The Art Is In!

Thanks to the folks at Oxford, we have a terrific cover for my new book about the history of evangelical higher education. We had batted around a few other ideas about cover art, including artsy-fied excerpts from some of the student rulebooks. In the end, my editor thought those looked too busy and hard to read and I think she was right. Especially when I see this snazzy cover.Cover art final

When can you get your hands on a copy? Soon. Pre-orders are available now, and OUP promises to ship on February 1st.

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How Do You Know?

It might seem sloppy or even a little slapdash. Historians claim to know things about the past, but most of us don’t have hard-and-fast proof for the arguments we make. This morning I’d like to share one small example of the way the process works, at least in the case of my upcoming book.

I just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s Landscape of History with my graduate class. Gaddis is a leading historian of the Cold War. In Landscape of History, he argues that academic historians don’t try to make the same claims as social scientists. And that’s okay.Gaddis landscape

Gaddis uses a painting of a wanderer looking down on a fog-cloaked valley to illustrate his point. Historians can never be absolutely sure of their data; they are like the wanderer—looking into a distance that is cloaked and ultimately mysterious. Some social-scientists might object that the process makes claims it can’t back up with real data. Gaddis describes one such encounter:

Some years ago I asked the great global historian William H. McNeill to explain his method of writing history to a group of social, physical, and biological scientists attending a conference I’d organized. He at first resisted this, claiming that he had no particular method. When pressed, though, he described it as follows:

“I get curious about a problem and start reading up on it. What I read causes me to redefine the problem. Redefining the problem causes me to shift the direction of what I’m reading. That in turn further reshapes the problem, which further redirects the reading. I go back and forth like this until it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.”

McNeill’s presentation elicited expressions of disappointment, even derision, from the economists, sociologists, and political scientists present. “That’s not a method,” several of them exclaimed. “It’s not parsimonious, it doesn’t distinguish between independent and dependent variables, it hopelessly confuses induction and deduction.”

Gaddis liked the method anyway, and so do I. As I’m reviewing my research files for my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education (available for preorder now!) I came across a few items that didn’t make the final cut, but they do help illustrate the way I came to make the arguments I’m making.

One of the central arguments of the book is that evangelical and fundamentalist colleges have always been subjected to furious scrutiny from the national network of fundamentalists. There has always been a strong sense among the evangelical public that evangelical colleges must be held to a high standard of religious purity. Naturally, parents and alumni of every sort of college watch their schools closely. After all, they might be spending big bucks to send their kids there. In the case of evangelical higher education, even unaffiliated busybodies feel entirely justified—even compelled—to intrude.stenholm notes in controversial Kodon

Another key argument of the book concerns the feud between the fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the conservative-evangelical family. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, the fundamentalist network split into fundamentalist and new-evangelical camps. Some historians have called this a “decisive break” or an “irreparable breach,” but at institutions of higher education, it always felt more like a continuing family feud. At least, that’s the argument I make in the book.

How do I know?

As Professors McNeill and Gaddis insist, it is mostly a question of time. I spent long hours and days in the archives of various schools. I read everything. As I did so, ideas about these themes developed. As they did, I went back and reread everything. Did the idea seem to match the historic record? Over and over again, I noticed that school administrators fretted about the eternal and invasive fundamentalist scrutiny to which they were subjected. Over and over again, I noticed the tones of betrayal, hurt, and intimate outrage that characterized the disagreements between “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” schools.

Not all the evidence made it into the book. One episode I do discuss is a controversial student publication from Wheaton College in Illinois. Back when he was an earnest evangelical student in the early 1960s, Wes Craven—yes, the Nightmare on Elm Street guy—was the student editor of Wheaton’s literary magazine. As part of his intellectual revolt against fundamentalism, Craven published two stories that he knew would ruffle fundamentalist feathers. In one, an unmarried woman wonders what to do about her pregnancy. In another, a white woman is sexually attracted to an African American man.

A quirk of the archives helped me see the ways the controversy unfolded. At the time Craven’s magazine came out, Gilbert Stenholm had been working at fundamentalist Bob Jones University for quite some time. He kept everything. His archive files are full of unique documents that helped me see how fundamentalist higher education worked in practice.

For example, he saved his copy of Craven’s controversial student magazine. His notes in the margins helped me understand the ways fundamentalists were outraged by their new-evangelical cousins. Along the edges of one story, an outraged Stenholm penned in one shocked word: “Profanity!” Elsewhere, Stenholm filled the margins with exclamation points.

