Wheaton, Illinois is a curious little city. Located about 40 minutes from where I grew up, the otherwise unremarkable suburb among suburbs has become nationally recognized for being both “the most churched city in America” and one of MONEY magazine’s top 25 highest earning towns in the United States. The fact that there are apparently more Churches (and banks) lining the city streets than there are in any other town in the country has led some to jokingly refer to the city as the Evangelical version of Rome.
Now, Google: “The Harvard of Christian Schools” and you’re likely to land upon what is probably the city’s proudest landmark.
Wheaton College is the town’s flagship academic institution and, as your research suggested, one of the foremost private Christian universities in the United States. It’s the school I probably would have attended if the tuition were (quite) a bit cheaper, and if my GPA wasn’t an abysmal 1.6 by the end of my last year of high school.
Earlier this month, some 100 Wheaton students made waves when they held a silent demonstration on the steps of Edman chapel in reaction to their school’s invitation for author Rosaria Butterfield to lead one of Wheaton’s mandatory tri-weekly chapel sessions.
This is big news.
Wheaton College is a wealthy, conservative private Christian school in one of the wealthiest, most conservative suburbs in America.
One visible example of this mentality is that all students who wish to attend the university are forced to sign an agreement of moral behavior on a yearly basis, what is bombastically referred to by campus officials as “the Covenant.” This sacred community agreement (which includes mandates to “refrain from the consumption of alcohol or the use of tobacco in all settings” also) specifically includes a section all undergraduates must intellectually agree to that states “pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman” are sinful and can result in expulsion.
Whatever your thoughts on the subject, one thing should be clear: Wheaton does not by any means boast a very progressive or liberal student body.
I don’t say this disparagingly, only to point out that at a school like this, when nearly 1 in 20 of all the students at this extremely traditional institution decided to silently sit on those chapel steps earlier this month, it was probably an indication that something very troubling was about to happen.
For those who are unfamiliar, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield is a Christian speaker and author who is widely celebrated among some, and entirely dismissed in other circles. Butterfield’s story is relatively new on the scene. It is unique and, if nothing else, fairly controversial: Rosaria describes herself as a former “leftist lesbian college professor,” and is known for traveling and speaking on her “journey out of the homosexual lifestyle” into popular evangelical Christianity.
I understand why many people might doubt or reject her story, but I also understand why others may cling to it, hoping for a radical miracle of their own. Because we do share a religious tradition, a good amount of my personal beliefs probably line up rather well with hers. I can honestly raise my right hand in the air and affirm right along with Rosaria beautifully Christian concepts like the divine inspiration of the Bible and God’s undying, self-sacrificial love for all of humanity.
However, I also happen to subscribe to what Butterfield dismissively refers to as “the revisionist heresy” – the growing recognition among evangelical Christians that, contrary to the destructive landscape our churches have wreaked on the public consciousness for the past forty years, the sacred, trustworthy, God-breathed words of the Holy Bible do not ever actually speak to the issues of sexual orientation or a committed same-sex relationship. As such, this teaching insists, we need to repent of the grave sin of misreading our Bibles to judge and condemn the gay community, and welcome these folks into the full life of the Church, as Jesus would.
Some of the students who attended this demonstration surely agreed with me on this, but many did not, and held to the traditionally-articulated belief that the Bible teaches that homosexual sex is unavoidably always a sin. What united them, what drove these young folks to come out in droves of support in response to Rosaria’s talk, wasn’t any shared allegiance to a particular club or even to a certain gay-affirming theology.
The only thing all these students held in common was a heart for the LGBT community, a passion to see Christ’s body represented faithfully on their campus, and a very legitimate concern that Rosaria’s story of a supernatural change in sexual orientation would be used damagingly, by some members of their community, as further “evidence” that gay people can simply become straight, just like Rosaria did, if only they would just try hard enough.
