Decades ago, when I informed an acquaintance that I had accepted a tenure-track position at a Christian college, he shifted his eyes awkwardly before smiling out, “Sounds like a nice place to send my daughters.” I repeat the appalling comment—appalling on many different levels—in order to contrast it with a different kind of parental approach that has disturbed the professorate in more recent years. In March, 2019, the New York Times published an essay on “bulldozer” or “snowplow” parents who illegally clear the way to get their children into fortresses of financial success. Christian bulldozers seem to have a different fortress mentality, the enemy often being professors themselves. Several years ago a parent called during my office hours to protest the “C” his son received in my poetry course, saying “I thought you worked at a Christian college! What kind of Christian would do this to my child?” In these bulldozing incidents, institutions are regarded as bastions of (anything but) learning, bastions that must be conquered.
I started thinking seriously about Christian college as fortress while teaching at a secular university during summer term. Agreeing to help a student who was allergic to the inside of both classrooms and books, I met with Sue (as I shall call her) at an outdoor picnic table, upon which she placed a huge wooden box with a glass top. Inside was her textbook, which she read through the glass lid, turning the pages by inserting gloved hands into holes cut into the side of the box. Because Sue was both smart and conscientious we had great discussions, and at the end of the term she invited me to have dinner with her family to thank me for my help.
Because she was the daughter of a well-known pastor, I felt comfortable driving into the mountains where Sue lived with her mother and sister in a former logging cabin, all three sharing the same allergies. As I mounted the rickety porch, the door opened only enough to reveal a pair of lips, which asked me to spit out my gum in the woods across the road. After doing so, I remounted the porch, only to have the same lips tell me to go into the shed across the yard, undress, and put on the clothes laid out for me. Wanting to be sensitive to the special needs of my hosts, I put on the oversized outfit and shuffled my way back to the porch, discretely trying to keep the woolen slacks from falling to my ankles. This time, instead of the mysterious lips behind the door, a hand shot out—holding a shower cap to cover my hair.
Finally allowed to enter the cabin (feeling quite lovely), I noticed that every inside wall was lined with aluminum sheeting, all surfaces of wooden furniture were wrapped in aluminum foil, and a television stood behind thick glass in the fireplace. Fortunately, the women were so friendly that after our organically-grown dinner I felt free, despite my fashion dis-ease, to ask “What are your symptoms that necessitate such drastic measures?” After a long pause while glancing at each other for support, one finally answered with “We get irritable.” My reaction, though unexpressed at the time, was probably the same as yours right now. Though allergies are nothing to sneeze at, I wanted to hear about symptoms considerably more dramatic than irritability.1
Unfortunately, the history of Christianity is filled with stories of aluminum-lined fortresses, as when, in the 1940s, The Protestant Truth Society demanded censorship of BBC radio plays about Jesus because they failed to use King James English; worse, the plays were infected with the allergen of contemporary slang. The author of the plays, Dorothy L. Sayers, wasn’t killed by Christians as was Tyndale, whose English translation of the Bible, upon which much of the King James is based, was in its own time considered a debilitating allergen. When I start getting irritated by Christian resistance to new signs, however, I remember an incident in grad school when I was invited to dine with a group of ABD’s from another department. After someone made a sneering comment about the mental deficiencies of Christians, the hostess said, “Crystal is a Christian and she’s smart.” Suddenly ten pairs of eyes turned on me, excoriations on my character soon to follow: “Christians suppress women”; “Christians perpetuate racism”; “Christians are homophobic”; and so on. Somehow I was able to counter each attack: the closest thing to speaking in tongues I have ever experienced, the Spirit giving me words that subverted each attacker’s reason to denounce Christianity. I certainly wasn’t smart enough to do it alone (and they weren’t smart enough to ask really tough theological questions). As the group became quiet, their arsenal of objections depleted, one grad student finally said, “I wish Bill were here; he can argue better than we can,” and all nodded in agreement. In other words, rather than think, “Wow, this grad student has undermined every reason I have for refusing to take Christianity seriously,” they merely donned new shower caps. Christians aren’t the only ones sequestered in aluminum-lined fortresses.
This explains why I value a Christian liberal arts education. At its best, it gently removes shower caps from students terrified of new ideas and practices. Defying a bulldozing mentality, it dismantles aluminum beliefs in order to inspect them, to consider where they came from, how they block our vision and hence our understanding of people and ideas outside our house of faith. More often than not, after such an inspection, the lining will be nailed back up as important to the structural integrity of our house. But in the process of taking it down, Christian college professors help students look through the gap in the wall that the aluminum once covered up in order to understand and assess what is outside. Jacques Derrida called such a process deconstruction, explaining that “The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more so when one does not suspect it.”2 At its best, a Christian college encourages inhabiting the house of faith in a certain way: a way that is open to the other. Derrida, in fact, once defined deconstruction as “openness toward the other.”3
Significantly, the Greek word for “other” is allos—from which we get our word “allergen.” Allos + ergon means other-work. Christian liberal arts allow the other to work on our thought–without, as Derrida specialist John D. Caputo summarizes, “surrendering the mastery of one’s house.” 4 The Master, instead, welcomes us in, shower caps or not.
- Except for the introductory paragraph, the preceding is extracted from my book Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (IVP Academic, 2012), 167-68. The publisher gave me permission to quote, and I have made minor revisions for clarity.
- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (John Hopkins University Press, 1976), 24, his emphasis.
- Qtd. in “Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage, ed. Richard Kearney (Manchester University Press, 1984), 124.
- John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indiana University Press, 1997), 355nt2.