What did this one-of-a-kind archival find tell me? It helped me see that fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University had never really washed their hands of evangelical schools like Wheaton. For Stenholm, at least, the goings-on at Wheaton were always of intense interest. And it helped clarify to me the ways members of the far-flung fundamentalist community watched one another. They were always nervous about slippage—always anxious that trustworthy schools could slide into the liberal camp.

Stenholm’s outrage in the case of Craven’s student magazine didn’t make the book’s final cut, but this copy of Wheaton’s student magazine in Stenholm’s collection told me a lot. It doesn’t serve as the kind of “parsimonious,” independent-variable method that Gaddis’s social scientists would prefer. But taken all together, bits and pieces of archival gold like this one guided me to the argument I finally “ship[ped] . . . off to the publisher.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Leaves are falling and campus speakers are speaking. What else is going on out there? Here’s our ILYBYGTH collection of stories of interest:

Almost two-thirds of colleges/universities missed their enrollment targets this year.

The Wall Street Journal agrees with Ed Stetzer. There is no call for anxiety about religious judges or other officials, they note.

Ben bucks Berkeley boos: What happened when Ben Shapiro brought his in-your-face conservatism to California?

What does it mean for a public school to be “public?” Sarah M. Stitzlein of the University of Cincinnati wonders in the pages of EdWeek.Bart reading bible

“Is this heaven?” Some Iowa schools lock bad kids away in “little dungeons,” from The Progressive.

Should we defend Professor Wax’s right to be wrong? That’s Jonathan Zimmerman’s argument at IHE.

Across the (other) pond: South Korean ministry nominee and professor of engineering testifies about his belief in a young earth.

Free-Marketeer Arthur Brooks in the NYT: Universities need to “form communities that do not just tolerate conservatives but actively embrace ideological diversity.”

Is fundamentalism roaring back? John Fea looks askance at recent developments at Southern Baptist Seminary.

Who blocks campus speakers? A reminder from IHE that progressive speakers are being shouted down, too.

From the Archives V: “No, He Is a Fundamentalist”

Editor’s Note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book about the history of evangelical higher education. As always, there was a ton of great material I couldn’t fit in. I’ll share some of the archival gems here.

What is a fundamentalist? It’s not as easy a question as it might seem. As we’ve explored in these pages, any attempt at a simple definition quickly runs up against big problems. One quirky document from the archives of the Moody Bible Institute helped me understand how the term “fundamentalism” was really used during the twentieth century.

The biggest problem—at least to my way of thinking—is that fundamentalism said it was one thing, when it was actually something quite different. As Tim Gloege has argued convincingly in his book about the early history of the Moody Bible Institute, fundamentalists tended to talk about themselves as defenders of orthodoxy, but their views were in fact quite un-orthodox or even anti-orthodox.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Or maybe a “grammar. . . a corporate evangelical framework.”

They had to be.

Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, fundamentalism was something theologically new, a lowest-common-denominator coalition dedicated to fighting against theological modernism. Unlike real orthodoxies, fundamentalism could never agree on a set of hard and fast theological doctrines.

Instead, fundamentalism served, in Gloege’s words, as “the performance of ortho­doxy facilitated by modern promotional techniques.”

Fundamentalism, in other words, wasn’t a specific set of beliefs or practices, but a loud and often belligerent clubbishness in favor of conservative attitudes about church and culture. The kicker comes from the fact that early fundamentalists such as William Bell Riley said over and over again—loudly and often belligerently—that fundamentalism WAS a set of specific theological doctrines.

Riley wasn’t lying, but he was wrong. Riley wanted to insist on his nine-point creed as the one and only definition of true fundamentalism, but he couldn’t impose such a definition. Not for lack of trying, but because as a coalition of conservatives, fundamentalism itself could never be hemmed in by mere theology.

That’s the argument I’ll be fleshing out in more detail in my upcoming book anyway. On the campuses of fundamentalist colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes, the tenuous and ill-defined nature of fundamentalism was always starkly evident, if not often politely discussed.

As I was reviewing my files the other day, I came across one document that underlined the ways “fundamentalism” was used in real life. For admission to the Moody Bible Institute, students were required to submit recommendation forms. Like all higher-ed institutions, MBI wanted to know if potential students were good students. Unlike students at secular schools, though, potential MBI students had to provide evidence that they had good missionary potential.

