An Open Letter to Rachel Fulton Brown
By Miles S. Hopgood|March 2, 2017
Dr. Fulton Brown,
You were a major influence on my development as an academic and as an educator. I am studying for a doctorate and writing on the history of biblical exegesis in large part because of time spent in your classroom in my seven years at the University of Chicago (BA ’10, MDiv ’13). I recommend your scholarship to students often. Out of respect, I take it seriously when you write something like your recent piece for Sightings on Milo Yiannopoulos and his reception in the academy, for you have dedicated enormous time and possess extraordinary talent for the work of research and education. When you write that “It is much easier to call Milo names than to accept the challenge he presents,” I hear from you a desire that you and your piece be received with genuine responses rather than ad hominem, though one can see good reason to debate the man himself. I feel well positioned to respond not only because of the debt I owe you as a teacher, but also because from your article, we seem still to share much in common. Like yours, my scholarship is deeply rooted in my Christian faith. I share your view that religious literacy is a cornerstone of the humanities, particularly of history. We agree that the study of theology makes a valuable contribution to the public sphere. We hold in common, I think, the belief that free speech and intellectual rigor are marks of a healthy society.
What I do not share is your conviction that Milo Yiannopoulos represents any of these values. Rather, he represents an assault on them. Your piece takes for granted that Yiannopoulos has met the criteria academics (should) set for using our institutions as a public platform. Yet his speech, like your piece, cites no evidence for its central claims, employs no rigor or methodology beyond the rhetoric of emotional appeal and conventional wisdom. Simply put, there is nothing to justify the assertion that to withhold a platform from him is to betray our academic values. Far worse is that the only conclusion your piece can reach as to why academic institutions would withhold their platform from him is that they uncritically disagree, that they are scared because they cannot face what he has to say. When you were my teacher, you taught me to shun such claims premised upon unfalsifiability. From your interpretation of student protests to your portrayal of academic culture, your case for Yiannopoulos grounds itself in the belief that because he offends, he is right, and that because he upsets, his claims are true. Here you leave no room for someone who might deny him a platform because they seek to hate what is evil and cling to what is good (Romans 12:9). Again, your approach and thesis embody the conviction that something must be unpopular to be true, must be injurious to be correct. Do you not see how this insulates ideas from critique and allows prejudice to ferment? When quantity of criticism becomes the measure of truth, you have built a world in which you alone can be wise. Such is the echo chamber Yiannopoulos and his allies want us in. He holds the key to the door, deciding what ideas to admit. And they are all his.
According to your blog post referenced by the Sightings piece, you seem to give him this power because he tells the truth. Intent on being his protégée, likewise you seem bent on sharing the truth about the academy with the world. As someone who is also part of the academy, I have searched in your piece, and your blog, for a semblance of the academy I know, but I can find none. In my seven years at the University of Chicago, never was I attacked, maligned, shunned, sneered at, or in any way maltreated for my faith. This is not because I hid it. As an undergraduate, I was openly involved in campus ministry and a local congregation. While studying for my MDiv, my work schedule as a hospital chaplain meant that often I was on campus and in classes—some of them yours—in a clerical collar. Many of my fellow students and I publicly led worship and preached in the campus chapel. Never was there a moment of indignation or shaming. Often were there intriguing conversations and pleasant exchanges. Certainly, both classroom and residential life could at times produce the heated conversations that are born from the collision of strong convictions. Yet to suggest that there is within American academia anything approaching a systematic animus toward Christianity or religious conviction in general is not to tell the truth. Rather, it is to repeat a shameful lie that serves the only agenda Yiannopoulos knows: to anger and divide. I cannot fathom why you repeat it.
It is evident why Yiannopoulos tells such lies. He is what Martin Luther called a theologian of glory, one who prefers “works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness… Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires.” He is not interested in truth but rather in a spotlight, one that shines not with the light of Christ but with the flames of an anger he provokes to keep all eyes on him. Ovid warned us of those like him: “They strive to gain that they may waste, and then to repair their wasted fortunes, and thus they feed their vices by ringing the changes on them. So he whose belly swells with dropsy, the more he drinks, the thirstier he grows.” In your piece you regard Yiannopoulos as a proponent of Christian values and a defender of the many contributions our faith has made to the world. You have even gone so far as to compare him to Christ. When we struggle to make ourselves want to be like Christ, often are we tempted to make Christ into who we want to be. Ask yourself: does Yiannopoulos speak or act like one who has tasted the living water which quenches all thirst (John 4:14)? Does he live a life marked by gentleness and bound by the love of Christ (Ephesians 4)? Certainly he does not, and this should be for us the sign that his attachment to our faith is not a love for the way of our Christ but merely a lust for a jeweled raiment to clothe the fictitious Western identity he peddles. What he offers the world is not a knowledge of Christ, for he does nothing to knit us together in love (Colossians 2:2).
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-5). I ask you to consider well if you see this love of Christ mirrored in Yiannopoulos. Consider all the more whether it is reflected in your admiration for his trolling and your call to go and do likewise. Lost in such a call is the professor I knew and respected. For Christians “our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world… with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Corinthians 1:12). As a former student and erstwhile admirer, I implore you: desire these greater things again. “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13).
Doctoral Candidate, History and Ecumenics
Princeton Theological Seminary
- Brown, Rachel Fulton. “Why Milo Scares Students, and Faculty Even More.” Sightings. February 16, 2017.
- —. “Free Speech Fundamentals: The Most Dangerous Game.” Fencing Bear at Prayer. January 4, 2017.
- —. “God's Fools.” Fencing Bear at Prayer. February 23, 2017.
- —. “Joking Matters.” Fencing Bear at Prayer. February 18, 2017.
- —. “Why I Love Milo.” Fencing Bear at Prayer. February 1, 2017.
- Hartman, Margaret. “CPAC Blasted for Milo Yiannopoulos Invite After Pedophilia Remarks Resurface.” New York Magazine. February 20, 2017.
- Luther, Martin. “The Heidelberg Disputation (1518).” In Luther’s Works: American Edition, Vol. 31. Ed. Helmut T. Lehman. Fortress Press, 1957.
- Ovid. Fasti. Trans. James G. Frazer. Harvard: University Press, 1996.
|Author, Miles Spencer Hopgood, is a PhD candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary who holds both a BA and an MDiv from the University of Chicago. His current research centers on Martin Luther's biblical hermeneutic, particularly in his engagement with the Old Testament. Further interests include medieval and early modern Jewish-Christian relations as well as the modern ecumenical movement.|
Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe to receive Sightings in your inbox twice a week. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.