How do I undo the damage I have done?
How do I undo the damage I have done?
How do I undo the damage I have done?
How do I undo the damage I have done?
(from “Damage I’ve Done” by The Heads with Johnette Napolitano)
A couple of weeks ago, I heard a confession of murder.
It came after a number of other confessions. Richard II confessed bafflement at his imprisonment. Is there a way for him to understand how he has gotten where he is? Is it something he has done, or is it something that has been done to him?
Shylock confessed too. He has been abused and abused and abused, and finally he is pissed off, and he wants revenge. And why not? But Portia confessed too. She confessed (and he confessed) that mercy and grace would make us godlike, but that in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation. God help us all.
Prologue also confessed, that the world is full of adventure, which we’ve been granted (graced?) to access with our imaginations. Prologue confessed with joy, knowing that the horses he’ll never ride behind bars are his to ride in himself.
In another prison, at another time, I’ve heard Juliet confess. He had been a white supremacist. He observed the mayhem of Act 3, scene 1, leaving two young men dead, done in by rage and rashness. He had been in such mayhem and had committed murder. He became Juliet because he had grown to hate himself as he had been. Juliet would mentor him into understanding what love is.
And I heard the confession of murder. He had just joined this cast of humanity, and after Richard II, Shylock, Portia, Prologue, Hamlet, Richard III, and a bunch of noble kinsmen (a brilliant moment), this man put his heart on the line. He had a wife and children. He had a business. He was motivated. And because he believed his business was threatened, he killed those who threatened it. And so he lost everything. This was the first time he admitted this publicly to this group of characters. I don’t know his name, but I suspect he might become another Hamlet. One day he may see that there is a divinity which shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. But he might also be Lear, who will learn know what wretches feel, shake the superflux of blessing to them, and show the heavens to be just.
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
(from “Hurt,” performed by Johnny Cash)
In 1 Corinthians 4:9, Paul tells us that our lives can be a theatre, a spectacle, to the angels. They watch us, wondering what will be the narrative of our lives in interaction with God. I get the sense that it is possible that we can thrill the angels, even though we are fools.
My emotions have been on the edge lately, and in the past two days I have wept thinking about the waste we can make of our lives, the damages small and large that we can do and cannot undo, that Hamlet can be magnificent, and devastating, and devastated. I know that I am guilty of everyone of the seven deadly sins. And I want to confess beauty as well: the splendid joy of comedy and of love, the chance to witness divinity shaping our world and our ends, the chance to see a white supremacist become a Juliet and gang members ride their really imaginary horses with a new band of brothers, and that we need not be condemned into the course of justice but that we may be condemned into everlasting redemption. If I cannot undo the damage I have done, I confess amazing grace, a sweet sound, which saved a wretch like me.
In the first conversation of Death of a Salesman, Willy and Linda Loman review an argument earlier that day between Willy and Biff. The argument began when Willy asked Biff if he was making any money. Linda defends Biff to Willy: “You know how he admires you. I think if he finds himself, then you’ll both be happier and not fight any more” (15). But Willy will have none of that explanation, discounting the very possibility that Biff could find himself while working on a farm. If he has not found himself by the age of thirty-four, according to Willy, it is because “Biff is a lazy bum” (16). Biff would not have to be finding himself if only he were making thirty-five dollars a week. Linda does not agree that Biff is lazy, but mystified by his problems, she says, “I think he’s still lost, Willy. I think he’s very lost” (16). That makes no sense to Willy: “Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy” (16).
Within just four speeches, Willy contradicts himself on the nature of Biff’s character. While Linda agrees that Biff is not lazy, the contradiction itself shows the irrelevancy of Biff’s work habits to the question of identifying causes for his difficulties. Irrelevant to any possible solution are the facile patriotism of identifying oneself with “the greatest country in the world” or of depending on the exterior of “personal attractiveness.” Even though Linda is characterized as confused and overwhelmed, her explanation for Biff’s problem has the basic advantage of consistency—that he is lost and is therefore trying to find himself.
At least temporarily, Willy comes around to seeing Biff as a troubled young man. By the stage direction “with pity and resolve,” he tells Linda, “I’ll have a nice talk with him. I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time” (16). For Willy, his conscious notion of his own identity is never separated from his sales occupation; he becomes his own commodity, validated by his ability to sell himself. Such insipid self-affirmation is what he thinks could also help Biff identify himself.
Willy’s idea that Biff “could be big in no time” parallels the images of puffery and inflation in the play’s later conflicts. Happy, for example, is not what he has been telling his parents he is:
Happy: We always told the truth!
Biff, turning on him: You big blow, are you the assistant buyer? You’re one of the assistants to the assistant, aren’t you?
Happy: Well, I’m practically—
Biff: You’re practically full of it! We all are! And I’m through with it. (131)
To be big in no time is to assume an identification having no interior basis, taking no time to develop emotionally or morally because of having no expectation of development, but simply to inflate. “I never got anywhere,” Biff tells Willy, “because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody” (131).
Linda’s description of Biff’s ontological dislocation as his being “lost” parallels the use of “lost” in the gospels. In Luke 19:10, Jesus describes his mission thus: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” That verse is echoed in Matthew 18:11, and in Luke chapter fifteen are the three parables of lostness, of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and most significantly, the prodigal son who left his father. The prodigal son himself has an ontological crisis, concluding that when he returns home, he should offer himself as one of his father’s servants. The father in this parable says of his son, “He was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24).
Arthur Miller seems to have conceived of the salesman story in theological terms, and he encourages such a reading in the language of his comments on the play in his theater essays. Miller’s earliest characterization of a salesman occurs in a short story, “In Memoriam,” which he wrote when he was seventeen. It is told from the point of view of a youth observing the life of a neighbor:
I turned from him [the salesman Schoenzeit] in order to get the nickels required, and when I lifted my eyes to his figure I prayed, until my temples seemed to burst, for his salvation. At that moment, he looked so broken, so dejected and lost, that I hastily lowered my gaze. (1995, emphasis added)
Like most of even the best fiction of seventeen-year-olds, this story overstates its point: Schoenzeit “had lost something vital,” “he never was complete,” “the soul inside had crumpled and broken beyond despair,” “I deeply pitied such a dejected soul,” “my heart bled for him at that moment,” and on the story goes. Here, the salesman’s ontological crisis seems to be caused solely by the vapid depersonalization of the “dignified slavery” of selling: “he never became entirely molded into the pot of that business” (1994, 1995).
At the end of “In Memoriam,” the youth finds out that Schoenzeit is dead—a fact that gives the youth a sense of relief on Schoenzeit’s behalf—but nothing is ever said of the cause of his death. However, when Arthur Miller donated the manuscript of “In Memoriam” to the University of Texas, he attached a note stating that the salesman on whom he based Schoenzeit had committed suicide by jumping in front of an El train (1994). By omitting the suicide from the story, Miller also left out the aspiration of the human that would support his characterization of Schoenzeit as needing salvation. Salvation from what? Is it sufficient to say that Schoenzeit needs salvation from misery?
Soon after Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway in 1949, the critical debate centered on whether or not the play is a tragedy. In his responses to the debate, Miller redefines the generic terms set in Aristotelian criticism. His youthful story “In Memoriam” would be more pathetic than tragic in Miller’s own later criticism: “The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won” (7). Salvation may be nice for the Schoenzeits of the world, but in a pathetic presentation, there is no basis for understanding their need for it.
That need is more appropriately represented in tragedy by a character’s hamartia. Miller identifies hamartia as Aristotle’s term for the trait usually translated as a “tragic flaw.” In Miller’s earliest theater essay (1949), the “tragic flaw” hardly connotes any moral judgment: “The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing—and need be nothing—but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status” (“Tragedy and the Common Man” 4). One might hear just a possibility of pride in that description. But in Miller’s introduction to the 1957 Collected Plays, hamartia is transformed from the literary “tragic flaw” to the religious “sin.” Miller argues that Willy achieves a kind of victory in coming to understand that Biff loves and forgives him. But then Miller echoes the Apostle Paul (Romans 6:23) in explaining why this victory does not last:
That [Willy] is unable to take this victory thoroughly to his heart, that it closes the circle for him and propels him to his death, is the wage of his sin, which was to have committed himself so completely to the counterfeits of dignity and the false coinage embodied in his idea of success that he can prove his existence only by bestowing “power” on his posterity, a power deriving from the sale of his last asset, himself, for the price of his insurance policy. (147, emphasis added)
Miller presents Willy’s failure as a misplacement of faith in a law of success rather than in the system of love, which he has a glimpse of when Biff is finally able to confess his own shortcomings to Willy.
After his introduction to the Collected Plays, Miller consistently returns to religious language to theorize the meanings of tragedy. In an interview with Phillip Gelb (“Morality and Modern Drama”), Miller claims that Death of a Salesman shows the wages of sin with “a man who dies for the want of some positive, viable human value” (1958, 195). In his 1966 Paris Review interview, he comments that “The tragic hero was supposed to join the scheme of things by his sacrifice. It’s a religious thing, I’ve always thought. He threw some sharp light upon the hidden scheme of existence, either by breaking one of its profoundest laws … or by proving a moral at the cost of his own life” (269).
