Sitting in the Dark at Willow Creek

The #MeToo movement is beginning to have an impact on American evangelicalism. The most recent example is at the megachurch of megachurches, Willow Creek Community Church, where founder and senior pastor Bill Hybels has been forced to retire early in the wake of allegations by seven women that Hybels has taken advantage of his position to engage in inappropriate behavior.

While Willow Creek now includes eight “regional congregations” in the Chicago area, the original Willow Creek church was founded in 1975, holding services in the Willow Creek Theater in Palatine. Sue was there in the early years of Willow Creek. This is her story.

I was not yet officially a high school student. But in the summer of 1978, I was given special permission to participate in Sun City—the youth ministry run by Willow Creek Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I was so excited. Living in the suburbs (we were really in the exurbs) was tough—especially if you did not yet have your driver’s license. I didn’t. Living in the exurbs without a driver’s license meant spending altogether more time at home with mom and dad than even mom and dad wanted. So, every Thursday night, I very happily went off to Sun City. We’d meet at the Palatine YMCA in the evening, but while the sun was still up. If the weather was good, we’d engage in some competitive outdoor game against another Sun City youth team. We were the Navy team (the teams were identified by colors). And we meant to win. What we were supposed to win, I don’t recall. When the outdoor games were done, we’d all head into the gym at the YMCA. We were all pumped from our outdoor activities. We’d find our seats among the rows and rows of folding chairs with our team and start clapping to the music offered up by the praise band. After a skit, an on-screen cartoon (depicting some valuable biblical lesson), and some more music, we’d settle in for the “message” for the night.

Over the course of the next few years, I became heavily involved in Sun City. I joined the “Core” group of my team, attended weekly Bible studies (in which we memorized Bible verses—for more team points), and enjoyed fellowship with that small group of committed young Christians. Along the way, I became smitten with a young fellow who regularly attended. It was all very good.

Then one fall evening I was taken a bit aback. What unfolded that evening was not what I was used to. I should say that for the folks at Willow Creek, I was considered among the “unchurched.” That is, prior to coming to Willow Creek, I had very little experience within organized religion.  I had been to church now and again when I was small, but by the time I was in first grade, my family had stopped going to church. So, my knowledge of church was quite limited. That’s important because on the night I am describing I experienced something I did not have a word for.

We did the usual—we competed in some game outside and then came into the gym and took our seats. We clapped to the music, sang along with the lyrics projected on the overhead screens, contemplated the cartoon (also projected on the screens), reflected on the drama performed on the elevated stage, and then settled into our folding chairs for the youth pastor’s wisdom.

I no longer recall what the youth pastor said that night. What I do remember is that he brought his message to a close in a most dramatic way. He directed the lighting technicians to turn off the stage lights. So, we were sitting in the dark. And then he asked us all to close our eyes. And then he gave us a task.

We were to look into our hearts and ask ourselves if Jesus had come into our hearts. Had Jesus come to us, he asked? And were we ready to commit ourselves to following him? If Jesus had come and if we were ready to follow him then we were to leave the gymnasium and head out through the doors to a hallway where already-committed Christians were ready to receive us. They would pray with us as we dedicated our lives to Jesus. Until we had that clarity, we were to remain in the gymnasium. In the dark.

I took this challenge very seriously. Not having grown up going to church regularly, I really didn’t have a good idea of what it meant to look into my heart to see if Jesus had come into it. That just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. But the question about whether Jesus had come to me—that made sense. Had Jesus come to me? I thought and I thought and I thought. And as much as I really wanted to say that he had, I couldn’t. I was pretty darn sure that if Jesus had come to me, I’d know it. I’d for sure remember it. He hadn’t. I knew that. So, I sat there for a while longer. In the dark. And then, finally, I got up out of that folding chair, walked through the door, walked past all those earnest Christians who obviously had been touched by Jesus and left the building. I never returned.

Surely, if Jesus had wanted to touch me he had had ample opportunity in those years as I attended Sun City every Thursday night and memorized Bible verses among the members of our core team. Obviously, Jesus was not interested in me. I had not passed the test. And so years passed before I crossed the threshold of a church again.

So Much Good Stuff to Read (about Evangelicals and Donald Trump): Part Two

One of the few benefits of the Donald Trump presidency that many smart journalists and scholars are now writing about white evangelicals in an effort to understand these Christians who make up his most loyal constituency.

The challenge is that so many great articles are appearing that it is difficult to keep up. We had originally planned to emulate what we did in the last post, and provide links to and brief comments about two of the best articles that have appeared in just the last three weeks. But two more excellent articles have just appeared, and thus we also include them here, but with briefer commentary.

