STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 07/01/2009

FEATURE | A Well-built House: Economics and Business at Gordon College

Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book Blink popularized the concept of "thin slicing," the cognitive ability to gauge what is important from a narrow "slice" of experience or data. A thin slice of Gordon's Economics and Business Department would reveal course offerings that balance theory and practice; serious commitments to urban and global education; and a promising foray into not-for-profit (NFP) management--a natural topic for Gordon students, many of whom will take on leadership roles in NFPs such as churches, service organizations and missions groups. A thin slice would show impressive student success in taking the Chartered Financial Analyst Level I exam, under the leadership of professor Niles Logue. You would also see much notable faculty activity--including professor Stephen Smith's research presentation "A Spatial Model of National and International Price Dispersions" at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in July 2007.

But revealing as it is, thin slicing misses much that is important about the life of an academic department and its cast of characters. It cannot really do justice to history. You might miss the fact, for example, that recent student accomplishments on the Chartered Financial Analyst exams come on the heels of Professor Ted Wood's decades of patient success preparing students for the Certified Public Accountant exams. No thin slice could show how the present Gordon in Boston program, now part of the Department of Global Education, grew from a faculty effort that began many years ago in the Economics Department as the Urban Presence Committee, headed by Professor John Mason and others, including Diane Blake '58, then dean of external education. It might not adequately show Professor Bruce Webb's groundbreaking work on the academic journal Faith & Economics, or his many years of service to the whole College as core coordinator. It would not show how the department has weathered cultural changes over the past 40 years. "In the 1960s and '70s we had to justify making money," Mason commented recently. "Now we have to justify a concern for poverty."
Most of all, thin slicing would not show the extent to which the department owes its distinctive ethos to its faculty, and in particular to its founder, John Mason, who has recently retired after nearly 40 years at Gordon. Mason's understanding of both his discipline and of Scripture has in profound ways shaped the department's priorities over the years. What economic values do the Scriptures, particularly the Pentateuch, embody, and how can we best achieve those values now? Courses in poverty studies are offered alongside courses in marketing, which might seem counterintuitive--yet understanding why poverty happens and what Christians are to do about it is as important a concern as how to build capital. Both have to do with a robustly Christian theology of stewardship. Gordon's economics and business majors are strongly encouraged to experience the city not only because so many business opportunities are centered there but because, according to Mason, "The city plays a role in the future Kingdom of Christ's earthly reign."

In this collection of articles, we offer what we hope are some deeper soundings, some closer looks at the human face of an outstanding and visionary academic department.

A Builder And A Gentleman: A Colleague's Tribute To John Mason
By Stephen L.S. Smith

It's often said that commencement speeches are the hardest speeches to give. I disagree. Entertaining hot, happy soon-to-be-graduates under a bright sun is a piece of cake compared to trying to do justice to a colleague's life work and contributions to the institution we both love. It's not simply that John is only the second person ever to retire from the department, amazing though that is (we've been blessed with a core of strong, stable faculty for many years).

No. It's that John, quite literally, founded economics and business studies at Gordon when he arrived in 1968. He hasn't just made "contributions" to the department; he has made the department. He hoisted the sail and set the compass heading. Or consider a better analogy. Did you know that in another life John might very well have been a carpenter and architect? He designed his wonderful home on Red Coach Road and built much of it with his own hands. So too our department is built on the blueprints he drew up--the vision he sketched out almost four decades ago. And John's been the lead contractor, measuring tape hung at the ready in his belt, pounding nails on the construction site every day.

At the risk of giving John a case of terminal embarrassment, let me ask, What has that vision been? What did his blueprints call for? Unyielding commitment to high standards for faculty teaching and professional engagement. High expectations for students. Genuine collegiality in governing the department; everyone's voice heard and respected. Careful but not uncritical devotion to how economics can help students think about the world and be better stewards, better citizens, and better able to pursue their callings and vocations. And, above all, deep attention to Christ's claims, the better to prepare students for lives of Christian service whatever their calling.
All of us here at Gordon, not just in the Economics and Business Department but in the wider College, are the better for John's winsome vision.