Within Death of a Salesman, the characters’ lostness appears clearest when we see the failures from their commitments “to the counterfeits of dignity and the false coinage embodied in his idea of success”; lostness, in other words, is indicated by each character’s sin (hamartia). Happy, for example, observes that as far as his ambitions are concerned, he has achieved some measure of success: “Sometimes I sit in my apartment—all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women” (23). That success, however, is no substitute for a viable human value. In a curious explication inserted in the stage directions, Happy, “like his brother, is lost, but in a different way, for he has never allowed himself to turn his face toward defeat and is thus more confused and hard-skinned, although seemingly more content” (19). Happy’s moment of greatest truthfulness is his conclusion about having his own apartment, car, and plenty of women: “And still, goddammit, I’m lonely” (23).
The difficulties both Happy and Biff experience with lostness have, as one cause, Willy’s failure to raise them with an ethical sensibility. Even while excusing Biff’s petty thefts, lying, and cheating, Willy tries to justify his parenting: “What did I tell him? I never in my life told him anything but decent things” (41). But one of the clearest moments of Willy’s own lostness occurs when Biff realizes that Willy has betrayed his own family. When Biff finds Willy having an affair, Willy confesses, “I was lonely, I was terribly lonely” (120). Biff finds the emptiness within of all of Willy’s values: “You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!” (121).
This confrontation in the hotel room occurs seventeen years before the primary time of the play, but Willy’s own current lostness is constantly alluded to, from his driving around Yonkers at the play’s opening (13-14), to his “los[ing] himself in reminiscences,” (16), to the single word “lost” used as a stage direction in the middle of one of his speeches (17), to his telling his brother Ben during one of his recollections, “I still feel—kind of temporary about myself” (54). And Biff still carries the knowledge he learned years earlier about Willy: “I know he’s a fake and he doesn’t like anybody around who knows!” (58).
In his autobiography Timebends, Miller claims that his notion of salvation is not exactly Christian: “The Jew in me shied from private salvation as something close to sin. One’s truth must add its push to the evolution of public justice and mercy” (314). Miller also condemns Pauline theology as a fix “as seductive as justification by faith alone” (396). As a Christian reader of Miller, one who accepts a Pauline theology, I believe he is somewhat attacking a straw man; if one’s private salvation does not aid to increase justice and mercy, then that person’s faith is dead. And if not as directly as in his short story “In Memoriam,” Miller still presents his characters as needing a salvation. This, I suggest, he does with the feature of the play that has most offended some Christian readers, its profanity and the uses of God’s name.
For example, should Happy’s loneliness really be taken as God-damned? At the climactic moment of the play, when Biff and Willy arrive at a moment of understanding, Biff says, “Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” (133, emphasis added). I would suggest that it would precisely be “for Christ’s sake” that Willy should relinquish his phony dream. That would start the kind of salvation that would show some mercy to Biff as well.
But the most theological cry for help occurs in a confrontation between Biff and Happy in the restaurant:
Biff: Yeah, but he doesn’t mean anything to you. You could help him—I can’t! Don’t you understand what I’m talking about? He’s going to kill himself, don’t you know that?
Happy: Don’t I know it! Me!
Biff: Hap, help him! Jesus … help him … Help me, help me, I can’t bear to look at his face! (Ready to weep, he hurries out, up right.) (115)
In a play in which expletives become prayer, this passage looks much like a cry for salvation, for oneself and another which would answer Miller’s concern about private salvation. Once again, as a Christian reader, I find this looks like what is needed for lostness and hamartia, help from Jesus. And much of the power of Death of a Salesman comes in its portrayal of the theological implications of human lostness.
When I was young, in middle school through high school, I was willing to defend young-earth, six-day creationism with a certain amount of zeal. I recall writing a paper, perhaps for a ninth grade class, arguing against an evolutionary interpretation of fossils using, believe it or not, Christian comic books for a source. As a college student, I attended both Moody Bible Institute and Bryan College, both institutions known for creationist beliefs. As a communications major at Moody and as an English major at Bryan, I wasn’t interested the creationism debate, which was an extension of not being interested in science in general. I suppose that this disinterest could have been taken as unwillingness to engage in the apologetics of creationism, but the arguments bored me. I did have science requirements to meet as a student at Bryan, where I did passably well in Consumer Chemistry and I squeaked a C- in Earth Science. I do remember going fossil hunting one day for Earth Science, and that was fun, but if we were given a creationist interpretation on what we had found, I don’t remember it at all. My memory may not match with what my fellow alumni would recall, but even though we were at Bryan, I don’t remember much discussion of creationism outside of a study of the Scopes Trial as a cultural event.
In the beginnings of graduate school, I took a while to get caught up with what was current in literary study. Deconstructionism and postmodernism had come into their own at the very time I was beginning my Ph.D. study. I was often frustrated with what seemed to be simplistic, academically immature responses to these theories, so that I began to say to trusted friends that too often, evangelicals had excellent answers to 60-year old questions. The problem for the evangelicals was that (and is that) no one was asking those questions anymore.
Those 60-year old questions, as far as I was concerned, included the question of origins. So what if you could prove that God created the world exactly as one kind of literal reading of Genesis 1 would suggest? We no longer live in an era in which there is only one god. There are plenty of people who believe that god created the universe, and many of them are not Christians. Thus, I concluded that the debate about origins was simply irrelevant.
I still believe the debate about origins is, primarily, culturally irrelevant. I bet that a survey of the US today would find that most people believe in some form of creationism, but amorphously—it hasn’t led them to a conclusion about Christ. But the origins debate has also become more polarized, between the new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and the young-earth, six-day creationists, in particular Ken Ham and his Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
The new atheists are not the cutting edge of current cultural thinking. They do have some influence, but largely with those still committed to the remnants of progressive modernism from the early to mid-twentieth century. Dawkins and his ilk are not only opposed to Christianity, though Christianity is their main target; they are also opposed to postmodernism. Some of the best responses to new atheism have, therefore, come from those professionally familiar with postmodernist thought. Want to read a good response to Dawkins and the new atheists? Consider reading Terry Eagleton and Marilynne Robinson, writers who understand what the current arguments are about.
The other extreme end of the argument can be represented by the Creation Museum. They believe that all of creation is approximately six thousand years old and that all of creation was all created in a week’s time. Lest my summary be thought to be distorting, do feel free to check for yourself: http://www.answersingenesis.org/about/faith.
While I do believe that God is the creator of the universe, and therefore of the earth, and of all life, as I’ve indicated earlier, this is no belief unique to the Christian faith. Yet I no longer believe in young-earth creationism, and it was my visit to the Creation Museum in 2007 which solidified my change of thinking. For the most part, I do not intend to discuss evolution. The problems with the creationism of the Creation Museum extend beyond a disagreement over biology. The museum is wrong on geology, astronomy, physics, natural history, and literary interpretation as well.
For example, back in August and September, astronomers identified a new (to us) supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy which would be briefly visible here with the aid of a good pair of binoculars. The supernova is 21 million light years away. The location of the supernova can only be determined by the time the light has taken to travel from its location to us here on earth. Light travels 186,000 miles per second. If we calculate the number of seconds per year and multiply 186,000 miles to a yearly distance and then multiply that result by 21 million, that tells us something about where the supernova is: At least 123,179,616,000,000,000,000 miles away (give or take a few feet). Here’s the point: The supernova has to be no less than 21 million years old to be no less than that many miles away. The Creation Museum has an answer to the light speed problem (http://www.answersingenesis.org/assets/pdf/tj/v17n2_cosmology.pdf), mostly using references to other creationist journals. Their answer is that the speed of light used to be much, much faster and now it is slowing down.
However, the physicists who have won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics have shown that the universe is both expanding and accelerating. If the speed of light has been slowing down (the creationist thesis) but the expansion of the universe has been accelerating (the Nobel physicists’ conclusion), then it would seem that the supernova would have to be 21 million light years away/old or further/older rather than 6000 years old or less. To believe the creationist version of what is going on, the light from the supernova would have to be simultaneously slowing down and catching up with our position in the universe. And the slowing down of the speed of light would have to occur at such a rate that what seems to be 21 million light years away is really no more than 6000 years old.
Suppose that were possible. Then what would we say about a galaxy which is 300 million light years away, as some galaxies have been calculated to be? The rate of deceleration of the light from the galaxy would have to be significantly greater still than the rate of deceleration of the light from the supernova 21 million lights years away.
Put simply, I don’t believe the young-earth creationist account for light years, which means that the supernova is both 21 million light years away and 21 million years old, the star from which the supernova formed would have been significantly older than 21 million years old (what is being dated, the supernova, is both an object and an event with its own time of origin), and the galaxy 300 million light years away is at least 300 million years old.
One creationist answer to all of this is that God created the universe with apparent age, so that the light from the galaxy 300 million light years away has always been “on” at earth or closely on its way. If so, if God created the universe in such a way that the evidence it provides runs contrary to the act that God performed, then I do not see how the creationist can fault physicists and other scientists for accepting the evidence as presented. It would seem to make God a deceiver to depend upon “creation with apparent age” or light already on its way as answers to the counter evidence the creation itself presents for billions of years of age.
Speaking for myself, by the way, it does not diminish my sense of awe of divine creation at all to think that I can go outside on any given clear night and see something which has existed for 21 million years.
Another central claim of the Creation Museum is that dinosaurs existed at the time of Adam and Eve’s creation, from 6000 years ago towards our time (http://creationmuseum.org/). Yes, as the museum’s information will acknowledge, dinosaurs are extinct, but they became extinct after Noah’s flood and within the time of recorded history.
