The Southern Baptists have invaded Chicago, as promised, though in far smaller numbers than were suggested some months ago when their plans to evangelize the city made headlines. You may recall the furor, amid which a group of right-minded Chicago religious folk banded together to proclaim love and tolerance and mutual respect—and to censure the Southern Baptists for their heavy-handed ways. I mean, who do these Baptists think they are, Jesus Christ? This put me in mind of a time many years ago—roughly 20 years, though I can hardly believe it—when I was teaching English at a large state university in California. A senior faculty member had raised concerns about the "proselytizing" activities of several Christian groups on campus. These pernicious groups, he pointed out, were diametrically opposed to the very values a university stands for: free inquiry, skepticism, critical thought. But precisely because they offered easy, definite answers, they appealed to many students who were looking for security, preying upon them and exploiting their vulnerability as they sought to form an adult identity. Couldn't something be done about these Christians? The ensuing discussion was carried on between staunch advocates of free speech, like it or not, and faculty who emphasized the responsibility of the university to be responsive to the needs of students (in this case, their need to be protected from proselytizers). I left while the debate was still in progress and walked across the campus, passing a row of tables where students were encouraged to apply for a credit card, to join a fraternity, to join the black students' association, to buy a tie-dyed t-shirt. One table displayed books published by Progress Press, including works by Lenin and some classics of Socialist Realism. The books were dingy, as if they had been sitting outside for a long time, but I was tempted by a study of Tolstoy by the critic Viktor Shklovsky. I bought it and went on in to the student union to get a cup of coffee. To me that day, the university looked like a marketplace of ideas—or better, a bazaar of ideas. Wherever I turned, someone was trying to persuade me to do something, with methods of seduction ranging from the brazen to the subtle. A fresh-faced young woman in a fetching tank top wanted me to join the army of the credit-card indebted. (I had already enlisted and re-upped, foolishly, and at great eventual cost before I was discharged.) A couple of beefy guys wanted me to drink beer and do whatever else fraternity guys do. A studious type whose hair was long, like mine, wanted me, improbably enough, to become a communist. But some ideas, it seems, are more threatening than others. So the Christians were a problem, as they have tended to be. And so there is much handwringing over "proselytism." Isn't it about time to retire that word?
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.
Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.com or subscribe here.Books & Culture's " Letters on the Web" area, updated weekly, has been enthusiastically debating proselytism.Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:It Takes a Village to Raise a Child … | But for an abortion, you only need a doctor and a nurse or two. By John Wilson Mad Scientist Holds World Hostage | Thoughts on the "rough draft of the genome map." By John Wilson History Wars Update | 'Feisty' historians attempt to reconstruct their discipline. By Donald A. Yerxa Semite Sensibility | What makes a movie Jewish? A series of film festivals takes a look. By Camilla Luckey (June 12, 2000) Beneath the Orange and Green | A survey shows Northern Ireland's hope lies in its churchgoers. By Mark Noll (June 5, 2000) Barna & Bailey | The Greatest Research Show on Earth? By John Wilson (May 22, 2000) Peacemaking in Northern Ireland | Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell considers the long, often painful process. By Mary Cagney (May 15, 2000) Our Bodies, Our Selves? | Facing the discomfort we have with our physiques. By John Wilson (May 8, 2000) True West | Three excellent museum shows—not to mention our magazines—reexamine the American frontier. By John Wilson (May 1, 2000)
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