The final instalment in my series for Save Our OBU is up now. It includes my report on the the final trustee meeting.
This morning, I received the following email from Dr. Robert Sumner, a trustee (emeritus) of Cedarville University. I’m posting it here because it really does embody everything we’re fighting.
Update: Dr. Sumner wrote me back to say this: “It saddens me to learn that a Cedarville grad is “also a feminist neo-Marxist who believes going to pro-choice rallies counts as a good time.” I’m sure that makes your parents very sad if they are still living. Hopefully, they went to be with Jesus before you ‘came out.'”
decline as long as possible.
Lorne Scharneberg, chairman of Cedarville University’s Board of Trustees, has admitted to alumnus Bob Gresh that the firing of Carl Ruby and the elimination of the philosophy major were ideologically motivated decisions. You might remember Scharneberg from the Christianity Today article about Carl Ruby’s ‘resignation.’ He denied that Ruby underwent a fall hearing–in direct contradiction to statements made by Ruby and others. Scharneberg has ties to the fundamentalist General Association of Regular Baptists (GARBC). As I reported for Save Our OBU, GARBC severed its ties with the university in 2006 because of Cedarville’s ‘liberal’ direction. Check Save Our OBU tomorrow for the next instalment in my Cedarville series.
This week, I’m guest blogging at Save Our OBU, a blog founded by Oklahoma Baptist University concerned about fundamentalist encroachment at their alma mater. My week-long series will cover Cedarville’s historical scandals, current controversies, and its record of sex abuse cover-ups. The first entry is cross-posted here. For all subsequent entries, please visit http://saveobu.blogspot.com/.
Cedarville University: A Very Brief Introduction
Perhaps you ignored the story. Perhaps you skimmed it, and thought: this is to be expected, this is why Christian colleges shouldn’t exist.
Perhaps you paid it some attention, and decided to Google the situation. If you did, you’re probably confused. Is Cedarville becoming more conservative, or is it becoming liberal? Did its administrators really fire Carl Ruby, Michael Pahl, and eliminate the philosophy major out of ideological spite? Or is the backlash evidence of a liberal campaign to erode Cedarville’s conservative identity? And how do the firings of two fundamentalist professors in 2008 factor into all of this?But these questions are the barest introduction to the chaos that threatens to topple the administration of one of the most prominent Christian universities in the US. Recent alumni revelations portray an institution so crippled and corrupted by its on-going identity crisis that it has knowingly sheltered, at last count, five members of faculty and staff guilty of either committing sexual abuse, or of covering it up. These cover ups span decades. The victims are male and female, gay and straight. They are missionary kids, schoolchildren, and Cedarville alumni. Some suffer in public, some in silence. And I am one of them.
In so many ways, Cedarville’s story is my story too. I entered Cedarville in 2006, a scholarship student from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Like most members of my freshman class, I came from an Evangelical family, and had spent my upbringing immersed in Evangelicalism’s infamously insular subculture. I dressed modestly, abstained from alcohol and from sex, and anticipated a university experience that would help me combine deep faith and intellectual enquiry. Unlike most of my classmates, I possessed a political perspective firmly located left of center, and I publicly identified as a feminist. If you are familiar with the political environment at America’s Christian colleges and universities, then you can likely imagine the student body’s reaction.
In fall 2006, I had barely settled into my dorm room when the student body received word thatSoulforce, a group of GLBT activists and their straight allies, would arrive in Cedarville to protest the university’s anti-gay admissions policies. Soulforce activists, called Equality Riders, made a national tour of the country’s Christian colleges and universities, and most denied riders access to their campuses. Cedarville, however, welcomed riders onto campus. Along with a group of other students, I acted as a campus guide for Equality riders. I also met a group of openly gay Cedarville alumni. The same alumni founded Cedarville Out, for GLBT and allied alumni, shortly after the Soulforce visit.
As an institution, Cedarville maintained its conservative identity throughout the Soulforce visit. The decision to welcome activists on campus lay primarily with Carl Ruby, the former Vice President for Student Life. If you did read that New York Times article, you’ll recognize that name. After 25 years of service to Cedarville University, Carl Ruby was forced to resign last month. Though Dr. Ruby has consistently adhered to a conservative position on sexual orientation and gay marriage, his compassion for gay students and alumni has been equally consistent. That compassion was first evident to me in his decision to permit Soulforce activists on campus. But it also invited accusations of liberalism. For many alumni, students, and parents, Ruby’s decision constituted capitulation to a radical leftist fringe, and threatened Cedarville’s historical identity as a Baptist institution.The Soulforce visit marked the beginning of a troublesome season for Cedarville University.
In my next posts, I’ll explain Cedarville’s decision to end its historic affiliation with the General Association of Baptists, the firing of two fundamentalist professors, its history of covering up sexual abuse, and the current controversy.
Usually, I pride myself on my ability to provide intellectually sound opposition to the nonsense that regularly shambles, creaking, out of the American Evangelical subculture. Consider this nonsense a zombie. We all know what to do with zombies.