There is a degree of ludicrousness that makes it hard to respond seriously to where the Creation Museum and its sponsoring organization say that history has recorded dinosaurs, but, according to them, ancient stories of dragons are really stories of encounters with dinosaurs: http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v6/n4/dragon-legends. Let me point out, as I discuss the problems with this association of dinosaurs with dragons, that I have not found adequate academic research on the subject of dragons as such. I would suspect, without firm evidence, that ancient people may indeed have encountered fossils and remains of dinosaurs, and from seeing such remains created legends of the dragons of their cultures. Dragons are indeed widespread in ancient cultural records.
But the wide range of references to dragons is not quite the same thing as a depth of cultural references to dragons. There are plenty of dragons available in Chinese culture today, but you will not find any Chinese person acknowledging their existence as living creatures. Suppose you were to use a concordance and look up all biblical references to “dragons” and “leviathan.” In the King James Bible, there are 34 references to dragons, most of them in the Psalms and prophetical books, and 4 references to leviathan. Most of the references treat dragons and leviathans as sea creatures, and most are in passages in which the references are symbolic or metaphorical. There are enough references to be interesting for a focus of study, but where are the references in Genesis through Nehemiah? A sprinkling, but none asserting the presence of an actual creature. Given the range of types of dinosaurs we know to have existed, where are they in the historical passages of the Bible? If tyrannosaurs, brontosauruses, and triceratopses were roaming around at the time when the Israelites were settling Canaan, wouldn’t we have even one record of it within the Bible?
Wouldn’t you post a status update on your Facebook page if you had seen a living triceratops today? Or at least a pterodactyl? Were these creatures so common during the time of the Hebrew judges that they never once thought to mention them? We can read about the birds and the sheep and the cattle the ancient Hebrews had, and I would think any ancient shepherd would have had a story to tell if any carnivorous dinosaur, or dragon, were in the neighborhood of his flocks. Or, for that matter, any brontosaurus in the area of a grain field.
Look again at the link I’ve posted above. Among the legends the museum references for evidence is the story of Beowulf. Take a moment and google “Beowulf” and “dinosaur” and look through the results. There is now a creationist interpretation of Beowulf, that it is non-fiction, presenting a concluding account of Beowulf battling a dragon-dinosaur.
While literary scholars do not have a single interpretation of Beowulf’s battle with the dragon, no scholars, including Christians like J.R.R.Tolkien, have ever read that battle as a record of an actual event. The story of Beowulf originates in Scandinavia. There are no other texts about Beowulf, but the oldest text refers to Scandinavian kings who did live in the sixth century. Scholars believe that the story developed through oral transmission through several centuries. The single existing manuscript of the story, which is currently on display in the British Library, was written in the tenth or eleventh century in Old English by a person whose people migrated to England from Scandinavia. The writer is known today as the Beowulf poet because his name is impossible to identify. We can tell that the writer was a Christian, and his stance is that he is recording a story important to the culture, but which he regards as pagan in its origin and untrue in its details.
And yet, despite the point of view of the Christian who has given us the story, some creationists are willing to overlook the Beowulf poet’s stated explanations for telling the story in order to use it to say that men had encountered dinosaurs as late as 600 A.D. Again, if so, where are the other dinosaurs? How can there be one record of a dinosaur from that time period and pretty much scant records all over Europe in all the decades and centuries from the time of Christ until a millennium later at the poem’s writing. There are legends of dragons, but not enough to account for a number and variety of dinosaurs.
The fundamental theological problem with the Creation Museum is that it paradoxically undercuts the authority of the Bible it purports to uphold. Here’s how: it begins with assumptions that in order for the Bible to be true, certain implications based upon their reading of the Bible must also be true. For their reading of the Bible to be true, dinosaurs must have existed at the time of Genesis (though there is not one word about dinosaurs, or dragons, in Genesis). For dinosaurs to have existed in Genesis, we have to believe that dragons are dinosaurs and are creatures people encountered up until the early European Renaissance. (Some young earth creationists, including those of the Creation Museum, support a record as late as 1496.) Eventually, the assumptions have no foundation in either the Bible or in science or even in scholarly literary analysis. But this superstructure of assumptions has become, for many creationists, of equal authority to the Biblical text itself.
Some young earth creationists will assert that what they are defending is the tradition of Biblical interpretation and authority dating back to the beginnings of time. But readers can find historically important Christians living centuries before the nineteenth century who did not read the first chapter of Genesis as the young earth creationists do. I’ll mention one.
Saint Augustine, from a short book entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis:
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.
The point of that for today is that if we can believe that God created the universe without subscribing to young earth creationism, we would be wise to do so. In his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo asserted that when science seems to be in dispute with the Bible, the Bible is not wrong, the science is not wrong, but the interpretation of the Bible is wrong. I’ll conclude here with recommending a recent book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John Walton (InterVarsity Press, 2009). It offers an literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 which is amenable to the current status of science and which is consistent with the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews which produced Genesis 1.
This post presents the discussion of literature and worldview excerpted from my tenure essay. It offers some answers to David Naugle’s critique of my New Pantagruel essays.
Divine Diversity in the Study of Literature and Writing
Getting Beyond “Worldview”
In 2004, I wrote two essays published on the New Pantagruel website critiquing the modernist concept of “Christian worldview.” The first essay, “Christian College Professor Flunks Christian Worldview Tests,” deconstructs two online worldview tests to show that, as far as their sponsoring organizations are concerned, a person can deny the resurrection of Christ and the existence of the Holy Spirit and still have a Christian worldview if she is politically conservative. One common reaction to this article has been that the sponsoring organizations do not represent an evangelical academic perspective. This criticism may be appropriate but irrelevant. One of the organizations has had apologists Ravi Zacharias, Josh and Sean McDowell, Erwin Lutzer (pastor of Moody Church in Chicago), and the president of a CCCU institution as co-laborers. The second organization offers its test as an assessment tool for Christian secondary schools. Evangelical popular culture is not necessarily influenced by the writings of evangelical college academics on the subject of worldview.
My second essay, “Further Scandal: Christian College Professor Doesn’t Teach from a Christian Worldview,” is the more thorough critique of the concept of “Christian worldview” itself. While this essay has received less attention from bloggers, it has been critiqued in turn in a full-length article by David Naugle, author of Worldview: The History of a Concept. Naugle criticizes me for not upholding the mission of a Christian institution by rejecting the concept of worldview:
Because of his institutional address at Huntington College, students, parents and administrators rightly assume that Prof. Heller teaches from a Christian worldview. After all, Huntington is “an evangelical Christian college of the liberal arts,” and is also a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities which promotes Christian worldview development as a chief goal of its allied institutions. (“Scrutinizing a Scandal”)
Naugle bases his criticism on the idea that the concept of worldview is one of the “epistemic implications of the Christian gospel.” He concedes my critique of worldview-based pedagogies—“All too often, worldview advocates, despite good intentions, fail to treat texts and other artifacts with the integrity they deserve”—but he also excuses the pedagogy—“Much of Christian scholarship is still at an adolescent stage of development.” My criticism of “worldview,” on the other hand, is variously modernist and Enlightenment-based, according to Naugle. Postings on some discussion forums (no longer online) had my critiques labeled as postmodernist.
I find it notable that Naugle regards Christian scholarship as “still at an adolescent stage of development” when in a number of the basic humanities and natural sciences, Christian scholarship is among the oldest scholarship with a continuous lineage that still has current relevance. In contrast, however, the conceptualization of “worldview” dates to the eighteenth century German Enlightenment. My intention in this essay is not to reprise my criticisms of “worldview” but to argue that for the study of literature and for the discipline of writing, a good integration of faith and learning should respect the diversities of creation and of ways of knowing (or a diversity of worldviews, including of Christian worldviews).1 Respecting these diversities will require a continual acknowledgement of the complexities of the past. These complexities can rarely be accounted for by recourse to concepts of the “Christian worldview” or the “Christian tradition,” but the complexities can also be neglected by claiming that Christian scholarship is at an adolescent stage while overlooking the contributions of Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, Galileo Galilei, and John Milton to both human knowledge and the Christian faith.
The Value of Diversity
Some versions of integrating faith and learning seem to me simultaneously ideal and humanly impossible. For example, in “Faith-Learning Integration: An Overview,” William Hasker writes, “There is … a single reality, all of which we as his [God’s] children and image-bearers must seek to understand” (236). Later Hasker adds, “To love God with all our minds requires that we try to think in a single, unified pattern all the truth he has enabled us to grasp” (238; emphases added here). This process may promise frustration—how much truth will we be enabled to grasp and what happens if our efforts do not lead us to a single, unified pattern? Yet where Hasker himself anticipates difficulties, I find the possibility for a measure of success: “Though there is a unity of truth there is nevertheless a diversity of ways of knowing that makes the unity of truth a difficult and demanding achievement for us humans” (237). I would argue that it is precisely through the diversity of our ways of knowing that we come to see that truth is larger than all of our selves and our abilities. Unified, yes, but e unibus plurum rather than e pluribus unum.
