One of my young academic Christian facebook friends recently announced that he was going start a blog, even though he had been warned not to do so. I made a few comments on his page offering him some advice about being a Christian scholar with a blog. Indeed, I got the feeling that he was going to blog on conservative subjects and being a Christian who sometimes writes about subjects not popular with other academics, I hope my advice to him was relevant. The stakes are higher for him than for me given that he is young and unestablished. But of course on facebook, my advice is limited by the amount of space I can reasonably use. Since we are in a news cycle devoid of stories I want to comment on (Am I the only one tired of the Bergdahl story?), and I do not have research coming out that I have not already talked about, I decided to write this entry on the advice I would give young Christian academics about taking their research and/or ideas public – especially when those ideas are controversial.
In my early years, I wrote about racial issues such as interracial dating, racial issues in Christianity and racial identity. I, along with several other Christian scholars and activists, was critical of how Christians handled racial issues. I like to think that we played in important role in helping the Church become more aware of its need to deal with racism. Much of that work was seen favorably by other academics. In fact, most of my work dealing with our racialized society was well-received. Perhaps the only exception to this was my work on the assimilation of non-black racial minorities which naturally attracted some critique from some arguing that a different racial formation was emerging in our society. But even here the critiques were based on academic arguments and not personal accusations.
Over the last several years, my research focus has changed. I looked at anti-Christian bias in academia and then branched out to examining this bias in general society. I have also studied groups that opposed the political and social aims of conservative Christians. This new emphasis did not generate the same level of academic support as my work on race and racism. Indeed, even though I believe myself to be a better researcher and writer today than when I first started, it is harder to get my material published on these new subjects. Furthermore, my critics do not always rely merely on academic assessments of my work, but snide comments about my character are more commonplace. Therefore, I can tell young Christian scholars that I have been on both sides of the coin. I have conducted research that reinforced the epistemological presuppositions of most academics and work that challenged those presuppositions. I hope this provides me with a wide range of experiences from which I can offer this advice.
So the first piece of advice I would want to offer is for such scholars to seriously consider the consequences of doing research or discussing ideas that conflict with secular, humanist values in general academic culture. I appreciate the way my career developed. By focusing on work that was relatively non-controversial, I was able to learn how to do research without the extra burden of overcoming the philosophical assumptions within the discipline. This helped me understand what good research looked like and allowed me to later on be aware of when criticisms were illegitimate. I needed that experience to help me push forward on my work looking at anti-Christian perspectives in society. However, I cannot state that this is the only, or perhaps even the best, way a Christian should approach controversial topics. Perhaps a Christian feels called to jump right into those topics right from the very beginning. Or perhaps avoid those topics altogether. But it is important for the young Christian scholar to deliberately count the costs of tackling those topics and if choosing to proceed then deciding how to do so.
When considering whether to deal with a controversial topic, I recommend that the young Christian scholar does not fall for the hype of academics being open searchers for the truth. The scholar may believe that if he or she is correct and the evidence is sound, then other academics will listen. That is a myth and particularly relevant as it concerns Christians. My research has indicated that academics are more willing to discriminate against conservative Christians than against just about any other social group. If academics are willing to discriminate against conservative Christians then they are likely willing to ignore ideas, no matter how much evidence there is to support that idea, if it can be connected to conservative Christianity. Acknowledging this reality should be factored in since if a Christian is public with his or her faith it will be seen as that faith helping to shape his or her work and that can put job prospects of the young Christian scholar in jeopardy. (Yes, I know that homosexual academics are free to allow their sexuality to shape their work, female academics are free to allow their gender to shape their work and racial minorities are free to allow their racial identity shape their work but that is the way it is. It is not fair but we have to accept the reality of this) So as a Christian scholar considers at an early stage in his or her career whether to tackle controversial subjects, he or she must consider whether it is worth compromising occupational opportunities.