In this article Sarah Jones cogently argues that, while the mainstream press has highlighted the alleged suppression of free speech by leftists at secular universities, it has completely ignored the ways in which the Christian Right routinely suppresses free speech at evangelical institutions such as Liberty University, Cedarville University, and Wheaton College, as well as at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the headquarters of what some refer to as Catholic fundamentalism. Jones knows whereof she speaks. A Cedarville graduate, she provided (and we quote her in Righting America) some of the best commentary on the school’s 2012-2014 “purge” of insufficiently fundamentalist faculty and staff. But while many students and professors at evangelical schools find the restrictions on speech to be oppressive (even dangerous, when it comes to fears about reporting sexual abuse), the folks running these schools and donating to these schools do not see restrictions on free speech as a problem. As Adam Laats observes, the point of establishing these institutions “was to police faculty belief and student thought. Evangelical colleges that restrict speech these days don’t face a crisis. They fulfill a promise.”

These two John Carroll University professors address a very interesting question: why has white evangelical support of Donald Trump grown dramatically (61% to 78%) in the wake of the Stormy Daniels revelations? For Hessinger and Tobey, there is nothing surprising about this. As they provocatively argue, sexual scandal has always been part of evangelicalism, to the point that “forbidden sex” is “essential” to the evangelical enterprise. Put another way, sexual sin is eminently forgivable, while challenges to patriarchy – the true “family value,” as the authors note and as we note in Righting America – are not. This is a fascinating and well-argued piece. But while the authors suggest that we should stop charging white evangelicals with hypocrisy – given that it simply feeds their sense of persecution – they leave out the salient point that the white evangelicals have routinely lambasted the sexual sins of “others.”  And this hypocrisy may be a factor in the declining numbers of white evangelicals, particularly evangelical youth.

This wonderfully written and powerfully documented article provides a fascinating and horrifying peek into the Liberty University Online. LUO is a gigantic money-making operation that – with its combination of  astonishingly low spending on instruction combined with a relentless recruiting of students who default on their loans at an alarming rate – seems much more of a scam than an educational enterprise. MacGillis quotes a Liberty senior at the end of the article: while the residential campus is “’beautiful,” the truth is that “it’s funded by the online program that’s sold to people who can’t really afford college.’”

While the article’s title is a stretch, Massing’s argument is convincing. Despite all those (the authors of Righting America included) who argue that the theology and practices of the Christian Right are very much at odds with the teachings of Jesus, there are real parallels between Martin Luther, on the one hand, and politicized fundamentalists and the president they enthusiastically support, on the other. To quote Massing: “Trump’s insults, invective, and mocking tweets against enemies real and perceived seem a long way from the Sermon on the Mount, but they very much mirror the pugnacity, asperity, and inflammatory language of the first Protestant.”

We hope you, our readers, share your thoughts on these pieces or any other reporting on evangelicals that folks might find informative. Feel free to leave a comment below.

So Much Good Stuff to Read (about Evangelicals and Donald Trump): Part One

One of the few benefits of the Donald Trump presidency is that many smart journalists are now writing about white evangelicals in an effort to understand these Christians who make up his most loyal constituency.  

The challenge is that so many great articles are appearing that it is difficult to keep up. In this post and the next we will provide links to and brief comments about four of the best articles that have appeared in just the last three weeks. One note: given Trump’s appalling treatment of women and the apparent lack of concern on the part of white evangelicals, it does not seem mere coincidence that all four of these articles are written by women (there is one male co-author in the mix).

The fact that O’Gieblyn is a former evangelical contributes to the power of this remarkable article, which is the cover story in the current Harper’s. She cogently explains how Pence and his Christian Right supporters draw upon the story of Babylonian exile to tell the story of their own persecution in America and the return of the persecuted to power, the latter thanks to a pagan leader (then Cyrus, now Trump) who is carrying out God’s plan to protect His chosen people (then the Hebrews, now the evangelicals). It will seem incredible to many readers that Pence can straight-facedly claim that – as quoted by O’Gieblyn – “no people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ.” However bizarre it may seem, the persecution trope is now commonplace in American evangelicalism, and Pence is simply channeling leaders such as Ken Ham who believe that, as we report in Righting America, “in what was and should be Christian America, true Christians are in the minority, true Christians are the downtrodden and the persecuted, true Christians are portrayed as the enemy, and true Christians are seen as ‘fair game’ for ‘brazen’ attacks that ‘are vicious, slanderous, and full of lies and hatred’” (162-3).

