One Big Unhappy Family

Normal people might be forgiven for saying ‘Enough already.’ The Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College has been poked and prodded by commentators and armchair pundits from every conceivable angle, including my own humble contribution at History News Network about Wheaton’s relevant history. But just one more word from me before I let the subject drop: Does this purge help heal the rift between fundamentalist universities?

In case you’ve been living life and not keeping with the latest, here’s a quick refresher: Professor Hawkins was fired for her statements that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Commentators have offered a full spectrum of analysis. One Wheaton professor defended his school. Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher also spoke up for Wheaton’s right to police its theological borders. A former student said Wheaton’s decision was in line with evangelical tradition. And perhaps most intriguing, historian extraordinaire Michael S. Hamilton told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Wheaton doesn’t like it when people don’t fit into its white, Northern, fundamentalist tradition.

In all the hullaballoo, I missed an important piece in this evangelical jigsaw puzzle. Just as Wheaton decided to suspend Professor Hawkins, they got some support from an unlikely source. President Steve Pettit of Bob Jones University tweeted his support for the beleaguered administration.

pettit tweet BJU supports Wheaton firing dec 2015

Are they all on the same page again?

As I noted recently, my current research into the history of evangelical colleges has revealed continuing tensions between the two schools. I won’t rehash the whole story here, but in brief, a stormy rivalry in the 1930s developed into an outright breach in the 1970s. By that point, BJU had become the flagship university of steadfast separatist fundamentalism, while Wheaton represented the best of a broader conservative evangelicalism.

Maybe things have changed. President Steve Pettit of BJU recently visited Wheaton’s campus, a remarkable thaw in the deep freeze between the two schools. Now President Pettit is extending his support to Wheaton’s “embattled” leaders in this difficult time.

What does that mean?

Might it mean that President Pettit hopes Wheaton will move closer to its fundamentalist roots? At Bob Jones University, fundamentalism had often meant ruthless purges of dissenting faculty and administration. Since its founding in the 1920s, Bob Jones University has maintained a steady record of firing anyone who does not agree with the administration. As founder Bob Jones Sr. memorably expressed it in a chapel talk,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us. We can get ‘cussin’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school. We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard. If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him! We throw him overboard. . . ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’ Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

I’ve got no inside scoop here, but I can’t help but wonder: Does Wheaton’s recent faculty purge put it back on the “fundamentalist” side of this long-lived divide?

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12 Comments

  1. It has happened at SBTS, WTS, Shorter, Bryan, Cedarville. Wheaton’s fundamentalist turn is a late one.

    Again — not hatchet-burying. Hatchet-sharing. The thaw you so desperately want to identify is so that they can fight the same evil Other.

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  2. Hatchet sharing. I think that sums it up.

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  3. Christy

     /  January 16, 2016

    You should get your facts straight. She hasn’t been fired yet, there is a whole process that needs to take place. She is tenured and gets due process. Wheaton a real college, not some religious despot’s family playground. Wheaton doesn’t have fundamentalist roots, it has abolitionist roots.

    This whole debacle is a screw-up by certain individuals in admin and is being called out by the wider Evangelical community for the injustice that it is. The Evangelical Missiological Society just dedicated a special journal issue to supporting Hawkins. https://www.emsweb.org/images/occasional-bulletin/special-editions/OB_SpecialEdition_2016.pdf

    Nobody outside fundie circles gives a care what BJU does. A much wider population cares what Wheaton does, as it is seen as a barometer for thoughtful Evangelicalism, and it is actually respected outside of its own little world. That’s why this whole fiasco has gotten so much attention, and why there is so much internal and external pressure on the admin to retract and apologize.

    Reply
    • Strictly speaking, Wheaton is absolutely a Fundamentalist institution, but Adam is inappropriately using “fundamentalist” to mean “highly intolerant.”

