Critical Reflections on Religious Academic Conference (or Why ETS Needs to be Disempowered)

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Intended Audience: Anyone interested in American evangelicalism and its social and intellectual legitimation

Tomorrow Jessica and I leave for San Antonio, Texas for the Annual American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Meeting. I’m presenting a lecture Tuesday morning at 10:30am (CC-301a; Session A23-125-02) entitled “Christianity and Critical Theory: Arch-Enemies, or a Match Made in Heaven?” By the looks of the program (always massive and overwhelming), I’m definitely not the only one presenting on this topic. And given the events of the last 12 months (e.g., universities banning Critical Race Theory, and other ideological scapegoats; Wisconsin is even proposing banning the words “social justice” and “patriarchy”), it’s not all that surprising. In any case, I’ve never presented at the Annual Meeting before, so that’s exciting.

Over half the sessions are virtual this year. But I still hope to see friends, old and new. “Old” being from my evangelical days, “new” being, well, since 2018-2020 (when I got laid off and later wrote Deconstructing Evangelicalism).

Indeed, the whole experience is overwhelming—not just intellectually, but socially and emotionally as well. I’m technically an econ prof now, but with deep and long roots in the world of Christian religion, and maintain some interest in that world. But I’ve lost most of the interest in the kind of theology that got me into this field in the first place (systematics/dogmatics, Wayne Grudem style), and have far more questions than answers than when I started. And though I’ve published technical papers in Greek and New Testament, a Greek grammar, and taught biblical studies (OT/NT) for years, I have almost no interest in investing serious energy into biblical studies anymore—not only because I have little to say, but because I’m not convinced such religious texts have the kind of authority and power they used to have (at least when compared to the impact of videos on YouTube and Netflix, university education, and social movements). And I have doubts about changing the contemporary world to be interested in the Bible again, at least to the extent as previous eras. I also don’t know why that would be necessary to even accomplish the goals that Christians want. (These are hard things to say for a person who actually likes the Bible and spent most of his life studying and teaching it.)

My investment in progressive Christianity (I’m ordained in the Progressive Christian Alliance, a member of a UCC church, voice my opinion against racism and other social injustice, wear women’s jeans if they fit better, and make delicious food as a trophy husband) makes sense to me both practically and theoretically, but has virtually no local support. And sometimes there are questions about its promise and capacity to fulfill previous religious function and change society. Of course, that’s the case with any philosophy, religious orientation, or way of life, so I’m not sure why I find it notable.

In the end, I’m a hopeful cynic, or whatever.

AAR is good space for me, though, since others are on similar journeys, and also know what it’s like to get fired for the “wrong” kind of publications and join the army of penniless adjuncts. It has its oddities, but remains a place for authentic dialogue when it’s not serving other purposes (networking, establishing credentials, book contracts, etc.). And it’s always good to be humbled in the presence of intellectual (and spiritual/prophetic) giants, interact with those in other religious traditions, and remember again what a healthy place of pluralism and diversity can look like. I’ve always appreciated that about the guild of academia: getting called out for your bad ideas or poor scholarship or unoriginal thinking by a real pro, and having some beers later on to work out new possibilities with them.

Or, conversely, being validated when no one else seems to understand.

Or, just being inspired to do something in life again.

It really couldn’t be more different than the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), whose meeting usually precedes AAR/SBL.

And no, I don’t mean “different” just in the fact that one offers free booze and the other doesn’t. Besides seminaries that shame women pastors and kick out gay students, ETS is the academic arm of the 20th century fundamentalist project, providing much-needed credentialing for a notoriously anti-intellectual movement. “Notoriously anti-intellectual” meaning rooted in young-earth creationism, end times absurdities, institutionalized patriarchy, segregation, and extreme fear about science, history, and interracial sex. You know, that kind of stuff.

