Day 14: Going to College with Christians

I have been waiting for us to arrive at Reed College. While I was fascinated with Albania and appreciate the Horse Brass Pub very much, I love Reed. Neighbors & Wisemen

I first learned about Reed through the book Blue Like Jazz which was written by Tony’s friend named named Don – who he mentions in this chapter.

It rocked me. 

One of the reasons it impacted me so much was that I lived in upstate NY at the time and we had a Reed. Our college was called Skidmore and it had much the same reputation in our town.

When I would go to our area’s pastor breakfast, my fellow ministers would make many of the same disparaging remarks about Skidmore that Tony mentions about Reed.

Evangelicals have an odd relationship with colleges like this. Whether it is the free-thinking, the critical scholarship or the permissive lifestyle of many students – these kind of colleges are seen as something between mission fields and combat zones. They represent a threat.

It was through Blue Like Jazz that I figured out that I had inherited a terrible allergy. My heart was wrong. My attitude was wrong. My approach was wrong.

I instantly changed my perspective and we developed a wonderful relationship with many Skidmore students. I’m not sure how much we changed the campus – but I was changed greatly by my relationship to the campus.

 

When I moved to the Pacific NW for seminary, the town that I lived in and pastored in had a Reed. Evergreen State in Olympia Washington played the same role for us that Reed played for the christian community that Tony represented. We were able to connect with an amazing young man who was a student at Evergreen and I would drive out every Sunday morning and most Wednesdays to pick him up for church.

 I’m blogging my way through Neighbors and Wisemen for Lent. If you want to catch up on the previous entries [click here]

I am fascinated with this pattern. What sits behind it, for me, is an awareness of a massive shift in american Christianity in the 20th century. After the Scopes Money Trial in the 1920’s, conservative Christianity lost much favor in the public arena. In the court of public opinion we had won that trial but lost much respect and influence.

The result was that conservative Christianity retreated into its own self-made institutions. You see the rise of Christian colleges, Christian radio, and eventually even Christian bookstores, Christian TV, and other manifestations of products tailored to those who wanted to consume Christian goods.

In an open capitalist market it is easy to see why this happened. The assault from the outside world led some branches of the family to pull back into their safe bubbles and develop an animosity to the outside world.

Eventually we got what came to be known as The Culture Wars. 

If you want to read a fascinating book, look into The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Here is a spoiler alert: the Evangelical mind was neglected in lieu of the Culture Wars. We are still suffering for it.

 

So when it comes to these radical College expressions, they are something to be resisted and even combated. I think that we are worse for it. The culture is worse for it. Our scholarship (or lack thereof) suffers because of it.

That is why I am so happy that Tony is taking us onto Reed’s campus.

We have some growing to do. We have some repenting to do. We have some bridges to build and we have some lesson to learn.

Ring the bell – school is about to start!  

 

I’m glad that we are on this journey together.
I would love to hear your experiences of this kind of combative mentality
or your what the culture wars look like in your area. 

 

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10 comments
bcolbert
bcolbert

Interesting piece.  I graduated from Simpson University last spring, which is currently a pretty moderate evangelical college, in my opinion. During my time there and since I have graduated, I've taken flak for its supposedly "liberal" stances. Generally this means hardly anybody there is a Dispensationalist and the university is really big on social justice, therefore it's "a dangerous place for young people." I find this funny because it's one of those examples of evangelicals attacking evangelicals. Theologically, Simpson is pretty far from "liberal," its just less fundamentalist than some. At any rate, this flak I've been taking from some people for where I've gone to school and some of the less fundamentalist ideas that I've developed, has put me to thinking about how a Christian university is supposed to function. Of course, there are always going to be people who are distrustful of scholarship and "academia," so we can't please everybody. On the other hand, how do we balance academic freedom with Christian confession? I don't know. 

