Monday, February 28, 2011

Academic Freedom and Teaching in a Christian Post-Secondary Context

Blog posts are always work in progress: In my previous post I was thinking exclusively of research, academic writing, and intellectual environment. I should add that there are all sorts of factors that affect what I say in class (and, to some extent, what I post on my blog). The most important of these are students and the school's mission. According to Briercrest's home page,
Briercrest College and Seminary is a community of rigorous learning that calls students to seek the kingdom of God, to be shaped profoundly by the Scriptures, and to be formed spiritually and intellectually for lives of service.
I aim to help my students cultivate a robust faith that combines the kind of critical thinking that a university is supposed to strive for, and a responsiveness to God that is at the heart of the Christian tradition. The point is not to tear down--much less to be "an incubator of evil"--but to build up. As Thomas H. Benton (aka William Pannapacker) put it not too long ago, to steer "students away from self-gratification, materialism, and worldly ambition toward a purity of purpose sustained by cultivation of the intellect, discipline, and cheerful self-denial."

It is common, I think, for first year university students to be more interested in answers than in learning to think through questions. A Christian context adds an additional twist in that some students suppose that critical thinking and spiritual formation are opposed to each other. Questions can be threatening. If I can't wed the two or demonstrate the practical relevance of what I am teaching, I risk losing my students.

So because I want to begin by reaching my students where they are at, and because there is a positive goal of contributing to students' formation, there are limits on a say-whatever-you-like version of academic freedom. But, again, it is a voluntary restriction and, arguably, richer for having a shared purpose. And, of course, there are similar restrictions on the academic freedom of "secular" university teachers. In a non-confessional university context, for example, I would not have the same freedom to talk openly about the practical significance, for Christians, of Christian Scripture, or to discuss how one can live Christianly with the difficult questions that academic study sometimes raises.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Doctrinal Statements, Academic Freedom and the CAUP

As other Canadian bloggers have noted, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has taken it upon themselves to investigate Christian universities which require faculty to sign a doctrinal statement. According to this National Post article, CAUT claims that "An institution that includes or excludes teachers on basis of a faith test is antithetical to what a university is supposed to be" and that it wants to let the public know the "realities of the institution." This is obviously a witch hunt. Although no one at the universities in question has complained, CAUT appears to take it as a foregone conclusion that the academic freedom of scholars is necessarily compromised if they teach at faith-based institutions which require adherence to a doctrinal statement, that financial pressures keep them from doing even-handed work, and that, as a result, their scholarship may be presumed to be of doubtful quality.

Ironically, CAUT's position appears to rest on a predetermined conclusion that doctrinal statements force employees to reach predetermined conclusions. As James McGrath put it last week, signing a doctrinal statement "essentially forces you to choose between following the evidence where it leads and keeping your job" (see the comment thread for additional nuancing). What CAUT has apparently not done is inquire whether this is a necessary function of a doctrinal statement.

For my part, I don't find that a Christian confession has the effect of specifying which conclusions one is or is not allowed to reach. I view the creed, or doctrinal statement, or what have you, as a framework, a starting point, part of the preunderstanding that everyone necessarily brings with them when they encounter a text. Update: I've  tried to discuss how this can work in relation to Historical study of the Bible here.

I am required to affirm a doctrinal statement every year. If I could not agree with the doctrinal statement I would not have applied for the job. If I ever stop agreeing with it, my job will be on the line. The decision was and is voluntary. Some institutions may brandish their doctrinal statements or hire an underground thought police; mine does not. I do not think that, in my day-to-day work, adherence to a statement of faith determines the outcome of careful investigation any more than other social, financial and other pressures may prejudice the work of scholars in "secular" institutions.

