When universities establish secular articles of faith. A personal story from Vanderbilt

27 Aug

Amazing, sad, telling, and just the beginning.  Wow.  The founding fathers had many disputes, but there was one thing they all agreed upon when it comes to religion and government: the government should never establish articles of faith for anyone.  It isn’t the business of government, the state, to determine what is and what is not acceptable content in a religious creed.  Is this not precisely what Vanderbilt is doing here (yes, it’s private but public universities do the same thing with support from the Supreme Court)?  Another lesson to learn for evangelicals and confessional Christians.  Your personality will often be insufficient to win you friends or favors in the university.  It’s your creed that’s the problem, not your character.  Be winsome, charitable, tempered, and civil, because this is the right way to behave in this age (Gal. 6:10, 1 Thess. 4:11, 1 Pet. 2:12).  But the offense of the gospel will often outweigh any civility or charity you exhibit.

The Wrong Kind of Christian

I thought I was an acceptable kind of evangelical.

I’m not a fundamentalist. My friends and I enjoy art, alcohol, and cultural engagement.
We avoid spiritual clichés and buzzwords. We value authenticity, study, racial reconciliation, and social and environmental justice.

Being a Christian made me somewhat weird in my urban, progressive context, but despite some clear differences, I held a lot in common with unbelieving friends. We could disagree about truth, spirituality, and morality, and remain on the best of terms. The failures of the church often made me more uncomfortable than those in the broader culture.

Then, two years ago, the student organization I worked for at Vanderbilt University got kicked off campus for being the wrong kind of Christians.

In May 2011, Vanderbilt’s director of religious life told me that the group I’d helped lead for two years, Graduate Christian Fellowship—a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—was on probation. We had to drop the requirement that student leaders affirm our doctrinal and purpose statement, or we would lose our status as a registered student organization.

I met with him to understand the change. During the previous school year, a Christian fraternity had expelled several students for violating their behavior policy. One student said he was ousted because he is gay. Vanderbilt responded by forbidding any belief standards for those wanting to join or lead any campus group.

In writing, the new policy refers only to constitutionally protected classes (race, religion, sexual identity, and so on), but Vanderbilt publicly adopted an “all comers policy,” which meant that no student could be excluded from a leadership post on ideological grounds. College Republicans must allow Democrats to seek office; the environmental group had to welcome climate-change skeptics; and a leader of a religious group could not be dismissed if she renounced faith midyear. (The administration granted an exception to sororities and fraternities.)

Like most campus groups, InterVarsity welcomes anyone as a member. But it asks key student leaders—the executive council and small group leaders—to affirm its doctrinal statement, which outlines broad Christian orthodoxy and does not mention sexual conduct specifically. But the university saw belief statements themselves as suspect. Any belief—particularly those about the authority of Scripture or the church—could potentially constrain sexual activity or identity. So what began as a concern about sexuality and pluralism quickly became a conversation about whether robustly religious communities would be allowed on campus.

In effect, the new policy privileged certain belief groups and forbade all others. Religious organizations were welcome as long as they were malleable: as long as their leaders didn’t need to profess anything in particular; as long as they could be governed by sheer democracy and adjust to popular mores or trends; as long as they didn’t prioritize theological stability. Creedal statements were allowed, but as an accessory, a historic document, or a suggested guideline. They could not have binding authority to shape or govern the teaching and practices of a campus religious community.

At first I thought this was all a misunderstanding that could be sorted out between reasonable parties. If I could explain to the administration that doctrinal statements are an important part of religious expression—an ancient, enduring practice that would be a given for respected thinkers like Thomas Aquinas—then surely they’d see that creedal communities are intellectually valid and permissible. If we could show that we weren’t homophobic culture warriors but friendly, thoughtful evangelicals committed to a diverse, flourishing campus, then the administration and religious groups could find common ground.

When I met with the assistant dean of students, she welcomed me warmly and seemed surprised that my group would be affected by the new policy. I told her I was a woman in the ordination process, that my husband was a PhD candidate in Vanderbilt’s religion department, and that we loved the university. There was an air of hope that we could work things out.

Line in the Sand

But as I met with other administrators, the tone began to change. The word discrimination began to be used—a lot—specifically in regard to creedal requirements. It was lobbed like a grenade to end all argument. Administrators compared Christian students to 1960s segregationists. I once mustered courage to ask them if they truly thought it was fair to equate racial prejudice with asking Bible study leaders to affirm the Resurrection. The vice chancellor replied, “Creedal discrimination is still discrimination.”

Feeling battered, I talked with my InterVarsity supervisor. He responded with a wry smile, “But we’re moderates!” We thought we were nuanced and reasonable. The university seemed to think of us as a threat.

