This is my second in my three-part series thinking about the future of evangelicalism, especially in light of our current struggles with who owns the label (more next time) and what it means. My last post (or posts) was about separating the broad cultural assumptions surrounding religion from religious practice. My argument is that if we focus on actual religious behavior instead of the dividing lines we throw up we can learn something important about the nature of Christ’s Church in this complex, diverse, postmodern world.
Last month I described why Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw was so important to our thinking about a society that no longer fits our past cognitive structures. As they argued, we are now in some form of post-Christendom society.
Not that Christianity isn’t relevant. To the contrary, it is more important than ever. But what changed is the notion that we can’t simply assume everyone shares our values or language. This is why the cultural baggage post had to happen first. We have to figure out how to talk about Christian faith in ways that will be heard within the contemporary culture.
David and Geoff unpack a number of ways in which the faith can communicate in what they call “the far country”. By following the metaphor of the Incarnation, they offer serious vistas on how the Gospel comes to cultures that are not initially accepting. As their subtitle states, they offer “10 signposts into the missional frontier”: Post-Christendom, Missio Dei, Incarnation, Witness, Scripture, Gospel, Church, Prodigal Relationships, Prodigal Justice, and Prodigal Openness.
I’ve recently finished Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us. I’m actually two books behind on her scholarship and her more recent work is focused on the nature of spirituality in America. Frankly, I read this particular book because it was on the shelf in the SAU library. But I was thrilled to read it because it opened my eyes to certain assumptions I was making about the nature of the religious landscape.
The book is the result of a three-year study, the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, funded by the Lilly Endowment. In the face of common statements about the accommodation of mainline congregations expressed in press, pulpits, and sociological scholarship, the project set out to examine “vital congregations”.
These congregations were different. Not because they had adopted conservative evangelical style or rhetorical schemes. Not because the pastors preached in jeans and layered shirts or wore hipster glasses. Not because the music was contemporary with lyrics projected up on the screen.
These were mainline congregations that embraced their mainline heritage and yet looked for authentic faith. They did it in ways that may differ quite a bit from the average megachurch and yet it had the same approach to being serious about Christianity.
Over the year or so I’ve been writing about the changing nature of evangelicalism, I periodically get comments claiming that my position is no different from mainline accommodationism. They are consistent with authors who have decried mainline religion as empty, embracing humanistic values in a desire to be accepted by the larger society. I’ve been troubled by these comments because they seemed so unaware of what real people in real churches were trying to do. The arguments seemed based on stereotypes of some mainline ministers from forty years ago.
I was thrilled when Diana’s first chapter offers a critique of an accommodationist congregation, one she knew as a girl. This, she said, was not the kind of congregation she was trying to understand. Instead, she examined ten congregations in depth (there were 50 involved in a survey instrument but the richest part of the book comes from these congregations). These churches were from Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ denominations. And still, the faith present in these congregations was a far cry from the “anything goes” critique so often tossed toward mainline religion.
The individual chapters explore some common themes the contributed to the vital faith evident in these congregations. Shockingly, she also uses “10 signposts”: Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty.
Two sets of “10 signposts” — both books deal with Hospitality, Scripture, Testimony, Justice, Diversity, Beauty, Healing, and Reflection. They may use slightly different words but their messages are the same. There is a vital faith present in Christianity that not defined by culture war arguments nor by blind accommodationism. It is characterized by authentic faith that is tolerant of multiple views and trusts in the Holy Spirit to assist understanding.
One book written to the evangelical community on what it means to live as people of faith in the postmodern world. One book written to the mainline community on what it means to live as people of faith in the postmodern world. Both finding similar metaphors to describe the elements of that faithful life.
It was a wonderful discovery for me. It speaks to the vibrancy of God’s work in our midst. But I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. I realize that I read a number of people who are clearly evangelicals and serve in Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran congregations. They certainly aren’t accommodating to the larger culture.
I also see a number of millennial evangelicals finding meaning and satisfaction in more liturgical, more diverse, more complex settings of faith found in some mainline congregations. To see them as abandoning faith is unfair to both them and the churches that attract them.
