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.

What is happening at Spring Arbor University?

Spring Arbor

Spring Arbor University just fired one of its most talented young professors

I know a few faculty members at Spring Arbor University, a Christian college in Spring Arbor, Michigan. But when I think about this school, I think first about English professor Jeff Bilbro. In the world of Christian scholarship and intellectual life, I have long considered him to be the public face of the university.

Bilbro graduated from George Fox University in 2007. I am guessing that this makes him around 35 years old. He has already published or edited five books. Jeff’s scholarly essays have appeared in Christianity and LiteratureChristian Scholars ReviewSouth Atlantic ReviewThe Journal of Ecocriticism, Milton Quarterly, Early American Literature, Journal of Narrative Theory, Mythlore, and The Southern Literary Journal. I have benefited from his essays on Phillis Wheatley, C.S. Lewis, and Wendell Berry. In addition to his scholarly work, Jeff has published pieces in a variety of popular venues and he currently serves as editor of The Front Porch Republic.

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 he is gone, or at least he will be gone after this coming academic year.

I don’t know all the details of Bilbro’s situation. But I have met Jeff, corresponded with him, and share several mutual friends. I can attest that he is a kind, genuine, and gracious Christian scholar who cares deeply about the mission of Spring Arbor and Christian higher education.

What does Jeff Bilbro’s story tell us about Spring Arbor University?

More importantly, what does this story tell us about the fate of some of our brightest Christian intellectuals working at Christian colleges?

Sadly, we are going to see more of this.

Critiquing Liberalism

BerryMap

A map of Wendell Berry’s Port William

Over at The Front Porch Republic, Jeff Bilbro has a fascinating and brilliant review of a conference at Calvin College titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.”

Here is a taste:

In early December, the Acton Institute and Calvin College’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics co-hosted a conference ambitiously titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.” The dueling keynote titles caught my attention. Patrick Deneen was slated to give the first one: “Liberalism is Not Free: The Myths of Religious Liberty.” The next day, Jamie Smith would speak in defense of liberalism: “Thank God for Liberalism: An Alternative History Without Nostalgia.” Since I respect the work of both these scholars and have learned much from their writings, I made plans to attend. The conference didn’t disappoint, though I do wish the format would have allowed for a more genuine back-and-forth between Deneen and his critics. In what follows, I’ll try to avoid too much inside baseball and, rather than attempting to summarize all of the talks, will distill some of the central questions the conference raised for me.

Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Seminary, articulated the conference’s animating questions when she asked whether Christians can find within a pluralistic space opportunities to live radically faithful lives. The danger, of course, is that a liberal, pluralistic space will so malform Christians that the distinctive character of a gospel-formed life is warped. In Smith’s book Awaiting the King he draws on Oliver O’Donovan to claim that “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies” (17). But as liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God? (I pursued this line of questioning further in my review of Smith’s book.)

Several of the speakers sidestepped these difficult questions by defending liberalism’s promises of equality and freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism is increasingly failing to deliver on these promises. Speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, Kristin Du Mez, and others pointed out that women and peasants and racial minorities were oppressed in pre-liberal social arrangements, as if that, in itself, answers Deneen’s critique of liberalism.

To this end, several potshots were lobbed at Wendell Berry as a nostalgic reactionary. It is much easier, however, to make fun of Berry for being nostalgic than it is to respond to his warning that our liberal way of life is causing irreparable ecological, cultural, and moral damage. (Even my three-year-old daughter has mastered the art of criticizing Berry: if I am too engrossed in my writing, she leans toward me and repeats “Wendell Berry is a bad dude,” knowing this is a sure way to get my attention.) Yet there are grave consequences when a culture forms its members to pursue wealth and happiness by cutting themselves loose from place and community and tradition. (One of these, as Comment recently explored, is loneliness, which is just one of liberalism’s fruits.)

These defenders of liberalism’s benefits, then, tend to criticize a straw man rather than actually responding to the arguments of people like Berry or Deneen. Indeed, Deneen himself explicitly acknowledges liberalism’s Christian origins and its good results:

Nor does reflecting upon what follows liberalism’s self-destruction imply that we must simply devise its opposite, or deny what was of great or enduring value in the achievements of liberalism. Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice. (Why Liberalism Failed 19)

In other words, liberalism can be marked by the gospel and still be a political and cultural dead end. As Ivan Illich argued, corruptio optimi pessima.

By not acknowledging this possibility, these speakers largely failed to grapple with Deneen’s argument that liberalism is not, in fact, bringing about genuine freedom or just forms of society. Instead, it is sorting society into a small group of winners and a large group of losers. As Deneen puts it, “Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that ‘everything is allowed,’ at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm. It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong” (148). Smith has elsewhere made a similar case himself, noting that “the dismantling of cultural jigs makes the poor especially vulnerable.”

Deneen’s book is a tour-de-force.  Berry, of course, is a prophet. 🙂  Both offer powerful critiques of liberalism.  It seems like their arguments and the implications of their arguments need to be engaged with something more than just an appeal to liberalism’s defense of oppressed groups.  I think we need less, not more, of this kind of identity politics, especially when it comes to any discussion about the future of democracy and the common good.  (And I include white identity politics in all of this, which is one of the reasons I  am such a critic of Trump).  Bilbro, Deneen, and Berry are drawing us to things that affect all of us as human beings–environmental degradation (and its impact on the poor), the destruction of places and local economies, the decline in vibrant communities defined by loving one’s neighbor over self-interest, and the “sorting of society between winners and losers,” to name a few. (Of course such universal human appeals like the ones I mentioned above are also part of the Enlightenment liberal project.  This is complicated).

Once could look at this another way.  Bilbro names conference speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, and Kristin Du Mez who “defended liberalism’s promises of equality of freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism increasingly failed to deliver on these promises.”  I was not at the conference, but I have read Du Mez’s paper (which is linked in Bilbro’s essay).  If liberalism has been so successful, then why is it necessary for Du Mez to ask “where are the women?”  I am sure Du Mez would respond to this question by saying that the work of liberalism is not yet done.  Or perhaps she would point to some of the limits of liberalism.  But it does sound like she believes that the liberal democratic order is still the best hope of progress for women and other oppressed groups.  And there’s the rub.  Bilbro, Deneen, Berry (and I would add others like Geneva College’s Eric Miller, Syracuse’s Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, or Pomona College’s Susan McWilliams to this list) do not think liberalism is, ironically, our best path forward.

Read Bilbro’s piece here.