While my arguments against the concept of worldview have been criticized as postmodern, some early modern literary texts suggest that recognizing the diversities of divinely-created knowledge is the way to a greater understanding of God himself.2 One of these is John Donne’s “Expostulation 19,” part of his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, in which Donne discusses the nature of God in a manner worth considering with the subject of literature and faith and learning integration:
My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest. But thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God too: a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps; thou art the dove that flies. Oh, what words but thine can express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word; in which, to one man, that argument that binds his faith to believe that to be the Word of God is the reverent simplicity of the Word, and to another, the majesty of the Word; and in which two men, equally pious, may meet, and one wonder that all should not understand it, and the other as much that any man should. So, Lord, thou givest us the same earth to labor on and to lie in; a house and a grave of the same earth; so, Lord, thou givest us the same Word for our satisfaction and for our inquisition, for our instruction and for our admiration too. (1306, emended to indicate when “Word” is capitalized in the 1623 text)
“Expostulation 19” continues for several pages of exuberant overstatement. Stemming from the foundational Heraclitean and Johannine idea that God is the Word (John 1:1-3, 14), Donne shows that if God is the Word (a metaphor) and if God is expansive and ineffable, then God becomes, in a sense, Literature. The Word becomes plural—“what words but thine can express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word”—and the plurality of words is literary—figures, metaphors, hyperboles, allegories, elocutions, and “voyages,”3 among others. It would be idolatry to invert Donne’s assertion, to say that literature is God, because literature itself is insufficient to express all there is of the Word. Donne avoids this idolatry, but it becomes evident in late Victorian literature.
For the majority of literature I teach in my upper-level courses, there is no inevitable difficulty in integrating learning and faith. The integration comes ready-made; most of English literature from Caedmon’s hymn (the earliest extant English poem, circa 680) to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) has been written by writers who self-identify or self-reveal as Christians. (Boswell presents the uncommon case of a non-Christian writing the biography of a Christian subject.) However, as Donne suggests, the one faith does not lead to one understanding. One man sees the “reverent simplicity of the Word”; another sees “the majesty of the Word”; one man wonders that anyone would not understand the Word; another wonders that anyone understands it at all.
Two Problems of Holding to a Single Worldview
Implicit in this divergence of views that Donne identifies within Christianity are three potential problems. The first is that a reader may have a too-exclusive view of Christianity. This rarely arises in the classroom, though I have encountered occasional comments that medieval drama and Mariette in Ecstasy, Ron Hansen’s novel about life in a convent, are not really Christian because of their Roman Catholic theological assumptions. For the medieval drama, it helps to remind the students that the plays date from before the Reformation and that they established dramatic genres which continued in the Protestant drama after 1517. Furthermore, while I disagree on some doctrines with Roman Catholicism, such as transubstantiation and the existence of purgatory, these doctrines can be justified by applying literalist hermeneutics to such passages as Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. The divergent beliefs held by Christians can often be supported by applying a different hermeneutic to a biblical passage, and I suspect the basic cause for a too-exclusive view of the faith is to take one part of a paradox as an entire truth. This is what Donne would seem to caution against.
For reading literature, a second potential problem is that a reader’s commitment to the unity of the Christian faith can lead him to distorted readings that elide the differences between his faith and the author’s faith. This may account for a broad range of mistakes, some of which may arise from a generous impulse of wanting to find and affirm a commonality of Christian belief. The resulting misreadings are evident at the most professional levels of the discipline, such as when a scholar at a Conference on Christianity and Literature tries to treat Flannery O’Connor as if she were a Protestant. During a recent semester, I made a similar error in class when I criticized Sir Philip Sidney for an inconsistency with his Calvinist faith. In The Defense of Poesy (1580), Sidney asserts that human “wit” (an earlier word for the imagination) is only distorted by human will rather than by the corruption of the Fall; this seems to contradict a Calvinist perspective on the totality of human depravity. A student responded that I had earlier stated that there had been some range of Calvinist belief between the Elizabethan Anglicans and the separatist Puritans. In the next class session, I corrected my analysis when a student’s report identified the theology of Philip Melanchthon as a source for Sidney’s idea.
The diversity of Christian beliefs belies the use of “tradition” in current religious and political discourse. Those most ideologically (or at least most verbally) committed to the “Christian tradition” seem rarely able to articulate the development of that tradition in any coherent, historically accurate manner. One result now is a sort of compromised cultural stasis borne of overvaluing a false, idealized past for its own sake and of devaluing the present as if it cannot coexist with faith. One result of this may be seen in the art museum at a conservative Christian university in which the most recent work is from the early nineteenth century. This institution is known more for its graduates’ preaching styles rather than for their cultural influences.
The actual Christian tradition, insofar as it can be articulated—or better yet, the literary and artistic histories of the Christian faith indeed have something to teach the person interested in literary merit and integrity, but only if we recognize and value the range of interests, theologies, languages, and styles that has shaped those histories. Flannery O’Connor has described the failed Christian novelist as one who does not recognize this range in the Christian tradition:
[Students] think that inevitably the writer, instead of seeing what is, will see only what he believes. It is perfectly possible, of course, that this will happen. Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. (“Novelist” 162-163)
What O’Connor describes here is a Christian writer who substitutes her theology, her worldview, or her sense of the Christian tradition for the world itself—created by God, affected by sin, and in the process of its redemption.4
The Large Problem of Moral Evaluation
The third and most time consuming problem for valuing a diversity of beliefs is to know when and how to make a moral judgment about a work of literature. An appropriate moral judgment would have to acknowledge that Sir Thomas More envisions an oppressive government as ideal within his Utopia, that Edmund Spenser’s treatment of the Irish in The Faerie Queene is racist, and that the ideology of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe would justify slavery. One difficulty I have with integrating faith and learning is to figure out how to value the literary work and the Christian writer at the same time that it is necessary to acknowledge his or her moral failings.
While I was an undergraduate at a Christian college in the 1980s, moral criticism was widely treated as extraneous to the literary analysis of a text, and historically, this point of view was put forward by the American New Critics of the 1950s, most of them identified as Christians. They were, of course, reacting to moral criticism done poorly. Since the 1980s, the establishment of a variety of theoretical foundations for literary criticism has led to a renewed general acceptance of moral analysis. These theoretical approaches could include Marxist theory, feminist theory, African American theory, postcolonialism, gender studies, and ecocriticism. Because most of these theoretical approaches have arisen from the political left, they have been slow to gain a wide acceptance from Christians. However, Christian literary scholars have applied and critiqued these theoretical approaches, as occurs in Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art (2006) and in the essays edited by Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (1991).
These theoretical approaches—Marxism, feminism, and so on—generally coincide with the self-identifications of the critics: Marxist analyses are done by Marxists, feminists readings are done by feminists. Thus, one may suppose, there could be a specifically Christian theory for the study of literature. Yet I think that committing oneself entirely to a Christian literary theory can be too much like an imitation of the other theoretical approaches, resulting in yet more readings based on personal identity. My reluctance is not that I am opposed to Marxist, feminist, or ethnic readings, but I am opposed to exclusivity: a Christian’s reading of a text should be able to attend to issues of class, issues of race, and processes of semiotic analysis without having to commit oneself entirely to Marxism.
If there is going to be a Christian literary theory, however, I think it will have to begin with the ethical approaches of the readers, which give shape to their moral analyses. This is the direction Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, takes when he tries to form a Christian literary theory in his book A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (2001):
We need not shy away from evaluating any everyday pursuit according to what the fourteenth-century English theologian Richard Rolle (along with many others) calls “the law of love.” “That you may love [Jesus Christ] truly,” says Rolle, “understand that his love is proved in three areas of your life—in your thinking, in your talking, and in your manner of working.” This division should be of particular interest to people engaged in academic pursuits, because our thinking (including reading) and talking (including writing) pretty much are our “manner of working.” How might we begin to consider academic tasks in light of this “law of love”?
To consider the problem more specifically: My work, as a teacher and scholar of literature, is largely occupied with the interpretation of texts. What would interpretation governed by the law of love look like? This is a question that has all too rarely been considered; but it is raised by Augustine in his treatise On Christian Doctrine. (10)
If there is going to be a Christian literary theory, I think the direction that Jacobs sets out is largely correct. Fundamental to a Christian reading of any text should be an approach of grace or charity, and such an approach should not be too quickly dismissive of the texts with which we have philosophical or moral disagreements. We could rather ask ourselves what problem is a particular writer identifying in this world, and though we may not agree with his solution, can we not agree on his diagnosis? I have taught Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman with something like this approach, using Miller’s commentary on the play to show his theological insights on human lostness, even if Miller explicitly denies a divine source for salvation in his essays.
While I have emphasized literature by writers indentified as Christians in this essay, most literature is by authors who are not identified as Christians, and some students are too quick to dismiss the value of any such literature. This largely results from a moral judgment based on the too-limited version of the Christian worldview I identified earlier. I have tried to address this problem with my opening lessons in English 151, Perspectives on Literature. One short lesson examines the fragments of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus to show them as the source for the discussion of the “logos” in John 1. This can be followed with a discussion of Paul’s allusion to Cleanthes’s “Hymn to Zeus” in his sermon at the Areopagus (Acts 17).5 A longer lesson is a study of Oedipus Rex to show how discussion of the play has developed the meaning of “hamartia,” the Greek word translated as “sin” in the New Testament. Aristotle treats “hamartia” as an act of injustice, which in the play is the murder of King Laius. Later Greek writers treat “hamartia” as a tragic flaw, which can be identified in the play as Oedipus’s hubris. Greek commentaries on the play have developed the concepts of sin that we find are used in the Bible. Students benefit from a reminder that the language used in the New Testament was not the language of a Christian culture. Some worldview approaches to teaching literature are too dismissive of literature from non-Christians. I would like to approach all literature as if it were on a level playing field, to be judged equally so that literature by non-Christians is not presumed guilty and so that literature by Christians is not presumed innocent.
