Can University Walls Keep Out The Internet?

Can University Walls Keep Out The Internet? November 24, 2014

This is my conference paper for the Metacriticism of Biblical Studies section at SBL:


Can University Walls Keep Out The Internet?

James F. McGrath, Butler University



Statements can be found on the websites of many sectarian educational institutions, indicating that faculty and students are required to subscribe to a particular doctrinal statement. The rationale for this was presumably clear, once upon a time. By requiring such conformity, the school could attempt to keep (or when necessary, eject) outside its walls those whose dissenting viewpoints could potentially flourish and spread in the absence of such strictures. These statements stand at odds with generally accepted notions of academic freedom, not only for professors and administrators, but also students. The aim is presumably to enable the institution to pass on doctrines from faculty to students without distraction or disagreement.

This paper will explore whether, in an era of blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and a variety of other websites and online sources, and a cacophony of scholars, apologists, and other voices calling out for attention, the rationale for the sectarian educational institution is fundamentally undermined. When wi-fi and 3G signals cannot be easily blocked, nor the URLs of all opposing viewpoints censored effectively, can any school offer to shield its students from liberalism and secular scholarship? And if not, then how might we expect the rationales and character of conservative Christian higher education to change in the coming years in response to this free flow of information online?




The short answer to the question posed in the title of my paper is – probably obviously – “No.” But I am pretty sure that if I said that and proceeded to sit down, while it would leave more time for discussion of the details that we urgently need to engage in, it might also ruin my chance of ever being given a chance to present at SBL again. And so I will share some thoughts about the implications of that short answer as we are seeing them unfold in the present, and some hopeful speculations about what that might mean for the future.

It goes without saying that the internet has had an enormous impact on the activities that most members of the Society of Biblical Literature engage in. As educators, we deal with students who use online content, often undiscerningly. As scholars, we access the work of others, and make our own work available, in new ways. We all have some experience of the impact of new technology on the work that we do, and as with the impact of any new technology and the social changes it brings about, the impact will be sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and sometimes neutral. But always change requires adjustment and adaptation. Studies have begun to appear which consider these changes and their implications for education. Few, however, have focused on Biblical studies, and on the similarities and differences between the effects of these technological changes in sectarian and non-sectarian institutions.

Employees at sectarian religious institutions of a variety of sorts are well represented in our society and at this meeting. At some religiously-affiliated institutions of higher education, there is a commitment to the use of scholarly methods and approaches which are themselves non-sectarian and embraced by the scholarly community as a whole. But at other institutions, a statement of faith which faculty, and perhaps also students, have to sign, is also a core component of the school’s identity. Such requirements stand in tension with our commitment to honest and innovative scholarship, to following evidence where it leads, and to the academic freedom to draw our own conclusions and propose fresh ideas which challenge longstanding assumptions, even if those proposals turn out to be incorrect, to say nothing of the possibility of their conflicting with religious dogmas. While many of us have studied or been employed at sectarian institutions at some point, and have appreciated at least some publications by authors connected with them, many of us also have qualms and reservations about the implications of defining acceptable “conclusions” in advance of study. Yet rarely do we take the time to reflect on the rationale for the existence of sectarian institutions and the imposition of statements of faith. And to my knowledge, there have been no formal studies of the possible impact that the internet might have on such institutions, and the historic rationale for their existence, in the long term.

One historic rationale for the existence of sectarian colleges and universities is, I think it is safe to say, the instruction of students in views specific to the religious tradition, and the “protection” of students from undue influence by opposing viewpoints. To give an example, Oakwood University recently made the news when Professor Juliet Bailey-Penrod was interviewed about the statement of Seventh-Day Adventist president Ted Wilson, saying that belief in evolution is incompatible with being a Seventh-Day Adventist. Prof. Bailey-Penrod is quoted in the article in a way that sums up nicely the traditional rationale for sectarian education:[1]

Parents choose to send their kids here so they can learn within a religious context, a safe context. We prepare our students to go anywhere – and they do, so of course we teach them the prevailing theories of evolution. But to be a proponent, to be pushing this thing? That's totally contrary to the organization. And it doesn't interrupt my academic freedom – when I agree to work in an Adventist institution, I agree to certain confines…If you can't believe the Bible about our very beginnings, how can you believe it about anything else?