I have a friend in Portland who once wrote some wonderful stuff on “confluence”. His metaphor is based on what happens with the Willamette and the Columbia come together. It’s not just that they are flowing the same way. It’s that their waters intermingle and at some point you can no longer tell which water came from which source. The current, however, is still strong.
This is where the future of evangelicalism will be found. It the midst of the stream, following God’s leading into that future he has been building all along.
There was something about yesterday’s post that felt unfinished. It’s bugged me ever since I hit the “publish” button. So I thought it was worth exploring a little more about what I’m thinking (besides, I have papers to grade and this is more fun).
There were two concepts in the post that I used and didn’t quite do justice to either. I began talking about civil religion in the way that Robert Bellah used it in the 1960s and others have used it since. It specifically deals with quasi-religious beliefs about the nation. There are ideas that God is on our side, that there’s some kind of divine destiny for the country, and so on. This is part of our nationalist celebrations at baseball games — “God Bless America/Land that I Love/Stand Beside Her and Guide Her/Thru the Night with the Light From Above” (written by the Christian Patriot, Irving Berlin!). It’s a vague sense of Exceptionalism with religious overtones.
I think some of the nostalgia imbedded in today’s political and religious rhetoric is an attempt to harken back to a time when Irving Berlin’s words were shared by all in the society. But that time never existed. Besides I have no idea what the lyric is supposed to mean! Does God Stand Beside America in ways different than he stands beside Canada? (Erik Parker, that was for you!)
So what I’m picking up with the slightly-incorrect usage of civil religion is the way in which our social assumptions about the world get “sacralized”. They take on religious tones and let us believe that we are acting for God because he would certainly support our values. This is Emile Durkheim’s take on religion in modern form.
It’s also what’s happening when we overlay religious imagery on top of existing social patterns. That’s the definition of my other concept: syncretism. Syncretism is well known to church historians and missionaries. We celebrate certain holidays when we do because the early church repurposed pagan holidays. Some aspects of Christianity in non-Western lands intermingle Christian faith with indigenous traditions.
This is what happens when we assume America is a Christian nation. We take existing patterns of behavior and bless them with the light from above. It brings me back to the polling data I mentioned. For decades, large majorities of the American public have reported a belief in God. But that belief is very diffuse, even more than Christian Smith’s Moral Therapeutic Deism. I’d argue that it’s much closer to the Alcoholics Anonymous 2nd step (“believing in a higher power however you define it”).
Whether we’re talking about church as a central community institution or fighting about the latest Christian outrage on Facebook, we’re dealing with one of these two concepts. We are either celebrating free-floating definitions of what it means to be Christian or we’re Christianizing secular patterns.
The Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom of God requires that we get much better at distinguishing between God’s Story and the revisions we keep writing. Our version may make us far more comfortable and provide justification in light of changing social conditions, but it’s an exercise in either civil religion or syncretism. We have to do better if we are going to be the witnesses we are called to be.
First, thanks to all who read my last post imagining a form of evangelicalism that rises above our current divisive positions and presents a more attractive alternative to this complex, diverse, postmodern culture. I’ve very grateful for those who shared, reposted, and commented. Thanks especially to Zach Hoag, Doug Bursch, and Erik Parker for providing ongoing encouragement.
Based on that encouragement, I want to unpack some possible steps forward for evangelicalism. There are three components to the argument as it exists at the moment and I want to give each their due, so each will get its own post. But the thread of the argument began last year when I was writing for Respectful Conversation and has developed to where it is now.
I got a glimpse of the end point yesterday and wrote this on my Facebook page: “Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainliner are all social constructs that mask the richness of authentic Christian faith.” We spend far too much time defining/defending positions as opposed to those folks over there. I’ll unpack this in the third post.
The second post will be an exploration of a hypothesis I floated last summer. I argued that we’ve made far too much of the separation between mainline and evangelical churches and that they might be far more similar than our rhetoric would suggest. I wrote about David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw’s Prodigal Christianity last month. Their attempt to rethink some evangelical themes in light of post-Christendom was very helpful. But I’m also wrapping up Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006) which explores mainline congregations with vibrant faith. The parallels between Fitch/Holsclaw and Butler Bass are striking and suggest a possible convergence in how we think about faithful Christianity in postmodern society.
