I’ve been mulling over something for more than a week, and it’s reached a point where I must write about it or risk losing even more sleep than I already do. What have I been stewing about? Dr. Everett Piper’s (President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University in Bartlesville, Oklahoma) open letter to students. It bothers me for several reasons, even though, judging by all the Facebook posting and Tweeting, I’m in the minority.
In case you have not yet read the letter, here is a link: http://www.okwu.edu/blog/2015/11/this-is-not-a-day-care-its-a-university/
I graduated from OKWU with a Bachelor’s in English Education. The English and Education professors were amazing at that time. No topic was off-limits. I found my professors to be open and honest. I do not know their personal beliefs, but they were fair and encompassing in the classroom. Maybe it’s because I was an adult, but I truly had a connection with several of them. After graduation, I even taught six semesters of Comp. I & II, Intro. to Lit., and English and Secondary Methods. I graduated about the time President Piper took his job. He seemed like a nice man with a passion for education. I do not know him personally, and let me stress this is not ad hominem. This is a response to his article—nothing more.
From the first paragraph, the post bothers me. The tone feels sarcastic and didactic, even judgmental; it does not reflect the attitude of the “love chapter,” I Corinthians 13, which was also ironically the basis of the sermon that caused the student’s discomfort. I may post separately about how this does not reflect I Cor. 13, but for now, let me first break down what I find problematic.
1. “This past week, I actually had a student come forward after a university chapel service and complain because he felt ‘victimized’ by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13. It appears this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love…I’m not making this up.”
Response: Dr. Piper was probably quoting the student, but putting victimized in quotes makes it feel sarcastic. As the self-proclaimed Queen of Sarcasm, I know it when I see it. Piper then calls the student “young scholar,” but again, I hear sarcasm. The rest of the post shows how Piper feels the opposite about this young man and students like him, as seen in the next quote:
2. “Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims.”
Response: Rather than approach the young man in love (I Corinthians 13 again) and use this opportunity as a teaching moment, Piper proceeds to heap written abuse on this student. OKWU is a small university. I guarantee the student knew exactly whom Piper was highlighting—and other students know as well. Piper also decides to stereotype the entire group of “kids” as “self-absorbed and narcissistic.” I may be wrong, but doesn’t the student taking the time and initiative to approach Piper and express how “bad” he felt for “not showing love” negate those two terms? Yes, Piper states the teen felt victimized by the sermon, but the teen also expressed a level of remorse/guilt/a “conscience” by saying he felt bad for not doing as the Bible said. This screams “TEACHING MOMENT.” Maybe the student used “victimized” because he struggle expressing how he felt. Maybe the student needed some additional guidance. So many maybes lost….
3. “Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them ‘feel bad’ about themselves, is a ‘hater,’ a ‘bigot,’ an ‘oppressor,’ and a ‘victimizer.’”
Response: Piper seems to have gone on the defensive. Did the teen say Piper was a “hater,” “bigot,” “oppressor,” or “victimizer”? Or because the teen said he felt victimized, did Piper assume the teen cast Piper in the negative role?
4. “That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience. An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad. It is supposed to make you feel guilty. The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness. The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization.”
Response: Actually, that feeling of “discomfort” is called the “Holy Spirit” in most church groups. I grew up in church and have personally answered many an altar call (where the pastor invites those who seek salvation or want a more public forgiveness of sins). I’ve been to Baptist, First Assembly of God, Non-denominational, Mennonite, Church of God, etc. Never once was I told an the purpose of an altar call was to “make you feel guilty.” I was also never told a “good sermon” was to force a confession of sins; rather, sermons were used to instruct, to teach. I can’t ever remember Jesus using his sermons to shame, humiliate, or make his listeners feel bad. He used them to enlighten people. As for “self-actualization,” if we use Maslow’s definition of his own term, the Church definitely has this as an objective: “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization...It refers…to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming" (http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/hierarchyneeds_2.htm). In the Church, this would maybe look different than in other parts of society; however, the Church and God want us to become more, to become all we can through God and Christ. Self-actualization is the opposite of selfishness because self-actualized people realize the world is bigger than they are. The above website further lists characteristics of self-actualized people (which sound an awful lot like Jesus). I’ll paraphrase here, but please do more reading on your own:
1. Acceptance and Realism: Self-actualized people have realistic perceptions of themselves, others and the world around them.
