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Braking for Bloggers

Cedarville's decision to cancel Shane Claiborne lecture highlights turmoil over the school's doctrinal identity.

Cedarville University, a Baptist school in southwest Ohio, decided on January 30 to cancel a lecture from Christian social activist Shane Claiborne originally slated for tonight (Feb. 11) in the school's Dixon Ministry Center, after a small but vocal number of bloggers saw the lecture as a step toward liberal theology.

After Cedarville's public relations office announced on January 22 that Cedarville would be hosting "An Evening with Shane Claiborne," some blogs decried the decision to invite someone they labeled as belonging to the Emergent community. Links to the blogs were then e-mailed to alumni and pastors, some of whom called Cedarville administrators to complain.

Carl Ruby, Cedarville's vice president for student life, told CT that although there was "a high degree of receptivity on campus" to the Claiborne lecture, he decided to cancel the lecture to avoid risking conveying the wrong message about Cedarville's doctrinal beliefs.

"There was a tension between my desire to use this event to challenge students to take a closer look at a very important social issue, and the need to protect Cedarville's reputation as a conservative, Christ-centered university," said Ruby. "There can't be any confusion about our commitment to God's Word and our historically conservative doctrinal position.

"Nearly all of the opposition to Claiborne's visit came from off campus," he said. "The reaction from both faculty and students has been along the lines of, 'We are a university … We need to be having these kinds of conversations on campus if we are going to adequately equip the next generation of Christian leaders.' "

The Claiborne lecture was only one episode in the ongoing story of Cedarville's efforts to pinpoint its doctrinal commitments in the face of what some perceive to be the school's move away from orthodoxy. Divisions came to a head when two professors were fired last year over their disagreements with two other professors who were sympathetic to the Emergent movement. Author Donald Miller's visit to Cedarville in the spring of 2006 also provoked complaints.

"At bottom, what we're concerned about is biblical truth," said Ingrid Schlueter, one of the bloggers who decried the Claiborne lecture. "It's a repackaging of liberalism for a postmodern generation."

Claiborne, who has not self-identified as part of the Emergent movement, is best known for launching a monastic community in Philadelphia, and for his 2006 book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. His lecture was sponsored by Cedarville's Student Life Division.

Ruby sent an e-mail on January 30 to the student body announcing the cancellation, and held a meeting later that evening with a group of students who had questions regarding the cancellation. According to John Davis, associate director of Cedarville's PR department, the group "demonstrated a gracious spirit regarding the decision," and discussed ways they could serve the poor in their community in lieu of attending the Claiborne lecture.

Keith Rice, an engineering student, says he believes his peers were generally discouraged after hearing the announcement. "Most were upset not because they agreed with Claiborne, but because the administration was bowing to the will of various bloggers, thus sheltering them," he said.

Claiborne said he was "disappointed that the institution itself at Cedarville was not secure enough to stand up to these vigilante voices."

He also said he wanted to talk to his critics. "Unfortunately, it's difficult to communicate with folks who will not talk to you, who only talk around you, as in this case," he said. "There's too much constructive work to do for the kingdom for us to spend our energies constantly reacting to every destructive voice, especially those who do not honor Jesus' admonition to speak directly to one another in love (Matthew 18)."

Apex Community Church, a nondenominational church in nearby Kettering, decided last week to host Claiborne tonight after the university appearance was canceled. The lecture is open to the public.

Cedarville, a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and home to some 3,000 students, describes itself as a "Christ-centered learning community … marked by excellence and grounded in biblical truth."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's earlier articles on Cedarville include, "Two Degrees of Separation | GARBC distances itself from college after Southern Baptist endorsement." (Sept. 2006)

Claiborne wrote about the cancellation at the God's Politics group blog.

Claiborne was on the cover of the September 2005 issue of Christianity Today for our article on "The New Monasticism."

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