Bryan College and Creationist Politics

There has been an insider discussion the past week or so on a turn of events at Bryan College, a small Christian college located in the equally small town of Dayton, TN. If the name of the college sounds familiar or the town rings a bell of curiosity, it’s because it was in Dayton, TN that the one of the most famous court cases in history took place: The Scopes Monkey Trial, where in 1925 William Jennings Bryan prosecuted John Scopes for the teaching of evolution. This led to the inception of Bryan College and the legacy of that event is quite evident for anyone who spends even a remote amount of time on the campus. It’s proud of its heritage, as it arguably should be. But beyond the legacy of creationism, Bryan has traditionally been open to conversation, discussion, and varied legitimate opinion on the issues surrounding Genesis 1-11. That is to say, despite an atmospheric leaning towards literalistic readings of Genesis, Bryan has never insisted any centrality of those literal readings to its identity…until two weeks ago.

Bryan has recently made a move to “clarify” their Statement of Faith in such a way that it has the whole campus, students, staff, and faculty caught up in controversy. And now the public eye. Why? Whereas the administration defends its position by an appeal to “clarification” as to what the original statement of faith intends to say, many are suggesting that this is–indeed–a significant “change” and one which will ultimately schism much of the school, cause faculty and staff to lose their jobs, and limit the scope of honest learning (much less conviction). The original statement of faith reads, concerning creation:

…that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death;

The recent change to the Statement of Faith, however, reads:

We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.

If one is not convinced that this really represents a “change”, one merely needs to ask how in the world–if the original statement of faith carried this meaning implicitly–does it have so many faculty members in danger of losing their jobs? It seems the only two answers available are 1) Either the school has simply been extremely inconsistent in its hiring of faculty over the years and–either by apathy or ignorance–failed to really know the convictions of its own professors or, 2) This really is what it appears to be: a “change.” What the new Statement of Faith does is preclude any faculty or staff opinions that hold to anything other than a young life position, which is largely rooted in a young earth worldview. Still, while the school is committed to teaching “about” alternative theological options, like the various forms of theistic evolution (some even espoused by Intelligent Design theorists), it is beyond allowance of payed staff or faculty to adopt any of these positions…at least if you want to keep your job.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925

Now, of course, why do I care? I did my undergraduate at Appalachian State University and two M.A.’s at Asbury Theological Seminary. I just drove right through Tennessee for my educational career. Well, Bryan College and the town of Dayton have actually been a home to me since 2006 when I first came to the town for a summer conference. Since then, I have been to Dayton every summer minus one. Indeed, this past summer on an invitation to spend a few days in Dayton, I recall driving in and feeling a wave of unexpected emotion wash over me: some of my most significant moments of my life have been at Bryan College. The place is a home for me and so much of my spiritual life developed in that town, not to mention my own thinking. Bryan facilitated my opportunity in working with Summit Ministries, which utilized much of their campus, staff, and faculty in our program, and it is my experience with Summit Ministries that I truly place my desire for good thought, sound conviction, and forthright honesty. Indeed, Bryan was amongst a small handful of colleges that I said I could have attended with pride. So while I cannot claim to be directly involved with Bryan College on any official level, I often feel as if it was my school and this change–and the implications it can have–sadden me. Some of those in danger of losing their jobs are people that I have come to immensely respect not just for their minds and commitment to intellectual honesty–which this provision will significantly threaten–but for their desire to see hearts and minds follow Christ.

At the same time, I think it allows us a pause for reflection. Two things. First, it is a reminder that our boundaries should be clear from the beginning. If Bryan traditionally has been a creationist-only school, many of its faculty, students, and staff failed to get the memo–for far too long (including William Jennings Bryan who had some complicated views on the subject). This, indeed, is what is most suspicious. For 80 years the statement of faith remained the same and for some reason in 2014 the school has seen the need to revise it without the input of faculty and students. Why the need to do this behind closed doors? Seems a bit fishy to me, but if, in fact, it truly is a ‘clarification’, the school has a lot of explaining to do as to how and why they allowed it to remain un-revised for eight decades!

Secondly, however, I want to speak blatantly as to what this looks like from one not too far removed from the college age (I wouldn’t be creepy old–just old enough that I’d be getting hit up by freshman for beer runs, I’m sure). When Christian academic institutions make a move like this–usually with an intent to ‘clarify’ something which they suggest has “always been true”–it often looks a whole lot like panic, like a child being dunked under the water unexpectedly with arms flinging and all (thanks Dad!). From the vantage point of a millenial, the widening of the demarcation line between what is ‘acceptable evangelical’ and what is ‘liberal seepage‘ looks more and more like a generation of church leaders fretting about the millenial generation beginning to dominate–or at least significantly speak into–Christian thought and life in major ways. For years I have heard church leaders say ‘We have to invest in our youth–they’re going to be the leaders in the church!’. Apparently, however, many in the church aren’t so pleased with what is turning out. If we are asked to listen to the voices of the past–and I think we absolutely should–then we merely ask that the past listen to voices of the present. Evolution, inerrancy, LGBT issues: These three discussions in particular seem to be increasingly more divisive in the church today and when older generations of Christian thinkers or academic institutions react suddenly in a way that attempts to demonize and “cleanse out” those that hold alternative views, it looks a lot like what happens when a traditionalism realizes it’s losing. The fact is, foundationalism is holding on mostly with those born into a positivist culture and I wonder to what extent the rise of the modernist “New Atheist” correlates with recent trends in the church to hold onto a simply opposite modernism, albeit rooted in theism.

When the millenial generation–notably with older scholars who realized the collapse of foundationalist thinking decades ago–talks of Scripture as more salvation than inerrant, as Genesis as more “myth” than “fact”, as ethics more “nuanced” than “absolute”, and God more “love” than “power”, the natural tendency is to react in suspicion. But these centralities are not weaknesses in evangelical theology–they are strengths. They shift the vantage point in a different, but still valuable position. There is, indeed, value in our epistemological shift, even in the church, and we need to be prepared to see the value of “new ways of looking at old things.” Despite what theologians like Stan Grenz and Nancy Murphy wrote years ago, I don’t think we have really understood the impact of postmodernism on the church until now, when “conversation”, not “definition” are becoming what the postmodern generation of Christians brings to the Church table. We want boundaries–of course–but we want to see those set by Jesus alone. And in cases where Christians see a need to “oust” other Christians because they’re not “playing the game by the rules”, it only serves to clarify who really is more docetic and who, really, is in danger of fading away.

I plead with Bryan College to reconsider this statement. Though I am no student, faculty, or staff, your campus and its faculty has been a major component to my own thought and life. I have always looked at the college with fondness, even despite known disagreements. You allowed academic integrity and you allowed people to seek out their own thought. But in making a move like this, you inspire the complete opposite by defining what is and is not acceptable. As a Christian, a theologian, and a lover of both your town and your school, I ask you to pursue openness on this question. Trust me, the truth will work itself out in the end.

  • Tim Baldi

    I’m not sure if you’re already aware of this or not, but you can send these thoughts to the board using the origins@bryan.edu e-mail address they set up after the change was made. I believe it could benefit the discussion.

    • Randy Hardman

      Thanks Tim. I will make sure to do that tonight!