What should we make of the media attention that surrounds viral videos, such as the wedding ceremony in St. Paul, Minnesota, where hip-hop music releases the Dionysiac energy of a bride and groom who groove down the church aisle? Trivia – in a word. What should we make of the buzz that surrounds viral essays, such as Andrew Chignell’s account of what went wrong during the Litfin presidency at Wheaton College? Drama – in a word.
Chignell is no outsider to Wheaton (Class of 1996). Nor am I (Class of 1998). His parents did graduate work at the school. His father taught in the chemistry department for 25 years. And his brothers are alumni. After graduating from the “evangelical Harvard” – an insult if you share Harry Lewis’ view that Harvard offers “excellence without a soul” – Chignell earned his doctorate at an Ivy League (Yale) and then secured a professorship at another one (Cornell). With experience in real and faux Ivy Leagues, he wrote “Whither Wheaton?” for Books & Culture, which was primed to wake up its evangelical readers when the CEO of Christianity Today International – the owner of the magazine – rejected the exposé. SoMa Review, an online journal with a Tillichian appetite for liberal Christianity, welcomed the airing of dirty laundry.
Dramatization was bound to happen when the author committed an entire website to the article with a “story behind the story,” detailing his Herculean fight against the specter of censorship. There is no intrigue here: politics often plays a role in whether an article is published or not published.
Most comments on Chignell’s article praise him for writing with a spirit of goodwill, as he says “not for the sake of settling scores, not in a spirit of smug judgment, but rather to provide one more important perspective as the college and its constituency look to the future.” His article has the appearance of even-handedness. Still, I cannot avoid the impression that a latitudinarian sensibility animates his critique of the president, Duane Litfin, and the provost, Stan Jones. At the beginning of the article, he calls them “definers and defenders of orthodoxy across the college.” By the end of the article, after sources have poisoned the well, he likens them to the pope and, presumably, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith – a comparison that may not sit easy with Catholics.
On the eve of a new presidency, Chignell prods his readers “to keep in mind that a college is not the church . . . Even at a systemic institution like Wheaton, there must be protected space—wiggle-room—for the creative thinking, loving disagreement, and emphatic debate—even about interpretation of the heritage—that set academic communities apart.” I contend that all Christian education is ecclesial education insofar as traditions influence an institution’s mission, creedal commitments, faculty selection, curriculum, pedagogy, and worship. So the real question here is not whether traditions are involved but which ones. It seems that Chignell would prefer the “wiggle room” of Episcopalianism to the cramped quarters of conservative and confessional Evangelicalism. What does this wiggling get Episcopalians? A church in ruins, if R. R. Reno’s lament is right. What would wiggling get Wheaties? Possibly established nonbelief, as George Marsden’s chronicle proves with other de-Christianized institutions.
To avoid being pigeonholed as a “fundy,” I will go on the record. I would like to see Wheaton open its Protestant-only hiring practice to Orthodox and Catholic scholars who are willing – in good conscience – to affirm the Statement of Faith and Community Covenant, although few could reconcile themselves to those documents. I would like to see Wheaton open its range of acceptable options on the origin of human species, permitting scientists to endorse any of the following:
(1) reject the idea that Adam and Eve were created from pre-existing human-like creatures, or hominids”; (2) are neutral or “unsure” on the hominid theory; (3) affirm that “God gave a human spirit to a pair of pre-existing human-like creatures, or hominids”; or (4) deny the historicity of Adam and Eve and think of Genesis as a wholly “theological document.”
When Litfin began his presidency, options (3) and (4) were “deemed inconsistent with ongoing employment. Those who affirmed (2) were given one year to change their view to (1), or else they too would be asked to seek employment elsewhere.” After protest from the faculty and board, “Litfin agreed to allow people to remain in camp (2) indefinitely.” Finally, I would like to see Wheaton adopt a more horizontal model of leadership, where the president serves as “first among equals,” regularly consulting with the various constituencies of the school: faculty, board, students, and alumni.
Beyond this, I will not speculate about the personality and leadership style of Litfin. The Bible contains a record of God appointing all sorts of governing authorities – introverted and extroverted, managerial and relational. The protracted chorus of boohoos over runner-up, Nathan Hatch, strikes me as melodramatic. We can be certain that Hatch would have been a different kind of president, but not necessarily a better president. “For everything there is a season” (Eccles 3:1). And lest we forget, we should pay “respect to whom respect is owed” (Rom 13:7), even if that is limited to respect for the office rather than the officeholder.
In addition, I will not speculate about the decision-making behind the faculty who were not hired and the faculty who were forced to resign during the Litfin years. Everyone has a story, and all sides must be voiced before weighing in.
On a personal note, I took a course in cultural anthropology from Alex Bolyanatz – one of the professors who was forced to resign because the administration perceived that he “failed to develop the necessary basic competence in the integration of Faith and Learning, particularly in the classroom setting.” My perception was different. Professor Bolyanatz modeled exemplary competence.