John has the gift of being able to connect as an intellectual and spiritual father with his students. His manifest care for students' intellects in the classroom reflects his care for their souls and for their faiths. Students recognize this. They respect him for it. They listen to him, they share their joys and heartbreaks, and they go to him for personal advice and prayer.

I myself am among the students whom John befriended and mentored. I first met John in 1978--I was 20--in the cramped backseat of a car driven by Bill Harper '62, heading to the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto. Grady Spires was wedged back there too. John's vision for putting economics at the service of biblical norms of justice and stewardship made a deep impression on me. We communicated several times while I was in graduate school. And when Gordon posted its opening for an international economist, it was very natural to want to come here to be his colleague.

More recently we in the Department have had a new respect for John borne out of his courageous fight against Parkinson's Disease. We know it is a great thing that he will be able to spend more time with his family, including his incredible brood of 12 grandchildren. We understand also that it is a good thing for him now to turn to scholarship--his writing that, without exaggeration, has influenced more than a generation of Christian thinkers. 

From remarks at a faculty retirement celebration, May 10, 2007. Stephen Smith, Ph.D., is professor of economics and business.

A Mason Reader
Story by John Mason

John Mason's vision for putting economics at the service of biblical norms of justice and stewardship has influenced more than a generation of Christian thinkers. Here is a small sampling of his work. 

Keeping Sabbath
Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man helps us grasp the significance of time that surrounds the weekly Sabbath: that realm of society where we are not to have but simply to be--where, as in eternity, time stands still; a day to enjoy rest, tranquility, serenity, peace, repose, and not be bothered by matters of efficiency (or "measuring" time); a day for joy and to celebrate life. Given such emphases, is not the very notion of stewardship, with its practical attention to measuring time and efficiency, a fundamental affront to the Sabbath notion of time? I don't think so, and I offer these reflections to suggest why. But I may tread on thin ice, and ask you to help me cross the river.

On the one hand, the Sabbath is the seventh day and not the first, implying that rest should dominate rather than hard thinking about how best to assist poorer and weaker households. But then the prophets lament how our celebrations of Sabbath weary God (if not worse) when we fail to seek justice or plead the widow's case (Isaiah 1:13ff). Jesus saw fit to heal on the Sabbath and reminded his critics of the earlier prophetic warning that mercy and not sacrifice should control our understanding of Sabbath (Matthew 12:7). On the surface of things, such seeking and pleading and healing seem of the order of stewardship rather than rest and tranquility, thrusting us into the familiar world of conflicting norms for economists and ethicists, with the need to calculate trade-offs and offer unpleasant counsel. But could it be that we have become so caught in a modern sense of the economic value of time and organizational solutions that we fail to grasp something more profound at work: that the importance of rest and tranquility are not meant to conflict with the humanitarian burden (what Christ calls mercy, I take it) for seeking and pleading and healing.

Most who have struggled to give contemporary relevance to the sabbatical provisions (including myself) talk primarily of socioeconomic measures. How best can we help each household today maintain a personally controlled productive base (my sense of the thrust of the Jubilee provision of Leviticus 25)? What steps might we take to assist the poor in our midst to achieve the purposes of gleanings in an earlier era? Could the seven-year release of debt mean something more today than bankruptcy laws? Not many have inquired about the role of time in the biblical Sabbath provisions. Have we missed something? As one who has struggled hard to understand poverty in our midst and to use biblical materials to guide our response to it, I am beginning to think so.

From "Stewardship, Sabbath and Time," a paper presented at the Christianity Today Institute on Global Stewardship, 1996, and later published in R. Clapp (ed.), The Consuming Passion (InterVarsity Press, 1998).

