Saturday, March 3, 2012

An Evangelical Renaissance in Academe?

Several of our readers pointed us to an essay that appeared last week on the Inside Higher Ed blog.  The essay pointed out the need for evangelical scholars to reclaim Christian thought from fundamentalism.  I commend the entire piece for your consideration, but want to comment on some of the relevant points in light of OBU's history and present problems.

The context of this essay is the opening of a new Center for Christian Thought at Biola University in California.  The authors, Gordon College Professors Thomas Albert Howard and Karl W. Giberson, explore some of the reasons why serious Christian engagement with philosophy and culture at a conservative evangelical institution might be problematic (or at least difficult) in light of the fundamentalist resurgence of the past 30 years.

Howard and Giberson tell a story that is familiar to those of us who have studied, lived, and worked in the 20th century's Christian war between modernists and fundamentalists.  But today's OBU students may not realize that there is a noble Christian academic tradition outside of fundamentalism.
Stung by ridicule after the Scopes trial, Fundamentalists retreated to the sidelines of American culture.  There they nurtured a parallel universe of publishing houses, magazines, journals, radio stations, and, not least, colleges and universities to combat the threat of secularism from without and the threat of theological modernism from within. 
Fundamentalists carried into exile many core tenets of Christian orthodoxy -- the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement -- shared by Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well.  But they also carried dubious novelties, such as newfangled teachings on biblical inerrancy and speculations about the End Times.  What is more, they became pointedly hostile toward American culture and disengaged from serious intellectual pursuits, convinced that Christianity was almost exclusively about “the world to come,” with only negligible concern for the here-and-now.
For OBU, at least, we can see the fault lines forming.  Will we continue to be a locus for serious, honest, and searching Christian engagement with the scientific, economic, political, philosophical, artistic, and ethical concerns of the modern world?  Or are we we retreating into the "parallel universe" of fundamentalism to "combat the threat of secularism without and the threat of theological modernism from within?"

The administration's moves over the past two years seem to be a headlong descent into that parallel universe: turning our bookstore into a purveyor of fundamentalist pulp, firing conservative-to-moderate evangelicals who do not toe the party line, welcoming new faculty on the basis of doctrinal agreement rather than academic merit, and cozying up to the fundamentalists who run the BGCO and the SBC.  In the religion department alone, this fundamentalist "parallel universe" exists in the apologetics/"worldview" curriculum and the professional societies new faculty belong to.

This parallel universe attempts to imitate academic rigor and respectability, but the fundamentalist attachments are so bizarre and anti-intellectual as to make the whole enterprise suspect.  Back to the new Biola center:
But beyond the problem of Mr. Worldly Wiseman is the problem of Biola itself.  The problem of Biola, however, is not the problem of Biola alone; it is shared by a number of the more than 115 evangelical schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the largest umbrella network of evangelical institutions of higher learning.  The problem is, quite simply, lingering attachment to some of the more dubious certainties and habits derived from Fundamentalism and hardened by the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 20th century. 
I'm glad Howard and Giberson pointed out the CCCU (Council for Conservative Christian College and Universities), of which OBU is a member.  As badly as the D.C.-based CCCU wants to seem like a uniquely faithful coalition of colleges, the evidence seems to suggest it is just another part of the parallel universe.  It's not a total joke/sham like the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), which "accredits" fundamentalist Bible academies that could never attain accreditation through an actual accrediting body.  But the CCCU just isn't as special as it thinks it is.  And frankly, I'm not sure why OBU (or any college) is a member.  The CCCU does provide one service you'll be pleased to learn about: Supposedly whenever Dr. Norman actually has to undergo a performance evaluation that includes input from faculty, Dr. Whitlock has proposed to use an instrument developed by the CCCU.  Isn't that reassuring?

We've entered a new world at OBU -- one in which you can't even find the classics of the Christian faith (or any decent new research, either) in the college bookstore, but you can find reassurance in apologetics and "worldview" classes.  While plenty of other conservative Christian colleges are also facing hostile takeovers, some are not.  Some are continuing ahead on the path of enlightened Christian liberal arts education -- the path we would still be on if not for the fact that our leaders have to appease the BGCO.  As schools like Gordon, Wheaton, Biola, Whitworth, and others forge on, OBU and other Southern Baptist schools have to fight against our fundamentalist overlords.  (True fact: Wheaton just hired an amazing professor OBU rejected in order to hire someone from Liberty University.  I'm sorry, but whoever made that decision has absolutely no business in Christian higher education.)
What is more, many old-guard defenders of the status quo, convinced that the residue of fundamentalism is simply “what the Bible plainly teaches,” are not in short supply among donors, board members and vocal alumni.  They would likely perceive some changes such as admitting Catholic faculty, constructively engaging evolution, or modifying statements of faith away from simplistic biblicism as greasing the slippery slope toward perdition.
As fundamentalism faded from view in the middle of the last century, OBU built a proud reputation for an academically rigorous, unapologetically Christian, and unashamedly Baptist brand of higher education.  Yet today, resurgent fundamentalists seem intent on destroying everything we built.  And unless we stand up and fight, they will win.

1 comment:

  1. The fundamentalists have to destroy. That's what they do. You have to build. That's what you do.


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