Many readers who are Christians mistake the necessity for moral judgment to focus primarily on the sexual content of a work. One novel which I frequently teach in Perspectives on Literature is Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying. Its plot involves a young black teacher, Grant Wiggins, who is cajoled into teaching a prisoner, Jefferson, how to be a man before he is executed for a murder he did not commit. In 2004, this novel was banned from the curriculum of Louisiana College, a state Baptist college not affiliated with the CCCU. The reason was that the novel has a short scene of Grant being intimate with his girlfriend Vivian, fondling her breasts before the text implies their sexual consummation.
In the past I ignored this scene while teaching the novel, but last year, I had my students read another essay by Flannery O’Connor to help them address the purpose for the scene:
If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be more of a Manichean than the Church permits. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite. We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purpose, and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake. (“The Church” 147-148)
To apply what O’Connor suggests here, we have to consider contexts in order to make a proper moral judgment. Later in Gaines’s novel, Vivian and Grant argue, and Vivian chides him for the selfishness of his sexual behavior. Thus, within the novel itself a moral judgment is made of Grant’s behavior, a judgment which accords with Christian values. While I do not examine the scene of sexual intimacies in class, I can allude to it to set the foundation for discussing Grant’s failures to make and keep commitments. Separating the scene of intimacies out for moral criticism would be to overlook the ways by which Grant’s behavior is already represented critically within the novel.
If the passage from John Donne’s “Expostulation 19” shows me anything, it is that the Christian faith paradoxically has parameters and is unlimited. As much as I am able, my goal as a professor is to represent this paradox through the study of literature and of writing.
1 For this essay, a reader may conclude that nothing here serves as a criticism of speaking of a Christian worldview rather than the Christian worldview. However, I find the idea of a personal worldview still problematic, partly because I do not think it accounts for the processes of thought. I prefer the term “habits of thought” over “worldview.” “Habits of thought” has been given academic significance by Christian literary scholar Debora Kuller Shuger in her book Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture (Toronto, 1997).
2 In my book Penitent Brothellers, I discuss a rarely studied pamphlet by Thomas Middleton, The Two Gates of Salvation, to show that in Middleton’s Calvinist perspective permits a range of possibility for God’s work in people’s lives, limited only by divine prerogative (23-34). I should note that while I reject “worldview” and while I think the implications of these early modern texts lead away from the concept, these early modern Christian writers (and I) would all confess to the doctrines of the Apostle’s Creed. I argue in my second New Pantagruel article that because the Apostle’s Creed has been confessed by Christians across times and cultures, it does not form the foundation for a single Christian worldview.
3 While a “voyage” is not a figure of speech like “metaphor” or “hyperbole,” the image of a voyage is common in early modern literature to represent the range of God’s interaction with humans, as can be seen in both Middleton’s The Two Gates of Salvation and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
4J ournalist Steve Turner discusses these three doctrines in relation to human creativity in chapter five, “The Bible,” in his 2001 InterVarsity Press book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts.
5The argument I am making here has a long genealogy. Similar arguments appear fully developed in Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy (1580) and in John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644).
Works Cited [Readers should note that the limitations of blogging, or of the blogger, do not allow for proper MLA citation formats.]
Donne, John. “Expostulation 19.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1. Ed. G. Logan, et. al. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 1306-1307. Print.
Downing, Crystal. How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Print.
Hasker, William. “Faith-Learning Integration: An Overview.” Christian Scholar’s Review 21.3 (March 1992): 231-248. Print.
Heller, Herbert Jack. Penitent Brothellers: Grace, Sexuality, and Genre in Thomas Middleton’s City Comedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000. Print.
Heller, Jack. “Christian College Professor Flunks Christian Worldview Tests.” The New Pantagruel 1.3 (Summer 2004): <http://www.newpantagruel.com>. Web. [Now offline]
—. “Further Scandal: Christian College Professor Doesn’t Teach from a Christian Worldview.” The New Pantagruel 1.4 (Fall 2004): <http://www.newpantagruel.com>. Web. [Now offline]
Jacobs, Alan. A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001. Print.
Milton, John. Areopagitica. Complete Poems and Major Prose. 1957. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1983. Print.
Naugle, David. “Scrutinizing a Scandal: A Christian Worldview Analysis of a Christian College Professor Who Flunks Christian Worldview Tests and Doesn’t Teach from a Christian Worldview.” The New Pantagruel 2.1 (Winter 2005): <http://www.newpantagruel.com>. Web. [Offline: Now available at <http://www3.dbu.edu/naugle/pdf/ScrutinizingaScandal.pdf>]
O’Connor, Flannery, “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969. 143-153. Print
—. “Novelist and Believer.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969. 154-168. Print.
Shuger, Debora Kuller. Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Print.
Sidney, Philip. The Defence of Poesy. The Oxford Authors: Sir Philip Sidney. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.
Turner, Steve. Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001. Print.
Walhout, Clarence and Leland Ryken, eds. Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. Print.
Preface to “Further Scandal: Christian College Professor Doesn’t Teach from a Christian Worldview”:
In 2004, when I wrote this essay, the institution I worked for was still a college, rather than a university, now Huntington University. As I was writing this, I knew the direction I was going in with my argument, but I lost my way to the conclusion, so I should acknowledge now that this essay reflects the input of the editors of the now-defunct online journal The New Pantagruel, Dan Knauss and Caleb Stegall. I am grateful for their help. I should also observe that the titles of these essays were intended to invoke a tabloid, sensationalist tone; I will leave the reader to judge their accuracy for the essays.
While the first essay of these two received much more attention, I have always believed this essay has the more radical implications for the current state of American Christianity. This essay was followed by a critical response from David Naugle, a worldview scholar from Dallas Baptist University, available online here: http://www3.dbu.edu/naugle/pdf/ScrutinizingaScandal.pdf. I have never followed up on his criticism, largely because I believed my response would have been mostly restatement. However, I would point out that I have since written an unpublished essay based upon “Expostulation XIX” of John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions with some responses to Naugle’s criticism. That will be posted next on this blog.
Further Scandal: Christian College Professor Doesn’t Teach from a Christian Worldview
I am now into my third year of teaching English at Huntington College, a member institution of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities. Because of where I teach, students, parents, and administrators take it for granted that I will teach from a Christian worldview. But what does teaching from a Christian worldview mean? Is it my task to critique every work of literature from some doctrinal perspective? Do I say of Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome that it presents from a naturalistic worldview the struggles of a man against his social isolation through his desires for his wife’s cousin? Do I then contrast naturalism to biblical theism and say that Wharton, for her naturalism (or her secular humanism, if one prefers), falls short of Christian belief, and therefore a proper response is a rejection of her ethos? I am very disinclined to let students evade the issues the text raises by dismissing it as stemming from a naturalistic worldview. I am more inclined to discuss how Wharton creates her fictional world and let students process for themselves how truthful they find that world to be. Worldview criticism too often depends upon facile labeling that makes a work’s artistry mere window-dressing for amateur philosophizing.
My approach to teaching does not conform to some descriptions of a Christian college professor’s job. Claude O. Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, complains that “Tragically, a number of faculty within our own Christian colleges and universities struggle with how to think Christianly about their disciplines. We have lost the unification of knowledge under the lordship of Jesus Christ.” Pressnell defines the task of Christian college professors:
Christian scholars are charged with the task of teaching their academic disciplines with a well-informed knowledge base and from a distinctly Christian worldview perspective. The task requires rigorous study and a growing and intimate relationship with Christ. The need for attention to the sanctifying process of Christ is of utmost importance when we are dealing in the arena of ideas. Because of the fallenness of our intellect, we must always be kept in check by the standard of God’s Word and the community of fellow believers.
I have a confession to make: I don’t feel a connection with that description of my task. It splits apart for me in several directions. First, I do believe in the fallenness of the intellect, so much so that I don’t think it can be separated from that which is labeled as my Christian worldview. How does a person gain a sense of confidence in his worldview if, in fact, the intellect from which it proceeds is fallen?
On the other hand, I am not convinced that my teaching Shakespeare or Wharton successfully depends upon my having an intimate relationship with Christ. I certainly had no such expectation of my professors in graduate school, only two or three of which would have identified themselves as Christians and none as evangelicals. One professor I had who asserted the need to attend to Shakespeare’s Christian faith was gay and not a Christian. While I hope that I develop in my Christian faith, I don’t believe that the merit of my teaching should be measured by my faith.
Pressnell evades a question that his description of the Christian scholar’s task begs to have answered: What does he mean by “a distinctly Christian worldview”? As his reader and putative audience, I don’t take on the responsibility of defining this phrase for him. Pressnell sets up an incomplete contrast: at some point I am asking questions that he would find tragic. Why? What version of a Christian worldview should prevent my having these questions? The catch-22 for Pressnell is, of course, that if he defines his term, he moves from “a distinctly Christian worldview” to “the distinctly Christian worldview.” That might clarify whether or not my questions remain tragic, but it would also open the definition to critique from historical, sociological, theological, and other perspectives.
