Jason Byassee: Luring a campus into the faith

Some expected things (excellent chapel worship) and some unexpected (the music department) keep St. Olaf College both Christian and non-exclusive.

How does a college or university stay Christian?

Most schools in this country gave up long ago. Harvard began as a school to train ministers, then left that behind, so Yale was founded to keep the faith, then left that behind, and Andover-Newton was founded to keep the faith, then . . .

But what if a school doesn’t want to leave faith behind? One possibility for those that choose this narrower road is to mandate that all faculty or even all students be Christian. This is a venerable choice, but it’s hard to enforce and can lend to narrowness or resentment.

What else? A school can make Christianity a robust possibility, but not a mandate. It can offer top-flight worship. It can ask faculty across the board to respect the historic Christian mission of the school. And in that way, it can create room for possibility, hopefully to lure, woo, entice students and faculty into more faithful Christian life.

I’ve written before about schools that have chosen this latter path. (Mt. Olive, DePaul, Hope, North Park). Another is St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. The Lutheran liberal arts college is a serious Christian school in a day when it’s hard to put that adjective and that noun together. How do the Oles do it?

One, they have a bang-up chaplaincy team. Bruce Benson, the college pastor, has spent more than 30 winters on the campus. A personality that makes him a celebrity on campus doesn’t hurt : “My atheist friends are like, ‘Hey there goes Bruce, he’s awesome!’” Elizabeth Clark, a recent graduate, told me. Jennifer Koenig, Benson’s associate, has intentionally bucked the trend of using associate jobs as a quick trampoline to some other job. She starts year 14 this fall. “It took six years to feel like I knew what I was doing in this job,” Koenig, a former dancer, told me. “The school expects us to give liturgical structure to events,” she said, and not only to the occasional awkward hymn or prayer other schools still tolerate. St. Olaf has chapel every weekday at a time when no classes are scheduled, and Sunday worship that draws 500 on a campus of only 2400 or so.

Two, St. Olaf doesn’t twin Christianity with some other political or cultural agenda. Sure, there are vestiges of a burlier sort of Christendom at St. Olaf: the 11th century death of one (not actually so saintly) King Olaf is portrayed in stained glass in Boe Chapel. The campus motto, “Forward, Forward, Christmen, Crossmen, King’s men!” perhaps works only because it’s in Norwegian and so seems quaint rather than bellicose. I loved seeing Harry Potter translated into Norwegian on the bookstore shelves (you know, just in case). More seriously, the Scandinavian heritage makes for scholarly excellence: its top notch Kierkegaard library was the home for the Dane’s translation into English.

But St. Olaf has never had a retrograde political agenda. It admitted women in its very first undergraduate class. A towering windmill provides a third of campus energy (part of a virtuous rivalry with crosstown Carleton College over whose power is greener), and food comes from local sources. Some 70 foreign flags fly beside Old Glory in Boe Chapel, representing a surprising number of international students for a school so small.

One reason so many internationals come is a third element in how St. Olaf has stayed Christian: be devoted to a traditional craft, in the Oles’ case, music. Renowned student choirs tour the nation. Undergraduate music courses train organists and conductors and others. A biannual conference on Worship, Theology and the Arts (where I got to know the place) gathers world-class church musicians (“Bach’s church in Leipzig was pretty great,” the organist in the van beside me answered when I asked where the best place he’d played was).

“Ninety-five percent of the music we play is sacred,” John Ferguson, music professor, chapel organist and campus icon, told me. “Music can pack the fieldhouse, but basketball is lucky to get 500.” An annual Christmas concert not only sells out. Its waiting list is as frozen as the Minnesota winter. Although the great scholar Martin Marty was once acting president at St. Olaf and longtime regent (trustee), he never got tickets during the four years his son attended the school.

The music strikes me as particularly clever. Pack in students and professors for studied excellence at a rigorous task, and at least a little Jesus is communicated, whether musician or listener intends it or not. “St. Olaf is understated,” ’ Enuma Okoro, a’94 Ole, told me of the place where she converted and felt a call to ministry. “It allows students to see and embrace Christ through ordinary yet beautiful ways. But embracing is left up to the students to decide.”

Who was it who said “Let the one with ears, hear”?