I learned a couple of important things when I took pre-med biology my freshman year of college. I learned that I didn’t want to be a doctor (sorry, Mom). And I learned that the science of evolution is true and beautiful and good, and nothing like the menace to my faith that I’d been warned against growing up attending a fundamentalist church and private school.
I went to an evangelical Christian college, but my alma mater — Eastern University, near Philadelphia — is forthright about the fact that neither its biology students nor its biblical studies students are being taught the nonsense of young-Earth creationism now being mandated by places like Bryan College.*
That’s true for many other evangelical colleges as well. I know that biology students at Messiah College study evolution. I suspect the same is true for biology students at Gordon College and at Westmont and at Asbury.
It’s probably also true at Wheaton College, although it also seems as though Wheaton would very much prefer that we not say anything in public that might associate them with the E-word. (I’m not really sure what’s going on at Wheaton these days. The school’s president, Philip Ryken, hasn’t yet proposed a statement of faith like Bryan College’s, but he’s personally endorsed the same ideology. At the Evangelical Theological Society, Ryken spoke on the topic, “We Cannot Understand the World or Our Faith without a Real, Historical Adam.”**)
This is a second way in which dishonesty becomes mandatory for these evangelical institutions. Duplicity is built into the structure of these institutions — colleges, seminaries, publishing houses, magazines. There is a gap — a chasm — between what they know to be true and what they are expected or required to pretend to believe. There is a great deal that they know to be true but fearfully avoid talking about.
The crude dishonesty of a place like Bryan College isn’t the usual expression of this duplicity. Bryan hires biology professors, but then forbids them from teaching their students the truth of what they know as scientists. It demands that these professors not profess what they have learned in their discipline.
But as we discussed yesterday, that’s not how it works at most evangelical schools. Most evangelical colleges do not require biology professors to lie to their students in the classroom. What many of them require, instead, is that these professors — and the institution as a whole — lie outside the classroom, hiding or even denying that students are being taught the truth. It’s a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the teaching of evolution. Do it, but do it quietly — don’t do anything to attract the attention of the tribal gatekeepers, because then folks like Marvin Olasky and Al Mohler and David Barton will start attacking us. Those gatekeepers may have a shameless disregard for the truth, but they also have a lot of influence with a lot of donors. Mohler has already destroyed several once-proud schools, we don’t want him coming after us next.
So these schools, commendably, refuse to lie to their students. Those students are not taught the lie of young-Earth creationism in either their science classes or their theology classes. Good. But while such schools are not completely tossing away their academic integrity in a bid to be listed as one of Ken Ham’s “Creation Colleges,” they’re still so intimidated by the potential of costly “controversy” that they keep this classroom-truth-telling a secret.
And thus they wind up participating in, and reinforcing, the structural duplicity that sickens the entire white evangelical subculture.
It is not healthy to say one thing in private while saying something else in public. It is not healthy to say one thing in the faculty lounge while saying the opposite in the hallways. It is not healthy to say one thing in your seminary dissertation while saying something else from the pulpit. But this sickness, this duplicity, is pervasive in evangelicalism.
I wrote last year about the way Books & Culture functions as a kind of “faculty lounge” for educated evangelicals, a forum for:
Candid, unapologetic discussion of taboo knowledge and subject matter that had to be tip-toed around delicately when writing for a wider evangelical audience. If you are an evangelical scholar writing for Christianity Today, there are a host of Things That Cannot Be Said without sparking a heated controversy — even though none of them is actually controversial even among very conservative evangelical scholars. Whether the topic is the authorship of the pastoral epistles, or the archaeological evidence for (i.e., against) the conquest of Canaan, or more secular subjects such as the age of the Earth, Books & Culture allowed evangelicals to discuss what we’re learning honestly and openly without having to worry about setting off the hair-pin trigger alarms of either the culture warriors or the inerrantists patrolling the pages of CT for anything they perceived to be a deviation from their factually challenged version of God’s Own Truth.
There are many such “faculty lounges” in evangelicalism.*** Most evangelical seminaries also play this role. They are places where tribally taboo knowledge and ideas are discussed free from the meddling of censorious gatekeepers opposed to that knowledge. The same popular/academic split can be found in the catalogs of most evangelical publishers. Neither Eerdman’s nor InterVarsity Press would try to “get away with” publishing a popular mass-market book defending the truth of evolution. But they’ve also both published long, dense, footnote-laden academic books in which that truth is discussed as an unremarkable given — as something that even those books’ evangelical readership is presumed to already know to be true. Those books haven’t produced firestorms of controversy because no one reads them outside of the faculty lounge, and because outside of the safety of the faculty lounge, none of the faculty fesses up to reading or writing such things.
That duplicity is harmful for everyone involved. It eats away at the integrity of those forced to keep their knowledge hidden in the faculty lounge. And it promotes and reinforces the ignorance of those on the outside. It drives scholars and scientists out of the church.
