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Irreligious studies

"Irreligious studies" Continued...

Issue: "Rathergate," Sept. 25, 2004

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."

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