Book Review: ‘Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education’ by Adam Laats

Let’s say you attended Wheaton College, Gordon College, or Biola University. Or perhaps you’re an outsider who just thinks highly of those schools. If so, you might be turned off by a book that groups them together under the label “Fundamentalist U.” Don’t be.

Adam Laats, professor of education and history at Binghamton University and author of Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, knows the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist. He knows, too, that it can be very hard to tell that difference, especially before the 1970s. Using the example of Wheaton, Gordon, and Biola (along with Moody Bible Institute, Bob Jones University, and Liberty University), Laats attempts to identify the distinct nature of non-denominational, fundamentalist-evangelical higher education in the 20th century. And he succeeds admirably.

Peculiarities of Definition

Fundamentalist and evangelical colleges have long grappled with many of the same issues faced by other institutions of higher education: the early 20th-century academic revolution, changing standards of accreditation, a post–World War II boom in enrollment fueled by the GI Bill, the moral upheaval of the turbulent 1960s, and the rise of campus protests.

But fundamentalist-evangelical higher education has also dealt with a distinct set of challenges: how to train missionaries, how to maintain codes of student conduct in keeping with fundamentalist mores, whether (or how) to remain true to dispensational premillennialism, how to maintain doctrinal purity, and how to quash leftist radicalism in favor of traditional and conservative Americanism. As Laats observes, “[Fundamentalist colleges] expected to do all the things that modern universities did without signing on to the fundamental intellectual presuppositions that had dictated those changes in modern university life.” In explaining how this struggle played out, Laats helps us better understand both Christian higher education and the historic relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

All the schools Laats studies identified themselves as fundamentalist in the 1920s and ’30s, and all are denominationally independent to this day. This means they lacked a larger institutional guide to define their parameters and check any move away from their fundamentalist identity. Writing as a sympathetic outsider, Laats makes a compelling case that the spectrum of Christian colleges we see today, ranging from the militantly fundamentalist Bob Jones University to the neo-evangelical Wheaton, did not exist until the 1960s.

To cite but one example, Wheaton forbade drama productions until late in that decade, while Shakespearean plays have been central at Bob Jones University since the school’s inception. One might write this off as something peculiar to Bob Jones—but the peculiarities are part of Laats’s point. As he puts it, “In every case these idiosyncrasies of the 1920s continued to inform fundamentalism at its leading colleges and universities.” With fundamentalism subject to such a fluid range of definitions, controversies often centered on the question of authority. In other words, who gets to define fundamentalism for the college? Is it the board, the president, the faculty, or the students (certainly not, unless you ask them)? This was not shared governance but something akin to WrestleMania.

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Source: Christianity Today

Bob Smietana’s Book Review of ‘Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South’ by James Hudnut-Beumler

In the spring of 2008, my wife and I loaded up a truck and moved to Tennessee, where I’d taken a job as the religion writer at a newspaper in Nashville. I’ve spent the decade since then covering religion in the South, first at the paper and later as a magazine writer and freelancer.

Image result for Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American SouthI thought I understood how things work here. But I was mistaken. A new book from Vanderbilt Divinity School professor James Hudnut-Beumler, Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table, helps explain why.

Based on a lifetime’s worth of work—Hudnut-Beumler grew up visiting his mom’s relatives in Appalachia—the book winds its way from a slave cabin in Spring Hill, Tennessee (about five minutes from my house), to the storm-ravaged neighborhoods of New Orleans; from a Catholic monastery in the sticks of Alabama to the headquarters of the Sons of the Confederacy.

Along the way, we see the many splendors and the deep flaws of Southern religion. It’s a place where faith is always personal, where everyone knows your name, and where the Bible shapes everything. At the heart of this new book is the question of Southern hospitality. Who is able to “sit at the welcome table,” in the words of the old spiritual? Who is turned away? And why is the South—a place of such kindness—so divided and inhospitable at times?

Hudnut-Beumler answers these questions and more in a book that’s part pilgrimage, part history lesson, and part celebration of the many versions of Christianity in the South. He writes with grace about almost everyone he meets. At one point, he visits a table at a homeschooling convention that features tips on “food security”—how to plant your own garden and raise your own crops. An inferior writer might have mocked these people. Instead, he sees echoes of Wendell Berry in their desire to reconnect to the land. Still, Hudnut-Beumler doesn’t shy away from the deep divides and sins of Southern Christians.

Conditional Hospitality

One of the first questions a Southerner asks when meeting a stranger is “Who are your people?” In the South, hospitality is conditional. People want to know who you are—where you come from, where you go to church—before they know how to treat you.

