Is Oikos school Catholic? Fundamentalist? Neither?

A horrible shooting happened yesterday at a small Christian vocational school in Oakland, California. A former student went on a shooting rampage, killing seven people and injuring three.

Whenever violent acts such as this take place, reporting the details is difficult. Nevertheless, journalists immediately have to start trying to piece together accurate information about the alleged killer, the small school and the affected community.

The school, according to news reports, caters to Korean immigrants and provides some type of vocational training in nursing, music and theology. The school, called Oikos University, has been repeatedly identified as Christian. OK, but what brand of Christianity are we talking about?

Here’s how the Telegraph reported its denominational affiliation:

Terrified students at the Catholic Oikos University were forced to cower in their classrooms and local businesses were evacuated as the police hunted for the suspect, an Asian man in his forties, described as heavy-set and wearing khaki clothing.

Interesting. Catholic. And here’s how the Huffington Post describes the same school:

On its website, several detailed pages are dedicated to describing the university’s fundamentalist Christian roots and its founders beliefs in the inerrancy of the Bible, which they say should be read literally.

Hunh. Fundamentalist. Interesting.

The Telegraph doesn’t explain why it thought the school was Catholic and the Huffington Post doesn’t offer any other specific, detailed information about why its editors think that this school is fundamentalist. Among some reporters, fundamentalist seems to mean something like “group whose views are stricter than mine.” But that’s not what the definition of fundamentalist is. As the Associated Press Stylebook puts it (once again):

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

I looked on the school’s “Our Philosophy” web site and didn’t find the group describing itself as fundamentalist, explaining its roots (apart from the Korean church) or giving any hint that it seeks separation from other Christians. It does indicate that there are various things the group believes are “literal” in the Bible, including the literal fall of Adam into sin, the existence of Jesus and his death, burial, resurrection and ascension, the creation of the earth in six days and heaven and hell. It might be better to simply describe these particular things that the Korean group believes should be understood literally than to use a pejorative such as “fundamentalist” that is either inaccurate or, at the very least, not backed up by the story.

Without specific examples, I never know how helpful the phrase that the Bible “should be read literally” is when describing people’s beliefs. Presumably even Bishop John Shelby Spong thinks at least some portion of Scripture should be read literally, right? Unless a group has declared war on metaphor and allegory, describing views as “literalism” seems somewhat imprecise. Or maybe there should just be more consistency about when we mention literal interpretation, adding a modifier such as “doesn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead” or  “doesn’t believe in a literal Jesus” or “believes all of the Old Testament and most all of the New Testament is fiction and part of a patriarchal plot to control women” to groups at various other points on the Christian theological spectrum.

Anyway, the Huffington Post continues to explain the group’s separatist and fundamentalist beliefs:

The university’s religious objectives include demonstrating a “comprehensive knowledge of the Bible and an understanding of Christian doctrine,” developing “an appreciation for the Korean and Korean-American church denomination heritage” and instilling “a desire for lifelong commitment to personal spiritual growth through daily Bible study and prayer.” The university also aims to “develop attitudes of service and commitment to the local church and world missions” and “prepare students for Christian service and vocation in the Church and society.”

The school is affiliated with Praise God Korean Church in Oakland and Shepherd University of San Francisco, but little is known about either institution.

That doesn’t seem so separatist, does it? And if the group is fundamentalist (or Catholic), it is somewhat odd that it is affiliated with Korean Presbyterians. That’s how Praise God Korean Church is identified, at least.

The local Oakland Tribune took the same info and ruled that the school was espousing “evangelical Christianity,” more certain of that, in fact, than their single quoted source for the story.

The nonprofit school — where at least seven people were shot to death Monday — was founded in 2004 and espouses evangelical Christianity on its website…

“It would seem to be evangelical protestant, but doesn’t seem to have a relationship with any one denomination,” said Arthur Holder, dean and vice president for academic affairs at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

He had not heard of Oikos before the shootings, “but there are a lot of schools I haven’t heard of,” he said after looking at the school mission statement on its website.

We still capitalize Protestant, don’t we?

Like all stories that run quickly after a tragedy such as this, we’re seeing some errors in the first drafts. But there are some good examples of articles that incorporated religion well, including the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune. The last link, in particular, shows the benefits that come from reporting a story when you have some familiarity with a community, including its minority religious or ethnic cultures. Language, culture and religious differences between reporters and the players in a story can lead to problems but a good local paper can overcome some of those challenges.

More details are coming out about the shooter, as can be read here by the Associated Press and here at CNN. According to that last link, a memorial service for the victims will be held at a local Korean Methodist church.

