy that has afflicted much of literary criticism is shared by those who subscribe to a scientific viewpoint that there is no intentionality to the universe either. If the universe is random, it has no meaning. If it has no meaning, it has no originator of meaning. All authority, then, is ceded to the interpreters: scientific materialists. If the world has meaning, then it is only logical that is has an originator of that meaning; without an originator, there is no source of meaning. Or meaningful data. If the world is meaningful, then by definition it cannot be random. (78)
[Christian college] campus chapel programming should be viewed as a first-tier activity that reinforces the work of the core curriculum and grounds this work with specific applications that may be discerned in that context; too many campuses view chapel as an afterthought or a “throw away” hour that is a holdover from past times. Few things energize a Christian campus like an effective chapel speaker whose message resonates with previous discussions in the classroom or spurs subsequent class interactions that are relevant to the topics at hand. (90)
Perhaps some of the hesitancy to tackle theological content in the core curricula is a belief that students possess basic scriptural and doctrinal literacy when they arrive on campus. This belief, however, is undermined by the reality that even the best-educated and most church-saturated students who arrive at Christian institutions tend to lack in-depth knowledge of even the most basic facts of the faith. Surveys and polls all consistently bear this out. (91)
Another hesitation to include theological content is the sense of many, if not most, faculty members that they are ill-equipped to lead such discussions. I suspect that this is partially due to the way that professors are trained: they are specialists who know a great deal about a particular subject so are hesitant to hold forth on subjects outside of that field. The stakes of theological discourse are even higher; in the end, many Christian faculty members end up teaching their courses in ways that differ little from their secular counterparts at other universities; they do not teach in distinctively Christian ways that drip with theological content. (91–92)
These are valid and important insights from a man with valuable knowledge and experience. But I’m afraid his book illustrates that last quotation. His book is surely different from what secular literature professors would say. But it lacks the full distinctiveness of the biblical worldview, because it fails to dig deep into what the Bible says about the liberal arts.
*He also mentioned the story of Scripture—the metanarrative that provides a Christian view of the liberal arts—just once (76), but he managed to use the word “fulsome” eight times. I counted.