Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ergun Caner is Brewton-Parker College's New President

The big news in Baptist higher education (such as it is) this week comes from rural South Georgia, where trustees of the fledgling Brewton-Parker College unanimously elected a new fundamentalist president. If B-PC rings a bell to our Oklahoma friends who may not know much about Georgia Baptist life, it may be because we've written about Brewton-Parker here before.

As usual, Associated Baptist Press has a solid write-up:
Caner, 48, comes to the post in Mount Vernon, GA from Arlington Baptist College in Texas, where he served as provost and academic dean since 2011.  Before that, Caner was the dean of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA, named by the school's founder, Jerry Falwell, in 2004. 
Controversy arose in 2010, when bloggers questioned written descriptions of Caner's academic credentials and apparent embellishments in recorded versions of his "Jihad to Jesus" testimony popular with evangelical audiences in the aftermath of 9/11.
That rustling of paper you hear is the faculty of Brewton-Parker dusting off and updating their CVs.

Caner's election signals that B-PC and the Georgia Baptist Convention continue to believe that unassuming moderate, competent administrators are not the way forward.  Instead, their strategy is to double down on fundamentalism and controversy in a naive hope that somehow there will be enough GBC cash and new revenues from fundamentalists willing to send their children to nominally accredited Bible colleges.

As many people know, the Reverend Dr. Ergun Caner may be the most controversial intellectual in the Southern Baptist Convention -- and that's saying something!  His bizarre statements are well known and have been widely reported elsewhere.  Far from being a liability to future employment, it seems that Caner's lies and delusions actually make him a more competitive applicant for a leadership position in Southern Baptist institutional life.

I do know that a veteran college administrator who has extensive experience within and outside Baptist higher education never had an opportunity to be considered for the position because, although this person is a principled conservative with a high view of Scripture, he is just not conservative enough for today's fundamentalist Georgia Baptist Convention.

It looks like the GBC's executive director, the Reverend Dr. Robert White, did not have to personally intervene to get his man.  The fundamentalist majority on the B-PC Board of Trustees could be trusted to deliver a yes-man no matter who it chose.

Caner's brother, the Reverend Dr. Emir Caner, is president of Truett-McConnell College, which is also affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention.  Unfortunately for all you other Baptist colleges out there, it looks like there are no more formerly jihadist Caner brothers to lead you into the future.

From an OBU perspective, I must say that Caner makes OBU's president, provost, and religion dean look fantastic!  Hopefully, fundamentalist encroachment at OBU is all in the past.  But in the fraternity of Southern Baptist-affiliated college presidents, I fear there is always pressure on members to one-up each other and prove his fundamentalist bona fides.  Therefore, please pray that OBU leaders never perceive that God is calling them to out-Caner Caner.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cedarville's Only Female Religion Prof Resigns

As the new administration of the Reverend Dr. Thomas White flexes its muscles at Cedarville University, the school's only female religion professor is the latest casualty of the Ohio college's fundamentalist takeover.

News of the separation appeared in the November 21 edition of the Cedars newspaper:
Bible professor Joy Fagan is resigning from Cedarville after two decades of service to the university. Her last day is Dec. 20. 
“The why is tricky,” she said. “Every administration has the right to take the university in a particular direction, and every faculty and staff member has the responsibility to determine if they are a good fit for that direction.” 
Fagan said she believes she is no longer a good fit for the university, particularly because of her role as a woman teaching in the Bible department 
“I also believe that when God closes doors, he opens doors,” she said.
Evidently, Prof. Fagan graciously resigned rather than forcing the godly administrators to get their hands dirty and actually go through the lengthy formal, contractual, and/or legal procedures involved in firing a tenured professor.

Two observations:

First, Fagan is not a theologian or a Bible scholar.  Her expertise is in the area of Christian education, which I have noticed is one way fundamentalist Bible academies sometimes justify the presence of a female teacher to people who complain that a college classroom is no place for a woman.  Not that it would be okay, but it might be easier to understand why the White administration would want to get rid of a woman who was teaching theology or biblical studies.  But apparently even a woman teaching Christian is unacceptably liberal and unbiblical at today's Cedarville.

Second, I am continually impressed by the Cedarville college newspaper's reporting.  The OBU student newspaper has almost completely ignored the controversial actions of the David Whitlock administration at OBU.  The Bison never spilled one drop of ink about the forced dismissals of religion faculty in 2010 and 2011.  By contrast, the Cedars newspaper has done a much better job covering the controversy at Cedarville.  I have long suspected that The Bison is censored.  And I'm certain that President White and his deputies at Cedarville will silence, or at least cripple, the Cedars very soon.

OBU administrators wisely and strategically did their firings in the late summer, when people were least likely to be paying attention.  But can you imagine what a difference it may have made if the student newspaper had done actual reporting and editorializing about the firings once school resumed in August or September?  Student awareness of the controversial takeover OBU's new administrators plotted was kept at a minimum because of The Bison's almost complete silence.  That is a fact we all have to live with.  I think the administration silenced the paper.  The White Administration will silence Cedarville's paper.  It's what these people do.

Very soon, the only woman left on the Cedarville Biblical and Theological Studies web page will the the secretary.  Which, they believe, is how it should be.  Maybe one day soon they'll fire the secretary so she can spend more time cooking, cleaning, ironing her husband's shirts, and running the carpool -- as God clearly intends.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Four Faculty Inducted into Hall of Fame at Homecoming Chapel

Last weekend, hundreds of alumni descended on Shawnee to celebrate Homecoming on Bison Hill. Among the throngs were many of my friends from OBU. I went to Homecoming last year, capping a year of sustained activism, listening, learning and blogging about my alma mater's deliberate and decisive rejection of the relatively more moderate faculty and administrators who throughout the 20th century turned OBU into a first-rate Christian liberal arts university.

This year, with my work and child care responsibilities, it was simply not possible for me to travel from Washington to attend.

I was glad to see the list of four professors emeritus/a (living and deceased) who were inducted into the Faculty Hall of Fame during the Homecoming Chapel service on Saturday morning.

I'm grateful to the administrators who assisted in making the presentations, especially those for whom it must have been particularly painful and difficult to smile and say nice things about professors they would do everything in their power to avoid hiring at OBU today.

Professor Opal Frazier Craig taught speech at OBU during the Raley, Scales, and Cothen years.  A former student noted that Craig's influence "still permeates pulpits around the globe."  Professor Craig taught students to "converse from the stage or the pulpit in a manner that would persuade rather than preach."  Imagine how disappointed certain people must be to learn that a woman taught hundreds of men (and a few women) a thing or two about preaching!

The Reverend Dr. Dick Rader was the dean of religion and ministry while I was at OBU.  He died shortly after I graduated in 2002 following a difficult, yearlong battle with cancer.  I remember Rader as a traditional Baptist conservative, but not as a fundamentalist.  I met with him in an "exit interview" process to discuss my plans for graduate study.  During that meeting, he was very gracious and encouraging.  He did not seem distraught that I would be asking OBU religion professors to write letters of recommendation to a seminary that was very different from OBU.  Several recent OBU graduates have reported that their exit interview with the incumbent dean does not go as well as what I experienced.  Some of you will no doubt argue this point, but I won't claim definitively that it would be impossible for Dick Rader to be hired at OBU today.  I'll just say that, if he interviewed for the Hobbs College deanship, there would obviously be candidates who are more in step with today's SBC and BGCO elite leadership.  Dick Rader's experience and wisdom would be rejected in favor of a true believer and foot-soldier in ideological battles he had little interest in waging.  Rader was apolitical, and these days a first-tier candidate has to whole-heartedly endorse the fundamentalist agenda.

After two decades in parish ministry, the Reverend Dr. C. Mack Roark held administrative and teaching positions at OBU over a span of nearly 25 years.  During his tenure, Roark, like all of his School of Christian Service colleagues, frequently taught in Oklahoma Baptist churches and served interim pastorates around the state.  Though there is no reason why he would remember me, Dr. Roark's influence was profound.  He made me want to be a better Bible student, a better Christian, and a better man.  I personally witnessed him gently and patiently teach students who had been taught what to believe about the Bible but who had never been encouraged to study it.  Tragically, Mack Roark would be rejected as an applicant for a position at OBU in favor of a post-Takeover fundamentalist who takes the Bible literally, not seriously.  Due to the unpardonable sin of preaching and teaching in churches affiliated with the moderate Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma, OBU Dean BGCO Executive Director-Treasurer Anthony Jordan would personally intervene to block Roark's appointment today.  Sad but true.  As many of you know, Dr. Roark is the epitome of the Christian teacher-scholar-pastor.  I would have loved to have been there to see him receive this honor, as he is one of the best teachers I ever had at any level.

