The following post is by Jake Blair, member of the Westmont College class of 2010. Jake is a writer, photographer, and arts and cultural critic.
One of my favorite memories from my time at Westmont comes from my sophomore year. Having grown up in the Evangelical church, I was a middling young-earth creationist; well versed in the apologetic arts of arbitrary question raising (“How could eyes be the result of an evolutionary process? They are so complicated”) and dismissive higher-power appeals (“I don’t know why he made the earth look old, Ray. He’s God.”)
To be clear, this is an exhausting way to interpret the world. It never really felt like a choice, though. The implications of a non-Fundamentalist-Christian-narrative (at least in my mind) were significant: if God didn’t make Adam in the Garden, then there might have been no talking serpent, no clear entry of “sin” into reality, no pre-fall perfection on earth. The Creation-Adam/Eve-Apple-Sin-Jesus narrative gets thrown on its head, and now all of a sudden there is no truth, there is no god, and our lives are, by extension, meaningless. That’s pretty dramatic, obviously. But that was the nature of the struggle that I had taken on, at least in my mind. Zealously advocating for a worldview that found most of it’s logical basis in “poking holes” in “conventional science,” if only to keep a fundamentalist creation narrative within the realm of plausibility, was my duty as a Christian: an advocate for truth, love, and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Making friends with biology majors in my dorm (Page 3A, famous for our trash bag slip-n-slides and underwear) and elsewhere gradually exposed me to the reality of the science. Gradually, the harder-lined edges of my ideological lens began to soften. None of that happened because of pyrotechnic apologetic battles. Rather, it was communal exposure and dialogue which allowed me to settle into a better, more nuanced, less confined understanding of our faith, scripture, and reality itself. By the time the subject was broached in class, I already knew that making a case for Intelligent Design would be a losing battle. But the tidiness of that worldview remained alluring – cozy, even. I raised my hand and raised a few points that Intelligent design proponents like to make – probably something to do with the mind-blowing complexity of cells – and my professor responded about as well as he could have. He sighed, and said something akin to “come on, man.” Then, he gave me a firm non-assignment: to read a response, written by Jeff Schloss, professor of Biology at Westmont College, to a pro-Intelligent Design pop-doc film called Expelled.
To make an already too-long story shorter, this marked a significant transition in my intellectual life, and not just within the context of my time at Westmont. This wasn’t my first encounter with someone who professed a deeply held Christian faith that allowed for the provision that dinosaurs and people didn’t co-exist. But what left an impression with me personally was the tone employed by both of my professors. It was one of patience and compassion, resolute in their understanding, and unwavering. Like a parent tempering the tantrum of a child that refuses to believe that the sun doesn’t disappear at the end of each day.
I’ve chosen this example because I think it illustrates the reasons so many of us care about Westmont. The community at Westmont – composed of more than just students – loved me out of that fearful ideology by engaging with my inquiries and assumptions, and by not protecting me from the inadequacy of my own worldview. That environment – fostered by a community of people spiritually committed to loving their neighbors as themselves – enabled me, a student, to grow boldly into a better, more truthful understanding of the world and my place in it.
It’s within that same community that I encountered first-hand the limitations of my fundamentalist understanding of sexual and gender identity. In my mind, anything outside of a heteronormative sexual identity was the product of sin – usually the result of sexual abuse or other trauma(s), and always part of a larger spiritual confusion. These are easy things to believe when you don’t know anyone who is gay or transgendered, in part because such beliefs demands so little of the “rest of us” who aren’t “afflicted.” Making the “issue” of human sexuality a “spiritual” one, (one composed of “individual battles”), ensures that the burden of barring certain individuals from a community is taken out of leadership’s hands, and instead plopped in the laps of those “embattled” few. “We’d love to let Gary and John join our homegroup, but they have to get right with God first.”
