Not your father's Bob Jones University?

BobJonesWebcam.jpgMy Scripps Howard column today took me back into the faith-integration wars at Baylor University, my alma mater, and the growth of institutions that try to blend ancient Christian faith and modern learning, which required a reference to the Council for Christian Colleges and my work there.

As I said before here on the blog, I have refrained from writing much about the Baylor conflict because I have family ties and I have friends on both sides of the battle. Still, I wanted to try to explain how the Baylor conflict is linked to some larger issues in higher education, both secular and sacred. If the mood strikes you, take a look.

Writing the column reminded me of several recent pieces I have read about related topics. The first concerns a controversial new book called God on the Quad by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley. Here is the top of a Wall Street Journal piece on her thesis, which focuses on a small circle of religious schools and the growth of the CCCU in general.

It’s not news in academia, although it may come as a surprise to the rest of us: America’s 700-plus religiously affiliated colleges and universities are enjoying an unprecedented surge of growth and a revival of interest. . . .

(The) number of students attending the 100 schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities — an organization of four-year liberal-arts schools dedicated to promoting the Christian faith — rose 60% between 1990 and 2002. In those same years the attendance at nonreligious public and private schools stayed essentially flat. The number of applications to the University of Notre Dame, the nation’s premier Catholic college, has risen steadily over the past decade, with a 23% jump last year alone.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Many religious schools, traditionally regarded as second-tier or worse, have improved the quality of their students and of their academic offerings, sometimes dramatically.

The Boston Globe recently dug into a related trend — the growth of traditional Christian ministries on a wide variety of campuses. To explore that angle, click here.

But the article that intrigued me the most was a Newsweek online exclusive, an interview with Stephen Jones, the next heir to the presidency of Bob Jones University (see webcam). This is one institution that fits almost any historian’s definition of “Christian fundamentalism.” Yet check out these exchanges with journalist Susannah Meadows:

NEWSWEEK: Why does your father feel the university needs a younger leader?

Stephen Jones: He said in the last two or three years he really doesn’t understand this generation, with all the dramatic changes socially and culturally our nation’s gone through. It just kind of creates a gap there.

Which changes specifically?

The inroads the culture has made even into the church. The MTV generation, pop culture, all of that has been significant and has really increased in intensity over the past 15 years. His whole generation has a hard time with it. Doesn’t understand. . . .

What do you see young people struggling with?

The philosophical view point that there is no absolute truth, that one person’s belief is just as good as another, that two different things can both be right. That’s a completely postmodern view of truth and one that’s insupportable by scripture. A student has to wrestle through that because it’s definitely not popular. It’s definitely not the message of the culture and the media. It’s one of the things I have to wrestle through, what will orient my life.

George Barna! Call your answering service. The raised-on-MTV students at Bob Jones University are struggling with postmodernism and the loss of transcendent moral absolutes?

Of course they are. Meet the new mall, same as the old mall.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Clayton Jackson

    Nice article, Terry. Two comments about it:

    (1) You said: “Thus, the world’s largest Southern Baptist school was a ‘university with a Christian atmosphere,’ but not a ‘Christian university’ that blended ancient faith and modern learning.” I think that’s an interpretative judgment about the past that distorts the reality of Baylor’s identity before Sloan. Samuel Brooks and George Truett would have been surprised to know that they were only in a “Christian atmosphere”! Herb Reynolds would have been, too. I think it’s revisionist history to say that Baylor wasn’t truly Christian before Robert Sloan. Sloan obviously wanted to redefine what it meant to be a Christian university, but that doesn’t mean that Baylor was only nominally Christian in the past. I think that’s more an effective spin technique to justify the changes (after all, who doesn’t want to be on the Christian side?) than a reflection of reality.

    (2) Robert Benne’s quote–”Above all, traditional Baptists disagree with Sloan’s contention that Christianity has intellectual content”–is just plain absurd. Does he (or you) seriously believe that? The implication of that statement, of course, is to say that those who oppose Sloan are anti-intellectuals who opposed him out of their knee-jerk stupidity. They’re mindless robots who are afraid of an intellectual faith because it might disturb them. That’s not only has no basis in reality, it’s condescending and quite arrogant.

    The most brilliant move that Sloan ever made was to tie in the changes he was trying to institute with the spin that Baylor (1) wasn’t Christian enough before he came to save it; (2) that if you didn’t agree with him you were either dumb or not truly Christian; and (3) that because he’s on the Christian side, he should be able to do anything he wants. None of that is true, but he was able to gain a lot of supporters who are fighting opponents (anti-intellectual Christian atmospherists) who don’t exist. It’s brilliant spin.

  • tmatt

    Clayton:

    Several points, about an article that was very narrowly focused and, yes, a column not a news story. We don’t want to go too “inside Baylor” here. The key, from a media perspective, is that the regents and Sloan are often protrayed as fundamentalists and that has nothing to do with the current debate about the integration of faith and learning.

    (1) I agree on Truett. I do not, based on experience and years of reading, agree on Reynolds and the Baylor of the 1960s and beyond.

    Solomon said that his education at Baylor in the ’60s was totally secular, with the exception of one or two Bible classes that were “like advanced Sunday School.” My experience in the 1970s was more secular than that, even. I have followed Baylor life very closely since then, too.

