I’ve now been through the opening banquet and one full day of Acton University, and I have thoughts. Boy, do I ever have thoughts. I’ll try to get some of them into this post.
What I’ve done so far:
- Plenary, Magatte Wade: Wade, a Sufi Muslim and the founder of several businesses, made a passionate plea for Westerners not taking colonial, paternalistic attitudes towards Africans and emphasized the values of entrepreneurship and hard work.
- “Christ and Culture Revisited,” Hunter Baker: Mostly a summary of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, with invitations to think about what posture towards culture Christians should take today and what postures were being taken by the faith traditions of the people in the room.
- “The New Disney Animation as Cultural Entrepreneurship,” Greg Forster: Greg made a great case (with movie clips!) that Pixar is one of the biggest influences in modern culture promoting the good, the true, and the beautiful, and told the story of how John Lasseter persevered with his vision.
- Theology of Work Project lunchtime presentation. Yes, this is my employer, but I thought that Will Messenger and Alistair McKenzie did a good job of discussing how the Bible applies to daily work and how we can teach this in seminary curricula.
- “The Economics of Education,” Catherine Pakaluk: She presented data proving that on almost every metric children of college-educated parents did better (the really surprising one, if I remember it correctly, was that college-educated working mothers spend more time with their children than almost every other subsection of surveyed mothers), but that it was really difficult to test how schools were doing at helping out with this and if they were doing anything other than reproducing the same kind of socio-economic background that they inherited in their students.
- “The Family and the Market,” Jennifer Roback Morse: I was late to this one so don’t know why she changed her topic (I walked in while she was acknowledging that she had); what it turned out to be was a discussion of the evils of the sexual revolution especially as they affected children.
- “Accountable Entrepreneurship: A Wesleyan Understanding of the Connected Individual,” James Thobaben: A good primer on Wesley’s views of work, economics, and entrepreneurship, connected to the works of piety and works of mercy. (I just wish there’d been more non-Wesleyans present!)
What I like:
- Diversity (to a point: see below.) There are Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and all flavors of Protestant here, and people from all over the world (I hear a language spoken other than English about every five minutes.) There are more women than I expected though I think the percentage is maybe 60-40 or 65-35 male. The talks that I have attended have also been very varied in the speakers’ background and assumptions. It was truly awesome in today’s political and cultural climate to have a Muslim plenary speaker.
- Energy. A bit tiring for this introvert, but the folks here are obviously here because they genuinely like talking about ideas and generally care about the good, true, and beautiful. There seems less academic posturing than at other conferences I’ve been to and thankfully no one has deconstructed anything. I sense the folks here believe in the stability of texts and the reasonableness of belief in God. Good for them.
- Grand Rapids. I had a session canceled yesterday, so I rode a bus around downtown, which was cozy and charming (though Wealthy Street, the bus stop I got off at, is seriously misnamed, for the record.) Our hotel and conference center are right on the river. I’m watching it peacefully flow by under the bridge right now.
- Individualistic snacks. We got a bag of snacks from Amway the first night that we were, in good entrepreneurial fashion, supposed to self-manage to last the entire week. Apparently I am not a good capitalist, because I ate half the bag on the first night. And by the way, our hotel (which is a beautiful art deco building I want to take a zillion pictures of) is the Amway Grand Plaza. I didn’t even know there was still Amway, let alone that they had enough money to get their name on a hotel. Everything in the room is from Amway (soap, shampoo, etc….trying not to draw sociological conclusions from the fact that all the shampoo is for dry and damaged hair.)
- Energy. My kids aren’t with me, but there are some folks here with kids, and even without kids I am a 45-year-old introvert who tires easily of people. The punishingly constant schedule seems to have been designed for 25 year olds (I’d even stick my head out on a limb and say 25-year-old guys. At least, there are lots here, in suits.) This goes back to my previous post about the need to acknowledge bodies in academia. For a conference so focused on the important place of the family in modern society–and I am totally with them on that–it’s surprisingly un-designed for being experienced by actual families.
- Assumptions. This is the last and hardest thing to say because honestly, Amway shampoo for not-my-hair aside, I am enjoying myself. But, coming from someone who is an orthodox and historically Nicene mainliner, I want very much to be a fellow traveler but there have been many subtle cues that folks here see themselves as preaching to the choir. It may be a function of what sessions I’ve attended, but I have heard surprisingly little straight-up radically capitalist agendas. The cues I’m experiencing are cultural:
- One speaker used “man” for humanity throughout the presentation, which genuinely caused me at several points to think with puzzlement that the speaker was talking about human males before I figured it out.
- I’m the only woman here in a collar (that I’ve seen, anyway. Though admittedly there could be Protestant female clergy here from non-vestment-y traditions and I wouldn’t know from looking!) In fact, a young man interrupted me while I was sitting here writing this to ask why I had a collar on and was taken aback that I was an Episcopal priest. Well, now he’s met his very first (married, female) Episcopal priest!
- And at several points, speakers have implied that there’s no overlap between the categories “gay” and “Christian,” an implication I categorically reject.
Now, every group is welcome to preach to its choir. I do it myself. And I suspect that Acton University was meant to be a boot camp for the culture wars. But if, as the folks here state, the goal is to produce a free and virtuous society, they won’t do that alone or by preaching only to the like-minded. They need to make common cause with folks who are also concerned about virtue, morality, the good, the true, and the beautiful but who disagree on several points, even significant ones.
The word count at the bottom of this post is mounting up. More anon. And more from my husband on the Picked Pencil anon, too.