bushofears
bushofears

There have been moments already when I've felt like a cultural voyeur looking in but the American-ness of this chapter came through really strongly for me. The differences in funding and structure between higher education in the UK and the USA mean that we don't really have so many colleges with a distinctly religious (or otherwise) characters. Churches have seminaries but these mostly sit so far outside the mainstream that (I suspect) most people aren't aware of their existence. So the culture wars here have quite a different character. That's not to say that we are immune to the tensions you've written about. Fundamentalism has made its way from America to the UK and has influenced the tenor of the public debate. It has become more polarised, more vitriolic and more divisive. An ethnographer once wrote that one characteristic of the English was their aversion to an excess of sincerity. That allowed for discussion with a different feel - not that people were less commited to their position more that they were willing to talk rather than shout. The public debate is dominated by polarised positions - emphatically atheist voices lined up against foaming fundamentalists. Moderate positions and people willing to listen to each other are heard but not at prime time. But my daily experience is less of progressive vs evangelical and more of christians in the face of a unchristian world. It is an experience of unspoken tensions, frames of reference that are not forbidden but at the same time implicitly not allowed in the domain of work and study. I fear that the aversion of sincerity becomes an conspiracy of silence with which I am complicit.

SaveOBU_Blog
SaveOBU_Blog

This is a great issue. Unfortunately, many evangelical colleges are regressing back into fundamentalism.  Many of these colleges, founded in the wake of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, emerged in the postwar period as very solid, reputable institutions.  But as the culture wars became many evangelicals' obsession and as the Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by fundamentalists, these schools suffered.  We've talked about many of these schools @SaveOBU_Blog.

kenalto9
kenalto9

The Reed College chapters are very intoxicating - when I read ahead a couple of weeks ago I have to admit, the curmudgeonly old high school dropout was tempted to go back to school. Since Reed is described as Eden, I'll just point you off topic to http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2013/02/28/the-faces-of-eve/  a cbc podcast on the first chapters of genesis. Might point us toward the womanist.

 

To your point on the shift of the American church in the 20th century, George Saunders put it this way in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel :"It's a certain kind of religion that is on the rise, and to me it seems like its almost a form of materialism because its so literal, so much situated on a God who is just you but bigger. And so God's intentions are always understandable to you because, whoa!surprise! they're your intentions. And even I think the calothicism of my childhood was much more open than that, you were constantly being reminded not to pull God down to your level. So I think what we've seen in the United States is kind of a corollary of materialism, a very kind of manageable religion, where you never have to submit your personal authority, you never have to subjugate your ego, all you have to do is just export whatever urges you have onto God himself, and then you sort of self-sanctify in that way." (approximate quote, transcription is not my forte)

 

Saunders is generalising of course, but so are the people who retreat from engaging the students at Reed.

 

Part of our spiritual dna seems to be an ability spot the mote in the eye of the other, even whilst peering around the log in our own.

ZachWaldis
ZachWaldis

As an evangelical myself who went to a Christian college, I think Noll and even Don Miller (can't say I'm a huge fan of the Don, though at least he's getting many fellow evangelicals thinking) couldn't be more timely in their call for intellectual engagement by those who are "evangelical".  Personally I've always been a bit of a freak, being pretty politically progressive, but I was never scared of critical scholarship and I've been very happy to find evangelicals who combine the best of scholarship and evangelical faith (for me you have the Biblical scholars NT Wright and John Goldingay, to name a few).I've been disappointed, attending a pretty liberal Protestant seminary, of the dogmatism I find here, but I still find it more amenable than the close minded, sectarian mentality I often see among evangelicals.  All of this merely is me trying to say that I'm eager for more evangelicals to pull a Wesley and "Think and let think!".  Believe it or not, people who aren't evangelicals really aren't that bad! :)

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @bcolbert I too am a SImpson grad :)  The funny thing is that the only thing I have heard is that it has moved more 'conservative' since Dr. Grant left !   Too funny to compare notes. 

 

Hey - so I have a BIG thought on your question "confession",  I just can't do it now ... but I will make a note to deal with it soon.   

 

GREAT stuff. SO glad that you wrote in   -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @bushofears WHOA.  That was so interesting.  

Glad you are here as a conversastion partner.  It's really interesting to trade notes -Bo  

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @kenalto9 That is good stuff.  Even makes it seem more serious than how I portrayed it  -Bo 

bcolbert
bcolbert

 @BoSanders Well, it's great to meet another Simpson alumni! Dr. Grant was obviously a bit before my time, but I had heard he was pretty authoritarian, so I just assumed that meant the university was a bit more conservative. At any rate, I really enjoyed my time there and felt like I got a good education.

 

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