But today I’m going to leave aside the pursuit of reason for the pursuit of funny pictures on the Internet. The cause? Cory Copeland. Cory Copeland thinks he is a writer and this is technically true if we define the term by one’s ability to include subject and verb in a sentence. Specifically, Cory Copeland identifies himself as a Christian writer. I believe this ought to cause immediate and profound offence to Marilynne Robinson, Anne Lamott, and the shades of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, among many others, because this is how Cory Copeland writes:
“This girl met a boy and that boy had a way about him. He scaled rooftops and smiled like the sun. He captured the good girl in his madness and she soon fell in the deepest of love. The girl held strong at first, tossing away her boy’s hands as they searched her body, seeking satisfaction. Again and again, she dissuaded him, turning a stone cold cheek and halting heavy breaths before they had pushed too far. But the boy was relentless and vile in his objections to her goodness. He bombarded her wits with fallacies of unrequited love and lacking attention. He had played this game before and he was good.”
Absorb that for a moment. Has it sunk in? Excellent. Let’s move on.
Copeland has attempted to write a morality tale. He’s hardly the first ‘Christian writer’ to attempt this. In fact, he’s hardly the first bad Christian writer to attempt this. But I’m highlighting his work on my blog because his little story, originally published last June, is receiving renewed attention that coincides with a raging debate on purity culture among the women of the Christian blogosphere. We all know my opinion about Evangelicalism’s purity culture.
Nevertheless. I can acknowledge that is possible to discuss purity without revealing yourself to be a sexist, sanctimonious prick. Bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, Elizabeth Esther and Joy Bennett have recently managed this very well. Read them. They address the ‘damaged goods’ narrative and efficiently rip it to shreds. But alas for Cory Copeland. His story doesn’t challenge this narrative; rather, he supports it and sustains it the only way he knows how: by channelling a somewhat sunnier version of Mark Driscoll.
In Copeland’s morality tale, the young woman gives in to her weakness and permits herself to be defiled. Weep, wail, and gnash your teeth! Copeland writes:
“Now, she felt emptiness where love used to grow; loneliness where hope once flourished. No longer was her smile forever at the ready, but an ache had taken its place. An ache of regret; an ache of sadness. Despite her history of wholesome goodness, this fresh falling caused the girl to refuse the redemption that awaited her, for she no longer felt good enough for mercy; she no longer felt good enough for forgiveness.”
Our fallen angel now “sweated with the seekers” and “chased the pushers.” In the opinion of this particular apostate her “ache of sadness” is just as likely derived from the fact that it sounds like she is having the worst sex in the history of people having sex, complicated by the epic guilt complex bestowed upon her by Evangelicalism’s purity culture. That guilt is perfectly embodied in Copeland’s closing sentence: “She was beyond salvation now, of this she was sure.”
There is hope, Copeland assures us. We can be redeemed! But in Copeland’s tale the need for that redemption is made visible only through the psychological destruction wrought by shame, guilt, and pain. That will certainly convince me to return to church! But Copeland’s callousness isn’t limited to this. His tale mirrors Evangelicalism’s obsession with female behavior. The girl is fallen and in need of redemption while the boy merrily continues on his way. His relentless disregard for his partner’s boundaries isn’t labelled for what it is: abuse. The girl’s consent is described as evidence of her weakness; the integrity of her consent, its location as the final weary response to repeated emotional manipulation, passes without criticism.
The inevitable shitstorm has duly erupted in the comment section of Copeland’s piece. His only response to criticism? “The story wasn’t about the boy. It was about the girl and her struggles. That’s the story I chose to tell. Respect that. Thanks for reading.” Unfortunately, Cory, that’s exactly the problem: Evangelicalism always focuses on the girl, and it’s not your story to tell.
Cory Copeland would also like everyone to know that you can now buy both his books for $5! If you believe that the publication of Twilight marked a new and exciting epoch in the history of American literature, you should definitely snap those up. On a final note, James Dobson has just published his first novel, and I am retreating to my bunker to await the apocalypse.
It’s a misconception that controversies like the one currently roiling the waters of Cedarville University have only limited relevance outside Evangelical circles. It’s certainly true that Evangelical culture, famous for its insularity, adheres to a code of conduct that is based on a framework not shared by others even within mainstream Christianity. To outsiders, the entire premise is absurd. A professor fired because he didn’t interpret Genesis literally enough? An entire philosophy program cut months after its professors voice opposition to Mitt Romney’s candidacy? The easy reaction is to deride Evangelicalism itself. Gawker’s coverage of the issue takes this angle. And it’s right, in a way. The events themselves are absurd. But they are not irrelevant.
Cedarville University is merely one of thousands of Christian colleges and universities in the United States. Among these institutions, it is prominent, and like many Christian colleges, it possesses strong political ties to the right wing on both the local and national levels. The typical Cedarville freshman has grown up in a culture dominated by a narrative defined by its oppositional nature. It pits conservative Christians against the moral depravity of secularism. Abortion is evil, contraception is suspect, women must be modest and men must lead their households. These beliefs are presented as foundational truths; compromise threatens the integrity of orthodoxy. In the political sphere, these beliefs are responsible for personhood amendments, campaigns against GLBT rights, and attacks on worker’s rights that are gender blind but still disproportionately affect working women.