Professor Mary White Johnson taught at OBU for 44 years.  She was part of inaugural faculty for the nursing program.  Johnson received OBU's Meritorious Service Award in 1993.  Having taught from 1953 until her retirement in 1997, Professor Johnson influenced generations of OBU students in the healing arts and sciences.  Now that a long-serving moderate nursing dean has retired, several people have brought personnel concerns in the nursing department to my attention.  I don't want to say more at this time, but one wonders if the new dean, a Tea Party activist, would have much use for old-school moderates like the legendary Professor Johnson.

These professors collectively gave well over a century of service to OBU.  Honoring them was the right thing to do.  I'm sure the ceremony was dignified and without controversy.  But the fact remains that these fine people would face an uphill battle to be hired at OBU today, and that's an understatement.  Why is that the case?  No, really.  Why?  Stop and think about what is so offensive or unchristian about these honorees that would render them unacceptable today.  It's ridiculous!  Are you okay with this?  Are you content knowing that OBU administrators will praise these people out of one side of their mouths, but when no one is looking, do their best to make sure these kinds of people will never be hired again?

If this troubles you, then you understand what Save OBU stands for and why we need to remain strong.  In the end, awards are just plaques hanging on walls.  The real way to honor these professors is to insist that OBU welcome faculty like them in the future as heirs and successors to the distinguished legacies they established during their years of service.  That these honorees would be unwelcome today is a huge problem.  To this alum, it's unacceptable.

Here are a few posts I wrote last year after attending Homecoming 2012:
Saturday morning
Saturday evening
Sunday morning
Sunday evening (recap of our Save OBU meeting)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dr. Ben Carson to Headline 2014 Green & Gold Gala

After taking the controversial step to sue the federal government over the Affordable Care Act's requirement that certain religious institutions cover contraceptives in their group health insurance plans, one might think OBU would lay low in the culture wars for a while.

Instead, administrators have upped the ante with a move that's sure to shock and offend many faculty, students, and alumni.

Today in Broken Arrow, President David Whitlock boasted in his report to the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's annual meeting that OBU has invited Dr. Ben Carson to keynote next year's Green & Gold Gala, a fundraiser for student scholarships.

For those outside the religious right political movement who may not know of him, Ben Carson is a retired neurosurgeon who catapulted to fame for delivering a speech slamming many of President Obama's policies to his face at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year.  After disrespecting the president in the most obnoxious and defiant way possible, Dr. Carson became a Tea Party celebrity.  The Wall Street Journal editorial page urged him to run for president.

At last month's Values Voter Summit in Washington (the premier political convention of the most far-right elements of the Republican Party -- even the SBC considers the event too extreme to endorse), Carson was the runner-up in the straw poll for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.  He tied former Senator Rick Santorum with 13% apiece.  Senator Ted Cruz won with 42% of the vote.

In his speech to the Values Voter Summit, Carson made a particularly offensive statement: the health insurance reform law is "the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery."  Translation: The Affordable Care Act is worse than poverty, natural disasters, the Great Depression, segregation, child abuse, and tens of millions of abortions.  To Dr. Carson, the Affordable Care Act is even worse than 9/11.  What an insult!

However much money OBU raises for scholarships, it will pay a hefty fee to Carson.  According to his booking agent, his speaking fee is "over $40,000."  It's probably significantly more than that.  Carson has a remarkable personal story of rising from poverty to become chief of pediatric neurosurgery at one of the world's finest hospitals.  He is a highly sought after speaker.  Even so, Carson's calendar has opened up a bit as he has had to withdraw from several engagements in the wake of offensive comments.

Earlier this year, he withdrew from giving the commencement speech at Johns Hopkins University and from another speech to a medial industry group.  Petitions against Carson circulated after he equated homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.  Does this reflect the views and values of OBU administrators?  Compared to Dr. Carson, last April's controversial "ex gay" evangelist chapel speaker Christopher Yuan seems downright compassionate!

Last year's inaugural Green & Gold Gala speaker, Tony Dungy, also holds traditional views.  But Dungy has a much more humble and modest persona, and I saw no need to protest his selection.

This year, I hope the OBU community will have a robust discussion about whether a figure as controversial as Dr. Carson truly reflects the consensus values of the OBU community.

When I was at OBU and Bill Clinton was president, I was taught that no matter how much I disliked him or disapproved of his actions, I should respect him and his office.  If a liberal  had so openly and shockingly denounced President George W. Bush to his face, do you think OBU would invite that person to speak?

To try to speak to Tea Partiers who will be glad to hear about Carson speaking at an OBU event and who say, "What's the big deal?" I asked a few liberal friends who the liberal counterpart to Ben Carson would be.  They said, "Imagine a person with political views left of Nancy Pelosi and who is as obnoxious as Michael Moore."  Think about how you would feel if OBU administrators invited such a person to headline the Green & Gold Gala.

Last year's event, by all accounts, avoided culture war politics.  Big sponsors of the gala included businesses, churches, BGCO organizations and affiliates, and a few wealthy individuals.  Next year's gala is sure to be highly politicized.  Aside from whatever comments Dr. Carson makes, it seems likely that Oklahoma political insiders will gobble up tickets and sponsorships for a chance to meet their anti-Obama hero.

I truly don't think they could have come up with a more partisan or divisive speaker if they tried.

At a minimum, whoever selected Carson should be asked whether they agree with his implication that homosexuality is tantamount to pedophilia and bestiality and that Obamacare is worse than 9/11, though I'm a little afraid of the answer.

The event is scheduled for next spring, assuming the keynoter does not make any extremely offensive remarks in the meantime.  Although, it's hard to imagine what comments would disqualify Carson if the things he has already said are acceptable.

In the future, we probably shouldn't let the College Republicans run the university.  Or the College Democrats (if such a thing is even allowed to exist).  I declined to criticize the trustees for acquiescing to President Whitlock's desire to join in a lawsuit against the federal government, since I thought they were simply trying to protect OBU's autonomy and prerogative even though the suit is harmful and offensive to all female employees on the group health insurance plan.  But after this Ben Carson debacle, it would be nice for the trustees to reassure OBU students, employees, and alumni that there are actually some grown-ups in charge on Bison Hill.

[Ed. I am still in complete disbelief that the reports I heard today from Oklahoma Baptist pastors are true.  If any mistakes in reporting were made, I will immediately withdraw this post.]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Recognition for Excellence in Science -- Good or Bad for OBU?

Earlier this month, a U.S. Navy officer was on campus to invite OBU students apply for the Navy's Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate program.  The program recently designated OBU's physics and math majors as the only "tier one" undergraduate majors in Oklahoma and North Texas.  What a fine honor!

Or is it?

Not so long ago, it wouldn't have surprised me if certain administrators in Thurmond Hall were upset or embarrassed that a secular government institution like the U.S. Navy recognized OBU for excellence in science.  After all, most fundamentalists approach science with suspicion at best -- and usually with fear and loathing.  They like science when it offers solutions to problems or prolongs and enriches their lives.  But they are constantly having to figure out how to convince themselves and others that science poses no threat to cherished religious ideas like young earth creationism or the literal historicity of the miracle stories recorded in Scripture.

Fortunately, the administrators cited in the article affirmed the value of rigorous academic preparation in science and mathematics at OBU.  The Reverend Dr. Stan Norman, OBU provost, said:
"We are pleased the Navy has designated these academic programs as their one majors for the NuPOC Program.  The success achieved by our physics and mathematics graduates is evidence of the high level of academic excellence provided by our faculty in the Hurley College of Science and Mathematics . . . The recognition of these programs by the Navy is further validation of that academic quality."
Let's hope this attitude prevails throughout the university.  Especially in the College of Theology and Ministry, it will be important for students to realize that excellence in science does not threaten excellence in theology, philosophy, biblical studies, and ministry.  And, as news of OBU's continued excellence in science education spreads, it will be important to protect the Hurley College faculty from colleagues and BGCO pastors and laypeople who would prefer to replace them with fundamentalists.

