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Baylor provost: Biblical illiteracy fuels anarchy-like view of freedom

DALLAS (BP)–As Baptist colleges discuss the best way to integrate faith and learning, several leaders are questioning whether students have even a basic knowledge of their faith to serve as a foundation for further learning.

Baylor University Provost David L. Jeffrey is concerned that even among more faithful faculty of Christian schools, “biblical literacy and theological competence is at a far lower ebb than might have been found a generation ago amongst rural Baptists and other evangelicals who never saw the inside of a college classroom.”

Speaking last spring to a “Scripture and the Disciplines Conference” at Wheaton College, Jeffrey added, “What they knew, and knew by heart, their college educated children and grandchildren have largely forgotten.”

In teaching literature classes at Baylor, Jeffrey observed that far too many students are “abysmally ignorant of the Bible.” To make his point, he referred to a character from the film “Metropolitan” who “defended his obtuseness by saying, ‘Just because you haven’t read a book, doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion on it. I haven’t read the Bible, and I have an opinion on it.’

“I am concerned that not only the wider culture, but increasingly the subculture we call the evangelical church, has opinions on a book which, for practical intellectual purposes, it hasn’t really read.”

Jeffrey maintained that the Bible has lost authority “in those churches ostensibly most identified with the Bible.” He pointed to George Barna’s research that revealed only 9 percent of the self-described “born again” in the United States and only half of all Protestant pastors have anything that could be accountably described as a biblical worldview. “Six out of every seven congregants in the typical church do not share the biblical worldview of their pastor even when he or she has one,” he added, citing the Barna research.

While noting that the evangelical community has apparently “lost its appetite for coherent biblical teaching,” Jeffrey told conference participants that Christian higher education needs to find a remedy. “The decline has gone on for long enough that biblical illiteracy is nearly as extreme among evangelical college students as it is among the general populace.”

Even 30 years ago Jeffrey noticed the general culture decline while team-teaching a course in medieval and Renaissance art history at the University of Rochester along with Bruce Cole, current director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. At that time, even a reference to Noah, which provides understanding for Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale,” drew blank stares from students.

“For teaching Western art and literature in the secular university, the deficit in prerequisite knowledge has only grown more acute,” Jeffrey said, noting Cole’s belief that this amnesia on the part of Americans ultimately threatens democracy.

“The problem of coherence in a discipline such as English literature is not merely that one cannot adequately read the thicker branch texts of Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan or Eliot when one cannot recognize the DNA in their biblical allusions.

“Anarchic, postmodern advocacy — or radical subjectivism — ‘drowns all music but its own,’” Jeffrey said, calling it tyrannical and inherently as opposed to the harmonic as it is to the heavenly. In an era when “everybody writes like Madonna sings, autobiographically, and with self-adulating fervor,” Jeffrey applied his argument to the North American churches that are as bankrupt as the culture in the “low poetry” that they offer. “In the Church of the Blessed Overhead Projector they are sung regularly, let us hasten to admit, consolatory Sunday morning echoes for many a Nashville Saturday night lament.”

After Jeffrey’s remarks to the Wheaton audience were circulated at Baylor, the Baptist university’s faculty offered a mixed response, particularly when he projected the ramifications of biblical illiteracy when addressing the volatile issue of academic freedom.

“If Christian institutions are to defend themselves against the increasingly shrill charge that in their hiring practice and conduct policies they repress both academic and sexual freedom,” Jeffrey said, “they will need to rise above a defense of freedom which is as narrowly subjectivist and individualistic as that of their postmodern antagonists.”

He observed that professors in his own discipline of English literature “are more proportionately filled with seminary dropouts and recanters of vows of ordination” and often have made academic freedom an issue in the university. “The sowing of wild oats by failed clergy,” he said, “has made literary study a kind of alternative catechism for many.”

Jeffrey noted the tendency of secular higher education and the judicial system to chart a wider cultural course so that “partisans of academic freedom” are likely to censor “at least one Book.” Advocates of an anarchic view of personal academic freedom are most prone to deny it to others, he said, particularly groups whose ideas of freedom focus on community. As a “subjectivist notion of freedom” is seen as a Christian norm in religiously affiliated schools and “grotesque illiteracy in Scripture” abounds, a coherent biblical worldview will not last, he said.

In an interview with a Baylor alumni publication, Jeffrey turned to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message to explain how religiously affiliated institutions are shaped by the values and virtues practiced in a specifically Christian environment.

