Thursday, October 1, 2009

Between Athens and Jerusalem: Reading Liberal Books at Christian Universities

Blogger's Note: September 26-October 3 is Banned Books Week. The following essay, written in April of 2005, is my telling of my own experience when the administration of a private Christian university at which I taught attempted to ban a book that I had chosen for a course. In reaction, I stood my ground and used the book.

This essay originally appeared in the SBL Forum, an on-line publication of the Society of Biblical Literature. You can find the original post at

"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" These questions, posed by the Patristic theologian Tertullian in The Prescriptions against Heresies, continue to haunt educators at church-related universities. Recent and longstanding controversies at these universities fuel debate about what it means for a liberal arts university to call itself Christian or, vice versa, for a Christian university to call itself a liberal arts university. Certainly the mission of these intuitions is to educate, to spur critical and creative thinking, and to develop lifelong learners. Yet this can become tricky when one takes into account the fact that these institutions have a constituency in the pews of the churches, a constituency that often does not understand the complexities of a true liberal arts education. In this often conflicting context, I have recently dealt with my own controversy.

I currently teach at a small, church-related, liberal arts university in the South, in the so-called Bible Belt. The current curriculum at this university requires students to complete a core of liberal arts and interdisciplinary study courses. The curriculum currently in place requires students to take two one-hour readings courses, one at the sophomore level and the other at the junior level. For these courses, volunteer faculty members, who are paid a stipend, choose a book that they would like to read with a group of about fifteen to twenty students. In general, these books should have some importance and some scholarly merit, but not be too difficult for the average undergraduate student. Students sign up for two books in a semester and read these in rotation, six weeks for the first book and six weeks for the second. Thus a faculty member participating in this venture will read a book with two different groups of students in a semester. While methods for assessing student learning vary, most instructors require students to write response papers for their grades.The current state of the course has allowed each faculty member to choose the book to be read in his or her own course. No specific criteria have been established for the selection of books, giving faculty great freedom to choose important books.

I was asked by the coordinator of the course if I would be interested in teaching the sophomore level course. I had led four different semesters at the junior level, and I had chosen books that were thought provoking for our students, who for the most part are theologically and politically conservative. The books I had selected, though challenging to students' thinking, made it under the radar of those who would be concerned about the general liberal tendencies of parts or all of these books. This changed when I chose a book for the sophomore readings course that would meet in the fall of 2004.

I had spent the summer reading through some books that had sat on my desk for months. Of these books, one struck me as having the potential of challenging students, while written at a level that non-theological majors could understand. The book was Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity.

I knew when I chose the book that, like all the others I had read with students before, this book would present a degree of controversy. I did not select the book for this reason, however. I chose the book because it presents some very challenging ideas, many with which I have strong disagreement, but much with which I do agree. I selected the text because it causes the reader to think, which in my mind leads to a better formation of both knowledge and faith. I chose the book because I am convinced that students need to read such books for themselves, albeit with some informative guidance. Little did I know that the selection of this text would create a row.

But a row did arise. The stir was not created by the book per se; rather, the controversy arose over the fact that a book authored by Marcus Borg, an infamous figure in the Jesus Seminar, was in our campus bookstore, much less assigned as required reading for a course. This caused great consternation among some of the administrators, who feared that the reading of such a text would become known to those in the churches. The fear was that pastors and laypeople would not understand why we were reading a text by a well-known liberal thinker who doubts that most of what is written about Jesus in the canonical Gospels actually happened. This all came to a boiling point when I was asked to defend my choice of the text to the administration, which I was happy to do, not out of obligation to the administration, but out of a desire to argue that reading such texts is part and parcel of our being a liberal arts university.

I have now come to understand that the issue was not necessarily Borg's book in particular. The content of the book is not the biggest problem here. The book only points to the larger issue of whether any liberal-minded books should be read at church-related universities and what the answer to this question means for true liberal arts education. Can a Christian university permit students to read such books and yet remain true to its mission as Christian? If the answer to this questions is no, then it begs the question as to whether that university can continue to call itself a liberal arts university.

If we Christian educators, or perhaps better, if we educators who happen to be Christian see our mission as developing lifelong learners and critical thinkers, then we need to guide students on how to learn and how to think critically. This may mean reading uncomfortable books as we guide them to think critically about the issues they raise. Such work does not demand that we advocate every idea written in these books, nor does it insist that we dismiss scholars like Borg a priori just because we disagree with some of their thoughts and writings.