This is evident enough in its official publications. ETS was originally established with one doctrinal requirement for all full members: belief in the inerrancy of the autographic text of the Bible. When it became apparent that this might include Mormons, they had to do something to close those doors. So to their immutable statement of perfect doctrine they decided to add a novel phrase about the Trinity, namely, that “God is a Trinity.” Yes. Indefinite article. Not “God is Trinity” or “God is the Trinity,” but “God is Trinity.” I taught Creeds and Confessions and am unaware of any other statement of faith, old or new, that frames the Trinity with an indefinite article—much less as a doctrine standing beside the inerrancy of the Bible. Not that I personally care (or think God cares, who has endured far more offensive naming by the religious authorities), but, this shows how utterly peculiar and isolated ETS wanted to be.

And that it would be. From its founding in 1949, it got more and more embarrassing as it interacted with the outside world, and with the drama of the Open Theism debacle (a blowup between Clark Pinnock and Norman Geisler) and a variety of other internal heresy hunts that caused several fissures. (Evangelicals live to fight, and they will fight with each other to the bitter end of Amish-level irrelevance!). But not being militant jerks like many American evangelicals proudly are, the Canadians bailed and created the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA; now CATA, the Canadian American Theological Association, where I’ve served in various capacities after bailing ETS). Others bailed ETS earlier in the 70s to create the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR). To this day, only CATA is open to non-conservative evangelicals and truly ecumenical (daresay, truly “Christian” for that reason?). IBR requires belief in the infallibility and not inerrancy of the Bible. (To outsiders reading this, this seems like a stupid and trivial difference—because it is, but not to evangelicals! You’ll lose your job for nodding at one and pausing at the other, and that’s not an exaggeration.)

In short, ETS is sort of what you would expect an Evangelical Theological Society to be: a radically misogynist, socially toxic, intentionally non-inclusive group of mostly old white guy Baptists fighting about stuff that in theory, should matter to other people, but in reality, thankfully doesn’t.

Even as an evangelical professor of theology around 2012-2016, I didn’t want to be involved in ETS for its widely-known toxicity. Many conservative evangelicals, after all, bailed ETS for that reason. This is also to say nothing of its bland demographics (92%+ male and overwhelmingly white, last time I checked; compare to AAR/SBL). And did I really want to run into Wayne Grudem? Al Mohler? Owen Strachan? Other gatekeepers of a national network of religious abuse, sex coverups, power plays, colonialist ideologies, male authoritarianism, western chauvinism, white nationalism, and an Adam and Eve that rode on the backs of dinosaurs? Probably not. But life is always more complicated than that, and economics drives ideologies. I desperately needed to keep my foot in the door and boost my CV, and this was “my people” for the time being. So I was a (very) active member for a couple years: publishing articles and book reviews in their journal (JETS), presenting at their annual conference, and co-chairing their “gender and evangelicals” session.

As expected, it was a shit show. And I only saw some of it: really weird politically maneuvering, really really weird conversations about women and panels focusing on sinful gay thoughts (yes Denny Burk was speaking at that one), backdoor resolutions on coercing members to believe things they don’t really believe, weird comments about Catholics, just…alot of really disturbing things that one can imagine coming out of the world of Mark Driscoll, Douglas Wilson, John Piper, and sermons about virginity. ETS was, after all, specifically created to establish, legitimize and defend the credibility of that (increasingly) grotesque world.

But what really got me was the arrogance. It’s bad enough at any academic conference or organization. I’ve actually had people at AAR/SBL pause to engage in a conversation with me before knowing what university I got my PhD at. (Gross, right? And yes, it always comes from people at Ivy League schools.) But, if you can imagine, it was 10x worse at ETS, so thick it could be cut with a knife. The people at ETS (esp. the dominating voices) literally believe that they possess a monopoly on theological knowledge. It’s not a joke. They genuinely believe that the future of Christianity lay in the hands of their own leadership (and elections for the next), and that should someone cross a boundary, a forbidden line, the whole religion would be jeopardized; there would only be Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and Mainline Protestants and Anglicans roaming the earth! (This is their own language over the decades, not mine.) I was even encouraged to stay a member for that reason: ETS needs votes. Without enough votes, then what? Mohler and the others might “take over,” and then….well, something worse! We gotta keep evangelicalism pure and free from corruption!

