Dordt College News

How should we live

May 22, 2012

Core 399 takes a new approach

“Core 399 is an interdisciplinary course that encourages you to explore key issues you will encounter in your life, evaluate them from a Christian perspective, and live out the values you form. It will help you continue to reflect upon and develop a Christian worldview for kingdom service.”

Students in CORE 399Core 399 has long been an integral part of Dordt’s curriculum. Some students and graduates say it’s one of the best courses they take in college, others count it among the worst.

Despite these poles, Core 399 remains an important bookend for training students to be Christ’s servants in his world in every part of their lives. And, periodically, faculty involved in the course re-examine what they’re doing and how they can do it better. This year they decided to move to a problem-based model of learning.

“Our delivery system was mostly one way,” says Dr. Barb Hoekstra, who serves as the coordinator for a team of five teacher/mentors who lead the class of up to 150 students. “It was largely a passive learning environment.” So Hoekstra, an education professor, suggested moving to a problem-based approach as a way to help students get more involved with and take more responsibility for their learning.

After a unit discussing discipleship, the class divides into five groups of about 30 students who then divide into working groups of five or six. Each one of these groups spends a significant part of the semester answering one of five questions:

Does God care where we live?

How should Christians eat?

Is poverty the worst form of violence?

How should we vote?

What is real, good sex?

Each small group studies and defines the problem posed by the question, writes a synopsis of their work, and makes a presentation that offers both a theoretical and practical response to the question.

“We’re trying to help them think in broad ways about today’s challenges,” says Hoekstra.

How would you describe Core 399?

Neal De Roo: A way to help students think about what it means to be a disciple in as practical a way as possible. “Reformed Perspective” provides students with some buzzwords that are easy things to say; but as guidelines for life, students often find it to be less helpful. This class tries to move from buzzwords to guidelines for living.

Howard Schaap: Core 399 could be named Applied Reformed Perspective. The point of the course is not to give a refresher in Reformed perspective but to apply that perspective. That’s the scary part of the course. When we give students a topic like food, the danger is that they’ll say—and some of them do—“No, the way we eat really doesn’t matter,” or something oversimplified like “Our bodies are temples, so we should eat in a way that glorifies God.” Really teasing out what that means, though, is hard work and work that some students would just as soon not do.

Why is Core 399 important?

Jan Van Vliet: Upon investigating an “answer” to each question, students see how difficult and multi-faceted the issue is, and how any simple answer is really a platitudinous one. Because they represent all disciplines, the mentor group approach guarantees that students learn from each other’s emphases and interpretations, but that there is one common bond bringing them all together. That bond is Scripture’s command to obedient discipleship.

Howard Schaap: I think Core 399 is an important course because it’s such a unique animal. Unlike Core 160, it’s a multi-disciplinary look at multi-disciplinary problems. Most courses attempt to move toward more specialized knowledge. This class is a widening out, an attempt to bring people from all majors with varying degrees of knowledge into conversations about topics that surround our lives.

Importantly, we attempt to do this as a fairly large body—125 to 145 people (not even as big as an average church!)—and a body of believers. That’s difficult. In a mass class, some students want to check out but can’t because they realize the topics are important. Others do check out because they feel they can’t affect things anyway or feel they don’t have the knowledge or ability to speak up. These options will remain present throughout their lives, adding to the need for this class.

As I look back on my college experience, I could have used a course like this. It would have been good to have my preconceptions challenged by people I agreed with, disagreed with, or couldn’t stand, i.e. the body of Christ. 

Neal De Roo: This class will hopefully prepare them to think through, biblically, issues that will arise in their future lives by helping them see how to think biblically through one particular issue. Most people who take the class are seniors, meaning soon they will be gone from Dordt, without easy access to professors and other older mentors to guide them through difficult issues.

Jeff Taylor: As students get ready to leave Dordt and go out into the rest of the world, it is helpful for them to synthesize what they have learned and to consider its application to daily life in its varied forms. Core 399 can be thought-provoking and practical for students who want to be engaged in thought and practice.

How do you think this year’s approach worked?

Sheryl Taylor: I think it’s been great! The students become more engaged with the issues as they work through these “problems” on their own, with the help of a mentor. It’s more work for them, and not all of them appreciated that because it requires them to be active participants in the learning process. But, in the end, they definitely learn more and hopefully that learning affects their hearts as well as their heads.

Neal De Roo: The small group discussions were a good way to get beyond simplistic answers. What we have to keep working at is tying the information they learn back to how this shapes their thoughts and actions.

Howard Schaap: It’s an improvement but still a work in progress. I think students are surprised that we as professors actually hold our tongues—at least at points—and say, “OK, the conversation is yours now.” That’s a weird experience, for me and for them, because I know more on my topic than most of the students and could cover more material and avoid problems that come with researching something on your own: dead ends, time constraints, etc. Risking bad conversation is part of the point—how can they collectively find answers to their questions and move the conversation in a direction that will help them prepare for life post-college, when they will have to direct the conversation without the answers of a professor or an institution surrounding them.

1. Place: Does God care about where we live?

We started with some key readings, one of which was a paper by Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger on “Education for Homelessness or Homemaking? The Christian College in a Postmodern Culture,” in which they argue that we don’t do a good job in higher education—Christian included—in preparing students to be “homemakers,” to be “placed.” Rather, we educate them to be upwardly mobile which destroys everything, especially place.  After a couple of periods Dr. Barb Hoekstra teaching part of the class.of readings and discussion, students choose a subgroup based on these questions:

1) What makes for good (or bad) community? 

