Banned in Wheaton

I’m going back to examine an interesting January article that got lost in the Get Religion shuffle.

The article, published on the web site, explores the decision by an executive at Christianity Today, Inc. to cancel a planned article about Wheaton College that was set to be published in CTi’s highbrow Books & Culture magazine.

Evaluating the work of the education web site and the Christian magazine, the grades (I’ve been grading papers) are:

– = A

Books & Culture = F

You can read both articles here, including the banned article by Andrew Chignell, an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University. Chignell graduated from Wheaton and his father taught there for more than two decades. Chignell has also posted a behind-the-scenes article about the battle over his original piece.

Chignell’s banned article is a classic example of the insider/loving critic approach that so often infuriates evangelicals (and true believers of all stripes):

The goal here is to view Wheaton the way it views itself: as the preeminent religious college in the country and the training ground for generations of Christian leaders. To lay claim to such a responsibility, there has to be a willingness — especially in a community founded on love of God and neighbor — to honestly evaluate past administrations in the process of appointing new ones.

The article about this article, written by Scott Jaschik for, is a fair, balanced and thorough example of forensic journalism:

… [Chignell's] article was killed at the last minute by the president of Christianity Today International, a ministry founded by Billy Graham that publishes Books & Culture and many other periodicals. According to the editor of Books & Culture, no article has been blocked in its 15-year history and he stands behind the killed piece. Harold B. Smith, the president of Christianity Today International, declined via e-mail to say why he killed the piece, but confirmed that it was his decision.

CTi is based in Carol Stream, Illinois, a stone’s throw from Wheaton. Both institutions share a commitment to a similar brand of biblically based and socially conservative evangelicalism pioneered by Billy Graham, who attended Wheaton (where The Billy Graham Center houses his archives) and was a visionary founder of Christianity Today magazine, which debuted in 1956. [NOTE: I have written for CT and other CTi publications.]

Now, some Christians want to throw stones at CTi for its decision to kill Chignell’s article, which adopts a critical tone toward Duane Litfin, who has served as Wheaton’s president for 17 years. Litfin told that he did nothing to stop publication of Chignell’s piece:

Litfin, the Wheaton president, said that college officials “had zero contact” with Christianity Today International officials about the article. “Even if I had the ability to stifle the article, I would not have done so,” he said. “It goes against the grain of everything I believe.”

He added: “I disagree with the article, but I don’t think the article is something we need protection from.”

Apparently, CTi’s Smith felt somebody or something needed protection. That’s his privilege to make such decisions, but an explanation might help defuse this controversy. Stonewalling only makes things worse.

Plus, Billy Graham believed a magazine like Christianity Today could add intellectual heft to an evangelical movement best known for warmed hearts and revivalism. Smith’s decision seems like a retreat from Graham’s bold vision for Christian periodicals.

Meanwhile, this story has helped me find a great new web site. I’d never previously visited, which was founded in 2004. But I will visit the site from now on because I’m impressed with its even-handed and thoughtful coverage of this important (but neglected) dispute.

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  • Rev. Paul T. McCain

    This article was the subject of a recent blog post over at the FIRST THINGS’ blog: EVANGEL. I downloaded the article and read it and here was the reaction I posted at EVANGEL.

    As one who has absolutely no knowledge, at all, about Wheaton, other than the fact that I’ve heard the name, I read this article out of curiosity, over my lunch today.

    It is quite obvious, frankly, that the article’s goal is to blast the previous Wheaton administration for insisting that conservative Evangelicalism be the order of the day at a conservative Evangelical college.

    The “smoking gun” agenda-driven/axe grinding intention of the article, though it is couched in a lot of sweetness-and-light, comes in the discussion of Van Dyke’s situation.

    I mean, honestly, hello?

    Why would Wheaton or any conservative Evangelical want a professor teaching who can not even affirm the Biblical doctrine of marriage?

    We are supposed to feel some kind of sympathy for her or be impressed that she has an “Ivy League Ph.D.”?