One question asked recommenders if a potential student had any “doctrinal, or other peculiarities that would unfit him for Christian work”.reference he is a fundamentalist BETTER

One recommender’s response to that question can give us some insight to how the idea of “fundamentalism” worked in practice. Did the potential student have any “peculiarities”? “No,” the recommender wrote, “he is a fundamentalist.” To this recommender, at least, calling someone a “fundamentalist” meant that the person was vouched for, that the person was solid theologically, that he could be trusted as a missionary.

It did NOT mean that he or she shared a certain set of ideas about Christianity or about the proper way to read the Bible. It did not mean that he or she agreed with William Bell Riley’s nine-point list of fundamentals. It meant only that he or she had no “peculiarities.” He or she was within the circle of fundamentalist trust, even thought the exact outline of that circle could never be agreed upon.

What did being a “fundamentalist” mean? In practice, in this case at least, “fundamentalism” was an affiliation more than an orthodoxy. It was an in-group marker rather than a doctrinal platform. It identified someone as trustworthy without going into specifics about their theological or denominational beliefs.

The Proof’s in the Pudding

Well, I guess there ain’t no stopping it now. I’ve just received the proof pages for my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education. Fundy U proof title page

It is a very exciting moment for any nerd to see the way the book will actually look in print.

And now, the last stage of my work begins. I’ll go over these proofs with a fine-tooth comb, looking for any typos or other errors. It’s too late at this stage for me to make any major changes in the content, but I still want to be sure there are no goofs in the printing. fundy u proof TOC

I’ll also use this time to put together an index. I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy this process. It’s a ton of painstaking work, to be sure, but I like putting together a topical list of the book’s main ideas, sorted out by sub-headings.

When will all this come together as a final book? Once I send in the final proofs and the index, the folks at OUP will do their magic and get the book out by early 2018. I’ll keep you posted!

From the Archives II: The Scams and the Sacred

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

Fundamentalists never knew whom to trust. It made sense. After all, since the 1920s, fundamentalists had been telling one another that mainstream institutions had gone to the dogs. Colleges like the University of Chicago, magazines such as Time, denominations such as the Methodists…all had once been trustworthy—in the eyes of fundamentalists—and all had succumbed to a deadly mania for secularism and liberalism. Any school, any church, any preacher could have its or his head turned by the siren song of liberal theology. Any school could slide into soul-damning modernism at any time. This deep skepticism of everyone outside of the charmed circle of trusted fundamentalist institutions, ironically, made it easier for scam artists like George Martin to fleece the faithful.

IMG_1872

Martin pleads for fundamentalist funds, based on his MBI background

How did he do it? It wasn’t a quirk, or an isolated case. Rather—at least, this is the argument I’m making in Fundamentalist U—con men like Martin were able to take advantage of a central, defining element of American fundamentalism.

Here’s the story: Martin ran an orphanage and college in Hornell, New York. In the 1950s, he solicited funds and donations for this fundamentalist project. Fundamentalists were no dummies; before they sent him money, they wanted to know he was trustworthy; they wanted to know that he had good theology and sound finances. They wanted to know their money was really going to spread the Gospel and to teach new generations of fundamentalists.

But how could they know for sure? Because fundamentalism was a staunchly interdenominational protest movement, it had no governing boards, no presbyteries, no denominational supervision. The only way for fundamentalists to know if an institution was trustworthy—financially or theologically—was by reputation and rumor.

So vouching played a key role in defining fundamentalism in practice. Fundamentalists nationwide looked to reliable authorities to vouch for various institutions. And Martin knew it. He boasted of his connection to the most venerable evangelical institution of all, the Moody Bible Institute. And he advertised in impeccably trustworthy fundamentalist magazines such as Sunday School Times.IMG_1875

Nevertheless, rumors continued to circulate that Martin’s operation was nothing but a scam. Local fundamentalists denounced him, and secular journalists from Maclean’s magazine published a damning expose. Donations, the Maclean’s article described, didn’t fund gospel work but rather luxury cars and houses for Martin and his family.

That brings us, though, to the fundamentalist pickle. Since the 1920s, fundamentalists had warned one another that mainstream magazines such as Maclean’s were not to be trusted. After all, such magazines called ALL fundamentalists con men and scam artists. Even the most respected institutions such as Moody Bible Institute were not much respected outside of fundamentalist circles.