…As if there was some pure form of American evangelicalism that is truly desirable. (What are we getting back to anyway? Billy Graham’s pandering to segregationists? The glorious days of the Scopes Trial? Jonathan Edwards and his slaves, named after Roman deities and characters from the Bible? Hard pass.)

ETS members’ own identity and structure functions as its echo-chamber. There is no reason to stay another day for SBL/AAR and have your orthodoxies challenged: you could have them all affirmed and unquestioned. Again, that’s the point, to shield one’s faith from “the dangerous secularists.” Furthermore, the chamber distorted any sense of perspective. ETS had “the best scholars” and “first rate biblical studies”…according to members of ETS. Outside of ETS, its reputation was a public embarrassment.

Let me put it this way. There are Flat Earth conferences. They exist. People get together from around the world, rent out a fancy hotel, assemble their best scholarship on related subjects, give a microphone to their most adored authors, and pat each other on the back knowing that they’re all right. They feel really good about having the truth, and feel bad about the rest of the world not having it.

ETS is very similar. Yes, there are occasional scholars who produce thoughtful and cogent stuff (you know who you are). But on the whole, its intellectual abilities are extremely limited for obvious reasons. Every member is on a tight leash, even if they don’t think that’s the case. (All you have to do to discover what those walls are is to test them—or talk to those who have and are no longer members as a result.) It remains a fact: most Christians and most Christian professors/scholars are not members of ETS for really good reasons.

“Oh you’re being unfair; these things always have some politics; that’s just the way any organization is.”

No. It’s not. Not even close. AAR, SBL, and countless other academic organizations in and outside the humanities do not enforce orthodoxies with militant, religious enthusiasm, nor are they dominated by white Baptists who believe women should be subordinated to themselves in every domain of society. Granted, other orgs are not immune from enforcing ideologies, and are never entirely neutral. But, (1) the people there would be the first to admit that, and (2) again, they do not enforce orthodoxies with militant, religious enthusiasm—claiming/assuming that their views are directly from God, and that to question those views is to surrender yourself to an eternity in flames. (If you think other organizations in science, social science, history and literature do this kind of thing, I would be very interested to know what they are!)

American evangelicalism, as a failed religious experiment with horrifying costs, has been critiqued from every possible angle on social media, by scholars in history and social science, and even by their own leaders, and we are all advised to “not platform” and “support” what enables abuses like that of Ravi Zacharias, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper. But for some reason, this never includes ETS. The critique includes Crossway, SBTS, and CBMW, but not ETS that platforms all three to the max. It includes church denominations, seminaries, books, and testimonies of abuse victims—but not the academic society that affirms those abusive denominations, elevates those abusive professors, and provides honor to incredibly dishonorable ideas.

“Well if you don’t like ETS, then don’t go!”

I don’t go. But, this misses the point. It’s like saying, “If you don’t like Mark Driscoll’s Church in Arizona, then don’t go!” No one should go to Mark Driscoll’s church. It is a tragedy that anyone does. It’s only a marginal difference for ETS—again, I must emphasize, is where the ideas, the publications, the networking, the industrial-evangelical complex finds its intellectual justification. If you think American evangelicalism is spiritually and morally bankrupt (as I do), then there is little to no justification for supporting ETS. 

“Well we must try to reform it from the inside. If we just elect the right committee, we can make it good!”

No, you can’t. Anti-woman, anti-non-heterosexual, white nationalist influences are welcomed with open arms at ETS and its many tentacles, sponsors, etc., and those forces have grown over the years, no shrunk, no matter who gets elected. There is no indication that members of ETS are becoming less fundamentalist, especially when its history, identity, and requirements requires precisely that kind of orientation. Many people, including many evangelicals, have bailed ETS a long, long time ago for very good reasons.

So that’s why I cringe when hearing about people going to ETS. And it’s why I go to AAR, SBL, or CATA. I’d recommend the same to others. Heck, even IBR isn’t as bad. But friends don’t let friends join ETS.

There is a world of scholarship, a world of religion, and a God that exists outside of the narrow confines of American evangelicalism. And it’s not as scary and evil as you think!