There's a lot of credit to go around.  The students should be commended for their hard work in some of the most rigorous majors on campus.  Our thanks to the president and provost for their commitment to legitimate science education and for resisting what must be rather intense pressure from friends and colleagues in post-Takeover Baptist higher education to water it down.  Not lost in all this are the contributions of an administrator closer to the students and faculty -- a well-loved former chief academic officer who now serves as dean of science and math.  Finally, our deepest thanks to Hurley College faculty, old and new.  They are the best in the business!

Monday, September 23, 2013

OBU Sues USA Over "Abortion Pill Mandate"

As we speculated last week, the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group, filed a lawsuit Friday against U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on behalf of OBU and three other Christian colleges in Oklahoma.  The suit alleges that an administrative rule the HHS issued in January 2012 violates the universities' First and Fifth Amendment rights.

The HHS Mandate, one of many bureaucratic rules across the government related to the implementation of the health insurance reform law, immediately met fierce resistance from the Catholic hierarchy and a number of Protestant religious liberty advocates.  Both before and since the HHS made accommodations so that insurers, rather than employers themselves, would bear the costs of contraceptive measures that might violate certain employers' religious beliefs, dozens of lawsuits representing several hundred plaintiffs have been filed.

Personally, I see some compelling reasons to oppose this action.
  • For one thing, it is needlessly divisive.  While many alumni/ae are no doubt supportive of OBU's lawsuit, many alumni/ae will be disappointed and angry.
  • Second, this a giant slap in the face to employees, particularly women, who up to this point have believed that they, not the president or the trustees, should decide what contraceptives they can access through the university's group health insurance plan.
  • Third, there's no real upside for OBU.  There are already more than enough cases working their way through the federal courts on this matter. If this was really important, OBU should have had a conference call with trustees and launched this action in early 2012.  At this point, it's just piling on.  There is no chance that this lawsuit will ever be decisive or relevant to the ultimate legal or political resolution of the HHS Mandate.
  • Furthermore, it's ridiculous to assume that all, or even most, Southern Baptists believe the morning after pill is ethically identical to, say, an abortion at 6 or 8 weeks gestation.  Along these lines, it's dubious at best and egregiously dishonest at worst for OBU's PR office to try to sell this as opposition to the "abortion pill mandate." [EDIT: OBU's website changed the headline to "OBU Joins Fight for Religious Liberty." I wonder who else complained...]
  • Since this action comes so late in the public political and legal debate over the HHS Mandate, many will interpret this action as blatantly partisan and ideological rather than arising out of a legitimate religious or theological concern that has any kind of consensus among OBU stakeholders, and particularly among the faculty and staff who will be affected.
Even so, after consulting with several people who have shown the most interest and involvement in the Save OBU project since its inception, I do not think Save OBU should take a position on this matter and I do not intend to condemn it or the administrators and trustees who advocated for it.  This matter is substantially different from the kinds of concerns we have raised about academic freedom and ethical administration.

Institutions have a right to preserve their own autonomy and prerogatives.  While it seems to me that most religious moderates are satisfied with the cumulative accommodations the federal government has made since the initial outcry over the HHS Mandate on January 20, 2012, I am sensitive to the criticism that the original mandate was tone-deaf to religious liberty concerns.  I understand why President David Whitlock and the OBU trustees took this action.  But I hope there will be a healthy debate among students, staff, and alumni about precisely what interest OBU has in the case and, specifically, whether an "abortion pill mandate" actually exists.

Coincidentally and for the sake of full disclosure, I have a professional and scholarly interest in evangelicals' attitudes regarding contraception.  If you are interested, you can read some of my thoughts in this recent Associated Baptist Press commentary.

I realize that many will disagree with the decision not to oppose the administration and trustees in this matter because there will be significant overlap between people who support Save OBU's efforts and people who would prefer that their alma mater did not join a late, irrelevant lawsuit over the "abortion pill mandate."  This lawsuit will divide OBU constituents, but I hope those of us who want OBU to remain a legitimate liberal arts university will be continually united against our alma mater's very real and ongoing threats to its heritage and identity.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Brief Revival for Save OBU

As I noted a few times over the summer, I've deliberately scaled back the Save OBU effort.  For one thing, I believe it would be counterproductive to keep hammering OBU's now veteran administrators for offenses that occurred 2-3 years ago.  We made our point.  The last thing I want is to make things more difficult for the students and professors who are still trying to engage in rigorous, intellectually honest Christian higher education on Bison Hill.  Another fact is that I spent too much time on an issue that is near and dear to my heart, but not very relevant to my personal or professional life.

We certainly celebrate the university's many recent successes.  But we hopefully trust that things have stabilized.  Unless the situation at OBU takes another turn for the worst, you won't see daily updates and commentary on every OBU news release here.

Even so, there are a few developments I would like to keep before our friends and supporters.  The most recent Forbes list indicates that OBU's slide in the rankings has, mercifully, stopped.  The Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry has a new faculty member this year.  And sources confirm that OBU is planning to follow the lead of several other Catholic and evangelical institutions and sue the United States in federal court over an administrative rule issued by the Department of Health and Human Services last year.

I'll report on each of these matters in the days to come.

I also want to say more about an idea I considered over the summer.  The several Southern Baptist colleges that have reverted back toward fundamentalism in recent years should band together and petition the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.  Ideally, other evangelical colleges would join us in solidarity.  The CCCU should give guidance about how to protect academic freedom and ensure ethical administration when fundamentalists threaten and obliterate long-standing norms of institutional behavior.  Or, alternatively, the CCCU should give its blessing to these takeovers and say publicly that it does not care about what many Christian colleges have experienced in recent years.

Let's stay informed and stay connected.  Given that another unethical firing or any number of fundamentalist-inspired violations could potentially occur at any moment, we need to keep our movement active so that we can mobilize more easily when the next crazy thing happens.  Has the war already been lost?  Perhaps.  But if we truly want to be "loyal to our alma mater," the least we can do is stand up for what we know is right.

Save OBU is not dead yet!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Should OBU Be OBU? Or Try to Out-Union Union?

In our last post, we noted that OBU recently honored Union University (TN) President David Dockery with the Herschel Hobbs Denominational Service Award.  We can't help but notice that Union has become the darling of the post-Takeover SBC.  Many SBC elites send their own children to Union.  In contrast, OBU fails to attract the children of the SBC's leading men.

As far as I'm concerned, this is great news.

All indications are that Union is a solid Baptist liberal arts university that has absolutely thrived under David Dockery's leadership.  It has more than doubled in size, scope, enrollment, and budget.  My perception is that Union may be somewhat more intentionally conservative than OBU.  Even so, we haven't heard rumblings about unethical firings or unilateral redirection of entire academic divisions based on fundamentalist ideology, as we have seen at OBU and other Baptist universities.  So maybe Union already went through that change.  Or maybe it's just more uniformly conservative and no one protests very loudly.  I don't know enough about Union's history to know whether it was always a happier home for fundamentalists, or whether Dockery has deliberately ushered it in that direction.  Folks who know him praise him and tell me that, while not as extremely right wing as today's SBC, Dockery is a traditional conservative who saw which way the wind was blowing.  Hopefully, for his sake, he didn't have to compromise too many of his own beliefs and principles to win the adulation of post-Takeover SBC leaders.

Somehow, Union has managed to communicate two things.  First, it is a growing, thriving, nationally recognized Christian liberal arts university with a good academic reputation, good professors, and good students.  (Unlike OBU, Union didn't need to add a football program to boost male enrollment.)  And second, Union enjoys a reputation for being a safe place for fundamentalists to send their children to college.

Union's success with this delicate dance must be vexing to OBU's new leadership.  For some reason, the dance has been more difficult at OBU.  When David Whitlock and Stan Norman arrived on Bison Hill, each pointed to Union as a model.  OBU, though smaller, had at least as good a reputation.  But OBU is not as widely considered to be a safe place for fundy kids.  Of course, OBU produces tons of graduates who are fundamentalist, home-schooling culture warriors.  But not as many as certain other Baptist colleges.  At OBU, the chances seem higher that students will end up taking the Bible seriously, not literally.  It has been much more likely that OBU religion and ministry graduates will attend non-SBC seminaries.  As Whitlock and Norman discovered, OBU's relatively moderate reputation has been hard to kill.  At this moment, I do not know of a single SBC seminary professor or high-level agency staffer who has a son or daughter enrolled in OBU.