So why don’t we see the potential convergence these two excellent books would suggest? Because we keep getting mired in the issues of civil religion.
Technically, when Robert Bellah wrote about civil religion in the 1960s, he was talking about a symbolic sense in which American nationalism had distinctively religious tones. Not in a Christian sense but in a transcendental faith in destiny and providence. But I want to expand that idea to include the religiousness of certain cultural patterns in society. We operate with certain default assumptions, largely unexamined, but taken as matters of faith. It is when we combine those elements of cultural faith with Christian faith that the messiness starts.
The picture above is Norman Rockwell’s “Walking to Church” published 61 years ago today. I picked the Rockwell because it combines three expressions that I think are connected to our current confusion. First, there is the notion that going to church is something that good people do. It’s kind of a sanctified Kiwanis meeting. Back in Mad Men days, people went to church because you were supposed to go to church. And you were supposed to be seen in your Sunday finest, to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers in town, and to bide your time until the service was over. (To connect to my earlier posts, this is why the Simpsons go to church). In short, this reflects the caricature left behind by 1960s mainline churches.
For some socially active churches, the local congregation was a place to mobilize resources and volunteers to make social change. In Habits of the Heart, Bellah and colleagues interview a mainline activist who could just as easily have worked for a national labor union. Of course, this idea of banding together to create change isn’t something found on the “left” side of some denominational spectrum. The same patterns have been playing out on the “right” side over the past thirty years. It’s why it’s sometimes so hard to separate the religious sentiments from the political sentiments.
There is a second connection to the Rockwell painting. There is a contrast between the church-going family and the surrounding community. Of course, today we’re very unlikely to walk to church and our churches wouldn’t even be in those neighborhoods. We want the church to be a cultural oasis from those messy neighborhoods. We see the church as the place where values are right and pure, unlike the surrounding environment.
Third, the Rockwell painting is set in a particular time period. Civil Religion longs to go back to those early, simpler times. Back then we knew the value of hard work, had traditional marriages, and children knew their place without expecting trophies just for showing up.
But all three of these images are fictions. Things weren’t the way we imagine them. Narcissism is not new. Families weren’t happier. They are helpful to give us meaning but they aren’t necessary for Christian faith. Moreover, they often get in the way of Christian faith, outreach, compassion, and evangelism. We bring the cultural baggage with us and before long it’s intermingled into our religious practice.
One of the interesting things about Bellah’s original conception of civil religion is that we hold on to certain defining values, like freedom and opportunity and justice in spite of what we see around us as ensnarement and disappointment and unfairness. It is the faith in the values that is the heart of civil religious practice.
And it is precisely that blind faith that we have to learn to put on hold. When we find ourselves congratulating ourselves for being “those kind of people” we’ve trapped ourselves. When we isolate from our neighbors, we can be more certain in the purity of our activism but don’t know how to make our points clearly. When we think that we’ve got it all together, we trip over power issues or sex abuse controversies or financial largesse. We have to recognize that our faith demands that we acknowledge that we frequently fail to live up to our own claims and must rely on Grace to see us through.
There’s been an ongoing debate as to whether or not millennials are leaving the church. Those who argue that the concern is overblown say that the research data suggest that it’s not “real Christians” who have left. They were nominal Christians who rarely attended church. That may be a valid claim for the moment. But the data also suggests that the percentage of nominally religious is growing (that’s one interpretation of the “none” data).
This idea of culturally defined religion is why the Pew surveys can claim that large percentages of people created a literal Adam and Eve in current human form. It’s not that respondents really think that. But that’s what good cultural Christians are supposed to believe (similar data on the virgin birth made me want to pull my hair out). One cannot reconcile the level of biblical illiteracy in the society with these general patterns based on any kind of theological framework.
So maybe our first step forward is to admit that we go to church for lots of reasons, not all of them purely spiritual. Maybe it has much more to do with our assumptions about what good people in our culture do. But the surrounding culture isn’t our friend. Syncretism (the fusion of sacred and profane elements) is a temptation for all religious groups. A heightened degree of discernment might allow us to see Christ’s church in fuller form. That’s the point of the next post.
