Review: Why Study? Exploring the Face of God in the Academy

This review is reprinted with permission (and some additional material) from The Glass, the journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group (issue 30, Spring 2018). See other selected articles and more information about the journal and Group here: www.clsg.org

Why Study? Exploring the Face of God in the Academy (Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Singapore, 2017) 

This short book aims to encourage and equip Christians in a variety of academic fields - in particular undergraduate students, but there will be interest here too for those further on in their own disciplines, as well as accessible introductions to the issues relevant to other fields. An introduction by Vinoth Ramachandra, the IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement, is followed by ten chapters, each contributed by a Christian academic or professional and reflecting on their experiences of and framework for living and thinking as a Christian in their field. These range from Denis Alexander on biology, to Priyan Dias on engineering, to Grace Koh on social work.

The rest of this review concentrates on the chapter most relevant to my own field, but of the other chapters I particularly enjoyed Wee-Liang Tan on business - hearing how a Christian thoughtfully and prayerfully navigates an environment very unfamiliar to me was challenging and interesting. Joy L. K. Pachuau's chapter on history was also stimulating and an excellent introduction to the challenges and opportunities available to Christians who study the past.

Maithrie White contributes Chapter Eight, 'Faith and Literature: A Journey'. Like several of the contributors, she reflects on the process by which God formed and guided her into her studies. The journey she describes will be familiar to many Christians who have studied literature: the initial, passionate 'rush of adrenaline' of undergraduate study and the joy of creativity, tempered by challenges such as the darker history of Christianity revealed in postcolonial literature and anxieties about Scriptural interpretation engendered by deconstruction and postmodernism.

'Literature confronted my faith, and turned my world upside down.' White recounts a conversation with a Literature major friend who unashamedly partitioned off these two parts of her life - 'they had nothing in common, she said, so it didn't matter'. Dissatisfied with this neat dismissal, she goes on to describe the struggle and joy of getting to know the Bible's story, of wrestling with the multiple perspectives of literature and theory, and of working towards a personal integration in which 'love of literature was part of my love for God'.

White writes engagingly about the experience of wanting to do full justice to both theological commitments and literary study, and her definition of this endeavour as a 'spiritual discipline' is a helpful one. She mentions several thinkers and writers who have been helpful to her in developing the necessary framework for this discipline - Nicholas Wolterstorff and Carolyn Sharp, among others. While she acknowledges the familiar shortfall between her formation in church and the challenge of academic thinking, she emphasises how the vocational aspect of literary work can and should serve the church. All these aspects of the essay make it a stimulating and challenging read, both for those within the literary academy and those with a non-professional interest, and perhaps especially for undergraduate and early postgraduate students who are beginning to grapple with what it means to integrate faith and understanding in this area.

'My study of literature and encounters with people at university led me to rediscover awe in the mystery of God, who is revealed in Christ.' Literary study is, indeed, uniquely formative of the capacity to appreciate mystery; as White says, while the academy may often be atheistic, literature itself is not, and this useful essay will encourage and inspire those who read it to deepen their understanding both of literary work and of the God whose Word underwrites it.

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