Piety and Engagement

About Piety and Engagement

The Cultural Discerner (CD) program has been a part of the work of the Calvin College Student Activities Office since 1995, created because of a perceived need to demonstrate how Christians might take popular culture seriously in an academic setting. With anywhere from 10-22 sophomore students, the CD curriculum has focused on developing skills for cultural discernment in aspects of popular culture—music, film, television, advertising—with a view toward a skill set that could be applied to all parts of life.

The current tides of North American evangelical Christianity, concerned with “relevance” though they may be, are pulling Reformed Christians away from “all things” awareness and practice toward a dualistic pietism that reduces ministry in the world to worship and evangelism. In contrast, Calvin College continues to swim against the tide by declaring a holistic view of Christ’s lordship that extends to every aspect of human life. However overused, a quote from theologian Abraham Kuyper sums up this idea well: “In the total expanse of human life, there is not a single square inch of which Christ, who alone is sovereign does not declare, ‘That is mine!’”

One of the greatest strengths of the CD program is that it claims another “square inch” of culture to explore in terms of the “all things” language that emerges from Calvin’s Reformed identity. CDs learn how to analyze everything from classic, groundbreaking films to the latest reality TV show for evidence of both the Kingdom of life and the kingdom of death, learning how to engage in Holy-Spirited thinking. Without grounding in knowledge of the Holy Spirit, however, the Reformed model of cultural engagement can become a form of secular humanism which reflects an innate belief that discernment is merely hard thinking of a certain kind. Correcting this tendency requires intention and vigilance, as does a tendency toward dualistic pietism.

We believe many parts of campus life are being touched by tendencies toward secularizing extremes in the tension between piety and engagement, our own work included. In an effort to strengthen the CD program and the work of the Student Activities Office, as well as inspire campus-wide discussion, the SAO is initiating the Piety & Engagement Project. The Project will begin with a collection of key questions and resources, which will be posted on this site as they’re available. The collection will be enhanced by invitations to particular individuals, offices and departments on campus to engage the topic in various ways, through interviews, articles, panels and open discussions. From our perspective at the beginning of this project, the culmination may involve a final report in the form of a major article and the integration of specific practices into the CD curriculum. That said, the culmination may be re-evaluated given the course the project takes.

Please bookmark this site and check back for updates. If you’d like to be notified of changes and additions or if you’d like to be involved in the project in some other way, please e-mail Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma.


Central Questions

  • How has the Reformed approach to cultural engagement changed throughout the denomination’s history?
  • How does Calvin’s approach to personal piety relate to the approaches of other Christian liberal arts institutions? What are the foundations of Calvin’s approach?
  • Where does an overemphasis on piety lead us?
  • What is the difference between piety and pietism? How have the connotations of the term “piety” shifted?
  • Where does an overemphasis on engagement lead us?
  • What rituals for discernment have been and are being observed within various Christian traditions? Should any of these rituals be considered in the context of the Cultural Discerner group? In the larger context of Calvin’s campus?
  • How can a strong Reformed understanding of the Holy Spirit strengthen the teaching of discernment skills?
  • Where is the Reformed tradition weak in its understanding of the Holy Spirit and what have been the influences of this weakness? What traditions can we look to for guidance?
  • Who or what can we look to as modeling a (more) seamless integration of "heart, hands and head?"
  • Is every individual or community called to equally honor the heart, hands and head or are some called to have an emphasis on one above the others?
  • Is there a tension between the cultural mandate and the great commission or are these part of a larger whole of faithful discipleship that shouldn't be separated into mutually exclusive tasks?


Article Resources


Book Resources: Historic Context of Christian Approaches


Other Resources


Ideas for Community Involvement

  • Involve a monastic community (potentially a field trip for CDs to do a day retreat and watch a film to talk about the relationship between the two experiences)
  • Survey Calvin professors about piety and engagement in the classroom
  • Interview professors, theologians and pastors about their attitudes and experiences
  • Survey alumni about their experiences of Calvin’s approaches
  • Host a panel discussion about piety and engagement with a professor, a theologian, a pastor, a current student and an alum
  • Host a panel discussion about piety and engagement with representatives of several Christian denominations, and perhaps other faiths
  • Sponsor dorm events and discussions that represent unique combinations of the two ends of the spectrum (i.e. a pop culture fast)
  • Integrate the project with the Festival of Faith & Music