From one point of view, it's very hard indeed to know exactly what Thomas Vinciguerra's intentions are in a high-profile editorial he authored in The New York Times on Nov. 27. His focus is on a high-stakes debate going on right now between the University of California system and a number of Christian schools in that state (see "Strange standards," Nov. 26, 2005).
If Mr. Vinciguerra tips his hand, it's in a very nuanced way. Indeed, here is virtually his entire editorial:
"Intelligent design isn't the only flashpoint in the battle over religion in the nation's classrooms. On Dec. 12, the Federal District Court in Los Angeles will hear a lawsuit filed by a consortium of Christian high schools against the University of California system for refusing to credit some of their courses when their students apply for admission.
"Among those courses are 'Christianity's Influence in American History' and 'Christianity and American Literature,' both of which draw on textbooks published by Bob Jones University of Greenville, S.C., which describes itself as having stood for 'the absolute authority of the Bible since 1927.'
"The plaintiffs, the Association of Christian Schools International, which represents more than 800 schools in California, and the Calvary Chapel Christian School of Murrietta, Calif., contend that their students are being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. The university system counters that it has the right to set its own standards. Here are excerpts from the disputed texts."
Then Mr. Vinciguerra lists nine examples (see sidebar) of the kinds of studies university officials in California find too flaky to approve. The examples come from Christian high-school texts in history, literature, and physics.
The problem is that Mr. Vinciguerra is artfully ambiguous and doesn't quite come clean with his readers. At first blush, any of three radically different possibilities might be in play:
1. Mr. Vinciguerra may conceivably be offering his readers a genuine choice: "Read the evidence, and then decide for yourself, folks, who's right in this fascinating debate."
2. Or he may have read the evidence himself, been pleasantly surprised at what the high-schoolers were studying, and is therefore asking his readers: "Can you believe that the snobs at the U. of California would really exclude kids for studying something that makes such good sense as these excerpts exhibit?"
3. Or he may be asking what I think (and fear) he really is saying: "Can you believe these Christians are coming to a court trial with such wacky ideas and actually hoping a 21st-century judge will uphold them?"
If The New York Times were really doing its job of helping its readers make balanced decisions about what's going on in the world, rather than propagandizing them as it so regularly does, possibilities 1 and 2 above might be viable explanations. Read, for example, this brief analysis of slavery from the high-school textbook: "The sin in this case was greed-greed on the part of African tribal leaders, on the part of slave traders, and on the part of slave owners, all of whom allowed their love for profit to outweigh their love for their fellow man. The consequences of such greed and racism extended across society and far into the future. It resulted in untold suffering-most obviously for the black race but for the white race as well. . . . The Lord has never exaggerated in warning us of sin's devastating consequences-for us and for our descendants (Exodus 24:7)."
That may seem, to most evangelical Christians, a straightforward and modest summary. But not for Mr. Vinciguerra, who had to set his readers straight by reminding them that "slavery, which most historians look at politically or economically, is seen [in the Christian text] as 'an excellent example of the far-reaching consequences of sin.'" Later in his column, he similarly dismisses an excerpt from a Christian physics text by saying: "Even the abstract laws of energy and matter, the authors write, reflect the hand of God."
In other words, the only acceptable worldview on any topic is a humanist, secularist perspective. Try explaining anything from a theological or a God-oriented point of view, and get ready to be strung up for quiet derision.
You're free, of course, to cancel your subscription to The New York Times if you don't like their snobbery. But Christian high-school students in California don't have quite the same inexpensive options. Even with good grades and high SAT scores, such students are right now being turned away from institutions their parents have, with their taxes, regularly paid for. The Dec. 12 court hearing will be a watershed event.
In his presentation in The New York Times, Thomas Vinciguerra almost-but not quite-hides his own disbelief that history, literature, and science textbooks would be so Bible-centered.