Add the traditional Evangelical individualism and a fanatical obsession with Israel as the site of Armageddon, and you are presented with the platform of today’s Republican Party. Moderate voices at America’s Christian colleges and universities are therefore extraordinarily valuable. They introduce critical thought to this narrative and gently introduce students to alternative approaches to faith. At Cedarville, they created safe spaces for doubts and questions, and avoided the anti-gay, anti-woman rhetoric of their peers.
American Christianity is undergoing a seismic shift. Statistically, the Millennial generation is abandoning the church in droves, and the old guard finds itself facing an unprecedented identity crisis. At many Christian colleges, this is behind fundamentalist campaigns to reclaim Christian identity for themselves. Moderation is merely collateral damage. And that’s what the fight for academic freedom at Cedarville is really about: it’s a fight for moderation. It is a battle against fundamentalism. That deserves support and attention from the secular community, not derision, or even ignorance.
This open letter is taking the place of the article I really ought to finish today, but speaking out after years of silence is rather addictive and so here we are, again. I don’t know what I can say that I haven’t said before. I’ve demanded justice repeatedly for my friends and yes, for myself. It has not come but the fact that I am even bothering to write this is evidence that I have not given hope on it just yet.
I’m writing, but I don’t know which words to use. I don’t know how to describe to you what it was like for me as a Cedarville student. I don’t know how to describe the despair and loneliness I endured. I don’t know how to make you understand what it’s like to have hate waiting for you every time you open your email, to be unable to walk around campus without being stopped and accosted about whatever someone’s heard about your beliefs. I went to Cedarville because I wanted to discuss my faith in an intellectual environment. I had no idea that my political views would be considered so radical; in my naivety, I assumed that a passion for economic justice, immigration reform, and tolerance was really kind of a given for Christians.
We all know how that turned out, not only for me but for the members of faculty and staff who just received their marching orders in the most ignominious fashion. Is it worth it? Is it really worth it, to violate professional ethics in the name of ideology? But I suppose it must be, because you’ve done it.
And the abuse. Oh, the abuse. There are no words for this either because really it’s a thing that you ought to feel, not read about in the abstract. Nevertheless I’ll do my best to help you live it: imagine that the majority of your classmates have made it clear that they despise you and everything you believe in, and in your depression the number of individuals you feel can trust dwindles by the day. Now you fall in love, and that person, the person you think you can trust the most, holds you down against your will and tries to rape you in his father’s house, conveniently provided by the university.
Try to move on. It will be difficult because this person will begin to threaten and harass you and a month into this ordeal, a friend commits suicide. You leave town. You finish your degree. You receive a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and try, somehow, to build a life free of fear. And you achieve some success with this.
Then your abuser attacks another student.
Nothing happens to him.
Try to move on again. Finish another degree and make plans for your future. You encounter more trials and tribulations but you survive them and in the midst of it all you learn, finally, to find peace even when everything around you threatens to collapse into ruin and decay. You learn to be enough for yourself, and for once, you actually believe that you deserve justice.
And then individuals who made life bearable for you during the darkest moments of your life are labelled heretics and fired from their positions at a university that desperately needs their influence. Not only this: there are other members of faculty who repeatedly abused vulnerable students and this has been covered up for years, and instead of being fired, they were either kept in their positions or retired amidst official adulation.
If you can empathize with any of that, then you understand my position. You’ll understand why I’ve written to you repeatedly in defence of Carl Ruby and the philosophy major. For me, and for so many others, Carl Ruby’s kindness was the truest salvation we experienced. That kindness literally saved me from myself. I’d mention others here, too, but they have quite sensibly already moved on from Cedarville and I trust they know who they are.
I’d scream if I could. I wish that I could.
But Carl Ruby and the others you’ve driven out are my role models so I’m writing you this open letter, requesting your respect and your listening ears, instead of raining my fists against the nearest wall.
Hear me. Hear us. Examine what you’ve done, look at this legacy of silence and the damage it has caused and ask yourselves if this is really what you want to leave behind you. If God exists, if he is the all-powerful being that my Bible minor told me he is, then he doesn’t need you to lead a crusade on his behalf because he is more than capable of looking after his own gospel. And I cannot believe that Christ would find your recent actions acceptable. Perhaps you would have fired him, too? He did associate with adulterers and the demon possessed and I suppose that’s the equivalent of being nice to gays and liberals. Would you have fired Paul? He debated pagans in the Aereopagus. I’m not sure what you mean when you demand that we be separatists, but at the moment that seems to preclude debate and the exercise of reason if it seems to be uncomfortable, so no Paul, either.
So this isn’t Biblical. It isn’t Christlike. It’s an abuse of power. And if you think that I’m too angry, maybe you should ask yourselves why I seem that way. Maybe you should step outside yourselves for a moment and grant someone else’s experiences the respect they deserve instead of labelling them a mere transient or even an enemy of Cedarville.
Because after all, literalists, what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
We’re all waiting.
Sarah Jones, ’10