The Jerusalem and Athens Forum (JAF) honors program marks its tenth anniversary this year. Since its inception as part of a major grant from the Lilly Endowment in 2004, its mission has remained the same: “Through a great- books course in the history of Christian thought and literature, and a variety of other program components, JAF helps students reflect on the relationship between faith and intellect, deepen their own sense of vocation, and awaken their capacities for intellectual and moral leadership.”
Great Books—and Beyond
But it is more than a great books program. “Since its earliest days, the program has intentionally sought to be more than a program that sequesters the best away from the rest,” says (history), the founding director. JAF holds an annual public debate, requires participants to submit essays to The Tartan and poems to The Idiom, and each semester it holds public faculty- student discussions on topics of pressing or perennial importance (or both).
The debate, in particular, has become an annual campus “event,” drawing in hundreds of students along with parents, faculty, and guests from the community. The open faculty-student discussions pack a punch as well. Past discussions run the gamut from the timely to the controversial to the imponderable, including topics such as the nature of economic growth, physician-assisted suicide, the nature of evil, tradition and the Bible, secularism, bioengineering, public and private debt, and more.
“Two convictions lie at the heart of the program,” says Howard. “That for all its strengths, evangelicalism needs to 1) do a much better job of drawing from and participating in the breadth of the Christian intellectual tradition and, accordingly, 2) take the life of the mind more seriously—for God has created our minds, not just our hearts.”
Toward these ends, a cohort of 14 students every year since 2004 has encountered in a small-group format the writings of Athanasius, Augustine, Benedict, Aquinas, John Milson, Pascal, Teresa of Avila, Luther, Calvin, Dostoyevsky, Martin Luther King, C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and others.
Location, Location, and Location
The program also serves as a bridge between Gordon and the cultural opportunities afforded by Gordon’s location. Over the years, JAF participants have visited a Shaker village, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody-Essex Museum, Harvard’s Fogg Museums, Hellenic College, Boston College, the Museum of Science, and more. What is more, alumni trips have taken students to farflung destinations including Orvieto, Rome, Florence, Wittenberg, Berlin, Washington, D.C., and San Antonio, Texas.
Word of the program has spread far and wide. “Gordon College’s Jerusalem and Athens Forum is a model of Christian undergraduate excellence. The graduate fellows that we have accepted from this program have been invariably of a high caliber,” says Joe Creech, Program Director at the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program at Valparaiso University. The Jerusalem and Athens Forum been singled out by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Choosing the Right College. Along with Gordon’s Elijah Project, JAF is even the subject of a chapter in a forthcoming book by William Sullivan, a former senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Where They Go
JAF has helped launch students into some of the most prestigious and competitive graduate programs, at universities including Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame, Boston College, Boston University, Duke, the University of Edinburgh, Oxford, Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis. Program alumni have interned or worked at the White House, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wall Street Journal, and the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.
“The Jerusalem and Athens Forum was one of the most meaningful and important experiences of my undergraduate career. I received rigorous academic training and participated in a meaningful community of students and professors,” says Elizabeth Baker ’12, who participated in JAF during her sophomore year at Gordon. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Notre Dame, where she is a Presidential Fellow and a member of the sixth cohort of the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program.
JAF celebrates its tenth anniversary with two events. The first, a panel of JAF alumni, took place during Gordon’s 2013 Homecoming and Family Weekend in late September. After the discussion, panelist Amy Gentile ’08 emphasized that JAF “remains the most memorable educational experience of my life thus far. I tell people that all the time, and I’m so thankful for how that course shaped me as a student, as a thinker, and as a teacher.” She currently teaches math and writing for an innovative new online high school program in New Hampshire.
The second event marking the anniversary will be a banquet celebration around the time of the tenth annual JAF debate in April 2014.
Since 2004, the JAF program has accepted 140 participants. “Many species live for 10 years or less,” says Tal Howard, “but I’d like to think that the JAF program has just emerged from infancy to adolescence. The road ahead is now paved with more than good intentions; we can draw on the wisdom of what we’ve learned.”