People look at you kind of strange when you tell them that you shelled out good money to attend something called a “Christian Scholars’ Conference” and that you actually enjoyed it. Reactions can range from “What’s a guy like you doing in a place like that?” to “Well, la-de-da!” But believe me, after a long season of Tim James political TV ads and rootin’ tootin’ “Ag Commish” wannabe viral videos, I was ready for a little more “la-de-da” in my life.
You know Eyegal and me–liberal arts geeks to the core. An itch like that doesn’t always get scratched sufficiently in a high tech town like Huntsville, Alabama. To get to those places that rocket science and computer chips can’t touch, we make an annual pilgrimage to The Christian Scholars’ Conference (CSC) at Lipscomb University in Nashville.
The CSC is a place where scholars (and poseurs like Eyegal and me) from Church of Christ-affiliated colleges and universities, as well as many other schools and denominations, meet and greet and explore new ways to integrate their faith with their various academic disciplines. Nashville is traditionally referred to as “The Athens of the South,” and Lipscomb’s commitment to academic freedom and to hosting a world-class event like CSC is rapidly raising her stock and placing her in the same league as her neighbors and longstanding paragons of academic excellence, Vanderbilt and Belmont.
This year’s theme was “Beauty in the Academy: Faith, Scholarship & The Arts.” What’s so special about a bunch of professors, writers, artists, musicians, poets and playwrights convening for some sort of “Campbellite Woodstock,” you ask? After all, didn’t we switch to a Fortune 500 model faith and chase weird-looking and funny-talking people like that out of the Church of Christ a long time ago and replace them with lawyers, engineers, doctors and “bidness men?”
Glad you asked. Well, when was the last time you heard a world-renowned poet and critic like Dana Gioia, devout Roman Catholic and former Chair of the Endowment for the Arts, issue a stirring and urgent plea for Christian writers to rise up and produce another Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy who will inject a much-needed pulse of the transcendent into modern art and culture to satisfy man’s unconscious spiritual longings, followed by a public reading of his own work? Hmmm?
I thought so. Or how about sitting in on an intimate creative session with musicians like Sarah Masen and songwriters/performers Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of the alternative/folk duo Over the Rhine?
Never heard of them? Neither had I. But now my iPhone is full of their soulful, sacramental songs, including Over the Rhine’s haunting, eschatological jazz piece, “The Trumpet Child,” a true fusion of faith and art that left the flood-weary crowd at the Friday evening “Tokens Show” leaning into the instrumental riff at the end and looking toward the sky for some soul-saving satisfaction and deliverance.
Rubbed shoulders with a Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Academy Award-winning playwright and movie director lately? John Patrick Shanley is a former Roman Catholic and now freelance truth-seeker who wrote the award-winning play Doubt which he eventually brought to the big screen, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. You’d think a famous, heavy-hitter like that might be the kind of guy who would blow into town, quickly fulfill his obligation and get the heck out of Dodge without giving you the time of day. But boy, were we in for a surprise.
On the first afternoon of the conference, Shanley gave a rousing and provocative speech in which he challenged us to stop trying to escape the inherent “discomfort” of life and to instead seek ways to live out our individual stories in “spiritually useful” ways. Later that evening, as we descended the stairs from the dining hall to take in a performance of Doubt by a local theater group, there stood Shanley, gazing around curiously, a wry, irenic smile spread across his face, waiting patiently and humbly in a long line for his own play. Backstage, there were actors and directors sweating bullets over performing a play in front of a famous playwright, but Shanley was doing his best to blend in with the crowd.
We laughed and teasingly asked him if he needed a ticket too! He returned the good cheer, and in his thick Bronx accent, admitted the he had been a little nervous about getting outside his comfort zone and traveling to a Southern Christian college, but that he had decided to open himself up to the experience and “take it all in.” We continued to chat as the line moved slowly forward, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy connecting with everyone he encountered. What a great example of congeniality and good will–and from a “Yankee” no less!
As a Harding alumnus, I admit to experiencing a little “Lipscomb envy.” It was obvious to me that his namesake school was living up to its calling to become a full-fledged, bona fide university, one that seeks out diversity of opinion and affirms truth wherever and in whomever it’s found, rather than shielding its students from “the world.” My alma mater and Lipscomb have always shared a close relationship (James Harding helped found Lipscomb) and a friendly rivalry. And now, the older sister had clearly taken the lead.
But fortunately, there were several Harding faculty and alumni in attendance and presenting as well, including Jerry “Boo” Mitchell, the Pulitzer Prize nominee, MacArthur Foundation Fellow and investigative reporter for the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion Ledger. Jerry’s tireless work has resulted in the reopening of several murder “cold cases” from the Civil Rights Era and the arrest and conviction of four former Klansmen–so far.
It was thrilling to see him at Lipscomb, sitting beside and swapping stories with two notable African American Civil Rights historians and the 82-year-old former publisher of The Tennessean and Freedom Rider John Seigenthaler. Listening to the four of them recount the struggles of the era was like taking a long draw from a deep fount of history. Later that evening, Jerry was honored again with an interview during the “Tokens Show,” a community-wide event.
All that, yet Jerry’s definition of “justice” remains simple– “It’s how we treat other people.”
Why is all this important? Because many Christians, especially those of the fundamentalist, evangelical variety, increasingly look with disdain upon higher learning, history, culture and the arts as “elitist,” often creating their own inferior, “dumbed-down” versions (see the Left Behind book series, the movies Facing the Giants and Fireproof, and 75% of the selections in your typical LifeWay Christian bookstore).
Perhaps out of fear of rejection, fear of contamination, or fear of hellfire, we hunker down inside our Christian ghettos and smugly settle for the same old intellectual incest, nodding our heads in mindless unison as we listen to our own voices reverberate in our sound-proof echo chambers.
At best, we might offer a “limp-fish” handshake to truth-seekers who are “not one of us,” but then we turn our backs on a world that God created and called “Good” and refuse to carry on even the most basic in polite conversation.
And now, a generation of children raised in the church are seeking authenticity and true spirituality in other places, realizing for the first time as young adults that there are often more tokens and traces of God in a well-crafted film or probing play than in the typical 4-PowerPointed sermon or the simplistic, canned and often politically-slanted answers of a college-age Bible class.
The Christian Scholars’ Conference is a welcome and timely antidote for all that. Kudos to Conference Director David Fleer and Lipscomb President Randy Lowery and his wife Rhonda for their visionary leadership, and to the Lipscomb Board of Trustees for their courage in supporting their efforts.
Somewhere, David Lipscomb–and James Harding–are no doubt smiling.