On Saturday Madeleine and I attended the launch of Laidlaw College (formerly Bible College of New Zealand or BCNZ). It was an impressive event which was well attended; the Minister of Education Chris Carter, local MP Lynne Pillay, United Future’s Judy Turner, various Waitakere City Councillors and former BCNZ Principals were in attendance. The MC was John Hawkesby, the key note speaker was Principle Youth Court Judge Andrew Beecroft.
The pomp was a little overdone with the Mayor of Waitakere City, Bob Harvey, implying via video, that the lower crime rate in the Waitakere area was attributable in part to the presence of BCNZ in the community. Likewise, it was a bit hard to swallow that Chris Carter really truly was there to support Laidlaw College’s plans to develop a more educated and politically active generation of evangelical Christians – more than one person present in the audience had been previously written off as a right wing fundamentalist by the Minister.
The best speech of the evening was by Dr Mark Strom, Laidlaw‘s Principal. Strom opened by noting that the view of history popularly peddled today that Christianity brought about the oppressive period of time known as the Dark Ages was historically false. He pointed out that the Middle Ages had seen a rise in innovation and education and laid the groundwork for the scientific revolution. Quoting from Julian the Apostate, an early Roman critic of Christianity, he pointed out that Christianity had established charities and schools for the poor, had preached a form of egalitarianism whereby the rank and stature of different levels of Roman society were viewed as unimportant. He went on to challenge the excessive pietism in evangelical circles which draws a dichotomy between secular vocation and ministry, no doubt appropriating the puritan ethos of the university at which Strom studied. He spoke of the need for Christians to be culturally informed and engaged, to demand high standards in education and to adopt an intellectually robust yet orthodox, faith that engages the questions of the day. Strom went on to lay out the plan for Laidlaw to become a Christian Liberal Arts College where ultimately the Humanities would be taught from a Christian perspective to a very high standard. The message woven throughout was that of a vision for Laidlaw to pick up its game and find its place as an institution of higher learning.
It was refreshing to hear somebody say this. In 2000 I came to BCNZ to study theology. I found it a frustrating and depressing experience having come from the University of Waikato‘s Philosophy department. I was expecting to find a similar academic standard to which I had left and was looking forward to being able to have this within a Christian community and with the support of like minded individuals. My hope was naive.
It wasn’t that BCNZ was a horrible experience, the people were very nice and friendly but they were culturally so out of touch and I despaired as I saw time and again the staff and students falling for the most ludicrous arguments against Christianity, frequently post-modern garbage, and then struggle to re-contextualise their faith so as to be sympathetic to these ‘genuine, sincere’ concerns. The fact that the argument might have been invalid and the complaint unjustified seemed to never enter their minds, in fact they did not seem to even want to raise the question. Then there were the students whose faith was essentially emotional and their approach to theological education was effectively of the calibre of Sunday School. Two years later I gladly left for Dunedin to pursue my PhD at Otago University and breathed a deep sigh of relief to be back in academia.
Last year, 5 years after leaving for Dunedin, I came back to BCNZ initially because we needed somewhere to stay as my mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and we were not sure whether we would move back up or not. BCNZ was incredibly supportive and not only gave us accommodation and fellowship but also gave me some part-time work teaching theology online.
To my pleasure, things had changed at BCNZ somewhat. It is now acceptable and common for students to have theological conversations outside of class. There seems to be genuine interest in thinking and taking ownership of personal intellectual development and trying to come to an informed and reasoned evangelical faith. Strom‘s leadership has undoubtedly had a lot to do with this change. That said, many of my old frustrations do remain in some form.
Strom’s vision for Laidlaw is encouraging. I absolutely support the direction he is trying to take it in. My only concern is whether he can pull it off. My experience with evangelical organisations is that they generally do not take things far enough. They stop at a quasi-popular level that seems sophisticated to a layman but still is appallingly superficial when viewed against the kind of things that would be found within the average University. I am frustrated with the sorts of things that Madeleine was alluding to when she called herself a little p philosopher, people appointed because of their connections and the fact they have worked within some popular para-church organisation and can deliver a 1000 word overview of the thought of some trendy enlightenment thinker (generally holding a bachelors degree in an unrelated subject) whilst qualified individuals who lack the connections are passed over.
I guess time will tell whether Laidlaw College succeeds or not. I will be hoping and praying that it does because New Zealand Evangelicalism desperately needs it to.
Laidlaw College: Mark Strom Responds to Critics