The following is a portion of a paper that I was required to write.
Misguided Approach to Faith Integration
I would love to start this paper expressing my enthusiasm for the topic, or my eager spirit for writing. Instead, as I type, I am sitting in a coffee shop with half a dozen internet tabs open, headphones in, and a scone and latte to my left which are just a few of the signs I am looking for distractions and ways to avoid writing. The concept of “faith integration” in the classroom, the practice room, or even the office seems misguided to me. Should I not strive toward being more like Christ? Should my energy not be focused more specifically on how I can serve Him? Perhaps this is my millenial antagonism showing, but I often perceive the contemporary Christian academic setting to be misguided and mis-focused. Yes, we are to serve our students and one of our highest aims should be pointing them toward the cross of Christ in everything we say and do, but is this the priority? If so, then our focus is actually on our students and ourselves, not on Christ. When we put ourselves into the position of “savior,” we will burn out quickly. Jeff Vanderstelt talks about this problem in Saturate:
We were all running as hard and fast as we could on mission: hosting cookouts with neighbors, serving our schools, feeding the homeless, partnering with the arts community, starting small businesses, meeting with politicians, fixing homes, and caring for families whose spouses had been called to war. It seemed we were doing something every night, and the pace was wearing us down. We wanted to see our whole city saturated with the good news of Jesus, but making it happen was turning out to be much more overwhelming than we had expected! (Vanderstelt, 50)
This sounds like someone who is trying to “integrate faith” in the classroom. The focus is wrong. Vanderstelt goes on to explain the problem this way, “I was trying to be Jesus and I was asking [the church members] to be Jesus. But we can’t be Jesus. Only Jesus can be Jesus.” (Vanderstelt, 52) If our eyes are truly fixed on the cross, then how we live should become a natural reflection of Christ’s love and “faith integration” should be an organic byproduct of our faith.
I love the first paragraph of this essay, all of my angst and antagonism on display. I think to myself, “I don’t need to write anymore, I just answered the question.” But the fact of the matter is, I fail. At times, I fail at keeping my own eyes truly fixed on the cross, so it would follow that I also fail at striving to point my students to the cross. This is where I hear myself teaching. Not a semester has gone by in my teaching career where I did not tell at least one student or class of students that failure is not inherently bad. Failure can be the fuel for success if you reflect appropriately at why you failed. I urge my students to reflect fully and deeply on why, how, and when they failed. It is a very easy thing to tell someone else, but when it comes to my faith, love, and devotion to Jesus Christ it is remarkably uncomfortable to reflect on that failure. The irony of this is, unlike a staunch academic, Christ fully wipes the failure-ledger clean.
Despite constant failure, Christ extends grace. Do I do the same for students? Here is where many academicians, I among them, would determinedly argue that not every student will succeed in college, but poor academic performance is not the type of failure I am focusing on. Do I extend grace when a student breaks a rule? Do I extend grace and forgiveness when a student writes a scathing review of me in end-of-semester report? Do I extend grace in the classroom when one student speaks poorly of another or mistreats another? Christ would. Christ does. For me, as a professor, to truly integrate faith into all areas of my work, I need to forgive. Forgiveness is not easy, but is a mandate throughout Scripture. The passage in Ephesians 4 is particularly challenging to me. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4: 31-32, ESV). “As God in Christ forgave you.” Do I have the intensity of forgiveness equivalent to sacrificing my only child to forgive someone else?
How I can be more forgiving? The answer is clear in the first paragraph of this paper, focus on Christ. A poor educator will focus too often on self, a good educator will focus on the students, a truly great Christian educator will focus on Christ.
What about integrating faith with music education? Is there more to it than focusing on Christ and striving to be more like Him? Certainly. I consider myself uniquely blessed in teaching what I do because I do not have to deal with many of the same struggles as my colleagues across the academy. Most professors receive their roster of students; I audition mine and choose who I want. Many professors have students who fall asleep or are on their phones or laptops too much; my students are standing and singing so there is no room or capacity for sleeping or technology. Some professors deal with students who “have to be there;” all of my students choose to be in my class, and if it does not work for them, they are always free to leave, join another choir, or quit altogether. On top of this list of blessings, the choir I conduct rehearses and performs mostly sacred music. I do not have to be sneaky to find ways to mix in spirituality with my subject, like a parent trying to feed their child vegetables. We sing musical settings of Psalm texts, we sing traditional Latin texts that have been a part of church traditions for centuries, and we sing settings of contemporary poetry that points to the goodness of the Creator. Faith integration, on this level, is easy!
I could also integrate faith by looking at how the choir is a reflection of the church and again reference the writings of Paul: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, ESV). A standard choral structure is four independent sections: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass; without one section singing, the whole musical work would sound incomplete. Furthermore, within each section there are many members and without even one, the sound changes.
If I was being ever so slightly more thoughtful, I could relate performance quality and holiness. There is, in my mind, no such thing as a perfect choir or even a perfect performance. We can only hope to get close to perfect. Knowing perfection is unattainable can be disheartening for someone who believes they have given 100% and cannot do more. However, I regularly take the opportunity to instruct the choir that choral music is a deeply accurate reflection of our faith. We cannot be perfect on this earth, we all carry original sin in our earthly bodies, but that does not mean we should give up striving to be better every day. Indeed, holiness and musical performance are paralleled.
Ultimately, where faith integration becomes much more tangible and deeply genuine is in our striving for excellence. The Indiana Wesleyan University Chorale always strives for excellence. Why? Isn’t it enough if everyone there is passionate and truly wants to sing? Isn’t it enough if the singers are enjoying themselves and worshiping through rehearsal and performance? It is not. These things - passion, desire, joy, worship - are certainly valuable, but they can all be found in mediocrity if we are not diligent. We, the members of the Chorale, are regularly positioned in front of churches and audiences that know little about us, little about the university, and at times little about Jesus Christ. If we present them a mediocre musical offering, we are not only doing ourselves and the university a disservice, we are, more distinctly, doing a disservice to the Church and her King. Our offering should be our best, every time. We have been given the ability to sing, the ability to rehearse, and if we squander that we are not giving it back to the One who is the Gifter of those gifts.
No matter the depth - or lack thereof - of how I integrate faith in the classroom, it all comes down to the “why.” Why integrate faith? Because my employer tells me to? Because good Christians should always be blending their testimonies into their daily lives? These are not bad reasons, but the truest reason is because the truth of what Christ did on the cross should be oozing out of me constantly without me striving to make it so. Faith integration should be a natural byproduct of my personal relationship with the Savior. This truth can only be made real in and through me if I do what I argue I should do in the first paragraph of this paper: focus on Him. Why integrate faith? Because if we are focused on the cross of Jesus Christ, we cannot not integrate faith into our classroom, our practice room, or even our office.
Vanderstelt, Jeff. Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life. Crossway, 2015.