On a cautionary note, I would not victimize Christina Van Dyke as a “casualty of the magisterial approach.” The administration passed on her candidacy for the philosophy department when she amended the Community Covenant with “a clarification saying that ‘it isn’t clear to me that the Bible unambiguously condemns monogamous same-sex relationships.’” Enter the provost. Jones’ scientific research on homosexuality might be contestable, but this psychologist correctly insisted on the exegetical consensus of the church for over two millennia: the biblical writers clearly oppose homosexual behavior, and Wheaton chooses to uphold this consensus.
A veil of neutrality thinly hides Chignell’s approbation for the shift in Zeitgeist at Wheaton during the Liftin years. When America tacks to the left, Wheaton moves in the opposite direction. With the peril of Bill Clinton coming to the White House, the trustees found what Chignell seems to regard as a “hard-right” culture warrior who would keep the school from “going too liberal.” During the 1990s, Chignell implies the student population was beholden to the Religious Right, zealous to follow the mission – “For Christ and His Kingdom” – as activists, pastors and missionaries. With the promise of George W. Bush in the White House, the trustees could exhale with “one of their own” at the helm. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the student population became increasingly apolitical, zealous to follow the mission as crusaders for “social and environmental justice.”
Chignell seems to welcome this “apparent drift towards the center,” overlooking how the center never holds – always slipping to the right or the left – and how one error is often exchanged for another. If the student population was beholden to the Religious Right, why should they be immune to the Religious Left? Note the irony: progressive evangelicals like Charles Marsh and Randall Balmer decry the political captivity of the gospel when Focus on the Family advocates on issues of abortion, family, and marriage, but no dissent is heard when Sojourners advocates on issues of climate change, war, health care, and poverty.
Now that Barack Obama occupies the White House, predicting who will become the next president of Wheaton is a crapshoot. If precedent holds, the trustees will react to the leftward drift after the 2008 presidential election and choose another hard-right culture warrior. Chignell and company would cringe.
All this attention to evangelicals and the body politic is an exercise in missing the point. Chignell says his goal was “to view Wheaton the way it views itself,” but the editorial bias and limited sources only reveal how one constituency views itself. Acknowledging the “diversity within the evangelical movement,” all friends of Wheaton – left or right, emergent or traditional – ought to focus on the mission, which gets slighted, even buried, in Chignell’s article. Bottom line: the future health of Wheaton depends on its passion “For Christ and His Kingdom.”
Here I recruit an unlikely ally: Carl Raschke, an equal-opportunity offender because he reminds evangelicals of their myopia: “The cross is the fulcrum of everything that matters in following Christ (i.e., ‘take up your cross’) because it signifies in the most radical fashion what God is all about. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son as a sacrificial love offering.” In Chignell’s story about Wheaton, we can visualize a donkey and an elephant, a stick and a carrot, but not a cross. Why? Raschke offers a convincing answer in his latest book:
Modernist critics of the latest youth-oriented “cooler than cool” sort of cultural postmodernism, which habitually calls itself the “new kind” of Christianity when it is no more than warmed-over 1960s-style social liberalism do have a point–everything else notwithstanding–that needs to be made. “Mere Christianity” can no more be identified with a simple antidogmatism, or antiauthoritarianism, or even a “generous orthodoxy,” than can genuine and passionate love be defined as a simple recoil against hatred or indifference. So much of the evangelical conversation has come to be framed in terms of how open-minded or nonjudgmental a Christian is supposed to be. This conversation, which often dissipates into nasty argument, represents little more than a form of internecine warfare among competing clans of the spiritually prideful. “Holier than thou” is thus postmodernized as “Less rigid than thou.” Jesus never made a case for or against tolerance. He called sinners to repentance and the proud to humility.
I am grateful that Chignell calls us “to honestly evaluate past administrations in the process of appointing new ones,” but honesty requires us to widen the scope of evaluation beyond the “internecine warfare among competing clans of the spiritually prideful.” In preparation for the next leader of Wheaton, all clans should overcome their “spirit of contrariness” and “passive-aggressive incredulity about what is lurking out there in the world at large,” asking the urgent questions that Raschke poses:
Can we commit ourselves to preaching the joyful inevitability of the coming GloboChrist, the GloboChrist who turns back the sword of Islam just as Pope Leo in the fifth century, according to the Christian legend, turned back Attila, the “Scourge of God,” at the River Po through the power of God and his miraculous signs in the heavens? Or is the “emerging” future of the new evangelicalism, as Mark Driscoll has savagely and sarcastically quipped, in the hands of a generation of “whiny idealists getting together in small groups to complain about megachurches and the religious right rather than doing something” that will hasten the eschaton itself?