      There were two sides in the culture wars a century ago — Fundamentalism vs. Modernism/Liberalism. Wheaton was in the Northern Fundamentalist camp. BJU was in the Southern. Different views on race and slavery, same basic pietism, moralism and fundamentalist doctrinalism. Evangelicalism was a mid-century repackaging of Fundamentalism; same core ideas but a kinder, seemingly more intelligent, contemporary and tolerant attitude.

      The core idea common to both Wheaton and BJU is their innerrantist biblicism — the idea that a purely imaginary “original version” of the biblical texts in the Protestant canon are divinely inspired, without error, “fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.” (Wheaton’s language.) This can be held with a great deal of tolerance for different views, as it often has been at Wheaton. It can also be the basis for purges as it has at BJU with great gusto but also at Wheaton sometimes.

      There is a large Islamic community in northern Illinois, and many Wheaton people have been involved with the local Islamic center over the years. Suddenly it is an issue now because someone with pull, probably outside the college (Focus on the Family has done this before), is insisting there is one right, “biblical” view of Islam so they can get rid of a professor they see as out of step with the direction they want Wheaton to go in.

      Reply
  4. Christy

     /  January 18, 2016

    @Dan. Fair enough. Evangelical and Fundamentalist have both lost their meaning in common discourse. I just don’t think Wheaton and BJU are at all alike as far as institutions go. I graduated from Wheaton. I could get a valid teacher’s license to teach public school with my Education degree. I had no problem getting into a secular grad school and I was extremely well-prepared for grad school by the level of reading, writing, and research that were expected of Wheaton undergrads. BJU has only been accredited for 10 years.

    I disagree that the “inerrant biblicism” of Wheaton is the same thing you find at BJU. If you read what Kevin VanHoozer or John Walton means by “inerrancy,” it is not the same thing as what (pick your favorite BJU Bible scholar or theologian, I don’t know of one because they don’t really publish academically, do they?) means by inerrancy.

    Wheaton admin is clearly out of step with mainstream Evangelicalism (in the the academic not socio-political sense of the word) and their own faculty, student body, and alumni on this issue. The Evangelical Missiological Society just published a special edition of their journal, basically calling Wheaton admin to task for this. https://www.emsweb.org/images/occasional-bulletin/special-editions/OB_SpecialEdition_2016.pdf
    If you read Brain Howell’s background on the campus context of how this whole thing went down, it’s pretty easy to see that Hawkin’s is not an anomaly among faculty.

    Reply
    • @Christy – I recognize your way of seeing things as a common one for Evangelical academics, but it is inaccurate and full of prejudice. If your standard of respectability is not to be pinned down in a ghetto but to have intellectual and institutional access to a broader and even a “secular” mainstream, then why maintain such a guarded partition wall between these domains? I mean in your own thinking and not just Wheaton’s refusal to hire Jews and Catholics, let alone “Secularists.” This us-vs-them mentality is, even in its more generous forms, at odds with a non-insular educational ideal. In this you’ve expressed exactly the internal contradiction that links schools like BJU and Wheaton.

      Both institutions started as teacher and “bible colleges” or seminaries with a separatist antipathy toward the supposed godlessness of modern critical thought in the sciences and humanities. At both, many questions and possible conclusions continue to be preemptively prohibited. Yes, Wheaton is marginally more “worldly” and ecumenical than BJU. Yes, you can finesse “inerrancy” in postmodern directions at Wheaton — maybe especially if you are not black, female, or seen as a social liberal — but you had better be careful. You will be pitied or scorned in turn by others at Notre Dame, Baylor, Duke, Yale, etc. where your identification of “Christian” versus “secular” institutions is seen as a marker for the kind of parochialism you want to pin on BJU.

