Christianity & Culture: Wheaton-Hawkins. #1

In my Facebook post earlier today, I wrote that the Wheaton College conflict with Dr. Larycia Hawkins is “a situation to follow.”  There are multiple reasons why this is so, and a number of them are particularly significant.  The best way that I know of for doing this is to follow her Facebook page: Dr. Larycia Hawkins.

Having been involved myself in evangelical higher education for decades, I am choosing to write a series of Oboedire posts to point out where I see crucial matters at stake in this particular situation. It will take multiple posts for me to do this.

I am placing this stream of posts under a new and larger category entitled “Christianity and Culture.”  I open this theme because I believe that much of what is happening (and will be happening) in contemporary North American Christianity is at the intersection between theology and sociology–with sociology often being the igniting factor, even when theological language is used to describe what’s going on.  I never imagined that my college Sociology major would sensitize me to current-reality dynamics to the extent that it has.  But it has.

The situation at Wheaton between the school and Dr.  Hawkins is one such issue.

But it does not begin with the school or the professor.  It begins with the shifting landscape toward a markedly right-wing ideology in our nation.  One writer sees the shift beginning in the Newt Gingrich era when the nature and role of politics began to change.  I am not expert enough to be able to confirm or deny that view.  I only use it to illustrate the fact that the crisis we are seeing at Wheaton is a crescendo of something which has been developing strength and structure for some time.

It was only a matter of time before the ideological shift toward the far Right would affect Christian higher education, and especially wherever it was already predisposed toward conservatism, and the alleging of that conservatism as being “correct,” “orthodox,” and “true.” 

But there was a time when things were not as volatile as they are now.  I remember, for example, how we used to kid each other as faculty colleagues regarding our political affiliations, claiming light-heartedly that to really be “in” you needed to be Republican.  Twenty or so years ago, we could poke fun at each other for two reasons: (1) the political leanings in the institution were noticeably Republican, and (2) the affiliations were not viewed as divisive.  A person’s Christianity was not evaluated through a political lens.

Today, however, item #2 above has virtually disappeared, so that political affiliations and theological affirmations are not only more closely aligned than previously, but also because the associations have now been placed on a right/wrong continuum, with words like “apostate” sometimes being used to describe those who hold something other than right-wing political views.

This either/or ideology becomes resident in boards of trustees and administrations, and institution-faculty relations are changed–often governed by “rules and regulations” that are unwritten, or sufficiently vague, until those in power choose to pull them out and use them with swift and severe consequences.

So, what has brought the Wheaton-Hawkins situation to the fore is more cultural than Christian, more political than theological.  The reason it turns theological so quickly is that educational institutions cannot push back politically (i.e. freedom of speech and academic freedom), but they can do so in terms of the statements of faith that they have previously drafted, but which are now used with a different “political” intent within the institution.

There are valid theological issues in the Wheaton-Hawkins situation, but they are not what actually gave rise to the debacle, and it is altogether likely that they will get lost or caricatured as the retributive process rolls on.  I will return to this point in a future post. 

For now, I only wish to note how the new political/theological terrain (and the resulting state-church partnerships) motivates institutions to act differently than was once the case.  Whenever a dominant political affiliation is held by trustees, major donors, administrators, etc, and when that affiliation is explicitly or implicitly believed to be “Christian” (or at least “more” Christian) in contrast to other affiliations, the stage is set for what we are seeing in the Wheaton-Hawkins situation–and at other evangelical schools as well.

In the next post, I will turn to institutional  statements of faith and how I perceive them being used differently than when I began my professional life in Christian higher education.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Christianity & Culture: Wheaton-Hawkins. #1

  1. Burrell Dinkins says:

    Greetings Steve. I have tried to accept my retired status and remain silent about the changing ideological positions regarding sex in the UMC. I’m teaching a singles SS class on 1-10-16 on the subject of “Christ and Culture.” Your 1-8-16 Oboedire post on the same subject leads me to respond to you. (First, I say that Phyllis and I love you and Jeannie, and we miss you. Perhaps we are trying to avoid hurting each other by not communicating anymore.)

    As I prepare to teach tomorrow I have been rereading H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture.” I believed that the U. S. Culture was shifting to the right until I read Peter Beinart’s insightful article, “Why America is moving left” in the Jan/Feb, 2016 Atlantic Magazine. I believe his thesis also applies to the UMC in America. There is always a danger when we distance ourselves from a former culture to see it as bigger and more threatening than it really is. No one can steps out of a cultural paradigm and claim a neutral position to critique other paradigms. What we see depends upon where we presently stand and our emotional reaction to what we see, and don’t want to see.

    Another resource that activist in the GLBTQ movement needs to read in order to understand the reason for the long history of sexual values in the Church is: “From Shame to Sin: the Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Antiquity.” The book is published by Harvard U. Press. The author, Kyle Harper, is professor of classics and letters at the U. of Ok.

    I have been grieving silently over what is taking place in the UMC and our Seminary, but I have not stopped trying to learn how to respond if I am led to write, or speak. Burrell

    Sent from my iPad


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