• Liberty University and the evangelical logic-hammock

    From the very beginning, I was primed to be a Liberty University student. My upbringing as a dissatisfied fundamentalist Christian had built an aching for a more accepting, understanding religion that focussed less on the semantics and more on the sincerity. Growing up, I was surrounded by people who defined their faith as the drinks they avoided and the movies they skipped, and I longed to find a community that emphasized their personal relationship with Christ over their public acts of piety.

    After spending a chaotic year at Bob Jones University (a notoriously rigid fundamentalist college) and finding myself expelled [you can read about my experience in my last post for ATP], I was lost. I spent 7 months working to pay down my university debts and searching for a new school to call home. That’s when I found Liberty.

    My father and I visited the campus in late 2006, and I was thrilled to find young people with shaggy hair, torn jeans, t-shirts, and headphones (all banned at BJU). People acted more like humans and less like drones and the culture shock was intoxicating. The buildings seemed to ooze enthusiasm and I absorbed it like a sponge. I knew this would be my new home.

    Every new student at Liberty is required to attend what’s called “General Education”. Its a credited class that teaches and grades students on their world views. They lecture on topics that include abortion rights, LGBTQ issues, political parties, logic, absolutes, biblical interpretation, and drug use. Think of a standard orientation class for freshmen and mix in a flavoring of evangelical, Christian-Republican ideology: Homosexuality is wrong, abortion is murder, the government was meant to be Christian… you get the idea.

    In my first semester, this class was my favorite. Controversial topics that I’d long fought my peers or restrictive parents over were considered non-issues. Political positions shaped by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were spouted to be gospel-truth, and topics like “worldly” music and rigid restrictions on entertainment choices were soundly ignored. While students weren’t encouraged to raise their hands with dissenting opinions, those that did were promptly rebutted with what sounded like air-tight counter arguments (but in retrospect seemed more like memorized apologetical lines). To some, this class was a nuisance to be dealt with, but to me it was an affirmation of all the internal conflict I’d felt. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but this class set the stage for how Liberty shapes it’s students’ environment. This was the construction of an echo chamber, and I’m ashamed to admit that I loved every minute of it.

    This constant, congratulatory back-patting was a perk enjoyed by students who towed the line. Every teacher in every class worked their hardest to spin even the most obscure subjects into some form of worship or evidence of their god. English 101 was a path to learning to better interpret your Bible. Speech 101 was a chance to learn to lead people to Christ. Illustration 101 was an opportunity to learn skills that could help a church some day. Where Liberty differed from my previous fundamentalist school was in the way they enforced their values.

    Liberty is nothing if not an encouraging place. The campus’ enthusiasm for their truth bled into everything they did. Concerts, sporting events, stadium preaching, and small prayer groups all shared a common theme: We figured it out. We have truth. The fact that we’re here and doing so well proves it. I felt lucky to be a part of something so self-assured.

    By my second year, as the classes grew more specialized and my social circles began to grow larger, I began to notice cracks in the school’s shell. The more sermons I heard preached, the more similarities I recognized to my home’s fundamentalist roots. While Liberty didn’t have the crusty exterior of a place like Bob Jones, they still believed all the same things: Man is an utterly-depraved creature placed on the earth 6,000 years ago. Evolution is a lie being forced on the children of America. Women are subservient to men in nearly all matters. Abortion is the greatest threat to mankind.

    I realized that Liberty wasn’t liberal and it wasn’t fundamentalist. It was both. It was fundamentalism wearing a mohawk. It was a hyper-capitalist evangelical church packaged as a university. Their ideologies were easily disproven, but rather than read the latest study they’d parade celebrity after celebrity onto their convocation stage as if to say “See how successful they are? This proves our point!” Rather than research modern scholarly insights into the historicity of Biblical texts, they’d install 2 or 3 new laser light fixtures into their stadium so that people could really get lost in their worship. They held up campus staff as celebrities who, when they fell, fell hard. The lights, glamour and drama were stand-ins for the substance they lacked.