That's unlikely to change. And frankly, we don't need more once-reputable Baptist colleges descending into fundamentalism.  The SBC elites with children inclined toward religious colleges will continue to send their kids to Union, or, if they don't care at all about academic respectability, to an undergraduate program at one of the seminaries.

It's fine that OBU honored David Dockery.  I intend no offense toward Union.  As I said yesterday, Dockery has done the impossible: kept hardliners happy while also maintaining some mainstream legitimacy.  It's not an easy feat.  Usually you squander much of your institution's legitimacy when you pander to the hardliners.  Just ask Emir Caner (Truett-McConnell), Joe Aguillard (Louisiana College), Don Dowless (Shorter), and Thomas White (Cedarville).  Thankfully, David Whitlock seems less eager to take OBU over that cliff.  I have always believed that Whitlock has it in him to be a great university president, but I doubt any Baptist college president can do what Dockery has done: Pleased the SBC without turning his institution into a joke.

So you have to choose.

While past OBU presidents courageously risked alienating the increasingly fundamentalist SBC as they were building OBU into a top-rated Christian liberal arts university, today's leaders seem too eager to advertise that the Fundamentalist Takeover is, at long last, coming to Bison Hill.  This seems to be the intent of the Hobbs Award.

But the field of schools trying to out-Union Union is already very crowded.  And it's not going well for any of them.  So we will say what we've said all along. OBU should be what it has been for decades: A hospitable home for moderate and conservative faculty and students characterized by academic rigor, academic freedom, and academic integrity.

Monday, August 12, 2013

OBU Honors Union University's David Dockery

We've wondered before about parallels between OBU and Union University, a Baptist college in Jackson, TN.  Longtime OBU President Bob Agee came to OBU from Union and retired to Jackson.  Union's president, the Reverend Dr. David Dockery, is widely considered to be the dean of Baptist college presidents.

At the 2013 SBC Annual Meeting in June, OBU honored Dockery for his contributions to Southern Baptist life over the past 20+ years:
OBU presented the Herschel H. Hobbs Award for Distinguished Denominational Service, named in honor of a legendary Southern Baptist pastor and denominational statesman, to Dr. David S. Dockery on Tuesday, June 11, at a reception in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. 
The reception was part of the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. 
Dockery, who serves as president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., received the award from Dr. David W. Whitlock, president of OBU. 
“David Dockery has had a profound impact on Christian higher education, generally, and OBU, specifically,” Whitlock said. “In the providence of God, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities paired me with Dr. Dockery in their first-year mentorship program when I became president of OBU. His wisdom and influence was so important to me in that first year, and I count it a blessing to consider him a friend.”
Forgetting, for the moment, how revisionist (and maybe even offensive?) it is to honor post-Takeover SBC elites in the name of Herschel Hobbs (who fundamentalists booed at the 1980 SBC meeting), now seems as good a time as ever to compare how OBU and Union relate to the SBC and its post-Takeover leadership.  We'll take up that topic in a series of blog posts this week.

Among the few dozen state convention-affiliated Baptist colleges, Union is clearly the darling of the SBC.  I can't even keep track of how many SBC seminary professors and high-level agency staffers have sent their own children to Union in recent years.  Whenever one of them gets married, graduates, or gets a job, the elite SBC Twitterverse becomes a virtual Union Alumni Association meeting.  We have to ask why so many post-Takeover SBC elites send their kids to Union.  Is Union objectively and uniquely better than all other Baptist colleges?  Or that good for these guys' careers?  Or is proximity to Nashville decisive?

Dockery has mastered one of the most delicate dances in evangelical life: keeping hardline constituents happy while also maintaining some mainstream legitimacy.  In addition to his prolific writing, Dockery has served on advisory boards for evangelical institutions, including Christianity Today and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

His involvement with the CCCU is noteworthy as we try to get a sense for where the CCCU stands on the recent spate of fundamentalist encroachments at Baptist-affiliated CCCU institutions.  I'm sure Dockery wants to stay above the fray, and at this point in his career perhaps he's earned the right.  But I can't help but wonder if he smiled or frowned when he heard about the firings at OBU in 2010 and 2011, the wholesale faculty exodus at Shorter in 2012, or the takeover of Cedarville in 2013.

In a future post, we'll look more deeply at how OBU and Union each relate to SBC leadership.  We'll look for answers to the question of why so many SBC elites send their kids to Union while so few (if any) send their kids to OBU.  And we'll consider OBU's prospects for success if it abandons its rich heritage just to try to win over a few dozen guys who are always going to prefer Union anyway.

Dr. Dockery, who will retire next summer after 19 years on the job, will continue to be relevant to SBC life, especially in his role as chair of the Calvinism Advisory Committee.  I, for one, will always eagerly listen to anything Dr. Dockery has to say about Christian higher education.  And I wish him and Union success in this transition period.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Summer Update & FAQ

Greetings to longtime readers and a warm welcome to the many new people who have stumbled upon this site!

I mentioned in early June that the blog would be quiet this summer.  After a tumultuous 2010 & 2011, OBU's fundamentalist encroachment has subsided somewhat.  Top administrators have made their true intentions known, however.  This means OBU still needs a watchdog. OBU administrators currently lack the political cover necessary to complete their desired transformation.  But as soon as they believe they can get away with it, they will complete the fundamentalist re-orientation of the religion department and move on to other areas of the university.

These days, I'm spending less of my "Save OBU" time and effort on OBU.  Sure, I'm getting emails about various staff and faculty personnel changes.  I hear from a number of prospective students weighing their hopes for a great experience at OBU against the realities of what the administrators' actions have wrought.

Increasingly, however, I'm hearing from constituents of other Christian colleges.  Some are asking why I'm complaining about relatively minor goings-on at OBU when several other Baptist schools are in the throes of full-on fundamentalist takeovers that may result in harm to their reputations, financial ruin, and loss of accreditation.  Others, mostly from evangelical colleges that are not Baptist affiliated, are wondering how the problems at OBU, Cedarville, Shorter, Truett-McConnell, Brewton-Parker, Louisiana College, etc. could even happen at all.

I'll continue to monitor the OBU situation as best I can.  But in a future post, I'll lay out a vision for a collective effort wherein constituents of a variety of Christian colleges will appeal to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) for guidance about how to prevent fundamentalist-inspired trustee takeovers, presidential selections, administrative reorganizations, firings, and incursions against institutional norms and academic freedom.  The CCCU needs to strengthen and enforce standards for its member institutions.  Non-Baptist evangelicals need to understand what fundamentalists are doing to a significant swath of Christian higher education.  And Southern Baptist leaders need to get a clue and stop turning our colleges into their ideological playgrounds, presumably with the CCCU's blessing.  We need to find out: Does the CCCU even care?

Since the site has received hundreds of new visitors this summer and since many of you have written to ask about what's going on, I have responded to some frequently asked questions.

Click here to view our FAQ page.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Cedarville (OH) Purge Intensifies

It's likely that few people noticed, but I've taken the past six weeks off from blogging.  As I explained last month, I feel that we have raised enough awareness and that the situation at OBU has stabilized significantly since this blog began in December 2011.  OBU's fundamentalist encroachment, though disappointing, has actually been quite minor in comparison to other colleges affiliated with Baptist state conventions.

To cite just one example, our worst fears about Cedarville University have been confirmed.  This spring, I invited a Cedarville alumna to discuss how fundamentalist trustees and administrators were transforming the Ohio liberal arts college.  In the wake of national press coverage of the Cedarville situation, Sarah Jones's four-part series reached many thousands of readers in a matter of a few days.

After a popular administrator was forced out and the entire philosophy major was gutted, we figured Cedarville would soon experience a fundamentalist takeover similar to the one we saw at Shorter University (GA) in 2012, when dozens of faculty were forced out for declining to affirm Shorter's new, fundamentalist direction.

To oversee the purge at Cedarville, trustees unanimously elected the Reverend Dr. Thomas White as president.  White has spent his graduate student and professional careers at post-Takeover SBC seminaries, serving most recently as vice president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.

