A Unique and Most Valuable Degree

About a dozen years ago, several of us founded a small online college. As I’m not patient enough to write the whole story here, I’ll only give the plot points.

Perelandra College got licensed by the state of CA to offer degrees and subsequently approved by a national accreditor. After a few years, for financial reasons, we gave up the accreditation, without which the license wasn’t worth all the work and money it required, so we also gave that up. Which left us as simply a provider of knowledge and encouragement.

We innocently believed that enough people just wanted to learn the writer’s craft to keep us afloat and perhaps help us bank enough to once again get licensed and accredited. But a cottage industry had arisen, offering to teach would-be writers the necessary craft and marketing skills, and all of this online. By now we’re competing with a legion of providers from blatant hucksters to the tolerably legit, among them Stanford University and James Patterson, most if not all of them far more capable of marketing than we are.

The obvious next step is to write off the school as a flop and move on. But since one of my tragic flaws is persistence, I’m not willing to give up. Another solution is to find an angle. I chose to follow the example of W.C. Field on his deathbed when somebody caught him reading a Bible and asked if he’d been converted, and he replied, “I’m looking for a loophole.”

Our first step in founding a college was to apply for status as a tax-exempt corporation. One of our partners knew an attorney with expertise in processing such applications for churches. So, we became a tax-exempt religious corporation. Which I recently learned can also exempt us from the cumbersome and expensive task of licensure, as long as “the instruction is limited to the principles of that religious organization.”

The ruling principle of Perelandra College holds that if artists diligently seek the source of inspiration with an active, humble, and open heart and mind, they will find what they need to make their work not only entertaining but true and of genuinely valuable. We view the source of inspiration in Christian terms, as the Holy Spirit.

When I first began teaching college creative writing, many of my classes were for beginners. Early on, I realized that most of the students might never, after finishing the class, write another story. So, I wondered, except for the sake of the few who were serious about learning the craft, what good was the class anyway? And soon I recognized that my goal was to teach creative problem solving — the use of both reason and intuition, both sides of the brain if you will, in the attempt to find the best answers to artistic problems. And I began to see that this skill is helpful, if not critical, in contending with the perplexing daily lives of most anybody. Which is why I believe the degree program, a Master of Arts in Writing and the Spirit — which I will soon propose to our board of governors — could also be called the Master of Arts in How to Live.

I imagine our board will approve and soon the primary goal of every class will be to find and apply inspiration, the highest form of creativity.

We currently offer certificate programs. But degrees are more valuable than certificates, and rightly so. Certificates are limited to skills. Degrees are meant to also offer a context in which the skills are applied, a holistic and rounded education.

James Patterson can’t (yet) offer a degree. Stanford University can, for about ten times the money we ask. And neither of them, or any of the others providers I know, has the nerve to claim they can help people get inspired, like we claim.

For a preview of what the Perelandra College degree program will offer, read Writing and the Spirit, free as an ebook until June 1.

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The System

I read a masterful analysis of how corruption worked in Los Angeles during a certain period: business interests needed organized crime because crime bosses rented their buildings, used their construction companies, and provided goods and services they prized. Politicians needed business people whose support won them terms in office. The legal community, district attorneys, police commissioners, and judges  needed the politicians, who could hire and fire them at will. Cooperation benefitted them all.

I’ll describe the contemporary Christian community with a similar analysis.

Churches need book publishers and journalistic media to promote their ministry and to validate their messages. Christian publishers need churches as a platform through which authors can promote books. And Christian media supports itself by promoting the publishers and appealing to the generosity of believers nurtured in the faith by churches. Cooperation benefits them all.

The similarity of these systems doesn’t mean the Christian community is corrupt. My reason for pointing it out is to reveal that, though intentions may be pure and noble, the alliance of churches, publishers, and media effectively suppresses the freedom and vigor of Christian art and culture. Currently, the only voices or views that get widely proliferated are those in accord with and beneficial to churches. The System acts as a censor.