Pressnell’s essay appears in a collection entitled The Future of Christian Higher Education (Broadman and Holman, 1999). I was given this book for the orientation to my first year as a professor at Huntington. Its contributors include the presidents, provosts, and deans of such Christian institutions as Baylor University, Calvin College, Westmont College, Union University, and Beeson Divinity School, and such writers as Arthur Holmes and Millard Erickson. With varying degrees of nuance and qualification, most of the contributors speak of the Christian professor’s responsibility to teach from a Christian worldview while ducking the question of what that means. However, one of the volume’s editors, David Dockery, president of Union University in Tennessee, has no reticence specifying what a Christian worldview excludes:
Throughout education and culture, the very existence of objective truth is being challenged. We observe this in the academy in the poststructuralism of Lyotard, the deconstructionism of Derrida, the radical subjectivism of Foucault, the reader-focused hermeneutic of Stanley Fish; it is even found in popular culture, exemplified in the lyrics of country music artists like Diamond Rio singing that “it’s all interpretation, if you want to know the truth you have to read between the lines.” A normative view of truth and a Christian worldview are rejected or devalued, seemingly lost in our contemporary culture.
Recently, a high profile culture watcher [George Barna] observed this impact on Christians, noting that “an unbelievably small proportion of believers have what is called a Christian worldview … and because [most Christians] don’t think like Christians, they can’t act like Christians. Because they don’t act like Christians, they can’t have much impact on the world in which they live.”
This is utter rubbish. If Christians are not thinking or acting like Christians, it is not because of all the Lyotard and Derrida they are reading. There are many more likely candidates for blame than poststructuralist literary theorists—such as the weakness or sheer lack of teaching in many churches, insipid or pathological Christian bestsellers, and apologists for nationalism in the guise of faith. Or has there been a clandestine substitution of Of Grammatology into the covers of Glorious Appearing without anyone noticing?
Yet Dockery’s assessment is a good example of one of the inevitable problems with worldview discussions: the term is so fluid that sooner or later one must ask what is to be included and excluded from a Christian worldview. For all the references to a Christian worldview in The Future of Christian Higher Education, Pressnell and Dockery intuitively believe that something must be excluded, specifically anything that undermines a modernist, objectivist, Christian version of Truth.
I wrote previously about two accounts of that Truth that sound suspiciously like the Republican Party platform. But for all their faults, at least the Nehemiah Institute and Worldview Weekend specify their versions of worldview. The definition of “biblical worldview” used by the Nehemiah Institute to assess their test makes only one reference to the Christian faith: “Moral standards are seen as objective rather than subjective, typically from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and quite static.” No mention is made of the Bible itself or to any theological traditions. Evangelical worldview theorists might like to scorn these unreflective politically conservative cousins, but on what basis? Their definitions of “worldview” itself, not to mention “Christian worldview,” also leave the details up for grabs, so the politically motivated will of course seize the opportunity.
What really goes into the composition of one’s worldview? James Sire defines a worldview as “a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world.” James Olthuis says that a worldview “is the integrative and interpretive framework by which order and disorder are judged, the standard by which reality is managed and pursued. It is the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns.” More recently, David Naugle has claimed that worldview is a semiotic phenomenon: “I … propose that a worldview as a semiotic structure consists primarily of a network of narrative signs that offers an interpretation of reality and establishes and overarching framework for life.” These three theorists of worldview, spanning four decades of thinking on the subject, reveal some of the changes in the concept—from presuppositions to a focus on narrative. Certainly a focus on narrative, in which a Christian would identify her role in a divinely-oriented story, opens up the concept of worldview to broader possibilities than those identified by Worldview Weekend.
In fact, there is a nascent liberalism in how broadly some worldview theorists want to stretch the concept. David Naugle affirms,
I would like to go on record as clearly affirming … the value of Christian worldview pluralism, just like Arthur Holmes does in his Contours of a Worldview (Eerdmans, 1984). I see great value in the fact that different Christian traditions have contributed remarkable insights into the nature and practice of the faith, and that these insights need to be appreciated, harvested, and applied.
But with a concept this elastic, at some point the question must be asked: Is it helpful? Can it tell us anything about the formative influences that go into making mature Christians? I have yet to find a worldview theorist who describes a specific confluence of influences that go into a Christian worldview. Many, like James Sire in The Universe Next Door, limit the discussion of worldview to religious and philosophical perspectives. Naugle considers what Sigmund Freud has to say about Weltanschauung, but he does not consider how a person’s mental, emotional, and behavioral processes shape his or her worldview. Does one’s psychological state precede the formation of her worldview, or is it shaped by her worldview?
These questions could go on. Surely, our cultures shape our worldviews. People from New Orleans, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from Bogotá, from Calcutta, and from Lagos are likely, I think, to have very different worldviews. Geography may shape a worldview; urban and rural residents of one culture are likely to have different values. Language itself may determine some of the parameters of one’s worldview. Other influences on one’s worldview may be historical, sociological, scientific, related to gender, related to economic class, related to age, even related to the sins one has engaged in. Are all these influences equally hospitable to the development of a “Christian worldview”? If there is a Christian worldview, could we say that such a concept unites such historically, culturally diverse writers as the Beowulf poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, Margery Kempe, Edmund Spenser, Martin Luther, Lady Mary Sidney, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Olaudah Equiano, Phyllis Wheatley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor? Would Coleridge’s opium addition, Auden’s homosexuality, Bunyan’s imprisonment, Dostoyevsky’s compulsive gambling, Kierkegaard’s Danish language, and Graham Greene’s frequent adulteries color their worldviews?
If we identify all of these writers listed above as having Christian worldviews, we have gone no further than to note that they were Christians. Proper criticism of these writers needs to emphasize the religious, cultural, psychological, aesthetic, and all other particularities in their expressions of faith, those parts of their Christian lives that show they weren’t all twentieth century evangelicals. A better way to honor the particularities of any Christian life or community of practice without the reductionism of “mere Christianity” worldviewism is to speak of “habits of thought.” This phrase—used as a critical term by Christian literary theorist Debora Shuger—acknowledges that individuals and societies (or better, individuals within societies) organize their thinking around certain dominant tropes. During the English Renaissance, those tropes were religious:
Religion during this period supplies the primary language of analysis. It is the cultural matrix for explorations of virtually every topic: kingship, selfhood, rationality, language, marriage, ethics, and so forth. Such subjects are, again, not masked by religious discourse but articulated in it; they are considered in relation to God and the human soul. That is what it means to say that the English Renaissance was a religious culture, not simply a culture whose members generally were religious.
The point of this isn’t that there was a Christian worldview on the issue of kingship or of marriage in the seventeenth century, but that people habitually turned to Christian language to express their contradictory multiplicity of ideas, fears, hopes, and desires about those subjects. Habits of thought do not lead to one thought, one definitive Christian worldview. Certainly not in an era when the major disputes were religious.
“Habits of thought” impresses me intuitively. It seems to more true to my experience to be able to identify my habits, some of which may be good and some of which need changing. “Habits of thought” fits well with the various biblical injunctions to examine our thoughts. “Worldview,” on the other hand, coming as it does out of the German Enlightenment, brings with it the secularizing insistence that the search for truth can terminate on proper positions and principles. A worldview can be true, but it would have an inherently reductive nature that butts up against the classic recognition that theory and theology are analogical approximations of divine truth. Perhaps that is why the Apostle Paul himself does not think much of his own current view of the world: “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Rather than imparting to my students the abstracted and naïve certainty of a worldview, I would rather leave them with strong mature habits of thought to which they may have recourse in all that their lives will bring them.
Preface to “Christian College Professor Flunks Christian Worldview Tests”:
This essay and its sequel were first written for and published in the now-defunct The New Pantagruel website in 2004. When this essay was published, I was humbled and gratified by its reception, and now seven years later both are being reposted. A reader will find that most of the links in this first essay are now dead, but the links’ titles show the politicized interests of their sponsoring organizations. As of November 7, 2011, both the Nehemiah Institute and Worldview Weekend are still in operation and online, but only Worldview Weekend still maintains an online worldview test. While neither organization has responded directly to these articles, I would suppose that some of the test errors have since been corrected and some of the questions used in 2004 have changed. Since 2004, I have continued to receive weekly emails from Worldview Weekend which have shown me that there have been no fundamental changes to the ways of thinking of that organization. Therefore, I believe my criticisms remain largely current and valid, and I do not feel obligated to take its test again. Questions and comments may still be sent to me at email@example.com. Thank you for your interest in these articles.
Christian College Professor Flunks Christian Worldview Tests
I take online tests. If I were a Led Zeppelin song, which song would I be? (“Kashmir”) Which Simpsons character would I be? (Marge Simpson) Which character from Shakespeare’s tragedies do I most resemble? (Coriolanus, but that result may be skewed by the fact that I’ve studied him extensively.) What’s my IQ? (I’m not telling.)