2) Does God call us to a specific place?

3) How should disciples of Christ think about living in cities and suburbs?

4) How should disciples of Christ think about living in small towns/rural areas?

5) How can a disciple live well in a specific place? 

One highlight for me has been when students learn about examples of communal living that fundamentally challenge their ideas about how we should live. The Local Knowledge group engaged in some hands-on practices: one student bought food as locally as he could; another got to know a Latino coworker she had been working with for months without ever knowing; a third recycled as completely as she could.

A perplexing problem is the difficulty students have applying Scripture to the issue. Some students don’t see “place” as important to Scripture. Some tend toward proof texting—”the world” is passing away—or to marginalize place and say, “Sure, it’s interesting to talk about, but Scripture doesn’t care about it so it doesn’t really matter.”

Howard Schaap (English) was one of two primary instructors for Core 399.

2. Food: How should Christians eat?

We started with some common readings (“Eating as a Spiritual Discipline,” “God’s Intention for Food,” and “The Pleasures of Eating” by Wendell Berry) and movies (Babette’s Feast and Food, Inc.). This pushes everyone to realize that thinking about food is an important thing for Christians to do—that our food choices either draw us in to right relationship with God, his creation, and our fellow creatures, or they hurt these relationships. Five sub-groups focused on food’s relationship to economic care, creature care, soul care, body care, and creation care. 

When the food group presented to the rest of the Core 399 class, they brought food to share—from homemade brownies, breads, and cookies to organic produce from a CSA farm operated by Dordt alumni John and Janna Wesselius (where two of the guys in the food group worked). It was a great way to make the topic real.

My favorite response shows that it made a difference: “My wife and I have made significant changes regarding the way we eat. We prepare good and real food that takes time to make, but is much healthier for our bodies. We also make it a priority to enjoy eating our food; not treat it just as something to fill us up, but that it can taste SO good and provide energy in a way that we hadn’t experienced before.”

The biggest challenge was convincing students that their food choices matter. Our culture has convinced us that food should be cheap and convenient, especially through the billions spent on food advertising and marketing, and we’ve bought in to this. What we don’t realize, unless we really take the time to examine the issue, is that the true cost is far greater than what we pay at the checkout. And taking a stand against these problems and living differently as called disciples is extremely difficult.

Sheryl Taylor, director of the library, mentored the food group.

3. Poverty: Is poverty the worst form of violence?

We began by defining poverty as material, spiritual, emotional, psychological, social, and personal and addressing each aspect of this definition. One group studied the “collective correctives” (state government, corporate, church, etc.) to see how effective they are. Another group examined what we can do as individuals. A third group examined some paradoxes: For example, should it change your response to street people and panhandlers if you learn that living on the street and panhandling is a lifestyle choice? We examined some of these paradoxes through a variety of media (e.g., video, classic rock) to determine how reality squares with the vision. To get the conversation started, all students read background material that comes from both secular and Christian sources.

Last fall, the “Poverty Group” took an offering for the poor at the large group presentation. We raised over $500! The students decided to provide microfinancing through KIVA; it is being administered by the Justice Matters Club here at Dordt. Our first repayment from someone whom we financed had already come in by the time the second semester got underway.

Jan Van Vliet (economics) mentored the poverty group.

4. Politics: How should we vote?

We spent the first few days looking at a variety of biblical passages to set a context. The group also read Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man to spark a conversation about the moral errors of liberalism and conservatism.

Is there one truly Christian view on social/moral issues such as poverty or abortion? If so, is there one truly Christian view on the best public policy approach to deal with that issue?

How should a Christian respond to a candidate who opposes legalized abortion but supports unjust wars? Or the reverse?

In the United States, is there one political party that is more truly Christian than the other? What about third parties?

Is it wise, from a strategic point of view, for evangelical Christians to give our allegiance to one party—to put all of our eggs into one basket?

Is there anyone in contemporary American politics who resembles Abraham Kuyper?

Although some students were more open to thinking about these issues in different ways than others, I was impressed by the level of thought and depth of faith of many students.

Jeff Taylor (political studies) mentored the politics group.

5. Sex: What is real, good sex?

As a group we asked what we wanted to talk about and distilled our thoughts into five main questions:

1. How should we talk about sex?

2. What is sex?

3. What’s the difference between chastity and abstinence?

4. How can I be single, sexual, and Christian at the same time?

5. How is sexuality different for men and women?

The biggest challenge for students seems to be realizing that it is not just necessary, but good to talk about sex. In part, this is because so many Christians have bought into the myth that sex is just physical, and, since Christians aren’t supposed to engage in the physical act of sexual intercourse until they are married, there is not much for them to do in regards to sex until they get married. In fact, the “Sunday school” answer about sex—it’s good, now don’t do it until you’re married—leaves Christians unprepared, both for their lives as non-married people who are sexual beings, and for their lives as married sexual partners.

We tried to provide biblical guidelines that help people answer, for themselves, difficult questions like “how far can I go with my partner and still be ok with God?”, “Why should I wait for marriage?”, and “How am I to treat my husband/wife?” while avoiding superficial prescriptions that try to lay out a rule for living but provide no justification for those rules, and so often prove difficult to obey in the heat of the moment.

Hopefully, students leave knowing not just how to talk about sex and why, but really appreciating what it means to think about and live biblically sexual lives.

Neal De Roo (philosophy) was one of two primary instructors for Core 399.

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