      I’ve spent a great deal of time with Catholic, Reformed, and non-religious academics who look down on Evangelicals, as well as Evangelicals who look down on “Fundamentalists.” Each ghetto snubs the next one down the line, and each envies the next one up but tries not to admit it. I have family and friends who graduated from Wheaton, I’ve known people who graduated from BJU and went on to top graduate schools in the Ivies and Big Ten. I would not want to be an alumnus of either school, but I do not see the graduates of one as incomparably better (or worse) off than the other. Your image of BJU is just wrong if you think teaching certificates and serious graduate study are beyond the reach of their graduates.

      You mention Vanhoozer as an example of “liberal” interpretations of “inerrancy” that are acceptable at Wheaton. To me this is like a liberal interpretation of trickle-down economics. The only reasons someone would do it is because they can’t just dump the bad received material they are stuck without big career and personal consequences.

      Outside of theological and conservative Protestant circles Vanhoozer is not widely read. He is an expert on Paul Ricoeur, a world class Catholic philosopher, whom Vanhoozer uses to find a way to more sophisticated hermeneutics among Evangelicals that is still “safe.” Vanhoozer has two monographs from Cambridge; the rest are with Evangelical and conservative Protestant publishers. I’ve never heard of Walton, probably because he has only published in those venues. Similarly, James Smith at Calvin primarily relates Charles Taylor to Reformed and Evangelical readers through Eerdmans/Zondervan/Crossway/IVP. This is because conservative Protestants — including their teaching-focused academics — have not traditionally kept up with mainstream (“secular”) academics and public intellectuals who are presumed to be inferior, wrong, and possibly corrupting if taken seriously.

      This is *not* to say scholars like Vanhoozer are inferior in some way, but they are not in any way mainstream or intending to be. I also doubt very much that they have influence outside a tiny sub-sub-culture of well-intentioned Evangelicals who want to find the most intelligent and generous ways to cope with a tradition which is, by their own admission, markedly anti-intellectual and prone to veer between belligerence to separatism. In this task the Evangelical scholar has to spend much of his/her career easing in figures and ideas that entered the mainstream many decades earlier. I’m sure they’re glad to do it and find it their calling, but it is lamentable.

      At the end of the day, colleges that have a history of pastors and businessmen policing their humanists and scientists all have some version of the Star Chamber approach to faculty review that compromises the entire purpose of a university: people who understand the Bible to say such-and-such believe they have authority via that text to assess the work of a biologist or a historian. That is the reality that marks a fundamentalist school, no matter what they call it or what they happen to approve or disapprove.

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      • Christy

         /  January 19, 2016

        I’m not an Evangelical academic. People have plenty of valid reasons for wanting to teach at and attend liberal arts schools (which by definition have different goals than universities) that approach the world from a familiar worldview and at which they experience a sense of solidarity, whether it is a historically Black college, a Jesuit college, an Evangelical college, whatever. The idea that colleges that are not officially affiliated with a subculture don’t engage in policing of their identities is laughable. All colleges have their politics. And all college politics have lamentable effects.

        And obviously VanHoozer and Walton are not “liberal” or “mainstream” by any definition. They were my example of *conservative* Evangelicals who are not “biblicists.”

        My image of BJU is shaped mostly by a friend who was repeatedly harrassed, lied to, threatened, and psychologically manipulated by BJU staff and associates during the recent GRACE investigation for her attempts to bring to light the sexual abuse and cover-ups that went on in a missions organization BJU is connected with. It is a sick and twisted place to be a woman. Wheaton has it’s own problems to the extent that it is affected by Evangelical purity culture and influenced by Neo-Cal ideas of gender roles. But those issues pale in comparison to BJU’s. I was introduced to feminism at Wheaton and never once told I could not do something or made to feel guilty about something because I was a woman. I resent the comparison of Wheaton to BJU for some emotionally charged reasons.

        The vast majority of my friends who graduated from Wheaton (in the 90s) are far less conservative theologically and politically than Wheaton is and they directly attribute where they are now to the deconstruction of their Fundamentalist worldview that happened in classes at Wheaton. If it’s your narrative that all conservative Evangelical schools are by definition detrimental to the intellectual development of their students and stifling to the academic pursuits of their faculty, then fine. It’s not my experience.

