Two posts: a surprise about what excites people’s emotions

Last Saturday I put up two posts of Facebook. The first I thought might be controversial, since it concerned US politics (a vote in the Senate) and gun control. In short, I argued that right after Sandy Hook I predicted that all the drive for even modest gun control would go nowhere, for the USA is too addicted to the service of Mars, either in the form of their military or in the form of their “pistol in their purse.” Thus the Senate vote was no surprise. I cited Jeremiah 2:9. Perhaps the post was even prophetic. The surprise to me was that it seemed to attract little attention and the reaction it did attract was mild. That was no problem. I had said what I had been thinking about. I was pleased about my perception. I was pleased that both the positives and negatives were civil. After all, I live in Texas and know that such discussions can be anything but civil around here.

The other post came from a surprise. I am working on some reflections on what makes a university a Christian university. I thought that St. Stephen’s University, where I once worked, was an excellent example of a brief but good mission statement and a longer, but still brief statement of faith. Since I was working on a blog post, conciseness was important. I went to the SSU website and was surprised. First, the home page no longer had the slogans “travel the world,” “study the classics,” and “worship the One” (the first two are rough remembrances, but the last, the one that was important to me, is accurate), but three attractive slogans without a word of religious import that I could see. I did a site search to find the mission statement, and I had another surprise. It no longer was the statement that I had seen hanging on the wall of the red room, with a focus on the Kingdom of God, but again a decent, but totally non-religious statement. The statement of faith of the university was on the same page, and so far as I can tell it remains unchanged. That page, however, was in a community handbook on the web site, so, buried, unless one was reading carefully. And the link that “worship the One” provided to the trinitarian statement in the statement of faith was, of course, gone.
Now there is no doubt but that St. Stephen’s University is a Christian institution. It was founded on an Anglican basis, its two founding visionaries meeting at Wycliffe College in Toronto, according to the legend that I have heard. It was supposed to be something like a little Oxford college, complete with students and lecturers in black robes, there in small-down New Brunswick. There was a dream of a cloistered campus. While I suspect that it located on the border because one founder was American and thus could not live in Canada without his job being advertised and it being clear that no Canadian was qualified to fill it, the location in St. Stephen was, again according to legend, by divine revelation. Over the years the institution has morphed into what I call a Vineyard school, not with official Vineyard sponsorship, although that was explored, but in its being “joined at the hip,” so to speak, to a particular Vineyard, St. Croix Vineyard in St. Stephen, which was founded by faculty of the university. While not all faculty resident in St. Stephen go to the Vineyard (I believe one does not), nor are students required to attend, when I left the management committee that ran the institution (essentially an advisory committee to the president, like a deans’ council in some universities) included both pastors of the Vineyard and three other Vineyard members (including the university president). The two institutions share a spiritual director. They use the same photocopier. And when the university does not have enough space for an event or class (particularly the Master of Ministry modules) the Vineyard building is used. Most students attend (if they attend church). So while the relationship is not as tight as that of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church or that of a number of other similar institutions and their respective churches, it is certainly very tight, especially when on remembers that the university is very small (8 received bachelor’s degrees in the last graduation according to the picture I saw). Officially it is “trans-denominational,” but practically it is St. Croix Vineyard (that is important, since not all Vineyards are like St. Croix Vineyard – it is one of a kind in many ways). The institution is Christian. And it was Christian from its roots. In fact, its founders are still involved in Christian ministry, although no longer part of the university, the one being a United Church of Christ pastor across the river in Maine (if he is still alive – he was quite ill when I left) and the other being a missionary in Mozambique with Iris Ministries, which is affiliated with the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. Very different directions those are, but still religious and still Christian.
I noticed this change in the website, was surprised, and posted my surprise (which was compounded by the fact that I now would have to go elsewhere for a neat little Christian mission statement) on Facebook. I noted that the institution was playing down its Christian basis, which I should have already realized, for it was talked about as the website was being revamped during my last few months there. And this revamping may have a good goal in recruiting students (more students might want to go to a very small, say 30 – 40 student, university, which gives personal attention and does have travel terms, than might want to go to an up-front Christian university). And recruitment is the need, for after all students pay a premium to go to this chartered but unaccredited institution, where they get a good liberal arts education, but without the majors and lower cost of, say, the University of New Brunswick. However, that type of student is not my thing, for I am about “biblical studies for the good of the church,” i.e. building the Christian community through helping its members engage thoughtfully with the Bible. It was, as I noted, a type of deliverance that I was called (literally, for it was a call out-of-the-blue that got me applying) to Houston Baptist University, where my students are more diverse than those attending SSU (in fact, at one point HBU was the most diverse of any university in Houston), but where my department’s up-front goal is building the faith of the students (we just go through surveying to see if we achieved that goal this year). I am not the guy to teach the more secularly oriented student that the website seems aimed at. I am no evangelist.
My Facebook friends associated with SSU did not see it this way. They played amateur psychologist (I was expressing some “hurt” or “bitterness”) or tried shame-based comments. It was as if I had exposed some secret, for the shame was supposedly in doing this publicly. Well, I know that SSU has worked hard to get its website high on the list of “hits” in search engines looking for certain key phrases, so it is hardly a private web site. It is a deliberately public one. It is also a purposefully designed one. I gave my personal reaction of surprise as part of my personal status in a semi-public forum about a totally public web site. I suppose I popped someone’s bubble or was seen as attacking the myth of Camelot or something. I immediately realized that it was their stuff, not mine, that was being expressed. It was “attack the messenger,” so to speak. I was not being consciously prophetic, but bemusedly surprised (even naively surprised, in that I would have certainly picked up more of the changes as they occurred had I paid more careful attention to the discussion around SSU during my last year there), but the response I received was that which most of the prophets that I teach about at Houston Baptist University received. And that is what really surprised me.
And of course as each person commented my post got wider and wider exposure, the very publicity that they were against. Most of the publicity was caused by those commenting, which meant that their Facebook friends were alerted to the post. My actual post probably achieved far less exposure (most of my friends would probably not know anything of what I was talking about or would not care other than noting my surprise). My daughter lives in St. Stephen and so felt “embarrassed” I am told – why should we feel shame at the behavior of our children or parents? – and my son-in-law is newly elected to the board (he graduated from SSU and is a successful businessman in the town), but, of course, the board does not delve into websites and he was not on the board when the website was produced. 
I do not feel shamed or embarrassed or guilty, for (1) the post is fact based, (2) it was about a deliberately public document,  (3) it was written without any malicious intent about which I am in the least aware, and (3) at worse it exposed my own naiveté about what was going on during my last year there as the university invested in trying to attract students amid falling student numbers.
But I am bemused. The posting that I thought controversial, even edgy, and which was based more on opinion and analysis than on raw fact, was not really controversial at all. The posting that I thought was just a surprise, like reporting a surprise in one’s research or an embarrassing event in one’s family, turned out to be controversial. That is the internet for you. It is emotionally driven, and one can never tell when emotions will suddenly go viral, like a flash mob that can be either constructive or destructive. One can only say that God knows, and with him all will be well, it will be very well.
I have also chosen to avoid Facebook for a bit.
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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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