On Poverty
Occasional adversities are the stuff of life, confronting each family at one time or another: a field receives too little rain and the harvest is ruined; a factory closes with little hope of new employment within the region; a spouse or child dies; life-threatening sickness sets in. It is only during the latter decades of the 20th century that a few people in economically advantaged parts of the world have been able to avoid the bulk of these shocks and to soften the remaining ones. Debilitating poverty has been a particularly devastating form of adversity. During such times the extended family (occasionally joined by broader clan/neighborhood assistance when adversity is particularly devastating) has been the primary source of comfort and assistance throughout all of world history and in all social settings. This is how it should be; God established the extended family to serve these necessary roles.

When, however, the extended or nuclear family becomes broken or dysfunctional, or when it cannot provide the needed help because the condition is too severe, assistance from the wider community becomes necessary. This is the consistent message of the entire Bible. It is taught clearly in the Law of Moses in the provisions to be considered immediately below. It is repeated systematically in the wisdom literature and by the prophets in their instructions to the princes of Israel (Job 29:7-12, Psalm 72, Jeremiah 22:15ff, Ezekiel 34, Micah 3). It is there in the well-known judgment scene of Matthew 25:31ff and in Paul's admonitions for wealthier churches to provide economic assistance to their poorer brothers and sisters (II Corinthians 8). Indeed, the fundamental message of the New Testament is that each one of us, however self-sufficient we may think we are, is so unable to avoid all the adversities of life and thereby to resolve our ultimate problems on our own, that we need outside assistance: at the least God's provisions for us in Christ and all that He accomplished, along with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit; and also our extended family (I Timothy 5), along with the assistance of the larger community during periods of severe distress.

From "Biblical Teaching and the Objectives of Welfare Policy in the U.S.," S. Carlson-Thies and J. Skillen (eds.), Welfare in America: Christian Perspectives on a Policy in Crisis (Eerdmans, 1996).

On Justice and Sacrifice
The New York Times this past week contained two contradictory items. Sunday's Book Review highlighted the latest book from Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens is one of those erudite and clever British imports who help us better understand ourselves. The reviewer notes how in his recent writings Hitchens seemed to be edging towards a position of cultural conservatism (including--gasp--support for the war in Iraq). But rather than embrace a traditional religion, as one might expect as the next step in this intellectual pilgrimage, Hitchens now turns and attacks religion--joining what appears to be a counteroffensive by prominent atheists of late in reaction to the growing influence of orthodox believers in each of the religions that claim Abraham as a spiritual father.

Probably about the time this past Sunday when readers of The Times were digesting the Hitchens review, Pope Benedict XVI was addressing the Latin American Bishops in Brazil. In this much-anticipated speech, delivered on a continent hosting the largest concentration of Roman Catholics as well as having great disparities between rich and poor--the Pope condemned both capitalism and Marxism/socialism as "systems that marginalize God." "What is real?" he asked. "Are only material goods, social and economic and political problems 'reality'?"

Just structures, he continued, are an indispensable condition for a just society, but they neither rise nor function without a moral consensus on fundamental values in society. Where God is absent--God with the human face of Jesus Christ--these values fail to show themselves with their full force: nor does a consensus arrive concerning them. He does not mean by this that nonbelievers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality; he is saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values.

From where I sit Benedict XVI wins this contest hands down. A comprehensive market economy-call it capitalism-will of itself not generate a just distribution of income, and the socialist alternative (given all we have learned over the last century) offers no improvement. Any workable economic order requires the presence of underlying values that constrain its harmful potentials, along with mercy-filled actions by citizens to provide what no government, however well-conceived, can do. In this part of the world the Judeo-Christian religious tradition has been a-if not the-primary source providing these necessary components that render the politico-economic order more just. As one very important example of this, fellow Christians in an earlier era led the cause for abolishing slavery and the subsequent repressions known as Jim Crow.

To advocate for and to assist those in society who are weak, vulnerable and poor-as I contend the Bible instructs us to do-will inevitably require sacrifice in a world constrained by scarcity. I challenge Christopher Hitchens and his fellow travelers to provide in the absence of God a more compelling and enduring motivation to sacrifice than that given to us in Jesus Christ-the God who became man and taught us to sacrifice for others, and then in humble obedience offered His own life as an example for us and as an atonement for the sins of the whole world.

