If only I had a blog back then… Some thoughts about academic nonsense and integration of faith and learning

So, as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’ve been teaching in Christian higher education (three Christian universities) for going on 31 years now. Many times in the past, both when I was a student and when I was teaching, I wished for a way to express my opinions of what was happening around me publicly–especially the nonsense I occasionally experienced. That’s right, even Christian academics can engage in nonsense now and then.

First, let me preface this by saying how much I appreciate the colleagues I’ve had over the years. For the most part, with a few exceptions, they have been delightful, challenging, supportive and inspiring. Even the best of them, however, occasionally did or said something I just wanted to react to with “Huh? What are you talking about?” I’m sure many of them felt the same way about me!

None of what I write now relates to anyone or anything in my current professional location. And I’m not going to name any names. And my point in telling these things is not to expose anyone or anything but to encourage Christians in educational settings (and perhaps other settings as well) to think through what they are about to say or do first–in light of the Christian worldview (broadly defined).

If “integration of faith and learning” (an ideal highly valued by most Christian educational institutions) means anything, it must mean, at least, considering messages carefully in light of the existence of God, sin, Jesus Christ, salvation, etc. At the very least it means: Just because in idea is all the vogue in some branch of scholarship or the academy does not mean it is compatible with Christianity. Insofar as it is incompatible with basic Christianity, it ought not to be taught as truth in a Christian educational institution.

The problem is, even evangelical academics sometimes miss the inconsistencies. For example, if a professor in an evangelical Christian university says (not ironically) “God is dead” without qualification, most of his or her colleagues and certainly administrators will sit up and take notice and ask for explanation. They will say “That’s not compatible with Christianity and we are a Christian university. You can’t teach here and say that.” But if a professor says… And that’s some of what I want to talk about from my past.

Over the years I participated in many, many continuing education type seminars and workshops for teachers in higher education. Sometimes these were put on by colleagues (fellow professors and administrators of Christian universities) and sometime by total outsiders (brought in as experts to facilitate the event). Usually they were informative, instructive, valuable and useful. Sometimes they were downright a waste of time and worse.

I remember one summer workshop on helping students write better term papers. An expert was brought in who spent time talking with us about helping minority students write better papers. However, she spent much of that time telling us that we should NOT correct minority students’ grammar as they have their own way of communicating learned at home and in their own culture. We pressed her about this and there was no doubt about it–she was telling us that African-American students should not be taught to write grammatical English but allowed to express themselves in their own ways. Now, I’m all for flexibility in grammar and in grading. But this facilitator’s message to us had nothing to do with really helping students write better term papers (which was her assignment). Her message was that there is no normativity in language. Does this apply only to African-Americans? She didn’t really answer that. A Christian approach, of course, would be one that sensitively takes into account legitimate differences of culture and seeks a middle ground between absolutism of language and sheer relativism. She came down on the latter, clearly, unequivocally. Needless to say, the workshop (or at least that day!) was useless.

Another workshop remembered. It was about communication in teaching and was taught by several experts including some of my colleagues in the Speech-Communication Department. It was a good experience, overall,  but the over riding message left me dazed and confused: “If they have not learned, you have not taught.” Huh? No amount of questioning could get the experts to qualify that. “If they have not learned, you have not taught.” Sorry, that’s wrong. I didn’t learn their message, so they didn’t teach me? What about Jesus? Many of his listeners didn’t learn his message. Did he not teach them? As a teacher for going on 31 years, I can assure you that “If they have not learned, you have not taught” is nonsense. Some students listen and hear the very best presentation of a lesson and still don’t get it. The motto implies that there exists some ideal, even perfect, set of words and method of teaching that guarantees learning. It puts all the responsibility on the teacher. It ignores the reality of dullness, resistance to truth, sloth, sleep.

Yet another learning event for teachers was about art. One statement reiterated often was “Art is for art’s sake.” How a Christian can believe that simply eludes me. I know it’s the motto of the National Endowment for the Arts, but so what? That doesn’t make it gospel. In fact, it says nothing at all, whatsoever about its truth! “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” It may not be in the Bible, but it succinctly expresses biblical truth about the purpose of our lives and everything we do. No activity of humans is free of responsibility; every activity ought to serve a good purpose. In a Christian context, anything does not in any way glorify God is not valuable. “Art for art’s sake” is simply a way of trying to make art immune to criticism by non-artists. There. That’s my opinion.

