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Shifting sand?

National | Calvin College offers a top-notch liberal arts education, but is it slipping its biblical moorings? First in an occasional series on Christian colleges

Issue: "No man's land," May 10, 2003

ONE SNOWY EVENING IN FEBRUARY, four Calvin College students huddled round a table, piecing together supper. On the dining hall menu: steak sandwiches, fried fish planks, and an unnaturally orange, scalloped potato-and-ham affair that looked way better than it tasted. Mark Hutton, a brown-haired freshman from New Jersey who planned to hit the local snowboarding slopes after dinner, opted out of all three entrees. Instead, he crafted from available cold food a custom three-course meal: A milk-soaked bowl of Count Chocula breakfast cereal, followed by a bowl of Trix, washed down with a blob of raspberry Jello.

Some things never change: College students will always survive on food that would appall their mothers. But a lot else has changed at Calvin College as it has grown over the past century from a one-room schoolhouse for Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastoral hopefuls to what is arguably the flagship of Christian liberal arts education. Calvin offers widely respected academic programs that attract Christian students from around the world, regularly places graduates into elite master's programs, and enjoys a good reputation even among secular institutions. But Calvin's commitment to traditional Reformed teaching seems to many to be fraying at the edges: On theology-rooted issues such as origins, feminist theology, and homosexuality, the school's policy and curricula have drifted away from Scripture.

Calvin's campus, once a farm, is attractively tucked into a middle-class suburb bordering the stop-light-and-strip-mall flatlands about five miles east of downtown Grand Rapids, Mich. On that land the goal is to provide over 4,000 students an education that is Christian not only because of chapel services but because all of a student's intellectual and emotional activities are permeated with the spirit and teaching of the faith. To that end, the school offers more than 100 majors and academic programs, from religion and biotechnology to Asian studies and pre-med, but also requires a semester-long, one-credit seminar series that essentially soaks first-year students in what it means to approach life and learning from a Christian and Reformed worldview.

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Calvin now lands consistently on national "best college" lists, such as those published by Fiske Guides and U.S. News and World Report. Most students WORLD spoke with chose Calvin for its top-notch academics. Dan Huffman, a sophomore from Lowell, Mich. (who dyed his hair cherry-red over Christmas break, and arrived for winter term sporting a faded orange skater-do), said he "wanted to go to a Christian school, and Calvin had the best pre-med program" of any Christian school he'd looked at. Dan Dykstra, a geology major/astronomy minor with round spectacles and braces, and Michael Botting, a political science major with a buzz cut, said they too had been impressed with Calvin's reputation for high-caliber academics.

Asked how the school maintains its high standards, Provost Joel Carpenter pointed to a portrait hanging on his office wall: "That gentleman there," he said. It's a portrait of Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch reformer who in 1880 founded the Free University of Amsterdam. In a paper prepared for an October 2000 Harvard University conference on the future of religious universities, Mr. Carpenter wrote that "most of what constitutes Reformed Christian thought and action in North American higher education today comes from the tradition set in motion by Abraham Kuyper." Kuyper championed teaching and investigation-the sciences included-that proceeded from a distinctly Christian set of presuppositions. He wrote famously that since every square inch of creation belongs to Christ, "no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest."

That ethic drives broad-based liberal arts curriculum development, which in turn has kept the school's reputation afloat in the academic mainstream. The school's image also is buoyed by its conscious, Kuyperian quest to "engage the culture." But it may be, in part, a hyper-allegiance to that ideal that has proven for Calvin a double-edged sword. On one edge: worthy programs such as the annual Festival of Faith & Writing. Launched in 1990 by Calvin English professor Dale Brown, event speakers include well-known writers who, while not all specifically "religious" writers, explore themes of faith in their work. While some featured authors (John Updike, for instance) have sparked "concerned" phone calls, Mr. Brown tries to keep his guest list balanced between "controversial" writers and tamer ones such as Mitford series author Jan Karon. When he "makes people mad at both ends of the spectrum," Mr. Brown figures he's got the list about right.

On the other edge of the cultural-engagement sword, though, are events like an Indigo Girls concert. In 2001, the school invited the openly lesbian singers to perform on campus. Conservative students, alumni, and donors, dismayed that Calvin would headline a band known to flaunt what God calls sin, protested with their mouths, pens, and wallets. A group of professors added an intellectual patina to the event, sponsoring a panel discussion on Christian "engagement" with homosexuality. About 150 students attended the discussion; about 600 went to the concert. When they returned to Calvin last year, Indigo Girls met little controversy and no panel discussion.

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