High Achieving for Jesus

God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America

Hannah Rosin
(Harcourt, 2007)
Reviewed by Pam Chamberlain

Hannah Rosin's book about students at Patrick Henry College, God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, provides a lens that both illuminates and distorts the image of young evangelicals today. Patrick Henry is a Christ-centered liberal arts college for high-achieving, mostly homeschooled students who sign on to the premise of the college: to transform the United States into a Christian nation.

Rosin spent 18 months with the faculty and students, gaining their trust and cataloguing their behavior, values, and, above all, their humanity. She paints sympathetic portraits of members of the college community. We meet Derek, a seasoned political operative who organizes 10-year-old homeschoolers into Generation Joshua, a lean campaign machine , for local candidates, and whose devotion to Jesus is visible in everything he does. Rosin shows us the personable side of the college's president, Michael Farris, a micromanager who is driven to make Patrick Henry graduates a Christian elite who run the country. Because the book is mainly a series of these portraits, it's a fast-paced, fascinating glimpse into a rarified world few outsiders know anything about.

But that polite voyeurism feeds its major weakness: while the author may not have intended this, the book fuels the common temptation to generalize from this one college to all Christian colleges and to all evangelicals. Patrick Henry is indeed a Christian college, and it is one of hundreds of theologically conservative schools in the United States. But Farris's vision for the college as a conscious breeding ground for politically influential conservative evangelicals makes it unique, and the academic and moral discipline of the students sets them apart from their peers. The student body is small (under 400 students), while Bob Jones, Liberty, and Regent Universities, other more established Bible-centered schools, have thousands more enrolled.

Nevertheless, Rosin's tone is foreboding, asking us to imagine our country run by conservative evangelical zealots. At first she develops a picture of the school as a powerhouse of commitment to its biblically based vision, and then uncovers chinks in the image, from nonconforming students and faculty to underperforming graduates who find it more difficult than they imagined to live out their idealism in a secular world. It's as if to say we can breathe easy knowing that Farris and his students will not be successful after all. Unfortunately, at the moment it is tempting to oversimplify the image of the U.S. Christian Right, and evangelicals in particular. Scholars and analysts continuously struggle to create an accurate description of the breadth and depth of evangelical Christianity in this country. Perhaps finding examples of failed ideas and institutions is a way for some to try and contain its influence. Readers who latch hold of this book as another piece of evidence of the waning of Christian Right power will be mistaken.

Winter 2007
Vol. 22, No. 4 :

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