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.
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.
Mr. White and other prominent secular Bible scholars often use a "neutrality" defense when challenged about their attacks on the Bible: They say they are historians, not theologians, and their critical approach is what professors at a secular university must follow.
Robert Yarbrough, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, disagrees. Secularists, he argues, are "working from a faith background also. They have a constellation of opinions that inform their views." One is that today's secularist professors are wise enough to sit in judgment of the testimony of Christian conscience and of 2,000 years of affirmation. Another common article of faith, evident in the work of North Carolina's Mr. Ehrman, is that the truth or falsehood of resurrection isn't even an issue: He assumes it's a lie and tries to determine where the lie originated.
Is the dominance of the Whites and Ehrmans inevitable? Not if you look at the religious studies department at the University of Virginia, which Thomas Jefferson hoped would become the field marshal of liberal Christology. Mr. Jefferson bucked custom by placing a library, not a chapel, at the most prominent place on campus. A Yale-educated historical scholar chairs the school's religious studies department and teaches the program's historical Jesus classes.
But Jeffersonian influence can hardly be felt in the teaching of John Millbank, the leading voice in a movement of radical orthodoxy. Nor would Mr. Jefferson, who called Christ's claims of divinity "rubbish," agree with other professors in Virginia's religion department who, according to campus minister Greg Thompson, are amenable and even faithful to Christ.
"That's unbelievable here at Mr. Jefferson's university," said Mr. Thompson, director of the Virginia chapter of Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). "They're helping students wrestle with important issues." Mr. Thompson said about one-fourth of RUF participants at Virginia are taking a significant amount of coursework in the religious studies department. Some face challenges to biblical historicity, but Mr. Thompson said most find a hospitable but challenging environment.
One reason college Christians are stupefied when they enter a challenging classroom like Mr. White's in Austin is that churches have dropped the ball. High-school kids are unprepared and even unaware of the debates they might walk into on a college campus, says Daniel Doriani, pastor and recent New Testament professor at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
"Youth groups are bent on evangelism and fun, which is good," he says. "But a large number of youth workers haven't gone to seminary. They wouldn't know how to address" key questions of New Testament historicity. Mr. Doriani says churches around universities are aware of these problems and address them as best they can. But many students, he says, are involved only in para-church organizations like Campus Crusade or InterVarsity, never making a connection with a local church.
Sometimes students have to take the extra initiative. Over a semester, Thursdays at Trudy's became somewhat of a tradition for Michael Stewart, who completed a University of Texas classics degree in December. In 2000, as a freshman, Mr. Stewart and two others used the Austin Tex-Mex joint as a fallback position to talk over chips and salsa about the teachings they were hearing in Mr. White's class. By forming a group of three similarly minded believers, they were able to give themselves the support the church did not. "I guess we viewed it as a challenge," he says.
Still, Mr. Stewart concludes, Mr. White at times "would present points that I didn't know what to do with. I would have to go into my room and go back in my mind to the Resurrection. I can start here. I believe in this. He couldn't take that away from me."