How quickly will President White move to purge Cedarville of moderates and complete the fundamentalist transformation of Cedarville?  Only time will tell.  For the moment, faculty are obviously very anxious and students are uncertain of what is to come.  Will White merely bring in a few of his own (male) friends and colleagues for important administrative positions?  Or will he lead a Shorter-style implosion?

In the tradition of Save OBU, Save Our Shorter, and Louisiana College student Joshua Breland's very fine blog, a blog called Let There Be Light (@fiatlux125) is monitoring the situation.

I welcome Cedarville constituents to the Save OBU blog.  Next week, I'll have more to say specifically about OBU and where we should go from here.  But now, while students, faculty, and alumni/ae of several Baptist colleges are paying attention, I want to say this:

Many evangelical colleges are flourishing without a hint of fundamentalist encroachment.  Wheaton, Calvin, and Gordon would not tolerate unethical administrative actions or violations of academic freedom.  But Southern Baptist colleges are falling apart before our eyes.  OBU (my alma mater) is actually in much better shape than many Baptist colleges, as administrators there dare not do any more damage than they have already done to OBU's faculty morale and academic reputation.  We need to stand together.  We are all fighting slightly different versions of the same battle.  We must stand for integrity and rigor in Christian higher education.  The reputations, faithfulness to fearless scholarly inquiry, financial health, and even accreditation of our schools will soon be in jeopardy if present trends continue.

Blessings to all of you,

Jacob Lupfer
OBU Class of 2002
Silver Spring, Maryland
Founder and Contributing Editor, Save OBU Blog

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Winding Down for the Summer

The past month was busier than I had hoped, precluding me from following up on all the Baptist higher ed goings-on I mentioned in late April.  Still, we commented on a few stories of interest:
  • Most alarmingly, we shared the news that an OBU student was asked not to return to his/her campus job and was bullied by senior administrators for questioning the new Fine Arts dean's re-direction of the department.
  • We had two posts on the apparent lack of editorial independence (or judgment) at The Bison, OBU's student newspaper.
  • We commented on OBU's selection of U.S. Representative James Lankford as 2013 commencement speaker.  In the end, Lankford's congressional duties precluded him from being available to address the graduates.
  • In Kentucky, state Baptists revolted against KBC-affiliated Campbellsville University as news spread that a biblical literalist who taught religion there initially had his contract non-renewed.  We assessed the situation and commended KBC Executive Director Paul Chitwood for his masterful handling of the situation.
  • I came clean about my love for the Gaither Vocal Band. Really!
  • We congratulated the OBU Class of 2013 and reminded them that, even though the positives strongly outweigh the negatives, OBU's reputation suffered needlessly during their 4 years.  They were done a disservice and their investment was devalued.
I may post a few more stories in June relevant to OBU in particular and post-Takeover Baptist life in general.  But things will be winding down.  Over the summer, I'll offer occasional commentary on news relevant to Baptist higher education.  And I certainly invite others to submit book reviews, offer perspectives, or share their stories.  We can use the summer as a time for community building.

Many of you disagree, but I perceive that things have stabilized significantly at OBU over the past 18 months (coincidentally, the same span of time this blog has existed).  Sure, things have happened that made moderates roll their eyes (OBU administrators cozying up to SBC elites, the surprising number of right-wing hard-liners preaching in Raley Chapel this spring, etc).  And it was extremely distressing to learn that in the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry, all usual and customary practices for faculty searches have been discarded.

But every indication is that plans to re-make the OBU faculty in the image of the post-Takeover SBC have been thwarted.  We remain concerned about the situation in the College of Fine Arts.  We will be watching the leadership transition in the College of Nursing as closely as possible.  But the administration seems less inclined to be as openly hostile toward the faculty as it was a couple years ago.

Time can heal.  Understanding can grow.  People can learn from their mistakes.  I assume that OBU and BGCO leaders want the best for OBU.  We've seen so many other schools that fundamentalists have virtually destroyed.  I hope no one wants that for our beloved OBU.  It's true that OBU suffered a significant setback early in the Whitlock presidency.  But we are still in a lot better shape than almost all Baptist state convention-affiliated colleges.

Finally, I need to take a break.  Fundamentalism drags me down.  This effort has not been conducive to my own spiritual formation -- an evolution I have long neglected but one that I intend to pursue.  I trust you will all understand.

Our Facebook and Twitter communities will remain active, but blog updates will be few.

If anything comes up or you want to discuss any issues relevant to OBU, Baptist life, or anything else, feel free to email me.


Monday, June 3, 2013

An Unfortunate Journalism Lesson

Our recent blog post entitled "The Bison: Legit Journalism or Good News Sheet?" circulated quickly and widely, generating hundreds of page views in the first 24 hours after it appeared.  I complimented the quality of the writing and the paper's organized, attractive appearance.  I also noted the lack of reporting on important campus issues and the complete absence of news-based editorials.  This leads inescapably to the conclusion that The Bison faces a) censorship, b) fear of censorship, or c) blow-back that creates self-censorship.

Given post-Takeover Baptist (male) leadership's disdain for any free and independent Baptist press, it would not be surprising if OBU's new leaders censored the student newspaper.  The highly authoritarian new Baptists prefer not to allow anything they cannot control.  (Note that among his many duties as provost, R. Stanton Norman is listed as editor of the alumni magazine, a publication that more often than not spotlights successful alumni who are not fundamentalists.)

Whether The Bison faces censorship, fear of censorship, or self-censorship, every indication is that OBU's student paper lacks editorial independence.  No other explanation can account for the lack of coverage of important campus issues and the absence of news-based editorials.  In early April, a situation emerged that proved to illustrate the problem.

On April 3, 2013, an "ex gay" evangelist named Christopher Yuan preached in Raley Chapel.  The premise behind Yuan's entire ministry, controversial even among many evangelicals, is that God can save you from unwanted same-sex attraction and that all Christians -- gay and straight -- should strive for holy sexuality.  Of course, for straights this ideally ends in a monogamous marriage filled with lovemaking and joy.  In their disordered state, Yuan urges gays to be content with the fruits of their completely repressed sexual selves: loneliness, isolation, estrangement, and frustration.  Just like he is.  Or something.

In response to Yuan's appearance and the endorsement from OBU that it represents, a group of alumni penned an open letter addressed "to the OBU family."  Their letter offered support to gay OBU students and pointed toward a different way of understanding homosexuality than what Mr. Yuan presented.  It circulated among a few alumni and, within a few days, garnered 50+ signatures.  The signers represent OBU graduates from six different decades.  They are gay and straight, men and women, clergy and laity, youthful and aging.

One of the authors asked me to sign the letter.  I declined.  At the risk of offending my fellow alumni who thought they could count on my support, I deliberately withheld my signature so that there could be no mistake: Save OBU does not take a position on homosexuality.  We have supporters on both sides of the debate and at every point in between.  While Save OBU supporters have a variety of perspectives on human sexuality and the place of gay men and lesbians in the life and ministry of the church, they are in agreement about standing strong for academic freedom and ethical administration at OBU.

The alumni letter was newsworthy by any standard.  Amazingly, the editor(s) of The Bison disagreed.  Or -- perhaps more likely -- they knew they would be harassed by administrators if they ran a news story about the letter.  Either way, not a drop of ink was spilt on the new pages of The Bison about the alumni letter.  (By comparison, the 2011 alumni petition received news and editorial coverage.)  The authors weren't seeking or demanding news coverage.  They simply wanted their work printed as a letter to the editor.  After trimming their piece to fit the word limit on what passes for an editorial page, the authors were assured that their letter would run in The Bison.

It never happened.

Instead, the authors received a note from the student editorial board explaining its decision not to print the letter.  The editorial board erroneously claimed that "the Save OBU blog has endorsed [the alumni] letter."  Further, the board argues that I "publicly challenged The Bison to publish that letter or face an accusation of censorship."

Going back to the days following Christopher Yuan's chapel sermon, you can see Save OBU's tweets that mentioned the issue here, herehere, and here.  The last tweet was also posted on our Facebook page:

The endorsement charge is ridiculous.  People and organizations discuss and share things on Twitter all the time with the constant assumption that retweets or tweeting news and links do not imply endorsement.  I intentionally went out of my way to not endorse the letter.  As for publicly challenging The Bison to print the alumni letter or face an accusation of censorship, I did say that whether or not the paper reports on or editorializes about the letter "will shed light on how much censorship exists."