And it chases away young people, as Karl Giberson discussed earlier this year at the Daily Beast.
Giberson, a physicist, was a professor at Eastern Nazarene College and an outspoken defender of evolution. A bit too outspoken, it turns out, for Eastern Nazarene, so like many other respected evangelical scholars, he’s fled to a Catholic institution. In January, Giberson wrote:
Most evangelical colleges teach evolution, albeit quietly, carefully, and often tentatively, although there are exceptions. And almost all public schools, of course, are required by law to teach evolution. In an ideal world these efforts should slowly trickle onto Main Street, where they would inform ordinary evangelicals, including those who run for Congress. In time, Darwin’s dangerous idea should become widely accepted, just as Christians gradually gave credence to Galileo’s dangerous idea about the motion of the earth.
But that is not what is happening.
For a quarter century I taught scientific theories of origins — evolution and the Big Bang Theory — under a cloud of suspicion that waxed and waned but never totally disappeared. With few exceptions, my mostly evangelical students accepted these ideas. I took informal polls indicating that most of the 50 percent of my students who rejected evolution at the beginning of my course accepted it by the end. My colleagues at other evangelical colleges report similar experiences. We were hopeful that these evangelical students would become leaders of their faith communities and gradually persuade their fellow evangelicals that evolution was not a lie from hell — which was what many of them had been taught in Sunday school. But instead scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them.
An alarming study by the Barna group looked at the mass exodus of 20-somethings from evangelicalism and discovered that one of the major sources of discontent was the perception that “Christianity was antagonistic to science.” Anti-evolution, and general suspicion of science, has become such a significant part of the evangelical identity that many people feel compelled to choose one or the other. Many of my most talented former students no longer attend any church, and some have completely abandoned their faith traditions.
No, these students have not abandoned their faith tradition — that tradition has abandoned them.
That tradition — white evangelicalism — taught them and told them that their only options within the tradition were duplicity or a defiant ignorance. Pick one or the other. That tradition told them that truth can never trump tribalism — that the gatekeepers must always be feared, respected and obeyed, even when they’re wrong. Especially when they’re wrong — because that’s when they’re angriest and most powerful.
The tradition taught them that it doesn’t matter if you’ve got all the evidence, all the science and all the facts, and that it doesn’t matter if what you’re saying is perfectly orthodox and fully squared with the best biblical scholarship. It told them that, even so, if your conclusions might upset the DeVoses or the Ahmansons or the Greens, then you need to keep quiet and keep it to yourself.
Those students didn’t reject their faith, they rejected this shameful duplicity. Good for them. Given the choices presented to them, that was the only one that allowed them to keep their integrity.
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* Eastern has managed to avoid much of the supposed “controversy” surrounding the teaching of evolution at evangelical schools. Eastern’s science curriculum is strong, in part, because the school allows dancing.
That — along with other factors like its ties to a (gasp!) mainline Protestant denomination and the presence of dangerous “liberals” like Tony Campolo — means that twitchily anti-evolution evangelical parents and donors don’t want to have anything to do with the place. And that, in turn, means Eastern is able to teach science without the pressure from such parents and quasi-extortion from such donors that prevents some other evangelical schools from openly admitting that their biology classes teach actual biology or that their biblical studies classes teach actual biblical studies.
I think there’s a lesson here. Any evangelical university that wants the academic freedom to teach science and the Bible without interference from ideological gatekeepers ought to hire some DJs and start holding dances. Think of this as a corollary to the Parliamentary Principle: Free your ass, and your mind will follow.
** Is Ryken’s biological Adam something that is taught in Wheaton’s biology department? Or is it perhaps something that Ryken mistakenly thinks is taught in Wheaton’s biology department? In any case, there’s some kind of duplicity at work here. If this is being taught in the classroom, then students are not being told the truth. If this is not being taught in the classroom, then either that truth is being kept hidden from Ryken, or else Ryken is helping to hide that truth from the constituency of donors he hopes to appeal to with his ETS paper.
Full disclosure: I’ve linked to Peter Enns’ face-palming response to Ryken’s ETS presentation. Enns now teaches at Eastern University. He arrived there long after I graduated, landing at Eastern after getting booted out of Westminster Seminary for what its board regarded as theological impurity. Philip Ryken was a member of the board of Westminster at the time when that board voted to purge the heretic Enns.
*** None of these safe spaces is ever entirely safe, though. And they all, at some point, have to take pains to stay hidden. Here, for example, are three pages from the Nov./Dec. 2009 issue of Books & Culture in which Andrew Chignell discusses the future of academic freedom at Wheaton College. But these galley pages never actually appeared in the magazine. The story was killed without explanation by Christianity Today’s CEO. Chignell’s discussion of how Wheaton deals with Things That Cannot Be Said turned out to be another Thing That Cannot Be Said.