9/10 Flashback: The teachers’ lounge

From September 10, 2013, “Donors save the faculty lounge from evangelism”

This post was, I think, the first time I used the “faculty lounge” analogy to describe the segment of white evangelical America that includes me and many of my favorite evangelicals. These are people who have been privileged to study and learn things that are often not widely known, understood, or accepted by the rest of the white evangelical world we call (or call) home. It’s a broad category that includes not only “teachers” and professors, but also seminary graduates, clergy, missionaries, professionals, artists, and even forklift operators who like to read a lot.

We sometimes talk about these things – Bible studies, astronomy, reconstruction, biology, climate science, literature and film, geology, church history, etc. – between us with a candor that we are unable to employ when discussing it in contexts where many of our fellow white evangelicals are listening. This is partly because “the faculty” wants and needs to discuss these topics without always coming back to a Freshman Intro 101 level review of basic starting points. And that’s partly because we’ve learned that many of these uncontroversial truths meet with hostility, suspicion, and fear from people who haven’t had the privilege that we have had to study and understand them. It’s not because they’re ignorant, but because the same white evangelical subculture that includes the “faculty saloon” also includes hundreds of fundraising “ministries” that make a living by sowing this hostility, suspicion and fear.

This industry producing and profiting from such hostility, suspicion and fear makes the already difficult task of explaining complex ideas in simple terms even more difficult. It is therefore good and useful to have places where we can talk among ourselves, practice and refine the means by which we hope to be able to communicate what we have learned to others who have not yet encountered it – a “faculty living room,” if you want (or even if you don’t).

The staff room is a place where teachers and professors can relax and talk to each other without worrying about who might be listening. I think that also describes the role that Books & Culture starred in American evangelism.

Bimonthly publication started in 1995 — a year after Mark Noll The Gospel Spirit Scandal has been published. Books & Culture design and format revealed its ambition – to serve as a sort of New York Book Review for evangelical Christians. It was a place where scholars could engage, write at length or deeply in a way that the mainstream format of Christianity today did not allow.

But Books & Culture also, from the outset, was a forum for something else that popular gospel publications did not allow: a frank and unapologetic discussion of taboo knowledge and topics that needed to be gently tiptoed when talking. writing for a wider evangelical audience. If you are an evangelical scholar writing for Christianity today, there are a host of things that cannot be said without sparking a lively controversy – though none of them are actually controversial, even among very conservative evangelical scholars. Whether the subject is the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles or the archaeological evidence of (that’s to say, against) the conquest of Canaan, or more secular matters like the age of the Earth, Books & Culture enabled evangelicals to discuss what we are learning honestly and openly without having to worry about setting off the hairpin alarms of culture warriors or inerrantists patrolling the pages of CT for anything they perceived as a deviation from their contested factual version of God’s own truth.

Books & Culture provided a forum in which something like Peter Enns Adam’s Evolution could be discussed without its existence needing to be defended. Discussing such a book outside the safety of the faculty lounge might be next to impossible. When most of his time and energy must be devoted to defending the existence of a book – or to defending its author, his questions, his right to ask questions – there is little time or energy left for the actual discussion needed to move the conversation forward.

That’s what makes Books & Culture an invaluable safe space for evangelical scholars, and why so many were dismayed to learn late last month that the faculty lounge was in danger of closing permanently. It’s also why so many of them were willing to open their checkbook to save it – helping to raise over $250,000 to save BC of the budget crisis which, according to parent company Christianity Today, would otherwise have ended for good. And that is also why several evangelical colleges and seminaries have pledged continued funding to ensure B&C financial health over the next four years.

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For an example of the sort of things that can’t be said I’m referring to above, check out this weird little article on CT Blog “Gleanings” discussing “History of handling snakes in six bites.”

Kate Tracy’s post marks the start of NatGeo’s new reality show about snake-handling Pentecostal ministers, Hi from the snake. Tracy’s first “bite” notes the purported biblical basis for the practice:

The practice began in 1910 when an illiterate preacher in Tennessee tried to apply Mark 16:18 literally: “They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink a deadly poison, it will not hurt them…” (ESV). However, scholars debate the authenticity of this passage.

