Asbury, etc.

So, while I have been out of the blogosphere for a month, I of course haven't been totally offline. Rather, I've been whiling away the hours getting in silly arguments on the Asbury College Myspace page. If anyone is reading this who doesn't know, Asbury is the Evangelical Christian college from which I graduated, located in the small town of Wilmore, about 30 minutes south of Lexington, KY. A friend and I were actually kind of asked to leave the college Myspace forum, because we are pesky nuisances of a liberal social persuasion. From my perspective, neither of us were being particularly provocative (though I did call Asbury "Jesus Camp Lite"), but were trying to bring into question the political and social culture of this very conservative institution. Some took offense (notably one "Confederate Lady"), argument ensued, several people suggested that all Muslims are terrorists who should be kept out of Amerikuh, and the moderator told us to take our discussion elsewhere. So, here you have it, sort of--not so much our discussion, but my feelings about the Evangelical institution from which I graduated, and others like it.

I've thought about this a lot, and here's my main problem: Asbury (and I would guess, Christian colleges generally) provide an environment conducive to the graduation of religious ignoramouses. Now, before you freak out, think I'm being a jerk, or stop reading, remember that an ingnoramous is simply an "ignorant person" according to Mirriam-Webster.com, and that I didn't say that all Asbury grads are ignorant (I am one, after all)--only that Christian college provides an environment conducive to religious ignoramousity.

Asbury is of course a very happy and spiritual place--don't get me wrong. I actually have generally positive memories about my time there. I went into the Biblical Studies and Theology program as an Evangelical youth, and I got what I asked for--a solid Biblical education from an Evangelical perspective, and an intentionally Christian living environment. I was surrounded by students and taught by professors who largely agreed with Asbury's statement of faith (see page 8), and thus sought to live their lives as good Christians, however effectively. I never had any major run-ins with authority (I actually was authority for a year, as an RA), and think I was a generally good Asburian. I came to disagree with some of the principles in that statement of faith as my tenure there progressed, but that's really neither here nor there--I disagree with a lot of things. Big whoop. That's no reason to stop liking a place. For instance, I think it's stupid that New Zealand traffic rules encourage right hand turns in front of oncoming traffic, but that doesn't stop me from loving the place. Quite the opposite, actually. I find it endearingly quirky. Maybe that is a bit different from enforcing draconian doctrinal prohibitions against homosexuality, social dancing and the consumption of alcohol, but whatever. You get the point.

The core of the problem with the place, for me, is that it is really impossible for a young student to get a full and complete religious education inside a Christian bubble where even the science professors are creationists (okay, not all, but some), and where both social pressure and school policy discourages the serious and public disagreement with Evangelical faith. In a nutshell, you simply can't come to terms with the serious questions about Christian faith if you aren't surrounded by people who are asking them from a perspective other than your own. You can't fully understand Islamic questions about Christianity without Muslims friends and colleagues, you can't understand the Homosexual community's objections to Evangelicalism without hearing them from open GLBT folks, you can't understand the draw of secular humanism unless you know someone who buys into it, and so forth. Thus, you are likely to graduate, religiously anyway, as an ignoramous.

A lot of people at Asbury of course understood this--the "Asbury Bubble" is a time-honored phrase describing the lifestyle there--and I understood it while I was there as well. At the time, I thought of it as a necessary evil--if you want to learn how to think like a Christian, you have to learn from other Christians in all areas of academia, right? Well, not really. It took pursuit of further theological education at a state university for me to realize this, but actually what is happening in Christian college is not a proper religious education at all--it isn't learning to "think like a Christian". Rather, it is putting yourself into a situation in which your religious ideas won't be tested, and where living as a Christian will be easy. It's a process which ultimately insulates the Evangelical community from the broader culture, and thus cuts off dialogue between the two, producing a lack of mutual understanding and an atmosphere of conflict: Christians "in the world but not of it", is changed to Christians out of the world, but looking in sometimes via television and Christian magazines. Christian college isn't the only symptom of this problem--it's also visible in the massive Christian media industry and the megaChurch phenomenon--but it's an important institutional expression of Christian withdrawal.