I really didn’t think it was time to write this post. I’ve been working toward constructing my take on the future of evangelicalism in a postmodern society and am still reading material that frame those ideas. But after last week’s WorldVision announcement, conflict, and retraction set off a raft of “end of evangelicalism” posts, I decided it was time to run with what I have and refine it later. As I was telling a friend today via e-mail, blogs aren’t good at nuance because they reflect one’s best thinking to date and there are space limitations. So we’ll consider this another run at the concept. I’ll keep unpacking in future posts, I’m sure.
For more background, I recommend this piece I wrote to summarize my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho four weeks ago. My basic argument is that evangelicalism, between 1990 and 2010, has been focused on boundary maintenance, the protection of position and power, and orthodoxy. That stance has created a backlash among the millennial generation that has caused many to question if they want anything to do with evangelicalism at all, if evangelicalism relates to anyone outside the church, and if we need new models from which to express religious life.
Much of the reasonable response from these millennial bloggers has been somewhat reactionary. They worry about guilt by association with many who pride themselves in the kinds of posturing they grew up with. It reminds me of a conversation I had about my Christian faith when I started graduate school. My fellow students weren’t troubled by my identity as a Christian sociologist. They just wanted an assurance that I wasn’t going to be like “that guy” who chased people around the drink table at parties telling them that they were sinners. In short, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.”
I’ve heard various versions of the “that guy” argument over the years. It happens in Sunday School where someone wants to articulate theological grounding but doesn’t want to sound like their dogmatic cousin. It happens in churches where leaders demand adherence to their positions as a condition of continued affiliation. It’s not just the young who are having these identification issues.
But I’m not prepared to let the bad behavior of individuals or groups give them control over the evangelical label. I think it has a unique meaning (albeit one that’s broader than conservative groups or the media seem to allow).
I consider evangelicals as people committed to God’s Story (read N.T. Wright’s When God Became King for an elaboration), who hold to the full expression of Jesus the Christ (incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, kingdom-builder, and Lord), and who believe that the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sinful ways, calls us to turn toward the Kingdom around us, and instructs us how to participate in the unfolding of that now-and-not-yet Kingdom.
But living as evangelicals in a complex, diverse, postmodern world calls for a very different stance that we’ve used in past decades. We’ve been enamored with Empire when we should be focused on simply sharing our stories. We have been focused on abstractions and arguments when we should pay attention to the people who cross our paths.
This is why testimony is important. We allow the story of our walk with God, however messy, to intersect with the story of another. This is why the harder stories like those in Jonathan Merritt’s recent book excerpt are so important. They don’t hide behind platitudes but show God at work in the real issues of life. This shouldn’t be news to us. The disciples on the road to Emmaus shared their pain and met Jesus. Philip shares his story with the Ethiopian Eunuch once he’s led by the spirit to one considered unclean. Peter tells the story of his vision and the apostles celebrate Cornelius as a full member of God’s family.
My title today has two meanings. First, it suggests that there are some things that evangelicalism needs to give up, to get straight, to reorient. I’ll make some general suggestions of these and unpack them in future posts. Second, it suggests that we should come as little children when we follow Jesus. Not just in simple faith when believing but in the trust and collaboration that characterizes healthy children at play.
