Stephen Rankin

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Name: Stephen Rankin
Date registered: September 27, 2012

Latest posts

  1. Rankin File: Christmas Morning Musing — December 25, 2013
  2. Rankin File: Purist or Pragmatist? Quick-and-Dirty Thoughts on Higher Education — December 12, 2013
  3. Rankin File: Desiring Christian Transformation — December 9, 2013
  4. Seedbed: Desiring Christian Transformation: The Ontological Change at New Birth — December 2, 2013
  5. Rankin File: Why Government Should Not Run Like a Business — September 8, 2013

Most commented posts

  1. Rankin File: Pressure Points on the Itinerancy — 1 comment
  2. Rankin File: What We Tolerate, What We Don’t — 1 comment

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Dec 25 2013

Rankin File: Christmas Morning Musing

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While I wait for the Rankin home to stir, a thought on the Christmas Day Gospel reading from the Book of Common Prayer:

John 3:36 – “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” (NRSV)

It’s always risky to lift a single verse from its context.  I’m keeping that caution in mind as I reflect on what catches my attention: belief and obedience are held together in parallel.  Believing in the Son means obeying the Son.

Let’s run the thought backwards.  Disobeying means disbelieving.  Think about that.  The Gospel reading for Christmas Day(!) speaks warning.  Every year during the Christmas celebration, I feel torn.  Who cannot love the Christmas story?  A composite of scriptures narrates the Son, who though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be held on to.  In the incarnation, God the Son, embarks on The Mission.  John’s Gospel makes clear that Jesus understands his mission – doing the will of his Father and accomplishing his work.  The Son obeys the Father, not slavishly, childishly (just trying to stay out of trouble), but actively embracing and engaging the mission.

We love the “God with us” part of the Christmas story.  We love the Prince of Peace.  We love the candlelight and the angels singing.  I love it.  But once we commit to that part of the story, we commit to the rest of it.  All of it.  A lifetime of obedience.  Do we realize what we’re doing when we celebrate Christmas?

Believing in the Son means obeying him.  Believing in the Son means walking in the light as he himself is in the light (1 John 1:7).  Walking means obeying.

What do I think “obey” means?  I don’t think that John envisions the kind of control a parent has over a small child.  Anybody who reads the Bible the least bit seriously knows that we must make wise, sound and knowledgeable interpretive decisions to sort out what we think God is telling us to do.  We bring agency and initiative, not wooden, plodding rule-keeping, when we obey.

Maybe a helpful analogy for the kind of obedience presented here would be more like a good employee who knows the boss’ mind and consistently takes initiative to stay in line with the boss’ character and vision of how things should go.  That employee does not wait around for the boss to issue every command or thoughtlessly follow instructions.  That employee understands the boss’ mind, respects the boss and is fully engaged in the boss’s mission.

Sounds like a decent understanding of discipleship.

John 3:36 says also that there is a consequence for not obeying the Son.  We won’t see life.  We’ll endure God’s wrath.  The literal rendering of the Greek word that the NRSV translates “must endure” could be translated “remains.”  The one who disobeys remains in God’s wrath.  It’s the same word translated as “abide” in other parts of John.

And what about the wrath of God?  (Must I really talk about wrath on Christmas day?  Well, today’s Gospel reading speaks of it so I feel I must.)  I imagine a kind of “leaving in” in God’s wrath, as in a person being left in a particular situation or condition.  God leaves us to our own foolish devices.  A person who remains, who is stuck in the same pattern of confusion, darkness and sin, endures God’s wrath.  I’m sure there’s more to the idea, but this is enough for now.

God forbid that I should try to take edge off anyone’s Christmas celebration today.  Let us drink deeply of its joy.  Let’s just remember what our celebrating Jesus’ birth commits us to.


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Dec 12 2013

Rankin File: Purist or Pragmatist? Quick-and-Dirty Thoughts on Higher Education

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Two articles I have read recently rev my mental engines on higher education.  Warning: a rant looms.

Like getting caught in a whirlpool, two major opinions go round and round in higher education:

1.  We’re losing the liberal arts and it is a terrible thing.

2.  A college degree is about getting a job and higher education officials need to wake up to this fact.

It’s pretty easy to see how these two opinions clash.  The “purists” (I come close to falling into this category, I suppose) argue that a college education never was about getting a job.  It has always been about becoming a whole and well-rounded person.  I know, it sounds so quaint and quixotic.  But there clearly is something to be said for this conviction.

The “pragmatists” complain about how expensive a bachelors degree has become and, unless that degree helps you get a good job, it’s not worth the time, expense and effort.  So, drop all the “soft” requirements and get to the really important stuff in the major that’s going to get me that job.