The student editorial board said I attempted to bully them into printing the letter.  After initially agreeing to publish the letter, the board declined, "Not because the content will spark controversy or engage dialogue, but because we choose not to be bullied into publication by alumni and/or blogs."  The board also told the letter's authors that they had been encouraged to write a story about the issue and engage it journalistically -- "a project that we are in the process of considering."  Evidently, the board "decided" against engaging the issue journalistically.

The effect of the board's decision is that only a small handful of OBU students ever heard about the alumni letter.  By declining to print the alumni letter as an op-ed submission and in deeming the subject unworthy of a news report, the board missed an opportunity to facilitate a campus-wide conversation about a number of issues arising from the "ex gay" evangelist's appearance and the alumni's response.

Save OBU is just a convenient scapegoat.  In the real world of journalism, outside groups are constantly seeking news and opinion coverage of issues important to them.  I have often been mystified that not one word has appeared in The Bison about Save OBU, an effort that has sustained itself over 18 months of thoughtful research and analysis with 250+ blog posts, 5 guest writers, and a growing network of alumni interest and support.  If the 2011 alumni petition merited news and (timid) opinion coverage, it's impossible to argue that Save OBU has never been newsworthy.  The only reasons I have never complained about it is that a) I'm sympathetic to the faculty advisor's vulnerable position and b) it seems a little obnoxious to pick on student journalists who probably have  very little say in the matter.

But since the student board brought Save OBU into the discussion, I'll offer a gentle observation.  Editors have a responsibility to decide if a subject is newsworthy independent of outside groups or inside pressures (corporate ownership in the case of for-profit news; administrators in the case of campus newspapers).  Everyone has a stake, however, small, in the outcome.  The newspaper wants a reputation for fairness and even-handedness in covering important issues.  Readers depend on such a forum.  The alumni letter's authors want a wide audience for their letter.  They want students to believe that homosexuality is not a sin and that support is available if students have been harmed by how religion has typically regarded sexual minorities.  Save OBU merely wants some evidence that OBU students have access to important debates about controversial issues and that such discussions are not actively discouraged.  The people who run OBU do not want to open the door to questioning whether homosexuality is a sin.  They want students to believe that homosexuals should (if they cannot be spiritually or therapeutically cured of their sinful desires) be celibate for life and that there is no need to question the traditional teaching of biblical literalists on the matter (even though a majority of white evangelicals aged 18-34 now support same sex marriage rights).  By not covering the issue, the people who run OBU won and everyone else -- including The Bison -- lost.

I began my previous post about The Bison with praise for the student journalists, and I'll end this one the same way.  The production value is high.  The layout is attractive.  The writing is good.  The point-counterpoint pieces are interesting and thoughtful.  I especially commend the faith section editors and writers.  Even if the faith pages came about because an administrator insisted that The Bison contain more explicitly religious content, the students have done well with the mandate.

My concern is directed to the editorial staff generally, not from any single year.  There have been a lot of very consequential issues over the past four years that you have ignored.  Reasonable people can disagree about whether there should have been 15 stories or 50.  But it's not reasonable to think that an adequate number of news stories and editorials dealing with widespread discontent about administrators' actions and policies since President Whitlock and Provost Norman arrived would be less than one per year.  That's not journalism.

There's a big difference between being censored and being objectively bad.  If your hands are tied, just admit it.  No one will be surprised and everyone will understand.  But if you are trying to justify your lack of coverage of important campus issues on the grounds that academic freedom, faculty morale, institutional norms, and ethical administration do not matter in a university, that's a problem.  In that case, you can continue to publish sanitized news and cute op-eds, but interest in your newspaper will continue to wane.

[Ed. -- Following is a letter I sent to the Student Editorial Board on April 17, 2013, after I learned that it cited Save OBU as the reason it did not publish the alumni letter.  It was never acknowledged and I received no reply.]

I spoke with [name redacted]. I do not know [name redacted] -- in fact, we have never met and had never spoken until this evening.

[S/h]e was disappointed that, after people took great care to craft a compassionate response to the "ex gay" evangelist's sermon, you declined to publish a trimmed-down version in your newspaper.

I was disappointed to learn that you (correct me if I'm wrong) are essentially blaming me for somehow making it untenable for you to publish the letter.

First of all, this letter is completely unrelated to the Save OBU Blog.  I was asked to sign it, and I declined.  I believe that one of the people who has written for my blog signed the letter.  Others did not.  Save OBU supporters, I suspect, have a wide diversity of opinions about human sexuality and the place of homosexuals in the life and ministry of the Church.  I would not risk alienating half our base of support over an issue that is not relevant to academic freedom and ethical administration.  In any event, Save OBU absolutely did not endorse the letter, as you allege.  Frankly, I have no idea how you could possibly come to that conclusion.

I also would like to push back against your characterization that I publicly challenged you to publish the letter or else face an accusation of censorship.  In one of our social media feeds, I said, "So, did The Bison cover the controversy over last week's chapel sermon and/or the alumni letter?" In response to a commenter's question, I said "We are curious to see if the paper printed the alumni letter, or even mentioned it. This will shed light on how much censorship exists at The Bison, because it would be hard to argue that a letter offering a compassionate response to a controversial message, signed by dozens of alumni spanning 4 decades, isn't newsworthy."

It's likely that no one beyond the 3 or 4 people on that threat even saw or noticed the comment.  I would hardly characterize this as "bullying" you into publishing their letter.

Look, reasonable people can disagree about whether or not OBU has a truly free student press.  I would love to speculate publicly and frequently about the issue, because I believe it is so important.  But I have shown restraint on this point.  I have also gone out of my way to be kind and complimentary to the several student journalists who have interacted with me privately over the past 18 months. More than anything, I do not want to say anything on my blog that would make things difficult for your faculty advisor, who, based on her predecessors' experiences, is in a tenuous situation almost by default.

But let's review a few quick facts.  First, a simple look at the problems journalism advisors have had at OBU the past 12 years should tell you something.  Second, as far as I can tell, not one reporter or editor lifted a finger to ask hard questions about the circumstances of Jerry Faught's and John Mullen's departures from OBU.  This is symptomatic of the complete and total absence of even the most elementary investigative reporting in The Bison.  Third, my sources on the matter have made it seem like everyone knows that Stan Norman forced The Bison to include even more explicitly religious content.  Fortunately, Casie and Tim have done outstanding work.  Finally, I suspect it seems curious to many people that, even though The Bison covered the alumni petition in the fall of 2011, not one word has been printed on an editorial or news page about the Save OBU Blog, now nearly 18 months along, with well over 200 blog posts.  The blog has literally reached tens of thousands of people.  You can try to believe such an effort is not newsworthy.  But honestly, I think your lack of coverage of the Save OBU Blog only serves to reinforce peoples' widespread suspicion that OBU does not have a free and open student press.

If you really think you have complete editorial control, there are a few experiments you could try.  Run a story on the BGCO's ever-shrinking OBU subsidy (as a percentage of the university's annual operating budget).  Go ask David Whitlock what he meant when he justified his refusal to allow a female to be interviewed for a New Testament position by saying, "There's no point in bringing her to campus. We're not going to hire her.  I have to keep promises I've made to certain people."  Follow up your recent story on the Chapel CREW with a survey or student interviews asking if they would like to see more balance in the theological and political views endorsed from the Raley Chapel pulpit.

I think if you did these things, you would find out pretty quickly that you don't have as much editorial control as you apparently think you do.

Anyway, out of respect for the very fine and loving work these alumni have done in crafting their response to the Yuan message, I respectfully ask you to reconsider your refusal to publish the letter.  Whatever you decide, don't blame it on me.

I have the highest respect for serious journalists and I trust you will bring honor to our alma mater in your careers.  Based on my conversation with [name redacted], it seems pretty clear that you and I may not see things the same way.  That's fine.  But please know that my extensive effort devoted to the Save OBU project is nothing but an expression of love for OBU ---  a love that has grown stronger with the passage of time.

You have my very best wishes.

Jacob Lupfer '02
Silver Spring, MD

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"I Then Shall Live"

You may be surprised to learn this, but I watched a Gaither Vocal Band special on CBN last night.  I was attempting to find the Washington Nationals vs. Atlanta Braves game, but I stayed with CBN for a while.  Normally, I'm a church snob of the highest order, preferring ordered, liturgical worship with sacred choral music.  So it would be easy to look down my nose at Southern Gospel music in the white or black American fundamentalist traditions.