2. Problem-centering: Self-actualized individuals are concerned with solving problems outside of themselves, including helping others and finding solutions to problems in the external world. These people are often motivated by a sense of personal responsibility and ethics.
3. Autonomy and Solitude: Another characteristic of self-actualized people is the need for independence and privacy. While they enjoy the company of others, these individuals need time to focus on developing their own individual potential.
4. Peak Experiences: Individuals who are self-actualized often have what Maslow termed peak experiences, or moments of intense joy, wonder, awe and ecstasy. After these experiences, people feel inspired, strengthened, renewed or transformed.
5. “…if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn…”
Response: Hey, pot, have you met kettle?
6. “…there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.”
Response: Is this supposed to be a grand gesture? We aren’t just in this for the profit, so feel free to go to other universities. Sadly, I see this as cutting off your nose to spite your face. If your university is a place of love and education, a spiritual respite from the crazy world, wouldn’t you want teens who are troubled and questioning? Wouldn’t you want the “problem” teens? The ones who maybe hate? Wouldn’t your place of learning and love be the perfect example for those teens? Wouldn’t your university be excellent to show them Jesus’ message and path?
7. “We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict.”
Response: Then wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to deal personally with the student rather than publicly vilify him and stereotype his generation? “Interpersonal” is between people. I don’t see this article catalyzing any “reconciliation” between people. I see it as alienating this student—and potentially many others.
8. “We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin.”
Response: WTF?! Was the student of color? If so, then by saying you’re not racist, you absolve yourself of all possibility of racism? Quoting Dr. King is always good to show one isn’t racist—or one’s university isn’t racist. I bet you have a black friend. How does it feel up there in that white privilege tower, Piper? (Okay, that was a little ad hominem.)
9. “We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue ‘trigger warnings’ before altar calls.”
Response: Can I say, “WTF?!” again? I’m the last person to coddle anyone. I’m more of tough love kind of chick. However, as someone who has read books about psychological issues and who minored in psychology and who has taught teens for more than a decade and who has, you know, talked to an actual person who suffered trauma, triggers are real. Yes, they can be faked, but so can lots of other psychological issues. But, as an institution that educates teens, maybe you should err a little on the side of caution rather than issue blanket statements. Maybe if students knew your university and staff operated in love (the 1 Corinthians type of love) and offered support and understanding, you would not need to issue “trigger warnings” for your sermons. Instead, students would know you are approaching them in love, and if they had an issue, they could go to a trusted adult for help.
10. “Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a ‘safe place’, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others…This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up.”
Response: Well, it’s good to know OKWU doesn’t operate as a safe place. I guess I define “safe” differently than Piper. I think of safe as a place where students can learn and grow and screw up and explore and try and fail and succeed. Beware: if you screw up at OKWU, you will be raked over the coals and publicly called out. I’d love to provide this student with a safe place to express his side; then I’d love to see if he were open to healthy dialogue about his experiences. If so, I think I could educate the student—something OKWU should have tried. For a “place to learn,” they sure don’t know how to teach.
Just for the record, OKWU is a place to “quickly learn” not that you “need to grow up,” but that you need to not make mistakes—and maybe you shouldn’t approach the President of a minor university with your petty, selfish problems. Stupid kids with their quest for identity and meaning in their lives…and adults wonder why Millenials don’t want to attend church….
Setting church and theology aside, what hurts me the most is the missed opportunity to connect with and help educate this student. And as a place of higher learning, that mistake is far more tragic than any the student could have ever made.