Unorthodox Accreditation

While going about my editorial duties, I found myself directed to the webpage of the Antioch School of Church Planting in Ames, Iowa. Okay, I’ll admit that the fact that I spent the holidays in Ames may have been what actually motivated me to look. Over the past twenty-some years I’ve spent many holidays in Ames, but I never knew of this particular institution. I had been checking up on somebody’s status when I found the Distance Education and Training Council. The DETC is an accrediting body. In a world where we can’t take anyone’s word for it—especially not a bunch of academics’ many words for anything—we have invented accrediting bodies. These watchdog groups maintain the high academic standards that we like to mix well with our beer and football to make the American college experience. The DETC, however, scopes out remote education programs. Often these schools have no campus. The ASCP is accredited by the DETC.

So I poked around Antioch for a while. The name is taken from the ancient Syrian city where the early Christians first earned their title. It became clear in a fraction of a second that this accredited program is an ultra-conservative answer to seminary education. How to get what looks like a regular degree to improve your indoctrination. Instead of being bemused (one seemingly appropriate response), I was actually a little bit disturbed. Education occurs every day in non-structured ways. I can get a whole life lesson just walking across Times Square. When we want standards of comparison, however, we rely on tried and tested schools to offer us degrees. When a program that supports opinions that run counter to the educational system’s standards gets accreditation, we all need to watch out. Somebody call the Bureau of Weights and Measures!

The distrust of academia often does not apply to such self-promoting schools. Americans tend to love self-made doyens who bring education down-home. As far as I could tell from the website, the Antioch School is an extension of a local Bible Church that is intended to provide future clergy with home-baked degrees. That in itself isn’t a problem, of course, but when the wider public doesn’t know the inner workings of higher education, and generally distrusts it, who’s to say whether any degree is valid or not? Aren’t all bachelors created equal? Not really. Accrediting doesn’t prevent abuses from slipping through the system—I’ve seen it happen firsthand, right under accrediting teams’ noses. It is a game we play. You can earn a master’s degree or a doctorate in planting churches. And if you ask me, that’s the same thing as getting a degree in planting corn, only much less scientific.

No way through this maze.

Bible Review

The Christmas edition of the New York Times Book Review begins with the Bible. Appropriate enough for a book that gave us “in the beginning” and the Christmas story in the first place. Reviewed by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, the Bible is presented as the unacknowledged source of much of our literary culture. It is a message that bears repeating every now and again, since the Bible itself is often equated with those who thump it instead of trying to comprehend it. The Bible is often guilty by association. Like any book, it has parts that we wish weren’t in it, but that is only problematic for those who think of the Bible in authoritarian terms, a book that must be rebuilt into modern culture, jot and tittle. Taken alongside other ancient writings, however, the Bible is a fine example of human evolution. It represents a segment of our developing culture. And, every now and again, atheist and evangelical should acknowledge, the Bible gives us profound insights.

Robinson’s article mostly focuses on reiterations. The Bible’s influence is deep, and in the English literary world, nearly universal. What authors have written in the past—and what they are still writing today—bears the stamp of the Bible. It was the first formative book in western culture, and to dismiss it completely is to throw away a valuable part of our selves. At the same time, even so able a writer as Robinson can’t escape the subtle supersessionism that coheres to the mythic reading preferred by a large cross-section of society. The Bible is a self-referential text, but the Bible does not know that “the Bible” exists. Books that eventually made it into the collection were written without an awareness that they would become authoritarian tomes millennia down the road. Modern believers still invest the books with the mystique of divine authority, often in subtle ways.

A point made by Robinson should be read by those aspiring presidential candidates super-bussing their ways across Iowa. “Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them,” she writes of the biblical narrative. The vast majority of us are marginal in this sense. Those in seats of power frequently forget that it is the unassuming compliance of those further down the food chain that lends them their power. The Bible is nearly always on the side of the oppressed. The Bible, however, can also empower those deprived by the crass world of politics. It must be rescued first. Once they are done kissing babies and shaking hands, once they settle in their opulent offices built with the money that would have otherwise gone to those babies, politicians forget the basic truths of the Bible. As long as it can be thumped once in a while, however, they will keep it in the bottom drawer until it is needed again. Only by dealing with the Bible sensibly can its abuse be stopped.

There is, I hear, balm there.

Silent Might

Iowa is a state for reflection. For many years Christmas in Iowa was a family tradition, but living on the east coast makes such pilgrimages rare. On Christmas Eve in Ames, we drove past a Nazarene Church decked out for the holiday with a sign reading, “Jesus Came for You.” Perhaps I watch too many movies, but the images that came to mind were of Rambo and The Terminator—menacing figures who’ve sought out their victims for revenge. Coming for you was a threat rather than a promise. Who can forget Arnold’s “I’ll be back”? Was the child who came sent with a mission of punishment or of peace? To hear presidential candidates and other evangelicals tell the Christmas story, it is clearly the former—the Rambo of God who blows away the sins of the world—that we should expect. The Prince of Pieces.

That version of Christianity that likes to present itself as the default, the natural form of what the church has taught all these years, has a strong current of threat running through it. God never shows up unless there is a problem—an absentee father only too swift to remove his ample belt to begin a sound thrashing. Religion often thrives in the context of menace. Teaching that people are evil by nature and only good when under promise of Hell, such believers understand the coming of Jesus to be cause for fear and alarm. According to Luke, the angels began their message with “Fear not.”

How Christmas is understood reflects on the view of Christianity that believers choose. For the advent and arrival of an emissary can be cause for celebration or of fear. In some mangers the infant conceals a cudgel and woe to those who suggest equal treatment of all or a non-literal reading of favorite prooftexts. This time of year stands as an excellent test of what this child will grow up to be in the minds of his latter-day cohort. What arrival should we anticipate? If it is the Jesus of the politicians and evangelicals, we only have to look at the headlines to discover the answer.

What child is this?