The following two articles have provoked my latest bout of indigestion.  The first one suggests that students who make the best grades don’t necessarily make the best workers.  The second highlights the “competency-based” turn in higher education.!

I actually welcome both of these proposals, but at the same time, I feel like shouting, “Well duh!”  But that would be uncharitable.

There is one place where my #1 and #2 (above) actually work together.   A voluminous body of research on “emotional intelligence” demonstrates that the best workers and leaders have this quality.  An emotionally intelligent person is appropriately self-aware, can read and is sensitive to emotional cues in co-workers and operates with moral sensitivity (compassion, generosity, integrity, etc.).  The problem with the term “emotional intelligence” is that it sounds all clinical and psychological (e.g. scientific) rather than philosophical and spiritual.

The literature on emotional intelligence actually pays quite a bit of attention to moral concerns.  You can’t have compassion, for instance, without moral sensitivity.  Therefore, a truly emotionally intelligent person ought to be a liberally educated person.  I hasten to add that a liberally educated person does not need to go to college to be liberally educated.  However, if you read our mission statements, the colleges and universities where we work think that developing skillful, morally sensitive leaders is what our work is about.  Ergo, a liberally educated person ought to make a really good worker.

The pragmatic bent of our national consciousness tends to think of job skills in almost exclusively technical terms: can a person accomplish this or that math or business or professional skill?  Obviously, some jobs require extensive technical expertise (or at least aptitude).   But if we want people to work for us, with us, by our sides; if we want morally sensitive and courageous people committed the common good, then we’d better understand competency in much broader terms that our national conversation seems to recognize.

It’s obvious that people who make good grades don’t necessarily make the best workers.  It’s obvious that the credit hour system that has organized academic life for a hundred years does not on its own lead to technical competence in a particular discipline.  It wasn’t meant to carry this burden.

What apparently isn’t so obvious – tragically – is what students need to live productive and meaningful, good lives   for the rest of their lives.  Higher education still has something to say about that.

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Dec 09 2013

Rankin File: Desiring Christian Transformation

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Given the two hats I’m wearing at SMU right now (Interim Dean of Student Life and Chaplain), my blogging has been non-existent.  However, I do have a post that just went live with

Here’s the link:

May you have a blessed Advent.

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Dec 02 2013

Seedbed: Desiring Christian Transformation: The Ontological Change at New Birth

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Christian transformation: a goal oft-mentioned, yet little understood and maybe even less experienced. However scholars interpret the significance of John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment, most folk in the Wesleyan family have heard the story and recognize it as an example of the powerful change that Christ can effect in us. Add in a few testimonies from people we know or have heard and one can feel a powerful yearning, even while doubting that such a change could ever happen to us.

Just what transforms us? And what in us is transformed? To answer, let’s talk first about the image of God. We can quote the appropriate passages from Genesis 1 and 2, with support from elsewhere, but let’s try to fill in the bare concept with help from Mr. Wesley again, where we find an apt summary in his sermon, “The New Birth:”

The foundation of [the new birth] lies near as deep as the creation of the world; in the scriptural account whereof we read, “And God,” the three-one God, “said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him:” (Gen. 1:26, 27:) — Not barely in his natural image, a picture of his own immortality; a spiritual being, endued with understanding, freedom of will, and various affections; — nor merely in his political image, the governor of this lower world, having “dominion over the fishes of the sea, and over all the earth;” — but chiefly in his moral image; which, according to the Apostle, is “righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. 4:24.) In this image of God was man made.

All three of these dimensions of the image of God operate interactively with one another and all three are involved in transformation. Notice, though, that Mr. Wesley lifts up the moral aspect of the image of God as chiefly what is affected by the transformation that new birth brings.

The moral image has to do with more than simply doing right and avoiding wrong. Very importantly, it involves our desire for what is good and beautiful. We are created to desire, to attach to an object of love.  Desire inclines us to pursue, to seek, to attach, to certain goods. God created us in just this way. This is the moral aspect of the image of God in us.

The ultimate good, of course, is the Triune God, our Source and All. Any good that usurps God’s place undermines the soul. This is exactly what the power of sin does. Sin inclines our desires in the wrong directions and we use our God-given abilities in ways that repudiate God’s purposes.

To gain a proper sense about Christian transformation, then, we need to keep these basic truths firmly in mind. God created us with certain (good) inclinations that develop into full-blown desires. Those tendencies and desires are misshapen by sin. Reflecting on our lives, we easily recognize this struggle with conflicting desires. Though the image of God remains in us, through sin it is distorted, bent out of shape. Our understanding is darkened and we aim at the wrong objects of desire.