Though I love my home church and wish all churches well, I know that among their motives are some more practical than spiritual. A church needs to pay the bills, keep the doors open, and provide the parishioners with what they came looking for.

Churches do wonderful service. What they don’t do is shed light on many critical issues or make room for strikingly original, provocative, or simply alternative voices.

Perelandra College exists to do what churches don’t, to invigorate Christian culture and to free artists and thinkers restrained or discouraged by the system. This by no means limits us to serving only Christ followers. Rather we welcome everyone and are vigilant to ensure that beliefs of all sorts are honored and valued.

Still, the college was founded as a non-profit religious corporation, essentially a church whose target congregation is artists, whose primary mission is to empower believers with skills and courage, to help them become free and able to write and publish the truth as they see it.

Sylvia Curtis, a wise friend, sometime mentor, sometime antagonist and the basis for a character in several of my novels viewed humans as either people of good will or the others. Lately I also find myself dividing humanity and especially believers into two categories: answer people and question people. Though hardly anyone is all one or the other,  in most of us one of those categories dominates. Perelandra College is a church for question people, which artists must be.

Olga Savitsky is the college’s eternal poet laureate. She and I used to imagine the sort of church we wanted to create. Lots of poems and stories would be read or performed, and crazy drama like Christina Roseti’s “Goblin Market” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.  Over the front door would hang a big sign: “No B.S. allowed.”

The Scoop, our monthly e-magazine, now features a section called stuff you probably won’t hear in church, the point of which isn’t to criticize or expose but to offer a Christian perspective from outside the System. Please visit us. Subscribe and get the Scoop.

•• Time travel with detective Tom Hickey, at: kenkuhlken.net

Learning to Live in Perspective

         “tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner” –  French Proverb

In the early twentieth century, the British philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947 CE) developed a metaphysical system known as “process-relational philosophy” in which the fundamental nature of all of reality is one of process, dynamism, becoming, and perpetual change.  The intrinsic nature of reality is not static, but “processive”.  Whitehead sought to address the weaknesses of an emerging naturalism that favored being over “becoming”.  This post initiates a series related to Whitehead’s life, work, and philosophy.

In 1929, Whitehead published The Aims of Education, wherein he proposed an approach to learning that was rhythmic rather than linear.  Education, according to Whitehead, is not a matter of acquiring “half-digested” theoretical or knowledge; rather, it is the “acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge” (Aims 4-5).  Such knowledge is not, as Dewey contended, for economic gain or social utility – it is knowledge that permits us to live life and live it well.  Unfortunately, although Christians regularly speak about “life”, rarely do we make the connection between life and learning.

While “pedants sneer at education which is useful”, Whitehead argued that knowledge and understanding must be intrinsically useful for human existence.  He notes, “it was useful to Saint Augustine, it was useful to Napoleon” (Aims 2).  Knowledge and understanding “equip us for the present” and the present is “holy ground”.  Understanding of the knowledge of the past equips us for the present (Aims 3).  Such acquisition and utilization of knowledge is an active, but patient process that is lived in perspective.

Knowledge must be exercised and evoked in the “here and now” because that is precisely where life is lived. The essence of education is that it is religious and the essence of religion is life.  Religious education “inculcates duty and reverence”, duty to change the present with knowledge and reverence as a “perception that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, the whole amplitude of time, which is eternity” (Aims 14).  Thus, to Whitehead, religious education has nothing to do with dogma. On the contrary, it is full of becoming, dynamism, and life.

To attain understanding is to apply knowledge to life.  To live life well is to live with understanding.  To live with understanding is to see the present in perspective of the whole story.  The utilization of knowledge is when “general ideas give an understanding of that stream of events which pours through the life” of each human being (Aims 2). Thus, Whitehead concurred with the French proverb: to understand all is to forgive all.  To learn is to live life in perspective.

Joshua Reichard

In future posts we will explore the stages of Whitehead’s “rhythm” of education: romance, precision, and generalization.

References

Whitehead, Alfred North. The Aims of Education. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1957.