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Cultural Discernment is top priority for Ken Heffner

His concert series brings in top names, sellout crowds

by Amber Veverka 90

It was early on a warm April day last year when the students and other ticketholders started lining up outside the Calvin fieldhouse. They had a long wait: Dave Matthews wasn't playing until 8 that night.

Five years ago at Calvin you might not have seen the line and you definitely wouldn't have seen Dave Matthews. The popular guitar wizard and singer's music is recognized as widely popular and artistically influential. It is not recognized as "Christian."

The same goes for Nanci Griffith, The Wallflowers, Shawn Colvin. They're big names in the contemporary music world. They're not considered Christian artists. And they're performing at Calvin College.

What's going on?

The answer is: A lot. And it starts in a small office sandwiched in the Commons Annex where Ken Heffner sits, surrounded by shelves compact discs. Musicians gaze down at him from the promotional posters papering the walls.

Heffner, 43, was hired in 1993 to be Calvin's first student activities director. His wife, Gail, is director of academically-based service learning.

Described simply, Heffner's job was to bring concerts to campus on weekends so students would have something to do.

But Heffner's dream was bigger. Students, he said, should be exposed to the best that popular music had to offer, and they should critically examine it through the lenses of faith -- the same way they would examine any other part of culture at Calvin College. Calvin administrators shared that vision. The result is a campus concert series that rivals that of many, far bigger, schools and a student body that is learning to take contemporary music -- and the rest of popular culture -- seriously.

A Pittsburgh native, Heffner earned a degree in religion and history at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

After graduating, he took a job in campus ministry with Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, West Virginia. There, Heffner and his wife, Gail, were residence directors. Ken directed student activities and worked part of the time for the Coalition for Christian Outreach. After three years, the Heffners moved to Pittsburgh where Ken led multimedia training for the Coalition and produced part-time for WDUQ radio, a National Public Radio affiliate.

In 1987, he took a post as student activities director for Wheeling Jesuit College in West Virginia, and that's where he was when he heard Calvin College was looking for someone to fill a newly created position in the same field.

"Calvin graduates had taught at Grove City College, a Presbyterian school," he said during a recent conversation in his office. "John Timmerman in English, Peter Steen in philosophy, John Van Til in history. Those were several people who really influenced us, exposing us eastern, young evangelical kids who had just been through the 'Jesus revolution' to a Christian view of culture.

"A lot of us who were coming of age at that time were disappointed at the liberalism of mainline colleges -- that wasn't leading us anywhere. And we were disappointed by neofundamentalism, as well." Hefner noticed that the philosophy of Calvin College stood apart from both those viewpoints.

"Calvin College finds a way for Christians to engage with culture without becoming of it. And that is rare. It's a precious gift. It's a way out of the trap of liberalism, which leads to no more salt-and-light, and it's also a way out of the trap of fundamentalism, which leads to separatism."

God gave humankind the job of creating culture, of creating art and science and music and government and all the rest, he said.

"Our rebellion doesn't stop the process of building culture, it just means the way we do it is twisted," he said. He leaned forward, as intense about his subject as a preacher who's hitting stride. "You have a struggle now. There are two kingdoms and we are all forming culture....Our task is not to divide up culture into 'Christians' and 'non-Christians,' but by what's done right and what's done wrong."

The college, he said, is supposed to prepare students "to engage the world, head-to-head, toe-to-toe; because they know where they are from and know who they are, they have developed a sense of discernment--spiritual discernment."

Popular culture needs this approach as much as any other area of life, Heffner believes. And what all this means for the business of booking musical acts is simple.

"We're trying to get the best artists we can get our hands on," he said.

The concert series has repeatedly sold out the 4,100-seat fieldhouse. In fact, the series drew more than 22,000 paying concert goers last year. It's drawn enthusiastic crowds for artists like Hootie & the Blowfish, Bruce Cockburn, The Indigo Girls and Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Calvin has become the center point for Christian popular artists known for their probing lyrics and excellent musicianship. Recent guests of the college in this genre include Sixpence None the Richer, Over the Rhine, Jars of Clay, Vigilantes of Love and David Wilcox.

Heffner books a mix of performers, from those within the contemporary Christian music industry, to those who are practicing Christians but outside that industry, to those who are not Christians but whose work is considered influential.

