Reviews > Culture

Forbidding evangelism

Culture | It wasn't Dartmouth that banned C. S. Lewis-it was liberal Christians

Issue: "There they go again," June 5, 1999

As I was headed to Dartmouth College, where I had been invited to speak by a campus Christian group, I started becoming apprehensive. Wasn't this where C. S. Lewis got censored, where an attempt to give away free copies of Mere Christianity got the kibosh from the administration? Here, I thought, was the prime example of an Ivy League school turned hostile not only to Christianity but also to the free exchange of ideas by the totalitarian politics of the intellectual establishment. And if they banned C. S. Lewis, what would they do to the academic renegade who is the cultural editor of World? As it turned out, I was well received and got to know some bright, committed, and solid-as-a-rock Ivy League Christians. And they told me the real story of the great C. S. Lewis giveaway. It was not Dartmouth that objected-in fact, the college ended up defending students' right to promulgate their ideas, so that the book was distributed after all. The ones who tried to protect innocent Dartmouth minds from reading about the case for Christianity were liberal Christians. This was the second year in a row that Campus Crusade sent gift-wrapped Christmas presents of Lewis's classic work of apologetics to all incoming freshmen. This year, the campus ministry preceded the gift with a letter, so that anyone who preferred not to get the book would not be bothered. No one turned the book down. So they were sent out in campus mail. The head of the Jewish campus ministry objected-understandably, given his assumptions-concerned about his Jewish students converting to Christianity. Campus Crusade, wanting to be sensitive and diplomatic, agreed not to send the book to students who identified themselves as followers of the Jewish faith. But then some of the Christian campus ministries jumped on the bandwagon. The Lutheran (ELCA) campus minister said that giving Mere Christianity to foreign and "multicultural" students showed disrespect for other world religions. Furthermore, trying to win converts amounted to "proselytizing." For the record, the ELCA is to conservative Lutheranism what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is to conservative Calvinism. The priest who heads the Catholic campus ministry agreed and threw his weight against the book. To resolve the controversy, the dean became involved. He worked out a compromise with Campus Crusade that the book would not go to students who were Jewish, Muslim, or came from a culture that was not historically Christian. But the liberal ministries were not content. The Lutheran pastor demanded that the book not be sent to Lutherans either. The priest demanded that it stay out of the hands of Catholics. In the meantime, local journalists wrote about the controversy. Dartmouth received angry calls from alumni, asking what had happened to the Ivy League tradition of the free exchange of ideas. Even some students joined the fray. "Sure, I'm Catholic," was a typical response, "but who is this priest telling me what I can or cannot read?" Finally, the president of Dartmouth-who had known nothing of the controversy until he read about it in the papers and started getting calls from alumni-intervened. "You have the right to distribute anything you want to," he told Campus Crusade. The books went out after all, just a little late. Why were some campus ministers so upset? Lewis's book was self-consciously designed as a defense of "mere Christianity," the basic Trinitarian faith to which all denominations supposedly hold. And yet today theological liberals are questioning the basic tenets of the faith, so that mere historical Christianity is indeed a threat. There is a further complication for evangelism today. In the climate of postmodern relativism, each individual's beliefs are considered valid for that person. This means that each person has a private, customized religion. To try to change someone's religion is thus seen as an act of intolerance, disrespect, and arrogance-"imposing" one person's private beliefs on someone else. Thus, Christians who believe that the Word of God is objectively true and who are trying to share the good news of Christ with people whose eternal salvation they desperately care about can expect not just disagreement but personal resentment and hostility. Christians have often been persecuted for what they believed; in the next millennium, Christians in the United States may face persecution for trying to convince others to believe with them. Whether American persecution is mild or severe, social or legal, it will probably be in the name of religious pluralism, the need to respect all religions and to protect people from "proselytizing." At the same time, the most culture-friendly theologies-whether of the old mainline denominations or among the new culturally accommodating evangelicals-will be less and less interested in old-fashioned evangelism. They may still emphasize church growth, but not necessarily the conversion of sinners. Here's another lesson from Dartmouth: Sometimes, Christians are so eager to please that they worry about problems that are not there. For example, as the debates swirled about offending Dartmouth students, it became apparent that Dartmouth students were not offended at all. Other times, Christians capitulate without fighting for our own rights of religious freedom and free expression. As the liberal churches found themselves in the stereotypical role of the church as enemy of freedom and banner of books, it took the college president to protect the right of evangelism in the name of the secular right of academic freedom. Although Christians are not supposed to take each other to court, the law-being intrinsically objective and historically grounded in a biblical worldview-can be a Christian's friend in a relativistic age. The Apostle Paul, thwarted in his evangelistic efforts by the religious establishment, claimed his rights under Roman law. At Dartmouth, it was the secular authorities who came down on the side of evangelism.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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