Seeing the Bigger Picture: Oklahoma, Liberal Arts, and Cross-Cultural…

by Michael L. Copeland, Member Care Consultant – Asia, IMB

When I wrote this, every new email in my inbox was from a colleague from Oklahoma or one degree away from an Oklahoman. As a member care consultant and a missionary focusing on the mobilization of local Christians, I regularly interact with “workers” in four different IMB Affinities (East, Southeast, South, and Central Asia). I do not have as much email as some, but it is enough to significantly hint at the impact the state continues to have. Not only are they from Oklahoma, but a healthy dose comes from OBU. In this post, I hope to ask a few questions and posit a couple of insights from my own experience on why Oklahoma is well represented in the IMB around the world.

Why does this state have such a great legacy of sending missionaries? To take the gospel to the world, to even desire to (not just having a passive desire for someone else to do so), has a great deal to do with the personal depth of discipleship and ability to see into and through the vast amount complexity in the world to the broader view of God’s work and redemption. Seeing these things and connecting them to a bigger picture is not an easy thing. It takes the wisdom of a myriad of fields of knowledge, let alone the depth of biblical understanding. Oklahoma’s missionary legacy worldwide is significantly due to the interplay between its churches and their investment in Christian liberal arts education. I would also argue that the liberal arts component has played an integral part, not just a supplementary benefit.

I began to encounter these benefits when I came to OBU in the Fall of 1997. I arrived after my first trip overseas to the city of Hong Kong. For the summer, I was on a team doing street evangelism and, on the weekends, bringing Bibles into the CCP governed mainland to unregistered churches that were fearful of buying “official” versions published in the country. In returning, I had wanted to continue this kind of work and skip my first year of college. However, the Lord (and my parents) had wiser counsel. I ended up my freshman year thinking I might bide my time at OBU before heading back overseas again.

Thankfully, I was not so foolish to believe that I would have nothing to learn. So, I began plugging away at my common core classes and OBU quickly overturned my concerns about neglecting mission. Freshman course such as English Comp, Survey of the New Testament, and Intro to Cross-Cultural Ministry allied in discussion of the spread of Hellenistic culture and language in Western Civ gave understanding on the modern world and mission. The opportunities and tensions of globalized language, culture, and infrastructure on local transmission of the gospel informs my ministry and research today. The study of philosophy and contemporary mathematics, and their lessons on a priori and a posteriori reasoning, plays a part when I teach on World Christianity, Church History, and Muslim-Christian Relations. After more than twenty years traveling overseas, more than ten serving with the IMB sharing the gospel with atheists, Buddhists, and Muslims, and finishing a terminal degree while on the field, I have not once ceased receiving dividends from those liberal arts courses. This abundant investment was deposited in my faith and obedience in Christ due to Oklahoma Baptists, investing in a liberal arts college. It is not just a Bible school or a Perspectives course, but a place where one could read, study and learn from the development of Western civilization as one finds the Lord’s calling in His Word with experts in each arena of knowledge.

Moving on from my example, there are a plethora of other equipped missionary church planters and leaders that come from Oklahoma. Avery T. Willis, in his journals, reports being called overseas while at OBU. I could point to at least three Affinity leaders as Oklahomans. I could point to many of my colleagues, who graduated with me from Bison Hill and the Hobbs College, serving in challenging fields. We were mobilized not only later at seminary, but first by the churches and professors in this state and at OBU. Their maturity in character, in language ability and cultural understanding of these men and women always have humble and encourage me.

The missionaries that OBU has helped to propel overseas are some of the most well trained, flexible, understanding, biblically aware, historically sensible, culturally astute, and kind in any field. They have skills in finance, nursing, computer science, history, and counseling that were gained as they also heard the Lord’s calling to go. These skills are increasingly needed. On the field, they partner with local Christians and often have an immediate affinity. This easy camaraderie is because Christians from the Majority World are often in isolated communities, in difficult places to live, and they long for the Word, not just what they want, to lead them. Oklahoma Baptists easily relate to such heart, and OBU aids to train them up in that endeavor.