But I don't.  I really like a lot of the music, especially when it is done well.  One of the biggest problems moderates have with gospel music is the fundamentalist theology that pervades most of the well-loved songs.  The lyrics tend to emphasize that the focus of the Christian experience is in the hereafter, not the here-and-now.  Jesus' death is usually emphasized and glorified to the point where one wonders if his life and teaching meant anything at all.  Theologically, the songs not only take penal substitutionary atonement for granted, they describe it in vivid detail.  Washed-in-the-blood-of-the-lamb metaphors are common.

Even so, the Gaithier Vocal Band has been producing top-quality gospel music for decades.  Last night on CBN, I came across these lyrics for the first time:

The tune is Jean Sibelius's familiar FINLANDIA.  Most Protestants will know it as the tune for the hymn "Be Still My Soul," a hymn that is particularly meaningful to me because it was sung at my grandfather's funeral.  Liberal Protestants may also know the hymn "This Is My Song," which uses the same tune and can be found in most mainline church hymnals.

Though the clip above does not show it, the CBN program I watched last night featured an interview with Gloria Gaither.  She explained that the inspiration for the song came from Francis Schaeffer's 1976 book, How Then Should We Live?  Schaeffer provided much of the intellectual leadership for the formation of the Religious Right political movement.

Personally, I like Gloria Gaither's theology a lot better than Francis Schaeffer's.  But, being a woman, she is of course useless and unwanted to fundamentalists as a theologian.  Still, I think she has done a masterful job of articulating a positive, active vision of the Christian life.  The last few lines, italicized in the text below, will be particularly meaningful to the men (and yes, women) who are called to full-time vocational Christian ministry.

Blessings to all of you, this Lord's Day and always.

I then shall live as one who’s been forgiven;
I’ll walk with joy to know my debts are paid.
I know my name is clear before my Father;
I am His child, and I am not afraid.
So greatly pardoned, I’ll forgive my brother,
The law of love I gladly will obey.  
I then shall live as one who’s learned compassion;
I’ve been so loved that I’ll risk loving too.
I know how fear builds walls instead of bridges;
I’ll dare to see another’s point of view.
And when relationship demand commitment,
Then I’ll be there to care and follow through.  
Your kingdom come around and through and in me;
Your power and glory, let them shine through me;
Your Hallowed name, O may I bear with honor,
And may You living Kingdom come in me.
The Bread of Life, O may I share with honor,
And may You feed a hungry world through me. 

Amen. Amen. Amen.  
Text © 1981 Gaither Music Company. Music © Breitkopf & Hartel (Outside U.S.
only). All rights reserved. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Bison: Legit Journalism or Good News Sheet?

Many of you have asked for a follow-up to our lingering concerns about the absence of investigative and editorial content in OBU's student newspaper.  Last month, in a list of concerns we're following, I mentioned The Bison:
Though the writing is very good and the production value is high, The Bison simply isn't what it once was in terms of journalistic inquiry into serious campus issues.  There are lots of impressionistic columns, general debates, and personal advice features, but there is no investigative reporting.  Editorial pages (with real editorials) have disappeared.  Journalists go berserk if you accuse them of censorship, but I don't know what else to call it.  I'll say it as nicely as possible: The gaps in news coverage and editorial content could lead a reasonable person to speculate that there is a) censorship, b) fear of censorship, or c) blow-back that creates self-censorship. 
Of particular not here is the fact that The Bison recently decided against printing an open letter to "The OBU Family" (edited for length) in response to a chapel sermon by an "ex gay" evangelist on the grounds that Save OBU endorsed the letter (which is simply not true) and that we tried to bully the paper into printing the letter.
A campus newspaper is more than an exercise for a handful of journalism and graphic design majors.  A free student press is widely considered to be vital to the transparency, health, and flourishing of any university community.  For much of OBU's history, The Bison has met that need.  In the early 1980s, The Bison editorialized strongly in response to the "heresy papers" controversy.  In the early 2000s, The Bison was a forum for a campus discussion in response to a chapel preacher's contemptible (or merely regrettable, depending on your perspective) comments about rape.  These are just some examples I know off the top of my head.

In spite of at least two Bison faculty advisors clashing with administrators, most people report to me that the journalistic and editorial quality remained high throughout the 2000s.  In fact, as recently as 2010 and 2011, The Bison printed letters of dissent against the new administration's policies and reported on the alumni petition.

Around that time, the investigative reporting and editorializing stopped.

Coincidence?  I don't think so.

I have corresponded via email with two Bison staffers from the last several years.  One complained that the paper is censored and the other swore up and down that the paper has complete editorial freedom.  Obviously, both can't be true.  So let's get to the bottom of this.

Either the issues we've discussed on this blog are not newsworthy or OBU's student journalists are being suppressed from reporting on and editorializing about them.  Perhaps every issue we've addressed may not be front-page above-the-fold news.  But at least some of the faculty, student, and alumni concerns about academic freedom and ethical administration are newsworthy by any standard.

The Bison's Twitter account (@BisonNews) has been inactive for over a year.  But on January 26, 2012, it asked what people thought of the Save OBU blog.  That's the closest Save OBU got to the paper's news or editorial pages.  For 18 months, Save OBU has sustained a popular blog that has discussed dozens of campus issues.  We've had 5 guest writers.  We have active Facebook and Twitter communities.  There have been more than 260 blog posts.  Yet nothing we've said or done is newsworthy?!

Look, we don't need the publicity.  This blog gets more readers each week than The Bison, anyway.  Of course, we would welcome more student interest and involvement.  But most of all, we would like to know whether or not students at our alma mater are still allowed to investigate and discuss important campus issues and policies.

Bison staffers already missed their chance to do right by the people who have been fired and demoted.  You could have asked the hard questions, and you didn't.  And you may not be able to prevent the next egregious over-reach.  But you --- perhaps more than anyone else --- can help maintain a culture of transparency and responsiveness on campus.

Start small.  Ask what happened with the bookstore's botched orders last fall.  Ask whether OBU's agreement with Tree of Life is working out the way faculty and students had hoped.  Ask what role faculty search committees have in hiring decisions, and what circumstances the deans and provost believe justify over-ruling a committee recommendation.  With all the coaching hires and athletic scholarships announced this year, ask whether OBU's largest-ever freshman class will face a higher teacher-student ratio or more courses taught by adjuncts.

If The Bison is now a good news sheet that only prints stories and opinions that the administration deems safe for consumption, that's fine.  Just be honest about it.  And if that's The Bison's mission at the new OBU, I suggest the student journalists P.R. staffers start submitting invoices to the Public Relations Office.  Other people earn a decent living to present the polished, official image of an OBU devoid of controversy.  You should, too!

If, on the other hand, The Bison is a still news and opinion organization, I, for one, would like to see a little more courage and truth-seeking.  It's only a matter of time until another religion professor gets fired unjustly.  Then it will once again be too late to make a positive difference on campus by insisting on truth, transparency (to the greatest degree possible), and adherence to institutional norms when it comes to the most important issues.  Even Cedarville University, a fundamentalist school, still apparently has a student paper with editorial independence.  If the same is true of The Bison, we wouldn't know it by the lack of investigative pieces that uncover issues and provide the news foundation for editorials on consequential issues.

"The Norm," the alumni petition, and Save OBU can only do so much.  Administrators can ignore Save OBU.  They can deal with the alumni petition by sending out a private email with talking points for trustees.  When students protest, as with "The Norm," they can simply wait until those students graduate and hope that new students never learn of the violations of academic freedom and assume their way of doing things is normal when, in fact, it is a significant departure from institutional norms.

But they can't ignore you.  Sure, administrators can refuse interviews.  They will, of course, decline to comment on personnel matters.  But it reflects very poorly on them if they never give any answers or explanations for their decisions and actions.  After all OBU has been through lately, it's clear that administrators either haven't been pushed very hard or they are censoring the paper.

Maybe the difference between the year past and previous years wasn't related to censorship.  Maybe The Bison had a fundamentalist yes-man student editor who chose not to pursue important news stories or run real editorials.  I simply don't know.

