In the kingdom of higher education, the role of court jester has often been filled by student activities offices. Even as evangelical schools have sought to distance themselves from worldly amusements, their student activities programming—scrubbed free of profanity and varnished with confessional premises—mirrors the entertainment-only model of public universities.

But the times, they are a-changin'—last fall, Bob Dylan took the stage at Messiah College.

What inspired a Brethren in Christ school in rural Pennsylvania to book one of music's last living legends, rather than a popular contemporary Christian artist? One thing is certain—it's not a fluke or an oversight. Dylan's November gig at Messiah is perhaps the most arresting example of a seismic shift in student activities programming: deliberate engagement with popular culture in the form of interactive live experiences and corresponding cocurricular education.

Using language that also appears in a recently developed mission statement, Messiah's online responses to anticipated questions state that the college chooses to engage with popular culture for the same reasons it engages with the natural sciences, fine arts, literature, and social sciences. "All of these are important parts of our world. By raising the right questions, encouraging critical thinking, exposing students to multiple perspectives and helping them to process these perspectives, Messiah seeks to enable students to respond with maturity to the world's complexities. It is the College's hope that through this educational approach, students will learn to use wisdom in their choices concerning music, films, and other forms of popular culture."

Although they may envy a live show by Dylan, those acquainted with Calvin College probably won't find this explanation out of the ordinary. After all, as an institution in the Reformed tradition, Calvin subscribes to a robust theology of creation that produces a high regard for participating in and forming culture. Director of Student Activities Ken Heffner has developed a vision for pop culture programming comprised of a diverse concert season, a film series, and a mentorship program, all of which are undergirded with thoughtful analysis.

These days, it is a rare Calvin student who manages to graduate without attending a single live performance or absorbing appeals for cultural discernment. But in this regard, Calvin enjoys an embarrassment of riches. At similar institutions, inviting artists of dubious or non-existent Christian faith is nothing short of revolutionary.

And yet many are beginning intentionally to do so. Student activities professionals at a number of evangelical institutions—Taylor University, Westmont College, and Biola University, to name a few in addition to Messiah—are creating programming around the insistence that Billboard charts, box office hits, and indie bands are full of meaning and ought to be taken seriously.

Tearing down the fortress mentality

This practice stands in stark contrast to historic evangelical attitudes, which have attempted to solve the problem of evil with a fortress mentality. Retreat as a means of preserving holiness became the modus operandi of Christian colleges and universities in the wake of the 1925 Scopes trial, a single event that symbolized the defeat of traditional fundamentalism by a new wave of intellectual modernism. Following the Scopes verdict, which allowed public schools to include evolution in their curricula, North American higher education experienced a dramatic schism.

Some schools with origins in a Christian worldview, such as Harvard and Yale, continued embracing the direction in which science was moving and thus became "secular." Other schools, lacking the resources to grapple with the challenge of modernism, clung desperately to their roots and built ideological walls to preserve them. In many cases, these institutions—what we know today as evangelical colleges—have remained in hiding, distinguishing themselves from their "secular" counterparts by emphasizing personal piety, evangelism, and a disdain for involvement in "the world."