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On Not Fighting Culture Wars
What if Christian Universities Committed to Culture Making?
The central thesis of my Fearless Christian University book project is that there is a mismatch between the fear-based culture-warring of many Christian Universities and the GenZ students to whom they are marketing. Where Culture Wars are seen by trustees, donors, and administrators as the way to prove fidelity with the past, every such attempt pushes a few more students out of the market.
As I wrote last October, there are not enough seriously conservative students to fill the available slots at Conservative Christian Universities. And those schools who have already established their hardline conservative bona fides will be the top choices for that subset of GenZ everyone is after.
The declining enrollments create an incentive for schools to take a hard line on Culture War issues. Perhaps by being the “Least Woke”, they will attract a larger share of the shrinking Gen Z evangelical market.
But if I’m right about the lived experience of today’s Christian College students, veering to the right will alienate nearly as many students as it attracts. There may still be a vital market for the staunchly conservative schools with a national reputation like Grove City or Liberty or College of the Ozarks. They will dominate among students looking for Worldview certainty, leaving the also-rans struggling to be conservative enough to avoid complaints from pastors or denominational leaders but unwilling to moderate to capture a larger market.
Last month, I laid out my plans for chapter four of my book. Its tentative title is the title of today’s newsletter. I reviewed the work of Randall Ballmer on the Bob Jones University decision as a template for how political fights get recast as religious culture war fights. I’ll then explore the history of LGBTQIA+ affirmation fights in Christian Universities over the last decade as an illustration of the latent dysfunctions of the Culture War approach. And then I want to offer an alternative.
I’ll end the chapter exploring ways in which Christian Universities can avoid getting sucked into Culture Wars that make it so hard for them to relate to the broader society and the current generation of potential students. Theoretically, doing so could even strengthen enrollment in this pluralistic age.
I’m still working on background research for the last section of the chapter but I’m seeing some ideas start to jell. It’s early yet, but it feels like it’s okay to workshop those ideas here in the newsletter.1
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If Christian Universities are not going to be dominated by Culture War fights, what are the alternatives? As James Davison Hunter argues in To Change the World, the past paradigms the church has used have proven insufficient. He describes these as “Defensive Against”, “Relevance To”, and “Purity From”. The first reflects the standard Culture War motif. The second is how he describes liberal mainline accommodation to culture change. The third reflects an Anabaptist/Holiness idea of separation from the broader culture. As an alternative, he suggests Faithful Presence.2 He writes that:
the practice of faithful presence generates relationship and institutions that are covenantal. These create space that fosters meaning, purpose, and belonging and by so doing, these relationships and institutions resist an instrumentalization endemic to the modern world that tends to reduce the value of people and the worth of creation to mere utility, whether utility is oriented toward market efficiency, expanding power, or personal fulfillment. (266)
So, in part, Faithful Presence requires a creative commitment to complexity that strives to overcome barriers and does not allow individual views to get pigeonholed as “other” or “liberal” or “worldly”. It also means that Christian Universities need to be committed to Culture Making.
I don’t mean this simply as a matter of getting graduates into the right jobs in business or media or education or art. I certainly don’t mean this in a Seven Mountains domination of cultural institutions.
Instead, I’m pondering what it could mean for Christian Universities to engage in Culture Making as their preferred approach to the challenges of social change in contemporary society.
Jon Ward’s Testimony led me to the work of Makoto Fujimura and his book, Culture Care. As an artist, Fujimura has reflected on the broad questions of the role of art, creation, and conservancy. But I think his work extends broader than those realms. He writes:
Similarly, culture care starts with the identification and articulation of brokenness. It creates a safe space for truth telling. But it does not stop there. It starts with listening and then invites people onward toward beauty, wholeness, and healing. As we become able to acknowledge the truth of our situation and can tell that story, we are encouraged to move into caring for artists and all other participants in the culture, into creating contexts for deeper conversation, into fostering spiritual growth, and sometimes into problem solving. (46)
There are insights here for finding alternatives to Culture Wars. Christian Universities following Fujimura’s perspective would find ways of reaching across perceived or imagined boundaries to engage difficult questions in a quest to understand. To care for the other and find solutions of mutuality lead to an other-affirming perspective that relies on permeability rather than boundary maintenance.
Fujimoro’s work took my to similar work by Andy Crouch.3 In his Culture Making, Crouch draws upon sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality to explore how cultural artifacts become imbued with specific meaning. There’s a great deal to mine from Crouch’s work. But this paragraph stood out to me for today’s purpose:
Consider this a parable of cultural change, illustrating this fundamental rule: The only way to change culture is to create more of it. This simple but elusive reality follows from observations we’ve already made about culture. First, culture is the accumulation of very tangible things – the stuff people make of the world. This is obscured when people talk about culture as something vague and ethereal – such as the common comparison between human beings in culture and fish in water. (67)
Creating new culture is the opposite of Culture Wars. It requires institutions like Christian Universities to seriously engage the issues that divide us, not with an attempt to provide support for some prior position but for looking for ways to constructively find new ground that redefines the prior issue in ways that maintain the dignity of those outside “the bubble”. Crouch asks some challenging questions:
I wonder what we Christians are known for in the world outside our churches. Are we know as critics, consumers, copiers, condemners of culture? I’m afraid so. Why aren’t we known as cultivators – people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done? Why aren’t we known as creators – people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought of done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful? (97-98)
So what does all this mean when confronting the Culture War stances Christian Universities are drawn toward?4 Honestly, I'm still working out the implications of this perspective but I can make some tentative suggestions.
How do we address the question of how racial history is taught? For a start, invite Jemar Tisby to campus and actually listen to what he says and why he says it! If that’s a bridge too far, then consider how the predominantly white Christian Universities could engage churches in inner-city communities to craft a better story about the impact of our de facto racial segregation.5
What about conflicts arising over the use of pronouns?6 Rather than simply pointing to verses in Genesis, there could be conversations among groups of faculty7 and staff across institutions to explore the social psychology of gender along with Biblical scholars explaining the variability of gender usage in ancient languages. This material could be shared broadly with input from other scholars from outside the Christian University circle.8
In terms of broader questions about politics, justice, and Christian Nationalism, rather than drawing tight boundaries around political discourse, Christian Universities could create conferences the bring trustees and donors together with current students and faculty for intergenerational programs around faith and justice.9
To return to the LBTQIA+ conversation, we could imagine programs that would help local churches do more robust job of addressing these concerns in the midst of faith. As faculty and students engage people in the local churches, all kinds of creative endeavors could emerge.10
In all of these situations plus a hundred more, the Christian University could find the freedom not to fight Culture Wars. In their place, they could engage in the kind of creative and prophetic imagination (to borrow from Walter Bruggemann) that could literally “change the world”.
If you have further reading recommendations, I’m all ears. I have a couple of other books to read in addition to those pictured, but I know more are needed.
His idea of Faithful Presence is generally underdeveloped and I’ve been trying to find ways of fleshing it out for the last decade.
There’s a chapter in Hunter’s book talking about Crouch’s book.
Or pushed toward by Christian Legal Organizations or by pastors with large social media followings or by Evangelical Gatekeepers.
Doing so would have us confront the central elements of Critical Race Theory without using the letters and looking “woke”.
Technically, Houghton banned anything in the email signature line in order to prevent “divisive messages”.