Update: See part 2 here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Wright and Sanders on First Century Jews

I've commented before that I think N.T. Wright's portrayal of first-century Judaism is "a flawed historical model moulded to serve a theological purpose," and I've tried to rehabilitate the Pharisees (here and here). This may only mean that I am more influenced by Sanders than I am by Wright. At any rate, the contrast between the two is stark. Consider the following examples:

N.T. Wright:
The Gospels thus also tell the story of corruption within Israel itself, as the people who bear the solution have themselves become (with terrible irony that causes Paul to weep every time he thinks of it) a central part of the problem. The Pharisees are offering an interpretation of Torah which pursues a kind of holiness but only makes matters worse. The priests in the temple are offering the sacrifices which should speak of God's grace but which instead speak of their own exclusive and corrupt system. The revolutionaries try to get in on the act of God's in-breaking kingdom (Matthew 11:12), but their attempt to fight violence with violence can only ever result in a victory for violence, not a victory over it. This means that the death of Jesus, when it comes, is bound to be seen as the work not only of the pagan nations but of the Israel that has longed . . . to become "like all the nations" (1 Samuel 8:5, 20) and now is reduced to saying that it has no king but Caesar (John 19:15). - N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (IVP, 2006), 80-81.
(Wright is describing what he takes to be the portrayal of the Gospels, but it appears that he agrees with it.)

E.P. Sanders:
The various actors in the period that we have surveyed are often the objects of moral censure. We shall understand them better if we view them sympathetically. I rather like the chief priests. I think that on the whole they tried hard and did better at staving off revolt and protecting the Jewish population from Roman troops than any other group could have done -- except a succession of Herods. . . . I rather like the Pharisees. They loved detail and precision. They wanted to get everything just right. I like that. They loved God, they thought he had blessed them, and they thought that he wanted them to get everything just right. I do not doubt that some of them were priggish. This is a common fault of the pious, one that is amply displayed in modern criticism of the Pharisees. . . . Mostly, I like the ordinary people. They worked at their jobs, they believed the Bible, they carried out the small routines and celebrations of the religion: they prayed every day, thanked God for his blessings, and on the sabbath went to the synagogue, asked teachers questions, and listened respectfully. What could be better? - E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE - 66 CE (SCM, 1992), 493-4.

My question: Do the Gospels present the Chief Priests, Pharisees and rebels as corrupt for the reasons Wright cites, or is it--as Sanders has argued elsewhere--a case of solution to plight? In other words, the main thing the Gospels find wrong with the Chief Priests and Pharisees is not their piety (or hypocrisy) but their rejection of the Messiah.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Responding to Bart Ehrman

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus)Since Misquoting Jesus, at least, bestselling author Bart Ehrman has framed his popular-level books around his own journey from fundamentalism to agnosticism. The narrative implies that agreeing with Ehrman's arguments will lead naturally to the abandonment of one's faith. It is no wonder, then, that Ehrman is public enemy #1 for some evangelical apologists. He even gets free publicity in the form of a website, the Ehrman Project, that is dedicated to refuting him.

In his critical review of the Ehrman Project, Bob Cargill points out that "most of Ehrman’s textual arguments are essentially the well-established and long-accepted consensus views of just about every worthwhile critical biblical scholar not teaching at a Christian university, seminary, or school with the word “Evangelical” in the title," and that "the criticism of Dr. Ehrman (and the larger academy by proxy) is largely being done by a small number of vocal scholars at very conservative seminaries at the behest of a campus minister and a religion major who didn’t like their faith challenged by critical scholarship."

I confess that I have not done more than look around at the Ehrman Project, but I suspect Cargill has a point. In the field of textual criticism, at least, Ehrman is a first-rate scholar whose methods are widely accepted across the theological spectrum. I would simply like to add that--in regards to textual criticism, at least--the theological spectrum includes evangelicals.

I've had a lot of respect for Ehrman's stature as a textual critic ever since Ehrman and his Orthodox Corruption of Scripture was mentioned positively in a graduate course in textual criticism that I took at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I regularly require my Greek Exegesis students to read an essay by Ehrman that I regard as an excellent introduction to textual criticism. I read Misquoting Jesus when it first came out and, though I disagreed with some of his examples, I was impressed by how conventional most of the content was. The only (?) really sensational bit was the anti-Christian autobiographical spin. Far from prompting me to question my faith, however, Ehrman's anti-testimony struck me as a sad parable about the dangers of a view of Scripture so narrow and rigid that it is unable to handle the evidence about the transmission of the biblical text.

It seems to me that the best response to a scholar like Ehrman is not to attempt to marginalize or denigrate his scholarship but to counter the story by showing that the practice of textual criticism need not threaten one's faith. The scholars involved in the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog do an excellent job on this score.