I am convinced that students should read scholars like Borg because their knowledge of more liberal thinkers should not be solely left to the interpretations of others. I shudder to think that we have come to the point where self-appointed answer-giving professors must shield undiscerning students. This is an insult to students and is not the mission of education where independent critical thinking is the hallmark.

My intention in reading this book with students was to prod them to think more about their faith, which I think is precipitated by reading those who think differently. Churches and Christian universities have done a poor job at teaching people to think theologically. We preach theology. We teach theology. We even indoctrinate theology. But rarely do we take up the hard task of helping students learn to think theologically. These respective methodologies are vastly different. As theological educators, we are compelled to guide students to develop a practice of thinking critically about their faith. Our goal is never to tear down what students believe, but to help them grasp a faith that is truly their own. The goal is to dialogue and to help them find their own way of thinking through the complex issues of our faith, thereby setting them on a path toward wisdom.

I imagine that at most state universities one would find a predisposition against books written from a faith perspective. Would we not, as Christian liberal arts institutions, want to rise above the increasingly entrenched dichotomy between conservative and liberal, offering opportunities to hear various voices speak? And in doing so, should we not be humble enough to admit that there are positive contributions made by those who think differently from us, even when such difference is vast? And if we can come to this point, have we not reached the true goal of education, which is to consider all the evidence and to draw thoughtful and critical conclusions from that evidence? This to me is the essence of learning in a liberal arts tradition.

There seems to be a theological issue at stake here as well. Jesus tells us very clearly that the whole law is summed up in the commandment to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and your entire mind. Love implies openness to God that requires us to open our hearts, our souls, and indeed our very minds to God. Yet, Jesus also reminds us that the second commandment is just as important as the first: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If love for God is openness to God, then love for our neighbor is openness to our neighbor and what our neighbor has to say. This does not mean that we will agree with our neighbor, but it does mean that we ought to be good listeners of what our neighbor has to say. This, in my opinion, is not only the essence of education; it is our call from God.

While the row over this book caused trepidation for me—as I felt vulnerable to attacks by those who disagreed with my choice—the journey through reading this book with students gave me a peace about this choice and a confirmation that students can think for themselves. In leading each discussion over the assigned reading, I intentionally asked open-ended questions so that each student could respond from her or his own perspective and interpretation of Borg. If students struggled to understand a particular argument or if I felt they might have been misinterpreting Borg on some point, I gently guided them to discover for themselves a fuller understanding. In this way, I tried to ensure my goals were met—that each student would read and grasp Borg's argument apart from an authority figure who interprets for them.

Although most of the students vigorously disagreed with Borg on many points, they did allow Borg to challenge, and sometimes even change, their thinking. Perhaps what I hoped for was what others feared. Regardless of whether the students agreed in part or disagreed wholly with Borg, they did engage him and they responded with thoughtful questions, critical responses, and well-written papers clarifying both their understanding of his arguments and their agreement or disagreement with him. One student candidly shared with me how he had become so disgusted with Christianity that he had seriously thought of becoming a Buddhist. However, as he expressed in his response paper, Borg gave him a place to be Christian. I still wonder how my critics would have responded to this student's openness.

There was a response, however, that I did not fully anticipate. Unlike my critics, not one student suggested or hinted that there was a problem in reading this book. Each of them volunteered to read this book, and the majority of them engaged it thoughtfully regardless of whether they agreed with Borg or not. Moreover, and this to me was a strong vindication of reading this book, when some students got wind that some faculty and some among the administration were on the verge of censorship, these students voiced their opposition to the administration, arguing that these are the kinds of books they should be reading in college. One parent of a student wrote to a top administrator giving his support to the reading of such books as well as asserting his support of an institution that still values education and not indoctrination.

Perhaps Tertullian was prophetic by asking the questions, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" The dichotomy still exists in our current theological and political environment. My story is one of many. My story, however, has further reminded me that Christian liberal arts colleges, and particularly those open-minded educators who teach at them, do not have an easy road to travel. The difficulty is in fulfilling both aspects of the mission of these institutions, to be Christian and liberal arts. Neglecting or abandoning one will cause said institutions to become less than what they can be. No one says it will be easy. Yet, those institutions that call themselves Christian and liberal arts, and those who teach at them, must travel the sometimes treacherous road between Athens and Jerusalem.

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