Apocalypse When?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the end of the world.

I used to wait for it, in a confused anticipation born of a youthful interest in the utter chaos it promised and the fear that I would be subjected to it, as one of Christ’s more inferior subjects. Years later, I still can’t quite banish the idea.

Certainly, this fascination about the end of all things isn’t limited to the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood. An entire subgenre of science fiction plays with the idea that either by accident or human malfeasance, life as we know it ends. But in these stories, life itself doesn’t altogether cease; it mutates, or struggles forward into the future. Humanity rebuilds, after a fashion. Sometimes things are better, sometimes they’re worse.

But what I find really fascinating about the Christian apocalypse is that even though life endures, humanity doesn’t. We get this gauzy vision of an eternal future in faultless bodies. There aren’t many details. Is there love after Armageddon? Hate? Any emotion at all?

And yet we’re still supposed to long for it, in the absence of any real detail. We’re supposed to take joy in the prospect of losing our humanity.

I found the Revelation account of the Tribulation to be far more compelling than anything that came after it. It’s bloody but it’s real. There’s something tangible about it, despite all the metaphor. On some level, I understood the rage. It’s palpably human. Were I God, the creator of all life and the earth upon which it scrabbles, I would be furious.

Can you imagine? You create a race of creatures in your own image and what’s reflected back at you but constant war and petty evil broken only by the occasional glimmers of kindness and hope and courage. I’d annihilate the world too. I’d just take myself out along with it.

But I am not God, obviously, and I don’t believe that anyone else is either.

And that brings me back to the apocalypse.

The apocalypse is catharsis. It’s the logical conclusion of the way things are, the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that’s why it still captures my imagination as much as it does. Every day on earth is somebody’s end of all things.

Maybe the apocalypse is really a process. Maybe it trickles in, one blow after another after another until finally, the end breathes into silence.

That requires no deus ex machina and is therefore more likely, I think. But a fundamentalist would disagree, and there’s a mutant hope in their point of view. For fundamentalists, the end has to be a bang, not a whimper; it’s a great ripping of the cosmic bandaid. Sure, there’s seven years of tribulation but after millennia upon millennia of horrors great and small, that’s just a sneeze. And perhaps that’s why people can commit themselves to such a restrictive way of life. You look at a broken, groaning world and pick the dogma that promises to put it out of its misery. It’s the ultimate justification, not only for the pain you’ve witnessed in the world, but for your reaction to it.

Even so come, Lord Jesus.

In leaving fundamentalism, I sacrificed that for a life free of restrictions. Or so I thought: I haven’t completely moved on from that indefinite wait for the end. Too often, the mere fact of being human still feels dangerous. Every sleepless night, every ache, every kiss is one step closer to the edge of an abyss that’s pressed on my mind for as long as I’ve been aware.

We leave so little behind, if you really think about it. That’s the great paradox of abandoning fundamentalism. You are still the same person you are when you left, with the same dents in your brain.

But I don’t think that’s a permanent state any longer, and maybe that’s evidence I’m finally letting go of Armageddon. If I can believe that people change–that I change–then the world’s problems don’t need to be solved by annihilation but by the act of living deliberately well.

The apocalypse might be catharsis, but it’s also a cop-out, and it’s not worth the cost of my humanity.

Why On Earth Did I Go To Cedarville, Anyway?

Or: What’s A Clever Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This? 

Here, people of Earth, is why I attended Cedarville University.

When I was fourteen years old, I sat in class at my fundamentalist Christian high school and watched a recruitment video that showed Cedarville students having fun. They were laughing. They dressed kind of like normal people. They seemed happy.

And I was not happy. Most of my teachers had attended Pensacola Christian, Bob Jones or Tennessee Temple. Perhaps you can imagine the resulting school environment. And even so, I still preferred it to being homeschooled.

But shortly after I watched that recruitment video, the school expelled me. The letter they sent my parents characterized me as a ‘disturbing influence.’ They didn’t explain why, but an explanation would have been helpful. At the time of my expulsion, I had a spotless disciplinary record, belonged to the National Honor Society, and had won award after award in academic and fine arts competitions.

I’ve identified two possible reasons for my expulsion.

