Saving the Church from the Cornfield

by Mike Duran

“We want to take the hick out of the word ‘evangelical.’” That according to Marvin Olasky, provost of The King’s College in New York City. Olasky’s response was part of an exposé by the New York Times. Their article, In a Worldly City’s Tallest Tower, A College with a Heavenly Bent, asks the question:

What is an evangelical Christian college doing in the middle of New York?

That question, like it or not, is as much a reflection of contemporary Christian culture as it is the secular mindset towards it. The inference on the part of the NY Times writer is that Christianity is out of place in a cosmopolitan urban center like New York City. Thankfully, King’s leadership sees otherwise:

“We see ourselves as a value-adding school, where we are bilingual; we can speak ‘Christianese’ and also express our ideas in ways that change people’s views,” said Andrew Mills, the chairman of the college’s trustees. “We wanted a school that engages in debates, and it’s hard to have those debates from the middle of a cornfield in Iowa.”

Of course there’s nothing wrong with the church in “the middle of a cornfield in Iowa.” America is as much defined and shaped by rural, small city demographics (the Cornfield), as it is by its urban centers (the City). The problem is when the Church abandons the City for the Cornfield.

King’s setting, college leaders say, was a deliberate move. They wanted students to be exposed to new ideas and hone their intellectual chops far from the “holy huddle,” places that are religiously and ideologically sealed off from the rest of the world.

The college’s mandate, Mr. Mills said, is to encourage students to engage people with differing viewpoints, and ideally to shape public discourse “in a way that is winsome, and not screechy from the Christian right.”

This concept of “engaging people with differing viewpoints” has always been troublesome for the Church. Cultural engagement, for many evangelicals, has become nothing more than societal critique, followed by condemnation, followed by retreat. Preaching to the choir is much safer than enduring the slings and arrows of the marketplace of ideas. Besides, the cornfield has fewer ears than the big City. Is it any wonder why a Christian college seems so anomalous to downtown New York? We’ve abdicated our role to the barbarians.

In some ways, the misconception that the church belongs in the Cornfield rather than the City is the result of Christians, not secularists. Early fundamentalism was characterized by cultural withdrawal. For many, holiness came to be associated with abstinence from “wordly” pursuits and institutions. Refraining from drinking and dancing, movies and makeup, became articles of faith for Fundies. By the mid-20th century, Christians of orthodox persuasion were scarce at institutions where, in many cases, they were once prominent: newspapers, publishers, eastern universities, etc. There was a great exodus out of Hollywood, while Christian musicians brooded over Jerry Lee’s hellraising and Elvis’ hip-shaking. The metropolis came to be viewed as a Babylon or Gomorrah — something to be fled from, rather than engaged. Fundamentalism, in part, forced Christianity into a cultural, intellectual, Cornfield.

We are children of our spiritual ancestors’ flight, and the current Christian subculture is the byproduct of that retreat. Christian art — film, fiction, literature — emerged as an “alternative” to worldly art, something we could consume without feeling unholy. Rather than return to the marketplace, we created an “alternate sphere” of culture; we left the City in favor of the Cornfield. Instead of sprinkling our influence throughout the culture, we distanced ourselves from it, created a parallel universe free from secular influence or critique. We surrendered the University to the heathen, established our own centers of learning, our own studios, publishing houses, and sound stages, far from Broadway and Nashville (spiritually speaking).

It’s no wonder that the secular world sees Christianity as acclimating better to the Cornfield than the City — we’ve given them little reason to believe otherwise. In this sense, the NY Times question — What is an evangelical Christian college doing in the middle of New York? — is indeed appropriate. The question facing Christian authors is this: Does contemporary Christian lit help us engage culture or withdraw from it; does it move us toward the City or remove us into the Cornfield of irrelevance?