    The article is simply a typically post-modern passive-aggresive hatchet job on Wheaton, and the authors have plenty of bias on the subject.

    “These are not embittered grumblers” . . . I chuckled at that line.

  • Peter

    Inside Higher Ed was started by former editors at the Chronicle of Higher Education, the award-winning publication covering the Higher Ed (and Philanthropy) world. Inside Higher Ed follows that tradition, but a little “edgier.”

    It’s hard to know about the merits of the story that was cut, but Christianity Today has always had the reputation of being very “Evangelical Establishment” that seem loathe to criticize the establishment. There’s no question that Wheaton is part of that establishment.

  • tmatt

    It’s crucial to note that Wheaton is a voluntary association — as all private colleges, left and right — must be. It has a doctrinal statement that defines its life.

    The issue seems to be whether that doctrinal statement has actual, well, intellectual and doctrinal content and whether that means anything.

    I would love, at this point, to see a denominational breakdown on the Wheaton faculty. I would predict that it’s becoming a very mainline Protestant place, these days. That also links to another important story here — the futile attempts to define the word “evangelical” in higher education.

    Which is related to this, too:

  • Peter

    I’m sorry, Terry, but isn’t the issue why a publication killed a story that was politically incorrect and whether the story was killed based on pressure from Wheaton officials or others trying to protect the institution and its leaders? Isn’t that the journalism issue here?

  • tmatt

    That is a valid journalism issue.

    So is the one I raised, which is an issue of content.

    However, aren’t we assuming that the Andrew Chignell article is journalism? It isn’t. It’s an essay of personal opinion. And B&C is not a news magazine. It is a magazine with an editorial point of view, which means it can run the essay — or not.

    Would you be surprised if the publisher of The Nation refused to run an article that violated its core doctrines?

    Again, the NEWS story is that no one knows what the core doctrines are, linked to the word “evangelical.”

    I once asked Billy Graham to define evangelical. He said he couldn’t do that.

  • australia

    I think tmatt raises a basic point that Steve Rabey very much overlooks in his post. Billy Graham was the “visionary founder” of Christianity Today magazine, not Books and Culture. Christianity Today magazine has one mission and one set of parameters, Books and Culture another, a distinction that Steve Rabbey ignores. CT has a news magazine component, but B&C has none. B&C is an eclectic compilation of whatever the editors want to publish (which means they don’t need to publish whatever they don’t wnat to publish). The fact that Christianity Today magazine’s parent corporation owns and operates several publications, does not mean that each and every publication must operate the same way. Books and Culture has lately begun running articles that edge away from its core theology, and it hardly seems surprising that the parent corporation might pull in the reigns a bit, for marketing purposes just as much as for theological reasons. Books and Culture is losing money, and if I’m the parent corporation, I’ve got to ask if I’m pushing my base customers away just to satisfy an audience that is not my core paying subscriber.

    There is no journalistic (or academic, or God-given) right to have your viewpoint published in any given publication of your choice. Andrew Chignell got his article out there another way, his viewpoint has not been suppressed.

  • Peter

    It isn’t. It’s an essay of personal opinion.

    With a lot of reporting. Using your definition, George Will is just an essayist, Peggy Noonan is just an essayist, and much of what the GR bloggers do in their professional lives is just being an essayist.

    Would you be surprised if the publisher of The Nation refused to run an article that violated its core doctrines?

    I would if it was initially approved, the cover-art was created, and then the story was killed by someone who wasn’t actively involved in running The Nation.

    If the Nation killed a story at the last minute because it offended the sensibilities of NYU, you can bet that would be a journalism controversy. So to it is a controversy when Christianity Today kills a story that may upset powerful Evangelicals (and advertisers)

  • tmatt

    I will accept that it is an advocacy essay by an academic written for an advocacy publication that, before publication, rejected its doctrines.