Setting aside the fact that all of that flies in the face of all of the actual research on the matter, my own heart with regards to these “issues” changed once I encountered the tangible consequences of this woeful ideology within the context of the Westmont community. Said consequences weren’t just “spiritual” in nature: they bore themselves out in heartbreaking, tangible ways. My friends who were gay weren’t being “fixed” by being at Westmont, just like they weren’t being “fixed” within the broader context of the church.
It’s those consequences that were alluded to in an open letter that was published in Westmont College’s student newspaper, the Horizon, in 2011 (though it was written to another Evangelical school in Kentucky). The response to the letter was crystal clear – at least with regards to many faculty and students. The administration’s response, though, was paltry; a game of rhetorical hopscotch, wherein two chapel speakers – Tremper Longman and Mark Yarhouse- took to the pulpit in order to “compassionately” remind everyone that nothing was going to change.
The scriptural justification was delivered by Tremper Longman – an evangelical authority on the Old Testament, who is now in the process of promoting his own book on sexuality with longtime collaborator Dan B. Allender. To paraphrase the three prongs of Longman’s argument (with the parenthetical insertions mine, obviously): that God’s law is the law (even when it’s not the law), that Jesus “affirmed“ the law (except when he was undermining it), and that the apostle Paul also thought gays were yucky (just like women’s scalps). It’s the same Scriptural™ argument that’s been whipped out for decades, the efficacy of which is wholly diminished with an examination of those very passages of scripture.
The second speaker, Mark Yarhouse, was brought in from Regent University (which was founded by Pat Robertson in the late 70’s). The main tenet of Yarhouse’s talk that morning was “stewardship.” Yarhouse is the director of The Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity (ISSI), which states its goals thus on its website: “ISSI provides clinical services and consultations within the overarching framework of sexual identity therapy, which emphasizes achieving congruence in terms of living and identifying oneself in ways that are consistent with one’s beliefs and values.” ISSI’s work is different from the work done by Christian gay reparative therapy groups (or at least we’re led to believe so), though it’s pretty difficult to understand what ISSI does at all. If anything, they seem to exist for the sole purpose of conjuring the illusion of unknowability concerning the harmfulnesss of reparative therapy. While it’s probably not fair to call ISSI proponents of conversion or reparative therapy, it seems fair to say that they’re uncomfortably reparative-ish. And, that said, what’s perhaps more troubling about ISSI is the fact that they appear to acknowledge the crumbliness of their own ideological foundation, but still choose to press on with their perpetuation of myths using unintelligible Christian-ese.
At no point in either of these chapels did we hear from a Christian speaker who offered an alternative interpretation of God’s take on the LGBT community. We didn’t even hear from students or faculty members who support LGBTQIA community’s full participation in Westmont College. The administration’s collective “freak out” raised larger questions about whether they had any real interest in responding to the values of significant groups of the community that they claimed to be working to represent.
Denying the collective works and stories and discoveries of hundreds of thousands of people for the sake of preserving a narrative – a myth, to be sure, though one not devoid of meaning – isn’t just intellectually untenable. It’s intolerable. Denying our friends’ full participation in the Westmont community, and inhibiting Westmont from evolving into a community that’s wholly inclusive isn’t just “tough.” It’s contrary to the nature of the very community which played such a formational role –intellectually, spiritually, and otherwise – in my own life, and in the lives of most of my closest friends. Explicitly making my friend’s relationships equivalent to “occult practices, drunkenness, theft, profanity, and dishonesty” in the community life statement isn’t just offensive. It is dangerous.
It is time to remove that abusive phrase from the student life handbook, and begin the process of reconciliation and reform. Anything short of those stated goals is unacceptable, and continued non-action and fake dialogue will only broaden the rift between the “institution” of Westmont and the very community which has already been so tenaciously nurtured (and, subsequently, alienated). If silence and non-action persist then it will be necessary to begin taking long, substantive looks at those continually working to re-define, control, and deny the culture of Westmont.