I also do not have a Christian worldview. I have taken both of the free online Christian worldview tests, one from the Nehemiah Institute and one offered by Worldview Weekend.1 According to Worldview Weekend, there are five possible ratings: Strong Biblical Worldview, Moderate Biblical Worldview, Secular Humanist Worldview, Socialist Worldview, and Communist/Marxist/Socialist/Secular Humanist Worldview. (I kid you not.) From Worldview Weekend, my score was a 37 out of a possible 170 points, 21%, Socialist. As pitiful as that is, my score from the Nehemiah Institute was even worse, -43. The Nehemiah Institute has only four worldview categories—Biblical Theism, Moderate Christian, Secular Humanism, and Socialism—so I am in its bottom group. The Nehemiah Institute concludes that “help is needed in developing a Biblical understanding,” and Worldview Weekend offers a seven-point plan of action “to improve [my] biblical worldview,” including reading a book with its title misspelled No Retreasts, No Reserves, No Regreats.
I am currently an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern Christian college, a member institution in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). I do not dismiss my score on a Christian worldview test—as I would being identified with Marge rather than Maggie Simpson—because CCCU publications often identify the development of a Christian worldview as one of the missions of its member institutions. Furthermore, each of these tests is used by Christian high schools and homeschoolers as a bona fide assessment of the students’ faith understanding, so there is a strong likelihood that a number of incoming evangelical freshmen will have had their views influenced by those who have created these tests. And if these students evaluate their professors—even at Christian colleges—on the basis of the content of these tests, as they are encouraged to do by some apologetics ministries, then they begin college predisposed to reject rather than to think about ideas which other Christians may hold consistently with their faiths. On course evaluations, good professors have paid for their digressions from the students’ beliefs.2
These tests have gained in significance in the mainstream of the American evangelical subculture. The resolution presented to the Southern Baptist Convention this summer calling on its members to remove their children from “government schools” argued that “the Nehemiah Institute has discovered through its extensive surveys of student attitudes and beliefs that acceptance of a secular humanist worldview by Christian children attending government schools has increased dramatically over the last fifteen years.” (The resolution was defeated in committee before it reached a floor vote.) The Nehemiah Institute’s materials have received endorsements from Paige Patterson, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and Ted Baehr of the Christian Film and Television Commission. Worldview Weekend has done even better for itself in getting endorsements and co-workers from Josh and Sean McDowell, Norm Geisler, David Limbaugh, Erwin Lutzer, Kirk Cameron, Tim Wildmon, Probe Ministries, and Summit Ministries.3 The president of Worldview Weekend, Brannon Howse, is the “education reporter for the Michael Reagan Show”; as Reagan’s guest host during the week of his father’s funeral, Howse has interviewed Jerry Falwell and former attorney general Ed Meese. The Worldview Weekend conferences are held at Christian high schools and churches around the country.
It is not my intention to justify all of the answers I chose on both of these tests. Nor is it my intention to prove that I have a Christian worldview. The paradoxical premise of the Southern Baptist resolution suggests that it is possible to be both Christian and secular humanist, so, while I do not believe that I am a socialist, let others interpret my answers as they would like. What concerns me is my sneaking suspicion that these tests are becoming a measure for assessing whether individuals are indeed Christians who are growing in their understanding of the faith. I would suggest that neither test offers an accurate assessment of a person’s Christian worldview and that they may mislead a person as to what a Christian worldview is.
Both the Nehemiah Institute and Worldview Weekend categorize their questions into areas of thinking. The Nehemiah Institute’s categories are Politics, Economics, Education, Religion, and Social Issues. Worldview Weekend has more categories—Civil Government, Economics, Education, Family, Law, Religion, Science, and Social Issues. But while Worldview Weekend has more categories than the Nehemiah Institute, neither test is comprehensive enough to cover all the important areas of one’s thinking. Neither test, for example, considers what a person might think about ecology. Neither test broaches the subject of aesthetics. Neither test asks anything about how a person chooses entertainment. Neither has anything about labor, leisure, sexuality (other than the sinfulness of homosexuality), health, poverty, race and ethnicity, natural resources, urban life, rural life, and the human body. Yet these subjects have significant influences on people’s lives, perhaps for many people even more influence than the subjects included in the tests. Furthermore, Christian thinking about these subjects often contrasts with the thinking of those from Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic faiths. What is especially curious about the narrow categories of these tests is that the writers who most popularized worldview thinking within modern evangelicalism—such as Francis Schaeffer, James Sire, and Arthur Holmes—did write about ecology (Pollution and the Death of Man), aesthetics (Art and the Bible, How to Read Slowly), poverty, and race.
My contrast of the Christian faith to some of the world’s other major faiths reveals another shortcoming of these tests: They represent all worldviews as a contrast between theism and secularism. For the authors of the Worldview Weekend test, what is a Communist/Marxist/Socialist/Secular Humanist Worldview if not simply an exponential intensification of the test’s Secular Humanist Worldview? Where would there be an accurate assessment of the worldview of a Hindu, an Orthodox Jew, a Sikh, a Buddhist, a Muslim, an animist? Nor do these tests distinguish between Christian faiths (Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox) and between those faiths commonly regarded as Christian sects (Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example).
Consider the following four statements from the Nehemiah Institute’s online version of its worldview test. Each statement is to be responded to with Strongly Agree, Tend to Agree, No Opinion, Tend to Disagree, and Strongly Disagree. In parentheses, I add the answers the test makers regard as correct for a Christian worldview:
- Individuals should be allowed to conduct life as they choose as long as it does not interfere with the lives of others. (Strongly Disagree)
- All people are conceived with a sinful nature which, from birth on, creates desires in them to commit evil deeds. (Strongly Agree)
- Because human nature is constantly changing, values and ethics will also change. Therefore, each generation should be free to adopt moral standards appropriate to their preferences. (Strongly Disagree)
- Each person has an eternal spirit which will live forever after the body dies. This spirit will either live in happiness with God in heaven or in torment with the devil in hell. (Strongly Agree)
These statements are classified as the Religion section of the test. In relation to the second statement, I do not know all the nuances on the origins of human sinfulness from the Mormon, the Jewish, and the Muslim faiths; however, it may be possible for the most conservative persons from those faiths to appear from their responses to these statements as having a Biblical Theism worldview. Yet I cannot strongly agree with the fourth statement because it misses one of the truly distinctive Christian beliefs, the resurrection of the body. Some may argue whether belief in the resurrection of the body is essential for a person’s salvation, but in the Christian tradition it is significant enough to be in the Apostle’s Creed. I can either wholeheartedly agree to have the Nehemiah Institute’s version of a Christian worldview, or I can remain true to what I understand of the Christian faith on the resurrection. I hedged on the fourth statement, answering “Tend to Agree,” but I find it theologically inaccurate by its incompleteness. Isn’t there a problem with a Christian worldview test when it can show a non-Christian to be more Christian than an actual Christian?4
The statements on the Worldview Weekend test more frequently refer to the Bible. However, they still fail to reflect the ways in which Christian thinking can lead to conclusions other than those held by the test makers. Both tests have statements on capital punishment for which the “Christian” response is supposed to be Strongly Agree:
- Worldview Weekend: The Bible states that the government does not bear the sword in vain. Numerous verses throughout the Bible make it clear that capital punishment administered by the government, for those that have committed capital crimes, is biblically acceptable.
- Nehemiah Institute: Capital punishment for certain crimes is a Biblical mandate and should be enforced in our society.
There are problems of Biblical interpretation here. The Worldview Weekend statement alludes to Romans 13:4, but without considering that in the Roman Empire, the sword was a military and law enforcement weapon rather than the weapon of choice for executions. The Nehemiah Institute identifies a Biblical mandate for capital punishment, but without pointing out that all such mandates are presented in the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes the continuing practice of capital punishment, but it is not necessarily mandated beyond the existence of the Hebrew theocracy. Furthermore, every person executed in the New Testament is either a martyr or a thief. I cannot argue that capital punishment is contrary to the Bible, but given the recent and numerous reports of death penalties being overturned because of the mistakes or malfeasance of over-zealous prosecutors and because it has long been applied inconsistently on the basis of race and class, I can no longer support capital punishment. I used to be in favor of the death penalty. Now, I am against it. I have been a Christian while holding both viewpoints. At what point have I not had a Christian worldview?5
Another problem with both worldview tests is that their makers confuse having a Christian worldview with their own ideologically biased interpretations of American history or political science. Worldview Weekend presents this statement: “The founding fathers had no biblical reason in mind when they made America a Constitutional Republic instead of a pure democracy.” One may fairly ask what any response could have to do with whether or not a person has a Christian worldview. The “Correct answer” is to “Strongly Disagree,” but a good historian would have to ask which founding fathers are being considered here. Would Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, John Adams have considered Biblical reasons for anything they did?6 None of them were Christians, and indeed, all of them opposed Christian belief in their writings. If one considers these men as founding fathers, then the “Correct answer” is factually wrong.
The Nehemiah Institute runs into historical and hermeneutical problems as well. While I “tend to disagree” with the statement “The Bible provides the foundation of civil law and should be the primary source of instruction for establishing civil government in all nations,” for a Christian worldview, one is supposed to “Strongly Agree.” But for what countries’ civil laws does the Bible provide the foundation? Brazil’s? China’s? And where does the Bible claim for itself the authority to be the source for civil government in all nations? To the extent that one may submit without a direct violation of divine command, Christ in the gospels and the epistle writers argue for submission to civil authorities regardless of the philosophical assumptions of their laws. And if a person must act in conflict with the civil authority, she must expect the penalty meted by that authority regardless of the rightness of her cause. The Roman government preceded the appearance of Christ and the writing of the epistles, and nothing in the New Testament suggests that its writers expected the gospels and epistles to serve as a new foundation for Roman law.
