Thursday, April 4, 2013

Stomp on Jesus

The latest stage in our public universities’ rapid descent into anti-Christian bigotry was reached recently at Florida Atlantic University.

Professor Deandre Poole, teaching a course called “Intercultural Communications” instructed his students to write the name of Jesus on a piece of paper, put it on the floor then step on it. All the class jumped right in except for Ryan Rotela, a Mormon who was offended and refused to cooperate. He later claimed he was suspended from the school for his action.

The resulting scandal quickly went viral under the name Stomp on Jesus. Not a bad title when you think about it because it so perfectly captures the spirit of the exercise as well as the environment that spawned it. That the name also ties in so well with the University’s motto, “Where Tomorrow Begins,” is an irony probably lost on the administration.

In the national hullabaloo that followed (quick sidebar: when news commentator Mike Huckabee asked the obvious question, “What would have happened if Muhammed’s name had been on the paper instead of Jesus’?”—Florida Atlantic’s administration clammed up quicker than if they were holding tenure hearings), the University tried to plead academic freedom with the usual blah, blah, blah that academicians love to employ on these kinds of occasions. As I read through some of this, I remembered a remark made by Samuel Johnson, writer of the first English dictionary. To paraphrase the great doctor: academic freedom is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Anyway, when that approach didn’t work with the public (even the Florida governor weighed in and called for an investigation) the University administration couldn't revert quickly enough to the self interest that lies at the heart of most University administrations: they threw the professor under the bus. Dr. Poole has been suspended from teaching for the time being.

As far as Dr. Poole’s explanation of his egregiously offensive teaching methods, well, he says he was just doing his job and following the textbook’s guidelines. By the way, this is what the teacher’s guide to the textbook says:

Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.

The textbook’s author, Jim Neuliep, a professor in Wisconsin, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. He never meant to insult anyone’s religion, he says.

"One of the 'most distinguishing features' of humans (compared to other animals) is the way they view symbols, some of which are quite powerful," he told Inside Higher Ed."That's the message of the exercise. When the students hesitate to step on the word 'Jesus,' they understand that a piece of paper has meaning to them because of the word, which helps them understand the force of symbols."

Finally, when you wade through all the academic claptrap (for a prime example of this, see Cary Nelson’s editorial on the whole sorry episode in Inside Higher Ed at the link you’re left with the queasy feeling that many professors at our tax-supported institutions often seem to care more about debunking the Christian faith than honestly engaging with it as they do with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or any of the varieties of new-age paganism that flourish on college campuses like weeds. It’s Christianity that’s the butt of  all the jokes.

I’m trying to sort through all this without my head exploding from the sheer volume of academic gibberish and I’ve come to several conclusions:

·         Public Universities are certainly no friends of the Christian faith and often go to great lengths to oppose Christianity. Both of my children went to large public universities. My daughter graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a school so well known for its left-wing professors that Senator Jesse Helms famously said that a fence needed to be built around the campus to keep the crazies inside from infecting the rest of the state. Still, at Chapel Hill as well as at all other such institutions, there are many staunch believers, faculty members and students. My daughter flourished there and graduated with a stronger faith than when she enrolled. But it wasn’t because of the school’s policies; it was in spite of them.

·         There's an official and officially sanctioned hostility toward the Christian faith in many facets of our public life. While many of our universities have raised the bar of hostility to new heights, they’re simply reflecting the national mood.

·         Our culture has a vast ignorance of the power of symbol. That’s true of society at large as well as Christian churches. The fact is that symbols convey reality to us. When reality is so large that you can’t rationally grasp it all, symbols are able to communicate the truth in ways we can't rationally apprehend. The cross, for instance, as the symbol of Jesus’ crucifixion, isn’t just a reminder of the event itself. It also confronts us with how our sin required his death to have occurred and of the enduring power of the crucifixion to direct our lives. The cross gives us an accurate way of perceiving reality. That’s why those churches I hear of from time to time that remove crosses from their sanctuaries out of fear of offending non-believers, are making such a mistake. They’re forsaking the very means of communicating a truth deeper than words can tell. The whole Stomp on Jesus controversy revolves, finally, around this very point. The Bible says that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). The academicians involved understand very well the power of symbol. This is precisely why they wanted the name of Jesus stomped on. Maybe they didn’t fully grasp the darker implication of what they were doing. But certainly the enemy of the human race understood—and understands—very well. If Satan can persuade people to stomp on the symbol of God’s truth, it’s a very short step toward stomping on the truth itself. Indeed, to stomp on the name is tantamount to stomping on the person, at least in the way the Bible describes the deep connection between Name and Person. The act of stomping on a piece of paper with Jesus' name is something of far more significance than academicians debating in their scholarly meetings grasp. It’s a demonic invocation that's prelude to destruction. CS Lewis, in his great Space Trilogy (see Out of the Silent Planet) points out this very truth in ways amazingly similar to Professor Poole’s exercise.

·         And what does all this mean for the church? We’d better be vigilant and alert on all fronts, because the world is no longer friendly toward us. Our life and ministry will be carried out in the coming years in an environment of hostility like we’ve never known. Professor Poole's little exercise in the power of symbol was just one more step in that direction.

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