The academy and the poor

Poserorprophet writes (21 June – see also the discussion in the comments):

. . . . Wolterstorff argues that one must learn to listen to those who are in very different geographical, social, and economic locations than our own, for socially produced malformations and ideologies will significantly influence one’s own religious beliefs and moral convictions . . . I [Dan] believe that, confronted as we are with the massive brokenness of the world, and the suffering of our neighbours, our academic endeavours must be shaped by certain commitments. . . our scholarship is to be part of our participation in the embodied proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus and ongoing his mission of forgiveness, liberation, and new creation. Further, I also believe that, to more fully understand this proclamation and its implications, we must move into the company of the poor, and listen to what they have to tell us. . .

This, then, is the question I would like to ask, as I attempt to start a meme: when confronted with ‘the Poor’ of our day, how do you justify your own academic endeavours? I invite any and all readers of this blog to respond to this question on their own blogs (or in the comments section) and to invite others to respond.

Read his entire post and the discussion in the comments (he posts a brief follow-up here, but we are still waiting for his full thoughts.)


I [Ben] have been thinking about this question for well over a week now. I wholeheartedly agree that it is imperative to live among the poor and constantly faced with the brokenness of the world – much as I wish I could avoid it; it’s frankly painful. It helps us ache for the redemption of the world as God aches for it, and keeps us accountable for our lifestyle choices.

I confess, however, that I find the crossover into academia hard. In a field like Biblical studies, making a “contribution” seems to lead to increasingly obscure topics. The main areas for addressing the world’s brokenness, on the other hand, are plainly evident in the most basic messages of the Bible. It doesn’t take Greek, Hebrew, archaeology, or ANE social studies to understand God’s intention for a harmonious and prosperous world, the severe corruption of sin, and the need to join God’s redemptive work – including challenging unjust economic and political systems. You don’t have to read the Bible long to see the important principles of justice, mercy, and righteousness. I may find a new way of articulating them, but what can I truly add? It’s not so much what we don’t know; it’s what we don’t do.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that Biblical scholarship is important, but the real work of dealing with brokenness takes place in every-day life: on the steps of the inner-city churches, the soup kitchens, the refugee camps, the micro-finance offices, the counselor’s offices, and job creation places. It’s done by real friends and neighbors. Engaging the world’s brokenness also takes place (or at least should take place) in the corporate boardrooms, the legislative back rooms, the media production offices, the economic planning offices, and the places where businesses and industries are set up. A lot of good intellectual work needs to go into creating systems of redemption, but those don’t seem to fit my skill set.

I know Wolterstorff is good, but I have to wonder how many lives or systems have really been changed by anything he’s said or written. (Just curious.) Something about seeing my hard-working neighbors and their six kids without food revolutionizes the way I think, buy, prioritize, and live. Still, if I had millions and millions of dollars, and worked 24-7 focused exclusively on addressing real needs of the nearby poor, I’d hardly make a dent; it would be a drop in the bucket. The saints in the trenches sacrifice their lives daily have my ultimate respect; they span the spectrum vocationally.

So how do I justify my own academic endeavors (meager as they may be)? I believe this is what God has given me the opportunity to do, and I enjoy it. I know there are other perhaps more vital callings, but I believe that God can use my academic endeavors as one small strand in the wider web of his redemptive work. It’s no more and no less important than any other role God gives his servants (Paul’s body imagery comes to mind). Part of this means I have to pay my dues to the guild so that I can do what I really want to do. At the same time, deepened understanding of the Bible in it’s original contexts helps me appreciate the awe-inspiring complexity of God’s interaction with a broken world.

Hopefully, my study can provide a platform for challenging fellow believers to become the presence of Christ in all the broken places of the world. If I can play a small part in helping one of my students or colleagues become that politician or businessman than makes a more dramatic impact on the world’s brokenness, I’ll be happy. I’m just one tiny piece in God’s cosmic scheme. Maybe I can be a good listener and find a new way of articulating what I hear in ways that help others. But likely more important than anything I will ever say or write, is the life I live. Am I faithfully trying to be God’s instrument of justice, hope, comfort, love, and deliverance in the broken places – regardless of my professional vocation? Frankly, these aren’t things we learn in the library. The bottom line: I must strive to reflect the voice and hands of God in a broken world, not so much as Ben the academic student (though that will always be a part of me), but as Ben the friend and neighbor. Where I choose to live and who I spend time with is an important beginning; from this context (and in the library too) I listen for God’s voice speaking into my own life and thinking.

Does this justify my academic endeavors? To be honest, I’m just putting one foot in front of the other.

Thanks for the challenge, Dan. I’ll keep thinking about it. I look forward to hearing what you have to say (see part 1).

UPDATE: On further reflection, I thought this sermon by C. S. Lewis might be appropriate – Why do academics when there is a war to be fought – for excerpts go here or the full sermon (pdf 117 kB)

3 thoughts on “The academy and the poor

  1. Dan Howard says:

    Thanks for posting your reflections. I’ve also been thinking of these things during my recent time at Bible College (in UK). I’m glad you’ve referred to the CS Lewis address because he makes some very credible points. I would agree with where you’ve ended up in your post, and want to encourage you to keep on doing this stuff to God’s glory – assuming you have discerned His call on your life in that way..!

    I think it rests first on a strong (i.e. biblical) appreciation of God’s sovereignty and providence over all of life. It is God alone who can deal decisively with poverty (amongst many other human plights). Because of this, I would want to adjust slightly the language you used above: “the real work of dealing with brokenness takes place in every-day life” – of course, the Spirit reveals that the ‘real work’ begins in the heart, and giving $1,000,000 to poor relief is not necessarily closer to the heart than writing an essay on Hiphil stems in Jeremiah, or whatever. Billy Graham has brought better news for the poor of the world than Bob Geldof.

    I also think this goes with a strong view of church. As you say above, “if I had millions and millions of dollars, and worked 24-7 focused exclusively on addressing real needs of the nearby poor, I’d hardly make a dent; it would be a drop in the bucket”. A sceptic could pick on any individual Christian, whatever their life’s achivements, and say – “yes but they did nothing about THIS?!” It’s amazing how _few_ miracles Jesus actually performed Himself. After all, if I’d had that power, I’d have wanted to stay around for a couple of decades and heal millions. But of course God’s big project of salvation was to send His Spirit and create the church – a body of people with Christ as our Head. With the final goal that He will bring in a new, glorious creation. Meanwhile, each of us is only (!) responsible before God for doing our own part, according to the gifts He gives.

    And I’m very glad indeed that there are gifted Christian academics (I’m not one!) who contend for God’s truth in what is an immense battlefield of satan, so that the generations of Christians to come won’t think they have to switch off their brains.

  2. Dan Howard says:

    A postscript to my prev. comment – you may appreciate this lecture: “not the least lash lost” by David Field (of Oak Hill College, London UK):
    – audio is here – find 2007 pastors’ conference, #6
    – lecture notes here

  3. Ben says:

    Dan, Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts. There’s a lot of food for thought there.

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