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Irreligious studies

Higher Education | The church has not prepared young Christians for the liberal religion programs at most universities

Issue: "Rathergate," Sept. 25, 2004

AUSTIN, Texas - With just one semester of coursework at the University of Texas completed, Blake Helm stepped unwittingly into a religious minefield. Coming from a theologically conservative background, Mr. Helm had signed up for Professor L. Michael White's "Rise of Christianity" course, only to find out in the first class that the subject matter was the fall of Christianity. "He started out with, 'Why aren't they [the Gospels] in chronological order?' and went on from attack to attack," Mr. Helm said.

Mr. Helm dropped the class after one day, but others stay on: Some, Mr. Helm says, "won't think about questioning what [Professor White] says because he's got a Ph.D." Greg Grooms, director of The Probe Center-a Christian resource library and campus hangout-says, "I'm consistently finding fundamentalists who have blundered into his classroom and get burned. It's not Sunday school. I ask them why they wanted to take his class in the first place."

The answer, Mr. Grooms says, is often harmless enough-many young Christian students just want to take a Bible class while in college. The story of students shocked and awed by Bible-criticizing religious studies professors is not unique to Austin, Tex. Across the country, university and seminary students are being taught about the Bible by academics who doubt and often are antagonistic toward traditional teaching about what the Bible says and who Jesus Christ is.

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California-based Westar Institute funds the now infamous Jesus Seminar, which claims that Jesus said only 18 percent of what the New Testament says He said. Westar fellows are religious studies professors at public universities like Tennessee State, Oregon State, Wisconsin, several California State schools, Southwest Missouri State, Minnesota, Ball State, Montana and, of course, the University of Texas, home of Mr. White. Even liberal theologians see the flaw in Jesus Seminar methodology, with its scholars choosing colored beads to rank the authenticity of each of Jesus' sayings recorded in the Gospels.

Walter Wink, a former Jesus Seminar speaker, disassociated himself from the project in 1994, writing that "scholars who believe Jesus was like a cynic philosopher will tend to reject as nonhistorical any data that suggests otherwise. . . . The picture that is emerging of Jesus is remarkably like that of a tweedy professor interested in studying Scripture." Mr. White, though, says, "I don't buy the Jesus Seminar, but at least they go at things in a scholarly way." Which is to say the Jesus Seminar works from the presumption of biblical falsehood and accepts as truth only what it can substantiate from other sources.

While members of the Westar Institute and the Jesus Seminar don't dominate the religious studies establishment, their basic tenets are pervasive. At the University of Virginia, the professor who teaches a class titled "In Defense of Sin" calls the crucifixion a social wellspring of anti-Semitism. Bart Ehrman chairs the University of North Carolina's religious studies program and teaches that the New Testament is a flawed work, distorted by the orthodox in the first centuries after Jesus' life.

In Texas, Mr. White disputes the validity of much of the book of Acts and spoke last year at a conference titled "Fundamentalism's Threat to Democracy." Mr. White's critique goes deeper than its sensational title. He has made the New Testament his life's work, from the time he earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1982, through teaching religion at Yale, the University of Indiana, and Oberlin College. In class and in print, he alleges that "Acts is a document with its own agenda presenting an idealized picture of the early church," and furthermore that the world described in Acts is far removed from historical reality.

Mr. White's teachings are a stumbling block to many Christians who enter his class looking for a basic theology course. Many young Christians find themselves ill prepared to handle his sharp charges, because he comes through on his vow: "I promise you that I'm going to say something that you're going to say, 'That's not the way I learned it.'"

That can be useful for students who are well prepared and have (or make) the time to research his claims. Gene Fojtik was such a student: "His class forced me to deal with questions. Was my faith based in mathematical facts, or did it rest in Christ? . . . I don't have the certainty that I came in with, but it's deeper now."

Unlike some college courses, Mr. White's combination of new teachings and combustive content produces volatile reactions. The professor describes times when he shoots holes in students' deeply held convictions as "uh-oh" or "aha" moments. The reaction, he says, is plainly visible. "It happens as soon as it sounds like a version that they didn't grow up with," he says. Mr. White claims what he teaches reflects what's taught in every other secular university.

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