To me, more sinister than any of those, was the underlying and sometimes explicitly stated message about sexual harassment given out in many seminars and workshops, some of which we were all required to attend. Don’t get me wrong, given the problems and need for adjustments in many peoples’ behaviors, I defend requiring employees to attend sensitivity training events. But some of what I heard at these events was simply ludicrous. I still consider it so years later. Here’s something I heard again and again: “Intent doesn’t matter; it’s the effect that matters.” I asked “Can a hug be totally innocent and yet later turn out to have constituted sexual harassment because of the delayed effect it had on a person?” The answer was yes. By “totally innocent” I meant and made clear that I meant–mutually welcomed, not imposed. “Experts” told us time and again that a person’s (always a man’s) intention in an act or message is irrelevant to whether it constitutes sexual harassment. A colleague was charged with sexual harassment and fined (and a memo placed in his permanent personnel file) because he allowed a discussion of pornography and masturbation to take place in his class on ethics. A female student found it offensive and claimed it created a “hostile and intimidating learning environment.” The professor was required to undergo special sensitivity training and was never allowed to confront his accuser or even know her identity. Another colleague was charged with sexual harassment because a student committee he advised put posters up around campus advertising a public forum on women in ministry. One of the posters asked “Can women teach men?” The context was clear–“in the church.” A female faculty member accused the faculty adviser (who had nothing to do with the poster) of sexual harassment for contributing to creating a hostile and intimidating work environment. Fortunately, he was exonerated, but, by policy, a memo had to be put in his permanent employee file (to the effect that he had been accused of sexual harassment). In the middle of all this, I found out (from some female students) that a particular female faculty member was recruiting women students to charge male faculty members and employees of sexual harassment (there could be no negative consequences for them) to test the boundaries of the policy. Numerous male faculty members were accused. Most were exonerated, but had notations placed in their employee files anyway.

During that controversy, a brochure was published and placed everywhere on campus. It’s source was the sexual harassment compliance officer–a member of the administration. In big, bold letters its said “It’s Rape Even If You Didn’t Say No.” It was about date rape. Nowhere in the brochure did it explain the referent of “it.” Think about the sentence. “It’s Rape Even If You Didn’t Say No.” What’s “rape” in that sentence? I asked the compliance officer who said any sexual act could turn out to be rape if it had a negative impact on the woman even if it was totally consensual at the time. I went away simply bewildered at the absurdity of it all. Of course, we didn’t want our unmarried students having even consensual sex, but to suggest that any consensual sex could turn out to “have been rape” based solely on the feelings of the woman seemed absurd to me. Further investigation discovered that, according to law, the criterion would be “what a reasonable woman would conclude” was rape or sexual harassment. But that means a man cannot anticipate it. The criterion is not what a reasonable PERSON would conclude, but what a REASONABLE WOMAN would conclude. Such a bifurcation and dualism between the sexes seems both unreasonable and unchristian to me.

Christians, especially in Christian educational institutions, need to give serious Christian critical reflection to messages being promoted in their communities. Too often they don’t. Messages are simply imported from somewhere else–perhaps from a nearby secular university or government agency.

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  • Rob

    Isn’t the common thread running through all the non-sense you describe above just that it is progressive ideology infiltrating Christian colleges? Seems to show that there is a deep incompatibility between the leftist zeitgeist that sets the trends in academia and the Christian colleges that it spreads too.

    • rogereolson

      But I knew (and still know) a lot of progressive folks (socially, politically, theologically) who, like me, reject all that as nonsense. I’m not sure it can be explained that way. It seems to me it has to do with a failure of sound reflection on integration of Christianity as a worldview (definitely non-relativistic) with disciplines and trends and cliches and such. Even many evangelical scholars tend to swallow what they hear in their professional society meetings without applying the critical principles of the gospel, the Christian worldview, to them.

  • Rob

    Isn’t the common thread running through all the nonsense you describe above just that it is progressive ideology infiltrating Christian colleges? Seems to show that there is a deep incompatibility between the leftist zeitgeist that sets the trends in academia and the Christian colleges that it spreads too.

  • “If they have not learned, you have not taught.”

    As one who has only recently gotten a long-sought academic job I am finding that academia is rather different than what I had expected (and remembered from back in my student days). When I was a student it was my responsibility to apply myself to learning the material. While some teachers were better than others, that was irrelevant. Now things seem to be the other way around. While I understand that my job as a teacher is to produce learning in students, I do not have the level of control required to MAKE this happen. I don’t even want that level of control.