Some fundamentalist leaders tried to police their own ranks. Keenly aware of their responsibility to their fundamentalist readers, the editors of Sunday School Times interrogated Martin about his finances. In 1954, they demanded more information—detailed information—about Martin’s income and expenses. They demanded full disclosure.

Martin refused.

What could SST do about it? Not nothing, but not as much as editor Harry F. Jaeger hoped. In the world of American fundamentalism, Jaeger could not simply kick Martin out. There was no process for disbarment, excommunication, or banishment.

But SST and other fundamentalist institutions weren’t powerless. Jaeger sent a powerful message to the fundamentalist community by pulling Martin’s ads from SST. The magazine would no longer offer Martin its implicit endorsement. And Jaeger could and did use his influence to sway other fundamentalist leaders.

For example, he wrote to Moody Bible Institute president William Culbertson to warn him of Martin’s scams. Martin, after all, based his reputation largely on Martin’s record as an MBI alum. MBI should worry, Jaeger wrote, that its reputation was being abused. As Jaeger put it,

Under the circumstances, it seems to me that his work should not be presented to the Christian public for support.

What did MBI do? As usual in the world of American fundamentalism, they were extremely hesitant to condemn a fellow fundamentalist, especially if the evidence came mainly from secular critics. But they didn’t ignore the criticisms, either. To start, they stopped running Martin’s ads in Moody Monthly, in spite of Martin’s protests.

IMG_1888

Your money, please…

When fundamentalists wrote to MBI for assurance, though, MBI only gave them the run around. In 1963, for instance, one administrator wrote to an inquirer, saying he had “no firsthand knowledge of the organization.”  He noted that the popular magazine Maclean’s had just written a damning expose of Martin’s school.  MBI itself, however, was not sure “whether the article is fair or factual.”

The fundamentalist public, after all, had grown accustomed to unfair treatment at the hands of mainstream journalists. Was Martin merely being misrepresented by hostile secular and liberal critics, as he claimed? Or did he really take the money of well-meaning fundamentalist backers and buy himself fancy cars and houses, as his critics insisted?

There was no easy way for the fundamentalist community to know for sure. They relied almost exclusively on reputation. If Martin claimed to be part of the Moody Bible Institute alumni community, then he must be trustworthy…right?

Only years later, when local evangelical sources had corroborated the charges made by the Maclean’s reporter did MBI administrators begin sounding a more clearly negative note.  Even then, in 1968, MBI administrators did not actively denounce Martin and his fraudulent school.  Rather, they only responded to inquiries with batches of clippings about Martin’s depredations.

It made fundamentalists nervous. It was very difficult to tell who was really representing the fundamentalist movement and who wasn’t. Both legit schools and fakes would be denounced in the mainstream press as bogus. And established institutions such as Moody Bible Institute were extremely reluctant to expose anyone’s shady dealings.

Fundamentalism was built on a shaky structure—supported mainly by reputation and rumor. And this set-up made for predictable abuses. Scam artists like George Martin weren’t the exception, but rather a predictable result of the lack of any higher (human) authority in the world of twentieth-century fundamentalism.

From the Archives I: Extremism in the Defense of Bible Prophecy Is No Vice

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

You may have heard it before. There is a myth circulating in nerd circles about the history of fundamentalism in the twentieth century. It’s not true and historians have punctured it convincingly. If we needed any more proof, the archives are full of evidence.

As the old story goes, fundamentalists were humiliated at the Scopes trial in 1925. They retreated in anger and disgust from participation in mainstream life, building up a network of inward-looking institutions such as colleges, church networks, and parachurch organizations. Then—depending on which version you hear—either Billy Graham in 1957 or Jerry Falwell in 1976 broke out of this self-imposed fundamentalist ghetto to leap back onto America’s center stage.

It’s hooey, as historians such as Matthew Sutton and Daniel K. Williams have shown. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story just doesn’t match the historical record. Fundamentalists never retreated from political involvement or mainstream cultural engagement. In Sutton’s words, fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I’m making this argument in my book as well. Even at schools such as the Moody Bible Institute that were supposedly the most otherworldly, the most focused on Bible prophecy and the farthest removed from the nitty-gritty politics of the so-called “New Christian Right,” fundamentalists never withdrew from politics, never retreated from mainstream involvement. As this photo makes clear, in the 1960s MBI ardently engaged in partisan politics, pushing hard for a conservative Goldwater presidency.1964 WMBI and Goldwater

It wasn’t only in the 1960s, either. MBI’s leaders always fought in the political arena. Back in the 1920s, for example, President James M. Gray worried that MBI’s radio station had come under undue political pressure. What did Gray do? “The time for fighting has begun,” he warned. He used every weapon in reach to oppose the new radio regulations, including the Capitol-Hill influence of Missouri Senator James M. Reed.

