By Robert Drovdahl,
Interim Dean of the School of Theology
Photos by Jimi Lott and Michael Ramey

Set against the backdrop of three global crises — World War II, the Holocaust and Israel's founding as a state — Chaim Potok's classic "coming-of-age" novel The Chosen chronicles the developing friendship of Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders. The story line spans six years (1944-1950), from the boys' junior year in high school through college graduation. Reuven, son of David Malter, belongs to a conservative branch of Judaism. His father is a teacher and Talmud scholar, and is active in the Zionist movement's effort to establish a Jewish homeland. Danny, son of Reb Saunders, is destined by birth to take his father's place as leader ("tzaddik") of their Hasidic branch of Judaism. Though Reuven and Danny's friendship begins on the wrong foot, over time their relationship provides each boy with essential stability as they navigate the challenges of growing up.

Growing up takes Danny and Reuven through the process of individuation: forming a clear sense of identity in relation to their community-of-origin. Both Reuven and Danny move through their social worlds seeking to become a "self" before God. This process requires them to understand how their respective faith traditions have shaped their values and perspectives. It also requires them to determine how best to employ the gifts and talents God has given them.

The centrality of this theme makes The Chosen an ideal text for Seattle Pacific University's freshman "Christian Formation" course and an excellent vehicle for achieving a significant School of Theology goal: guiding students toward a thoughtful, vital, "owned" Christian faith. These qualities of mature faith can only come through careful, personal reflection.

The Chosen serves as a powerful mirror for our students by raising themes and issues essential to the task of becoming a self before God. Twelve faculty members will teach "Christian Formation," one of the seven required courses in SPU's Common Curriculum, this academic year. We all use The Chosen, yet each professor brings a different perspective and emphasizes different elements of the novel.

I regularly highlight three themes essential to shaping a Christian identity: 1) encountering differences, 2) hearing a word from God through Scripture and 3) hallowing all truth. This year, as we face a crisis something like those in the background of The Chosen, I will also emphasize a fourth theme: engaging the world. Let me briefly describe these themes in the novel and the connections I make to Christian living.

Encountering Difference
Potok begins the novel with, "For the first fifteen years of our lives, Danny and I lived within five blocks of each other and neither of us knew of the other's existence." After stating that a novel's opening sentence usually hints at an important theme, I ask students to consider what theme this sentence suggests. Before long someone offers an idea approximating my own analysis that "mental geography is often more important than physical geography." Though Danny and Reuven inhabit the same neighborhood of Brooklyn, the difference in worldviews might as well place them on separate planets.

Reuven and Danny's developing friendship must encounter and address these differences. Early on, these differences lead to misunderstanding, resentment, animosity and judgmentalism. Danny calls Reuven an apikoros (roughly equivalent to calling someone an apostate) and confesses to an intense desire to kill Reuven. Reuven has difficulty understanding Danny's odd Hasidic ways. Their friendship flourishes only after overcoming the deep divisions that separate them: backgrounds and traditions, beliefs and practices, cultures and values.

Today's world accentuates differences, so this theme resonates with first-year students. Students immediately encounter difference at SPU. We count diversity of Christian traditions represented by students and faculty as one of Seattle Pacific's core strengths. A strength indeed, yet sometimes students find such varied perspectives among their classmates and faculty daunting.

How do we respond in the face of difference? Are we open to learn more about ourselves and "the other"? Or will we withdraw or attack? When do differences enrich our journey, and when might they detour our journey? Reuven and Danny's experiences provide insight for our students' answers to these questions.

Interpreting Sacred Texts
Reuven and Danny are serious, diligent students of Jewish Scripture (my students often note this with a measure of chagrin), yet their method of studying the text differs dramatically. The novel describes varied approaches characters use for studying Talmud, including memorization, scientific criticism, pilpul and gematriya. Danny's photographic mind makes memorizing easy, but it is mechanical and passionless. Reb Saunders distrusts scientific criticism, David Malter's preferred approach. Reuven disdains pilpul, because of its strained efforts to reconcile variant texts. Reuven enjoys Reb Saunders' use of gematriya but knows its manipulation of letters and numbers leads to arbitrary interpretations.

Since students will face issues of interpretation in their sophomore "Christian Scriptures" course, I use the interpretive approaches found in The Chosen to raise questions about our own reading of the Bible. How do we get meaning from biblical texts? Are there right and wrong ways to read the Bible? Should we read the Bible in a university course differently than in daily devotions?