Now, the really cool part of this melange of affirming and non-affirming students gathering together for this demonstration was that it celebrated the staggering yet obvious truth that no one person’s personal story can somehow fully capture everyone else’s experiences – that we need the measuring stick of each other’s unique perspectives to try and get access to that elusive, bigger picture. In this spirit, attendees centered around the phrase “more than a single story,” a reference to a wonderful blog post examining how some Christians are already using Butterfield’s story against the LGBT community.
Tragically, because student reporting of Butterfield’s talk has been censored and stripped from the school newspaper’s website (ostensibly in an administrative attempt to limit further outrage at their students), only an obscure, archived version of that original article remains. (UPDATE: Wheaton has just electronically re-published that article.)
As a result, many people have misunderstood what actually happened here and subsequently portrayed the event inaccurately and quite poorly. It would be hard to find a more contrived and condescending example of this than the “open letter” just written to the students of Wheaton by Jeremiah Dys of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a popular Christian organization that was founded on the principle that women must unilaterally submit to male leadership in the Church, the home, and the workplace.
The article is long and terrible. Published last week, it begins on a high horse and wavers there, but then seems to rapidly descend into a series of awkward, nervous threats:
“What is worse, you clearly have those older and wiser than you on campus from whom you wish not to learn, but believe you ought to teach. There’s a whole discussion there that needs to be had about the generational arrogance of the youth, but you will learn that soon enough. Still, Christianity – to which you claim to hold – exhorts youths like you to listen to your elders. In the meantime, heed the words of Abraham Lincoln: ‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.’”
This is awkward. Jeremiah not only misattributes these clever words to President Lincoln, but he also completely misses the point of this saying by trying to apply it here…somehow managing to forget that this was a silent demonstration. No “foolish mouths” were opened, no angry fists clenched, no vitriol hurled at Rosaria or the Wheaton staff and administration. The participants in this demonstration merely indicated to the rest of campus their concern regarding Rosaria’s talk, then silently walked inside the chapel with the rest of the student body and respectfully listened to the entirety of her message. Afterwards, they spent a couple of hours in respectful dialogue with Butterfield and a few representatives from the college.
As the participants themselves will tell you, their demonstration recognized the validity of Rosaria’s own story but also encouraged others to share their own personal narratives related to this multifaceted, complicated conversation on the intersection of Christianity and homosexuality. They recognized that no one person’s story can describe everyone else’s experience, especially when it comes to questions of sexuality and spirituality, and wanted others to understand this as well.
But ah, perhaps even though the students did not speak, their mere presence and attitude was, as Dys insists, “visibly rude” and antagonistic.
This point I must concede. The inflammatory signs that students were holding at this silent demonstration went so far as to read such controversial and “arrogant” things as “We’re all here to listen and share,” “I’m gay and a beloved child of God. This is my story,” “We’re all loved by God, “and “Rosaria’s story is valid, mine is too.”
As threatening as I’m sure these messages must have been to Dys’ cold, graceless worldview, they are hardly the “demands of affirmation of sexual license,” “rhetorical grenades“, or “message[s] that only masquerade as Christian” he describes them as. Truly, the only person in this entire situation who has brayed ignorance and been revealed as a fool is Dys himself, particularly when he cryptically refers to “a sexual orientation that runs counter to the teachings of Christ“– apparently suggesting that Jesus had a word to say on the question of sexual orientation (let alone on homosexuality).
Though I’ve now read several similar reports of the bitterness these angry, divisive protesters brought to campus, it should be clear by now that nothing of the sort took place.
If I could say just one thing to the students of Wheaton College who were brave enough to declare that “more than a single story” should be put on a pedestal and offered up as a slice of universal truth, it would be this: you are going to change the world. You already are. Keep daring to believe that your story is just as valid as the ones those in power are telling you to believe.
These people have been and will continue to try and dismiss you and your God-given stories on account of your age, on account of your passion, on account of your trembling voices.
To this, we can only look to the cradle which holds our faith, the holy scriptures, which remind us “this is why we labor and strive: because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe…Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”