Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Actual Gadfly

In a Books & Culture review of a book on Bill Bright, Stephen H. Webb makes a characteristically insightful observation:
The campus radicals failed in their bid to take over the universities, but they went on to dominate them as professors. They also went on to dominate our collective understanding of the Sixties, but their scholarship systematically overlooks student movements that do not fit their narrow understanding of social activism. Liberal professors have exhaustively examined Woodstock as much as they studiously neglected "Explo '72" (short for "spiritual explosion"), but the 85,000 college and high school students who gathered in Dallas to listen to Christian rock and learn how to witness to their faith went on to impact their universities as much or more than the crowds who partied on Max Yasgur's farm. Likewise, precious few university history courses would ever acknowledge that the "Four Spiritual Laws" have had a cultural impact completely disproportionate to the much acclaimed 1962 Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society.
Such thoughts are expanded upon in an address, posted today, that Webb gave to incoming students at Wabash College. Webb diagnoses contemporary academia from a Christian perspective (in short: human nature exists, and whatever it is, Christ has it). Webb then gives advice to incoming students on how to engage the strange creatures that haunt much of academe: Humans who eschew human nature.

Most of my colleagues in academia with no religious commitment might, on a good day, read the analysis and respond: Now there's a gadfly, that is, someone who is truly challenging my presuppositions. What good is the lauded Socratic gadfly if it doesn't actually annoy you? Now here, I can imagine them possibly saying, is a colleague who would make for interesting conversation. Here, might they muse, is the "other." Perhaps such were the thoughts that went through the mind of the Wabash committee that tenured Webb. Perhaps Webb's success also owes something to a wide dissatisfaction with the multicultural stalemate he describes.

Some Christian responses to Webb's address would, I imagine, be much more troubling. Webb's rhetoric will, I assure you, make the sophistichristians deeply nervous. It's not really that bad (say those who have spent most of their time in Christian circles). The ideas Webb decries are in fact helpful (say those who use them as surgical tools to perform doctrinal lobotomies). We need to engage more (say those who enjoy little actual engagement with secular colleagues). No, folks, this is engagement, and it can (must!) be done with a smile, not a scowl.

Webb might have also pointed out that if one is genuinely interested in multiculturalism, the Christian faith has a decent track record on that front. Many failures have there been, but these despite, not because of the charter. "Christ against the multiculturalists" may then indeed be an appropriate position, but after being against them, he can still give them what they seek, but on very different terms.