These questions also prepare my students to study The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), our focus for the last two weeks of the class. Answers to these questions form the foundation for careful interpretation of Scripture, which allows us to hear a "formative" word from God and leads to growth in Christian faith.

Hallowing "Secular" Learning
A key source of conflict between Danny Saunders and his father is Danny's "secular" learning. Deeply interested in psychology, Danny reads extensively on the subject. Reb Saunders, on the other hand, believes that obedience to God's command "to meditate over [Torah] day and night" leaves no time for studying secular knowledge. Reb further fears that secular learning will lead Danny away from faith.

This "conflict" between faith and learning parallels a critical issue for SPU students — and they grasp the parallel very quickly. How can a Christian education include the study of apparel design, mathematics, political science and physical education? The answer provides important insights that help students understand why Seattle Pacific is a university of the liberal arts and professional studies and not a Bible school.

I then challenge students to think even more deeply by asking whether the division of life into "sacred" and "secular" categories suggests a false dichotomy. If all truth is God's truth, then all learning is sacred and holy. Students whose worlds are neatly divided into sacred and secular too easily think attending chapel counts as a spiritual activity while studying does not. I want students to see both the chapel and the classroom as holy space, worthy of the best they have to offer.

Engaging the World
A final theme to which we will pay particular attention this year is the way Danny's and Reuven's faith guides their relationship to American culture, epitomized in the baseball game that opens the novel. Reuven's yeshiva, or Jewish parochial school, plays baseball to prove that one can be a good Jew and a good American. As Reuven says, "To be counted a loyal American had become increasingly important to us during these last years of the war." Danny's yeshiva plays only to prove the superiority of Hasidism and makes only minimal accommodation to the norms of the game (no real coach, no baseball-conducive attire).

As I write, I have no idea what course America will take in response to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. As Christians, our primary loyalty and citizenship centers in God's kingdom, yet we live in the world and are called, in the words of SPU's mission, to "engage the culture." How do we engage a culture seemingly bent on violence and destruction? Is there a path for Christians that provides a prophetic witness to the world?

In The Chosen we see radically different ways of understanding one's relationship to the world. Throughout the "Christian Formation" course, students are challenged to see how Scripture, tradition and experience shape the ways Christians strive to live in the world while simultaneously resisting the pressure to conform to the world's ways.

Students almost unanimously love The Chosen. They identify with Reuven's and Danny's struggle to become a self before God. By watching these two young people work through key commitments, significant relationships, basic worldviews and issues of authority, students see mirrored a picture of themselves. They understand more clearly who they are in relation to others, the role of Scripture in their lives, the holiness of all learning, and how to stand for Christ in a broken world.

Students begin to see that their lives also tell a story others will "read." The Chosen provides a great tool for asking students, "What will be your life story?"

In his junior year at Seattle Pacific College, psychology major Bob Drovdahl '71 came to a crucial decision: The Christian faith, if true, had to become the all-encompassing motive and drive of his life. There was no room for halfhearted belief.

Over the next seven years, he laid the foundation for a career in Christian higher education. He earned a master's degree in Christian education from Wheaton Graduate School; worked on the youth ministry staff of a church in Oakbrook, Illinois; and completed a doctorate in education from Michigan State University. In 1982, after serving four years as the director of SPU's Casey Conference Center and part-time religion instructor, he accepted a full-time faculty position in the Seattle Pacific Department of Religion.

Recently appointed interim dean of the School of Theology, Drovdahl finds deep satisfaction in his work. "If you want to impact students at a critical moment in their lives, the college years are the time to do it," he says.

Reading in the Common Curriculum

Reading in the Common Curriculum
This fall, Response again invites readers to explore one of the texts taught in Seattle Pacific University's ground-breaking general education program called the Common Curriculum. One of the distinctive features of the four-year-old curriculum is a group of literary, artistic, musical and theatrical works that all students will study over four years.

The Chosen, our featured text, is a 20th-century novel taught in the freshman-level Common Curriculum course "Christian Formation." In this essay for Response, Interim Dean of the School of Theology Bob Drovdahl introduces Chaim Potok's celebrated work and the nearly universal way in which it resonates with students. Through their study of the book, says Drovdahl, students "understand more clearly who they are in relation to others, the role of Scripture in their lives, the holiness of all learning, and how to stand for Christ in a broken world."

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