Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity

What do students learn at evangelical colleges? For a hundred years now, the promise has been that these schools will teach reliably conservative, reliably orthodox religion. We see more evidence this morning that they tend to focus on something else instead.

It took me a while to catch on. As I conducted the research for my new book about evangelical higher education, I swam through reams of creeds, statements, and charters for new and renewed fundamentalist colleges. All of them promised orthodoxy—relentless and unyielding.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Pure first.

It was only by reading and talking with Tim Gloege that I was able to grasp the big problem. And once he explained it to me enough times for me to understand, it clarified a whole lot.

Here’s the problem: The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s wasn’t really about orthodoxy. It couldn’t be. It was based, instead, on the creation of a new defense against a new threat. By the 1920s, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists hoped to form a coalition to oppose theological modernism in Protestant churches. They didn’t really have a single theology to be for, but rather a theological trend to be against. Instead of imposing a clear theological orthodoxy on its schools and churches, then, fundamentalism between 1920 and 1950 (ish) had to embrace a far vaguer vision of purity.

What did purity mean? It was never precisely spelled out, but it included a mish-mash of conservative theological principles, traditional social rules, and habits American evangelicals had picked up over the years. Most important, it was ruled by a vague and shifting consensus among evangelical leaders. As culture changed, so did notions of proper purity. In the 1920s, for example, cinema was banned as impure. The rule was maddeningly slippery: Purity was defined by what a consensus of the evangelical public seemed to think it was.

It’s confusing, so let me offer an example that helped me see the distinction. In 1929, Calvinist theologian and sometimes-fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen finally left Princeton Seminary. He opened his own school nearby, Westminster. Machen was dedicated to the notion of running a truly orthodox Calvinist seminary. The rules he set up for his students followed the demands of Calvinist orthodoxy.

From Wheaton College in 1936, President J. Oliver Buswell reached out to Machen with a concern. Was it true, Buswell asked, that Westminster students were allowed to drink alcohol? For Buswell, the notion that students would be allowed to do so was nearly inconceivable. It flouted every assumption he had as the leader of a fundamentalist college. For the theologically sophisticated Machen, however, there was no real problem. There was no theological reason to ban alcohol. Such rules were only cultural baggage from evangelicals’ prudish past, not creedal requirements from Calvinism’s rich orthodox legacy.

In other words, rules against alcohol were a result of the lowest-common-denominator evangelical quest for purity, not a requirement of Christian orthodoxy.

The tension between orthodoxy and purity at evangelical colleges continues. This morning we read a report from George Fox University in Oregon. Professor Abigail Favale writes in First Things that her GFU students don’t know about Christian orthodoxy and don’t really care. As she explains, it’s not that her students haven’t been thoroughly steeped in evangelical schools dedicated to “orthodoxy.” In her words,

Almost all students in the program are born-and-bred Christians of the nondenominational variety. A number of them have been both thoroughly churched and educated through Christian schools or homeschooling curricula.

favale

Purity first. And second.

But few of her students accept one key tenet of orthodox Christian thinking—the resurrection of the physical body. “Resistance to the idea of a physical resurrection struck them as perfectly logical,” she writes.

“It doesn’t feel right to say there’s a human body in heaven, when the body is tied so closely to sin,” said one student. In all, fewer than ten of my forty students affirmed the orthodox teaching that we will ultimately have a body in our glorified, heavenly form. None of them realizes that these beliefs are unorthodox; this is not willful doctrinal error. This is an absence of knowledge about the foundational tenets of historical, creedal Christianity.

If these evangelical students weren’t learning evangelical theology, what were they learning? It seems these days, just like in the twentieth century, the impossible goal of an interdenominational orthodoxy has been replaced with a vague but stern emphasis on purity. At least, that’s what Prof. Favale reports. “Without a guiding connection to orthodoxy,” she thinks,

young Evangelicals are developing heterodox sensibilities that are at odds with a Christian understanding of personhood. The body is associated with sin, the soul with holiness. Moreover, this sense of the body, especially under the alias flesh, tends to be hypersexualized. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Evangelical emphasis on purity, a word that has become synonymous with bodily virginity.

The goals of most fundamentalist colleges in the twentieth century included a lot of things. Students were supposed to become better Christians and better people. The details, however, were almost always left vague. Time and time again, theological orthodoxy had to take a back seat to a loosely defined devotion to purity.

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4 Comments

  1. Richard Sherry

     /  May 8, 2018

    I really do just cringe at your title, though, which sweeps across several hundred colleges and is, I think, untrue because of its generalization. And I’m still holding out for the difference between “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.”

    Reply
  2. Interesting!

    Reply
  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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