    • rogereolson

      If you stay in the game long enough, I predict you will run into education-communication “experts” who will say something like “If they have not learned, you have not taught.” It’s a commmon cliche among them. I don’t know to what extent they even mean it. It’s so patently absurd. But we hear a lot of patently absurd cliches. People commonly mouth them without applying any critical thinking to them.

      • James Petticrew

        What if you told the people who say this to you that you haven’t grasped it 🙂

        • rogereolson

          I was sorely tempted, but wanted to be respectful (and not sound stupid!).

  • Wait a minute! That sounds like common sense. These types of thoughts are foreign on the internet. 😉

    But seriously, thanks for the post. It’s amazing to me what brilliant people with Ph.D.s will believe sometimes.

  • James Petticrew

    You bring up some interesting issues that go beyond academia. As a former police officer I am deeply worried about some changes being proposed by the Scottish government to our law connected to rape and sexual assault. The very foundation of Scots Law has always been the need for corroboration to secure conviction, there has to be at least two pieces of supporting evidence. This obviously does pose problems with rape cases when there is no “force” and especially within relationships.

    Now what is being proposed is that the need for corroboration in these cases will be removed and a man will be able to be convicted on the word of a woman. Now I am sure this means that some guilty mean will be convicted but the flip side is that many innocent men will have their lives ruined. The law of anonymity applies only to the woman, and so a woman can make an allegation and remain anonymous and the man even if he can prove his innocence and I can’t see any way to do that now, will have his name for ever connected to a court case connected to a serious sexual crime rendering them virtually unemployable. This new procedure leaves men open to blackmail and false imprisonment.

    This is bad solution to a difficult problem which will result in more guilty men being convicted but more innocent men being convicted or having their lives ruined. I have no idea as I said how you can defend yourself against an allegation of rape if all the evidence that is needed is the allegation itself.

    • rogereolson

      Tell the Scottish authorities to look to Texas where numerous men convicted of rape, many of who spent years in prison, are now being exonerated by DNA evidence. Most of them were convicted on the testimony of a single woman, but sometimes on the testimony of two. For a long time there was the belief that women never lie about being raped. That is no longer as widely believed–after some notorious cases such as the Duke University La Crosse players scandal in which several male students were falsely accused by a woman.

      • James Petticrew

        We were living in Kentucky when the Duke thing kicked off, reminded me what was good about Scots Law too, no elected prosecutors or judges! I am hugely supportive of equality between the sexes inside and outside the church but what is happening now is that men are being subjected to a new inequality. Women remain anonymous is they alleged rape, men are not allowed anonymity if they are accused. The normal laws of evidence are changed in the case of sex offences. I can see this move in Scotland playing itself out when some divorces get nasty, there will be some women, a small percentage, who will use this to blackmail men, agree to my terms or I allege rape because they have nothing to lose and their evidence cannot be objectively proven wrong if they are careful about timing etc

        • rogereolson

          In the U.S., especially in the past (it doesn’t work as often now), many divorcing women accused their husbands of sexually molesting the children. It was a way of gaining total custody. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, many times the husbands went to prison on the testimony of the children–coached by the wife/mother. I’m not saying it never happens, of course, but many innocent men went to prison. We know because later, in their teens and twenties, the children recanted their testimonies and said they were coached to tell lies by their mothers.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    The worst part of being accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct – even if it is cleared up – is the impact on those falsely accused. It’s much worse than notations on their employee files, though that is bad, too.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    It’s called “Political Correctness.” Put the emphasis on “Political.”

  • EricMichaelSay

    “Art is for art’s sake.”

    It seems to me that the trouble with this depends on your understanding of the word. For many, the word art is an adjective or escalator, “I would even go do far as to call it art!” But my understanding, as a commercial designer, is that sonething is called art when it is created for its own sake. When a person is compelled by inner unctions to create.

    At that point we can critique whether it is good or not, but for many only ‘good’ art is worthy of the term art.

    Did your experience go beyond my understanding above?

    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure what the National Endowment for the Arts means by its motto, but I object to any Christian saying something, anything, is “for its own sake.” Our purpose is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” If art (whether an object or activity) does not serve the glory of God and our ability to enjoy him, I consider it unjustified within a Christian context. I would say the same about philosophy, literature, theology, sports…anything. All must be for the glory of God and for our ability to enjoy him.

  • John I.