The print version of this scathing article is entitled “Church of Hypocrisy.” Pollitt convincingly argues that evangelicals have willingly sold their souls to the staggeringly immoral Donald Trump for the promise of ending Roe v. Wade, rolling back gay rights and civil rights legislation, and breaking down the wall separating church and state. For Pollitt, the silver lining is that this Trumpian bargain has brought “the discrediting of evangelical Christianity,” as now “everyone is laughing” at their jaw-dropping hypocrisy. Some readers will be discomfited by Pollitt’s harsh tone and her glee at the unmasking of conservative Protestantism – but there is no getting around the fact that she accurately describes how many Americans now see evangelicals, and for good reason. More than this, and this is not something Pollitt discusses, many evangelicals – particularly evangelical youth – are equally appalled by what the embrace of Trump has revealed about white evangelicalism in the United States. Who knows what all this means for the future American evangelicalism in the future . . . but surely evangelicals do not need to be told that selling one’s soul never works out in the end.

Making College (and America) Great Again!

If you want to understand why 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, schools are a very good place to start.

Here at the University of Dayton (UD) approximately 60 people – faculty and students from UD as well as from local evangelical colleges – gathered in Sears Recital Hall this past Wednesday afternoon to hear Adam Laats present on “Making College Great Again: Evangelical Higher Education from Darwin to Trump.” Borrowing from his newly-published Fundamentalist U, Adam traced the long-standing tradition in white evangelical higher education of combining conservative evangelical faith with a particularly intense form of American nationalism. Using Biola University, Bob Jones, Gordon College, Liberty University, Moody Bible Institute, and Wheaton College as his examples, Adam clearly and energetically traced the history of white evangelical commitment to making America great again from the early 20th century to the present.

It was a tour de force. One sign of this was the very good questions that emerged in the Q and A period. Here are a few:

  • Is there a difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and is the fundamentalist movement losing steam?
  • How do Pentecostals and Pentecostals fit into this story?
  • Are white evangelicals thinking for themselves and consciously choosing the Republican Party, or is this attachment so deep that it is simply assumed – a matter of conforming with other evangelicals?
  • When in his presidential campaign Trump, a la Nixon, called out to the “silent majority” to support his campaign, were white evangelicals this silent majority?
  • How have evangelical colleges viewed and influenced Catholic higher education? (Note to reader: Keep in mind that UD is a Catholic university!)
  • As regards the linking of evangelical faith and American nationalism, what about the fact that during the Cold War conservative evangelicals were obsessed with the idea that the United States was the force of Light in a battle with Satan and the Communist menace? (For Adam’s response to this question, see his blog post, The Devil Made Them Do It.)

Perhaps the most challenging and important question was asked, in different ways, by a couple of people in attendance:

  • How could any Christian of any denominational background ever mix up their priorities so badly? How could any Christian confuse his/her (primary) devotion to religion with his/her (secondary) devotion to country?

After the presentation Adam and Bill continued to discuss this question,  the focus being the great organizational mastermind of 1920s fundamentalism, William Bell Riley. Riley was a Baptist, and as a Baptist of that time he claimed that he was committed to the separation of church and state. And yet, when one reads what Riley wrote, it is very clear that the government and schools he wanted and expected was government and schools in line with his own conservative Protestant commitments.

What gives? The simple story is that in many ways evangelicals ran the show in nineteenth century America. But with the immigration of Catholics and Jews (and others) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and with the advance of “unchristian” ideas such as Darwinism and higher biblical criticism (historicism), conservative Protestants felt as if they were losing “their” country. This sense of loss has only deepened over the past century, with the increasing religious pluralism, and with increasing percentages of Americans who are people of color. And this sense that America and its schools have been stripped from white evangelicals, that America has been taken from its rightful proprietors, animates much of politicized fundamentalism today.

As Adam has put it:

It wasn’t much of a leap . . . to mix together a patriotic faith in the United States with a religious devotion to evangelical Christian values. Defending traditional Americanism was entirely equal to defending true evangelical religion, and vice versa. When the eternal mixed so profoundly with the national, it was not at all difficult or unusual for white fundamentalists to mash together their religious faiths with their patriotic fervor.

And so we get the Christian Right, and President Trump.

The T-Word in Evangelical Higher Education

Adam Laats is Professor of Education and History (by courtesy) at Binghamton University (State University of New York). His most recent book – which just came out – is Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford UP). His earlier books include The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard UP, 2015) and, with co-author Harvey Siegel, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Adam blogs at the wonderfully named I Love You But You Are Going to Hell.

