I have a tender spot for evangelical students (it is tender in both a soft and a painful way) because I grew up as an evangelical and my parents and many friends are still in that world. One of the reasons I moved out of that world was because learning about interpreting primary sources and higher criticism of the Bible led me to think about the Bible as just one of many historical sources. This is anathema to the way I was raised. The preacher at my parent’s church has the parishioners hold their Bible aloft every week and pledge their devotion to it as the one true word of God. It seemed to me to be impossible to hold the Bible as inerant and as a contingent historical source. I am fully aware that many people, friends included, have found compromise positions within this debate, but in my mind I could not let the Bible-as-historical source dictate my life to me.
I’m thinking about this as I read over the beginning of the American Intellectual Tradition, which focuses on the movement “Toward a Secular Culture.” When I first saw that heading in the table of contents LD kindly supplied, I wondered if that was really the most important intellectual theme of the second half of the nineteenth century and I wondered whether twentieth century America could really be called a “secular culture.” After reading the intro to the section (thanks Oxford for my desk copy!), I realized that what is meant by a “secular culture” is one in which the Bible is analyzed as a historical source, and not quoted as proof-positive of the way the world works. In other words, reason is used as the primary basis of learning and the material world is the primary source for that learning–materialism, rather than the Puritan era when the material world was interpreted through the lens of scripture–i.e. the massive storm that was God’s wrath on mankind.
So what does this have to do with evangelical students and my tender spot?
The soft side of that tenderness is that I don’t want to upend anyone’s faith. I know how important that faith has been to many people dear to me. The hard side is that I tend to want to challenge the ideas of evangelical students even more rigorously than other students. I don’t want to put anyone through the massive soul searching I had to do, but at the same time, I struggle to accept reasoning that I recognize all too clearly as being the party line of the evangelical movement.
As I write this, I’m realizing that I tend to avoid either side of the bias by often leaving religion out of my syllabi or else by presenting Christians who have done good things alongside critical questions.
But if I teach my spring survey according to the American Intellectual Tradition, I will be taking on the exact center of my reason for leaving the church–the higher criticism of the Bible.
Do you ever worry about contributing to the “liberal bias” of the university, or do you delight in challenging students with world views other than yours? I had a professor once who showed a Canadian movie with blatant sex scenes, did not warn the students, and told us TAs she liked to watch the evangelicals in the class squirm during those scenes. I thought her attitude was intensely rude. Do we have a duty to warn students when they are about to encounter something deeply distressing? At the same time, I know many of my liberal professors who attempted to ask us questions without revealing their own answers, in an attempt to remain/appear neutral. I know I have little hesitance challenging students’ assumptions about race, but I do hesitate challenging a student’s faith.
Hmmmm, what is the best way to teach materialism (“toward a secular culture”) to evangelical students, especially considering that it represents this massive shift in thinking about reason that most Christians accept? For those of you who have taught using AIT, have you encountered a contentious discussion of religious faith during the first unit? How did you negotiate it?