I saw my first real, live armadillo last Thanksgiving weekend. It was not without warning. We visited my sister in Texas for the holiday, and while there I saw an ad for armadillo removal. Being a Los Angeles boy, that sounded as fantastical as the garden de-gnoming from Harry Potter.  My sister explained that those ads are fairly common there and in the South. Apparently their digging makes armadillos a bit of a garden pest. I filed that little tidbit in my mind, being a bit of a trivia packrat.

On the drive back home, we took a scenic route through Mississippi. (My wife and I like to work in ways to visit new states on road trips.) There by the road, I saw a plethora of armadillos. Oddly enough, I thought the first couple were fake, discarded toys. They look so smooth, and so oddly shaped, and the armor makes even the dead ones look complete and doll-like. Then I saw one of the “toys” run away. The surprise of it made me realize the limits of my experience.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Call it the “armadillos in my garden principle.” Moving  along the theological spectrum means passing through different worlds. The reference points are not the same, and different places are populated with wildly different critters.

Let’s say, back when I was still living in L.A., I started to complain about all the armadillos digging up my garden. Your response would probably be all soft tones, gentle gestures, and no sudden moves. It’s a perfectly valid complaint in east Texas, but a perfectly silly one in Los Angeles.

Just as I have lived in widely varied climate zones in recent years, I have lived and worked in a broad variety of theological and political climates. And had to make note of the ruling moralism of each place. (Mainline seminaries tend to be quite moralistic, though the priorities are different.)

At Biola, you’ll find plenty of people who are concerned about theological liberalism. But there is a shortage of such liberals on the ground. You’ll find people who are a bit theologically squishy, in both liberal and conservative flavors. But of serious theological revisionism, at most you’ll find the odd post-conservative, post-liberal, or (when I was there) student who read Nancy Murphy and thinks it makes them a rebellious radical.

By contrast, at YDS or GTU a post-conservative is just considered conservative. An average Biola student’s views might be called radically conservative, and an actual radical conservative looks like something out of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. And the “radical” authors favored by the more avant-garde evangelical college student are often irrelevant or redundant at such places. But you will find all kinds of post-liberals, process theology fans, Tillich-lovers, and liberationists.

At both kinds of places people often complain most loudly about what is least present. Worse yet, “liberal” at Biola and “fundamentalist” at YDS or GTU is often used as a verbal bludgeon. If you gauged the rhetoric at each kind of school, you’d think the fundies were storming the walls at YDS, or that Biola was being infiltrated by the UCC.

More interesting is how the very different climate at each school renders the culture of the others almost mutually incomprehensible. The reference points are different, the common assumptions are different, the points of presumed unanimity are different. So, a fierce debate over Mosaic authorship, or between young-earth and old-earth creationists, at a conservative school seems unbelievably petty to someone socialized in the world of mainline seminaries. Likewise, I think your average evangelical would have a hard time imagining a place where you can think the Bible is an error-riddled text of dubious composite authorship, but be considered a hardline conservative for using male pronouns for God or objecting to the removal of traditional masculine, light/dark, and martial language from hymns.

This is in part why it can be challenging to communicate to audiences in both contexts simultaneously, and why it can be hard to achieve the meeting of minds needed to have even a productive debate. Each side easily comes off as dismissive or even arrogant. It can be difficult to make the mental room for the broad variety of ideas and frameworks on each side. Even maintaining a common pool of scholarly reference material, or appropriating ideas from the writings of other theological camps, is a challenge for the same reason. Our country’s geography contains great distances and ecological variety, and I think its intellectual and cultural geography is similar.

This variety is also a challenge for people like me, whose vocation involves moving between and working within such different worlds.  In many ways, I am re-entering evangelical culture and institutions after some years abroad. I’m jaded at different things than many of my colleagues, even on this site. Sometimes, the result looks similar to seeing someone flinch disbelievingly at their first sight of a live armadillo.

So please, take this silly post as a call for charity. It is easy to be mystified by critiques or complaints that come from a different context. By no means do all disputes reduce to different pools of reference, but not everyone who responds to something you see as minor or obscure is posturing. It’s just that they actually have to worry about armadillos.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Kevin White


  1. Great illustration! In my own work in the sociology of religion (and with the GTU just up the street) I find that many academics (and more than just academics, but that’s my immediate circle) have so much trouble actually imagining just how widespread differing views are. In a recent class a graduate student said, very sincerely, “there really aren’t any Calvinists anymore, right?” It’s so important to have an open mind to simply understanding what other believe, so that we can engage their views on a serious level.


  2. I like your emphasis on context and how that changes the points of reference for argument. I find myself in none of the above contexts but I do try to find common points of reference when I comment.

    I’m curious about your mention of “the Bible [as] an error-riddled text of dubious composite authorship.” So, how exactly do evangelical Christian believers in mainstream seminaries square that circle about it also being the Word of God? I’d be interested in hearing about your experience in seminary.


  3. Pat: Thanks for your reply! I’ve even heard “there aren’t Calvinists anymore” comments in a class lecture (though most of my profs have known better) and even offhand in a book by a serious historian. (Though for the historian, he was just ambiguous enough to where he might have meant that the state church no longer insisted on Calvinist theology, which would be true enough.) It often makes a degree of sense in said person’s context, but it’s still surprising.

    Prufrock: Well, it varies. Evangelicals who go to mainline seminaries are a diverse and and quirky set. To the extent that any go there to pick a fight, to be their own “Athanasius versus the world”, they tend to burn out quickly and move on. Some were one of the Christian college radicals, and many of them actually become more theologically conservative in the mainline seminary context. The sheer power of being unimpressed with what they see there. Others will to a greater or lesser extent assimilate, and either stop calling themselves evangelical or put a different spin on the label. Others, like myself, try to grab what lessons they can, learn and observe as much as possible, and come out the other side with their beliefs deepened but little changed.

    So, some evangelicals in mainline seminaries just aren’t convinced by the big arguments and assumptions of historical-critical scholarship, and thus don’t subscribe to an “errant Bible” position. In other words, they continue to affirm inerrancy, or perhaps infalliblism. Others will accept a position similar to NT Wright, broadly accept historical-critical approaches as the academic norm, while accepting the traditional authorship claims about certain books (like the pastoral epistles), and emphasizing God’s instrumental use of scripture as the main vehicle for discussing its authority. Awkwardly, this set ends up being noticeably to the “left” of evangelical-mainstream scholars like D.A. Carson or Darrell Bock, while still being “fundamentalists” in the eyes of a lot of mainstream liberal bible scholars. It’s easy to fall between both stools.
    Others still will go into the mainstream of modern mainline bible scholarship, and either resort to Barthian-style categories–the Bible becomes the word of God when encountered in faith–or try to make church tradition and/or canonical reception as a category for maintaining scripture as the word of God, or even drop the religious approach entirely and distinguishing between its use as a “sacred text” and the academic study of a curious Ancient Near Eastern corpus of texts. The degree to which people who fall into these latter categories continue self-identify as evangelicals varies widely.
    Does that answer your question, or did I just throw a bunch of sand over it?


  4. […] post also fleshes out some of what I referenced in an earlier post about the very different thought-world of theologically liberal […]


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.