And we are excited to announce that Adam will be speaking here at the University of Dayton this Wednesday afternoon, on the topic: “Making College Great Again: Evangelical Higher Education from Darwin to Trump.” Adam’s talk is open to the public – please join us for what should be a lively presentation! More information below.

Adam Laats will present “Making College Great Again” on Wednesday, April 11, 2018 from 4-5:30pm at University of Dayton’s Sears Recital Hall.


Brave truth-speaking or despicable racism? Bold Christian witness or cowardly hate-speech? Love it or hate it, the publication of an originally anonymous conservative newsletter at Taylor University has provoked ferocious responses. While the content is certainly enough to raise hackles, there is a more fundamental issue at stake, one that has always caused evangelical colleges to clamp down hard on anonymous newsletters.

As RACM has noted, the Excalibur/ResPublica newsletter met with an immediate reaction. President Paul Lowell Haines condemned the “discord and distrust” that the anonymous publication fueled.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I found in the research for my recent book about evangelical higher education that these sorts of anonymous newsletters have a long history. Sometimes the writers—as at Taylor—are from the fundamentalist right. Other times they’ve come from the evangelical left. In either case, however, the administration has felt compelled to react loudly and aggressively.

Why? Why do these anonymous religious/political/cultural screeds generate such reactions? It might seem easier for administrators to write off these newsletters as mere ideological wackiness—an unfortunate but harmless outburst from over-caffeinated evangelical intellectuals.

Administrators do not have that option. For decades now, anonymous newsletters at evangelical colleges have been met with immediate and sometimes surprisingly ferocious administrative responses. For instance, in 1963, Wheaton faculty members wondered why their school had punished students so relentlessly for publishing an ideologically charged magazine. The students, after all, had broken no rules. But they had tapped a third rail of evangelical colleges, the same third rail that has sparked such heat—if not a lot of light—at Taylor.

At Wheaton in 1963, the students had been banned from the official student newspaper. So at their own expense, they published and distributed an independent student newsletter, Critique. It wasn’t entirely anonymous; two editors included their names. But they left out the bylines for the rest of the contributors.

“Critique,” the student newspaper from Wheaton College.

In a nutshell, the student activists protested against Wheaton’s fundamentalist traditions. The writers criticized Wheaton’s “‘protective’ approach” to Christian education. Students who were banned from reading certain books or hearing certain speakers, they argued, “have no choice but to reject Christian education.”

Another writer warned that religious disagreements could never be crushed. Only “competent criticism” could convince people of religious truths, not “coercion.”

And, as another anonymous evangelical activist wrote, “The truth must bear all light.”

The students were right to be cautious. The two identified editors were suspended for an entire year, even though they had officially broken no rules.

Why such a harsh punishment? Wheaton’s faculty wondered. As one put it,

We must face frankly the undeniable inconsistencies between our talk and our walk. When we espouse critical thinking in the classroom and require party-line expression in publications we create a trap for students.

And as another faculty member asked pointedly,

Is not one year’s leave of absence an extremely severe penalty to inflict for this type of crime?—especially since [we] have suspend[ed] students for two weeks only, even though those students were admittedly guilty of drinking and violating their own personal integrity. . . I am concerned lest we shall come to that place where we consider the sin of opposing ideas the greatest of all sins. [Emphasis in original.]

If Wheaton’s rebels had this kind of faculty support, why did they still receive such harsh punishments? As at Taylor, the Critique episode provoked such extravagant response because it touched an intensely sore spot for evangelical colleges.

Namely, all evangelical colleges have an absolute, non-negotiable need to be seen as “true.” In order to maintain the faith and trust of their community, evangelical schools need relentlessly to police their reputation as steadfast enforcers of their evangelical, cultural, and political beliefs. This is not a luxury, but an existential necessity. If a school loses its reputation as “true,” it risks losing students’ tuition dollars and alumni donation dollars. Losing one’s reputation as “true” is a life-and-death threat for evangelical institutions.

Certainly, the details change over time. No student these days would be punished at Wheaton for wondering if students should engage with ideas outside the fundamentalist tradition. But though the specific boundaries may change over time, the basic need for all evangelical colleges to be seen as “true” remains as strong and as binding as ever.