But, of course, God does not leave us in this sad state. Through penitent trust in Christ, we are restored to a relationship of love and acceptance with God our Father. And – here we get to our main point – through the work of God’s Spirit, our desires change. We are reoriented toward the things of God, toward life in Christ. Though we continue to struggle with sin, everything nonetheless becomes new: a new understanding of the world and our life in it and new desires that re-calibrate our dream, plans and priorities.

In Christian transformation, we begin to notice that what once attracted us now repels us. We understand more clearly. We can see temptation for what it is, either a weakness of the flesh or an overt attempt by Screwtape to throw us off the path of holiness. Conversely, what once perhaps seemed unattractive about the Christian life now beckons. How many times have you heard someone testify to a newfound love for reading the Bible – a hunger for God’s Word – upon entry into this new life in Christ?  “I hungered to read the Bible.  I couldn’t get enough.” What changed? Literally, everything.

When our understanding fundamentally changes and we see the world from the standpoint of salvation; when our core desires change; when – oriented in this new direction – we begin to engage the practices of the faith on the path of discipleship, then we see the ontological change – a transformation of our very being – shine through.

When our thoughts, desires and dispositions begin to show evidence that we see the world through Christ’s eyes, that our hearts are touched by the things that touch the heart of God, that our sense of good and evil – our desires for the good and our repugnance of the evil – and our use of resources to work for the good and to help organize society, then we can see and say that we are being transformed, that we are undergoing an ontological change, a change in our very being. The Agent of that change is the Holy Spirit, working in our thoughts and desires, renewing the image of God in us.

Of course, we often don’t experience such change so clean cut or clear. We continue to struggle with murky, semi-hidden motives and desires that we know do not match God’s holy will for our lives.  But fundamentally, in our core, we are different. Because the Spirit of God operates in and on us, not coercively, but still powerfully.

In order to keep our eyes on the prize of full transformation, we need to stay oriented toward these basic truths:  We are sinners created in the image of God.  Christ – the full revelation and exemplar of the image of God – became human in order to show us the way. He made the atoning sacrifice that opens that way to life eternal. Christ has sent his Spirit, the Spirit of the Triune God, to prompt and guide our thoughts, inclinations, desires, motives, dreams and plans.

We are headed somewhere in the Christian life, but we don’t take the trip on autopilot. We have to pay attention: (1) to the vision established by God, (2) to the distractions of our own flesh (desires, inclinations and choices contrary to God’s will) and (3) to the steady, faithful, consistent and constant operations of the Holy Spirit in our thinking, desiring and acting. And God will grant to us and instill in us the beauty of holiness. Thanks be to God!

The post Desiring Christian Transformation: The Ontological Change at New Birth appeared first on Seedbed.

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Sep 08 2013

Rankin File: Why Government Should Not Run Like a Business

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This is a little experiment.

I’m deviating from my usual themes by sharing this blog video, “Why Government Should Not Run Like a Business.”

I’d like to know what you think.


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Aug 23 2013

Rankin File: Semi-Final Thoughts: Bad Choices and Divine Revelation

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(For the next few months, I have added responsibilities in my work at Southern Methodist University.  Hence, my blogging will be even more spasmodic than usual for a while.)


Fearing Moral Talk

With this post I’ll bring to a close, for now, this little series on college students and what they show us about the naive anthropology of our popular and academic cultures.  I won’t detail them here, but there are dreadfully serious consequences to this moral naivete in our institutional policies and practices.  My major concern, then, is for college students to have better and more consistent access to useful moral deliberation than so many seem to have right now.

To re-cap a bit from the earlier posts: we often talk about bad choices rather than bad people.  ”There are no bad people, only bad choices.”  I agreed to the grain of truth in this claim.  The problem is, it does not help young people think deeply about the murky motives, the tangled desires, the mixed purposes with which they (and we older folk) sometimes struggle.  A good dose of biblical, Augustinian thinking on the power of sin as disordered desire is in order.

But our thinking must go beyond this point.  In order to understand why those mixed motives and wilding desires can so quickly lead us astray, we have to have a sense of what “astray” actually means.  If bad choices come from a bad heart (so to speak), what makes the heart bad?  To get at what I’m trying to say, let me tell of an experience I had with some students and a colleague a few weeks ago.  It stands out in my mind as the most enriching, exhilarating conversation I’ve had with students in a long time.

