Thursday, January 25, 2007

Christianity in the secular university

This approach to teaching about Christianity can do no harm beyond that which is already being done on the post-Christian secular university campus. It could do a lot of good, since a college student isn't simply a vessel into which professors pour their "wisdom." A bright student will consider critically what he is taught, and reading from the Christian tradition could be enlightening. C.S. Lewis once observed that the careful atheist should be very selective about what he reads.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— During the first week of the spring semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), teaching assistant Chad Seales asked students in an afternoon class what they knew about Jerry Falwell. After a brief pause, a young woman near the front of the classroom spoke up: "He's the guy that thought the Teletubbies were gay."

Other students in Seales' "Evangelical Traditions in America" class knew that Falwell was also the founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University. By the end of the semester, they should know more about a slew of other American evangelicals. Seales told the class they would learn that not all evangelicals are alike: "They are actually diverse, and their beliefs and practices are many."

A serious look at evangelicalism could be helpful on a campus with a bookstore that prominently displays A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat, a spoof manual that crassly lampoons evangelical beliefs and practices. Secular universities often don't have a reputation for taking Christianity seriously, but sociology professor Christian Smith hopes to change that at UNC with a new minor called "Christianity and Culture."

The minor recognizes Christianity's contributions across the cultural spectrum, packaging together courses the university has long offered. Students may choose from classes like Early Christian Art, English Literature of the Middle Ages, History of the Reformation, and Introduction to New Testament Literature. The program is neither "devotional nor antagonistic" toward Christianity, according to Smith. ....

Smith's desire to develop the minor sprang from his discovery that many evangelical teenagers know little about Christianity. ...

In the summer of 2003, Smith and 16 other researchers traveled to 45 states to conduct in-depth interviews with some 267 teenagers involved in the study. What Smith found shocked him: The majority of teenagers who identified themselves as evangelicals were "incredibly inarticulate" about their religious beliefs. "They were well-trained in the dangers of drunk driving and STDs," he said, but they fumbled on basic questions about Christianity.

Smith came back to Chapel Hill wanting to give students a way to systematically take courses that would fill in gaps about Christianity's impact on history and culture. He found an intriguing ally in Peter Kaufman, a religious studies professor who has taught at UNC since 1978. ....

Kaufman grew up Jewish and is loosely affiliated with the Unitarian Church, but he is a vigorous defender of evangelicals: "They are among my brightest students." ....

But while evangelicals "know their Bible better than me," Kaufman says they often have a weak grasp on history: "I want to help them build a bridge from their head to their heart." When Smith asked Kaufman to help craft the Christianity and Culture minor, he was eager. ....

As students filed out of Seales' "Evangelical Traditions in America" class, Drew Andrews, a junior from Dalton, Ga., said he signed up for the minor for its academic value. Andrews, an evangelical Christian ... says he knows the content of some classes will clash with his Christian beliefs but says he can handle it: "I'll filter it through what I know the Bible says.... I'm not going to let it affect my beliefs." [more]
Source: World Magazine: Classroom Christianity

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