Sunday, May 13, 2012

Why Do I Do This? (Jacob)

Last week, Veronica did a nice series on why she is committed to Save OBU and why our mission is important.  The series had three parts: personal reasons, the need for vigilance, and a vision for OBU's place in the wider world.  We got a little sidetracked and spent a few days covering the 2012 graduation, with posts on the commencement speaker's disdain for moderate Baptists, a message to 2012 graduates, and a glance at controversial issues the ceremony itself glossed over.

I figured a little Sunday morning introspection can't hurt, so I'll close out the Why Do I Do This series with my own answer to the question.

Veronica's experience has been that people ask, "Why do you spend so much time and effort writing for the Save OBU blog?"  I've had very few people ask me that question.  Most of my friends and colleagues would be surprised to know I've spent 5 months helping to build a movement to reclaim the mantle of academic freedom at a conservative Christian college in Oklahoma.  I'm extremely grateful for all the new friends and contacts I've made from across the generations, but for me Save OBU has been a side project that has hardly any relevance to my vocation and absolutely no interest to my friends or family.

I'm a perplexing case to those who know me, because I grew up religious, earned degrees in religion and theology, spent two years in parish ministry, and yet am not very religious anymore.  My mother and dad, who were deeply ambivalent about my decision to go to OBU 13 years ago, tell me they've checked out the blog once or twice.  My brother's reaction is typical of most of my friends' assessments of the fundamentalists taking over Baptist higher education: "It's a pretty sad situation, but kind of inevitable.  The missions of the church and the university are just too different, as most places have figured out over the last 200 years."

As Veronica's reflection pointed out, on the vast Protestant theological spectrum, fundamentalist Southern Baptists and moderate Southern Baptists are not very far apart.  So why am I, who is nowhere close to either camp on the spectrum, splitting hairs about the governance and administration of a Baptist college?

It's a fair question.  After some reflection, I've come up with three reasons.
  1. I ended up at OBU for a reason that had little to do with goodness of fit or adequate reflection.  Ultimately I "decided" to go there (because of a girl) and my parents "let" me, but in my case it was never a very good idea.  It just kind of happened.  I assume a lot of 17 year olds have the same eperience: church influences, family pressures, scholarship opportunities... there a lot of reasons why students "end up" at a college other than a rational calculation about fit, pros, cons, etc.  Thankfully, I emerged with a very fine education.  In my case, I credit the core curriculum (especially the Western Civ sequence) and the religion department.  But I know students in business, fine arts, nursing, teacher education, and elsewhere in the humanities and social science disciplines have the same experience.  I just want all students, even those who "ended up" at OBU like I did, to get a first-rate education.
  2. Like most college students, I was influenced by my professors.  Probably more profoundly than most.  Not in the sense that many people fear, that students subscribe to professors' ideology uncritically.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  I realized pretty quickly that I didn't believe the same things about God or the Bible that my professors did.  I read the books they assigned, as well as books in the library, and came to understand that the Bible, the idea of God, and the unfolding history of Christian theology were -- while fascinating and compelling to me -- of human rather than divine imagination.

    So I can't really say my professors influenced me in the way fundamentalists or moderates hope for.  Instead, they inspired me with their love of learning, their genuine care and kindness, and the way they exemplified the best of the scholarly vocation.  Though my own life and work took a surprising number of twists and turns in my mid-20s, I finally ended up in a Ph.D. program in 2009.  My own scholarship will be in a different field and my teaching will be in a different context.  But even now as I work alongside prodigious researchers with Ivy League Ph.D.'s, I am continually drawn back to the ideal of the liberal arts college -- rather than the pages of the top academic journals -- as the place where I want to live out my own scholarly vocation.

    It makes me angry that people decided to go after OBU professors.  The OBU faculty was doing just fine before the current administration came along and decided to crack down.  I find the new obsession with doctrinal conformity, denominational purity, and trying to get rid of certain professors to be unprecedented, unnecessary, and unethical.  I want it to stop.  I certainly don't think OBU professors need my help.  They are perfectly capable of managing their own affairs.  But if I can help raise awareness about a disturbing dynamic to a wider constituency, I will do so.  I am doing this because I believe in OBU professors and their mission.  I have said from the beginning: If they think Save OBU is doing more harm than good, I would happily shut down the blog and drop the subject forever.  But none of them has suggested that.  So we will continue moving forward.
  3. I just really can't stand fundamentalism.  I think it's a perversion that feeds on ignorance and coercion.  If fundamentalists want to have churches, denominations, and even their own "educational" institutions, that's fine.  But we shouldn't let them take over institutions that the wider society depends on: local governments, political parties, legitimate schools and colleges, etc.  The BGCO wisely got out of the hospital business 30 years ago.  If it wants to remain in the higher education business, it needs to look around and observe how most of the rest of American Christendom runs its colleges.  Unfortunately, neither the SBC nor most other state conventions provide good examples, as the precipitous decline in the quality, rigor, and respectability of Baptist higher education over the past 20 years so vividly indicates.  The good Baptist schools got out while they could, and the rest, almost without exception, are caught in various phases of an ugly downward spiral.  We'll win a few battles along the way, but the long-term prospects for an academically viable yet BGCO-controlled OBU remain extremely dim.
I'm not sure if this provides any more context than what I've said before.  But these are the reasons why I have committed so much time to the Save OBU project.  There is potentially a tiny bit of overlap between this work and my work as a Ph.D. student in political science.  I have done some work that tries to identify a causal relationship between seminaries and mainline Protestant clergy ideology.  I certainly have an interest in the differences between various kinds of Protestant educational institutions.  In the back of my mind, I keep thinking that maybe I can write a paper that draws on my experience with Save OBU.  But I've tried assiduously to steer clear of partisan politics because our movement is so politically diverse.  No academic journals that my profession cares about would publish anything I could write about conflicts in Baptist higher education.  So my reasons for contributing to this effort are strictly personal.