The fact is, being a Christian is hard for a lot of reasons. A lot of ideas expressed as "Christianity" are indeed stupid and should be questioned, a lot of people simply don't like the Christian faith, and a lot of Christians don't live according to the beliefs they profess (didn't miss that fact at Asbury, I should note). People have all sorts of religious ideas that make just as much (or more) sense as Evangelicalism, and if we don't confront that, we haven't really been educated. The end.

Comments

CuriousRead said…
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wes is right said…
Oh boy. I mostly agree, but have a few more recent observations not influenced by myspace occurrences:
1. The look, style, and dare I say "sexual preference" of the student body is broadening, whether or not a reflection of policy. Dress has completely relaxed.
2. My classroom experience seemed fair to opposing views, and I do remember lecture series talks on various topics given by individuals outside of the evangelical perspective, religious and academic. I vividly recall a presbyterian from washington speaking in chapel about learning from diverse religious and social perspectives, although he wasnt well received by the majority, surprise surprise.
3. Is it fair to say that studying classics/history was more religiously latitudinarian than bible/theology? I think so--at least in that time and place--hence my slightly different view.
Tim Mathis said…
1. That's what I've heard as well.
2. Re: fairness to opposing views, I should say that my classroom experience was generally fair, with some professors being excellent. However, when everyone's on generally the same page, there's inevitably a skew. We did have a few chapel speakers from outside of the evangelical perspective, but generally I found chapels to be more conservative than either class or dorm.
3. Maybe, but generally I think the faculty is less the problem than administration and student body. They're Evangelical Christians doing their job--nothing wrong with that. The problem is that non-evangelicals don't get hired, and generally don't want to study there.
w e s said…
Non-evangelicals do get hired. The coolest faculty member is Catholic, and my fav staffer is a greenie of some type. But they have to agree with the policies on the book--and their [faculty/staff] book is much larger than the student handbook.
The school's narrow character is the effect of being a trustee vested private school, as opposed to a thriving proprietary institution. I think the faculty, staff, and administration have very little influence. The board of trustees and 60-90 yr old financial donors steer the ship with their stipulated dollar. It's a good ole boy network of sorts.
Lujza said…
I agree with most of what you said about Asbury. I especially enjoyed your characterization as "Jesus Camp Lite", although I'm not sure how 'lite' it really was. I only take issue with these two adjectives:

1. Spiritual? Yes, in one very narrowly defined sense of spirituality. Any other spirituality is called the devil's deception in that "holy" place.

2. Happy? Only for students who subscribe to the college creed. People whose views divert from the republican, conservative, evangelical majority, have experienced deep unhappiness in that place.

Lujza
Tim Mathis said…
Re: Luzja's comments, I think what she's said is really important, because people don't tend to hear that sort of perspective. (My tongue was at least partially in cheek when I wrote about Asbury being happy and spiritual).

My perspective is a bit unusual, b/c I didn't really come to have a huge problem with the environment at Asbury until I left. My feeling is that those who don't/didn't fit into the republican, conservative, evangelical majority were a generally silent minority.
whistlin' dixie wes said…
I really dont understand the fuss. I do understand the frustration with hypocrisy, but why pick such an easy, obvious target? Perhaps others care more about the institution than I do--I could give a shit if its wiped off the face of the earth. Does there exist some purpose, some hope of reforming such places that they would reflect another's framing of christianity?

One of my favorite pictures of irony is the tolerant's intolerance of the intolerant. Why is it that some well educated (not you timmy), open-minded individuals cannot become comfortable with rednecks, while they seem to love all other types of diversity, so long as the diverse are a tolerant bunch? Is my observation off? I happen to enjoy unrefined diversity; if someone thinks I'm a backwards, slack-jaw, ignoramus, that's fantastic--until they attempt to injure my person or steal/damage my property. Is this a result of me ultimately not caring about another persons ideas--religious or political? Is it wrong to allow people to have their ideas, naughty or nice? Or is it better for me to intellectually pick apart someone because i'm so fucking educated and well socialized?

In terms of happiness, I didnt fit the creed, and I had a very good time disregarding many policies and social/spiritual norms. If I ever depended on mutual perspectives for my happiness, I'd be an incredibly miserable person.
Tim Mathis said…
For me, the fuss comes pretty much out of the whole myspace experience. "What's wrong with Asbury" wasn't the discussion I wanted to get into originally (I was more interested in hearing about experiences from Asburians who didn't fit the norm), but it's where my mind went when I started feeling shoved out and insulted. So maybe the "religious ignoramous" thing was a bit petty.