“Coming to Jesus” will require some significant changes to evangelicalism as we’ve known it if it is to ever be true to its potential. We will need to begin with assumptions of diversity instead of unanimity. I wrote in my last post that faithful religious groups can see things in different ways. We need an evangelicalism that affirms this reality, whether we’re talking to evangelical Episcopalians who have affirmed a gay bishop or talking to a writer who celebrates complementarity. We will have to live with the discomfort of knowing that we differ from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus said that’s what the world would be looking at. We will need to affirm the questions that arise from the lived experience of everyday Christians instead of making our faith about which big pastor-author we follow. That may mean the end of “influential evangelical” lists which would a blessing. We will come to value the voice of an individual blogger as a personal search for authentic faith without looking for litmus tests that are the equivalent of Steven Colbert’s “dead to me” board. We will need to be looking forward to the Kingdom Jesus is unfolding in our very midst and not looking backward at some glory day when we could assume everyone agreed with our position. I’m convinced that this look backward is really a type of Christian Civil Religion, where we simply assume people have faith because of where they grew up (I’ll unpack this on another day, but it speaks to the issues I raised in this post.) As David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw point out in Prodigal Christianity, we must begin by outlining our own position. We will need to practice sacrifice, beginning with our demand that we be proven right. This is a central issue of faith. Rather than demanding our way or the validation of our viewpoint, we will need to put ourselves in the place of the other. This will call us to a position of compassion for others, especially those we think are unlikely. As Matthew 25 reminds us, they might just be Jesus.
In short, we need to come to Jesus as children. Trusting, open, engaging, happy to play well with others. There is a reason that Jesus celebrates their faith. He was trying to teach the disciples an important lesson. They were fighting with themselves about issues of power and dominance (“who will be the greatest?”). Amazingly, one of the key instances of this happens right after they say the transfiguration! They’re believing correctly in terms of who Jesus was didn’t keep them from the power games that were essentially self-serving.
15 And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”
Notice that Jesus isn’t rebuking the pharisees here. It’s not the religious and political leaders who needed a “come to Jesus” moment. It was Christ’s followers. It took a long time for them to get it. But the Holy Spirit led them to deeper understandings so that they lived and died as representatives of Christ. By having the faith of a child.
The events of the last 48 hours regarding WorldVision has created a disturbance within the religious world unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years. This was not some comment made by some celebrity or CEO that became a rallying cry for those who feel threatened by cultural changes. This was a disturbance resulting from a parachurch organization wrestling with the complexities of the post-modern world. WorldVision’s policy change regarded same-sex employees who could affirm the Apostle’s Creed, were legally married, and committed to faithful monogamy.
And then the divisions started. There were those who immediately celebrated the change as a major institutional move by an evangelically-related organization to respond to changes in state and federal law. There were those who immediately challenged WorldVision for not upholding biblical standards and encouraged faithful evangelicals to distance themselves from WV (which includes dropping child sponsorship — one estimate had it at 2000 cancellations). Forty-eight hours of blogs and tweets dividing Christians from a variety of positions, coming a close to calling each other names as is possible in 140 characters or less.
Today, WorldVision announced that they were reversing the policy change they had announced on Monday. They apologized. The voices that had dismissed them as unChristian on Monday now simply said “Thank You”. All, it is assumed, is well. Except that it’s not. The damage done to young evangelicals who are trying to find a place in the religious world is hard to overestimate. I read more than one post saying “I’m done with evangelicalism”. I’m sure there are other posts out that will simply say “good to see you go”.
Here’s what’s been bothering me through the whole thing. We’re suffering from a inability to see the church — not the church as we want it to be but the church as it is. There were two elements of Monday’s WorldVision announcement that particularly caught my attention.
First, they recognized the importance of their location in Washington, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2012. Furthermore, it is one of the few states where same-sex marriage was approved by popular vote (instead of by the courts or legislators). For those who have argued that majority votes are determinative in other states, this creates a different context.
Second, and more important, WorldVision acknowledged that as a parachurch organization, they worked with a variety of denominations. Three of those in particular (United Church of Christ, PCUSA, and Episcopalians) had acted within their denominational bodies to legitimize same-sex marriage. These two factors meant that it was only a matter of time until active and faithful church members, married within the church, might apply for a position at WV.
Today’s reversal announcement backs away from those very denominations. “What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs,” said Stearns. “We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position.”
So where does it leave the Christians in that “small minority” of denominations who spent years in political and procedural turmoil wrestling with questions of responding to homosexuality, ordination, marriage, scripture, theology, and faithful witness? You don’t have to agree with their conclusion, but denying their efforts is not allowed. These are people of faith who have worked to be faithful to the Gospel as they understand it.
Where do our mainline sisters and brothers find support? Are they part of the Body of Christ or have we decided that the “real” Christian church belongs to our little circle? On what basis do we make that claim?