But I hope next year's Bison staff will receive this message with humility, grace, and a sense of journalistic responsibility.  If your hands are tied, that's understandable.  It would surprise no one to know that Dr. Robinson, Dr. Norman, or Dr. Whitlock are blocking the paper from being anything more than a good news sheet.  Just say so, and your readers can lower their expectations accordingly.  But if you have editorial independence as you should, you need to step up your game.  Simple as that.  The entire OBU community deserves better.

In an upcoming post, I'll share the story of how The Bison blamed Save OBU for its decision not to publish a letter to the editor in response to a controversial chapel sermon this spring.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spring Trustee Meeting Report Looks Promising

In case you missed OBU's press release from Graduation Day, it looks like the Spring trustee meeting went very well:
During their spring meeting on the Shawnee campus May 17, the OBU Board of Trustees approved the expansion of the OBU Graduate School, a change in OBU’s fiscal year and faculty promotions and contracts.
According to the report, the board took up a number of routine business items.  Particularly noteworthy is the effort to expand OBU's graduate programs.  In addition to enhancing a school's profile and providing needed training for the professions, master's degree programs can be real cash cows for universities.

Of course we would be concerned if OBU lost focus on its bread-and-butter, which is its rigorous liberal arts curriculum for undergraduates.  At this point, we find little evidence for that.  We will be monitoring the use of adjuncts, which, if it increases, would be a sign that resources are being diverted away from OBU's core programs.

We also see little evidence of unusually high faculty turnover, one concern raised in the 2011 alumni petition.  From what we can tell, OBU continues to attract promising candidates.  With an over-supply of wannabe professors and a shortage nationwide of tenure-track faculty positions, OBU should have the cream of the crop.  So far, we've heard no complaints of bizarre interventions by you-know-who in the selection of the four new faculty contracts the trustees approved.

As late as last fall, some faculty had feared that the administration would use the tenure process as a weapon against insufficiently fundamentalist professors.  That fear proved unfounded in the winter.  Once again, we celebrate that a small but deserving crop of professors was granted Senior Faculty Status in spite of not being fundamentalists.  Any large-scale effort to remake the faculty in the image of the post-Takeover SBC remains a distant dream in the Provost's Office and not something we have to worry about (except in the College of Theology and Ministry, obviously).

Though I have learned a lot of sad things as I've delved into the world of Baptist higher education over the past 18 months, OBU's 32-member board has been one of the bright spots.  Unlike some Baptist-affiliated institutions where the trustees do the bidding of a few powerful fundamentalists, OBU's board has proven itself to be a surprisingly independent voice.  Quite the progressive group, they even ended the antiquated ban on dancing!  OBU's trustees -- or at least a majority of them -- have the university's best interests at heart.

I still maintain that the ideal situation would be an independent, self-perpetuating board like almost all private colleges (Christian or otherwise) have.  But that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  Given the legal and institutional framework that exists, I'd say things couldn't be much better.  All of that could change in a matter of about 2 years, though, if the BGCO ever decided it wanted to foment a fundamentalist takeover at OBU.  It's happened elsewhere, and it could happen here.

But I have come a long way in my views on this subject.  In spite of the fact that the board is ultimately controlled by the BGCO, I trust our trustees.  I trust that they do not want to see OBU's reputation suffer.  I trust that some of them intervened when faculty anger peaked in the fall of 2011 and when Provost Stan Norman needed to be reined in.  I trust that they are not happy that OBU has fallen from #109 to #390 in the Forbes rankings.

Being a trustee of a Christian college is an act of service.  It does not have many perks like, say, serving on certain corporate boards of directors.  These are clergy and lay volunteers who have full-time jobs and families.  They sacrifice some of their evenings and weekends to read reports, consult with administrative leaders and with one another, and to do their best to make a solid future for OBU.

Eighteen months ago, I assumed that a lot of them were fundamentalist yes-men.  A year later, I speculated that the BGCO could be a partner in saving OBU from a fundamentalist future.  I assumed the worst.  I'm happy to say that I was wrong.

Thanks, trustees, for your service. God bless OBU!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Did Sin Cause the Tornadoes? OBU Dean Says Yes

It has been gratifying to read and hear about the great work Oklahoma Baptists have done since devastating tornadoes struck Central Oklahoma last Sunday and Monday.  For those who have not heard, the BGCO's disaster response team has, as usual, responded effectively and compassionately.  OBU opened its dorms to people whose homes were destroyed and to many out-of-state volunteers.  Everyone has been pitching in.  For a few days, at least, it did not matter whether your organization was fundamentalist or moderate, Protestant or Catholic, religious or secular.

OBU Theology Dean Mark McClellan has a piece in the Huffington Post that purports to offer a Baptist perspective on "what" to do following deadly tornadoes, as well as "why" they happen.

First, the "what:"
We weep with those who have lost loved ones, especially these precious children and we will help lay some of them to rest, seek to bring comfort, friendship, material provision, and spiritual counsel to those who have suffered loss. Our message is one of hope for the temporal future and for eternity. We seek to do this with our hands, our hearts, and our words.
Amen! Amen!

McClellan's "what" to do is innocuous enough.  "It is our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord which propels us provide, serve, love, and give counsel to those in this devastating tornado."  Even so, many people who don't believe anything in particular about Jesus nevertheless summoned the goodwill to do likewise.  McClellan's statement implies that, apart from faith in Jesus, Christians would not do anything at all to help.  I think that paints us in a pretty bad light.

Unsurprisingly, I can't get on board with McClellan's brief discussion of the "why:"
We seek to speak with both confidence and humility about the "why." We believe that God created all things from nothing and His creation is good. In Genesis 3 sin entered into God's creation and it had a cosmic impact. Sin has devastating effects on human life and all creation. We live then in a Fallen world where the daily provision of the good things from God's creation upon which we all depend are received along with earthquakes, hurricanes, and yes, tornadoes, to name some. We do not know "why" God has permitted these to occur in specific places nor any specific reasons addressed to the specific communities. "Why" they occur, we believe is natural evil in a fallen creation. Romans 8:20-22 explains to us that creation will someday be set free from corruption and that it is presently groaning until that moment.
For starters, McClellan might consider using "I" instead of "we."  Who does he think he's speaking for?  All Oklahoma Baptists?  That is definitively not the case.  I don't often see Genesis 3 invoked in explaining bad weather.  Do all or even most Baptists believe that tornadoes happen because of sin and Fallenness?  Do all or even most Baptists believe that God uses storms to kill his innocent children?  Do they believe that God intervenes (selectively or indiscriminately) to rescue some and let others die?  Do all or even most Baptists invoke a theology of evil to talk about weather patterns?  Do they explain natural disasters by appealing to Paul's description in Romans 8 that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now?"

The column follows a strategy that a lot of fundamentalists employ to make their theology seem more palatable.  They don't want to sound like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming 9/11 on liberals.  So, unlike Falwell, they try to say some nice things to temper the worst parts of their theology.

In this case, McClellan sandwiches his apology for why a presumably omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God killed those people ("We do not know 'why' God has permitted these to occur in specific places nor any specific reasons addressed to the specific communities.") between statements that are soothing, kind, and pastorally effective.  To McClellan's credit, at least he does not claim to know why "God has permitted these to occur."  But he still attributes the deaths to God.  Both Falwell and McClellan explicitly state that God lifted a curtain of protection and allowed evil to destroy, kill, and maim.  Whereas Falwell blames the evil of 9/11 on specific sins, McClellan merely blames the tornadoes ("natural evil") on sin in a general sense.

The difference is more one of style than of substance.  Dean McClellan is theologically closer to the late Reverend Falwell than to any minister I would want to hear preach on a Sunday morning or theologian I would want to hear lecture in an OBU classroom.

For my part, I do not know what causes tornadoes.  According to the internet, they are caused by unusually warm and humid conditions in the lower atmosphere, along with a difference in wind speed and direction over a relatively short distance in the atmosphere.  I'm not sure where sin (Adam's, Eve's, mine, or sin's "cosmic impact") figures into the equation.

Just as Baptists have traditionally held that good government needs separation of church and state, I submit that good theological discourse needs separation of God and weather.

Maybe Dean McClellan can speak for the men who hired him and the men he's hired as part of the "changes that have been going on the past couple of years" at OBU.  But I suspect there are many professors, students, alumni, and Oklahoma Baptists who would say, "With respect, sir, you do not speak for me."

Speaking just for myself, I would add: I don't even want to know your god.