That said, I'm personally not heavily invested in reformation of Asbury itself, but I am invested in Christianity in this country as long as I'm living here, so why not critique the Christian college phenomenon? I want a better educational model for our future religious leaders, and I want American Christianity to stop being so backwards, particularly when it leaves behind so many damaged people in it's wake. Not that a blog with a readership of about 12 is going to lead to change, but it's at least a bit of catharsis for me personally on the issues. It's also, for me, part of trying not to give up on this country (although I admit that I spent most of the day today thinking seriously about moving back to New Zealand).

And re: "tolerance", the fact is that it's generally a codeword for acceptance of GLBT folks, religious diversity and racial diversity in our culture--"tolerance", if you ask me, is a pillar of political, social and religious liberalism that isn't really about acceptance and permission of all views, but about acceptance of a very specific group of people. I don't have a problem with this sort of tolerance--I think I am a tolerant person in those terms--but it's not enough, and it's not necessarily the same thing as the whole hog "liberty" at the heart of what you're talking about--i.e. the acceptance of people who have value systems--or maybe just personalities--that you find abhorrent. (If we want to talk about real liberty and tolerance, let's talk about that pedophile in California who wants to openly enjoy viewing young children sexually, completely within the bounds of the law.) I don't know that I'm fully happy with either "tolerance" or true liberty. Politically, fine, let's go with liberty, like the Declaration of Independence said. However, religiously, I don't know.
"Is it wrong to allow people to have their ideas, naughty or nice? Or is it better for me to intellectually pick apart someone because i'm so fucking educated and well socialized?" I don't think that those are the real options. I've never really been satisfied to live and let live, and i hope I'm not satisfied to intellectually pick people apart b/c I'm so fucking educated and well-socialized (though I probably do a bit of both on a daily basis, and you have to admit that I am pretty fucking well-socialized). Loving your neighbor as yourself, if you ask me, doesn't really allow you to do either, exactly. I don't know what it does allow you to do though, if you want to put me on the spot.
\/\/ e $ said…
Agreeable reckonings. Your thoughts are becoming predictable, though.
I'll forever be the pot-stirrer, if only to find what may come to the surface, hopefully from the crusty bottom. It's my gift to christianity, and your earth-shattering blog.
Tim Mathis said…
Glad to have your approval, oh wise ass Wes. I can take predictable. We've all got our personality quirks and intellectual hang-ups. Pot-stirrer.
Amy said…
I've enjoyed reading your posts on my space and am encouraged by the reality of so many "mold-breaking" Asburians. (Yeah - I thought I was the only one...) Although it doesn't necessarily surprise me, I was disappointed by the efforts to stifle honest dialog about the college. There were some positive aspects to my college experience - and then some really bizarre sick shit that makes for comical dinner conversation (the concerned friend who offered to arrange an exorcism for me at a professor's bible study). Unfortunately it appears that some alumni are unable to bear any comments about Asbury that aren't positively glowing - the truth be damned.

I am not a Christian so perhaps I shouldn't comment further but you seem like a tolerant individual so I'll chance it. You refer to "religious ignoramouses" and the Christian bubble surrounding Asbury. From my perspective it seems that another potential outcome of that environment is graduates who are spiritual weaklings or scaredy-cats. (I suspect the "War on Christmas" was invented by an Asburian for who else would feel persecuted by someone wishing them Happy Holidays?!?) Lack of exposure to differing viewpoints or lifestyles encourages FEAR - fear of Muslims - fear of gays and lesbians - fear of atheists - fear of opposing comments on myspace. And living inside the bubble doesn't require much effort or any cost which contributes to an expectation that Christianity is easy, simple, superficial.

This is becoming much too long but I attended a mega-church once. Their membership is around 20,000 and they collect approximately 1 million/week. They're located in a somewhat medium sized urban community with the associated problems of poverty, violence, homelessness, etc. The day I visited the entire sermon (complete with graphics projected on a jumbotron) was devoted to Dan Brown author of The Da Vinci Code and his evil writings. On the one hand, it's rather ridiculous that a religion founded on the resurrection of a savior is threatened by a minor work of fiction. But what bothered me was that with all the opportunities for service - for good - this was their focus. Fear and Superficiality.

