An article in the Guardian has been doing the rounds on Twitter. In it, the ‘anonymous academic‘ complains that evangelicals studying theology are resisting proper academic scrutiny and flattening out discussion about important issues.
Evangelical students cannot tolerate diversity of opinion and resist secular critiques of their views. My job is no longer the joy it once was.
This isn’t a static observation, but one about change over the last few years. Although the headine suggests otherwise, the key problem that the writer identifies is the consumerisation of education, and the measurement of academic courses by student feedback. If lecturers undermine student convictions, then they will get poor feedback, and this will have consequences. And this then prevents important questions from being asked within an academic context.
Academic rigour, research-inspired teaching and independent, critical thinking are the hallmarks of today’s university culture. And yet many of us have found ourselves diluting or softening the topics of our modules, and the intellectual and critical content of our lectures, for fear of poor student feedback (which is carefully monitored by the university).
But there is of course another side of this. Why should evangelicals who study theology, paying good money like everyone else, put up with criticism and undermining of their perspective by someone who is, both organisationally, intellectually and socially exercising a position of power over them in the classroom?
In terms of the recent history of theological study, this represents something of a turning of the tables. Under the previous paradigm of education, an Enlightenment paradigm where a Kantian view of truth led to a remorselessly positivist approach to history, sceptisicm ruled, and any position of commitment in relation to faith was simply not admitted as having any legitimacy in the class room. When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, many of the theology lecturers appeared to have an undisguised glee in disabusing Christian, and particularly evangelical, undergraduates of their naive and foolish convictions that the biblical texts were anything other than mythical. It was routine for undergraduates to start as Christians, and leave with faith shredded.
Now the epistemic boot is on the other ideological foot. Many Christians, especially those from a more conservative evangelical background, will still be working with a positivist, foundationalist approach to questions of truth.
Recently, a group of students in a lecture refused to undertake the work set because they didn’t want to apply postmodern perspectives to what for them was a sacred text.
But in fact the environment is postmodern, in which any one view is as good as any other, and there is a market-place in which conflicting perspectives compete with one another. In this context, by what authority can the lecturer assert his or her view over against evangelical conviction?
And there is a wider context for this. Many feel that, in the popular media, it is open season for criticism of Christian and evangelical viewpoints—and I don’t think this is much of an exaggeration. I can hardly count a day go by when there isn’t an acerbic dig at traditional Christian belief on radio or television. Many of the most popular presenters in the media are atheist or in some other way antagonist to Christians—and they make no attempt to hide this. In such a context, who can blame evangelical undergraduates for pushing back when they have the chance? I am not saying this is right, or that I am proud of it, but it is hardly surprising. Christians in a post-Christendom context are going to have to learn to toughen up a little, come out from behind the protection of respectability and establishment, and stand up for themselves.
But there is an underlying question: is evangelical commitment inherently resistant to academic critique?
Any diversity of religious or non-religious students has been overpowered by a particularly influential form of evangelical Christianity. It is a belief system that is uncomfortable with the academic study of religion, and which will often explicitly resist it.
I think this is an open question. In terms of global scholarship, the answer is clearly a resounding ‘no’. At just about every level of academic engagement, evangelical scholars are at the leading edge of discussion in almost every field within biblical studies. I am not sure there has been any more exciting time to be an evangelical in academic biblical studies since the Reformation. If the ‘anonymous academic’ is not aware of this, then he or she is either wilfully ignorant, being unfair, or needs to get out more.
However, in the local church I think the picture is much more mixed. Fundamentalist perspectives, mostly from the US, are making themselves felt, particularly in areas like evolution and creation, sexuality, and biblical interpretation. There is a key task to be done in connecting churches with the best in evangelical scholarship, and giving them the confidence within the marketplace of opinion that their convictions can stand up to scrutiny.
This won’t make undergraduates from such churches any less confident—but perhaps it might make them a little more gracious.