    Perhaps “Art for its own sake” is intended to mean, or should mean, “art as an end rather than a means”. Similar to people being ends rather than means. Yes, everything is subject to God and done for love of him (not glory, Christ’s command to us was not “glorify God”, but “love God”), and so there is an ultimate end for all things. But there is a lesser context, the human context, in which we do not treat other humans as means to our human ends. Similarly, art is art when it is not merely a means serving some human end, not merely utilitarian. “Artlike things” produced to serve a human end–such as advertising, or political comment–may be artistic, or have artistic qualities, but they are not “art” in the highest sense. This is art that has no ends other than itself and love of God (art produced without love would be merely brass and noise).

    Consequently, I believe that among the truer expressions of art are architecture and industrial / commericial design. In those cases anything beyond the function of holding up walls or making a machine work is not necessary to the intended purpose of the building or machine. Beautiful machines (Bilbao museum in Spain, Apple computer, toasters, containers (ancient pottery, 21st century, etc.) engage true artistry. It is not necessary for the machine or building to be beautiful or engaging or to call up emotions and spiritual responses–but when wedded to great art it can. Yes, people like to buy or live in beauty, but that is secondary and not part of the building or machine per se or necessarily. Political posters and advertising uses the art as part of the message, the art is necessary to the message, and so makes the art utilitarian.

    Yes, there is art that is not wedded to anything outside itself and that is the purest form of art–paintings, sketches, music, etc. Such art serves no other purpose other than to be experienced on its own, on its own terms.


    • rogereolson

      I was speaking about art solely within a Christian context. Within a Christian context (community, organization, whatever), like everything else, art exists to glorify God and help us enjoy him (very broad concepts that can include much that is not directly related to worship). That means the Christian artist, like the Christian writer, theologian, nurse, sports coach, etc., is accountable to the Christian community to explain how his or her art fits with the mission of the Christian community. Who says “theology for theology’s sake?” Nobody. Why not? It doesn’t make sense. Why, then, “art for art’s sake?” I think the maxim is meant to free art from accountability to anyone or anything except the artist’s whim. There’s a story behind my complaint about “art for art’s sake,” but I won’t go into it here. I’ll just say that I had opportunity (if that’s the right word) to need to ask Christian artists for some kind of explanation of their art which (within a Christian community context) they refused even to attempt to give. Their (some, not all) approach to answering my question was “art is for art’s sake,” period, end of conversation. In that same Christian community, nobody else would have been allowed to do that. We were all accountable to be able to show how our work contributed to the mission of glorifying God and helping us all enjoy him.

      • John I.

        “meant to free art from accountability to anyone or anything except the artist’s whim”, hmmmm, interesting point. I’ll have to think on that one.

        Britannica states: “art for art’s sake, a slogan translated from the French l’art pour l’art, which was coined in the early 19th century by the French philosopher Victor Cousin. The phrase expresses the belief held by many writers and artists, especially those associated with Aestheticism, that art needs no justification, that it need serve no political, didactic, or other end.”

        Note that the phrase was coined to speak about the justification for art, its purpose. Art could be pursued without having to tie it to some other end having to also be served. This is like my point about ends v. means to an end.

        Being and “end” does not necessarily mean that art, per se, can be or should be divorced from a community and from accountability.

        Still, and I don’t think you would disagree with this, art can be done simply to create something of beauty, a subcreation that reflects the fact that God himself has created beauty per se that serves no functional purpose.

        What I have trouble with is art that does not speak to its community because it does not use the non-linguistic language of the community (symbols, referents, metaphors), art that is kitsch or schlock, art that denegrates rather than raising questions or awareness, art that has no consciousness of God, art that is individualist but then self-consciously puts itself out for public consumption, art that cares not about its connection to its community.

        Nevertheless, I’m not certain it is always possible to “show” how an artwork contributes to the mission of glorifying God or extending his kingdom. Often it seems to me that it is not possible, at least initially, to consciously verbalize or otherwise demonstrate how an artwork does so. Art taps into parts of our being that are often hard even to acknowledge let alone explain. Sometimes it is only after a period of reflection that one can see where the art came from and what it relates to; sometimes never.

        This comment of mine perhaps is more true of individual works than to an oeuvre , because a body of work takes time. Time in which reflection on connection and accountability can be recognized and explored.

        For example, I despise Thomas Kinkade, but not just because his art has a certain style that I dislike. I disagree with the theology and philosophy that informed his art and shaped his style. But my disagreement does not necessarily make it bad art, and Kinkade was no ignorant of his internal philosophy nor of his connection to the evangelical community.

        Perhaps you are thinking of so-called “christian art” that is shocking in the sense of lewd, denigrating, improperly offensive, titillating, vile, pernicious, etc. (not referring to the category of “shock art” of Duchamp et al.).

        Anyway, those are my thoughts for now.