    I was not aware that the author had a previous career in mainstream journalism. He is an syndicated opinion columnist for mainstream media? He is a syndicated columnist? A freelance journalist?

    I am sure that the publisher of The Nation believes that he or she is involved in running The Nation. Right?

    BTW, I agree that this is all linked to struggles within the greater Wheaton community.

    I hope other journalists cover it, with journalism.

  • tmatt

    Hey Steve, as the author, do you have any comments on the central questions here?

  • Ted Olsen

    From here:

    GetReligion was not and is not a site about religion news. It’s a site about how the mainstream press struggles to cover religion.

    Let me repeat that: GetReligion was not and is not a site about religion news. It’s a site about how the mainstream press struggles to cover religion.

    Now, if we want to talk about articles and blog posts in general, along with all “content” (including doctrinal statements, as Terry does above), then that’s a slightly different beast, isn’t it. Like, perhaps we could talk about the basis for an assertion like “Apparently, CTi’s Smith felt somebody or something needed protection.” Or having someone write about higher ed issues who has never heard of Inside Higher Ed.

  • dalea

    tmatt asks:

    Would you be surprised if the publisher of The Nation refused to run an article that violated its core doctrines?

    As the below linked article demonstrates, The Nation’s editors and writers have very public arguments about this topic.

  • joe

    Are you guys serious? The piece is advocacy journalism, plain and simple. I would hope B&C would not run it. Academics upset because they are asked to affirm historic Christian teaching on homosexuality. When… they… just… can’t. But they want alumni dedicated to the church to pay their salaries. Well, there ARE umpteen state schools hiring… Meanwhile, we are supposed to be moved by the description of the Depart. of Philosophy Chair being “in tears.”

    Rather incredible, especially when it is all served up under the academic freedom mantra, while slamming Liftin as a Tennessean simpleton. The story should be running at The Huffington Post. With family friends like this, Evangelicalism hardly needs enemies.

  • joe

    And since when is an article that is not published automatically considered “banned”? How about “failed to be published.”

  • Sarina Gruver Moore

    I’m not sure this is relevant to the narrow focus of GR’s intended discussion, but I did want to respond to tmatt’s query regarding Wheaton’s faculty denominational affiliation (with his implication that Wheaton has already lost its ‘evangelical’ tenor).

    I did go to Wheaton (’97) right at the time Chignell is analyzing, and I found his piece to be refreshing, honest, and resonant with my own experience. I’ve since taught at Wheaton (early 2000s), and we lived in Wheaton for three years (where we worshipped at a church that was started by Wheaton professors and where many of the people quoted in Chignell’s article still attend: including, I should note, Stan Jones).

    There, bona fides established, here’s your answer: many professors attend non-denominational churches like College Church (heavily Reformed in theology, but independent), and satellite churches of Willow Creek. Many professors attend denominationally-affiliated churches like Blanchard Road Alliance (Christian Missionary Alliance) or Immanuel Presbyterian (Evangelical Pres.) that are still evangelical in their denominational approach. Now, here’s where things get interesting: while many professors do attend churches that are technically ‘mainline’ (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist), those individual congregations are so steeped in the culture of the college and the town that they are evangelical in tone, even if the denomination as a whole isn’t.

    Believe me, as a post-liberal, post-evangelical, orthodox (little ‘o’) believer who attends a liturgical Christian Reformed church–Wheaton is as evangelical as it gets.

    And to joe: I find it odd that you don’t know this discussion is already taking place among thoughtful believers at Wheaton, Calvin (where I now teach), Hope, Gordon, and other like places. I love Wheaton, and I have a lot invested in protecting what is good about it while also encouraging it to change to better reflect its mission of being “for Christ and His Kingdom.” In the past 17 years Wheaton has lost a lot of good faculty (both as prospects and tenured faculty who left because they were disgusted/tired/frustrated). I don’t want Wheaton to become the next Harvard–to lose its Christian distinct identity–but I also don’t want it to become the next Bob Jones.