The conversation below about evangelical academics and their improv training is pretty much over.
I’ve been convinced by it, though, that the Wall Street Journal piece misrepresented the groups aims and the way their going about them–an analysis that, if correct, is as ironic as it is humorous. But before a member of the conference chimed in, I had contacted Peter Martens for the full version of his response to the piece. He was gracious enough to provide it so I could reprint it here in full:
If someone were to ask me, a professor of evangelical conviction, “Are you going to be the Tina Fey of your field?,” I would interpret that query as follows: “Are you going to be good at what you do?” The founders of Veritas Riff (VR) seem to hear it differently. And much more literally. According to Mr. Skeel, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and inaugural VR fellow, this organization seeks to transform dry-as-dust evangelical scholars into media savvy, threatrically-sophisticated scholars who can propagate their learning “in a culturally influential manner to a broad audience.” And preferably with comedic panache.
This project puzzles me on three accounts. First is VF’s diagnosis of the problem: that the reason evangelical academics have a disproportionately small influence on their students and American society at large is that they lack media and theatrical training. There are curious assumptions at work here. I wonder if it is not more likely that the cause of low evangelical influence is that as a group they have a disproportionately low interest in pursing academic careers? It is telling, I think, there are approximately 180 Nobel laureates of Jewish heritage, whereas to date no evangelical has won this prize. This statistic is all the more striking when you consider that the worldwide Jewish population amounts to roughly 13 million people, whereas evangelicals (calculated conservatively) number to roughly 75 million in the United States alone. Another way to make the same point is to recall the opening line in Mark Noll’s classic: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Eerdmans, 1994). There is another curious assumption in this diagnosis of the evangelical academic problem: VF implies that non-evangelical scholars who currently exercise wide cultural influence have, in fact, benefited from media and theatrical training, and that this is the principal reason they have achieved their influence. But is this really so?
Second, there is the unfounded assumption that “staid professors” don’t influence people. Some of the most influential professors in my life have had – how to put it? – marginal communication skills. They are not slick. Nor even eloquent. They have never given a thought to their body language. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have David Brooks’ email address saved somewhere in their computer. But they know their stuff, and are passionate about it. Simply put, a suave, telegenic professor is hardly a necessary condition for exercising influence. Nor is it always a welcome condition. Were I, now a professor, to cultivate the stand-up comic’s polished mien (or is it the posture of the mega Bible church pastor?), I strongly suspect that this would arouse the suspicion, not captivation, of my students.
Finally, I wonder how accurately VR assesses the situation of evangelicals in the academy today. Should we even grant its root premise that evangelical professors have a limited sphere of influence? Such a view too easily overlooks that there are many serious evangelical scholars today who also happen to be influential and engaging leaders in their fields. Moreover, many of these dynamic professors already occupy positions of influence in major colleagues and universities outside of evangelical academia (the consortium of institutions known as the CCCU, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities).
I have a more effective proposal for the founders of VR. If you want to shape the academic world outside of the evangelical enclave, leave Ms. Fey to do her own thing (a craft which, by the way, took her more than four days of intensive training to hone). Evangelical leaders ought, rather, to heed the well-established strategies of other religious movements in this country. Establish endowed chairs for their outstanding scholars at non-evangelical institutions. This will ensure a solid sphere of influence outside of the evangelical subculture.
Assistant Professor of Theological Studies
St. Louis University
Second, the point about being the “next Tina Fey” was at least half in jest, should easily be recognized as such. These were some of the most impressive scholars and intellectual leaders that I have ever met. They are sure to have an influence within their fields through the virtues of their scholarship, but there is nothing harmful in also seeking to be commentators on culture who can shape the way in which events and movements and the church itself are interpreted. So yes, of course, Tina Fey took more than 4 days to learn her craft, but she began with 1 day, and then another, and the Riff program continues for a year with a variety of training experiences. It’s a serious endeavor with a serious purposes.