Student Activities has a $20,000 annual budget but the concert series basically pays for itself. In 1997, for example, Student Activities put on $300,000-worth of concerts and took in about the same amount.

But for Heffner, success isn't just getting big names to take the stage. It's getting students to treat popular music and film the same way they would any cultural endeavor--Christianly. "The message we're given over and over again is to treat movies...and live concerts as meaningless," Heffner said. "(But) you wouldn't go to an art gallery and not think."

Enter the Cultural Discerners. They're students Heffner teaches to evaluate music, television programming and film; to think about what they're hearing and seeing, not just lose themselves in it. There's a Cultural Discerner student in each residence hall, and some of them lead study groups to discuss anything from the X-Files to a new folk music release. They publish a monthly newsletter, "The Undercurrent," in which they review film, TV shows and music from a Christian perspective.

In addition to leading the Cultural Discerners, Heffner meets with freshmen when they arrive on campus, talks to clubs, fills the student-activities World Wide Web home page with musician interviews and song lyrics. It's all meant all to encourage students to look at pop culture through spiritual eyes and listen to it with ears attuned to artistic excellence.

Of course, there are struggles.

The Wallflowers, a hugely popular rock group led by Bob Dylan's son, Jakob Dylan, didn't sell out when they performed at Calvin in December, and they proved more difficult to deal with than they were worth, Heffner said.

And the Student Activities office drew complaints from some Calvin constituents over the Indigo Girls' appearance because the singers are lesbians and went public with their lesbianism a short time before the concert. Other artists also have been somewhat controversial.

"I'll hear from (some) students, 'Why are you doing those things here?'" Heffner acknowledged. "I do get parents' letters." But, he said, "we're asking students to be discerning and not to see anybody we bring in as an endorsement -- even the Christian ones."

Heffner likens Calvin's concert series to its January lecture series. Series organizer June Hamersma seeks the top minds in various fields when she plans the acclaimed lecture series each year -- not just the top Christian minds, Heffner said.

Jinny DeJong, vice president of student life and Heffner's boss, said "the vast majority" of Calvin constituents support Heffner's work.

Calvin is trying to develop in students "skills of critical Christian reflection and thinking," she said. "We want students to become wise participants in popular culture. We want them to see there are some very good artists out there performing, whether or not they're explicitly Christian in their profession."

And, she said, "I think the whole educational enterprise at Calvin is risky business. Education is not meant to be safe, it is meant to be good."

Acoustical guitar solo artist Michael Gulezian has performed his original arrangements at Calvin and said he applauds the concert series.

"You have, at Calvin College, the best in the business, easily," said Gulezian, who is based in Nashville. "It's an honor to play there."

The school's reputation is spreading among musicians, he added. At a recent conference attended by artists and agents associated with campus concerts in several states, a mention of Heffner's work drew immediate recognition from the conference leadership, Gulezian said.

Bill Mallonee, lead singer in Vigilantes of Love, a folk rock band out of Athens, Georgia, said he wishes more schools were presenting concerts the way Calvin is.

He added, "The artists I know Ken is trying to get are people still asking all the hard questions in their music."

The Vigilantes have played at Calvin several times. "I felt like Ken had done a great deal of groundwork" giving students the tools they needed to appreciate and sift through the music, Mallonee said. Right now, Heffner's eyes are on the rest of the academic year and the concerts he's scheduling for each week. The lineup includes big names, like Grammy-nominated Paula Cole ("Where Have all the Cowboys Gone?" and "I Don't Want to Wait" are two of her biggest hits).

Other artists include Jason Harrod & Brian Funck, Wheaton College graduates and folk singers whose style has been compared to Simon & Garfunkel; South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo; Canadian folk artist Bruce Cockburn; and critically acclaimed writer/singer Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, a folk band from south central Los Angeles.

Long-term, Heffner said he would love to see cultural discernment training become part of Calvin's curriculum.

"We're not accepting the critique that pop culture is no culture," Heffner said. "(Calvin) wants students to develop literacy in all of the arts."

To find out what's going on right now visit the Student Activities Office.

Amber Veverka is a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press.

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Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 4/8/98.