In Taylor’s case, that means an anonymous newsletter charging moral decay and institutional slackening can’t be treated as a mere oddity. It can’t be dismissed as a wacky howl from a small group of campus cranks. Rather, because it raises the question of Taylor’s status as a “true” institution, this newsletter must be treated as a serious charge, an accusation deserving an immediate and reassuring response

Notes from the (Ongoing) Controversy at Taylor University

In looking at Excalibur – the self-advertised “publication of the Taylor University conservative underground” — here is what we see:

  • The authors of Excalibur claim that – because of “our current cultural climate” as well as “leftist trends” on campus — they have chosen to remain anonymous so that they can “focus on the issues.” While the authors are trading on the notion that they are victims of a hostile cultural and campus climate, such a suggestion involves a weird twisting of roles, given that the two faculty members presumably have control over curricular content in their classrooms. As Barton Price (IP-Fort Wayne) noted on Facebook, “I’m always intrigued by the efforts of conservatives to claim the ‘underground’ or ‘marginalized voices.’ I am sure this may be true in some settings of higher education, but not at many (most?) evangelical schools.” Actually, Excalibur’s whining about the lot of conservatives at Taylor is prima facie evidence that the victimhood trope has captured much of American evangelicalism.

 

  • Excalibur is yet another example of the problems white evangelicalism has with race. According to the newsletter, “a conservative-libertarian approach to race relations is most respectful of racial minorities and holds out the most promise for long term racial justice in this country.” Not only is this statement from four white guys profoundly patronizing, but there is also no historical evidence to support this claim, and no apparent awareness that white evangelicals in the United States were among the very last to support the civil rights movement. And while Excalibur proudly asserts (again, without evidence) that “our nation has enabled more freedom and prosperity for more people, including racial minorities,” there is nary a word about America’s structural racism, police shootings of African Americans, and overwhelming white evangelical support for a president who trades in thinly-veiled racist demagoguery. No wonder African Americans are leaving white evangelical churches  and abandoning the label “evangelical.”

 

  • In the section, “Imago Dei,” the argumentative strategy employed by Excalibur – a strategy employed by many conservative evangelicals – is very clear:
    • Announce a starting point, i.e., “a single, Christian conviction regarding human nature . . . that [as stated in Genesis 1] humans were created in the image of God.”
    • Assert that Christians must agree on this starting point, or they are not truly Christian: “one who rejects this crucial tenet of biblical anthropology no longer espouses an essentially Christian theology.”
    • Claim that there is a list of propositions – e.g., opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and animal rights (?) – that inevitably result from this starting point and that must also be accepted by true Christians. That is to say, disagree with them, and you are at odds with Christ.

 

  • This demand that we must all start from exactly the same premise (despite the complexity of Christian thinking/teaching/texts) and that the premise inevitably leads to one set of correct conclusions is all about shutting down debate, not opening it up. This is particularly clear in “The Shepherd’s Voice,” where the “other” with whom you disagree is constructed as a “stranger” and a “threat” from whom a true Christian will “run.” This binary also applies to social justice: one approach is good and aligns with Christianity and the US, and the other is a threat to both. All of this suggests that Excalibur is all about naming the enemies of Taylor, and silencing them or rooting them out.

 

  • And this leads to our last point. Despite the fact that President Haines responded to Excalibur with a statement lamenting that “the unsanctioned, anonymous, and suspect distribution of the publication sewed discord and distrust,” the controversy at Taylor appears to be just beginning. The second issue of Excalibur has appeared; it is now called (only a little less pretentiously) ResPublica and the contributors are listed, but the byline indicates that the victimhood trope remains firmly in place: “The Conservative Voice You Are Free to Ignore.” In response, a colleague of ours – who knows all about purification campaigns at evangelical institutions – writes that these folks are obviously “in this for the long haul.” They may already be getting traction. According to the March 9 issue of the campus newspaper, President Haines –  “reflecting back on his earlier campus-wide released statement” – is now saying that “those who believe he stood against the content of Excalibur misread his statement,” as he was simply asserting that “’Taylor is a place where we wrestle with ideas of all kinds.’” As Bill wrote in an essay on “Independent Christian Colleges” (in which his first example is Taylor), “while fundamentalist schools are much more concerned with strict, impermeable boundaries, and while a good number of faculty members at evangelical schools would not be allowed to teach at a fundamentalist school,” evangelical schools also can be quite willing to “engage in a purge.” Whether Taylor goes that route, only time will tell.

Law-Defying and Sexually Permissive Marxist Evolutionists Take Over Midwestern Evangelical College (Really?)

The headline in Christianity Today says it all: “Taylor University Still Shaken by Unsanctioned Conservative Newspaper.”