There’s a superficial friendliness—think “Bless your heart” delivered with a smile. But Southerners keep their distance unless there’s a bridge between them and a stranger, no matter how tenuous. “Moreover, the newcomer who finds a bridge is no longer a stranger but a kind of kin,” writes Hudnut-Beumler. “The person asking the question is proffering a deep kind of enduring hospitality—conditionally.”

The hospitality is conditional, in part, because the South has been shaped by scarcity as well as by faith. There are Wednesday night church suppers full of fried chicken, biscuits, and Jell-O salads. But a surprising number of people struggle to put food on the table the rest of the week. And the South isn’t just the Bible Belt. It’s also the Meth Belt—a place where poverty and addiction are commonplace and opioid overdoses are among the leading causes of death.

These circumstances—and a sense that charity begins at home—make Southerners eager to help their kin but wary of helping strangers. “Although southerners will give to those they know, they hate being forced to help others, especially those beyond their gaze,” explains Hudnut-Beumler.

Southerners will rush to help each other when disasters strike. When a tornado or hurricane devastates a community, chances are a host of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians will follow in its wake, bringing chainsaws, hammers, and hope. Months after Hurricane Maria, Southern Baptists were still cooking thousands of meals for disaster victims in Puerto Rico.

But they will raise hell when asked to send government aid to foreign countries or pay higher taxes. As one Southern Christian explains, “We hate the group but love the individuals, as opposed to other parts of the country, where they love the group but hate the individual.”

In one of his most hopeful chapters, Hudnut-Beumler retells the story of the faith-based response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and around the Gulf Coast. The chapter opens with a TV reporter standing outside a church in New Orleans, not long after the hurricane hit the city. One of the church members was setting up tables outside so that the church could feed neighbors who were without power.

“Are you doing this for your church members?” the reporter asked.

“No, this is for anybody who is hungry and needs food,” the church member replied. “It’s what we do as a church. We feed people.”

Southern Christians have remarkable confidence in what they can do to help their neighbors. When things go wrong, they get to work. And they don’t stop until the job is done. That’s the case for Ben McLeish, one of the founders of St. Roch Community Church, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in New Orleans’s Eighth Ward. The church was planted after Katrina, and one of its early goals was to help the community rebuild. Now its members also run a community development organization.

The church, a multiethnic conservative congregation, links its development work to theology, McLeish told Hudnut-Beumler. Rather than focus on immediate charity, the church looks at long-term, holistic community development—something unexpected for a conservative Southern evangelical church.

“There’s a verse that haunts me about John the Baptist, about how he is called to make a way for Christ, but also to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,” McLeish told Hudnut-Beumler. “If a man is not working or a single mom is not working and struggling, it’s really hard to keep your head up and have pride, have dignity about yourself, and deliberately raise your children. But if we can help create livable wage employment opportunities that count in this discipleship, mentoring model, then we can really begin to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and that alone would revolutionize families in our neighborhood.”

Hudnut-Beumler sees the faith-based disaster volunteering after Katrina as a kind of penance—a way for Americans from North and South alike to make amends for the neglect that caused the levees to fail.

He also sees something more: “Disaster relief,” he writes, “is also a place where racial divisions seem more susceptible to being bridged because something is being built in this American society so divided by race and class, rather than being analyzed, argued over, or torn down.”

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Source: Christianity Today

Ed Stetzer Interviews Lon Allison on Billy Graham Book and Cancer

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Ed: Not too long ago you were diagnosed with an aggressive liver cancer and have been receiving treatment. How has this impacted your faith and the way you view God?

Lon: I really didn’t know how my faith would be impacted by the news of a terminal cancer. My wife Marie, our children, and I had never faced something like this. I can now say five months into the journey that my faith is stronger than before my diagnosis about 90% of the time.

I have clung to two truths to sustain me. First is the sovereignty of God: “The Lord has established his throne in heaven. His Kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19). The second great truth is his love for me and my family: “And I pray that you being rooted and established in love, may have power…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:17-19).

The sovereignty of God means he has authority over this situation. He has allowed this cancer to strike me. He can cure it in a nanosecond, or allow it to grow within me. He is in charge, and I deeply desire he be glorified through it.

The love of God reminds me of his goodness lavished upon me and mine with his love. He is not a tyrant God, nor an absent God. His love is always present and extravagant. Those twin doctrines sustain me. Marie and I feel we are in a bubble of grace. The news about my body is not good, but our hearts and spirits are for the most part buoyant.