Michael L. Copeland, is a Member Care Consultant with the International Mission Board (IMB), focusing on pastoral care for missionaries in Asia and mobilizing local Christians to go cross-culturally. He received his doctorate from SWBTS in World Christian Studies, focusing on the transmission of the gospel between non-Western  groups, especially those with disparate and tense ethnic-religious backgrounds. He teaches Church History at Siloam Baptist Bible Institute in Chiang Mai, Thailand and supervises and mentors doctoral students through Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary and SWBTS.

University Education with a Soul

The American university lost its soul, and we need to find it again. University education is a beautiful, noble, formative and helpful endeavor. At its best, university education is transformative: it effects change in people. But the question is…what do they become? We may see graduates who can land a job and make money, but all too often, the students who leave university into the “real world” leave without a soul.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Dr. Harry Lewis, a Harvard professor for more than thirty years and Dean of Harvard College for eight, diagnoses the problem of university education for many today. He says universities like Harvard

have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds into twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings.1

In short, universities have lost their soul. An internal drive for an amorphous notion of “excellence” often leads universities to forsake their original mission and morph into places who churn out people who can get a job to make money, professors who can get research grants, and academic units that move up national rankings. But in the process, the university forgets moral formation inherent in its education and so fails in its mission to benefit the world.

The Wisdom of Education

It wasn’t always so. When set against its originating ideals, university education developed to shape the character, minds, hearts and souls of students so that they could acquire wisdom to engage the world well with skills that were relevant to their communities. We see this in the 12th century teaching text of Hugh of St. Victor, who says that the highest curative in life is the pursuit of wisdom. He then draws on Prov. 3:13, saying “he who finds [wisdom] is happy, and he who possesses it, blessed.”2 Hugh’s Didascalicon was a key text for the earliest universities in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. This ancient teaching reminds us that university education is soulish in orientation. But Hugh’s statement draws us to ask: “What is wisdom?”

Wisdom, as described in the Bible (particularly in Proverbs), equates to a love of God in the whole of life so that we live well in God’s world: whether in farming, banking, relationships, business, or other forms of work and life. Wisdom is devotion to the Lord that works itself out in proper and fitting action in the world. In this way, wisdom is a benefit to the soul who seeks it, blesses the community who receives it, and boasts only in the grace of God given to the wise. We don’t naturally have wisdom, so we need to seek after it.

At its best university education is a pursuit of wisdom. Grounded in a deep and abiding love for God in all of life, university education trains individuals to think and act in the world with acquired skills and dispositions to engage the world well. Understood this way, university education is not about making more money or getting a job—the two reasons students often go to university in the first place! University education is soulish and grounded in seeking wisdom. I should say that money and job might be byproducts and fringe benefits of an education, but they never comprise education’s goal. “For what will it profit if a man gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, NKJV). A university with a soul teaches wisdom. And wisdom does not come easy!

The Soul of the Christian Liberal Arts University

Distinctively Christian liberal arts universities, like Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU), are created to provide education with a soul. They are built on a social compact: they will form their students so those students will be beneficial for the world. To be beneficial to the world, students need a soul. And because Christian liberal arts universities are grounded in a desire to build God’s wisdom into the lives of its students, they provide this soulish education.

The path to wisdom is grounded in Scripture and expressed in the liberal arts tradition of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). This ancient and venerable education, translated in a modern core curriculum, shapes the whole person in the whole of life for the glory of God and the good of the world. When other skills useful to the world (business, fine arts, education, literature and language, philosophy, theology and ministry, among others) couple with the classical Christian liberal arts core, one finds the ingredients for a university that develops students’ souls. Places like OBU prize academic excellence, integration of faith and learning, engaging a diverse world, and living worthy of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Because of this, places like OBU foster the soul as we educate for the good of the world.

If it is true that university education has lost its soul, as Lewis argues, I believe we can find it again in Christian liberal arts education.