With a few of my colleagues I travelled to the Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting (ETS) in San Antonio, TX, November 15-17. Upon returning, I made two tweets reflecting my observation of seemingly even fewer African Americans and other ethnic minorities in attendance at ETS this year. The tweet below also reflects my observation that many of my African American colleagues at other colleges and seminaries were making note of their presences at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting (AAR), both following ETS, and also in San Antonio. (SBL and AAR sometimes are designated as one unit – as AAR/SBL or SBL/AAR.)
Ben Dockery asked a question in reply to my comment. My response to him is too long for a series of tweets. However, I am posting the link to this blog post on Twitter, and I will post a few of the comments as tweets in reply to Ben.
The comments are closed here so that all comments may be made in the exchange on Twitter.
Twitter, November 18, 2016, 1:21 pm stamp, I tweeted:
Ben Dockery asked in reply,
Ben, this is what I see:
First, there is a need for theology to be located socially in application. Seemingly, systematics like Erickson’s and Grudem’s already provide social location – inherently (?) – for members of the majority culture. I have yet to hear one of my majority-culture classmates say of such texts written by conservative evangelicals (and conferences of like workshops and sessions), “That text is too white for our context.” However, for many years I have heard African Americans make this statement about classes, texts, and conferences. While it is true that everyone has to move from texts to application in context, somehow the ethnic context is an additional hurdle that some have to cross because the books and venues do not provide examples of such—in my experience, at least not enough for African American pastors. I cannot speak for other ethnic minorities.
Second, SBL seems to be a safer place for discussions of race, class, and gender. If a professional paper has a minority/ethnic slant, no one in a minority group likely will hear, “That’s not sound doctrine.” At SBL/AAR, the members largely hale from places where people of color are seen as equals; their ethnicity does not make their scholarship seem suspect in the eyes of their colleagues. Now in some cases, this suspicion might be more of a perception than a reflection of realities on the part of minorities. However, it is a well-earned perception, based upon many experiences of minority students and faculty at evangelical schools. It seems that in the welcoming, come-equally-as-you-are-context of SBL, people of color do not feel the need to prove their worth solely on the basis of their color; there they have no problem proving their worth on the basis of their abilities to do scholarship.
Third, evangelicals need to demonstrate even greater care about underrepresentation in their academic institutions with sustained, long-term, intentional actions. We have been making good strides since the 1980’s, yet we still have more to do. Our institutions – faculties and administrators – as a whole, have to think in terms of the Gospel to greater degrees. This means being intentional about promoting faculty diversity (which I am proud to say characterizes my current institution). Diversifying requires looking out for the interests of minority students and the churches of ethnic minorities (cf. Rom. 12:10; Phil. 2:3-4). Potentially, such intentionality means seeking, cultivating, tracking, funding, returning, mentoring, supporting, developing, keeping, marketing, and leveraging new minority faculty, starting at a student’s time in undergraduate/graduate school through the PhD and first few years of teaching. It also means breaking the cycle of the need to hunt every few years for 1 or 2 new ethnic minorities of one particular people group. After twenty years of teaching, it is odd for me to see evangelical schools still attempting to find an African American to teach in systematics, historical theology, or Biblical studies, especially when the lone African American representative in a department retires, leaving a void and no full-time African American in a department or on the residential faculty. The majority culture never experiences even a 25% loss of representation at larger schools, and certainly not a 50% loss. But African Americans often experience a 50%-100% loss of representation at our schools when a faculty member retires. However, at the schools from where the majority of SBL/AAR members come, there is greater ethnic minority representation. Thus, the lonely evangelical minority finds a strong place of fellowship, networking, sympathy, and understanding. ETS, inadvertently I believe, serves to reinforce a feeling of isolation for ethnic minorities.
On the third point, I ran my reply past a friend, also an evangelical teacher and pastor. He wrote these words:
I absolutely agree with you. On the hiring point, I would only add a personal anecdote. When I was at [a denominational evangelical seminary (DES)], I asked [President of DES] about black professors. At the time, Dr. [“Prof. A” at DES] was the only black professor, though there were several other Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, and Asian profs. [The President of DES] said than he would [like to hire more African American professors], but few meet his criteria of being theologically conservative and not divorced. Of course, I took offense to that, because that implies that the vast majority – [President of DES] could only find one? – were theologically liberal and [matrimonially] unfaithful….
Evangelical culture still hasn’t fully embraced minorities as an integral part of their life, and I think that it could be because it hasn’t fully embraced integration/multiculturalism as an integral part of its theology. Again, from my experience at [DES], I remember guys like Dr. [“Prof. B” at DES, white male] and myself having to argue for local church diversity, because people (profs and students) did not think it was a necessary goal. I still remember Dr. Prof. B’s walk through the book of Acts in a chapel sermon to show the church’s diversity from the beginning.
So there’s a blind spot (intentionally or not) in evangelical culture. As long as evangelicals do not believe that minorities are integral to the evangelical experience, they will neither pursue minorities nor value their voices. On the flip side, if minorities do not believe that they are included and they belong, they will continue to go where their voices are valued.
Fourth, evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges must continue to increase invitations to ethnic minorities to speak in their chapels, and to lecture as visiting professors. The presence of minority speakers in academic settings allows minority students to see that being a scholar in theology and biblical studies is within their reach, and that they do not have to lose their ethnic identities in order to become scholars. I suspect that no white colleague of mine ever heard their pastors say to them, “Now don’t let that school make you too Black,” or “Don’t come back from seminary preaching like a Black man.” But I can assure you many African American students have heard from their pastors a similar statement and many like things with the word “white,” nuanced to reflect the majority culture’s influence in the academy. The point is that to aspire to an academic post in our schools still seems like something out of the reach of ethnic minorities. Thus, ethnic minorities often choose other schools—schools that carry students to conferences like SBL/AAR and not to ETS.
I wish more institutional leaders were like Dr. Paul Nyquist and your father, courageously keeping issues of diversity and minority representation in the forefront of their visions for their institutions. They do so as a matter of the Gospel from their hearts, and not as matters of expediency or political correctness. I appreciate such men and the work they have done and are doing. I appreciate you too, for based on your question, it seems that the apple has fallen next to the tree.
Allow me to leave you with something I read a few years ago in The Skillful Teacher. Very insightfully, when Stephen Brookfield advocates for new faculty being accompanied by an expert instructor who is there to communicate to the class that he is not there to supervise but to learn from the new instructor, he writes, “Creating this dynamic is particularly important for faculty who do not possess White privilege. Faculty of color, and junior women faculty have a much harder time establishing credibility than do White males. This reflects a broadly held (though often unarticulated) ideological assumption that if scholars of color, or women, are faculty members they are only there because of affirmative action requirements. White males, like myself, however, tend to enjoy a considerable longer experiential probationary period when people are liable to give them the benefit of the doubt and to write off mistakes as a necessary part of learning on the job. One of the useful contributions senior White males can make, therefore, is to show up in the classroom of junior faculty and to make it very plain to students exactly how much they are deferring to, learning from, and being stimulated by the teaching of junior faculty of color and junior women faculty,” (Brookfield, Skillful, 62-63). (See also, Ken Bain, “What Do They Expect of Their Students,” What the Best College Teachers Do, 68-79, for significant comments about the treatment and worldviews of ethnic minority and female faculty members.)