    At its core, Liberty’s greatest failing was the thousand lies it told itself. The emperor wasn’t the one without clothes; it was the subjects. All of the enthusiasm and accepting, smiling faces helped reinforce an echo chamber of ideas that formed logical circles in which students and faculty alike lounged comfortably. The Roman poet Juvenal perfectly summed up the campus leadership’s strategy toward developing spiritual or intellectual pursuit almost two thousand years ago when he penned “panem et circenses”. Give the people bread and circuses, and they’ll neglect their surroundings.

    This is the danger of the evangelical movement. It is fundamentalism married with capitalism and sold as the solution to all your friends’ problems. Focus on the lights, property, trendy visuals, and catchy music, all while dutifully dispensing cash into the offering plate, and maybe patrons won’t notice the complete nonsense that’s being passed as wisdom. Maybe they won’t hear it when the their leadership blames 9/11 on gays, feminists, and abortion. Students will be so lost in learning the new chord progression they saw in worship class that they won’t see the hypocrisy of their college building a $60 million dollar football stadium for the furthering of the gospel. Science students won’t think anything is odd about what they are taught and political students won’t realize they are running out of people to debate with.

    I enjoyed the time I spent at Liberty University the same way I enjoy my time spent drunk. It’s comfortable not to think. Being numb is easier than broadening my horizons. Did I learn at LU? Yes. And had I left that school and immediately joined a similar evangelical, logic-hammock of a church, I may never have learned again.

    Category: ChurchEducationReligion and SocietySkepticism

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    Article by: Dan Yowell

    • Matthias Dailey

      As a student who attended Liberty around the same time as you, on-campus, involved in all the activities (even some spiritual leadership roles), I had a view of the university as well.

      It’s all about perspective. Yes, I’m not denying that there were bad parts among the good — that there were gullible people, some nonsense preached that made me roll my eyes, hypocrisy and all the rest. But that’s to be expected — didn’t you expect that? We’re humans (yes, even Christians).

      I entered the University highly skeptical but coincidentally in agreement with a lot of what was said. You see, it was my nature to be skeptical of people, to assume that they were wrong unless I could understand and agree. (This made for slow progress in my life, but it was a defense mechanism in order to prevent me from ever being wrong).

      Anyway, from Convocation to Gen Ed, and even to Creation Science class, I doubted the teachers’ facts, their logic and interpretation, and even their presentation and motives. All of it was approached skeptically. And so I saw all the things you mentioned. I watched Kirk Cameron present his arguments that I saw to be very intellectually lacking. I agreed with his conclusion, but disagreed with his means of arriving at it.

      So what am I saying. Perspective is key. If you focus on everything wrong, you miss what’s good (and there is good). Quoting Romans 12: “abhor what is bad, cling to what is good” — aka “ignore all the bullshit, and hold fast to the good”. And the good things are: personal qualities that you see, when people have developed lives of humble character, sound minds, integrity, light and joy, and wisdom.

      You point out Ergun Caner, who had a problem with lying (and maybe pride in self-image or something). I see you pointing out the bad and not the good. And so someone who believes everything they hear might think that Liberty is a place of gullible, rigid, and corrupt people. (But someone who believes everything they hear is screwed no matter whether you or I mislead them!)

      To the person who focuses on corruption, they see everything as corrupt, because indeed everything on earth is corrupted! (in some way or another). But someone who knows pureness and truth sees the pure things as pure, and ignores the corrupt parts. Or, they see the corrupt parts for what they used to be, or what they could be (as pure after being fixed).

      “The eye (what you focus on) — is the lamp of the body.
      If your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light,
      but if your eye is bad (if you focus on the bad things), your whole body will be full of darkness.
      And if the light within you is darkness, then how great is that darkness!”

      Don’t focus on the corrupt things in life. Pass over them and spend your time thinking about good and pure things, because there are many.

      A few other notes:
      I do agree that Liberty is a waste of money for people like you and me who didn’t have money to burn like that (which I realized in retrospect). But for people who do, then they should go! I enjoyed the people there, and there are smart and learned professors. For the critical thinker, they should resolve their objections and questions instead of assuming the professor would be offended or scared by it.

