Tag: critical thinking

Troubling the House

ITWThis weekend, the Spring Arbor drama department presented a reader’s theater production of Inherit the Wind. The play, written in 1955, uses the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” as a vehicle to explore certainty, rationalism, doubt, science, faith, celebrity, and cynicism.

Following the play, there was a panel discussion with five of my colleagues. The panel featured a communication professor (who explored the vast differences between the play and the real trial — read Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods for more), a philosopher, a theologian, a chemist, and a microbiologist.

It was a fascinating presentation. They explored the complexities of the theological explanations of creation and the purposes of Genesis. They talked about the challenges of crafting hybrid positions. They explored the traditions of interpretation from early church fathers to the present. They discussed the age of the universe (related to automobile decay). They considered the converging patterns coming from various strands of science that are consonant with Darwin’s major themes. They collectively stated their faith in the God of Creation.

It was a great celebration of the best of Christian Higher Education. It was interdisciplinary, careful, faithful, and most importantly, was not afraid of leaving listeners wrestling with the complexity of life’s major questions.This exercise in liberal arts stood in stark contract to four aspects of the play itself, which I want to unpack a bit.

First, a minor character in the play is E.K. Hornbeck, a writer for the Baltimore Sun, who treats the whole thing as a farce. It’s just endless entertainment and his cynicism is unquenchable. There is nothing he respects and no one he takes seriously. Based on H.L. Menken, who had his own unique brand of attack, the journalist (played in the movie by a nearly unlikable Gene Kelly) represents our modern dismissal of authenticity. It’s a belief that everyone’s got an angle and can’t possible believe what they’re saying.

Second, there is a scene at the start of the play where people are gathering in an almost carnival setting. They are using the coming arrival of Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) as a moment of great celebration. A great celebrity is coming to their little town and it’s become an EVENT. Critical thinking goes out the window because Brady is in town. His power and might is all that is needed. Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) gets to be the defender of free thinking but he’s pretty abusive in doing so. Today we need a quiet celebration of rationality that neither demonizes thought nor lionizes it.

Third, there is the banner hanging in the courthouse (seen in the picture above): READ YOUR BIBLE. The banner, as well as the local pastor (who is somehow even less likable than Hornbeck), seem to suggest that anyone who doesn’t agree with their position is morally flawed and more or less hopeless. There’s a fascinating speech where the pastor goes too far in his rhetorical flourish and thankfully gets called down by Brady. We’d be in far better shape as a society if we could avoid such demonization and if today’s celebrities could denounce it when it happens.

Finally, I was struck with the reason for the title of the play. Brady quotes Proverbs 11:29: “He who troubles his own house inherits the wind and the foolish will be servant to the wise.” The playwrights intend the “troubling the house” to be calling out McCarthy and colleagues in the 1950s. But I see it playing out today within dynamics of the house of faith. When we spend all our energies fighting internal battles, we accomplish little. It’s carnival and cynicism and demonization and fear. And we look foolish.

I’ve written before about the tendency of Facebook to balkanize arguments. But Twitter is the vehicle for troubling the house. It’s fast and allows no complexity. It invites bandwagon effects as people jump to one side or another of the twitter-fight. At the end of a day or two, either there is an attempt to quiet the tension or to simply file it away and move on to the next event.

I’m not sure exactly who Solomon thinks are the “wise” who will be served. But I’m thinking that my colleagues on the panel come pretty close. They were honest, had authenticity, heard each other, and modeled what faithful presence means in the midst of others.

A Christian church that could do that on a regular basis will impact the world. Not through carnivals and celebrities and catcalls. But through wrestling with real ideas, loving people who think differently, and taking the risk of being authentic.

No amount of cynicism can stand against it.

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The Opposite of Critical Thinking is Fear

I’ve always said that biblical scholars have it rough because they know stuff. They know that the context of that verse we like to throw around doesn’t support what we want it to mean. They know that there are many nuances in the original language that our translations and paraphrases don’t capture. They know that there are many interesting theological, psychological, sociological, and political questions raised when we seriously examine texts.

Knowing stuff (and asking the questions that help them do that) opens them up to criticism from those who have more of an apologetic bent. The latter are quick to find fault for even asking the questions or exploring the difficult territory. The challenges of critical thinking have been on my mind over the past week as I read Peter Enns‘ blog. Pete had asked Eric Seibert, Old Testament professor at Messiah College,  to guest write three pieces dealing with violence in the Old Testament. Seibert raises some interesting challenges dealing with triumphalism, power, and Jesus. The posts were provocative but dealt carefully with the challenges that faithful believers find in the texts. I have colleagues teaching a course on the theology of war and piece and gladly shared Seibert’s blogs — not because I fully agreed but because I thought he asked fruitful questions for class discussion.

The first response I saw in the blogosphere showed up last weekend in this piece by Owen Strachan of Boyce College. Strachan asked how it was that Messiah could allow Seibert to even teach there, given that Messiah’s statement of faith includes a commitment to the authority of scripture (others have pointed out that other parts of Messiah’s statement celebrate the importance of inquiry). Friday, Christianity Today posted this piece discussing the posts by Seibert and mentioning Strachan. Strachan linked that in another post that says CT sees “controversy” while he uses a somewhat obscure passing remark by Scot McKnight as his title.

Yesterday,  Pete posted this amazing link. Apparently a commenter to the previous series had written as if he were Jesus (I’m giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t really him — the sentence structure and illogical argument do not represent The Lord well). Other commenters suggested that asking such questions would find Peter without faith somewhere in the future. I mentioned last week that Spring Arbor is committed to seeing “Jesus as the perspective for learning”. I’m certain this is NOT what it means.

Pete Enns, Eric Seibert, and I work in schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Owen Strachan teaches at a Bible College (all the BA degrees are in Bible and they have a certificate for seminary wives) affiliated with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Boyce is a very different place from Eastern or Messiah or Spring Arbor. CCCU schools run the risk of using critical thinking as a tool of faith. Many Bible colleges (but not all) prefer to deal in tight arguments explaining how things fit together.

It’s not just biblical scholars of course. Biologists have to deal with issues of evolution. Sociologists have to deal with the changing nature of the Modern Family. Nobody worries too much about the economists or the chemists or the music theorists.

When we don’t ask questions it’s because we’re afraid of what happens if we do. If we tug on that particular piece of fabric the whole garment might come unravelled. Much is lost when the fear keeps us from exploring the Truth. And, to stay with my metaphor, we wind up walking around wearing garments with threads dangling all over the place — not very attractive.

Many of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees involved matters of interpretation vs. letter of the law (“why do you heal on the sabbath?”). Thomas asks questions we would today see as blasphemous (“you expect me to believe he was raised from the dead?”). Why do we ask such questions? In order to better understand. To not ask them is to hide from difficulty. But asking opens up valuable conversations. It lets us figure out the complexity of the world and keeps faith engaged.

I don’t know if I agree with Seibert’s positions or not. But I certainly appreciate him asking the questions. As I listen to other responses and perspectives, I’m better for it. We would only act to stop his comments if we were afraid of where they’d lead. But if the disciples weren’t supposed to fear a raging storm, why would Christians fear the writings of a college professor in Pennsylvania?

To critics like Strachan, questions are problematic because they could upset the entire apple cart. Liberal Arts institutions know that the apples are only good when you take them down and eat them.