Thanks to each of you -- whether OBU students, parents, faculty/staff, retirees, alumni, or friends -- for sharing a part of your journey with me.

Other posts in the Why Do I Do This series:
Why Do I Do This? (Veronica)
Vigilance Is Necessary
The World Is a Mighty Big Place


  1. "I read the books they assigned, as well as books in the library, and came to understand that the Bible, the idea of God, and the unfolding history of Christian theology were -- while fascinating and compelling to me -- of human rather than divine imagination." Does this mean you think God is a figment of our imagination, or just the God of the Bible? Has Jacob Lupfer become an atheist? Just asking for clarification reasons.

    1. I don't really have a strong opinion about it. Just being honest about where I'm at and how I got there.

    2. Whew... I'm relieved 'cuz I was afraid you'd be vague about it. So glad you clarified that :)

    3. Haha! Sorry, I'm trying not to make my personal religiosity an issue here. I've been upfront from the beginning that I'm not very religious. For years, I tried to reconcile my unorthodox views with some version of Christianity I could believe honestly and with integrity. There are strands of liberal Protestantism that "fit" pretty well, but I eventually realized religion wasn't as important to me as I had thought. It was always a tenuous fit at best, for a variety of reasons.

      First of all, I only knew how to define my faith in negative terms: I didn't believe in certain doctrines or in the efficacy of certain Christian practices. I knew which theologies I preferred over others, but I had a hard time stating positively what I actually believed.

      Second, I only knew how to access religion intellectually, and never really "felt" it emotionally. This was hugely problematic, especially for someone whose Wesleyan heritage valued vivid religious feelings: knowledge of sins forgiven, assurance of salvation, a heart "strangely warmed," etc. Once, early in an ordination process I later abandoned, the committee asked me to describe an experience of grace. I had prepared dozens of pages of theology, but stammered and struggled to come up with even the most basic religious experience.

      Finally, there are a number of personal, psychological, and family issues involved for me, as there are for everyone. Growing up, I developed an overwhelming need to find others' approval and to be seen as good. For me, religion became the primary outward manifestation of those needs, rather than something that meant anything to me personally. Unfortunately, this psychological problem persisted well into adulthood. I grew up, but I never really "left home." Basically, I was living for other people's approval. Since being religious had always been central to how I got those needs met, I clung to it even as the fit became more and more precarious. I kept getting theology degrees, thinking surely that would count for something even though I wasn't very religious. I even went so far as to take a position as an associate minister in a local congregation, where I was basically a paid religious functionary. There, the disconnect between my spiritual/psychological state and any version of authentic Christian faith and practice became even more obvious.

      Since my subsequent divorce coincided with changes in geography, vocation, etc., I made a break with religion as well. I shed the whole church experience, which was for me the last vestige of an inner spiritual life that had been in decline for many years, if it ever even existed at all.

      That was almost five years ago now. For a couple years, I found my way back on Christmas and Easter. But I've pretty much dropped out altogether. I still have a lot of friends who are religiously devout. But I've learned a lot from people (including my own brother and sister) who managed to leave church without all the inner turmoil and agony I went through.

      I don't know if that makes me an atheist. Even though more and more people are claiming the label, I'm cautious because lately it seems to connote a hostility toward religion that I don't feel. I certainly feel hostile toward fundamentalism and toward people who use religion as a tool to control others. But I have no hard feelings toward people who find meaning, strength, and comfort in their religion. I love the Bible -- I enjoyed studying it all those years. I enjoy sacred music and art. I even sing hymns to my infant daughter -- "Abide With Me" is her lullaby.

      I'm not that different from the tens of millions of Americans who were raised religious but dropped out along the way. I'm grateful for the friends I found in every chapter of my life. And I'm especially grateful for the love, acceptance, kindness, and forgiveness they've shown. That has been more than enough for me.

    4. Sorry I forgot to go back and see if you replied until now. Thanks for clarifying a bit.

      To be honest, I'm not shocked that you're in the position you are "religiously." I remember back when we were all getting our sermons ready for OBU Day in the Churches. You had a really good idea, I think it was about Jesus calming the Storm. You had done your research and had a great grasp of the background. But I asked you how you were planning on teaching an application for people's lives and you basically said that wasn't necessary.

      It's not about being religious. It's great to know all you can know, but if it's not applied, it's worthless. I love you, Jacob, and I pray that God moves your knowledge from your brain to your heart.


  2. Jacob if your right and those of us who hold to substituionary atonement are wrong we have not really lost much since we will be dead in the grand scheme of things. However if we are right and you are wrong you will lose a lot.

    1. It's kind of like Pascal's Wager in reverse. Or something.

    2. I've never been much for that argument, Kevin, and here's why. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ has not raised, we are wasting our time and are pretty much the losers of the world. I believe with confidence that we are not wasting our time and that's why I pray for our fellow Bison here.

    3. Hey Ship just saw you had commented on this and you did not like my arguement. I would agree with you whole heartedly my point was that it is a huge issue not to think about. Jacob had said that he did not have a strong oppion on it and it seemed he does not think on the issue. I was just trying to show it is too huge an issue not to think about


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