Happy are those
Who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
Or take the path that sinners tread,
Or sit in the seat of scoffers;
Ps. 1:1 (NRSV)
Editor’s note: the theme of my earlier blogs have related to creation and our creation-based identities as individuals (e.g., imago dei) and professionals (our need for scholarly creativity). My last blog, however, brought us into the territory of the fall: how do we respond to being an enemy? In a series of blogs over the next months, I will be discussing the implications of the fall for our profession and our institutions.
Each profession has its particular set of vices with which its practitioners struggle. Everyone knows politicians lie and break promises, but even stereotypically kind-hearted professions have their vices. Social workers can be too empathetic and enabling of poor behavior. K-12 teachers may place being friends or popular with students above helping them learn, and those in the hospitality industry can host evil joyfully. The budding student affairs professionals I teach, relish practicing virtues such as caring, welcoming and hospitality, but they struggle with teaching and enforcing counter-cultural moral virtues and dealing with moral conflict.
Faculty have their own particular set of vices. Perhaps one of the most prominent is being professional scoffers. Eugene Peterson’s translated Psalms 1:1c in The Message using an appropriately academic image. He interprets the admonition not to sit in the scoffer’s seat as, “don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.” We call academic positions “chairs,” but we always face the danger of turning them into “the seat of scoffers.”
Unfortunately, I think we as academics also underestimate our serious problem with being scoffers (see my post lamenting evangelical scholars’ tendency to critique over create). I find it striking that the parallelisms to scoffers in Psalms 1 are the “wicked,” and “sinners.” Proverbs 24:9b says, “the scoffer is an abomination to all.” When we revert to being a professional scoffer, we usually do not see ourselves as being wicked or an abomination. Those words sound much too harsh for such a “minor” vice. Perhaps we do not meditate enough on what it means to be a scoffer.
To begin, Proverbs itself helps define the characteristic of the Scoffer, “The proud, haughty person, named ‘Scoffer,’ acts with arrogant pride” (21:24). Pride is the most dangerous of vices. One Bible dictionary helps capture what this might look like in an academic setting. It states that to scoff “indicates the manifestation of contempt by insulting words or actions; it combines bitterness with ridicule.” Most of us can immediately tell when we are reading a scoffing scholarly book or essay: bitterness mixed with contempt and ridicule seeps through the pages.
One reason we fail to confront scoffing for the abomination it is pertains to one clear truth: correcting scoffers is dangerous business. Proverbs indicates that heavy consequences await those trying to correct scoffers. Proverbs 9:7a, and 8a says, “Whoever corrects a scoffer wins abuse,” and “a scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you.” Who wants abuse and hatred? I see scoffers in the academy dealing out abuse and hatred all the time and try to avoid them. We also know from Scripture and experience “scoffers do not like to be rebuked” (15:12), and “a scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (13:1).
Still, we must realize the cost of failing to confront scoffers. Proverbs says, “scoffers set a city aflame” (29:8). Nevertheless, when you reprove a scoffer, “the simple will learn prudence” (although notice the scoffer does not learn) (19:25a). Moreover, “when a scoffer is punished, the simple become wiser” (21:11a). In other words, we fail our calling as intellectual disciple-makers, if we fail to confront the academic scoffer (which indicates that reproof of a scoffer needs to be public to be most helpful). There are also other benefits as the Proverb notes, “Drive out a scoffer and strife goes out; quarreling and abuse will cease” (22:10). Who wouldn’t want their academic department to have those characteristics?
As academics, how can we tell when we’re being professional scoffers? We find one of the clear biblical criteria in James 1:18; scoffers engage in “indulging their own ungodly lusts” (see also 2 Peter 3:3). For academics, this means that we do not seek to settle scores with our intellectual enemies within the church, our academic department or our academic field through bitter ridicule laced with contempt. My guess is that every academic has rehearsed glorious speeches in their minds that place all their intellectual foes in their proper place. The key is making sure those bitter speeches of internal ridicule do not devolve into tweets, blog posts, journal articles and/or books.
Another dangerous sign of scoffing is when a scholar combines bitter ridicule into writing that offers nothing creative or redemptive to address intellectual weaknesses. I recently read a scoffing book by a Christian scholar, filled with bitterness that consisted of pure critique and failed to offer a bit of creative or redemptive vision for the problem being addressed. My spirit could tell this academic was falling prey to being a professional scoffer. The professional scoffer leaves you—the reader—angry, bitter and resentful. The creative and redemptive scholar inspires your heart, mind and eyes to something higher, true, good, and more beautiful—God and God’s wisdom. It may involve reproof of other scoffers, but it always points one to higher ideals.
Unfortunately, academics are known for writing books with fifteen chapters of critique and then perhaps offering one very short concluding chapter with a few unrealistic and idealistic solutions. Often, we tend to write about things that make us angry, that hurt us, or that produced deep institutional disappointments—all of which can turn us into dangerous cynics and scoffers.
That’s why I always hold up Thomas Lickona’s Educating for Character as a model. Lickona, a Christian student of Lawrence Kohlberg, departed from the approach of his doctoral mentor and instead set forth an alternative vision of how to apply virtue ethics to K-12 education. Yet, he only spent one chapter on critique of the state of moral education in general without bitter ridicule. He then spent the rest of the book setting forth a creative and realistic vision for character education that transformed the whole field. We should hope to write more like Lickona to avoid being a professional scoffer.
Fortunately, Isaiah declares that there will come a day when “the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be” (29:20a). What a glorious day. Until then, we as Christian academics must stand guard against being professional scoffers ourselves or avoiding confronting professional scoffers who indulge their own lusts to set our cities and churches on fire.
Unfortunately, similar to gentleness, I did not find a previous CSR article that addressed the academic vice of being a scoffer.