The idea that professors can have their views constrained when they agree to work at such an institution is part and parcel of sectarian higher education. Whether an institution that works to undermine acceptance of mainstream science or scholarship deserves accreditation, and whether that which its faculty publish deserves to be called “research,” are questions that need serious attention in their own right, but which I must set to one side. For the purpose of this paper, I am more interested in the statement about a school of this sort providing a “safe” environment, and what that means in today’s context. Students are supposedly taught about evolution at Oakwood, but since it is not “advocated,” presumably evolution is taught in a way that seeks to offer students advice on how to reject this mainstream scientific conclusion. And so it is probably true that, at most conservative institutions, one is not completely insulated from mainstream or “liberal” scholarly views of the Bible any more than of science. They are, however, presented as alternatives which emphatically ought not to be embraced. Brandon Withrow, in a recent book on academic freedom in religious institutions, refers to his own experience of “the failure of some professors to be educators instead of theological hall monitors.”[2]

With the spread of information on the internet, can this approach continue to be effective? At first glance, the answer might seem to be “yes.” If one searches on the internet for information about evolution, one will find that the first page of results contain some really good sources explaining what the evidence is and why the world’s scientists, regardless of religious background, find that evidence persuasive. Yet Google’s top result is a paid ad for a web site called Creation Summit, featuring such widely esteemed “authorities” on the subject as Kirk Cameron and Ben Stein. And so, if there is a greater accessibility to reliable information, there are also many ideologically-driven websites offering their own perspectives as well. That people will not necessarily find their way to scholarly – or even merely reliable – information when searching online is proven semester after semester in the bibliographies of student assignments that I am sure we have all received.

However, the real “danger” for sectarian viewpoints is not the traditional web site with information challenging one’s assumptions, which one may never happen across. The real trouble comes from the interactive internet. In other words, one might never consult a static web site presenting mainstream science – or mainstream Biblical scholarship – if left to one’s own devices, to say nothing of perhaps being actively discouraged from doing so. But in engaging in conversations on Facebook, Reddit, and other discussion forums, people are likely to be forced out of the echo chamber in which we all tend to exist, and to be offered arguments and supporting documentation for views other than their own.

Amanda Marcotte wrote the following in a recent article in Salon (referring to the response of LDS leaders to information about Joseph Smith that can be found online), and I think it is worth quoting in some detail:

While there are plenty of detractors who will share their opinions offline, there’s little doubt that the bulk of the detractors plaguing the church are explaining their views online, which is why this has become a problem now for a church that used to act like it could exert total control over believers’ access to information. One of the church historians, Steven Snow, openly cited the internet as the source of the criticisms. “There is so much out there on the Internet ,” he told the New York Times, “that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.”While the memo sent to church leaders strongly implied that the websites bothering believers are full of disinformation, the likelier story is that they’re worried about all the historically accurate information out there. The Mormons tend to be plagued more than other major churches by historically accurate information, because they are a relatively new church and the historical records on their founders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are intact and hard to deny. This concern is reflected in the nature of the essays, which openly admit a lot of information that the church used to spend a lot of effort in minimizing, facts like exactly how many wives Joseph Smith had or the fact that polygamy was practiced by many members long after the church officially banned it. Not that they had much of a choice. If members of the church learn this stuff from Wikipedia instead of from their own religious authorities, it will likely sow more anger and distrust of the church for misleading them…It will be interesting to see how religions adapt to the fact that the Internet makes it that much harder for them to control their believers’ access to information. Some will probably be adaptable, like the Mormons, realizing that a little more information-sharing and transparency is the only way to keep trust alive. Others, like Pastor Mark Driscoll of the fundamentalist Mars Hill Church in Seattle, will react by doubling down, trying to convince their followers to stay off the Internet rather than read persuasive cases against their beliefs. But the Internet’s beauty is it makes satisfying basic curiosity as easy as typing some words into a search bar. Odds are that’s a temptation fewer and fewer believers will be able to resist.[3]

A recent article in The Atlantic about people who have become atheists made a similar point:[4]

When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism–people, books, seminars, etc. — we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the “New Atheists.” We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.

And so the internet is having an impact, and there is some initial evidence to suggest that merely denying the legitimacy of opposing viewpoints is not working. It might be hoped that this could lead to a shift in the approach to sectarian education illustrated in the Salon article: rather than risk having adherents feel “anger and distrust of the church for misleading them,” it becomes necessary to acknowledge inconvenient evidence for opposing views, and to instruct believers in how to live as part of their religious community in spite of such evidence. If this specific instance is part of a wider trend, then this has implications for how religious institutions may approach not only subjects like Mormon history or evolutionary biology, but also Biblical studies.