Over the years, I’ve been fascinated with issues of community. I’ve drawn on Paul’s imagery in Romans and Corinthians as he discussed the complexity of the Body of Christ. One passage that I’ve struggled to make sense of is in 1 Corinthians 8.
9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.
I think this passage speaks well to issues of Christian responsibility. It acknowledges that we have an impact on those around us. What we do and how we act matter. Even if we think our position is correct and defensible, that position could hurt others who don’t share the same commitments.
I’ve always heard these verses used as a defense of more conservative positions. Some may think alcohol use is okay, but that might cause others to stumble who can’t handle the temptation so better to leave it alone.
But what we’ve seen this week is a reversal of the Corinthian passage. It seems that no one is allowed to move from the defined conservative position. The tone of the WorldVision responses seems to fit the subtext of Paul’s warnings about eating meat.
If not holding the defined conservative position results in public attacks, who will be the ones to stumble? Not likely the ones concerned about protecting traditional marriage. But hosts of others.
The range of people damaged this week is pretty broad: the young evangelicals I mentioned earlier, those committed to supporting same-sex couples without turning their backs on faith, people who work at WorldVision, and the broader public watching all the drama play out. Paul would say if being so absolutely right causes others to stumble, was it worth it?
To move forward, we need clearer vision. We need to see the Kingdom of God unfolding in our midst, to see the church in its wonder, to open our eyes to complexity of modern life. Lord, give us eyes to see.
It’s been a rough few months for Christian Higher Education. A quick review of press reports, religious as well as mainstream, have uncovered some difficult tensions within the fabric of Christian colleges and universities. The list is long, but includes some of the following: 1) a polite protest at Wheaton around a chapel address by a formerly-gay college professor (not from Wheaton); 2) concerns about sexual assaults at Patrick Henry, Bob Jones, and Pensacola Christian that too often placed blame on victims while offering blanket defense of institutional priorities (including the weird off-then-on-again relationship between Bob Jones and a third party attempting to investigate the culture); 3) Bryan College “clarifying” its belief statement and requiring its faculty to sign in order to keep their positions; 4) the news that Cedarville’s loss of women faculty in the religion department has now given rise to a listing in the course schedule that only women can take classes on gender in scripture taught by a female instructor; and 5) the ongoing questions regarding the hiring and dismissal of the president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
Given all of these challenges, it’s understandable why many people lump us all together and throw around words like “Fundamentalist”, “Bible College”, and “Anti-Intellectual”. But such claims don’t hold up when you look deep inside the schools.
I don’t think I know any faculty members at the above institutions. But I think it’s safe to assume that within some margin of error they are a lot like the colleagues I have had at the five institutions I have served. Some are more theologically liberal or conservative than others. Some are more politically liberal or conservative than others. But those issues don’t define those faculty members. As much as possible, they try to form an academic community (even if sometimes the lunch conversations get a little heated). In that sense, they may handle diversity better than some state institutions (even those are generally better than Ross Douthat suggested).
I think that happens because we really are committed to all that catalog language about critical thinking and personal development. More than that we invest our time, energy, emotion, and passion into helping students see those objectives come to life.
This week I was in a couple of meetings focused on defining our intended outcomes for students who graduate from our institution. In some ways it was like dozens of similar meetings I’ve had over the years. This time, however, I paid more attention to the goals we had already defined in catalog language. Surprisingly, it was clear and directive in terms of how we want students to emerge from their time at our institution.
So how is it that this story is so hard to tell? Why do the stories in my opening list rise to public consciousness so much more?
In part, it’s because too much of evangelical culture has been fascinated with leadership, power, and control. It’s related to the challenges faced by Mark Driscoll and others. We tend to think that strong stands are valued.
This is what causes Cedarville and Bryan to assert that the revised stances they are taking are just restatements of what’s always been true. Because that centers the issues of strong leadership in the administration and trustees.
It’s interesting to examine catalog language at those institutions. There is a distinct contrast between how the leadership characterizes their task and what is stated in terms of educational outcomes. For example, Cedarville’s welcome from the president includes the following:
I call our academic studies “scholarship on fire” because our professors embody academic excellence paired with conservative theology, set ablaze by Great Commission passion.
