Fundamentalist U & Me: Alexis Waggoner and Biola

Welcome to our latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

This time, we are talking with Rev. Alexis James Waggoner. The Rev. Waggoner is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and received her M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. She works in the field of religious scholarship — as a Minister of Christian Education, and as the Education Director for a non-profit dedicated to religious literacy. She also serves as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. She graduated from Biola University in 2003.

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on Biola? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?

“Pressure” is the wrong word – my parents presented it to me like a (conservative, Evangelical) Christian college was my only option. The other “options” were all similar (Westmont, Asuza, etc).

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Alexis Waggoner today

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

While I have SO many problems now with schools like Biola, I think it was actually a good fit for me at the time. I grew up insulated and very conservative so Biola was actually a rather “diverse” place for me to be, in that it wasn’t as monolithic as my upbringing had been. It did deepen my faith at the time. And in no small way, it set me on a path that led me where I am today. My family would probably say this is for the worse; I would say it’s for the better. So something about being exposed, in a small way, to differing ideas about Christianity made me want to keep digging and questioning, and find out what else was out there that I hadn’t been exposed to.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

Absolutely, 100% not. For reasons that will likely become obvious below! I am completely removed from the evangelical environment of my upbringing and find the movement to be harmful at best, abusive at worst.

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Teach . . . the children well . . .

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

No. I did for a while but as my theology and ideology diverged more and more, I realized I no longer could, in good conscience, support a place that contributed to social conservatism, Christian supremacy, othering of the LGTQI community, less-than-full inclusion of women, etc.

ILYBYGTH: If you’ve had experience in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions of higher education, what have you found to be the biggest differences? The biggest similarities?

I went to Biola, and – ten years later – to Union Theological Seminary; two schools that are almost as opposite on the “Christian” school spectrum as you can get. I could write a dissertation on the differences; some are probably pretty obvious. The biggest similarity, though, is that both engage in religious fundamentalism. They both have lines you can’t cross, things you can’t admit to, stuff you can’t question – they just lie on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. As someone who now identifies as an extremely liberal, non-orthodox Christian, who is part of a progressive denomination, serving in a liberal church in NYC … I wish this was something we in the progressive movement did better. We fall into the same traps as our Evangelical counterparts, the same things that we critique them for. I am fascinated by the work that needs to be done that could lead to an actual conversation instead of both extremes yelling past each other.

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Fighting fundamentalism…

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

I was a liberal arts major so I took the basic science classes, I don’t remember much but I do remember – and here’s where the relative “diversity” of thought I mentioned above comes into play – being taught evolution. At least as a theory. I can’t remember exactly how it was presented; but it was done so in enough of a way that it was one of the threads of my fundamentalist upbringing that began to unravel. I’d been taught that creationism IS fact, and there are a few fringe people out there who believe this crazy thing called evolution but it’s not really that big a deal. I came to see that it was actually the opposite, and the fact that that piece of my education had been so off made me wonder what else could be wrong with my beliefs and assumptions. You can begin to see why I have mixed feelings about Biola. 🙂

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

It definitely was not the stereotypical experience, and I’m sure it would’ve been different had I been at a secular college. I had friends and roommates for whom partying and hook-up culture was more of the norm (well, a sub-culture norm). But there was also the pressure to keep purity pledges and that sort of thing. I think my experience was somewhere in between.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

Oh absolutely yes. We had mandatory chapels, and we had to take a mandatory 30 units of Bible classes so that everyone ended up with a minor in Biblical Studies.

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

Here again was where I learned about relative diversity of thought within Christianity. The school absolutely skewed conservative, politically, but there were some student groups who pushed those boundaries. And I remember thinking something along the lines of, I didn’t know you could be anything but Republican and be a Christian! Here again, the small level of exposure I had at Biola to other ways of thinking, began to erode my fundamentalist foundations. Which is pretty ironic. My parents sent me to an Evangelical school to (I assume) further educate me in their belief system and cement my faith. At the time I suppose it did that, somewhat, but in the long run it was the questions I began asking at Biola that led to the whole thing (over many, many subsequent years) eventually all falling apart for me.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

As much as it pains me to say it, the advantage they have is, in a world that is becoming more and more polarized, they have dug in their heels and continue to offer an option to people who buy into the narrative that Christians are being assaulted and persecuted. Many people have this worldview and so for them, the “safety” that these schools offer is appealing. However, on the other side of the coin, I believe that the future of evangelical education is similar to the future of the evangelical church. While there is drastic entrenchment, and thus there will likely always be a market for fundamentalism, younger generations continue to be more diverse, more liberally minded, less willing to deal with the exclusivism preached by these churches and universities. So I guess as long as they can survive on the backs of those they’ve convinced to become more entrenched, they will. But I’m hoping the evangelical church as a whole (as we know it) soon will either reinvent itself or become relatively obsolete.

Thanks, Alexis!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with Adam at the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at alaats@binghamton.edu

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  1. I guess I’ll get a bit theological in this reply.

    Rev. Waggoner: And I remember thinking something along the lines of, I didn’t know you could be anything but Republican and be a Christian!

    For me, the concern was: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a conservative to be a true Christian” (liberally reworded by me). That actually worried me while growing up, because I do have a somewhat conservative temperament. But I was really a liberal Christian growing up in a conservative church.

    Incidentally, I grew up in Churches of Christ in Australia, which considered themselves close to the US Disciples of Christ.

    And here’s what I wonder these days: “For what shall it profit evangelical Christianity, if it shall gain The White House but lose its own soul?”

    Reply

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