For me, it was revolutionary, a reorientation of my place in the university and in culture.

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Read the rest of “The Wrong  Kind of Christian”

The Hellish Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, Malign Evangelist (article)

27 Aug

Good looking book (Our Great Big American God).  Nice review.  Insightful paragraph.

Jonathan Edwards changed the story of America’s God. He changed how the people of his time engaged God, editing a theology that was often portrayed harshly and dogmatically. He made strides to shape it with words into an almost beloved relationship between a grandiose God and a broken and depraved American heart. His words set the stage for what would become a steady foundation for America’s God to revolt against the Old World and bring about revolution. Historian Perry Miller suggests that America’s Enlightenment began and ended with Jonathan Edwards. And Edwards played a most defining role in bridging the space between Puritanism and what would eventually become American evangelicalism.

Full article

The Belgic Confession 1: There is Only One God

25 Aug

I’m starting a new Monday series, as I’ve done in the past (Westminster Larger Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism), this time going through the Belgic Confession of Faith 1561


We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth1 that there is only one God,2 who is a simple and spiritual Being;3 He is eternal,4 incomprehensible,5 invisible,6 immutable,7 infinite,8 almighty,9 perfectly wise,10 just,11 good,12 and the overflowing fountain of all good.13

1. Rom 10:10. 2. Deut 6:4; 1 Cor 8:4, 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5. 3. John 4:24. 4. Psalm 90:2. 5. Rom 11:33. 6. Col 1:15; 1 Tim 6:16. 7. James 1:17. 8. 1 Kings 8:27; Jer 23:24. 9. Gen 17:1; Mat 19:26; Rev 1:8. 10. Rom 16:27. 11. Rom 3:25-26; Rom 9:14; Rev 16:5, Rev 16:7. 12. Mat 19:17. 13. James 1:17.


Does the Bible get it wrong?

25 Aug

From Professor Michael Kruger:

New Series: Does the Bible Ever Get it Wrong? Facing Scripture’s Difficult Passages

MistakeFrom Christianity’s earliest days, the Scriptures have had their critics. Porphyry, a third-century neoplatonic philosopher, was particularly aggressive in his attacks on the historical veracity of the Gospels, often pointing out what he deemed to be their inconsistencies, contradictions, and historical problems.

For example, he pointed out how Mark 1:2 is not really quoting (just) Isaiah as the passage seems to indicate (frag. 9).  Instead, it is actually a composite quote of Isaiah 40:3 and Mal 3:1 (with a little Ex 23:20 thrown in). Porphyry also attacked the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, claiming they contradict one another (frag. 11).

Feeling the weight of Porphyry’s attacks, Christian thinkers began to respond.  Most notable is a (later) response by Augustine, who spends much time defending the consistency of the Gospels in his On the Harmony of the Gospels.  Elsewhere, Augustine was quite clear about why the truth and consistency of the Scripture mattered:

For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books. . . For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to anyone difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away (Letters 28.3)

Augustine’s response paved the way for Christians in the subsequent centuries, and even in the modern day.  He showed that the historical consistency of the Scriptures really mattered.

Of course, not all agree with Augustine. In fact, Peter Enns has recently invited a number of Christian scholars to blog on his website who have come to believe that the Scriptures contain historical mistakes or errors.  The series is called “Aha Moments: Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories” and is (largely) written by scholars whose beliefs about the Bible had changed after they realized that, at least at some points, the Scriptures were simply mistaken.

No doubt Enns’ new blog series has resonated with many folks who have qualms about the difficult passages in Scripture.  But, I think it is important for these same folks to know that there are other Christian scholars who think there are reasonable answers to some of these difficult historical issues.  These scholars have studied at major universities, have been introduced to the same critical problems, but have reached different conclusions about the truthfulness of Scripture.

Thus, I am beginning a new series here at Canon Fodder where I invite evangelical scholars to respond to some of the critical issues raised in Pete Enns’ “Aha moments” series.  Scholars who have agreed to participate include Craig Blomberg, Greg Beale, Darrell Bock, Andreas Köstenberger, and Don Carson. Other names will be added as we go along.

Of course, this series will not be able to respond to every single issue raised by Enns’ series (last I checked it is up to 15 installments!).  But, it will at least provide some other perspectives on the types of issues raised.

No doubt there are some out there who will look at this new series and dismiss it as typical naive, fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, Enlightenment-driven, apologetic maneuvering.  To deny errors in the Bible, some might think, is equivalent to believing in a geocentric universe.