Similarly, Bryan’s president states their primary goal as follows:
As a Christian liberal arts college, Bryan will challenge you academically to think critically regarding the world of ideas while affirming the truth of the Word of God as the foundation of all life and learning.
Now, consider how the two schools characterize their educational philosophy. Cedarville lists five primary objectives they want to see in all of their graduates. Two of these caught my attention:
The Cedarville graduate evaluates ideas, practices, and theories across disciplines within the framework of God’s revelation.
The Cedarville graduate listens well, and produces and delivers clear, compelling, accurate, and truthful messages in a relevant, respectful manner.
Bryan’s statement of intended outcomes are similarly ambitious. Two of these are very similar to Cedarville’s:
Students will demonstrate academic excellence by thinking critically, working independently and cooperatively, communicating clearly, and expressing themselves creatively.
Students will develop wholesome attitudes, healthful habits, responsible citizenship, constructive interests and skills, and the recognition that education is a continuing process for both faculty and students.
To be fair, both schools had other outcomes for their graduates that dealt with Christian discipleship, job preparation, and service to the larger world. But it’s the academic stuff that got my attention because it speaks most directly to the heart of higher education.
Here is my point. The educational framework established within the university, practiced on a daily basis in classes and athletic courts, will win out in the long run. It will establish the means through which students, by being the kinds of students the school desires, will shape the future of the institution. Public pronouncements and God-talk from administrators will be read critically by the students who have walked the campus and interpreted appropriately.
It’s been interesting to follow the blogs of graduates of these institutions. As a faculty member, former administrator, and regional accreditor I am pleased to see those graduates express exactly the forms of critical thinking the catalog calls for.
Colleges and universities are not defined by the public pronouncements of officials. They are defined by the graduates who go forth into the broader society, practicing what we’ve tried to teach. One of those bloggers, Sarah Jones, wrote
In other words, I was allowed to think. And I was allowed to debate my conservative classmates–including men, who seemed unharmed by their contact with my female opinions.
As it happens, she currently identifies as an atheist. Whether she maintains that status or not, she reflects the kind of thoughtful graduate who carefully reflects on what she sees around her and uses her critical thinking to make sense of the world. Her experience as a student at her school and hundreds like her who still express Christian faith (albeit it in a more complex form than when they were freshmen) are the lifeblood of the institution.
One of the interesting thing about the so-called “protest” at Wheaton was that it was not only mild but was well-intentioned. The students weren’t trying to block the speaker but were attempting to make clear that the speaker’s story was but one version and shouldn’t be seen as normative. That’s a nuanced appropriation of the nature of critical thinking.
I wrote my book to celebrate exactly this dynamic in the lives of students. To show how their learning allows them to address the complexities of the postmodern world. In the long run, they are changing how Christian institutions operate. In the short term, we may see crises like those at Cedarville and Bryan. But they are not the end of the story. It’s but a disruption along the road we are headed down.
The future is bright. All we need to do is keep developing the kinds of graduates we’ve been saying we wanted all along.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to explore some sociological dynamics of evangelical structure. I offered a summary of that argument in my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho. I’ve been doing a lot with wall metaphors: both in terms of how we construct isolating barriers and how we might tear them down.
Since I got back from Idaho, I’ve been pondering another implication of the wall metaphor. I think it helps explain the Industry Evangelicalism patterns I’ve been writing about. It also may explain a lot about how we do discourse within contemporary society. Whenever I get one of these ideas in my head, it feels like I’m constantly reading stuff on Facebook and Twitter that connect to the current hypothesis. The may be mistaken interpretation on my part, but it might just allow for a more careful unpacking of the social psychology at play within our varied group identities.
The picture above is Lego’s King’s Castle Siege. It illustrates how battlements were created to protect townspeople and nobles against the onslaughts of outsiders. But here’s what I notice: the construction of defensive positions actually allow offensive actions to be taken against the marauders. The rhetoric of defense is such that it winds up justifying first-strike capabilities.