The prayers of God’s people are a rich faith building support. I don’t always pray well about it, but they do. I also want to add that the promises of God mean more to me than ever. My journal is loaded with his promises that I might be a promise-driven man, not a problem-driven one.

Ed: What would you say to those who are struggling with a serious illness and who are feeling far from God right now?

Lon: I would say that I’m sorry for their afflictions and that I wish I could pray them all away. I would ask God to do just that! If he didn’t, I’d pray and ask the sovereign, loving Lord to manifest his presence to them that they may know his peace in the midst of pain. I’d ask them to let the scriptures of hope be spiritual food to sustain them in their sorrows.

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Source: Christianity Today

Ed Stetzer Interviews Matt Perman on New Book ‘How to Get Unstuck’

Ed: There are many books on productivity, but you write that your book “is about getting unstuck so that you can accomplish God’s purposes more effectively.” Why did you take this focus?

Matt: You are right that there are lots of books on productivity out there. We can learn a lot from them. Yet almost none of them are from a Christian point of view. That leaves a huge gap. I’m trying to fill that gap.

Ed: Tell me about that gap.

Matt: I think there are three reasons we need to fill that gap. First, because the gospel affects all of life. Productivity is a key part of our lives, affecting how we do things every day. So we need to see how the gospel impacts the way we go about being productive. Otherwise, we are “winging it” when we think about how the gospel impacts an immense part of our lives.

Second, I think this is necessary to make the faith and work movement complete. It is wonderful that an emphasis on faith and work is increasing in the church today. Yet this movement often leaves out some of the things people most want to know—how do I do my work better, while still in a gospel-centered way and addressing some of my biggest productivity challenges?

We have to talk about this in the faith and work movement from a researched and informed point of view if we are going to give Christians the help they truly need and help them learn how to reflect the greatness of God in their work, for the renewal of culture and their own fulfillment.

Third, it is exciting to see how the gospel connects to our productivity. When we look at productivity in light of the gospel, we see that productivity practices become a means of advancing God’s purposes more fully. We might at first think that means just evangelism, but God is renewing the whole creation and his purposes are holistic.

By doing our work more effectively for Christ’s sake, we participate with God in his work to renew all things. Our productivity does this by serving the common good and creating a more credible testimony to the gospel through our deeds. It gives new meaning to our email processes, to-do lists, and project plans to realize that they play a role in this.

Ed: It’s obvious reading your book that you’ve read many books on productivity. Where did this interest come from for you?

Matt: My first interest is actually theology and apologetics. I got a great education in those through my own reading and writing during college and in seminary. But in my first job after seminary, I found that knowing theology was not enough—even though I was working at a ministry. I saw that I also had to learn how to get things done—create project plans, manage multiple priorities at once, manage people, and do all of those other things. Since I enjoyed my work, I decided I would give the same emphasis to learning productivity as I had theology, and then use what I learned to help serve the advance of the gospel through the church and the advance of the common good in the marketplace.

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Source: Christianity Today

With New Book, Austin Channing Brown Says Racial Reconciliation in the Church is ‘Not Super Complicated’

"I'm Still Here," by Austin Channing Brown
“I’m Still Here,” by Austin Channing Brown

Austin Channing Brown, a writer and speaker focused on diversity, black womanhood, and faith, says resolving the racial divides in the church is “not super complicated.” Her new book is I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Continue reading

Book Review: ‘How to Be a Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living’ by the Babylon Bee

I don’t know why, but Protestant evangelicals have had a hard time with humor, whether creating or enjoying it. Maybe it’s ancillary to us abandoning the arts. Late night TV is owned by practicing Catholics Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. No one tells a good Bible joke like Jim Gaffigan, who even refers to his wife as a “Shiite Catholic.” But we, whose claim of “faith not works” should have let us off the hook back in 1517, are so obsessed with working out our salvation with fear and trembling that we have a hard time laughing at ourselves. Until recently, the only humor sanctioned by the Westminster Confession of Faith was the church-bulletin blooper. And one can groan only so long before that tuna hot dish belches back up. Continue reading

Zora Neale Hurston’s Nonfiction Account of Cudjo Lewis, the Last Black Man to Leave the Slave Ships, is Finally Being Published

Cudjo Lewis (left); Zora Neale Hurston in the early 1930s, around the time she interviewed Cudjo Lewis. (Photo: Courtesy of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust)
Cudjo Lewis (left); Zora Neale Hurston in the early 1930s, around the time she interviewed Cudjo Lewis. (Photo: Courtesy of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust)

Six years before Zora Neale Hurston published the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, she was trying to publish Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave. Continue reading