There is another factor to be pondered when tackling controversial topics. Academia in general is an institution that values excellence. I remember my first few submissions to peer review journals and the panning they received. It taught me that I had to be very detailed and critical of my own work. This is the case no matter the subject I choose to write about. However, on controversial subjects, the ability to do excellent work becomes even more important. There will be scholars not open to giving controversial work a fair hearing and will go out of their way to pick such work apart. As such, if a young Christian scholar wants to write about controversial subjects, particularly if his or her position can be attributed to Christian faith, then that scholar has to be even more rigorous than other academics.
This striving for excellence is relevant even when not writing in formal academic journals. Blog writing cannot be a venue where the Christian scholar can vent frustrations and loosely throw around wild comments. The internet will ensure that any such comments will last for the lifetime of the author. Those comments can be used, fairly or unfairly, to paint character. So I tell my young Christian scholar to weigh all of your words carefully, even if they are just in a blog or a comment section where your identity can be recognized. When you write, assume that those who vehemently disagree will read those comments and look for any way to use those comments against you. Those comments may come back to haunt the Christian scholar five, ten, or even twenty years from now. Even today, as a full professor, I am careful with what I write in public venues like this one, as I have seen how individuals have been burned by a loose statement that was twisted to make them look arrogant, stupid, bigoted etc.
Another piece of advice I would offer concerns finding social support. When I first entered academia as a Christian, I did not know a lot of other Christian academics. As a result I often felt alone. This was before the internet and other resources today that allow us to locate like-minded individuals. Fortunately, I did locate a group called ACTS (Association of Christians Teaching Sociology) that consisted of other Christian sociologists. Generally, these individuals taught on Christian college campuses and so they did not have the exact same challenges that I had, but we had enough in common that I could receive important social support. Today there are other opportunities for social networks that can be investigated. On many campuses there are interdisciplinary groups of Christian academics who meet and support each other. There are facebook groups where liked minded Christian academics can support each other. I am certain an enterprising young Christian scholar can find other opportunities to meet Christians in academia. There are some issues that neither your non-academic Christian friends nor your non-Christian academic friends will completely understand. So my advice is to prioritize finding like-minded colleagues who can offer the sort of social and intellectual support that a young Christian needs. That support is important for gaining a sounding board for whether to tackle important controversial issues or for needed encouragement if the scholar decides to take on those issues.
I would also ask young Christian academics to honestly consider the anti-intellectualism within our faith. That anti-intellectualism produces a suspicion about what occurs on college campuses. When we think about controversial topics we also have a dual responsibility with our fellow Christians. First, we must reassure them that we are not their enemies. Some Christians have had run-ins with academics who looked down upon and ridiculed them. We have to make sure they know that is not our intention. When I used to talk about racism at conferences, I made sure that the Christians I interacted with knew that my intentions were to help the Church, and not tear it down. Second, we have to challenge our Christian brothers and sisters to embrace intellectualism instead of rejecting it. I am a huge believer in Gould’s nonoverlapping magisteria idea that religion and science do not conflict with each other. We can encourage our fellow Christians to wholeheartedly use their faith to answer the questions relevant to our faith but to look towards science for the questions that can be answered by scientific inquiry. We do not merely tackle topics that are controversial to academics but also to Christians if we are going to be the prophets to the Church as well as to the society.
Finally, it is always important to make sure young Christian scholars take care of themselves spiritually as well as academically. I was fortunate in that I learned early in my life the value of a holistic approach to life. Thus, I strived to keep growing not only intellectually, but also physically and spiritually. This allowed me to become a multidimensional person. It is vital to do the hard intellectual work necessary to be a sound scholar. But it is also important to keep connected to our churches and tend to our own devotional lives if we want to nourish our Christian faith. Interacting with non-academic Christians helps keep me grounded in the struggles of others and not to think too highly of myself. It reminds me of the basic disciplines that give my faith its depth and meaning. I remember that I am a Christian first, and an academic second, which keeps me rooted in who I am.
Well this is some of my advice for the young Christian scholar. I hope that any who reads this blog entry will find this advice to be useful. I have loved this life of the spirit and of the mind. It is a challenge, but this life also comes with great personal and intellectual rewards. If you feel called to enter into that life as well, I welcome you with open arms.