Note that since the only popular level work by Ehrman that I have read is Misquoting Jesus, my comments only relate to what Ehrman has to say about textual criticism.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sympathizing with Augustine

Among the just-plain-fun parts of reading Augustine's Confessions are the insights into the life of a 4th century academic. Complaints about students, for example, are apparently universal, though the particulars vary from age to age:
"I began to be busy about the task of teaching the art of rhetoric for which I had come to Rome. I first gathered some pupils at my lodging, and with them and through them I began to be known. I quickly discovered that at Rome students behaved in a way which I would never have had to endure in Africa. Acts of vandalism, it was true, by young hooligans did not occur at Rome; that was made clear to me. But, people told me, to avoid paying the teacher his fee, numbers of young men would suddenly club together and transfer themselves to another tutor, breaking their word and out of love of money treating fairness as something to be flouted." (5.22)

And teaching demands left little time to pursue the big questions:
"I myself was exceedingly astonished as I anxiously reflected how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that when I had found it I would abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow ambitions. And here I was already thirty, and still mucking about in the same mire in a state of indecision. . . . There is no time for reading. Where should we look for the books we need? Where and when can we obtain them? From whom can we borrow them? Fixed times must be kept free, hours appointed, for the health of the soul. . . . Why do we hesitate to knock at the door which opens the way to all the rest? Our pupils occupy our mornings; what should we do with the remaining hours? Why do we not investigate our problem? But then when should we go to pay respects to our more influential friends, whose patronage we need? When are we to prepare what our students are paying for? When are we to refresh ourselves by allowing the mind to relax from the tension of anxieties?" (6.18).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tweet, Tweet

What does one do with blog-related thoughts that are not developed enough to be blog worthy? My answer used to be Facebook, but I've decided to experiment with Twitter as an additional venue.

I use 'experiment' advisedly: I don't get the lingo yet, and, since I can't keep up with my own blog feed, I don't expect to have time to engage meaningfully in the conversations that Twitter is supposed to encourage. We'll see.

In the meantime, you can now 'follow' me on Twitter @ntdmiller.

Tweet tweet!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Christ Imagery in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

We took a break the other night to watch Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the "Best Picture of 1936" according to the National Board of Review. It's a charming comedy and, as is frequently the case in classic movies, good acting compensates for the lack of special effects. My enjoyment was enhanced by an added dimension missing from the Wikipedia plot summary and rarely discussed in detail elsewhere:
  1. Parents: The first clue--I missed it--is that the names of Longfellow (Gary Cooper) Deeds's parents are apparently Mary and Joseph. (In his excellent detailed review, Tim Dirks calls this "an unusual Christ-like reference.")
  2. Betrayal and Crucifixion: Longfellow proves himself surprisingly shrewd, with the exception of "Babe" Bennett (Jean Arthur), a New York reporter who gains his confidence in order to "crucify" him in the local press.
  3. Disciples: In addition to Babe, Longfellow's converts include his initially sceptical troubleshooter and, perhaps, his men-servants, whom Longfellow prohibits from kneeling before him. He'll put on his own shoes, thank you very much.
  4. (Virtually) Sinless life and Gospel Message: According to the corrupt lawyer who wants to manage Longfellow's new-found wealth, Longfellow is "naive as a child." Babe declares, "You're much too real." Ironically, Longfellow said much the same thing to Babe. I conclude that Longfellow's gospel message is égalité, fraternité, et realité. Salvation, as one would expect, is through romantic love.
  5. Cleansing the Temple: Longfellow hosts a reception for the opera, and then turns them out "bodily."
  6. Feeding of the Multitude: After an encounter with a homeless man, Longfellow decides to give away his fortune to provide a new start for down-and-out farmers. He orders his aide to provide sandwich lunches for the 2,000 men waiting to register for the program.
  7. Arrest and Imprisonment: To stop Longfellow, the lawyer arranges to have him arrested on the charge of insanity. He is imprisoned briefly in a mental hospital.
  8. Trial: At his insanity trial, Longfellow says nothing in his defense ...until, of course, Babe professes her love and the whole thing turns around. Longfellow, it turns out, is the only truly sane (=real) person in the courtroom.
Sappy, to be sure, but more fun than I've made it sound.

Note: There is a 2002 remake starring Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder, which had a budget of $50 million and received a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 21%. My advice: Watch the original, which cost under $1 million, and won Frank Capra a second Academy Award for best director.

Other general discussions of Christ imagery in Frank Capra movies may be found here, here and here.