I have had much to ponder over the past few days as “Battle for the Minds” has been digitized and placed on YouTube. Given all that is transpiring in Southern Baptist life with reference to sexual abuse, it is timely for this documentary to be on the scene once again. It is not only a historical record of a tumultuous time at what many of us called “the mother seminary” in Louisville, Kentucky, but also serves as a cautionary tale about the ongoing misogyny within the Southern Baptist ecclesial tradition.
Former students and present detractors have responded to the video’s revival and its stark portrayal of what was at stake in “the Controversy,” as we called it then. As the social media engagement suggests, there are many who applaud the clear dissent to the Southern Baptist Convention powers that were circling. Others want to take up the conservative battle again, including some who have written to me to question whether or not I am a confessional Christian. I remain one, a thoroughgoing Trinitarian, even if I do not believe the inerrancy of Scripture or the relegation of women to secondary status are requisite. One writer questioned if you can follow Jesus without the pretext of inerrancy. Yes, young man, I think you can.
“We are now seeing some of the foul fruit of this exclusionary ecclesial vision.”
Filmed in the spring of 1995 shortly after I had been pushed out as a professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the documentary chronicled faculty and student response to the hostile takeover of a beloved theological school for the purpose of preserving a patriarchal vision of ministry and, more importantly, of God. We are now seeing some of the foul fruit of this exclusionary ecclesial vision, and the Southern Baptist diminishment of women is revealing the pernicious outcomes in damaged lives as male hegemony has persisted.
One of the things that struck me as I viewed “Battle” once again were the prophetic voices of colleagues Paul Simmons and Henlee Barnette (of blessed memory) who held forth the best theological ethics of the seminary’s tradition as they questioned the captivity of thought to the agenda of the religious right. They were prescient as they saw the impact of politics and religion too deeply entwined. It took courage for them to appear in the film, and they aptly sized up the implications of the kind of inculcation portended in the seismic shifts occurring then (and now).
One of the students in the film who was supportive of the new regime went so far as to say that one does not come to seminary to learn new things, but to have reinforced what one already believed. The seminary experience was intended to be an affirmation of grassroots theology, not an openness to the wider intellectual heritage of the church.
My experience as a student at Southern was just the opposite. I needed to hear the challenge to my narrow Landmark Baptist identity forged in Muskogee, Oklahoma. (I only discovered the heresy of the Landmarkist “Trail of Blood” theory while sitting in Glenn Hinson’s church history course.) I needed to hear of the common pre-Reformation heritage of the church. I needed to learn from theologians, historians, scripture scholars and ethicists how the faith tradition had developed and been passed on. Even more, I needed to witness the godly example of these faithful scholars who gave themselves in the classroom day by day and offered their gifts in the churches on weekends.
“God put me on the planet to love students and stir the theological pot.”
While many think of the damaged lives of faculty during the fundamentalist takeover of our beloved seminary, it was the students who bore the larger burden of sorting through what was going on. They saw faculty members they trusted pilloried; they saw a shifting landscape for the churches they might serve; and they saw abuse of power in how the board and president disposed of those who did not fit the new symbol system they were erecting. Surely a woman theologian did not fit into the iconography, as my life attests.
A Baptist diaspora followed the conquest of Southern. Faculty members populated established schools like Baylor and helped found new theological schools, most imbedded in universities. The charism of Southern continues as it is scattered throughout these new sites of ministry preparation. Often when the consortium of CBF-affiliated schools gathers, former faculty colleagues from Southern will gravitate toward one another. As Bill Leonard has remarked, “You kind of know who you shot the rapids with.” Truly!
I was very fortunate in that God preserved my vocation to form leaders for the church. Three days after I was terminated, I received a call from Central Baptist Theological Seminary to begin a conversation about planting my life in Kansas City. If that sounds like resurrection, it surely was — and is! God put me on the planet to love students and stir the theological pot.
For these ensuing years, I have served in a hospitable space among the American Baptists and alongside the CBF. I give thanks for this welcome, and I am grateful for the ways the wider Baptist identity continues to become more inclusive of its daughters.