The italicized introductions to each of the nine examples are from Mr. Vinciguerra. The paragraphs in regular type are excerpted from the textbooks themselves.
1) "United States History for Christian Schools," written by Timothy Keesee and Mark Sidwell (Bob Jones University, 2001), says this about Thomas Jefferson:
American believers can appreciate Jefferson's rich contribution to the development of their nation, but they must beware of his view of Christ as a good teacher but not the incarnate son of God. As the Apostle John said, "Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son" (I John 2:22).
2) Slavery, which most historians look at politically or economically, is seen as "an excellent example of the far-reaching consequence of sin."
The sin in this case was greed-greed on the part of African tribal leaders, on the part of slave traders, and on the part of slave owners, all of whom allowed their love for profit to outweigh their love for their fellow man. The consequences of such greed and racism extended across society and far into the future. It resulted in untold suffering-most obviously for the black race but for the white race as well . . . The Lord has never exaggerated in warning us of sin's devastating consequences-for us and for our descendants (Exodus 34:7).
3) The book also criticizes the progressive movement championed by Theodore Roosevelt, and the Progressives themselves.
On the whole, they believed that man is basically good and that human nature might be improved. . . . Such a belief, of course, ignored the biblical teaching that man is sinful by nature (Ephesians 2:1-3). Progressives therefore also ignored the fact that the fallible men who built the corrupt institutions that they attacked were the same in nature as those who filled the political offices and staffed the regulatory agencies that were supposed to control the corruption.
4) On the other hand, the "devout Methodist" H. J. Heinz is praised for his fine products and humane treatment of workers, which set him apart from the typical 19th-century robber baron.
Heinz illustrates the Christian's response to the challenge of business management: "And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance; for ye serve the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:23-24).
5) Elements of Literature for Christian Schools," by Ronald Horton, Donalynn Hess and Steven Skeggs (Bob Jones University, 2001), faults Mark Twain for calling God "an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master."
Twain's outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rids himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God's love. Twain's skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.
6) Emily Dickinson, too, is criticizeed for her lack of faith.
Dickinson's year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her "religious" views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle "the one thing needful." A thorough study of Dickinson's works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude toward her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.
7) By contrast, the piety of Christina Rossetti, the 19th-century British poet, gets high marks.
The loneliness she faced is often reflected in her poems. But stronger than her loneliness was her total confidence in and submission to her Lord and Savior. Rossetti filled her mind and heart with Scripture. She gained from it a unique appreciation of the sustaining and sacrificial love of God. Her poetry and uplifting devotional literature are the natural overflow of her complete dependence on God.
8) "Physics for Christian Schools," by R. Terrance Egolf and Linda Shumate (Bob Jones University, 2004) addresses the question, "What is Christian about physics?"
Some people have developed the idea that higher mathematics and science have little to do with the Bible or Christian life. They think that because physics deals with scientific facts, or because it is not pervaded with evolutionary ideas, there is no need to study it from a Chrisstian perspective. This kind of thinking ignores a number of important facts to the Christian: First, all secular science is pervaded by mechanistic, naturalistic, and evolutionistic philosophy. Learning that the laws of mechanics as they pertain to a baseball in flight are just the natural consequences of the way matter came together denies the wisdom and power of our Creator God. . . . Second, physics as taught in the schools of the world contradicts the processes that shaped the world we see today. Trying to believe both secular physics and the Bible leaves you in a state of confusion that will weaken your faith in God's Word.
9) Even the abstract laws of energy and matter, the authors write, reflect the hand of God.
You are about to embark on an adventure. The study of physics reveals the womderful orderliness of God's creation-so orderly that it can be comprehended in terms of relatively simple principles (mathematical formulas). . . . Physics is important because through it mankind learns how creation actually works. It satisfies our God-given curiosity about nature. Seeing that God does "great things and unsearchable; marvelous things without number" (Job 5:9), men have dedicated their lives to unraveling the rich mysteries of creation.