But, the scholars in this series are certainly not anti-intellectual fundamentalists. They are reputable scholars who have made substantial contributions to their field.  They simply disagree with the insistence that there are no reasonable solutions to these problematic passages in the Bible.  Surely there can be honest scholarly disagreement about such things without the use of pejorative labels.

Moreover, the belief that the historical veracity of the Scriptures really matters is not a new one in the history of Christianity–it is not an American invention nor simply the product of the Enlightenment (as is so often claimed).  Robert Wilken points out how such concerns predated the Enlightenment:

The central issue, as stated by Porphyry and reiterated by Augustine in his defense of the Scriptures, was whether the Gospels provided a reliable account of the history of Jesus…The question of faith and history, so much a part of modern theological discourse since the Enlightenment, was also a significant part of the debate between pagans and Christians in the ancient world (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 147).

Thus, this new series is simply trying to do what Christians have always done throughout the history of Christianity, namely to offer an explanation for why we believe the Bible is true in all that affirms.

As a final thought, it is my hope that those who have contributed to Enns’ series will receive this new  series on my website as it is intended, namely as a charitable and collegial engagement over these issues.  Sure, there will be disagreements–even vigorous disagreements.  But, I personally know a number of the scholars in Enns’ series and consider them friends.  I trust that such friendships can endure some healthy dialogue and difference of opinion.

The non-marital birth rate or ratio? It matters

22 Aug

From Charles Murray:

The good news/bad news story about nonmarital births

Image Credit: shutterstock

Image Credit: shutterstock

Every August since 2009 has seen a spate of news stories telling us the good news that the rate of nonmarital births has fallen. And so it has done, from a high of 51.8 births per 1,000 unmarried women in 2007–2008 to 44.8 in 2013. But during the same period, the ratio of nonmarital births—the percentage of live births that have been to single women—has been nearly flat, standing at 39.7% in 2007 and 40.6% percent 2013. You can see all the numbers in the National Center for Health Statistics’ monograph on the subject.

Is the glass half full or half empty? It depends on whether you are more interested in the amount of bad luck for newborns or the socialization of the next generation.

One of the most thoroughly documented relationships in social science is the statistical tendency for children born to unmarried women to get the worst of it on almost any social, economic, or health outcome you can think of, even after controlling for the mother’s education, income, and ethnicity. (Statistical tendency means true on average, not for every single child born to unmarried women.) That being the case, the reduction in the rate of nonmarital births is good news. Relative to the size of the population, fewer children are being born with bad luck. To put it more brutally, the average expected net suffering of newborns during their childhoods and, for that matter, throughout their life spans, has been going down over the last five years.

For the socialization of the next generation, the reduction in the rate is irrelevant. Only the ratio counts. Whatever the social deficits produced by nonmarital births may be, a cohort in which 40.6% of the children are born to unmarried women will exhibit the same population percentages whether the number of such births are 500,000 or 5,000,000.

Perhaps thinking of it in terms of the future of the two ethnic groups with the worst problems will drive the point home. From 2007 to 2012 (the ethnic data on rates for 2013 aren’t out yet), the rate for non-Latino blacks fell from 71 to 63, but the ratio was nearly flat (71.6% and 72.1%). Among Latinos, the rate fell from 102 to 73—a large drop by any standard—but the ratio rose from 51.3% to 53.2%. There is no way to interpret those numbers as optimistic for the prospects of the next generation of blacks and Latinos.

This doesn’t means non-Latino whites have much to cheer about. Their nonmarital birth rate from 2007–2012 fell only slightly, from 34 to 32, while the ratio rose from 27.8% to 29.3%. Asians continued to fare best among American ethnic groups, with the lowest rate (nearly flat at 24 and 23) and much the lowest ratio (nearly flat at 16.6% and 17.0%).

Is there any unequivocally good news in the latest numbers? Nonmarital births were increasingly likely to occur within cohabiting couples. From 2006–2010, the percentage of nonmarital births that had a man in the house rose from 41% to 58%. If American cohabitation bore much resemblance to a marriage, this would be good news. But to date, analyses that break down the outcomes for children born to unmarried women living alone and unmarried women living with a man (who may or may not be the biological father of the child) have not shown an advantage for the child born to cohabiting parents. But who knows? Maybe American cohabitation is becoming more like cohabitation in Scandinavia, where unmarried parents routinely stay together for decades. I don’t know of any data supporting that hope, but hope is as optimistic as I can get.

Follow AEIdeas on Twitter at @AEIdeas.

Why we stare at brides on their wedding day

21 Aug

It didn’t start out as a social experiment, but it became one.

A young woman from the neighborhood was getting married. The family invited me, and asked that I take some pictures. They had an official wedding photographer, but I’m a photojournalist and would get some backup shots. This was fine with me — I actually prefer that role, as I think that people look much more natural and beautiful when they are not posing.