    It is crucial to say that most Baylor students met and admired some wonderful Christians who were faculty members (and many who were neutral or anti-faith). But the Christian faculty members rarely, if ever, allowed their faith influence any of the content of their classes. Now, having said that, let me note that when I speak on this subject at Christian colleges, I argue that a professor should not bring faith issues into a class unless their are solid reasons in history or theory to do so. If you cannot justify it in a syllabus, then save it for discussion periods. This is a huge subject and one we can’t get into here. But the goal is education, not church camp.

    The “Christian university” definition sought by the regents is simply the approach used — for ages — in the vast majority of distinctively Christian colleges and universities. The regents have wanted to join mainstream Christian education, as opposed to the process of secularization written about by many. See “The Dying of the Light” by the former provost of Notre Dame.

    (2) On Benne: Yes, I believe that they deny that there is a body of Christian intellectual tradition in the East and West — a mere Christianity, to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase — that has any authority in intellectual life. Note the rising number of traditional Roman Catholics on the Baylor faculty and the tensions, behind the headlines, over this fact.

    (3) The opponents of Sloan and the regents obviously are not stupid. No one would say that. They are intellectuals shaped by a uniquely Baptist anti-tradition tradition and the process of secular graduate programs. I urge journalists who are interested in this to read the Christian Century article — hardly a fundamentalist or papist publication — for themselves.

  • Christopher

    As an Orthodox Christian who will soon be having children, I have been following these developments with interest. I can not imagine any situation that would enable me to support my children attending the typical secular university, public or private. I am of the belief that education is a core failing of both my parents generation and my grandparents. During a time of incredible rising prosperity, they neglected education to the point that it is nothing short of a moral abomination today. One of my central anxieties as a (future) parent is how to educate (and here I mean education in a classical sense) my children in a time when it has been all but forgotten…

  • Clayton Jackson

    Thanks Terry–I appreciate the response. I’ll try not to make this response too insider-ish.

    We would probably find agreement on the idea of what should happen in the classroom, and I would definitely agree with the regents that Baylor shouldn’t slip into secularism. I do think that professors at Baylor should have a way of bringing their faith into the classroom–or at least feel open about it–as long as it connects with the material. I don’t think it helps our Christian colleges if they find Jesus behind every math problem, but we also want them bring our faith to bear on what the students are learning.

    I realize that you’re writing as a journalist with limited space and multiple audiences, and that this affects your language. But, I think the reason I press you on some of these sentences is that they tend (at least in my mind) to paint the other side in an overly negative and anti-Christian light: as people who don’t care if Baylor slips into secularism and who are uncomfortable with a truly Christian university (because of their misguided beliefs). In other words, I don’t know of many who are fighting to make Baylor just a “Christian atmopshere” or to stop Sloan from hiring just Christians. They’re fighting the way that the Christianization has gone about–which has been anything but Christian in a lot of cases. I guess I really just disagree with what the Baylor battle has been all about.

    On Benne: if he was talking about an awareness of the larger Christian tradition, then I’d agree with him. Baptists–and most evangelicals–are notoriously unaware of the Christian intellectual tradition. That’s something magazines like CT can help with, I think.

    Anyway, that’s all. I thought the article was helpful and well-done. And, as I’ve said before, I’m a daily reader of this blog and really enjoy it. Sorry to be a one-issue critic.

  • chuck

    About 18 months ago I ran into a friend who is from Waco. Very active in a mainline church there. I asked for their spin on what was happening at Baylor.

    One of the things that came up was the impact that 2012 was having on this mainline congregation. Apparently a number of faculty and families were active in this congregation. And they were “Old Baylor.” The “New Baylor” folks were nowhere to be found in this congregation.

    Most of the teachers in adult ed at this congregation were Baylor faculty. This allowed the congregation to have a pretty advanced quality of adult ed. That would be lost if these faculty left Baylor. And my friend seemed to think that was a real possibility.

    I have not had a chance to followup on that conversation.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    “Postmodernism” — a very broad, catchall term — does not involve the belief that there is no absolute truth. This is a point hammered on by alleged arch postmodernists such as Stanley Fish, Judith Butler, and Frederic Jameson. Jones, like too many conservatives, caricatures postmodernism in order to make it an effective organizaing tool, a straw man. Do such conservative critics read postmodern theorists? Or do they read conservative analyses of postmodern theorists? The latter approach is poor research. No one who has not spent a signicant amount of time reading a fairly wide array of postmodern theorists should use the term flippantly. This is no special pleading for postmodernism (my grasp of the terms is weak, but I’m more of a modernist myself), but rather, an argument against political and cultural positions based on little or no knowledge of that which is opposed.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    I think what Jones is referring to is what (following Terry Eagleton) you might call sophomore postmodernism–which is a real phenomenon, even if it is not really an accurate account of most postmodern theorists. People who teach undergraduates have to deal with it all the time (at least in the humanities–my wife, who teaches physics, doesn’t often encounter it in her classes for some reason :) ). It doesn’t matter that Fish/Butler/Jameson/Derrida/Foucault don’t espouse it, what matters is the way that their theories have lodged in the culture. And fundamentalism is indeed ill-equipped to respond to that.

  • Christopher

    I second what Andy does. Then, so does Jeff when he says:

    {“Postmodernism” — a very broad, catchall term}

    Used in this context, it is a good descriptor of a general mind – a culture, that is obviously present. Also, I must take issue when Jeff says:

    {does not involve the belief that there is no absolute truth.}

    It most certainly does if it’s presuppositions are wrong. If reality is more like what the many “conservatives” assert, then postmodernism is just like the conservative analyses…


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