It should be obvious by now that both tests reflect their makers’ conservative politics. The Nehemiah Institute abstracts these ideas to make them appear more objective. Thus it offers statements such as “The accumulation of wealth by individuals is necessary for a nation to be financially strong” and “Nationalism (the sovereignty of nation’s [sic]) is a hindrance to nations working for peace.”7 (For a Christian worldview, one is supposed to Strongly Agree and Strongly Disagree respectively. I failed on both statements.) Worldview Weekend is more straightforward about baptizing its conservative American patriotism:
- American founding fathers violated New Testament principles when they founded America. (Strongly Disagree)
- The Ten Commandments originally provided a basis for our legal and political system creating justice and peace. (Strongly Agree)
- George W. Bush is the President of the United States of America. (Strongly Agree)
Let’s contrast these statements to what earlier, but recent, evangelical theorists of worldview would say. Arthur F. Holmes, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Wheaton College and author of Contours of a World View and All Truth Is God’s Truth, described in the late 1980s what he hoped a student well-educated in a Christian worldview would be:
Pat is alert to the issues of the day: she feels the injustices of apartheid and admits there are ambiguities in Nicaragua. She listens to the other side, rather than reacting with an outburst of ridicule or anger. She measures her judgments before she acts, and before she votes. Her vote, in the end, is the kind of vote a democracy needs—informed, principled, and caring—not just blindly partisan.8
Anyone who remembers the politics of American foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s knows that Holmes is not describing a member of the religious right of that time. Yet, while Holmes never had the popularity of Francis Schaeffer in evangelical culture, he still has influence in Christian higher education.
If despite his significance to Christian worldview theory, Arthur Holmes seems too far to the left politically, then how about these comments from Francis Schaeffer, generally regarded as the most influential evangelical writer on worldview?
In the United States many churches display the American flag. The Christian flag is usually put on one side and the American flag on the other. Does having the two flags in your church mean that Christianity and the American establishment are equal? If it does, you are really in trouble. These are not two equal loyalties. … It must be taught that patriotic loyalty must not be identified with Christianity. … Equating any other loyalty with our loyalty to God is sin.9
Francis Schaeffer would have never considered “George W. Bush is the President of the United States of America” to be pertinent to whether or not a person has a Christian worldview.
So far, I have critiqued these worldview tests based on the myopia of their contents—limited subject matter, limited test result possibilities, problematic historical statements, and questionable theology and Biblical interpretation. Since these tests are on the world-wide web, consider the possibility of a Christian in India finding and taking one of them online. Given the regional conflicts in South Central Asia, is an Indian Christian truly expected to agree that nationalism is not an impediment to peace? Must an Indian Christian know anything about the American founding fathers to have a Christian worldview? Given the horrific treatment of widows in parts of Indian society, must an Indian Christian agree that traditional gender roles are innate from birth? In an area of the world in which religious education may focus more on terrorism training than on literacy, must a more secular public education be opposed?
If the Nehemiah Institute’s and Worldview Weekend’s tests are specifically intended for American audiences, then what we have are not tests of the Christian worldview, but tests of a Christian worldview as determined by the specifically conservative American politics of their creators. This is affirmed by the follow-up emails I have had from both organizations, recommending the removal of children from public education, offering opposition to hate crime legislation which—some fear—would criminalize speaking against homosexuality, and promoting the website www.votechristianworldview.org. To improve my worldview, Worldview Weekend recommends that I read books with such titles as Mind Seige (sic), God and Government I, II, and III, Original Intent, and The Battle for Truth. None of these titles suggest to me a desire that I actually become a Christian; they want to convert my politics rather than my faith. So, what does Worldview Weekend recommend to the 22% of the non-Christians who test as having a Biblical worldview? Do they get a “Get out of Hell free” card for having agreeable political viewpoints?
I decided to find out the answer: I registered with a different email address and took the Worldview Weekend test again, this time considering how I would answer as if my politics were completely conservative but as a non-Christian who views the Bible as a good book of moral instruction and Christ as a good man. (My mental model was to think about how Ben Franklin would have answered the questions.) With that persona, I tested as being a moderate Biblical worldview thinker, even though I claimed that I never attend church, that I am not a born again Christian, that I deny the resurrection of Christ, that I have no opinion on the existence of the Holy Spirit, that I “tend to agree” that all religions are equally true, that there is more than one way to God, and that a person can get to heaven if his good deeds outweigh his bad deeds. So far, despite these answers, there has been no effort to evangelize me, though I anticipate continuing to receive emails recruiting my opposition to hate crime legislation and announcing Brannon Howse’s guest host appearances on the Michael Reagan Show.
If a person can deny the resurrection of Christ and still appear to have a Christian worldview, if a Christian in Asia could not take a Christian worldview test and pass it, then these tests are not a valid assessment of whether a person has a Christian worldview. The tests may assess how well an American agrees with the religious right, but if that is their purpose, then it is deceptive to call them Christian worldview tests. I cannot imagine the previous generation of thinkers about worldview—people such as Carl Henry, James Sire, Arthur Holmes, Francis Schaeffer—approving of these tests. As the tests idolize politics, what is cause for concern is how many significant evangelical leaders, people who really should know better, are associated with them. The point of my criticisms is not to help refine the tests. I am not offering constructive criticism; I want these tests given no more regard than a test showing whether one is “Kashmir” or “Misty Mountain Hop.” To suggest that all that would be needed is a statement rewritten to include the resurrection of the body would not address the assumptions underlying the structural flaw of these tests. It is quite impossible to create a test for the Christian worldview.
1The Nehemiah Institute test may be accessed at http://www.christian-internet.com/creation/peers_test.htm. The Worldview Weekend test is at http://www.worldviewweekend.com/test/register.php. While free, both of these tests require an online registration which will give the sites one’s email address. One may request not to receive their emails. The results for the Worldview Weekend test are calculated immediately; the results of the Nehemiah Institute are sent by postal mail.My comments on the Nehemiah Institute test refer only to its online version, which has only twenty questions. The institute sells a longer version which I am unwilling to pay for. However, because the Nehemiah Institute purports to rate one’s worldview from those twenty questions, I conclude that the test is open to criticism.
2How strong is the influence of these tests? It is hard to tell. The Nehemiah Institute has expressed alarm that graduates of Christian high schools increasingly do not have a Christian worldview. On the other hand, at Louisiana College (the state’s Southern Baptist institution), one student’s complaint to the college’s trustees about the content of Ernest Gaines’s novel A Lesson before Dying led to new rules restricting course materials and to the resignation of top administrators. I have taught A Lesson before Dying; while the narrator is not a Christian, he sees his lack of faith as making him less heroic than the preacher. This is not an anti-Christian novel.
3Josh McDowell, author of Evidence that Demands a Verdict and other apologetics books, has spoken at Worldview Weekend events in Branson, Missouri. His son Sean is a regular speaker at these events, scheduled to appear in Fort Wayne, IN, Sioux City, IA, Lincoln, NE, Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, and Dallas, TX. Norm Geisler is the author of over thirty books and the president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC; he will be speaking at the Worldview Weekend in Springfield, VA. David Limbaugh is the brother of Rush Limbaugh, a newspaper columnist, and the author of Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War against Christianity; he is scheduled to speak at the Worldview Weekend in Sioux City, IA. Erwin Lutzer is the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago and the author of a number of books; he is scheduled for Spring Hill, FL and Memphis, TN. The actor Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains, Left Behind) will appear in Springfield, VA and Branson, MO. Tim Wildmon is the vice president of the American Family Association and the host of upcoming Worldview Weekend in Hattiesburg, MS. Probe Ministries in the Dallas area has been an apologetics ministry for over twenty years; its president, Kerby Anderson, is scheduled for Worldview Weekends in Sioux City, Lincoln, Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, and Rockford, IL. Summit Ministries is another worldview-oriented apologetics ministry based in Colorado; its president, David Noebel, is the author of a number of books and is scheduled for Worldview Weekends in Spring Hill, FL, Lincoln, and Hattiesburg, MS. This list is not exhaustive of either speakers or events; Worldview Weekend claims an annual attendance rate of over 30,000.
4When registering for the Worldview Weekend test, a person is supposed to respond to whether or not he is a self professing born again Christian. On the survey breakdown, of those who claimed not to be born again Christians, 22% still test as having a strong or moderate Biblical worldview. 44% of those claiming not to attend church also test as having strong or moderate Biblical worldviews.
5The Supreme Court’s 1993 decision in Herrera v. Collins permits the possibility of an execution of a defendant who can offer an affirmative argument for innocence as long as proper procedure was followed in the trial. Why this case does not raise more opposition among pro-life evangelicals is a puzzle to me.
6While I have assessed a number of these men’s writings from my own reading, I am indebted to Michael S. Horton’s Beyond Culture Wars (Moody, 1994, pages 46-49) for alerting me to the statements of John Adams and Ethan Allen in opposition to the Christian faith.
7A reader may note various mistakes in spelling and grammar in the quotations from these worldview tests. Both tests purport to examine a person’s worldview as it pertains to education, and yet their sloppy writing suggests that their creators have little regard for meeting the minimum standards for public, written communication between educated people.
8The Idea of a Christian College, 2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, page 104.
9The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview. Volume 4. Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1982, pages 71-72. I was again alerted to this passage from a citation in Michael Horton’s Beyond Culture Wars, pages 34 and 40.