The age at which the impact of these online discussions is felt also connects this topic with higher education. The Evangelical magazine Christianity Today recently highlighted statistics indicating that teenagers tend to leave church during their teens.[5] That is of course precisely when they might move away to university. But moving to university does not seem to be the issue, as though they were simply moving to a different church because of a geographical relocation. While the statistics indicate that some eventually return, church attendance still drops overall, suggesting that religiously-affiliated schools, with their current approach, are not managing to instill the value of church attendance any more than commitment to key doctrines. And so there seems to be a connection between the impact of the internet in challenging religious dogma, and the time period in which students move into higher education, during which they spend significant amounts of time online in order both to do research for assignments and to keep in touch with friends and family back home. The very technology which can keep them connected to past influences also opens them up to new ones.

It is not only atheism that has had an impact on religious individuals and communities through the internet. When it comes to other viewpoints that conservative religious schools had avoided in the past, but which now are more likely to at least be subjects of vigorous discussion, the internet almost certainly plays a role. And were it not for the internet, we might not be able to find out as much as we do about those discussions. In a recent article about discussions of homosexuality at Wheaton College, former contemporary Christian music artist Jennifer Knapp was quoted as asking, “Whether it’s alcohol or premarital sex, is Wheaton an academic institution willing to present both sides, or is it wanting to churn out soldiers that believe exactly the same things they do?” Ironically, the phrase “present both sides” is one that comes up regularly in the context of conservative Christians making the case for creationism to be taught alongside evolution. And so it is worth observing that appeals to fairness are not always applied fairly across the board. Be that as it may, Wheaton Provost Stan Jones responded to the question in the following manner: “This is not a place of indoctrination. This is an educational community. We need to have a high level of patience and tolerance for students working through those issues.”[6] While that statement sounds admirable, it must also be noted that Wheaton has seen its share of firings when faculty have said things that should not be controversial in an institution of higher education, for instance on the topic of evolution.[7]

When it comes to sectarian higher education, clearly there is a need to avoid sweeping generalizations, and also to distinguish between academic freedom as an ideal to which many at least claim to subscribe, versus the reality of how it is applied, or fails to be applied, in practice. Religious institutions run the full gamut from allowing full academic freedom, to paying lip service to it, to denying its validity outright. And while arguably less frequently an issue, controversies about religious views held at secular institutions can sometimes represent a mirror image of the problem at sectarian institutions. And so we need to find a way of making the question manageable, in terms of broad principles and generalities, while also doing justice to the fact that academic freedom is not something monolithic, understood and applied in the same way even across all secular institutions, never mind religious ones.

Turning directly to the question in the title of the paper, obviously the notion that physical walls will keep out the internet is not intended to be taken literally. Most universities do not have literal walls around them anyway. But university servers can keep certain things out – and many conservative religious institutions block pornographic sites, for instance.[8] The same methods will not, however, be likely to prove effective in keeping out mainstream scholarship. A web filter that prevents access to any site mentioning Bultmann or Wellhausen would inevitably keep students from reaching conservative apologists who mention them, as well as the works of these scholars and others who quote them. And even if it could keep computers hardwired into the network from such materials, it would not interfere with students accessing them via phones if they have a data plan. Indeed, prohibiting access to things might make students dangerously curious – surely sectarian institutions in the Jewish or Christian tradition ought to be aware of this from Genesis 3 if not from other sources.

And so this brings us to the crux of the issue. When students depended on physical resources in a library, materials could be carefully selected for an institution’s collection. Nowadays, all those involved in education know that what is in the physical collection may have no impact whatsoever on students’ bibliographies. The first place students turn for information is the internet – often even when they are directly and specifically instructed otherwise.

And that, I think, is what makes this topic particularly interesting for us to consider: Concern about what students find on the internet is not by any means limited to conservative sectarian institutions. I as a liberally-minded professor at a non-sectarian private university am every bit as concerned that students will find things that do not reflect the scholarly consensus, and will use them uncritically in their assignments.

And so if all are (or should be) concerned about what students will find on the internet, and no one realistically thinks that it is possible to keep students from going online and finding things that professors consider to be of dubious quality and/or orthodoxy, then the question becomes how different sorts of institutions are dealing with the situation or are likely to deal with it in the future; what the similarities and differences are in the approaches; and what if anything we can learn from the comparisons.