Founded in 1847, Taylor is now an independent Christian college of approximately 1900 undergraduate students located in Upland, Indiana. In keeping with its roots in the holiness branch of Methodism, all members of the Taylor community are expected to adhere to the Life Together Covenant, which prohibits (among other things) alcohol consumption, most forms of dancing, and “homosexual behavior” (see Adam Laats on the effort of evangelical colleges to “thread the needle” when it comes to homosexuality.)

To most folks outside the world of evangelical higher education Taylor seems quite conservative. But on February 21 a newsletter appeared throughout campus, in which the anonymous authors charged that Taylor was moving leftward:

We perceive a growing trend on campus of . . . permissivist views of human sexuality, hostility toward creationist perspectives, rejection of the rule of law (especially on the immigration issue), and uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideals (e.g., in the form of Marxist-inspired critical race theory).

The newsletter – grandiosely entitled Excalibur, after King Arthur’s sword – was presented as “a publication of the Taylor University conservative underground.” But the newsletter produced almost immediate controversy, and within two days the school’s president, Paul Howell Haines, weighed in with a “community letter” in which he lamented that

The unsanctioned, anonymous, and suspect distribution of the publication sewed discord and distrust, hurting members of our community.

The resultant uproar has forced the publishers of Excalibur to reveal their identities: soccer coach Gary Ross, biblical studies professor Richard Smith; philosophy and religion professor Jim Spiegel; and, marketing director Ben Wehling.  But as the Christianity Today article makes clear, the controversy at Taylor is far from over.

Below is a copy of Excalibur (as well as President Haines’ response), so you can read it for yourself (and if you have comments, please free to share them). In our next post we will make a few observations as to what we see here.

 

Excaliburandresponse (1)

White Anger Will Not Have the Last Word

As it is Holy Week for Christians, and just a few days after the March for Our Lives, it seems appropriate to post this poetic reflection from our old friend Rod Kennedy.

Rodney Kennedy has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University and 45 years of preaching experience. Among other publications, he is co-author Will Campbell, Preacher Man: Essays in the Spirit of a Divine Provocateur (Cascade, 2016). He is currently Interim Pastor at the First Baptist Church of Peoria (IL).

Students Participating in the March for Our Lives. (c) CNN, 2018

Staring out my office window, distracted from the last run through of my sermon as twelve inches of snow on March 25 give my mind a metaphorical turn. Spring started days ago and yet here is all this white stuff on the ground. For a day it poured forth from the sky as if having an anger fit over the end of winter.

Since the stuff is so pure and white, I couldn’t help but think that this late, last-gasp snow represents the last stand of angry white people across America. While they keep attacking gays, Muslims, immigrants, human rights, and almost everything that is diverse and good, our children and grandchildren are massing across the country to demand an end to gun violence.

Yes, the snow is here but will be gone soon. Winter is almost over and Spring will have her time in spite of Winter’s last all-out blitzkrieg. I sip my vanilla latte, delete a sentence from my sermon, smile at the idea of warmth and the arrival of all the colors of the human race. Welcome to Spring! 

P.S. In an event sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council, today (Mar. 29) at 6:30 P.M. Bill is speaking at the Barberton Public Library (near Akron) on the topic, Ohio’s Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s.

Fundamentalism, Creationism, and the Escape from History

Jason A. Hentschel has a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Dayton, and is currently senior pastor at Wyoming Baptist Church (Wyoming, OH). His research focuses on the intersection of evangelicalism and modern American culture. He has contributed chapters to The Bible in American Life and The Handbook of the Bible in America,  both of which were published by Oxford University Press in 2017. He is currently revising his book manuscript, “Inerrancy and the Evangelical Quest for Certainty,” for publication.

When in 1992 Ron Numbers published the first edition of his masterpiece, The Creationists, there was virtually no one else engaged in the academic study of creationism. But thanks to Ron’s groundbreaking book and ongoing research, here we are, decades later, and the work on creationism has simply exploded (see pp. 314-316 in Righting America for a listing of some of this work). So it was that last weekend at the Ohio Academy of History to the point that there was a session devoted to creationism.  Dustin Nash (Muhlenberg College) presented on “Dinosaurs and Jews at the Creation Museum”; Carl Weinberg (Indiana University-Bloomington) spoke on “Adnan Oktar’s Turkish Creationism as a Mirror on America”; and, we (Bill and Sue) discussed “Patriarchal Creationism and the Feminist Challenge.”

