Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Walking Away From Faith by Ruth A. Tucker, and a Calvinist-inspired bunny-trail of some significance

I dreamed I had a fever
I was pushin one-oh-three
My mom’s all upset - cryin’ by my bedside
Everybody’s prayin’ for me
I hear a scratchin at the window
I somehow twist myself around
I realize I’m eyes to eyes
With the fella in the Brite Nitegown

Brite Nitegown
Brite Nitegown
You can’t fight with the fella
In the Brite Nitegown

Donald Fagen (mp3 here)

“One-oh-three,” you say? That's kid stuff. The “scratchin at the window,” however, was tangible enough to put me in a metaphysical frame of mind, so among the curiosities I pulled from my laden bookshelves while I was sick was Walking Away From Faith, by Ruth A. Tucker. I'm not sure who clued me in to this book (probably JT) but I was completely taken with it. I found Tucker to be plain-spoken, and forthright about her own doubts and insecurities — a religious academic attempting to explore without guile or defensiveness the issue of apostasy. Intellectually she was both perceptive and receptive in fairly equal measure. A quick Google search reveals that this book receives glowing recommendations from both evangelical atheists (here is one such) and evangelical Christians — surely the most unique distinction for a religious book you could hope to find.

As I scanned the Google links, I was surprised to see how few of them pertained to the book. It's received precious little attention from the commercially-funded religious rags, and after investigating a little further I began to see why: the book and its subject matter have been eclipsed by the treatment Tucker has received at the hands of her former employers, Calvin College and Theological Seminary.

I would dearly love to comment on this specific case, but the only account on record is Tucker's (here). It's as surely biased as all first-person accounts must be, but she's attentive to pertinent details and the fact that Calvin remains mute in response to her objections is more than a little damning of them. Certainly church-funded academia is no stranger to immoral administration. I have a professor friend who has been the recipient of shabby treatment from both public universities and religious colleges: he asserts in no uncertain terms that Christian colleges will screw-over an exiting staff-member more thoroughly than any public institution, because a) there are fewer accountability hoops for the administrations of religious institutions to jump through, and b) the administration, whose chief concern is public perception among the school's donor base, will invoke without censure the self-serving “godliness clause” (JT unpacks it all here).

Instead I'll do the usual: speak from personal experience and make a few scandalous generalizations in an effort to provoke.

So far as I'm concerned, nothing sucks the air out of a room faster than a man intent on selling a Calvinist Benefits Package. Thanks to prolonged manifold exposure (I skulked in the hallways of the ICS and as an MCC hack did some work with CPJ in the mid-90s) on this issue my knee-jerk has been finely-tuned to a hair-trigger response. Recently, however, I've been surprised to discover two spokesmen on behalf of John Calvin (The Man) who snuck past my defences and forced me to reconsider my deeply-entrenched predjudices — and they weren't men at all. I'm speaking of Marilynne Robinson and, of course, Tucker. (Actually, Seerveld has slipped through on occasion as well, but he's a dude and I'm trying not to complicate my invective.)

It's head-slappingly obvious where I'm going with this: if today's self-styled Calvinistas want their public voice to be anything more trenchant than a nostalgic echo of post-war glory days, the fellas running the academies and churches are going to have to roll up their sleeves and work bloody hard to address gender representation, gender discrepancies and public accountability.

On all three issues George W. Bush and his administration are holding to a higher standard than Calvin College does. If that doesn't cause consternation among my neo-Cal friends, I truly fear for the soul of their religion.


Getting back to Tucker's book: it's well-written, well-considered and she never condescends. This is the first I've encountered anything like it on the market, so I highly recommend the book to anyone with a vested interest in the subject matter (particularly those readers who aren't as taken with Annie Dillard as I am). Quibbles: the last chapter felt a bit rushed (possibly written while her position was being terminated?), and the font used should, I think, be avoided by all publishers everywhere. I hope once Ms. Tucker has regained her footing she'll publish other books. She's someone I don't mind listening to.


DarkoV said...

Calvin College, eh?

Quite the interesting fellow happened to be an alumni there, who happened to write his own take on falling out of religion.

Whisky Prajer said...

heh - yeah, Paul Schrader is a Calvin alumnus as well. I have three friends who spent time at Calvin, and they all note the irony of how silently proud nearly everyone at the college is at having "produced" these seething apostates (neither of whom, I'm guessing, have contributed much to the school's coffers).

DarkoV said...

Hey. Just noticed 2 new additions to your On the Floor collection. Housekeeping vs. The Dirt
and Writing Fiction Step by Step.