      • You can’t relativize the difference between a liberal arts college you’d identify as “secular” and the adjectivally “Christian” kind that excludes a large segment of Christianity and non-Christians faiths. Of course the first has some kind of limits on the speech and scholarship but is beholden to the law of the land when it comes to civil rights. The “Christian” college is allowed to discriminate extensively. This is not a small difference.

        Beyond that I was suggesting that the defining feature of all “fundamentalist” colleges (beyond their theological and historical connection to Fundamentalism proper) is that they treat the Bible as a source of privileged knowledge that trumps all other categories of human knowing, including areas of individual expertise. A fundamentalist college of this sort does not merely have a range of acceptable ideologies. It is fundamentally anti-liberal and anti-modern because of its assumed and baseless biblicism. It is an outlier case in historic Christianity whose closest analogs are fundamentalist Islam and maybe certain marginal expressions of Judaism.

        Wheaton profs like Vanhoozer are in the position of (according to you) “not being biblicists,” and yet they affirm an institutional credo that is utterly biblicist and used to purge faculty like Hawkins. This is all semantics and self-deception.

        I didn’t mean to suggest you were an academic, I just got the impression you identified with that strata of evangelical culture. Your experience is familiar and not surprising to me. I do agree that a Wheaton is likely to be *less* damaging to students than a Bob Jones, especially for women, minorities, LGBTQ people, etc. But it is still damaging along the same lines — the same sorts of stories and histories continue. There is not that much separation between the two, not as much as they each would like to think. I do not think all schools that might be identified as conservative and Christian or Evangelical, even within the world of American popular Protestantism, are “detrimental to the intellectual development of their students and stifling to the academic pursuits of their faculty.” Some of the best examples would be the Evangelical Lutheran, Southern Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Anabaptist schools that are highly regarded but treated by movement Evangelicalism as sellouts, crypto-secularists, and mainliners. It’s long been a defining strategy of the Evangelical right to attack and attempt to capture or push away the supposed liberals; a great deal of money and strategy has gone into this for decades through groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

      • Christy

         /  January 19, 2016

        “I do agree that a Wheaton is likely to be *less* damaging to students than a Bob Jones, especially for women, minorities, LGBTQ people, etc. But it is still damaging along the same lines — the same sorts of stories and histories continue.”

        But you are assuming that students enter these colleges as blank slates with no worldview. Anyone who chooses to attend a confessional school has a similar worldview from their upbringing or some conversion experience. And here is what I am arguing: A student with a Fundamentalist worldview will not be challenged by the professors and coursework at BJU or a truly Fundamentalist. They will be discouraged from deconstructing it at all and the focus will purely be on reinforcing it. A student at Wheaton will be forced to examine their Evangelical preconceptions even more than if they were to attend a non-sectarian college.

        The Wheaton professors intentionally push students to deconstruct their worldview. (Of course they many encourage them to rebuild it along somewhat similar, more nuanced, lines, but not all students do.) I was not indoctrinated at Wheaton, I was expected to examine my previous indoctrination. It was constantly repeated that All Truth is God’s Truth and you could find truth in Nietzsche and Derrida and Marx. You think that ever happens at BJU? We used standard college textbooks for biology, psychology, political science, health and sexuality, and history, not the Bible. I wrote my senior French thesis on the novel, Si Le Grain Ne Meurt, because it was on the list of suggested reading. It did not bother the prof at all to assign a novel that was essentially an author’s coming to terms with his gay identity. My youth group friends who went to U of I had no such experience. They joined InterVarsity or Campus Crusade, dismissed anything their professors said that struck them as liberal and left college with their conservative Evangelical worldview largely unquestioned and unexamined and firmly intact.

