The Ivy League Christian Observer arrives quarterly, beckoning for attention, whichSightings provides. The stated mission of Christian Union (CU), the Observer’s publisher, is this: to bring Christ to students attending elite American colleges and universities because alums have an outsized influence on culture and society.
Every page of the Observer, including its ads, suggest “Evangelical,” but, curiously, in the current, Spring issue, the word appears only once—our quick scan suggests—in a mentioned book title. (The word “Evangelism," a related but different topic, appears a couple of times, for example in an article by a Catholic.)
Every page should be welcomed and recognized as Evangelical in theme, preoccupation, and slant. Why not use the word?
Theory one: the nasty media covering nasty subjects conflate “Evangelical” and “Christian” in many stories. There, “the Christian vote,” etc. does not refer to Orthodox, Catholic, or ecumenical Protestants, but only to Evangelicals, often of the militant and thus not fully representative sort.
Theory two: the sphere of the Ivy League is the Northeast where “Evangelical” usually means “Fundamentalist with good manners” which is not the mien and scope of theObserver.
Theory three: more happily, the Observer’s editors are genuinely trying to broaden the scope beyond traditional “Evangelical” boundaries.
Should other-than-boundaried “Evangelicals” worry about transgression of boundaries?
I think not; the transgressions may irritate and the arguments and accents won’t always be convincing, but they are not unintelligent and they may well stimulate discussion with complacent “secularists” and “other-Christians.”
There is little belligerence in the Observer. The voices in the magazine, expressing CU’s goal of helping students “discover the intellectual validity of Christian faith,” may well offend others as they seek a place in the higher-education landscape from which, Christian Union-ists claim, often a bit whiningly, their kind of Christians and perhaps many kinds of Christians are edged out.
The editors and reporters do pick some fights. They lose some, several times, and finally win some, when their local chapters seek full recognition on some campuses—formerly Princeton, currently Dartmouth—because they may try to convert others, or their hiring policies are seen as exclusivist on religious (and sometimes on gender, as in, on trans-gender) grounds.
CU chapters argue that all kinds of approved campus organizations are exclusivist on other, often quasi-religious grounds. In the process, CU voices do stimulate thought and flush out prejudices among those they call “secularist.”
While CU recognizes the many Christian and other ministries on campuses, its focus is chiefly on curricular and organizational boundaries.
Not easily soluble and perhaps insoluble are puzzles and problems having to do with often taken-for-granted “modern preconceptions” among teachers, classmates, and textbook authors who judge texts on naturalistic grounds. CU people want more room for what we must call super-naturalist revelation in such texts. They and the authors featured in the Observer perhaps offend unnaturally, but one would think that the higher academy could have room for such voices.
Now: are we, who see room for some CU (quasi-Evangelical) sorts, getting soft, too tolerant of other voices, too weary of fighting off those who challenge secularist assumptions?
Matthew A. Bennett, Founder and President of CU, asks, “Why should an atheist student group have more rights to express their views than a Christian group?” He and contributors to the Observer may not have good answers, but they have reasonable questions. CU people are elitist in situation, intention, and practice, challenging voices today.
Ivy League Christian Observer. Spring 2013. http://www.christianunion.org/christian-union/resources/ivy-league-christian-observer.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.