Losing Faith While Teaching in a Faith-Based Institution (Skinner)

WithrowI have not been around a reliable internet connection for the past several days, so I wasn’t able to blog about Brandon Withrow’s interesting article from the Chronicle a fews days back (though I did tweet it). Withrow, a historian of Christianity whose academic training was undertaken exclusively in evangelical settings (BA, Moody Bible Institute, MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary), recently left his full-time seminary teaching post—quietly, I might add—because he found that he no longer believes. Yes, you read that correctly. He left of his own volition and without incident because he is no longer a Christian. Here’s an excerpt from his piece:

Leaving my faculty position freed my conscience, given that I had already left evangelicalism for the ranks of the unaffiliated, but it was not a decision I took lightly. Before I settled on any new and potentially controversial identity, I wanted to be sure it was the right one for me. While I continue to teach as an adjunct in religious studies at a local university, the choice to leave the seminary not only posed family difficulties, but also had the potential to be career suicide.

Finding another full-time faculty position is a grim prospect. The number of candidates for openings in my field far outnumber the full-time opportunities. I take some solace in knowing that I’m not alone, since this is true for most academics. (Misery in the job market, apparently, does love company.)

When your employment depends on a religious identification, and especially when your closest family and friends remain intertwined with that faith, joining the unaffiliated secular in America is not always the first or easiest choice, even if it is the honest one.

Teaching while nonbelieving is a special crime in faith-based institutions. My field is in religious history, and it is entirely possible for me to teach academically — meaning educating students without casting judgment on or interfering with their faith. The expectation of a professor in faith-based education, however, is that he or she is also a theologian, an advocate for the specific religious mission of the institution.

A secular humanist clearly cannot advocate for doctrine.

I found Brandon’s description of his progressive epiphanies and his decision to depart really interesting for several reasons. First, in the wake of a seemingly never-ending train of high-profile departures of professors from institutions over biblical, theological, and/or social issues (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and most recently here), it was refreshing to see a professor and institution part ways under these circumstances. Of course, given the state of the profession right now, I lament for Brandon as he (along with so many others) tries to find gainful employment in academia. Second, this article brings up a question that I’ve been discussing with colleagues a lot in recent years: Why does this type of thing seem to happen with regularity among evangelical scholars? What is it about the culture of evangelicalism, especially American evangelicalism, that causes or at the very least, regularly allows for such de-conversions and radical re-envisionings of the Scriptures and the life of faith? That’s a topic I’ll likely explore in the future, but for now I want to commend Brandon’s article to you. I appreciate his honesty, integrity, and insight and I hope that you will give his piece a careful read.

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The “Response Book”: A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon (Skinner)

How God Became JesusOver the past few days my social media feeds have been inundated with various posts about two recent books: Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God  and a multi-author “response” volume entitled, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. Various memes have even been created to promote one side or the other (see here and here). The latter book boasts an international lineup of evangelical luminaries, including Simon Gathercole, Craig Evans, Michael Bird, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling. The book has also received endorsements from academic heavyweights like Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. Many of the comments in my Twitter and Facebook feeds have offered words of praise for the “response book” while suggesting that Ehrman’s book is self-serving and part of the “same old story” he continues to tell. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know several of the individuals involved in these projects, I respect all of them, and have benefited from some of their past work. That said, I wanted to take a moment to offer a few (perhaps unpopular) reflections on the things that come to my mind when I see yet another evangelical publication aimed at responding to or refuting the work of some scholar outside the evangelical fold. For the record, I have not yet read either book in this debate (both are on the way to my office), so I can’t yet speak to the substance of this particular “response book.” The following reflections are more about the culture that continually feels compelled to produce such responses:

(1) I remember sitting in my first theology course (at an evangelical institution) and hearing my professor lament that many in the evangelical world were too interested in reacting or responding to the arguments of non-evangelicals, with the result that they rarely, if ever, engaged in projects that were genuinely creative or constructive. Sadly, I have found this to be true over the past 15 years. Reacting to those with whom you disagree appears to be a critical part of the warp and woof of evangelical life. So many of the positive comments about the second volume that I have read to this point use descriptors like “brilliant defense” and “cogent response,” which at least gives the impression that those who are reading the book believe this is why the “response book” exists. This general impression makes me sad and a little uneasy, especially since I hold the conversation partners in this debate in high regard, as scholars and as individuals.

(2) To my mind there is an interesting irony in the “response” to Ehrman: the very faction that wants to strip him of his credbility unwittingly contributes to his acclaim. They end up giving him more attention when they really want people to stop reading him. Further, they also unwittingly give the impression that it takes five or six evangelicals to counter one non-evangelical scholar. Evangelicals can’t wait to read a book written by “some of the most learned and faithful scholars within evangelicalism” (an actual quote I read), but the wider, non-evangeical public often views this scenario as an army at war with an individual…which brings me to my next thought. 

(3) One word: Fear. Projects like this one give many non-evangelicals the impression that evangelicals are afraid of the arguments that contradict their own. Whether this is true or not is debatable.

(4) I know many gifted and creative scholars working both within and outside of evangelical circles. Those who get the most attention are not necessarily those who propagate a non-evangelical narrative or even a non-Christian narrative, though I often hear this critique. Generally speaking, those who get wide attention do so because of the quality of the work they put forward. Yes, Bart Ehrman gets a lot of publicity. Much of this is related to his ability to write compellingly for non-specialist audiences. He communicates, both on television and in print, in a creative and original way. You may not be thrilled with his narrative, but you can’t doubt his ability to connect with the wider public. When the evangelical faction as a rule begins to do truly interesting, creative, and constructive work, they may begin getting the same attention. However, this might also require a re-thinking of the evangelical narrative in which greater nuance is applied and ground is ceded to those with better, more compelling, and more convincing arguments.