First, the onset of adolescent depression. The schools my teachers attended treat psychiatric disorders as manifestations of sin, not illnesses to be treated. Consequently, my depression was considered evidence that I was out of fellowship with God, or worse, that I wasn’t even saved at all. Remarkably, my family’s pastor–a Bob Jones grad himself–defended me, and tried to convince the school to rescind the decision. They refused.

Which leaves the second option. The school had encountered major financial difficulties. And I was a scholarship student. So was my brother, who was also expelled. In his case, they claimed it was due to academic failure; however, he wasn’t failing his classes and the only mark on his record was an after-school detention for playing paper football in class. Such a rebel. Later, an alumni told me that the school had a habit of expelling scholarship students whenever it started to lose money.

So my school expelled me for being depressed, or they expelled me for being poor, or both. Whatever the truth might be, their actions weren’t exactly Christlike. My depression deepened, and I began to struggle with my faith.

Enter Cedarville, again. The university has touring ministry teams that it sends to churches and Christian schools. These teams specialize in music and drama, and they’re considered a recruitment tool for the school–an effective tool, in my case. My church hosted one of these teams, so I finally met these fabled semi-normal students in person.

And they were nice to me. They talked to me. They sat next to me when the kids in my youth group ignored me. They remembered my name. They didn’t seem bothered by my sad attempts to dress like a punk rocker.

I devoured their kindness like a starving child who’d been tossed a scrap of bread.

So I added Cedarville to my list of college options. Keep in mind, too, that although my parents supported my desire to go to college, they’d made it clear they couldn’t afford to pay for it. I knew before my first day of high school that I’d have to get scholarships. And I worked devastatingly hard. I worked so hard my parents actually told me to stop doing so much homework because they were afraid I’d make myself sick.

After my expulsion from Christian school, I entered public high school and hit the ground running. I took all the honors classes I thought I could ace. During my senior year, I decided to take a Governor’s School class. That meant getting up at 5:30 am, every day, to take an extra college-level class before the school day even started. I went from my Governor’s School class to AP Government to music to law class to college. That’s right. I spent half my day taking upper level English courses at a local private college.

Cedarville gave me a full ride. I earned its Leadership Scholarship, its Presidential Scholarship, and a tuition waiver in addition to federal grants. Clearly, I thought, this is God’s will. I’d finally have a chance to talk about my faith in a rigorous academic environment, with truly Christlike people.

So I went to Cedarville University. If you read my blog regularly, you know what happened next.

Why Does Any Of That Matter?

I’m telling you all this because I’m tired of hearing that truly intelligent students don’t seek to attend places like Cedarville. I’m tired of hearing that employers shouldn’t consider graduates like me. That mindset effectively penalizes a person for being raised in Christian fundamentalism.

Although my story certainly isn’t definitive of all Christian college graduates, it’s not exactly unique, either. Don’t reduce us to caricatures for decisions we made as teenagers. You have to understand even though I’d spent some time in public high school, I’d attended a high school in the Appalachian foothills. I still knew nothing but a dogmatically conservative approach to Christianity.

If I’d chosen a different Christian college, my story might be different. It’s unfair to judge all religiously-affiliated schools by Cedarville, or by unaccredited institutions like Bob Jones and Pensacola Christian. Many feature more diverse campus environments with stellar academic programs. It’s not all young earth creationism and fundamentalist gender roles. If the only reason you object to a Christian college grad’s employment is the fact they attended a religious school, then you are a deeply and unfairly biased individual.

Even those of us who did attend more conservative institutions should be judged on our own merits. It’s true that I learned young earth creationism. It’s also true that I majored in international studies, not science, and that my major courses were taught by a qualified academic who also possessed twenty-five years experience in the foreign service. My philosophy course was taught by a serious scholar who exposed me to the work of Bertrand Russell and fostered class discussions that proved incredibly vital to my intellectual development.

Even my Bible courses were, for the most part, also taught by scholars with degrees from institutions like the University of St. Andrews. My religion and culture professor required us to attend at least one service at a non-Christian house of worship–to learn about another culture, not to proselytize. My sociology professor taught me about white privilege, encouraged my feminism, and remains a friend to this day. I even had the opportunity to study abroad in the UK, which would later inspire me to return there for my graduate studies.

I had a complex and emotionally trying time at Cedarville. Many of my classes were indeed terrible; while some of my Bible classes were thorough, one of them consisted of filling in charts related to the End Times. Most of my classmates were either actively hateful or so apathetic they couldn’t be convinced to care about social justice or critical inquiry. But there were exceptions. Beautiful, brilliant exceptions. And you need to understand that.