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  • Chris

    When horrible incidents like this occur I imagine reporters attempt to attach something or some “facts” that might explain it all. When it involves a religious organization , s this search for rationale based on typical “reading public at large” narratives or the reporters own inner narrative?

    Either way it comes off poorly.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    In their defense, readers and viewers are absolutely desperate for any information at all. The pressure for any type of info is immense. And I say this as the woman both angry at the lack of additional information on the Shaima Alawadi murder and upset at how reporters have responded to that demand (all hate crime, all the time). We’re all part of the problem!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    “… said Arthur Holder, dean and vice president for academic affairs at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.”

    WOW. Who do you think would know more about this group of Christians, the graduate school at Berkeley or the Southern Baptist seminary in San Francisco? Or how about Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena?

    How about ANYONE other than the folks at Berkeley?

  • http://hereisthechurch.wordpress.com Allie

    In the Washington Post article, I did like this little bit:

    Deborah Lee, who was in an English language class, said she heard five to six gunshots at first. “The teacher said, ‘Run,’ and we run,” she said. “I was OK, because I know God protects me. I’m not afraid of him.”

  • Caitlin

    tmatt, the GTU is a consortium of seminaries and theological schools from various religious traditions (Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Unitarian). For a local reporter looking for information about other theological schools in the area, it would be an easy & obvious inquiry. http://www.gtu.edu/about/gtu-history-mission

  • Kate

    Building on Caitlin’s comment, the GTU is the closest to the incident in Oakland both from a geographic and East Bay community sense.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I agree your characterization of the Bay Area News Group (Oakland Tribute, Contra Costa Times etc – did you know that?) coverage. But your quote shows to me how a different feel can be generated by what someone chooses to quote. I did not realize that the article you were citing was the same one I had read until I compared the versions in the Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune and found them identical. This is because I was struck by this from that article:

    Oikos University … requires them to attend church services and follow a strict code of conduct.

    “We believe (in) the existence of a personal, malevolent being called Satan who acts as tempter and accuser,” the school’s website states, “for whom the place of eternal punishment was prepared, where all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.

    “Our main goal is to foster spiritual Christian leaders who abide by God’s intentions and to expand God’s nation through them,” Kim is quoted on Oikos’ website as saying.

    The university’s religious mission is difficult to pinpoint, said one theologian.”

    Also, I can only imagine what we’d be reading and hearing if this were a small Islamic college and the shooter a Muslim from Pakistan.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Caitlan and Kate:

    Oh, I know the union. I’ve spoken there.

    But if you know anything about Korean Protestants, and you glance at that website faith statement, why call the theological left for input? It is much more likely that other evangelicals had contact with that college.

  • Mollie

    Jerry,

    Yes, I keep thinking about how the same information can be presented slightly differently. Even the quote that Allie noted above, I saw with a few words chopped off last night and I had a completely different reaction to it.

    As for if this were a small Islamic school that had a former student shooting it up, I’m not entirely sure the coverage would be that different. And not just because it wouldn’t fit a typical template of “Islamist violence” and would therefore be less politically charged. I’d assume we’d see the same language difficulties, the same painting of limited information in a dramatic light, etc., etc.

  • Jerry

    Mollie,

    You’re right about some of the basic reporting mistakes.

    But you’re one of the big reasons I raised the Islamic school issue because you’ve pointed out how differently stories about Muslims are reported compared to Christians. I’m sure we’d see stories about Islamic violence in a madrassa, for example, with allusions to madrassas run by Salafists.

    And just as Martin/Zimmerman has become a left versus right fight, I expect we’d see a similar divide between how Fox and MSNBC would report the incident because Muslims are involved.

    But maybe I’m just being a wee bit too cynical this time? :-)

  • sari

    Taking your comment a step further, Jerry, how would the ex-student motif fit into the narrative of an Islamic rather than a Korean Christian school?

  • Al

    I actually know this school through my wife. It’s founders are mainline Korean Presbyterian, and it’s academic reputation is so so, like a school that people go to as a last resort. They don’t press their beliefs at all, nor do they require any religious commitment. In fact, a lot of Christians in the area wonder if its a Christian school at all when it comes to non-theological things. And the majority of students are your normal everyday persons.

    The chairman of the school Mr. Choi, actually used to be the head pastor at a bay area church. I wondered what his goal with the school was even before the shootings. He seemed to be a good person for what its worth.

  • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com RC

    FWIW … when I first heard about the shooting, I was watching the end of the local evening news. They reported it as shooting in a “Christian college”, with more coverage on the NBC Nightly News.

    So, the report comes on the Nightly News, and not one mention of the fact that this was a Christian school, just that it was a private school, that offered theological courses. The only way anyone would know that it was a Christian college was the school sign that appeared in the video feed from the local NBC affiliates news copter !!