This last sentence is a faux pas. That’s Faculty-Lounge language, not the kind of thing that can be casually admitted into a classroom in front of the kids.

The scholarly debate over the authenticity of Mark’s “long” ending (verses 9-20 of chapter 16) is not, in fact, controversial – not even among conservative evangelical scholars. But among mainstream evangelicals, this debate is extremely controversial – so much so that it is professionally dangerous for any evangelical scholar to publicly admit to sharing doubts about “the authenticity of this passage.” Expressing doubts about the “authenticity” of any Bible passage can lead to termination, blacklisting, donor boycotts, and worse.

This snakebite story was just posted tonight and hasn’t received any comments yet. Perhaps it will escape the notice of the inerrancy police and hyper-vigilant defenders of the authority of Scripture. Maybe the DotAotS will let this violation pass because they don’t want to look like they’re defending the snakemasters. But I guess we’ll soon see commentaries directing some of their perpetual outrage at the suggestion that any passage from their inspired scripture might not be authentic.

It’s the difference between the faculty lounge and the classroom — between the kind of discussion you can have in the pages of Books & Culture and the kind of discussion that is impossible to have in the pages of Christianity today. Mention the dubious provenance of Mark 16:9-20 in the faculty lounge and other professors will nod their heads in agreement at this banal common knowledge. Mention such a thing in the class and several children will come in an uproar, pointing out aloud that 2 Timothy 3:16 clearly proves that all of Mark 16 must be genuinely “given by inspiration of God.”

(And if such a student says that “Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16…” a careful teacher will recognize that any answer implying the improbability of the Pauline authorship of 2 Timothy would only make matters worse. It’s a faculty lounge discussion and yet another of the things that can’t be said in front of children.)

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It is important to note that this imposed duality is not exclusively a matter of financial prudence on the part of evangelical scholars. Skepticism about the role money plays in such duality is certainly justified – especially since monetary threats of financial ruin are the main weapon employed by would-be tribal guardians, who seem, themselves, motivated in a largely by the financially lucrative prospect of positioning themselves as defenders of the authority of Scripture (see, for example, “The White Evangelical Gatekeeper: A Particularly Ugly Example in Real Time”).

But convenience is as much a part of it as any so-called cowardice. Choosing to discuss certain things only among peers in the faculty lounge is a way to avoid the interruptions and distractions that would likely derail any fruitful conversation.

This duality is also an important pastoral concern. The loudest objections to honest discussion tend to come from professional witch hunters – people like Al Mohler, Owen Strachan, Denny Burke, etc., who have a vested financial interest in posing as the belligerent (and judgmental “disappointed” – oh, how so cry that they have to say such things…) defenders of a twisted Bonsai orthodoxy. But most offended are the many people who have been misled by these same professionals. And the negligent frankness threatens to do even more harm to the victims of the witch hunter “ministry” – those whose faith has been made fragile and brittle by accepting the all-or-nothing package of truth and lies that people like Mohler are selling. .

Too much honesty delivered without delicacy could break a bruised reed. Someone who has been indoctrinated with, say, the toxic all-or-nothing claims of young Earth creationism may be in a state where being told the Earth is 4.54 billion years old is tantamount to being told that Jesus does not. love them and life no longer has meaning. It doesn’t matter if it’s illogical – that none of this necessarily follows or even possibly follows. They’ve been conditioned to think it is, and so they won’t be able to perceive brutal honesty as anything other than brutality.

We cannot indefinitely spare them the inevitable crisis that the lies of the witch hunters have placed in their path, but we must do our best to make this crisis less cruel and traumatic, no more.

My own take on this pastoral consideration is to try to be as gentle as possible so as not to break a bruised reed, while fighting back – hard – to the reed-murdering charlatans responsible for putting so many in such a vulnerable and unsustainable state. The first pastoral obligation to the victims of such abuse is to protect them from further abuse.

Barry F. Howard