Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The War between the Universities and the Churches

This is terribly relevant right now:
Some years ago a faculty colleague and I were talking about religion and politics, and this colleague said "You know, I think you're the first Christian I've ever met who isn't stupid." My professor friend wasn't kidding either. I've had other conversations like these -- albeit usually a little more tactful -- on both sides, a dozen times over the years. Maybe two dozen. People in each of these two worlds find the other frightening, and appalling.

All of us are appalling, I suppose, but these reactions are mostly due to ignorance. Most of my Christian friends have no clue what goes on in faculty clubs. And my colleagues in faculty offices cannot imagine what happens in those evangelical churches on Sunday morning.

In both cases, the truth is surprisingly attractive. And surprisingly similar: Churches and universities are the two twenty-first century American enterprises that care most about ideas, about language, and about understanding the world we live in, with all its beauty and ugliness. Nearly all older universities were founded as schools of theology: a telling fact. Another one is this: A large part of what goes on in those church buildings that dot the countryside is education -- people reading hard texts, and trying to sort out what they mean.

... an aspect of evangelical culture that the mainstream press has never understood: the combination of strong faith commitments with uncertainty, the awareness that I don't know everything, that I have a lot more to learn than to teach. Belief that a good God has a plan does not imply knowledge of the plan's details. Judging from the lives and conversations of my Christian friends, faith in that God does not tend to produce a belief in one's infallibility. More the opposite: Christians believe we see "through a glass, darkly" when we see at all...

You can read the rest here. I think at least one of the causes of this phenomenon is what this author calls the "Boomer Narrative":

We are all cursed to carry the debris of the stories we composed as young adults. Every generation falls prey to the habit of applying old mental habits to new problems. But our society is particularly afflicted in this regard, because our dominant generation -- the Baby Boomers -- influences our culture to a degree unmatched in our history...

Thus, we are held hostage to the Baby Boomer narrative. From the mid-60s to the present, the defining Baby Boomer conflict has remained the same: Uptight God-Fearing Pleasure-Eschewing Squares vs. Pleasure-Seeking Free-Loving Individualist Beautiful People. Now Generations X and Y find themselves acting out this one-act play -- but the costumes don't fit, the roles are all miscast, and the dialogue is decades out of date.
That narrative is what gives the media such fits on the issue. They have only one side of the story, and that leads to debacles such as the one described in this NYT op-ed (subscriber link, use BugMeNot to avoid):
Tim Russert is a great journalist, but he made a mistake last weekend. He included Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton in a discussion on religion and public life.

Inviting these two bozos onto "Meet the Press" to discuss that issue is like inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D. H. Lawrence. Naturally, they got into a demeaning food fight that would have lowered the intellectual discourse of your average nursery school.

This is why so many people are so misinformed about evangelical Christians. There is a world of difference between real-life people of faith and the made-for-TV, Elmer Gantry-style blowhards who are selected to represent them. Falwell and Pat Robertson are held up as spokesmen for evangelicals, which is ridiculous.
I simply must add that I don't quite swallow the idea that blow ups and distortions like the one mentioned above are merely accidents that arise out of ignorance. I am more cynical and media savvy than that. I think that there are large swaths of the MSM that no longer exist in order to foster debate about ideas. They exist to foster heated, ignorant shouting matches ala Jerry Springer, and those shouting matches are about as accidental as making the women in reality TV shows do a lot of jumping up and down. Inspiration: Get Religion, which might be the my favourite Catholic blog, now that Mark Shea has decided to take a sabbatical in order to finish his latest book.

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