Fundy Christian college students who fear knowledge

Fundy Christian college students who fear knowledge May 2, 2014


In the wake of my review of the movie God’s Not Dead, a movie which I submit plays into conservative evangelicals’ narrative fantasy about secular universities, many have responded with anecdotal stories about this or that professor or university where they witnessed outright hostility toward fundamentalist Christians.

Does this hostility toward fundamentalists and/or Christians generally exist among college faculty? Sure, sometimes. But should anecdotal instances be inflated into a grand narrative concerning all of the thousands of professors who teach at our colleges nationwide? No.

Yet this narrative persists. At the beginning of almost every school year, some conservative pundit writes up a piece about how college will negatively affect your Christian children, with some even going so far as to say they shouldn’t attend at all. The drumbeat is always the same: university campuses are a hotbed of liberalism, where good Christian students will be tempted away from their faith.

This narrative is a fantasy, yes. But it’s true enough that sometimes there is grousing in faculty offices about fundamentalist students turning in papers—but not for the reasons many of these fundamentalists assume. It’s not because the professors simply disagree with them on the issues that they are asked to address. It’s because often said students reject the entire methodology of the class from the start; from the outset they reject the very critical tools they are supposed to be there to be learning.

My minor discipline is Biblical Studies, and my major a close sibling to it. Speaking from my own experience, I can say that often a conservative evangelical student takes such a class, in which the entire methodology of the course—treating the Bible critically as a historical document with context, critical analysis, etc.—goes against their doctrinal understanding of the Bible, which is that the Bible was not really written or redacted by people influenced by the events of their own time—that it was, in fact, never redacted or edited at all, but was rather written, or at least dictated, by God, and has remained static ever since.

To their way of thinking this must be the case. For if the Bible was inspired at all by contemporary events, that makes it less than timeless. And if the text of the Bible has ever been changed, that perhaps makes it less than infallible.

Now, do all conservative evangelical institutions reject the more critical approach to the Bible? No, of course not. But the freshmen students who often show up in such classes are either unaware of the very nature of the class in which they’ve enrolled, or have been trained and warned by their pastors, by their parents, or by the conservative Christian media that their professors will be attacking the Bible. So they simply refuse, right from the start, to engage in the critical methodology foundational to the learning and teaching experience. They then complain that being expected to apply standard academic methodologies is an attack upon their faith, and de facto proof that the grand narrative about anti-Christian professors persecuting Christians is true.

But whatever outlying, anecdotal examples might be cited to the contrary, persecution against Christians in the classroom is not in the least rampant. As a college student who began as a fundamentalist Christian but ended up a liberal Christian, I have actually experienced academia puncturing sacred narratives from both of those perspectives.

As a dewy-eyed college freshman, I had a wonderful political science professor point out the flaws in the beliefs I held about church-state separation, beliefs I’d gotten from Wallbuilders, David Barton’s pseudo-historical organization. This critique of my convictions led me to start questioning much of what passes for information among the Barton crowd and others like it.

As a much older adult who believed strongly in church-state separation, I had to confront the fact that that separation is not, as it is so often presented as being, a sacred ideal handed down by America’s founding fathers, but was rather also greatly fueled by 19th century anti-Catholicism. That makes the entire issue more complicated and more interesting.

That is what a good college education should be about: taking what we know and sifting it through a critical lens, so that we can either change what we think or have a better understanding of it. It’s also the primary function of the academy overall: the whole point of a university is the creation of new knowledge, and new knowledge cannot come about without questioning the old, without subjecting it to criticism, amendment, or outright repeal.

But there are many who do not, of course, like that notion. For them knowledge is already inviolably set; they believe it comes from God, and questioning what has always been accepted amounts to undermining God. To college students with this mindset a methodology such as textual criticism of the Bible must be stridently opposed, because the Bible is essentially God, and God needs no criticism—even if critically analyzing the Bible is the entire point of the course they have enrolled in.

Lying at the heart of the stereotype of the anti-Christian professor is fear—fear that there might be good reasons to believe a different way. And for many of the folks harboring that fear, that means undermining the only identity they’ve ever really known.


Don M. BurrowsAbout Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and current college preparatory school teacher. Don holds a Ph.D. in Classical Studies with a Ph.D. minor in New Testament. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and can be found routinely advocating that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.

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