Gray’s political activism was not the exception, it was the rule. No matter where you look in the archives, you see fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals fully engaged in mainstream politics. There was no retreat. There was no withdrawal. And, of course, that means Jerry Falwell’s 1970s leap into politics was not as ground-shaking as Falwell liked to say it was.

Conspiracy and American Jihad

Michael Gerson is right. Feverish conspiracy theories have become “a kind of discrediting madness” among American conservatives. But it’s not only a problem on the right. Progressives are prone to embracing outlandish conspiracy theories, too. (*Paging Louise Mensch*) What are we supposed to do, then, whether we’re progressive or conservative, when we see evidence of a real, frightening conspiracy? Of prominent preachers calling for American jihad and civil war?

In general, it’s difficult for a historian like me to get too worked up by hyperbolic claims of conspiracy. It’s not that historians don’t see plenty of conspiracies in the archival record. Rather, as I’ve argued in these pages before, digging into archives shows us lots of evidence of real conspiracies. It is precisely the abundance of conspiracies that keeps us calm. There are so many conspiracies afoot, operating at cross-purposes and usually in bungling fractious competition with one another, that the ultimate goals of such conspiracies foil themselves.

When my progressive friends have warned of theocratic fundamentalist or creationist conspiracies, I’ve replied time and again that fundamentalists and creationists are among the most divided groups in America. The notion that they could combine to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale sort of theocracy simply doesn’t match the historical record.

I was flummoxed, then, by a recent Jim Bakker video.

Remember Jim Bakker? Of PTL Ministries? In a recent video circulated by Right Wing Watch, Bakker insisted that any impeachment of Trump would lead to a “civil war in the United States . . . Christians will finally come out of the shadows” to fight for what’s right.

Even for a mild-mannered historian like me, it’s hard not to be disturbed by such threats of American jihad. And it’s easy for secular people like me to see more evidence everywhere we look. We know, for example, that a whopping 81% of white evangelical voters voted for Trump. Those of us who study evangelical history might politely argue about the meaning of evangelical support for Trump, as John Fea and I did a while back, but it’s not too difficult to make a case that Bakker’s violent Trumpism might have plenty of support.

So should we freak out?

Not yet. Here’s why: Clearly, violent extremism is real and dangerous. Whether from Portland, the PTL, or campus radicals, we can’t afford to pooh-pooh the threat of real theo/political/racial violence. But in order to recognize and fight the danger of extremism we need to avoid the temptation of lumping together all those with whom we disagree.

Rather, we need to understand and encourage the diversity within every group. It is hard for secular progressives like me to truly understand, but no one will be more horrified by Bakker’s jihadist rhetoric than other evangelical Protestants. If we leap to assume that Bakker’s extremism represents the thinking of all white evangelicals, we turn our greatest potential anti-extremist evangelical allies into imagined pro-Bakker extremist enemies.

Are conspiracies real? Are Bakker’s fulminations dangerous? Yes, and hell yes.

The proper response, though, is not to score cheap points against conservative evangelicals by using Bakker’s words against them. The real goal should be to recruit anti-Bakker allies from among his many evangelical opponents.

A Fundamentalist Flop?

Bad news: You just failed English. What can you do? In several school districts, you can take an approved online class to make up the credit. Recently, Slate reporters examined these online classes to see if they were any good. Mostly, they weren’t. Lurking at the very bottom of the barrel were sad-sack online tutorials provided for homeschoolers by the fundamentalists at Pensacola Christian College. Has PCC’s rigid traditional philosophy has caught up to it? Or are they providing precisely what fundamentalists want?

Thanks to the ever-watchful curmudgucrat Peter Greene, we stumbled across an intriguing update to our study of fundamentalist curriculum. Slate worked with the Columbia School of Journalism’s Teacher Project to produce an eight-part expose of “online credit-recovery” programs. At most schools, students who fail a class can take one of these online modules in order to graduate. Like old-fashioned correspondence courses, these new programs hover in the depressing gray area between unfortunate necessity and outright scam. In some cases, students taking these courses don’t learn a thing, but their “success” can be used by school districts to inflate their graduation statistics.

