Being Christian at Princeton
I still haven't seen the "Passion According to Mel Gibson." I share that indistinction with several of the members of the excellent panel that met in McCosh 50 last Tuesday to lead a disussion that truly advanced the "diversity" and "community" that are more often on our lips than in our lives. Alarmed by a preemptive buzz on the Internet, I had devoted my last column to reminding Christians of the persistent abuse of the Passion narratives and their iconography in the sinister history of Christian anti-Semitism. I was accordingly relieved to hear the opinion of knowledgeable panelists who had actually viewed the film that whatever other faults they opined it might have, this was not one of them.
Hence I turn to a second issue that screams from the Internet buzz. No campus Christian will need to be reminded of this issue, and viewing a film is irrelevant to it. I mean the persistent and growing anti-Christian bias endemic among American cultural elites and "opinion makers," especially in the universities — including ours. Seven hundred words are not enough for this topic, but I'll give it a shot.
It is something of a cliché to say that anti-Catholicism has replaced anti-Semitism as our socially acceptable form of intellectual bigotry; but clichés are annoying for the tediousness of their truth, not their untruth. I cannot remember ever hearing an actual anti-Semitic comment uttered by a student or colleague on this campus—one not at least carefully wrapped in the prophylactic cellophane of "anti-Zionism," I mean. On the other hand I have heard hundreds of anti-Christian slurs.
As Chief Marshall I perforce march to the chapel each September to participate in Opening Exercises, a religious service evacuated of all religion but still maintaining a kind of religious high seriousness. One of the very nice features of this convocation is the awarding of the four super-prizes for extraordinary academic achievement on the part of our undergraduate students. I'm talking genius-level here. Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel prefaces the actual awarding of the prizes with beautifully written mini-biographies of the winners. In one recent year I was struck by the fact that two of the winners were active leaders in student Christian groups.
I was not the only one so struck, as I learned from unintentionally eavesdropping on a conversation following the event. "How," asked one interlocutor with a knowing grin, "how can such smart people be so Christian?"
Now this person never would have dreamed of wondering aloud how smart people could be so black, so gay or even so Pink Floyd. Though they are a distinct minority, Christians lack the politically correct protection of "minority" status. If this kind of thing were eccentric rather than typical, I would not mention it. Though rarely so explicit, ignorant and/or hostile remarks about historical or contemporary Christianity are common coin on this campus.
I wonder whether my Christian faculty colleagues, of whom there are quite a few, share my experience, an experience that must be commonplace for the chapel deans and chaplains. Over each year about a half dozen students show up in my office hours seeking reaffirmation in a Christian identity they perceive as under explicit attack by various "advisers" commissioned by the University to "help" them, and not infrequently by their preceptors. The Helping Hand Strikes Again.
These waifs are generally strangers to me, and they often espouse a style of Christianity unfamiliar to me. I am not a clergyman and certainly not a "Christian leader." They seek me out only because it is whispered that I, a professor, have been "active" in a campus Christian congregation — activity being generously defined as occasionally showing up for, and possibly staying awake during, a nocturnal Eucharist. (If Mass could be celebrated in hell, 10 p.m. would be the hour chosen.)
I am not particularly religious, but I regard significant faculty involvement in student extracurricular life a part of the rapidly vanishing specialness of Princeton — so that praying with students is not wholly different in kind from eating with them, attending their athletic events, or supporting their literary, theatrical and journalistic efforts.
Princeton trends are generally but manifestations of national trends, and local anti-Christianity is of course only a projection of a tendency in national elite culture easily perceptible to anyone with eyes to read the New Yorker or with ears to listen to NPR. Still it is a little discouraging to find so much of it in an institution that prides itself on its "diversity" and has already achieved, among its faculty, cultural sympathies ranging all the way from A to A prime. John V. Fleming is the Louis W. Fairchild '24 professor of English. His column appears on Mondays.
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