Spring Arbor University and the “scandal of the evangelical college”

Last month we asked: “What is happening at Spring Arbor University?” The post centered on Spring Arbor University‘s decision to dump their most promising young Christian scholar, English professor Jeff Bilbro.

In that post I wrote, “Seldom does one find such a productive and thoughtful Christian scholar. If I was an administrator facing tough faculty cuts, Jeff Bilbro would be on my untouchable list. He would be the kind of professor I would want to rebuild around.”

Now Eric Miller, professor of history and humanities at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, has taken-up Bilbro’s cause and placed Spring Arbor’s treatment of him in the larger context of evangelical liberal arts education.

Here is a taste of Miller’s piece, “The Market Made Me Do It: The Scandal of the Evangelical College“:

Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind turned twenty-five last year. If we know a classic by its ability to speak across eras, one single event from this past summer is enough to assure everyone of the continuing tragic relevance of Noll’s book.

In late July, Spring Arbor University, a Free Methodist institution affiliated with the evangelical Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), gave Jeffrey Bilbro his one-year notice. A tenured English professor in his mid-thirties, Bilbro had just completed his eighth year at Spring Arbor. He had also just completed his sixth book: three written solo, one co-authored, and two co-edited. Three of these are published by mainstream presses and three by Christian houses. The journals for which Bilbro has written—essays, scholarly articles, poems—range from The South Atlantic Review to Early American Literature to Radix.

To boot, less than three years ago Bilbro stepped forward to become the editor of a once-thriving website, The Front Porch Republic; under his direction weekly traffic has leapt sixty percent. To top this strange tale off, just before he was blindsided by Spring Arbor’s decision Bilbro had received word that a team of scholars of which he is a part has been awarded a $30,000 grant by the CCCU. Their project? “Between Pandemic and Protest: The Future of the Liberal Arts in Higher Education.”

Bilbro is the project director.

You may at this point have Bilbro pegged as an absentee professor. Not the case. He is the president of Spring Arbor’s Faculty Forum, elected by his colleagues. He directs the university’s Writing Center and teaches English and Writing classes. He is a two-time winner of the Faculty Merit Award. He and his department chair have launched the Oak Tree Almanac podcast. And he has been instrumental in bringing an array of guest lectures to campus.

Bilbro, only nine when Noll’s book was published, is a child of the renaissance in Christian thinking of which Noll’s book counterintuitively bears witness. It takes a live and nourished mind to identify intellectual scandal, and the heady reception of Noll’s book within the evangelical academy was a sign that something like an evangelical mind was actually coming to life—as Bilbro’s own trajectory shows.

Miller concludes:

We need another direction. And we need those who will use what power they have to take us there.

“Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,” declared Martin Luther King, Jr. on the last Sunday before his assassination. He stood within a church speaking to the world, a higher authority beneath his feet, and it propelled him in a different direction. A new consensus needed to be formed, he knew. He gave his life trying to mold it. We need a new consensus, too, and it begins like this: Our minds matter. The Christian mind matters. It’s time we—parents, pastors, presidents, philanthropists—take the sacrificial action required to show it. A silenced Christ, after all, is no Christ at all.

Read the entire piece at Mere Orthodoxy.