Stories are always more complicated than they seem on the surface.

I Will Not Suffer A Woman

Today, I learned that my alma mater, Cedarville University, has decided to restrict classes taught by its solitary female Bible professor to women only. This marks a notable change for the university.

I attended Cedarville from 2006 to 2011. During my years as a student, I took Scriptural Interpretations of Gender Issues, one of the classes that’s now been restricted to women. When I took it, the class was co-ed. And it was taught by a tenured female PhD: Dr. Joy Fagan, who taught the school’s courses on women’s ministry.

Dr. Joy Fagan, of course, no longer teaches at Cedarville. As reported by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Religion News Service, Fagan cited ideological differences in her resignation from the school. “I do not feel I am a good fit for the university going forward,” she wrote in a statement.

It’s worth noting here that Fagan, like other faculty members who have been fired or, in the opinion of alumni, strongly encouraged to resign by the school’s new administration, signed a non-disclosure agreement. That means we’ll likely never know the true nature of her departure. At the time of her resignation, alumni heard that she left due to her refusal to restrict class attendance to women only.

Dr. Fagan is hardly a liberal on the subject of gender. I knew her to be open about her complementarian views. By the time I took her class, I’d diverged from complementarianism and identified as an egalitarian–a Christian feminist. I found Fagan to be unfailingly respectful of our intellectual differences. We studied both arguments in her class, and I was allowed to write papers in defense of a feminist interpretation of Scripture.

In other words, I was allowed to think. And I was allowed to debate my conservative classmates–including men, who seemed unharmed by their contact with my female opinions.

It’s almost as if Christian men can benefit from hearing women’s perspectives on Christianity and gender.

After Fagan’s resignation, Cedarville University hired Erin Shaw to take her place. Erin Shaw does not have a doctorate. She has no university teaching experience at all, in fact. She does have experience leading Bible studies and mission trips–including one to Uganda. Given the role American missionaries have played in encouraging anti-gay sentiment in Uganda, I’d love to have some more details about the nature of Ms. Shaw’s trip to the country. Unfortunately, those details aren’t available on the bio provided on Cedarville’s faculty webpage.

Dr. Thomas White, Cedarville’s new president, regularly insists that Cedarville isn’t really taking a new direction. Pulliam Bailey quotes him as saying, “…nothing has changed in the school’s official policy and Cedarville has women in every department.”

It seems that statement is only partially true. Cedarville might have women in every department, but official policy has certainly changed if classes taught by Ms. Shaw are to be restricted to women.

Since my days in Dr. Fagan’s class, I’ve come to identify as an atheist. That’s not her fault. It’s nobody’s fault, really; it’s an intellectual decision I made for myself. And I’m sure that because of this, Cedarville would love to ignore my opinion on its policies. I’m sure they’d like to pretend that I’m critical because I hate God, and Christianity, and men.

I don’t hate God (because I don’t believe He exists) and I certainly don’t hate men. I don’t hate Christianity, either. I know that Christianity is better than this. I know that the Christian faith can support women and celebrate their intellectual contributions. I know that it can be a powerful weapon in the fight for equality.

Given that: who really hates Christianity here? Who really seems terrified of its potential to elevate women?

Let’s remember we’re talking about a school that’s currently under a federal investigation for Title IX violations. And Michael Loftis, removed from his position at ABWE for his failure to properly investigate abuse allegations against a missionary doctor, is still on the Board of Trustees.

That is the climate on campus right now. And yet the administration of Cedarville University doesn’t seem to think women have anything to teach men about their lived experiences in the church.

This isn’t higher education. This does nothing to foster critical thought and free inquiry among students. It doesn’t even prepare them to counter opposing viewpoints. If this is the path Cedarville chooses to take, it won’t be a college any longer, it’ll be a glorified Sunday School. That’s fine if you want to produce graduates who can only function in fundamentalist echo chambers, but it certainly doesn’t prepare them for the real world. It doesn’t even encourage them to empathize with their fellow Christians.

Here’s what it does do: train half the student body to disregard the other half and treat them as if they’re incapable of holding worthwhile opinions on the religious tradition that defines their entire lives.

To quote the school’s infamous marketing slogan: That’s so Cedarville.

I just wish it weren’t.