October 19, 2012

Thinking on Christopher Rollston

Some loosely tethered thoughts...

My friend Ben received a text message from me two days ago. I had just previously been (unintentionally) engulfed in the mighty whirlwinds of an intriguing controversy I was reading about online via personal blogs, mainly Religion at the Margins, where I read the heartfelt words of Thom Stark and current students at Emmanuel Christian Seminary (previously Emmanuel School of Religion) regarding a troubling mess involving Christopher Rollston, beloved professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at ECS.

Still spinning is my head after working to wrap my brain around the whole story. Others who were close to the action--or better, turmoil--have spilled much ink explaining, clarifying and unfortunately righting the wrongs that have gone out like grenades from this issue.

If you want to read about it, which could potentially keep you busy for a good while, there is plenty of very interesting material. To start you off--and after clicking you will soon realize why I say "plenty"--read (or skim) this. Inevitably this post is too huge, so peruse this instead. Or, try some of these related links. Whatever you read, whether all, some or nothing, it seems a grave injustice is taking place with the (probable) termination of a fabulous scholar, teacher, friend and Christian over disheartening circumstances.

The facts get muddied, especially when so much already has gone public. And it doesn't help when apparently administration from ECS paints an unclear picture of what is really going on.

Rollston wrote an opinion article for Huffington Post regarding the Bible's marginalization of women. As Stark has already thoroughly commented, from a biblical scholar's perspective, nothing about Rollston's article was controversial, at all. I read it, and (for what it's worth) agree. But a colleague of Rollston's, Paul Blowers, didn't. And he made himself known on Facebook. The ensuing controversy would soon flood over.

Altercations like this one capture my attention. The politics in Christian universities and seminaries, particularly confessional institutions, with professors and their scholarly freedom (or lack thereof) and others who have a stake in them, whether that be the administration, alumni, prospective students, or donors, fascinate me, especially when priorities are exposed. My stake in Professor Rollston's issue is minimal to nothing, but it has got me thinking about a professor I had the privilege to sit under, a man I respect to no end.

After reading a few open letters from students showing support for their professor, I started to tear up. Their words reminded me of my own thoughts for a professor of mine at Life Pacific College, where I just graduated in May.

You have to understand a few things. I see similarities between these professors, Christopher Rollston and mine, who I will name Dr. Smith. The characteristics that students described Dr. Rollston with could be perfectly transferred over to describe Dr. Smith. Additionally, both ECS and LPC are very small confessional schools with amazing faculty for their size. Wondering, I ask myself what would happen to LPC if such a controversy went down. It'd be ugly.

At LPC a few years back, a friend I won't name (for those who might know this story, it will surely bring a smile) rocked the boat a bit during his polity interview, which is where graduating seniors stand before a board of professors to be tested, essentially, on doctrine, ministerial practice and Foursquare polity to become liscenced Foursquare ministers (most pass through the fires and walk out purified and a little taller with Foursquare pride boosting their step. Others, unfortunately, realize they had more straw than substance and must try again). In retrospect, and I suspect then, during the heat of it as well, it's a little humorous. This friend said some things, in his interview, that didn't sit well with his panel regarding Scripture. Pinning the origins of his conclusions to the teacher he had learned them (Dr. Smith) seemed plausible. So he did. But it caused a ruckus through our very little campus among students and professors.

Dr. Smith, letting us in on what happened, shared with our class last year about how he wrote endless emails and papers to several individuals and the administration concerning his actual view, articulated much better by him than a student. The boil eventually died down to a brew then went away for good. Thank God.

I have a special place in my heart for those who have shaken me up in my constellations of belief. I learned what they learned and thus realized my worldview was impoverished at best, and uttering failing at worst. Dr. Smith was one of these people for me, and I'm positive for most who take him have found him humble, passionate, brilliant, biblically-honest and thoroughly Christian. By my standards, he's the best of the best. I was blessed to have him. And I couldn't imagine future students not having him!

The unraveling Rollston mayhem has sparked some questions in me. What happens, at a confessional institution, where faculty must align themselves with certain positions doctrinally, when an honest professor/scholar confronts a position and genuinely concludes, through rigorous study, something different or contrary? How should s/he handle this? These questions remind me of Peter Enns awhile back, when he was asked to leave Westminster Theological Seminary for writing Inspiration and Incarnation, a great book. What role do big giving donors have with the degree of academic freedom Christian institutions have/allow, apart from what is said? What does it mean to be a "Christian" university, seminary or institute of another kind? How is such a thing--a system?--Christian anyway? How does a faithful institute operate, live out its mission and values? Is there such a thing as institutional obedience?

A prayer:

Father, only you could bring good out of the muck we make. I ask for your hand in Christopher Rollston's affair. Bring about good, justice, truth and even joy. Only you could do a thing like that. Give us all courage to be thoroughly Christian in our everyday. To you be the glory, Amen.