From "Remarks to Graduating Seniors," Gordon Senior Breakfast, May 18, 2007.

Real Life 101: E & B Alumni Reflect
Stories by Judy Dean '78, Kevin Tordoff '90 and Casey Cooper '03

I arrived at Gordon with a spark of interest in the mysterious field of economics--a spark that was fanned into flame by John Mason and Jim Schuttinga, who gave me the chance to do an interdisciplinary honors thesis my junior year, made me a teaching assistant and pushed me (gently but firmly) to do the math I would need for graduate work. Bruce Webb arrived too late for me to take his courses, but not too late for me to benefit from his wisdom and encouragement. When I went to Cornell for a Ph.D. in economics, John and Bruce cheered me on. Their confidence in me never faltered. When I emerged as a new professor, they drew me into the Association of Christian Economists (ACE), got me thoroughly involved, and introduced me to another newly minted professor--Stephen Smith--who shared my interest in international economics and global poverty.

As a fellow professor of economics, first at Bowdoin, then for many years at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, and now during my time at the U.S. International Trade Commission, I've had the wonderful joy of having John, Bruce and Stephen as colleagues. They continue to demonstrate what an economist who loves the Lord can do in the field of economics, and they challenge me to think deeply about my faith and my field.

Judy Dean '78, Ph.D., is an international economist in the Research Division of the Office of Economics, U.S. International Trade Commission, and a member of the Board of Trustees of Gordon College. She serves in ACE leadership and on the Editorial Board of Faith and Economics, and recently coedited a book and wrote an article with Stephen Smith.

My Gordon business education was well-balanced with accounting, finance and economic courses that provided a perspective on all critical disciplines in a business. However, marketing classes taught by Ron Waite, a small-business entrepreneurship class taught by Tim Stebbings, and an internship at a local advertising agency overseen by Ted Wood most influenced my future path. The effect of going to a Christian college shows up in my personal ethics--my beliefs that coworkers should be respected and that I am called to act with integrity in all situations--beliefs that are often lost in climbing the corporate ladder.

After many years in the corporate world I started Global Village Trading Company, with the mission of working with skilled artisans in third-world countries, importing and marketing their home décor items. We have treated these artisans with dignity by applying fair-trade practices. There is an increasing movement to use business as a tool in missions outreach. Growing microenterprise businesses in developing countries is a difference-maker in poor economies. It establishes trust and leads to opportunities for positive witness. Not long ago I assisted a coffee farm in Nicaragua by volunteering to design coffee-bean packaging and a website. The opportunities are plentiful to apply business experience to a greater good.

Kevin Tordoff '90 worked for Saucony, a manufacturer of running shoes and apparel, for 15 years before leaving as senior director of marketing communications. He has recently blended the worlds of for-profit and nonprofit to create Global Village Trading Company. In addition, as of March 2008 he is director of marketing for Hope International, a Christian microfinance organization.  |

In high school I knew I wanted to go to a decidedly Christian college, but I also wanted to stay close to home. Gordon, just 20 minutes down the road, fit the bill. Once there I never doubted my decision--I found my courses engaging, my relationships with professors edifying, and my faith development satisfying.

After graduate school my life path led me back to Gordon, this time with much more hesitation. As a new member of the faculty, how was I supposed to live up to the excellence I had experienced as a student? Arriving on campus to move into my office, however, felt like coming home. As I renewed relationships with the Gordon faculty, my decision was once again confirmed, making my career transition suddenly much simpler. I still enjoy individual professor-student relationships--albeit from a different vantage point--and I pray daily to have a fraction of the impact on my students that my colleague mentors had on me.

Casey L. Cooper '03, M.S., is assistant professor of economics and business. Her primary teaching interests are auditing and not-for-profit accounting. She enjoys teaching accounting basics, even to reluctant nonaccounting majors.