You may already be familiar with Street Prophets http://www.streetprophets.com/ but if not I think you might enjoy the conversation. I know they would benefit from your contribution if you so choose.
Lujza said…
Though I generally agree with you, Tim, I think you missed the mark in your definition of "tolerance". Granted, I am of all three minorities you mentioned -- sexual, religious and cultural -- so perhaps I'm too biased to respond to this.

However, I find that the inclusion of the "California pedophile" under the aegis of individuals protected by so-called tolerance is unfair to say the least. First of all, no self-respecting liberal tolerates sexual exploitation and violence, because one of the basic ideas of liberalism is standing up against oppression of the weaker: women, children, minorities.

But this is not really my point.

True, there are many liberals in the world whose ideas of tolerance does not include your average Asbury person, for instance. However, unfortunately the average Asbury person excludes far more different groups than the average liberal. On a side note: I wonder if the average Asbury person realizes that several of the religious groups that are the least tolerant of liberals used to be a very small and persecuted minority in their day. Methodists and Salvationists come to mind, and of course, earlier, Baptists.

This so-called tolerance allows me to live a happy and fulfilled life with my partner instead of cowering in the closet as I did at Asbury. Forgive me if I'm a bit biased in favor of it.
Tim Mathis said…
Hi Luzja,

Re: the California pedophile--I actually wasn't trying to include him under the umbrella of tolerance, but rather liberty, and was really trying to raise the issue that real social liberty is quite a dicey prospect, and to say that what might be necessary from the perspective of the rule of law might be different from what is morally acceptable. No self-respecting and respectable human being, liberal or conservative, would say that we should tolerate pedophilia from a moral perspective, but politically free speech is free speech, even when it includes promoting abhorrent lifestyles. (Or is it? I'm actually not sure on this one. Where does free speech become a threat to another's safety, and therefore conceivably illegal?)

That point aside, I've really got to stand my ground to some degree on the concept of "tolerance", specifically as it's been employed in the US liberal vernacular. I don't have a problem with the concept of tolerance per se--it is a step in the right direction, I think--but it is a term that has acquired quite a bit of baggage, and people who use the term generally, it seems to me, assume that listeners understand that baggage. The modern "tolerance" movement has developed, I think, in a reactionary way b/c of political and religious intolerance specifically directed at sexual and religious minorities, and people outside of the traditional power structure. Thus, I feel anyway, when people hear the term tolerance, they think specifically of those groups.

I'm not sure that we're really in disagreement. Part of my point is that liberals generally aren't universally tolerant in reality (living in liberal Seattle, the groups that aren't accepted come pretty clearly into relief). I don't think you dispute that, and I don't really think it's that big a deal--not many people actually live up to their ideals. That's why they're called ideals. Another point I would include is that the liberal goal of acceptance is a good and right one, and what was intended by the spirit of the US Constitution (despite the slavery stains).

Part of my issue on this topic is that I think that we talk about principles like freedom too much in this country, and don't talk enough about the common good. In other words, my feeling is that we shouldn't be concerned primarily with allowing individuals to do as they please, but with providing the best living environment for humanity as a whole. To me, that's an important paradigm shift from individualism to collectivism, and it makes a lot of difference in the types of laws that we'll pass to govern our society. Collectivist cultures generally embrace, for instance, universal health coverage even when it leads to a loss of choice for some individuals. Collectivist cultures generally also support environmental regulation, even when it leads to restrictions on individual consumption and activity. In the end, what's good for the collective is generally good for the individual anyway, but I don't think that it's always easy to see that. In focusing on what's good for the individual, I feel like we miss that there's another level of organization to consider.

I say this in reference to "tolerance" b/c I think that generally it's a concept that's used in reference to individual freedom. Maybe I'm wrong, but my feeling is that tolerance is generally something that's a given in a collectivist model. Pursuing the common good assumes that one individual isn't put ahead of another, and eventually does a decent job of leading people to a tolerant outlook.

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