LOUISIANA COLLEGE: ARE THE PINE TREES DROOPING?
by Kyle Kelley
I. Drinking the Milk of a Nurturing Community
I am a Louisiana College graduate as were my sisters and father before me. Every little Kelley knew almost from birth that LC was the next destination following high school. My father was one of many "country preacher boys" who arrived on campus before the war, in his words, "still wet behind the ears." He would tell you he could not have conjugated a verb even if he knew what that word meant. Like most of that era, he was the first in his family to attend college. The little Baptist school set among those pine trees was a gentle introduction to higher learning, and the nurturing of faith for the great world beyond his rural hometown of Saline.
Louisiana College has now passed it's Centennial. Much has happened since 1906 when the first student enrollment topped out at 19. Heroic struggles in the early years kept the doors open, and only by great sacrifices on the part of many, did the college survive the Depression. By 1940 the student body had grown into the 300's or so. Old-timers say it was a small lively community where learning sometimes happened, though perhaps not as frequently as the practical jokes. After hearing these stories growing up, one alumni's child was sorely disappointed when he attended LSU and found the Baton Rouge campus "boring" compared to the legendary shenanigans at LC.
The primary strength of Louisiana College has always been the same. It is a caring family environment, informed by Christian faith, that diligently nudges frequently reluctant learners to open themselves to God's fascinating, complex and often bewildering world. Dr. Robert Lynn, president during most of my years, knew every student by name and knew something of his or her interests. Faculty members were generally well-prepared, involved with students and pushed us to look beyond our limited horizons. Many students groaned at mandatory chapel and the occasional bent towards legalism. Each generation of LC students has its own example. In the 1930's, dating couples were sometimes "busted" for illegally holding hands. Each era also had its few infected with "anti-intellectualism" (as some Baptists can be prone) as if there is a kind of glory in being ignorant. A healthy tension inevitably develops between the goals of providing the highest quality education and its delivery in an authentic Christian context. Not an environment for everyone--but for a sheltered, shy, half-way bright, but undisciplined 17 year old who arrived in 1975, it was a good fit.
I was tuned in one day when Dr. Lynn led chapel using the text of the greatest commandment, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind ...". After pausing on that third way, he took the entire time to explain what it meant to love God with your mind. As he described it, learning is a great joy, but more importantly it is a stewardship issue. We are to use well what God had given us. He said God was the author of all truth and we should neither fear the truth nor settle for second hand easy answers masquerading as the truth. Further, scientific truth and theological truth come from the same Source. Dr. Cavanaugh so ably illustrated this point in intro Biology class. He never referred to a note, yet his presentation was seamless and filled with awe at the intricacies and mystery of creation. In time it began to dawn on me that in human hands, truth can sometimes be slippery. Yet it is the truth that sets us free. Loving God with our mind means making the search for truth a life long pursuit and doing it with a heavy dose of humility. The journey begins with asking the right questions.
II. Pearls Before Swine: Of Flatulence and Philosophizing
"Do you think Jesus would laugh at that story?" was the query raised in British Literature. After a pregnant pause, students began to react in varied ways. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a classic from the 14th century that tells of varied pilgrims on the way to a holy site. Each story reflects the views and life experiences of diverse travelers. Some are moral in tone. The Miller's Tale is not. Its climatic scene is farcical, earthy, rollicking, impious and to this then-18-year old, quite funny. The fact that "natural gas" is featured was clearly an attraction. Perhaps college freshmen today are not so enamored with bodily functions, but a number were on my freshmen wing. A few even performed this trick with a lighter and ... uh... never mind.
As a rule my teachers were incredibly patient. They were dealt students with varying gifts, liabilities, and motivations. There were the curious learners, as well as the lazily dazed, for which learning was a near bottom priority. Not all the students were religious and some were religious in the worst way. My dorm mother, whose door was always open and whose heart showed a tender spot for homesick freshmen, was astute in her observations. In a near whisper she spoke of one of her "preacher boys" whom she loved nonetheless, "He's so heavenly minded, he's no earthly good." At our best, this family of students and teachers each on different paths, tolerated, listened to, learned from and challenged each other.
But what do you do with that question? Would Jesus frown or chuckle, fume or twinkle in the eye at this "off color" story? Of course our response to such a question reveals more about us than it does Jesus. Some students were offended, others annoyed, a few intrigued, and others dozed on. It is not clear whether this question from the prof was an act of courage (to risk getting us to think) or an act of desperation (to stir us from our slumber.) As I recall, the question made it back to the dorm for the late night bull session. Such sessions are among my most exquisite memories. Among that little group of students no topic was off limits, and as often as not, the discussion came through the prism of what does this mean if I take Jesus seriously.