The portion of the BF&M quoted also appears in the revised 2000 statement of faith and reads: “In Christian education there should be a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility. Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute. The freedom of a teacher in a Christian school, college, or seminary is limited by the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ, by the authoritative nature of the Scriptures, and by the distinct purpose for which the school exists.”

Jeffrey warned of “a growing tendency in the secular academic world to emphasize the academic freedom of professors to an almost anarchistic degree,” potentially compromising “our shared commitment to a nurturing learning community.” As a longtime Baptist, Jeffrey appealed for “a renewed commitment to a common mission and a common, centering conversation concerning the Scriptures whose ‘authoritative nature’ naturally conditions and defines the responsibilities which attend our freedom.”

Citing the BF&M article on education, Jeffrey told writer Meg Cullar, “It implies that exercise of academic freedom by teachers will not be at the expense of that which calls us all together as a specifically Christian community dedicated to academic excellence.”

While Jeffrey believes Baptists are justified in citing the priesthood of the believer and Baptist freedom in making the case for academic freedom, too often these doctrinal convictions are used as license to interpret the Bible “in any way I choose.” In his Wheaton address he warned, “Such triumphant subjectivism quite naturally leads to, in practice, the neglect of the Bible altogether.”

Jeffrey said church-related institutions of higher learning and local churches are not teaching the Scriptures sufficiently well so that the Bible rises to the level of becoming a true intellectual resource that can guide the debate over the meaning and application of the principle of academic freedom.

While Catholics can use their catechism and Reformed churches can point to canons, creeds and confessions, Baptists usually refer to “institutional establishment” or “a generalized appeal to the Bible,” Jeffrey explained in the interview. He called for “a renewed commitment to a common mission and a common, centering conversation concerning the Scriptures whose ‘authoritative nature’ naturally conditions and defines the responsibilities which attend our freedom.”

His characterization of teaching in Baptist churches hits close to home for many. He said in his address in Wheaton that preaching includes relational, how-to-succeed-without-really-trying injunctions that are spiced with humorous stories and references to movies and television. Sometimes they feature “a light scattering of verses from the more accessible Pauline epistles to show that the quasi-funny talk was some kind of sermon after all.”

Jeffrey continued, “Large numbers of biblical books are ignored in such preaching,” such as the Gospels, universal letters, Acts, Romans and much of the Old Testament, “because their content is unflattering or their thought too demanding.”

“Scripture itself, in many churches, is never read aloud in whole or discreet passages, partly because that would imply that the sermon which followed should in some measure be a ‘reading’ in common of the common text, partly because it would reduce the time available for musical entertainment and theologically hollow but emotionally gratifying praise songs, but mostly because it is felt that the congregation can’t ‘follow it,’” Jeffrey said.

For many, Jeffrey believes “orgasmic music itself is their real object of worship,” while subjective focus is often overwhelming and comparable to a purely secular, commercial kind of entertainment. The “strange notion of Christian freedom” articulated in what Jeffrey calls a shallow spiritual environment is “the freedom to be me.” Because this approach to preaching and teaching is essentially individualistic and has no biblical or theological warrant, Jeffrey said it corresponds to pop culture and the sort of academic freedom advocated by the American Association of University Professors.

More to the point, Jeffrey said, “It is entirely inadequate to defend the right of Christian colleges and universities to religious exemption.” Ultimately, he believes Christian colleges that are labeled “repressive” and “exclusivist” by opponents will be challenged as to their hiring practices, curricular choices and course content. To withstand threats to their religious exemption, “Schools must be able to point to a coherent doctrinal base as well as consistent and historical exposition of it to claim the status,” Jeffrey said.

At Baylor, Jeffrey said, “We have had to return to biblical exposition and orthodox biblical theology to make our case against strident secular judgments against the Bible by those who haven’t read it but certainly have an opinion on it. If we reacquire this relationship to the Bible in our churches, in our private and communal reading, teaching and exposition, then it will come naturally to us in the articulation of our collegiate mission and the daily practice of our disciplines.”

The alternative is unacceptable to Jeffrey. “Without that prior order of familiarity, I suspect, our connectedness to our biblical foundation will continue to be artificial, awkward, shallow, embarrassed and fraught with guilt — until, perhaps, with a stroke of some judicial pen, it disappears altogether.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter