Briefly Noted: On Keith Campbell and The Academy as a Mission Field

In a recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary alumnus Keith Campbell challenges evangelicals to take a missional approach to the academy in general, and to international universities in particular. He argues that such an approach is good in-and-of-itself, and that it is particularly helpful during a time now because of the glut of scholars who hold terminal degrees biblical and theological studies compared with the relative dearth of openings (338). The traditional education path for American scholars, which involves earning successive degrees at the Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral level and the being hired immediately for a teaching position, is increasingly difficult to follow (342).

One solution to this problem, according to Campbell, is for evangelical scholars to take a broader view of the geographical scope of their calling (341). He looks for advancement of global evangelical scholarship on two fronts.

First, denominations should begin to promote higher education as a core missions strategy. He cites the relative lack of denominational promotion of higher education as mission as a problem, seeing the denominationally unaffiliated International Institute for Christian Studies (IICS) as a model for denominational mission boards to pursue (343–47).

Second, Campbell calls on individual scholars to thoroughly evaluate their own calling. He articulates four important points for consideration: (1) What is the individual’s ability level? Campbell argues that only the best scholars should compete for academic positions and writing contracts in the U.S., while the capable, but perhaps less academically gifted scholars can perhaps best serve the Kingdom by educating others overseas. (2) Where can the individual make the most significant Kingdom impact? Campbell calls for scholars to question whether their academic contribution in the U.S. will be comparable to their potential evangelistic impact overseas. (3) What are the individual’s motives for seeking a position in the U.S.? With the market in the U.S. overwhelmed with applicants, Campbell asserts, it is important for scholars to evaluate whether they are seeking to maximize their impact or to find the most comfortable career. (4) What are the individual’s social and economic circumstances? This is a question that is best considered early in the academic progression, according to Campbell, since marriage, property ownership, debt and course of study can all impact an individual’s ability to teach overseas. There may be some who are unable to serve overseas because of these factors (347–50).

While Campbell recognizes the difficulty of making contributions to the cutting edge of evangelical scholarship in some international circumstances, he argues that there may be unique opportunities for scholarly contributions from individuals serving in less conventional academic settings. Research may be more difficult in some settings because the latest scholarly publications are not readily available and daily activities like shopping may consume more precious research time. Yet Campbell recognizes that some of the historical difficulties in pursuing scholarship while overseas are being overcome through advances in electronic publications. Additionally, he offers that pursuing scholarship in a context outside of the U.S. may significantly enhance an individual’s contributions by helping them to consider alternative view points, engage in cultural experiences that enhance understanding of some biblical texts, and wrestle with questions that would go unasked in a conventional U.S. classroom (350–52).


In the big picture of things, I could not agree more with Campbell. One place I differ is in his first point when he mentions that the better scholars might want to stay in the West, while those with lesser ability may want to go abroad. I’d modify that to say that the best and the brightest might very well find a better ROI by going to teach in the Global South and East.

With that said, I’ll add that the 20th century evangelical world at large abdicated its responsibility to the Academy. Although we started some fine Christian institutions, we mostly ignored the need to shape the professorate and the curriculum at major state universities and private colleges. As a result, we have little hand in shaping what is perhaps the most influential sector of American society and of many global societies. While state universities and influential private universities are busy shaping the minds and hearts of young people across the globe, evangelicals have been largely absent. If evangelicals wish to be faithful to our Lord in the 21st century, we must find ways to proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives in university contexts, both here in the West and around the globe.

Practical Steps

Consonant with Campbell’s approach, I wish to mention three practical steps we may take toward building a missiology for the academy.  But first, allow me to say that we should continue to do the one thing that evangelicals have not neglected: campus evangelism through student ministries. We should throw our support behind local church college ministries such as Generation Link and Campus Outreach, and behind campus ministries such as Campus Crusade or Baptist Campus Ministries. However, in addition to this aspect of campus ministry (on which evangelicals have focused), we must take at least three other practical steps (which we have often neglected):

First, our churches should preach and teach in such a way that they assign significance to the life of the mind, and to the realms of life represented by the academic disciplines. We must rid Christianity of the sub-Christian belief that our physical, material, and intellectual life doesn’t matter to God. It does matter, because Christ is Lord. Every station of life—whether it is biology, philosophy, literary criticism, or business marketing—matters to Christ and should be undertaken in a Christian manner. In taking these stations of life seriously, we are able to leverage them for Christ and his gospel. We proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives.

Second, our churches should encourage people with PhDs to take their credentials and their vocation overseas. There are hundreds of major universities in Asia, Africa, and even the Middle East who are eager to hire Americans who hold a PhD. Many of them are willing even to hire an evangelical whose PhD is from a seminary and whose expertise is in New Testament or Theology. Most American students who graduate with a PhD will never find a full-time teaching job here in the United States, but they might easily find one overseas in a country where their gospel influence would be significant.

Third, our churches should encourage some of their most gifted young people to take their PhDs from Ivy League schools or well-respected state universities, so that they might find themselves in tenure-track positions in those same types of institutions. The whole world is sending their best and brightest children to study in American universities. Those children are shaped by our American professors, and then are launched into influential positions here in the USA or elsewhere. Why not send them on their way after having been shaped by several robustly Christian professors who put in the blood, sweat, and tears to earn a position teaching in a major university?