Any plans for short reviews? I'd seen Hornby's book on SALE at McSweeneys when they were going through a minor fire sale. Unfortunately, with shipping, the book's price doubled. So.....I'd be anxious to hear if the book's as good as his first compilaiton of The Believer articles.

ジョエル said...

As a Calvin Alumni myself, I remember hearing about the Ruth Tucker controversy when it happened last winter. (I was back in town at the time, and I even had a couple friends at seminary).

The truth of these matters, and who was in the right, is often hard from the outsiders perspectives. Some of my seminary friends would say something to me along the lines that they were concerned about what was happening, but they had such great respect for the professors at Calvin Seminary they trusted they were doing the right thing. On the other hand, given what an old boys club Calvin Seminary is, it's hard not to sympathesize.

I've never met Ruth Tucker personally, but I do drop by her blog occassionally. I've got to say I'm not always impressed by the professionalism of it. This attack on the prose of colleague Mary Hulst here seemed like a low blow. .

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - "short reviews" - good idea. I'll try to get that down today.

ジョエル - "often hard from the outsider's perspective" "respect (for the people in charge)" ... dude, you of all people should be the last guy to fall for that line!!

Whisky Prajer said...

Sorry, JS: I should take your comments seriously.

there is certainly another side to this story that isn't being aired. Because I blog-know Trott, and because Tucker's book elicited my sympathies, and because I've seen first-hand other Christian colleges resort to the "quiet" ("We have our reasons") dismissal of professors she has me in her corner in a way that Calvin does not. Still, I don't think public accountability is as complicated as silent partners (including the President of the United States - "It's complicated, 'cos ... heh, heh ... I might get fired!") tend to assert. Tucker's charges are clearly stated and in no way frivolous; it's reasonable of her to expect answers. The gents running Calvin remain silent, and that's simply inexcusable. And even if they don't want to "go public" (a strange impulse for any organization that professes Christian values) there are quiet ways of managing these things.

You also refer to CTS as an old boys' club, but that's just the tip of the iceberg: the Reformed Church is an old boys' club, too. I'm suggesting to anyone who truly believes that neo-Calvinism is a spiritual-intellectual movement that requires the serious consideration of the public at large that they and their church have a lot of very public work to do re: gender before that happens with any authenticity. (Um ... "neoCal" - is that your bent? Just curious.)

As for Hulst, you've got to admit that "On the move!" is pretty hokey!

ジョエル said...

I should clarify I don't really have a dog in this fight. I attended Calvin, but I wouldn't always consider myself on the administrations side, and I never attended CTS, which is a largely seperate institution. I was struck at the time by the high level of respect my friends in seminary (who I respect) had for the people making the decisions. So two levels of respect removed if you like. But everything you said is true and I'm not going to try and argue it.

The attack on Mary Hulst seemed a bit snarky. I probably shouldn't criticize given my blog, but then I'm not a high profile figure in certain circles. I understand she is upset that Mary Hulst never came to her defence, but when was the last time you took the prose of a fellow blogger/ collegue and held it up to ridicule on your own blog?

Whisky Prajer said...

Me?! Geez, I hardly ever raise subject matter (blogular or otherwise) that genuinely offends me, nevermind quality of prose! Hm. If the creative grist ever eludes me, I just might... (nah!).

Phil said...

Whew. This is getting kinda close to home.

Neal Plantinga (who runs Cal Sem) always seemed to be spoken of highly, as far as I can remember, by the handful of embattled feminists in the community. The place (and its parent denomination) as a whole are certainly men's clubs, but I've always had the impression that Plantinga was not an asshole. That is why this was kind of confusing to me. I have several friends at Calvin Seminary (and they are, by any measure, part of the progressive faction there) and I simply haven't had a chance to pick their brains about it.

Whatever's going on, it's very saddening. And given the sexism that is endemic to both seminary and college (the latter of which, I should point out, I have an undying, rather intense, kind of embarrassing affection for), it is indeed ironic that Marilynne Robinson (a frequent speaker at both places) is THE contemporary recoverer of the things that are great about Calvin, the thinker. It's also embarrassing because a preponderance of the finest minds at Calvin College are women, IMO.

On the other hand, I can't understand why ANYONE would attack Mary Hulst. If you knew her (as I do only slightly, but I've heard her sermons over the years and seen her effect on other people in my life), you'd understand why this seemingly minor point strikes a very wrong note with ???? and myself.

Phil said...

You know, looking at Tucker's comments on Hulst, they aren't really that harsh. And the Narnia comparison is not one of MH's finer moments. I shoulda read that before I responded above.

Whisky Prajer said...

Phil - glad you weighed in, given your history with the place. And there's nothing wrong with hasty summaries on a blog like mine!