PW on today's Emergent Church: " I think George Barna has done the best research I've seen on this. One of the things that's most alarming about some of his recent research is that among younger evangelicals there is really no biblical foundation. Younger evangelicals, even though they might identify themselves as evangelicals, are not classic, orthodox, biblical Christians in the sense that they believe the Bible to be the authority, the inerrant word of God, and the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith such as Jesus as God in flesh. They identify themselves as evangelicals. But if you probe their faith it's really more eclectic, kind of what I think Barna describes as the cafeteria—I like a little bit of what the Buddhists say, I like a little of what the universalists say, I appreciate these thoughts from the Hindus, Jesus New Age stuff is kinda nice here—and they load on their plate whatever feels good to them for the moment. It's also not surprising because every movie, every television show, every novel that many young people are exposed to is an affirmation of the rightness of gay marriage and the idiocy, if not the antiquity, of views of people like me who think some social institutions matter for a reason.”
This is what I have been talking about all along and the reason why I have coined - at least to my own satisfaction - the term “ersatz evangelicalism.” Many, if not most, of the “young evangelicals” that flocked to Obama were not really “evangelical” in any historic or any discernable sense of the word."
PW: "When I was doing my Masters work fifty years ago at Newark State (now William Keane Univ.) I saw the drift coming. Actually to get my teaching credential I had to take 23 hours, which I did in evening classes taught by profs from NYU, Teachers College, Rutgers and the state teachers colleges at Paterson and Newark. One prof from NYU told us it didn't matter if our students could not spell correctly or tell the difference between a noun and an adjective!! WOW!!!! I actually saw teachers cheat on tests when a prof would leave the room. The profs were also very liberal and decried periodicals like the Readers Digest, etc. Classes were about how to teach but not about the content of material.” In other words, the mess we are in didn’t happen over night. It has been building up for years.
Then, after my article was completed and on its way, I came across a website called “The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The substance of one particular post was a long article, reviewing a book released very recently: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The authors are Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Not “household” names outside the field of education, both have PhD’s and are Professors of Sociology; Arum at N. Y. U., and, Roksa at the University of Virginia. Both are recognized secular academics. Although they target higher education in general, they spoke quite directly to my concerns as well.
The authors list ten reason why higher education is adrift in our country, and - to my thinking - account for the miserable performance in public education at the elementary and secondary levels. Although they “flesh out” their points with data, etc., here are the “big ten” with a few words of summary which I have provided for each.
1. Lack of student preparation:: The authors touch on what I consider to be a vicious cycle in education: under-prepared teachers produce under-prepared students who are simply not up to college level learning. Unfortunately, say the authors, these students arrive with highly over-rated opinions of their own competence and react to any correction or criticism of their work with anything from tears to tantrums. This combination of factors, according to the authors, make some students unteachable.
2. Grade inflation: They say that it has become almost impossible to give students honest feedback. The slightest criticisms have to be cushioned by a warm blanket of praise and encouragement to avoid providing opposition, defiance or complete breakdowns. As a result, student progress is slowed, sharply. There is the appearance of objectivity, but grading seem like a matter of checklists, which, if completed, must ensure an A. Increasingly, time-pressured college teachers ask themselves, “What grade will ensure no complaint from the student, or worse, a quasi-legal battle over whether the instructions for an assignment were clear enough?” So, the number of A-range grades keeps going up, and the motivation for students to excel keeps going down.
3. Student retention: As the college age population declines, many tuition-driven institutions struggle to find enough paying customers to balance their budgets. That makes it necessary to recruit even more unprepared students, who then must be retrained, shifting the burden for academic success away from the student and on to the teacher. Faculty members can work with an individual student, if they have the time, but the capabilities of the student population as a whole define the average level of rigor that is sustainable in the classroom. At some institutions, graduation rates are so high because the academic expectations are so low. Failing a lot of students is a serious risk, financially for the college, and also for the professor.
4. Student evaluation of teachers: This is one of the reason why there are times when I favor tenure. The untenured professor in most situations is at the mercy of his classes. It is all the rage to have students evaluate teachers (some even have “teacher evaluation days”). Woe to the teacher who consistently scores low on student ratings. This breeds a tendency for profs to do about anything and everything to keep the students happy. Some classes turn into little more than social gatherings as the teacher seeks to retain popularity rather than respect. There is little or no learning possible in such situations. There is also one further potential: student revenge on a teacher who grades too hard or demands too much - the internet. It is not at all difficult to create a climate in which students are discouraged from taking classes from teachers who “don’t measure up.”