Like any good teacher, this English professor (long since departed from LC), resisted giving us the "answer." He understood his role to be that of guide and facilitator, and that as young adults, ultimately we were responsible for our own learning - responsible to ourselves and, for those of us who were followers of The Way, responsible to God for how we used our gifts.
Once, there was a little boy who found an emerging butterfly struggling mightily to escape from its cocoon. The child took pity, reached down, and cut free the poor insect only to find a wobbly, anemic creature too weak to ever fly. "Saving" the butterfly from its struggles prevented it from gaining the strength it would have developed through the process in order to fly and survive in the world. No metaphor could more clearly illustrate the issue before Louisiana College today. Do we want a school that respects the students in their unique curiosity and that expects maturity from them to address adult issues (since it is the adult world that they now enter)? Or, do we want to help them hide and withdraw into a false spiritual enclave where they are too weak to enter the marketplace of ideas and the world's pain with an articulate gospel word? Do we want professors to use their God given minds to soar freely under the Lordship of Jesus to think in new ways and engage the world creatively? Or, do we want their wings clipped, their provocative questions silenced, and for them to be granted permission only to offer "second hand easy answers masquerading as the truth?"III. Casting Out Fear ...And a Child Shall Lead
Louisiana College has never been a large school and today even after a nearly 100 year history, its total number of graduates is not much over 10,000. Are these numbers large enough to make a difference? In the grand scheme of things does seeking to conserve this tradition of open inquiry in Christian community matter that much? The largest crowd (any of us could recall) assembled at a recent regional alumni meeting to speak in the affirmative. It seems a crisis served to bring out the faithful. Stories circulated among the group not only of what the school has meant to us, but the difference its graduates have made. A contribution well out of proportion to its size, LC has sent out a bevy of professionals to be salt and light in virtually every field of endeavor. One alumnus noted that at one point, there were seven School Superintendents who were LC graduates.
So what has gone wrong? At this alumni gathering, consensus emerged about trustees out of control -- not all of them apparently, but a significant group that never sleeps in its misguided zeal. Their self-appointed task is to narrowly re-shape the vision of a Christian liberal arts college into an intolerant, "dumbed-down" religion school. It is a by-product of a larger conflict of which we are all too familiar and have long been weary. The cry of "I am more conservative than you, more fundamental in my beliefs than you" has sent Baptists on a religious arms race to the wacky. Pushed to its extreme, the result is trustees wanting to ban books that have become modern classics and requirements that Christian scholars submit their curriculum to censors. It is a lurch towards an academically sterile and chilling environment where open discussion is suspect.
Just as disturbing is the "end justifies the means" mentality, in which off campus power plays, rump sessions, and moving around established procedures become the mode of operation that is just like ... well, the world. Yes, the same world Jesus has called us to transform. What irony, we Baptists must rely again on the "secular world" (in the form of accreditation committees) to get us in line and warn us to behave like Christians or else. Only a few years ago one of our current trustees was found guilty of libel against LC professors and settled out of court. That trustee continues to lead the charge to disaster. Now we look to a "secular" accrediting body to slap our trustees' hands for stifling academic freedom, and running roughshod on established and orderly governance procedures (like a jerry rigged and ultimately successful effort to install a woefully unqualified but well connected teacher as president).
The deeper issues however, point to our fractured Christian community and our failure of faith, love and imagination. Fear, not doubt is opposite of faith. We fear trusting one another and God with our differences. We are called to unite under the banner of "Jesus is Lord," recognizing that God transcends our categories. St. Paul tells us perfect love casts out fear. Our sad history as Baptists is that we love our dogmas much more than we love Jesus, and certainly more than we love each other. We are much quicker to err in love than in doctrine. Jesus' last recorded prayer near the end of the Gospel of John is a tender plea that we, his followers would have (not perfect doctrine but) a love for each other so compelling that the world will take notice. In my years at LC, there were non-Christian students who came because of the school's academic excellence and individualized attention. Some of these were changed forever not because of our religious purity, clever arguments or ability to "shout them down." It seems yielded, humble vessels willing to be real, honest, and loving with fellow students became the instrument of choice the Potter used to find those hearts in need.
In the New Testament we see a Jesus ready to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. We have it on record of his great mercy to one caught in the most embarrassing of circumstances with his gentle word, "Go and sin no more." His strongest words were against the religiously self-assured, who had no need of a physician. It was always people before agendas. Jesus has a way of surprising us and turning our world upside down. Jesus will be faithful to call out the next generation, from those "grown up children" who now attend LC. Will Louisiana Baptists be open to that leading, to trust each other and give these students the best in mature, authentic, Christian liberal arts education? Not by fear, not by overprotection, not by clipping wings or snipping cocoons, but by faith and love would butterflies soar.