Conservative religious institutions cannot presume any longer that their students can be effectively shielded from opposing viewpoints. In the same way, liberal institutions cannot treat conservative views on the authorship and date of Biblical texts as something antiquated that can be safely set aside and ignored, since those views are vigorously advocated on the internet, and may even be represented there with greater frequency than more mainstream scholarly views. And so is there a way to address this that might perhaps serve the interests of all, and perhaps even offer a rapprochement on the subject of how we approach education and research, even if not necessarily on our conclusions?

At this juncture, it seems best to turn first to how higher education in general is adapting (or needs to adapt) to the internet age, before considering what the responses of sectarian schools could be, and what mainstream scholars might recommend that they should be.

A key concept that has come to the fore in higher education is information literacy – or ideally, information fluency. These terms refer to the ability to locate, identify, and utilize reliable sources of information, and while by no means limited to the internet, that is where these skills are both the most necessary and the most applicable. Not only are many professors and institutions of higher education focusing increasing attention on these competencies, but often they are doing so in place of traditional emphases such as memorizing key details. No longer is it crucial to recall facts such as dates, when they are available at a few quick flicks of the thumb. The key question becomes instead whether one knows where to look for reliable information, and how to determine which search results from a general internet search reflect genuine expertise. Many institutions direct students to the so-called “CRAP Test” – which reminds them to avoid what the acronym spells by asking about the currency, relevance or reliability, authority, and purpose or point of view.

My own courses in recent years have shifted to focus on information literacy and fluency, and to the elements of the “CRAP test” I add a requirement that students indicate whether there is a scholarly consensus, and if so, what it is. One reason for doing this is that consulting a source written by a scholar does not in and of itself tell you whether that view is held by almost every scholar in the field, or by this one individual. It cannot tell you whether it is a new proposal that was or may yet be found wanting when critically evaluated in subsequent scholarly discussion. And it also cannot tell you whether that view is held almost exclusively by conservative religious scholars, or by scholars across a wide range of backgrounds.

In actual fact, my students regularly find multiple sources that reflect the defense of traditional authorship of Biblical texts, written by or under the influence of scholars at conservative religious institutions. And so it might seem at first glance that sending students online to find scholarly sources would be a better approach for conservative religious educators to adopt. Clearly the less scholarly apologetics-oriented sites, which rank high in Google and other search engine results, do not seem to be effective in preventing people from losing their faith, or at least changing their mind, when confronted with other evidence and viewpoints. And so merely teaching information literacy skills, when combined with the abundance of conservative scholarship online, might prove more effective. And, indeed, it may be that it is educators at secular and liberal religious institutions who have the bigger challenge, to ensure that mainstream perspectives are represented online to a greater extent. We too might want to ensure that students searching online “hear both sides,” and to accomplish that, there needs to be not just education in information literacy, but also online material for students to find when they put those skills to work. To some extent such sources are there already – but they are not always as accessible, or as prominently featured, as sources offering more conservative religious perspectives, for whatever reason.

The need for information fluency training is a point at which concerns of conservative religious and more mainstream educational institutions intersect, even if they may not entirely overlap. What might a specifically conservative Evangelical version of information fluency look like? How might it differ from a secular approach, and how much might it be hoped to converge with or at least move closer to the generally accepted aims of higher education? These are topics that would be worth exploring in their own right, if time permitted.[9]

But to turn now in conclusion to a topic that I promised in the abstract I would address, how is the internet likely to impact the traditional rationale for sectarian institutions, and how might such changes impact the SBL, and us as individual educators?

Earlier in my talk, I highlighted the Salon article on Mormon history, and for good reason. It explicitly mentions the disappointment and bitterness that religious believers often feel when they discover that they have been misled. We see this in all sorts of online interactions, just as we sometimes witness the crises of faith students have on our campuses when they get into our courses about Biblical studies, or take a course on evolution. If that experience is no longer merely a risk but a likelihood, even for those who attend a sectarian institution, then it would seem that the approach which the article mentioned – acknowledging inconvenient data, and helping fellow religionists to figure out how to remain part of that tradition without denying the legitimacy of that data, is the approach that is most likely to be successful. As we have seen in numerous recent instances, the attempt to remove faculty who made controversial statements from an institution has an effect, in our internet age, diametrically opposed to the historic aim of sectarian institutions. It draws more attention to the underlying issues, and regularly leaves the institution’s own students, as well as the wider public, with a lower esteem for that tradition. And so the only likely solution is to allow for the expression of controversial viewpoints, indeed to bring them up deliberately and explicitly, and to give students the spiritual as well as the academic resources to navigate the issues. And if sectarian institutions of higher education adopt this approach, it is my hope that this will be a move in the direction of greater alignment between our sectarian and secular educational aims, and allows for more productive interaction and collaboration within as well as beyond the bounds of the Society of Biblical Literature.