5. Enrollment minimums: Students gravitate to lenient professors and to courses that are reputedly easy, particularly in general education. Some students may rise to a challenge; many won’t. They’ll drop, withdraw, or even leave a college that they find too difficult. If you are untenured and your courses do not attract enough students, then you can become low-hanging fruit for non-renewal of contract. If you are tenured, then it means being “demoted” to teach “service” courses.
6. Lack of uniform expectations: Although there may be times when this statement is questionable, but generally speaking, kids will be kids. If there are two courses that they can take, they will usually take the “course of least resistance.” There are those wonderful exceptions - highly motivated students, there to squeeze every bit of learning they can out of whatever is offered - but there are many more who will take the easiest road to graduation available. Faculty members are also human, and most are just human enough to reduce the demands and even the contents of a course in order to retrain a full classroom. The really good teacher with high expectations and all the other “stuff” that goes along with being good, is often left out in the cold. He or she finds out the hard way that demanding and producing excellence is little more than a transitory dream with a very high price tag.
7. Contingent teaching: Perhaps the most damaging change in higher education in the last few generations has been the wholesale shift in the composition of the teaching staff. Formerly, full-time, tenured faculty members with terminal degrees and long-term ties to the institution did most of the teaching. Now undergraduate teaching relies primarily on graduate students and transient, part-time instructions on short-term contracts who teach at multiple institutions and whose performance is judged almost entirely by student-satisfaction surveys.
8. Time constraints: One would think that tenured faculty members, at least, would have the time to focus on student learning, but, as the proportion of tenured professors has declined, the service expectations on the ones remaining have increased considerably, turning a growing number of tenured professors into part-time administrators. The easiest way to save time in the classroom is to limit assignments that require personalized feedback and to give grades that are higher than students expect.
9. Curricular chaos: Many colleges are now so packed with transient teachers, and multi-tasking faculty-administrators, that it is impossible to maintain some kind of logical development in the sequencing of courses. As a result, some majors have become an almost incoherent grab bag of marketable topics combined with required courses that have no uniform standards. Students are now able to create a path through majors that allows them to both graduate and avoid obtaining what were once considered essential skills and disciplinary knowledge.
10. Demoralized faculty members: Students may be enjoying high self-esteem, but college teachers seem to be suffering from a lack of self-confidence. It starts in graduate school, when we begin to fear we are destined for unemployment, when we compare our pay with that of comparable educated professionals, and when we realize that - for all the sacrifices that we’ve made, often with idealistic motives - we are held in slight regard.
Somehow I don’t think I was really “too hard” on the state of public education yesterday! I think Arun and Roksa would agree. Tomorrow I intend to make some observations about an entirely different situation - that of the Christian college. In closing, though, if you are thinking about college for yourself of someone else, better take a long, hard look at what you are considering."
PW: "Not long ago, I mentioned that it seemed as if Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and other spokesmen for the “Emergent Church” have been rather quiet. Well, I spoke too soon as Rob Bell has resurfaced with a Fourth of July fireworks effect. Bell has written a new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived. (Seems as if Rob is never at a loss for words - including in book titles - although, in fairness, some of this grandiose outpouring is doubtlessly part of the subtitle of the book).
The book is not out yet, but Bell has produced and released a video that promotes it and purports to give at least a smidgen of information concerning its contents. Justin Taylor at the blog “Between Two Worlds” picked up on it, wrote of it critically, and the war of words began. I don’t hang around many of the Christian sites too much, so I got in through the back door via Dan Burrell’s blog. He mentioned the big “dust up” that has resulted from Taylor’s negative review of the video and of the probable content of the book. Charges and counter-charges have flown, and if I understand correctly, this controversy was the most prominent “mention” on Twitter this past weekend (I don’t twitter, face book, etc. so I missed the show).
Taylor basically accused (rather mildly and thoughtfully) Bell of embracing and promoting a form of Universalism. From what I can discern, Taylor could have accused Bell of bank robbery and not have stirred up this much fuss. Bell has his followers, they are mostly young, and many of them have not yet mastered the art of separating an individual from an issue or even of remaining silent until the dust all settles. In my mind, many who have accused Taylor of reacting before reading the book (it has not even been released yet) did exactly what they accuse Taylor of doing - they didn’t really carefully read what Taylor had to say before hitting the keyboard.