        That the current Wheaton administration may be feeling increasingly uncomfortable with what goes on and has been going on in their classrooms and how their graduates are turning out is reflected in the issue at hand. But it is clear from the faculty and alumni response that most people affiliated with the actual teaching and learning at Wheaton are not on the same page as the admin.

      • I don’t assume students are blank slates, but neither would I generalize about a particular type of “worldview” that their religious background necessarily impresses upon them. The point I was trying to make is that there are good colleges and universities with ties to Protestant denominations that do not fit easily in the polarized Conservative/Liberal, Evangelical/Mainline, Fundamentalist/Modernist, Christian/Secular categories that Fundamentalists and Movement Evangelicals have typically deployed in the culture wars. At these colleges, I doubt they get a lot of Fundamentalists, but students are likely challenged in all their default assumptions and ways of thinking, whatever those are. The professors are certainly not forced to walk a narrow path where standard materials and ideas in their discipline may at any moment raise the outcry of students, parents, administrators, trustees, donors, and theopolitical culture-warring media.

        That does not quite describe the Wheaton you have but the Wheaton you want. Enough faculty probably want it too that it may seem largely realized already. I’ve heard versions of your description from people who graduated in the later 90s and after: beneath the official, public-facing layer of rules defining and enforcing conservative Protestant piety and biblicism, the Evangelical youth who lean conservative and fundamentalist are rehabilitated and substantially reconciled to the post/modern liberal order. I doubt there is absolutely none of that at BJU, but it probably is far less apparent and far less tolerated. BJU is happy being openly and aggressively fundamentalist, whereas schools like Wheaton do not rest easily in their fundamentalist heritage — yet they have not transcended it. This is a situation too delicate and conflicted to be called a stable post-fundamentalism. It is a cautious bid for change that will continue to produce conflicts, and it should be no surprise. There is probably no avoiding a fight for the soul and future of heartland conservatives and evangelicals in the decades ahead. Victory for the progressives is not inevitable and could be Pyrrhic.

        Why is there (and for how long can there be) a market for Evangelical colleges that “push students to deconstruct their worldview,” which they presumably picked up as orthodoxy from their families, churches, schools, books, etc.? This is not great marketing copy: “Many professors encourage students to rebuild their shattered worldview along somewhat similar, more nuanced, lines, but not all students do.” Your friends who went to the state university and resisted the Herrschaft of those who would challenge their views are following a path many conservative Protestants have chosen: better to get a “secular” education you know is wrong than one that’s disguised as Christianity. Groups like InterVarsity are torn in both directions by Evangelicals who take your point of view and others who see it as what must be avoided at all costs.

      • Christy

         /  January 19, 2016

        “…schools like Wheaton do not rest easily in their fundamentalist heritage — yet they have not transcended it. This is a situation too delicate and conflicted to be called a stable post-fundamentalism.”

        Fair enough.

  5. @Adam — Can many colleges as successful (or resilient) as BJU have had presidents who so openly and enthusiastically endorsed faculty purges? I would say the marker for “fundamentalist” colleges in this divide can be much more subtle than those that have a history of faculty purges. The easiest thing to purge is memory. Every college has its black sheep, its famous radicals, its critics and dropouts, but also its high achievers who for some reason or other do not fit with or like their alma mater’s brand. Some schools are able to find some genuine appreciation for these people within their lifetime or later; the fundamentalists absolutely can’t. I can see why Trent Reznor will never be celebrated at Wheaton, but it’s much less clear why Christian colleges have difficulty embracing their own and even wealthy appreciators (e.g., Madeline L’Engle) who are not down with a conservative or culture-warring identity. Similarly the people it is possible to embrace as “Christian scholars” in the CCCU world seems confessionally and politically delimited. Many notable mainstream academics have been products of the conservative protestant world and educational marketplace, but if they did not work at conservative protestant institutions or publish in venues conservative protestants read, they are invisible or assumed to have gone over to “the other side.”

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