This was true because the actual damage from a siege doesn’t involve battle but rather starvation. The point of the siege isn’t necessarily to overrun the walls but to cut off supply lines and isolate the kingdom. This results in two driving dynamics: demonizing the enemy and acting first before they gain a foothold on the walls.
Once the battlements are built, the kingdom is isolated from potential enemies. That brings safety but also allows one to imagine the worst possible motives of those enemies. Social psychologists refer to this as “fundamental attribution error” — I know my motives but yours are suspect. In fact, it’s likely that I’m imputing my darkest motives onto you because that’s how I imagine what you’d do if successful. This imputation then justifies any action I might decide to take because your imagined attack would be so much worse than my actual actions.
As I said, there are lots of other illustrations in social media of how this plays out. Alan Noble wrote this on Facebook today:
Theory: when someone becomes the face/ symbol/leader/figure of a radical movement which perceives itself to be oppressed, that person has very strong incentives to becoming increasingly radical in language, rhetoric, and position. To the point of absurdity.
He had a particular example in mind (Richard Dawkins) but one could easily put other players in the same position. In fact, Alan has previously done some wonderful work calling out the exaggerations of Todd Starnes and others who delight in cherry-picking isolated infringements on religion as illustrations of “what the world is coming to”. In a recent twitter exchange with Laura Ortberg Turner, I reflected on the linkage between persecution and prosecution — that somehow people will be arrested for their religious convictions. As I write this, Westboro Baptist minister Fred Phelps is near death. His particular form of striking aggressively to stop the visigoths approaching the gates has become legend (even though Christians have seen this as too extreme).
We see the same thing in the political realm. Jon Stewart’s continued takedown of Fox News imputing the worst possible motives to food stamp recipients shows the same pattern. One must imagine the takers and then strike out against them. But the motives imputed only characterize a tiny percentage of those affected.
Joshua Dubois, author of The President’s Devotional, wrote a fascinating piece today about Dr. Ben Carlson. Joshua describes the important role model Dr. Carlson provided for young black men for a generation and how that got transformed into a voice that justified outrageous comment in support of partisan position. It’s an example of how staying inside the battlements provides self-justifying rationales but at the price of the potential positive impact on all those outside the walls.
In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland devotes early chapters to how easy it is for us to demonize out-groups and describes the rich (and depressing) social psychological experimental research that illustrates the tendency. As I wrote in the tearing down walls piece, she ends her book with solid insights on how to reverse those patterns.
As I was working on this post, Frederich Buechner (or at least the people that run his Facebook page) posted this quote from Brian McClaren’s 2012 book.
Yes, something good still shines from the heart of our religions – a saving drive toward peace, goodness, self-control, integrity, charity, beauty, duty. And something shadowy struggles to overcome that luminosity – a hostile drive, dangerous, resilient, and deeply ingrained, a black hole in our identity that needs an enemy to help us know who we are and how good we are.
My point is that building battlements has certain predictable results. Once we’ve got the walls, we begin to imagine who might be lingering outside. We worry about what they might do. Then we act to prevent them from doing that thing we imagined. We’re self-justified in the process — just imagine what might have happened had we done nothing!
But we imagined the impending attack. It kept us behind the parapets. It stopped us from engaging with those different than ourselves. That’s true whether it’s conservatives in the walls afraid of what liberals might do or liberals worried about conservative rhetorical attacks. It’s true whether we’re conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals imagining what will be on The Cosmos tonight or the scientific community worried about creationist legislators.
This week Christ & Pop Culture had a piece by Bradford William Davis titled “Why We Argue Like Jerks“. He points out that we don’t like asking good questions, that we do not seek to understand, and that we don’t like risking being wrong. In short, we fail to deal with the other as he/she really is but instead how we imagine him/her to be. We do battle in our imaginations, feeling victorious because we once again held our imagined foe at bay.
Maybe it’s the building of battlements (great for ages 7-12!) that’s the real problem. If we didn’t have battlements, we wouldn’t fear the siege. We wouldn’t imagine the enemy over the hill. We wouldn’t imagine the awful things they intended. We wouldn’t demonize them and look for means of attack (defensively, of course).
We might just get that Golden Rule right.