(This is basically a op-ed response to this Chimes report. I don’t know how much the post calvin cares to address the present state of our alma mater, but I’m only recently post and it appears I do.)
I don’t need everyone to care about the bubble of involvement that defined my college experience. It’s not everyone’s thing, and I’d be grieving similarly if say, I was really into outdoor rec and the climbing wall was shutting down. I’m filled to the brim with personal, anecdotal, sentimental attachments to the Student Activities Office and Ken Heffner. I’m not going to mention those, because it’s not an argument.
At its best, SAO was about asserting that both our individual and collective relationship to the most relevant, most consumed, most in-fashion, most talked-about media—popular culture—has a lot to do with our faith lives, which DCM taught us all is actually our whole lives. I do honestly believe that SAO is “one of the most pure distillations of the theology of Calvin College.” Pop culture: music, movies, podcasts, the internet, and adjacent art are the dominant fixtures of young people’s lives and experiences. Pop culture is the clearest image of the zeitgeist. It’s impossible to claim faith is holistic and not address that fixture. There’s a nuanced and endless interaction as culture continually shifts while God’s sovereignty remains timeless.
It’s an understatement to say Ken Heffner did a wise job addressing that overlap and turning it into tangible programming for more than twenty-five years. I thought it was cool, I wanted everyone else to think it was cool, but way beyond that, SAO’s work was a direct implementation of the philosophies that make Calvin uniquely Calvin. Ken and I memorized a dozen ways to communicate this to passing Fridays tours. Students (prospective and current) recognized it was special.
The idea of that practice vanishing is no less than tragic, partly because the ideas behind it, now unrealized, may follow. But cuts are cuts, and I totally understand how from a bird’s eye view, SAO’s stuff sounds a whole lot like Weekend Programming and Nite Life and maybe there’s redundancy there to save some bucks on. Zero disrespect to those other important offices, but it’s ironic: from a student’s vantage point, it becomes obvious that deleting SAO is gutting Calvin of one of the few things left that truly makes the college enticing, radical, and relevant in the way it says it is in brochures, in a field of Christian colleges.
As Calvin continues to struggle with positioning itself between a safe, sheltered Christian stronghold vs. slippery-slope secular relativism, it’s erasing its most concrete argument for the Reformed niche, as well as its liaison to the cultural world students experience.
Even though the office as we’ve known it will, I don’t think what SAO was about has to (or ever really could) vanish. College students (especially thoughtful Christian ones—y’know, our whole thing) are hungry for exactly what it facilitated, and we make it happen. Even if it’s just sparse conversations in dorm basements and movie theater lobbies and passenger seats when you get to pick the music. Social relations and reflections around media can affect students’ theology, not to mention their identity, immensely. As an application of the Reformed worldview, it can’t be dismissed.
I feel torn, because this decline has felt imminent for a while. Some events were barely attended by students. Artists increasingly passed up our offers, or didn’t seem to want their art or entertainment discerned. And a lot of times, SAO’s engagement was overrepresented in some narrow genres over others. Sometimes we tried to over-intellectualize and things got pretentious and clumsy. It’s college! Even when the artist conversation flopped, it’s so so important that the conversation was opened. I’m talking to administrators as well as every audience member who’s ever walked out of the CFAC: please keep attempting that conversation, in any and every capacity.
I was lucky to attend while Calvin had an established office and dorm leadership title and biennial Festival of Faith & Music to celebrate SAO’s philosophy and make it real. Calvin can do comparable stuff again, in a new form, maybe with someone new. Actually, it has to. And viable structures exist. The work of SAO is Calvin’s philosophical identity realized and made relevant. I wish that was something Calvin’s money-movers still recognized.