But are we limited to hoping? Perhaps we can actively find ways to collaborate across sectarian divides on matters like these, in a way that can perhaps help bring about the sorts of changes we hope for.

On the one hand, the subject of “Biblical illiteracy” has been noticed by secular, liberal, and conservative religious scholars alike, as well as other constituencies, as an increasingly prevalent phenomenon. We have seen, in some of the offerings for public school curricula developed by people outside the academy, that there are those who would like to see something that is neither scholarly nor secular foisted on children in ways that are unconstitutional and not merely objectionable. But the SBL has at times played an active role in seeking to provide resources for public schools to teach about the Bible, and doing that could potentially have a positive impact on students in all kinds of higher education contexts.

Moreover, academics connected with religious traditions and their educational institutions can join with other scholars in making the case together that (1) scholarship that is isolated from the wider scholarly community is not only antithetical to secular educational aims, but counterproductive from a religious perspective; and (2) sectarian scholars consistently learn from their secular peers and colleagues in fruitful ways, because (3) while secular people may not accept a tradition’s faith claims as true, that does not mean that their linguistic, cultural, and historical expertise cannot shed light on the meaning of its scriptural texts. Sectarian scholarship consistently interacts with scholarship from beyond its sectarian context. And so either this approach is an acceptable one to foster in sectarian contexts, or otherwise scholars need to be driven out of sectarian institutions in far greater numbers. But that cannot be done without sacrificing the intellectual legitimacy which accreditation provides.

And so, although I set it aside earlier, one place where a body like the SBL can make its voice felt is by insisting that accreditation be connected with an approach to education that is in keeping with mainstream norms. There is a place for sectarian education, one that incorporates a faith perspective, and institutions which want to show that believers in their tradition can lead lives of spirituality harmoniously coupled with a vibrant intellectual exploration ought to have access to such accreditation. But secular accrediting bodies are under no obligation to accredit schools which seek to undermine rather than foster mainstream educational aims. We can find ways of collaborating to insist that there needs to be greater scrutiny by accrediting bodies, to send the message that you cannot have the legitimacy accreditation provides, while at the same time riding roughshod over the academic freedom of faculty and students alike.

University walls cannot keep the internet out, nor can it keep internal matters entirely off the internet. Students share photos, they blog, and in other ways utilize the internet not only to bring controversial and subversive information into the campus, but also to let news flow outward. And so attempts to clamp down on the thinking of students and faculty are doubly challenged by the realities of our internet age.

There may be more that the SBL can do to foster shared educational aims and influence sectarian education in particular directions. But on the other hand, to the extent that constituencies that fund sectarian educational institutions may be leery of our involvement, perhaps hoping and letting those institutions work these matters out for themselves is less likely to cause a backlash? But at any rate, for now, these three things remain: the internet, hope, and information literacy. Whether the greatest of these is information literacy remains to be seen, but I hope at the very least this survey of what has been happening and is likely to happen in the near future will lead us to useful conversations about the state of higher education and our involvement in it individually and as a learned society.


[1] “Believe in evolution? You're not really a Seventh-day Adventist, SDA president says”

[2] Brandon Withrow and Menachem Wecker, Consider No Evil p.12.

[3] “Why the Internet is Slowly Strangling Religion” Salon originally published in AlterNet as “Why It’s Harder than Ever for Religions to Con their Followers” For further data on religious adherence and shifts in identity see the most recent Pew Landscape Study

[4] Larry Alex Taunton, “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity”

[5] A 2002 study by the Southern Baptist Convention placed the number who leave the faith at age 18 at 88%

[6] Both quotations from Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article, “At evangelical colleges, a shifting attitude toward gay students” See also Steve Webb’s article in First Things, “Who has the authority to write theology?,” in which he writes: “The Protestant Reformers wanted every believer to be a priest, but they couldn’t have anticipated that anyone with an Internet connection could be a theologian.”

[7] See Consider No Evil, pp.140-141.

[8] Menachem Wecker writes, “Needless to say, filtering students’ on-campus internet access to prevent them from viewing pornographic content and websites isn’t the sort of thing that colleges are typically in the business of doing” (Consider No Evil, p p.118).

[9] To the extent that faculty at sectarian institutions want to emphasize information fluency, they can point to recent scandals involving plagiarism, which is an aspect of the appropriate use of appropriate sources, as one indication of the need to focus in this area.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!