It was a very lively session, with many questions and comments from those in attendance. In fact, there were so many questions that Jason Hentschel, session chair and respondent, graciously turned over his allotted time to the audience. But given that Jason’s prepared remarks are so insightful – particularly regarding the effort of fundamentalists to escape history – we are very happy to publish them here.

Do you know what’s great about a good panel? I think a good panel is one that, even while each paper raises its own specific questions and concerns, when you put all of them together, a common theme or two seem to arise independently. Well, I think we have a good panel, and, to me, the common theme that rises to the surface is this: Creationism, whether the American Christian brand or the Turkish Islamic brand, is trying to get away from history, at least as how we think of history today: as the story of change, the story of complexity, the story of contingency.

Let me give some examples. In “Dinosaurs and Jews” Dustin notes that the Creation Museum erases the “memory of Judaism from the totalizing story of time” that the museum wants to tell. For Answers in Genesis (AiG), the Christian story remains fully coherent even when you slash out two or three thousand years of it. This cavalier approach to the complexity and stickiness of history is echoed in loads of evangelical theology. Whenever I think of this, I think of Charles Hodge’s description of the theologian’s task. (Hodge, a theologian at Princeton during the late 19th century, is in many ways the father of American evangelical theology.) As Hodge explained in his Systematic Theology, the Bible is a storehouse of God-given facts “which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other.” What theologians are supposed to do is mine the Bible’s story for the true propositions hidden underneath all the miscellaneous historical or narratival junk, and then put all those truths into a more systematic and coherent form. Well, here’s the deal: When you read Hodge, you get the feeling that once we do this, we don’t really need the Bible and its story anymore. We’ve taken from the Bible what God really wanted us to know . . . and now we can discard the Bible. No wonder the Creation Museum can extract “David the psalmist” from “David the Jewish king,” and then lay claim to David as some sort of proto-Charles Wesley. David’s history doesn’t really matter.

We can mildly see the same sort of thing in Adnan Oktar’s appropriation of a kind of “Berkleyan” idealism. Oktar’s point, as Carl puts it in “Turkish Creationism as a Mirror on America,” is to argue that the only real absolute being is Allah. Everything else is illusion, and so we have “no basis for concluding that external reality exists.” The payoff for Oktar, it seems, is that he can then claim that social evolution is nonsense, because the only thing that really exists is the stable, immutable, and timeless mind of God. God does not evolve and neither do his precepts.

It is ironic that Amerian fundamentalists took the opposite epistemological route – they sided with Thomas Reid’s common sense realism over Berkeley’s and Hume’s idealism – but only to come to the same conclusion, i.e., that what we have are timeless truths drawn straight from the unchanging mind of God. Those truths are just located in a biblical story. But if we are willing to take the text “naturally” – as Ken Ham would put it, which means without the clouding lens of evolutionary thinking – then we can see what God really wants us to know. We can access the mind of God and thus cut through all of history’s subjectivizing contingencies and muddying complexities.

When we come to Bill and Sue’s paper on “Patriarchal Creationism” this effort to escape history becomes quite blatant. The shift in the evangelical argument for patriarch – from looking at the Fall as the source of patriarchal inequality to looking at patriarchy as inherent in the Trinity (Jesus is subordinate to the Father and the Spirit is subordinate to both) – is an explicit example of the attempt “to lock things down” for all time and for all places. This is how AiG – and most of the evangelical world – understands divine authority. We have it; it’s just a matter of listening to it. One of the more fascinating things I’ve found when talking with my evangelical friends and family about male headship is that evangelical women tend to hold the position more strongly than evangelical men. God said it; we obey it.

At the end of their paper Bill and Sue wonder how people who claim to be the “real guardians of true Christian doctrine” could so readily embrace what has historically been understood as Trinitarian heresy. A key reason, I think is because the creeds themselves are seen as historical – and thus human – constructions. Simply put, history just does not really matter. What matters is God and what God says. So, yes, Eve is “stripped of all moral agency whatsoever,” but that state of being is actually the ideal state. Ideally, whatever moral agency we have will evaporate. We will become like God – timeless, changeless, perfected. Outside of history.

Interpreting the Ark’s Apocalypse: Responding to Praise from Answers in Genesis

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health.

I strongly believe in the value of scholarly engagement with the public, so the work that academics are doing can reach those who might benefit from it. Because of this belief, I was pleased to hear that Answers in Genesis (AiG), a group I had studied in my dissertation and the creators of the Ark Encounter, had read my article in the Southern Communication Journal about their newest attraction and responded to it. In the spirit of engagement, I happily continue the conversation about what I feel is an important topic: public engagement with science.

