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Professor challenges lack of theological rationale

The chapel gauntlet has been thrown down; will anyone pick it up?

By Richard Smith | Faculty Contributor

The other day, I read Hoback Fisher’s “Chapel: a letter from a concerned student” regarding the chapel program at Taylor. I was immediately struck that we had a student who was insightful, articulate and downright gutsy enough to write such a piece, particularly in light of the confines of that genre.

I think Hoback has sensed the strategy of empty rhetoric that conceals the general theological vacuity which tends to dominate our scene, or (dare I say it) the general resistance to serious theological reflection that reigns here — especially the sort of theological reflection that has the potential to practically correct what we do here. It is important to note that Hoback was not speaking as some student who was just upset over some chapel message that he did not like. He seems to acknowledge the potential benefits of engaging messages/arguments with which one may disagree. Rather, Hoback focused his critique on the chapel that was supposed to be “the chapel about chapel” and found it empty. What is more, if I understand him aright, he is suspecting that chapel is not merely devoid of vision, but rather is not being honest (or is perhaps unaware) regarding what ideological vision is actually driving it.

(Photograph by Ruth Flores-Orellana)

(Photograph by Ruth Flores-Orellana)

Not long ago, students in my poetic and wisdom literature class told me of their frustration with speakers in various campus venues of late who talk at length about subjects but never actually come out and predicate anything about those subjects. The rhetoric being employed left everyone free to download their own meaning into the words. When my students asked me how they should respond to such discourse, I said they should challenge it and demand some substance. Hoback, I am pleased to see, has now thrown down the gauntlet.

My concern is that no one who is responsible for constructing the vision for Taylor’s chapel program (and I do not think it is Campus Pastor Jon Cavanagh who is actually responsible for this) will pick up the gauntlet that Hoback has thrown down. That gauntlet is a challenge to provide a theological rationale for chapel. Worse, I fear that, in the event the gauntlet is not picked up, no one who is responsible will have enough integrity to openly admit that they are unable to pick it up. Hoback’s critique is no doubt painful for some to read, and no doubt some will even bristle at the charges, others mystified. But I hope that Hoback does not get written off or attacked ad hominem, as so often happens. I, for one, as a Christian teacher and biblical scholar, am sympathetic to Hoback’s case. If we want to emphasize experience, well, mine has paralleled Hoback’s on numerous occasions throughout my 17 years here at Taylor.

It often takes a great deal of energy for me to force my thoughts to the surface in the form of spoken or written words. Consequently, I have to be mindful of their potential to come out under a lot of pressure, inasmuch as such intensity is off-putting to many. Nevertheless, the fire in my belly has grown of late, and I care far less than I ever did before about attacks that may come my way. I have grown weary of watching students and colleagues commit intellectual and spiritual hara-kiri for the sake of appeasing those emotional forces mongering desperately (and sometimes viciously) in the Taylor community for some misconstrued feelings of “togetherness.”

Hoback has thrown down a gauntlet regarding the theological rationale for Taylor’s chapel program. But that challenge, I submit to you, is actually the tip of a much bigger iceberg, in as much as this university has not come to grips with the theological rationale for its existence. That lacuna is now showing up in vacuums all across the institution, from chapel, to the foundational core curriculum, to student development, to academics, to administration and all the way up to the board of trustees. The same old clichés and verbal retreats to the language of “what makes Taylor Taylor” won’t cut it anymore, and, truth be told, they never really did. It’s just that the current state of our culture and the pattern of the times have exposed our incapacity.

The integration of faith and learning refers to a theological quest for coherence across all the fields of knowledge. It is a highly spiritual exercise that encompasses very hard work, which includes the sort of rigorous criticism and assessment that only love can drive. It is fundamentally an act of worship. Taylor as a whole, and not just its chapel program, is suffering from a lack of that kind of worship. Unfortunately, resistance to this sort of serious theological reflection and correction is the hallmark of the worst kind of fools, so that “they know not over what they stumble” (Proverbs 1:7; 4:19; 12:1).

Here are seven things that I would suggest need to happen. First, chapel should no longer be broadcast online, so that its energies may be free to focus squarely and unreservedly on the spiritual needs and edification of those who are actually at Taylor. Second, there needs to be a series of chapels devoted to explaining what Christian theology is, why it matters to everyone and what the Bible has to do with it. Third, a series of chapels then needs to follow which are devoted to explaining what Christian community is, how we know it, what distinguishes it from other notions of community, what actually creates it or destroys it and what its purpose is. Fourth, a chapel series then needs to be devoted to explicitly outlining what the New Testament teaches regarding the nature of Christian discipleship. Fifth, all this needs to be framed with an attitude of repentance for our unteachable stubbornness and our proneness to sabotage all good and healthy processes, because all true learning is conditional upon repentance and the willingness to check one’s ego. Sixth, a final series of chapels then needs to take place in which several departments in the university take time to explain what their disciplines have to do with theology and therefore with the integration of faith and learning, and thus a Christian education. Seventh, the fruits of this process and the clearly delineated values which arise from it must then serve as the touchstone for practical steps in reforming and clarifying the mission of the university, its approach to academics (especially the foundational core curriculum), its approach to student development and its approach to institutional development.

It goes without saying (almost) that these seven steps envision chapel as playing a central role in the life of Taylor University. The process would take some time and require some wherewithal, but it is worth doing. The alternative is to ignore and dismiss all this until we find ourselves in deep(er) crisis. But the problem with that approach is twofold: (1) it assumes that our capacity to recognize a crisis for what it is will still be intact by that time; and (2) it fails to recognize that you cannot learn when you are in desperate straights due to your own indolence (Proverbs 1:20–33). I suppose it’s possible that we might still be able to pull our bacon out of the fire when that happens, but such is hardly a recipe for human flourishing. I, for one, would like to see us worship our way toward something better.

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