The online catch-up courses sometimes fill a real need and serve students who don’t have a better option. In some cases, though, they are pure educational garbage. Francesca Berardi and Zoë Kirsch picked three programs that they called the “bottom of the class.” Your humble editor noticed an old fundamentalist friend on the shortlist: A Beka Academy.

Baker successful christian school

Taking the “fun” out of fundamentalism

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall our earlier work with A Beka. The publishing company has its roots at Pensacola Christian College. Back in the 1970s, Arlin and Beka Horton (A + Beka…get it?) complained that their alma mater Bob Jones University had gone soft. They warned Bob Jones III that leaders of BJU’s ed school such as Walter Fremont and Phil Smith had imported dangerous secular ideas into their teacher-training program.

What fundamentalist schools really needed, the Hortons insisted, was fundamentalist religion delivered in a traditional top-down way by authoritarian teachers. As one A Beka proponent explained back in the 1970s,

Above all, Christian schools must be steered completely clear of the philosophy that has progressively wrecked the public schools. Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child.  Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting).  They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

What should a good classroom look like? As A.A. “Buzz” Baker described, the classroom should be catechetical. Teachers give information. If students are to respond, they do so in an orderly and scripted way. Consider, for example, this A Beka-recommended “doctrinal drill” for classrooms:

Teacher’s Statement:

“Heaven is a real place, just as real as this room.  It is a wonderful, safe, happy home where God lives.  God wants everyone to come there and live with Him.  Anyone who has taken Jesus as his Savior will be able to go to heaven and live forever with God; but anyone who has not taken Jesus as his Savior cannot go to heaven, but must go to a terrible place of eternal punishment.”

Drill Questions:

  1. Will everybody get to go to heaven? No.

  2. Who gets to go to heaven? The people who trust in Jesus and who take Him as their Savior while they live here on earth.

  3. Does God want everybody to go to heaven? Yes.

  4. Why won’t everybody get to go to heaven? Because some people won’t take Jesus as their own Savior.

In the A Beka world—a world that is populated by plenty of homeschoolers and evangelical-school students—the perfect learning environment consists of a loving authoritarian teacher delivering theologically pure information efficiently to obedient students.

Success in A Beka’s goals doesn’t look so successful to outsiders, though. Berardi and Kirsch blast A Beka’s “trite” online credit-recovery courses as the very bottom of the very bottom of the barrel, “in a league of their own” for inadequacy. Here’s a sample of what they found:

One rambling four-minute excerpt from an 11th-grade English course, for instance, consists mostly of corny lectures from a teacher on the work of 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet. “[She] calls her poetry a child,” the teacher says. “And just as a child can be unruly, just as a child may not quite always look just right … this morning as we’re eating breakfast, I look at the girls, and they’ve got Nutella all over their face,” she continues. Poetry, like children, can be “a little messy.” The instructor wraps up by questioning the students about the religious message of Bradstreet’s poetry. The students then take turns rising, accepting a microphone, and slowly reading their handwritten responses in flat tones—not exactly engaging pedagogy that’s likely to hold the interest of struggling learners.

In another sample, a 12th-grade class called “Document Processing,” students can learn typing while watching four videotaped teenagers, well, type. The teacher circulates between the teens on the video, reminding them to “add that space there” and providing other tips. By the time she asks the students to check their posture, the viewer himself may be so bored he’s slouching out of his chair.

Sounds pretty grim. To be fair, A Beka’s lame online courses are not the only terrible ones on the market. The Slate series poked several other holes in the shadowy world of online credit-recovery coursework.

But here are our questions for this morning: Is the pedagogical lameness part of the appeal? That is, do fundamentalist schools and homeschools think that such tame fare is part of A Beka’s continuing effort to instill Biblical discipline in classes? To root out secular giggles, “a la Sesame Street”? Or has A Beka just gotten lazy? Do the Pensacola publishers simply recognize that they have a captured market of fundamentalists, people who wouldn’t trust secular courses? Have the A Beka folks just relaxed too much, knowing that fundamentalist teachers and parents have no other options?

