Like most teachers I know the beginning of any semester finds me filled with excitement and anxiety. I’m thrilled by the prospects of new opportunities for learning and discovery and I’m equally anxious that perhaps I have not planned well enough, or that I’ve chosen a textbook that will be all wrong, or that in my zest to try something new, I will have created the world’s worst assignment and all of my students will waste no time posting how terrible I am on Rate My Professor.com.
And while most of us experience these contrasting feelings, I imagine my level of anxiety might be higher than most because of the unique challenges I had when teaching introductory Bible courses for several years at a Christian university.
I still remember my first—and very painful—day in Introduction to the Bible although I’d be thrilled to forget it.
Fresh from an across-the-country move where I had taught Bible courses at two universities and in both cases had used not only standard introductory texts but also the widely-accepted New Revised Standard Version Bible, I was ill-prepared for the landmine that I stepped in that first day. Despite all of my diligent planning, I had failed to anticipate the level of animosity that would soon to be aimed at me for having violated the sacred place of the New International Version of the Bible in the evangelical world. I had obviously chosen the wrong text.
But that wasn’t the extent of my errors. The other was that I was a woman—a woman teaching the Bible—and that violated the evangelical ethos, too, although in a much more sinister way. Many students spent the entire semester trying to outsmart me by asking unrelated questions and since I was the new female professor in a department otherwise composed of men, I patiently answered each one, affirming my students’ supposed interests. Until finally one day a courageous young man came to my office to confess he, along with several others, had only been hoping to catch me off-guard, to make me feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed.
So, it is with a fair degree of empathy that I wonder what life must be like for the lone female professor in the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Cedarville University in Ohio. This Christian university has recently experienced brouhaha over gender roles and how those supposed ideals should be replicated at the university. The dust-up has apparently resulted in some faculty leaving (including at least one other woman from the Biblical and Theological Department) and restrictions that ensure no male students will be taught by the one remaining woman.
Even more than my empathy for a marginalize professor, though, I worry about the students and the messages they are learning from their university. They have seen first-hand how to discredit and dismiss women because of their gender. They have witnessed how to employ tools the majority enjoys to further reduce the minority among them. They have learned how to utilize religion to extend the prevalence of sexism. And, perhaps, worst of all, they no longer have the opportunity to be challenged by a different perspective.
Many will dismiss Cedarville and its shift to the right as simply the craziness of American fundamentalism, an illustration of just how bizarre some juxtapositions can seem: an institution of higher learning stipulating men can only learn about religion from other men, hardly a viable example of the kind of critical thinking most post-secondary institutions claim is paramount to a successful career in today’s global world.
On the other hand, Cedarville may not be so far removed from numerous evangelical universities where complementarian assumptions are not enforced per se, but where a culture of polite sexism continues to thrive beneath the surface. Women, like me, may be invited to join the ranks of religion professors and there may be female chaplains and even some women in administrative positions. Overall, however, many evangelical institutions have still failed to examine how their easy acceptance of patriarchy continues to foster the sin of sexism.
For these universities progressing to the next step of true equality will require diligent and genuine listening to the experiences and theologies of women. These, if truly fostered, will be difficult because they will involve taking seriously the extent to which the Bible is a problematic text.
Cedarville clearly isn’t positioning itself to do this but I have great hope for evangelical universities to move in a different direction. You see, the young man who admitted his error in trying to discourage me is now working for justice in a university (coincidentally, in Ohio) and I know he is a champion for women and for inclusive theology.
Change is coming!