So I was a participant in the ceremony, but also something of an outsider. I could be close to the wedding party, yet also watch those watching the ceremony, which was at Georgetown University in Washington. It was a position that left me with a question.

Why are we so mesmerized by wedding brides?

I realize all the usual, and correct, answers. She’s beautiful. It’s an important day. People like to see happy things.

But all of this could apply to seeing a group of women out on the town celebrating a birthday. People are not mesmerized by a girl’s night out. They are mesmerized — some seem frozen in place — when they see a bride. It was a rich and funny experience to be a fly on the wall and watch people abandon their shopping bags, friends, and even smartphones (other than to take pictures) and simply stand and stare. And stare. And stare. And stare.

They stare, some of them with deep longing, because that in a world that insists on being more and more secular and selfish, a woman on her wedding day is a shocking countercultural totem of resistance. She is a defiant sign that immortality can be touched when you make yourself a gift to another human being. The groom does this also, of course, but men tend to be more violent, promiscuous, and in in the evolutionary order of things, more expendable. People might notice the groom, say he looks handsome, but they positively forget themselves when they see a bride.

Women are more moral (look at the prison population), are the primary transmitters of life and culture, and just smell better. There is just something divine about them. As pornography, dressing down, and feminism keep trying to drag them down to the guys’ level, the wedding gown reveals their true selves. And in the metaphysical scene of things it is much more crucial to human flourishing than “equal pay for equal work.”

Real men know that the woman’s true self is worth loving, protecting, and dying for. The best women call us out of ourselves. They teach us discipline, self-sacrifice, and giving ourselves up for future generations and for love. And not romantic love, but the love, as Pope Benedict XVI once put it, that goes all the way to the end; the love that endures through sickness, depression, disease, even indifference. That is why we stare at brides in their white. We stare in awe and in gratitude.

The night after the wedding, I went to see a great band from Austin, My Jerusalem, play at the historic State Theater in Virginia. I was mulling what I was going to put in the wedding video I was putting together for my friends. Then the band provided the answer, in their song “Mono.” Here are the opening lyrics:

You’re gonna die in this room
In your twin size coffin tomb.
When all your friends have bailed out,
Who will rescue you now?

The sheets, they make you itch
And bedsores make you twitch.
And you just can’t figure out
How you’ve gotten here somehow.

I wanna be the one who rolls you over.
I wanna be the one who rolls you over.

Not your typical wedding vows, but it hits the mark.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Will “Debbie” Like It? The Christian radio to Christian church syndrome

20 Aug

From Warren Cole Smith (excerpt):

When I researched this marketing strategy in 2009 for my book A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, Joe Paulo, the general manager of WRCM in Charlotte, N.C., one of the top Christian radio stations in the country, told me, “We call her ‘Debbie.’ But it’s the same idea.”

Paulo said he knows exactly who “Debbie” (or “Becky”) is: “She’s 35 years old. She has two kids. She drives a minivan and is married, but her marriage is not all she dreamed it would be. She goes to church pretty regularly, but not every Sunday. She’s mostly a stay-at-home mom, but she may work a few hours a week or may work seasonal jobs at different times of the year to bring a few extra dollars into the household. She cares about issues that affect her kids: food, education, health, family, leisure time activities.” Paulo said everything his station puts on the air must past the “Will Debbie care?” test.

There’s nothing wrong with this strategy. In fact, I give Paulo and others like him credit for their marketing savvy and for actually caring about people and wanting to attract them and meet their needs. But what’s played on Christian radio soon ends up being sung in churches.

Here’s how it works: Songs played on the radio generate sales and royalties, and those dollars fund the marketing of songs to church “worship leaders,” who discover that using radio hits in worship generate reactions of recognition and enthusiasm from their congregations and positive affirmation for them personally. Such reactions are easy to mistake for movement of the Holy Spirit—to those who lack discernment. A possibly apocryphal story about the late Christian musician Rich Mullins asserts that he once had a fan come up to him after a concert who said she “felt the Holy Ghost descend” during a particular verse of one of his songs. Mullins reportedly responded, “Perhaps, but I think that was the kick drum, which came in on the third verse.”

Megachurches, in particular, have large appetites for rousing radio hits that will “play to the back row” of large venues. These churches also set the agenda for the rest of evangelicalism for another reason: Churches that don’t use hymnals have to pay licensing fees to Christian Copyright Licensing International so they can legally perform these songs in worship. The bigger the church, the higher the fees. That money fuels the ongoing marketing of the songs that generate more royalties, which encourages more of the same.

Read the rest


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