Desperate Times at Bryan College

They might seem like two totally separate things. First, Bryan College awards an honorary doctorate to a young-earth creationist pundit. Second, Bryan’s president conducts some financial hocus-pocus to keep the school officially in the black. They might seem separate, but they are both symptoms of the same deep malaise that plagues Bryan. Moreover, they are irruptions of the perennial life-or-death tension that has always dictated policy at all conservative evangelical schools.

Here’s what we know: Last week, Bryan College awarded an honorary doctorate to young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Bryan President Stephen Livesay praised Ham, saying,

In a day when most of the culture and, sadly, many Christians proclaim a naturalistic worldview, Ken Ham boldly and persuasively argues for a biblical understanding of “In the beginning God.”

At the same time, yet another trustee resigned from Bryan’s board. Wayne Cropp, one of the few trustees who remained after the Night of the Long Knives in 2014, finally had enough. He claimed that President Livesay had sneakily made some real estate transfers to make it look as if Bryan College were in better financial shape than it really is.

Ken Ham hooded at Bryan

I love you but you’re going to boost enrollments…

Now, your humble editor has absolutely no insider knowledge about these goings-on. But based on the research for my current book about the history of evangelical higher education, I can say with confidence that these two events are likely part of the same desperate survival strategy.

In a nutshell, President Livesay is doing whatever it takes to keep Bryan College alive. Like many small colleges in the United States, Bryan is always teetering on the brink of financial collapse. At Sweet Briar, remember, wealthy alumni had to pony up extra just to keep the lights on. Unlike many small colleges, however, Livesay has an extra trump card he can play. And he’s been playing it for years.

In order to attract students with their life-sustaining tuition dollars, Livesay—like leaders at all evangelical colleges—can plant a flag for fundamentalism and young-earth creationism. In Bryan’s case, the school has taken drastic steps to purge any whiff of creationism that doesn’t meet the strict young-earth standards of Ken Ham.

As I discovered in my recent research, the pattern is as old as fundamentalist higher education itself. For example, Wheaton College in Illinois experienced a drastic rise in enrollments when it joined the fundamentalist crusade in the 1920s. Before it became the “Fundamentalist Harvard,” a majority of Wheaton’s students came from Illinois. After it planted a flag for fundamentalist higher education, a full three-quarters of its students came from outside the state. And attendance boomed. Between 1916 and 1928, the college grew by over four hundred percent in terms of student attendance.

It can be a risky game, though. Relying on a reputation as a staunchly fundamentalist or young-earth creationist school can bite schools in the behind. In the 1960s, when Wheaton’s leaders wanted to shake off some of the intellectual baggage of the fundamentalist movement, their enrollment numbers took a huge hit.

In 1964, a total of 8,528 potential Wheaton students had asked for admissions information. Only three years later, that number plunged to only 6,403. Why? Admissions Director Charles Schoenherr had an idea. In a memo to President Hudson Armerding, Schoenherr asked plaintively, “To what extent have rumors about Wheaton going ‘liberal’ hurt?”

Like Bryan, Wheaton relies on reputation to keep tuition dollars coming in. And like Bryan, Wheaton has long relied on honorary doctorates to shore up that reputation. Between 1920 and 1965, Wheaton gave out 180 honorary doctorates.

And the top leadership at Wheaton, just like at Bryan, did not hesitate to use those doctorates to reassure anxious fundamentalist parents. In 1962, then-President V. Raymond Edman wrote to one distressed parent. The parent had heard rumors that Wheaton no longer respected its fundamentalist roots. She had heard that the school had embraced evolution. Was it true? As she put it, “What grieves me most is that our daughter may lose her faith at Wheaton. Is this possible?”

Not in the slightest, President Edman assured her. How could she know for sure? Because prominent creationist Harry Rimmer held an honorary doctorate. Furthermore, Edman told her, the entire faculty at Wheaton were “convinced fundamentalists.”

If you didn’t have a calendar handy, you could simply swap out some names and the story could be from Dayton, Tennessee. Bryan President Stephen Livesay is desperate for dollars. So he gives Ken Ham a hug and a doctorate. At the same time, he rams through an iffy land deal that balances the books, sort of.

The names have changed, but the game is the same. Bryan College is desperate. Like a lot of small colleges, it is running on a financial knife edge. Unlike many schools, though, Bryan has a chance to appeal to a cultural niche market. If Livesay can convince young-earthers that his school is true to their ideas about science and faith, he might just attract enough tuition-paying students to keep Bryan alive. Until then, he’ll have to cook some real-estate books to pump a few more breaths into his campus.

HT: KT