      Contrary to what you said (though it did add poignancy to the article), I found that Speech 101 did teach the subject well. My teacher taught Speech for the sake of teaching Speech. And in Illustration, okay, I agree that some of the classes did not teach relevant skills, or adequately prepare students for actual careers. That’s a valid point. But it is its own problem. Yes, instructors are encouraged to tie their subjects into spiritual motifs. I think you just had a bad teacher. If anything, we serve God with our skills by being good at what we do. So instructors should teach good skills. And the emphasis is not on training students to work in a church, but to work in the normal workplace and be lights. And how can someone be a light if they suck at their job? So the agenda wasn’t what resulted in your poor experience. I think it was just a problem with certain instructors or department heads, or something.

      Yeah, there are plenty of problems, ignore the bad and focus on the good. Take the rotten junk and put it out of the house instead of on the kitchen table. And if you can’t do that, then label it “bad”, quarantine it, cover it with a blanket and ignore it. Put it out of your mind, because it takes valuable space, like how ashes prevent oxygen from reaching a flame.

      And most of all, don’t be asleep in the logic hammock! And prod others to wake their lazy asses up! Haha. Critical thinking is so necessary in life.

      For what it’s worth; thanks for reading. Great article btw!

      • I don’t get this:

        “For the critical thinker, they should resolve their objections and questions instead of assuming the professor would be offended or scared by it.”

        I don’t get educational institutions which are essentially presuppositional. This is effectively the antithesis of research and study. That you can go to a Christian University to me smacks of anti-intellectualism. I don’t mean that as a slur on Christianity, it can be any presupposed ideal that assumes the conclusion to which one should be researching. By all means come out as a Christian after years of study. But don’t go in assuming it and be punished or alienated or not allowed to attend on account of disagreeing with that.

        Worldview universities are a bad idea.

        • Matthias Dailey

          What I mean is, sometimes people hear a professor and question something he says. But instead of bringing it up to him for debate, they silently conclude that the professor doesn’t have the answer, is dumb or doesn’t think right, is rigid and would be offended by challenging his authority, or whatever. So they don’t bring it up. That’s not the right way.

          There’s a right way to bring up questions and objections, not presuming that you are right and they are wrong (or the other way around), but seeking to learn perhaps what information they have, or how they reason about it.

          Also I understand your negative view of worldview universities, because naive students may attend and then lack a well-rounded view of life. It’s not good to only hear one side of the story / argument / thought camp.

          In general I think that pure truth exists. So, people who claim to know and teach it shouldn’t be afraid of more facts, information, or sound logic, because more information cannot contradict the truth. These classes should voice alternate arguments (the best of them, not the straw men). And it will result in a more robust education of truth. Yes, gullible students may be swayed by their own biased desires, or by rhetoric, but for them, even the alternate parrot education will wear off quickly when they leave.

          • Matthias Dailey

            Not telling students about the opposing arguments to your worldview is like not telling your children about sex and expecting them to go to public school and never learn about it!

            • Daniel Yowell

              Telling your children that sex is mortally dangerous and an invisible man will be enraged if you touch someone in the wrong place is worse than not telling them about sex.

      • Daniel Yowell

        Thanks for reading this, Matt! Honestly, I didn’t write this as a hit job on Liberty. I think if you look it over again, you’ll see I actually say a lot of good about the place. They’re friendly people and I enjoyed my time there. My problem with the university is that it’s not really a university (although that’s a point I avoided hitting too hard in the article).

        Meeting, living, debating, and learning with people from all walks of life is part of what makes higher education so enlightening. None of that happens in a place where everyone shares a worldview from square one. That’s what I mean when I write about it being an “echo chamber” and a “logic-hammock”. The intellectual diversity that students need is skipped to make way for concerts and sporting events (all of which, its worth noting, are spun to further reinforce the centralized tenant). Evangelical universities are intellectual the way a mayonnaise-drenched apple is healthy.

        • Matthias Dailey

          Ah, good points. I definitely value my time after college getting to know people aside from the pressure to conform to some ideal. And mmmm mayonnaise-covered apples, you might be on to the next big thing there! ;)