From the very outset, I have been more than a little reserved about the “Emergents,” believing that their tendency to be ambiguous on doctrine would lead them into trouble down the road. I have watched as the movement has developed and likened it to the old neo-evangelicalism which tried to be all things to all men theologically. By-and-large, neo-evangelicalism is a non-issue today and has been for some time. It appears, however, that Bell’s book and the thinking it will represent are bringing it back into focus once again as the “Emergent Church” seems to be little more than a modern form of that older position. I think the neo-evangelicals wanted their cake and to eat it as well. I was very much alive and aware when the largest part of that controversy took place, and I saw the “neos” as trying to reconcile two irreconcilables: Biblical evangelicalism and religious liberalism. It didn’t work, and many, if not most, of the “neos” seem to have been absorbed around the edges of mainline denominations and their unambiguous denial of much Biblical truth.
Support for Bell and attacks on Taylor have not been too surprising in their quantity, but they have been deeply disappointing in their quality. Although I disagree with them on many points, I don’t believe that McLaren, Bell and others of their position have horns or are even leading “vast numbers of young evangelicals away from the truth.” I think their primary appeal is to what I have been lately calling ersatz evangelicals, those who don’t know whether they are afoot or on horseback when it comes to historic orthodoxy. The uproar has surprised me a bit in that I didn’t realize that there were quite that many out there who would self-identify as emergents. I’m too old and too settled in my positions to run with that pack so my knowledge of its size has been quite understated. But even that miscalculation doesn’t really shock me. If the pollsters are correct, the size of the supposed “young evangelical” surge for President Obama causes me to question the optimism of my own position.
Just as many are saying that Taylor should have read the book before critiquing it, so I would say it is probably best to wait until the tsunami of words has played out a bit before getting too involved. But my initial reaction is that, once again, we are fighting the wrong battle. I don’t like the idea of some of those lovely people I have known - people who were much more Christian than many Christians - spending eternity in hell simply because they failed to trust Jesus, but I recognize that repugnance as my own personal proclivity, know that what I find unpleasant is true and freely state that there is nothing I can do about it. I also insist that I don’t have to understand it all in order to be a believer or to proclaim the message of salvation as I have now done for fifty-five years.
What is at stake here is not what I think or what Rob Bell seeks to certify. What is at stake is something that I have been harping away at for a long time - the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. The host of Bell followers mostly affirm his orthodoxy and accuse his opponents of misunderstanding what he is trying to say (some even go so far as to say that a declaration of universalism will actually make the gospel easier to present and accept). I am not theologically equipped to argue the fine nuances of his position and that of other “emergents,” but I am really not interested in seeing how easy I can make it for people to accept the gospel. I think that some of our “simple gospel” has actually contributed to the “Christianity without cost” that is adding so much to the corrosion of our national culture.
It seems to be time to get back to basics. What does Rob Bell believe about the inerrancy of Scripture? What does he believe about the authority of those inerrant Scriptures? Those answers, truthfully expressed, will do much to clarify the current issues and to help calm the storm. If the emergents cannot truthfully answer those two simple questions with an unreserved “Yes,” then - as I’ve said so often before - Pandora’s box is open and ultimately anyone can believe about anything about anything he wishes.
There may be a good side to this controversy (as there often is to any controversy). It would simply be that we are thus given further and clearer definition of who stands where. There is little or no question about who the fundamentalists are and what they believe. Evangelicalism, on the other hand, has generally been a “catch all” term used to describe about anyone who claims to believe in Jesus as the only way to God. Now there is a line in the sand. On the one side stand the fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who stand firmly on the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. On the other stands the evidently rather large host of those who reject those “twin towers of orthodoxy and thus qualify for what I term “ersatz evangelicalism.”
As I have stated previously, I see three groups (with all the usual overlap that goes with such). One is the right-of-center fundamentalists, the second is the rest of fundamentalism and all of conservative evangelicalism, and the third is ersatz evangelicalism. I have issues with right-of-center fundamentalism in that I think they tamper with inerrancy by adding to Scriptures external obligations about which they cannot genuinely say, “Thus saith the Lord.” With rare exception, however, I have no doctrinal quarrel with them. We are both steeped in historic orthodoxy (and I am thankful for my fundamentalists roots on that score as I have never questioned inerrancy and authority). The rest of fundamentalism and all of conservative orthodoxy produces some “opinions turned into doctrine” on the part of strong-willed men who believe that they, and they alone, have the mind of the Lord. But we are essentially united in historic orthodoxy (even though we surely do love to argue about Calvinism, etc.). Ersatz evangelicals are “free rangers” who have created a state where they are free to roam unfettered through the already chartered and discredited waters of unorthodox theology. I am concerned about their influence on younger men, but beyond that, I don’t think they are going to have any influence whatever on the much larger number of us who have our roots down solidly in Biblical inerrancy and authority."