Photo by Alterna2
It was one of those stomach-diving moments: My alma mater was in the news.
Not only were they making headlines for what seemed to be a ridiculous reason, they happened to be trampling on one of the things I love most about the college: its determination to engage, enjoy and even celebrate the best of secular culture within its decidedly Christian framework.
In the case of this recent news item, most of the headlines read something like this:
Cringe. Double—no, triple—cringe. One more reason for non-Christians to think all Christians are ridiculous, rash, non-thinking extremists who don’t know anything about popular culture.
I happen to be a New Pornographers fan, and in an instant I went from being incredibly pleased that my small alma mater had booked the band to feeling mortified at the cancellation. It took me years to recover from the fact that George W. Bush’s delivered the 2005 commencement address at Calvin—I was just starting to embrace again the school that gave me a truly wonderful, rigorous education.
Trying to see all sides
I first heard about the New Pornographers incident Tuesday evening, and it took me a full day to get up the courage to dig further into the issue. To be honest, I just didn’t want to think about it. When I finally made my way through a variety of news stories to the Calvin website, I found this statement (here in part):
We believe that the decision to invite the band fit our rubric of engaging culture through a Christian lens. The band makes good, thoughtful music, and we invited them here based on their artistic merit. However, after weeks of discussion and consideration, the irony of the band’s name was impossible to explain to many. The band’s name, to some, is mistakenly associated with pornography. Consequently, Calvin, to some, was mistakenly associated with pornography. Neither the college nor the band endorses pornography….Calvin College remains committed to the difficult, yet important work at faithfully engaging popular culture.
After I read the statement, I took a deep breath and tried on some other people’s shoes. I tried to imagine being a 55-year-old conservative, Christian woman who has never in her life heard of a band called New Pornographers. I tried to imagine what it would be like to spend enormous amounts of money to send my child to one of the best Christian Colleges around, and to think that decision would provide some protection for my child from an often scary world.
I also tried to put myself in the position of the Calvin administrators, as they attempted to explain “irony” in relationship to the word “pornographers” to a bunch of conservative middle aged parents and even more conservative elderly donors and alumni. Irony is, of course, one of those things: If you have to explain it, it simply can’t be explained. (Unlike real pornography: You know it when you see it.)
Line-finding is hard work
A very tiny part of me gets it—at least I get the part about how hard it is to find that line between culture and faith, comfort and challenge, and to tread that line with grace. It’s this statement that I get: “Calvin College remains committed to the difficult, yet important work at faithfully engaging popular culture.” Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s important.
But you know what? It’s too important to give in to a bunch of people with money and influence who “don’t get it”—not because they aren’t intelligent or capable of doing some research and finding out what the band is really all about. No, they don’t get it because they don’t want to even try. And people who are determined to shut down their minds, close up their curiosity, and resort to complaining and throwing their weight around shouldn’t have any say about what happens in a liberal arts institution where discourse, challenge and thought is the whole point.