To begin, it is incredibly important for academics to find agreement with their subjects on their descriptions and interpretations in their work. I was pleased when reading Dr. Purdom’s post that my writing resonated with her (and I’m assuming others at AiG) as being an accurate and “valid” description of the space. Dr. Purdom summarizes my argument well in noting how the Ark contains many elements common to apocalyptic argument, in both discursive and material forms.

The key point of this post, however, is to address the important distinctions between Dr. Purdom and myself when it comes to interpretations of both the Ark and my article. It is my hope that this post continues my protesting, for the fact that Dr. Purdom reads my article as “complimentary” suggests that I have protested not enough against what I view are potentially damaging structures like the Ark.

The biggest contentions Dr. Purdom raises in my summaries of the Ark appear to be my focus on the material elements of the space, specifically its ramps. I readily acknowledge that the decisions to make pathways through the Ark are unintentional and simply a practical concern. Dr. Purdom describes my writing as “forc[ing] her apocalyptic views,” but she has misinterpreted these views as ones that I hold. Instead, these interpretations emerge from the space themselves that align with other apocalyptic features of the Ark. Whether they are intentional or not (and Dr. Purdom writes they “were not really designed with that intention”), their presence nonetheless contributes to the rhetorical power of the Ark’s arguments. Intentionality is not necessary to send a message, just as Dr. Purdom notes her own surprise at the readings of apocalypse from the Ark by both myself and the documentary crew. Part of the goal of rhetorical criticism is to uncover words, symbols, and physical features that may be influencing us in ways that we may only be unconsciously aware.

Dr. Purdom agrees with many of the arguments I make about the Ark’s appeals to authority, evil, and time. Our primary difference, however, is the interpretation of those descriptions. For example, Dr. Purdom quotes a summary sentence from the article regarding what I perceive to be the Ark’s argument: “If Noah’s story is true, the rest of the Bible, including passages about the return of Jesus to Earth and the next global judgment before the apocalypse, are infused with accuracy and truth” to which Dr. Purdom writes, “Agreed!”

But Dr. Purdom is not agreeing with me. Instead, she is agreeing with my characterization of what the Ark is attempting to argue. In this sense, I am again glad that I am correctly analyzing the site, but I must correct Dr. Purdom’s idea that my writing should be interpreted as lending support for or validating the Ark’s arguments. Instead, I am attempting to analyze how those arguments take shape, in what I view as an insidious way of influencing the Ark’s visitors to go against mainstream science and accept young Earth creationism out of fear.

In reading both my article and Dr. Purdom’s response, it is integral to recognize that we have very different worldviews regarding science and religion. I embrace my bestowed title of “unbeliever,” and do not hide but acknowledge that status within the original article. I am a firm advocate of “better science education,” but my version of “better” does not include a literal reading of the Bible (which leads AiG, for example, to conclude that the Earth is a mere thousands of years old instead of billions). My view relies on the evidence we can find in the fossil record, the similarities across animal life down to the genetic level, and the overwhelming scientific consensus on evolutionary theory. Dr. Purdom’s view (and AiG as a whole) relies on a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible to contain scientific and historical fact. These differences in worldviews shape our understanding of the Ark and the implications of its apocalyptic arguments. While Dr. Purdom embraces the strategy of apocalypse as a way to “effectively share the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” I intend to point out the Ark’s apocalyptic arguments so that we may be aware of strategies that disrupt the public’s understanding of science.

Dr. Purdom notes that the Ark Encounter presents both the positions of creationism and evolution, but, having toured the Ark, my opinion is that its scientific appeals do not hold water. The Ark does not persuade through scientific rigor, but through the sheer size, impression, and scope of the structure and its contents. In this sense, Dr. Purdom is right that I was “impacted” by my visit. But, the impact was not to be persuaded by the Ark’s apocalyptic argument, but to recognize its function as a contemporary, felt tactic of creationism.

My goal is not to remove religion or chastise its presence at the Ark (or at any religious site), but to question the implications of these arguments when they challenge public knowledge about science. People leaving the Ark will not have learned accurate information about science, but they may leave scared of the perceived consequences of questioning literal interpretations of the Bible. When these discourses intersect and potentially imperil scientific knowledge, I feel it is my duty and responsibility to protest.

P.S. This weekend the Ohio Academy of History meets here at the University of Dayton. As part of a session in honor of the late Jake Dorn, Sue and Bill will presenting their paper, “Patriarchal Creationism and the Feminist Challenge.” The panel will be at 10.30 AM in Kennedy Union 207.

Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the RACM blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.