Monday, August 13, 2012

Resurrecting Excellence

With the 2012 Olympic Games now in the history books, I'd like to share a few thoughts on the games and what meaning and aspirations they provide for me.  I'll also apply these reflections to my concerns about OBU and our work going forward.

I'm not a huge Olympics junkie.  I spend a lot more time every four years following the presidential election campaign than the Olympic games.  In fact, the only sport I regularly follow, baseball, has been dropped from the Olympics.  I do love the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony, but to be honest I like the idea of it more than actually sitting down for several hours and watching it on television.  The one thing I absolutely love about the Olympics is the music.  The Boston Pops released a CD in advance of the 1996 Atlanta games (which I attended with my dad).  I remember listening to that compilation of Olympic-themed music on my portable Walkman CD player (remember these?).  I've enjoyed those recordings many times over the years.

To me, the Olympics exemplify the pursuit of excellence.  The athletes' feats of skill and athleticism are absolutely inspirational.  But what we don't see are the years and years of daily preparation -- practice, nutrition, strength training, etc.  Out of the world's 7 billion people, these few thousand athletes best demonstrate what the human body is capable of.  Maybe some of it is genetic.  But I believe most of their success is due to preparation, rigorous intentionality, and a near-obsessive commitment to excellence.

Too often in too many other areas of human work and achievement, too many of us settle for less than our best.  I have to admit that I'm the worst about this!  Sometimes I catch myself essentially sleepwalking through life, unwilling to give my best effort for fear of failure or disappointment.  Then, when things don't go my way, I can say, "Well, it's because I didn't try that hard."  Christian people can sometimes be pretty bad about this.  After all, if I'm going to heaven to live with Jesus any day now (or, in any event, as soon as I die), why strive for earthly excellence at all?  In the end, I guess most thoughtful Christians will resolve this dilemma by believing that striving for excellence somehow brings glory to God.  The title for this post comes from a book I read in 2007 that lays forth a "theology of excellence" for clergy and lay ministry leaders alike.  Maybe its lessons and insights extend to other areas.

By now, you'll see where I'm going with this.  My underlying concern in starting this blog is my belief that OBU has, in vitally important ways, strayed from its pursuit of excellence in Christian liberal arts education.  Obviously, I believe it is a symptom of a much larger disease: the Fundamentalist Takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I think fundamentalism is intellectually dishonest and lazy -- the absolute antithesis of excellence.  To the degree that we succumb to fundamentalism, we abdicate our pursuit of excellence.

I'm concerned that some of the people making policy and personnel decisions at OBU in the past few years have taken us down a bad path.  For eight months, we've been presenting qualitative and quantitative evidence that excellence is missing in parts of OBU's life and administration.  Our hope and prayer is that if you believe God calls us to excellence, you will be shocked and offended by what has happened at our beloved OBU, and that you will join our effort and encourage others to do likewise.

Just as Olympians need an elaborate support system of family, school, friends, and coaches to encourage their pursuit of excellence, so do college students.  They need a university committed to bringing the absolute best and brightest faculty -- to every department.  They need to be free to learn from professors who are free to teach.  They need to know it's okay to ask questions and explore tensions between faith and knowledge.  They shouldn't be encouraged or enabled to settle for pat, spoon-fed answers to questions that have vexed philosophers and theologians throughout the ages.

If we want them to be excellent, or at least have a chance at excellence, we have to be excellent, too.  But in important ways, we've put ideology ahead of competence, conformity ahead of questioning, and created confusion by speaking the language of liberal arts while enacting the policies of a fundamentalist Bible academy.

Let's return to excellence!

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