Every college in America has its strengths and weaknesses and we (Southern Methodist University) have ours.  Our weakness right now is that we seem to lack community.  We don’t really know what binds us together, even though we use a lot of the right-sounding terms.  Among our strengths are our student leaders and they are concerned to solve this problem of lack of campus unity.  I was privileged to sit with a few a while back, along with a colleague, to work on a preamble to our university code of conduct.  Our two most recent Student Senate presidents, the one immediately past and the current one, have taken the lead on efforts to unify our school’s culture.

So, what unites the members of an academic community?  What are the shared values?  This was the topic of conversation with our students that day.  In the document we were studying we found words like “academic freedom” and “intellectual integrity.”  Again, these terms are quite familiar to people in higher education.  I threw out the notion of “moral courage.”  It takes moral courage to lead in upholding communal values.  It is very difficult for any of us to hold our peers accountable to our shared values when they offend them, but this is exactly what leaders have to do.  They have to speak up, stand up and stick to those values regardless of social pressures which are strong on college campuses.

The students liked the idea of moral courage, but struggled with the word “moral.”  It sounds too, well, religious.  And the one thing we absolutely must not do is to impose a particular religious viewpoint on someone (notice the moral principle here?).  I pointed out, after a very stimulating interchange that we had been using moral language all along.  Intellectual integrity is a moral value, as is freedom.  You can’t not (‘scuse the double negative) talk about moral values when you talk about communal values.

Moral talk is therefore inevitable.  The problem is, we have all but taken away moral language from our students, because no one wants to sound moralistic, judgmental, narrow-minded, etc.  So we use moral language all the time without knowing it as such.

Sooner or later, however, we inevitably start asking: Where do such values originate?  Where do we get the idea that freedom is a good thing and that honesty-in-freedom is, too?

Moral Talk Leads to Theological Talk?

While traveling last weekend, I listened to a book, The Price of Civilization, by Jeffrey D. Sachs.  Though the book deals with large-scale economic problems, it is profoundly moral.  Sachs uses the Buddhist concept of mindfulness to offer solutions.  I have my quibbles with that word, though it does communicate.  More to the point of this post, he also made reference to a work by Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who, looking for an inter-religious way to solve problems, employs the notion of “our common humanity” as a starting point for positive change.  If we could but recognize our common humanity across the usual divisions, we might make some progress on peace and justice.

But “our common humanity,” by itself, tells us nothing.  In fairness to Kung, I’m getting this idea filtered through how Sachs uses it, but it does illustrate the point I want to make.  ”Our common humanity” is rife with assumptions.  If I could just get to know you as a fellow human being; if you cease being “other” to me and become someone known, then you and I will be able to get along in peace, is a huge assumption.  Sound familiar?  It’s a wonderful sentiment.

The truth is, once you and I get to know each other better, we might actually hate each other.  ”Our common humanity” might turn out to be grounds for conflict rather than community.  ”Our common humanity” has to be grounded, therefore, in a further a priori, some principle that guides me to recognize what about you demands my respect, even my love, or, short of that, to call me to live in goodwill with you if not unity.

One important part of this picture, I think, is that none of the pre-existent principles render as of merely human origin.  This is part of the problem with “our common humanity.”  There must be a transcendent starting point – an origin outside human invention – for any of these good sentiments to work long-term and large-scale.  Morality comes from theology and theology begins with divine revelation.

I know that I’m stating an ancient idea and I know that many intelligent people disagree with what I’m saying.  There are several accounts on offer that expressly avoid religion or deity as a source for moral reasoning.  From my armchair philosopher’s position, I find none of these attempts very convincing, all suffering from the problem of vicious self-reference.

And so, the God question looms – always.  Moral values, I believe, are objectively real (this is an idea not limited to  Christian thought) and moral questions call for exploration of other, theological, questions.  And this all eventually leads me to the good old-fashioned notion of the fear/reverence of God.  What would happen to some of our conversations with students if we engaged in exploring with them the strong possibility that their very moral sense is a gift from the God who created them?  And that that God has an opinion about how we live?  And, furthermore, that that same God has revealed not only moral principles but his [sic] very own Self?  Which means we are not completely adrift in a sea of confusion.  We are not left to make it all up by ourselves.  We have a Guide who not only shows us the way, but Is the Way.

Thus, if we trace our steps back to the beginning of this series with my pondering about the “bad choices” hermeneutic, I hope we can see the salutary possibility for self-understanding by re-engaging the idea that God actually speaks.  I know myself best when I know my Maker, Who is not silent, as Francis Schaeffer once told us.  And though I struggle with murky motives and perverse inclinations, I’m not blown away by them.  I am not destroyed by them.  And by God’s grace, I can master them.  And surely, that would be a good thing for our students to know – by experience.

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