Concluding Thought

Missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to shape it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.” The academy, both in the US and abroad, is ripe for professors whose vocation is motivated and shaped by the hope they find in Christ Jesus.


The Lonely Planet Guide to Faculty Fashion & Apparel

Only a person with a petrified diaphragm could fail to laugh out loud at Kerry Soper’s “RateMyProfessor’” in the September 17 (2010) issue of The Chronicle Review. In the brief little satire, Soper refers to one of the “rate your professor” websites which allows students to rate their professor’s class performance as well as their appearance. The student is allowed to place an icon of a chili pepper beside a professor who is particularly good looking. Soper bemoans the fact that “it is unfair that only the few youthful, freakishly good-looking faculty members among us get all of those chili-pepper accolades” and proposes that the students also be allowed to reward their professors with any of twelve “consolation icons.”

Soper’s real game is to poke a little fun at university culture and the eccentricities it produces. So, just for fun, I thought I’d mention a few of Soper’s icons and their descriptions (several of which would not find an analog on an SBC seminary campus, you’ll notice) for those who would like to take a stroll down (college) memory lane.

One of Soper’s icons is The Pocket Protector, representing a professorial style that I suspect is represented on every college and seminary campus. In clicking on this metaphorical icon, a student is “congratulating a professor on being unabashedly (or unconsciously) nerdy in his or her appearance: ‘It’s clear that you just don’t care, and that’s awesome. We get a kick out of your functional polyester slacks; limp, faded shirts; and grimy, heavy-framed glasses. Don’t change! We feel comforted knowing that none of your valuable research and class-prep time is eaten up with frivolous concerns over wearing same-colored socks, changing your pants every day, or taking any extra time to match up the buttons with the proper buttonholes in that threadbare shirt.”

Another icon is The Bow Tie: “This is for professors determined to maintain an ivory-tower dress code established in a previous century. The student is saying, ‘Yes, that stuffy little bow tie looks ridiculous on your portly frame; your frumpy oxford shirts are stained and frayed; and I have never seen a jacket that is so depressingly brown and textured. Nevertheless, your stereotypically fussy sense of style does help me feel like I’m getting my money’s worth as a college student.'”

A third icon may not find a referent on an evangelical seminary campus, but packs a wicked punch on most university campuses. By giving the professor The Espresso Cup, the student is saying, “I can see that you have a coherent style going on there: an array of black and gray clothing that has a vague, critical-theory hipness to it. And good job on finding the right kind of severe glasses and retro haircut to fit the look. Personally, I find the aesthetic dull and pretentious, but it is fun to see you strike self-conscious poses at the whiteboard, like some kind of morose poet in a Sears catalog for existentialists.”

A fourth professorial style is represented by The Half-Eaten Protein Bar: This is a student’s way of saying: “You may not be an especially attractive human being, but it does appear that you spend a lot of time at the gym attempting to get into shape. God job, in other words, for trying. Yes, you may have weird hair, lame clothes and dorky glasses, but I’m sure that somewhere under the extra 15 pounds you’ve accumulated over the years, there must be some nicely sculpted delts and pecs.”

A fifth style is what Soper calls The Pressed Flower: by choosing this icon, the student is saying that “it looks as if you may have been hip and attractive at one point in your life. And guessing from your big hair, lavender pantsuit with the puffy should pads, and bright pumps, that year was probably 1986. Thank you for preserving this historical look for future generations.” (Soper should be careful on this one, as he might find himself ducking to avoid an incoming pair of 1986 pumps aimed at his melon.)

A sixth icon is The Harmonica: This is for the securely upper-middle-class prof who enjoys wearing faux working-class garb: scuffed leather boots, aged denim, faded T-shirts, and Teamster-style plaid button-ups. Students can say: “We don’t get your fetish for all things Springsteen, and your folksy, left-leaning political references are about 40 to 50 years out of date, but we appreciate the laid-back, democratic ambiance you bring to the class. Indeed, it makes it difficult for you to say no to our requests for grade adjustments when you find out that we, too, are from humble, working-class roots.”

A final icon is The Power Tie: “This is for the prof who seems to belong (or perhaps has once belonged) in corporate America rather than academe. The student is saying, ‘You must be a misguided Republican adjunct-a refugee from the downsized business world-or some kind of weird, moonlighting administrator. How else to explain the worn-out black dress shoes, Brooks Brothers shirts with the frayed collars, silk ties that were fashionable maybe 10 years ago, and that heavily gelled hair? Nice job on keeping me distracted from your dry lectures with this fashion conundrum.'”

Well, I hope Soper’s icons provided a little bit of levity to your day. I left out five of his icons (The Pizza Slice, The Lump of Tofu, The Cassava Root, The Pina Colada with a Little Umbrella, and The Crystal) and I cannot imagine how many extra icons our readership could provide based on their college careers. However, I am confident that the seven icons bring all of us some retrospective clarity to our former lives as college students and bring some of us present-day clarity about ourselves and our colleagues.