a cautionary tale

College professors like to tell stories about past students to their current students.  For the most part, students like to hear them.  At Wheaton, in addition to the regular stupid student stories about extreme acts of procrastination, single-digit exam scores and laboratory mishaps, professors also like to tell another kind of story: the one about the students who lost their faith.  These are often accompanied by their rhetorically close relative, the one about the students who laughed in the face of the Community Covenant and smoked weed on campus.

This has irked me for so long, I don’t even know where to start.  While I was at Wheaton I only came out to 2 professors, and it took both an extremely long time and a big leap of faith for me to trust them with my story.  What a shame, because most Wheaton professors are kind, intelligent people with whom I would have really liked to discuss my deconversion.  The reason why I didn’t talk to more of them was because of the demeaning way in which many of my profs talked about past students who had fallen away from Christianity.  I’m talking about students who went to their professors with serious questions of faith, and five hours or five years later, those professors turned that serious matter into a cautionary tale or an exercise in mockery in front of a class.  Whenever possible, a story of a fallen-away student would be accompanied by a story of a stoner student, one who gave everything the finger and didn’t give a damn enough to even care about whether Christianity was true or not.  This would give the impression that serious questioning and flippant disregard were analogous, and the storytime would end with everyone glad that they were better off, and the implication that as long as you were paying attention, you would never end up like that.

To make it even worse, this happened most often in bible and theology classes.  The very people who were most knowledgeable about faith and doubt were the ones who themselves ensured that they were the last people I would ever talk to about it.  But even less-pompous professors undermined my trust in other ways.  The most common was the prayer request for a student or former student who was questioning or leaving Christianity.  These prayers were inevitably accompanied by pitying tones and entreaties that we never end up like that.  More to the point, if I revealed something to a professor in confidence, I would be mortified if it became a prayer request to the entire audience of his next lecture, even if no names or details were given.

Even before I had any inkling of doubt in my faith, I was inwardly mortified every time a professor told a serious story about a student in a flippant, cautionary, or mocking manner.  I was embarrassed for those students whose stories were being told, most certainly without their knowledge.  It happened so often that it severely undermined my trust in all Wheaton professors.  When I began having doubts of my own and finally left Christianity, I chose my confidantes carefully.  The only professors I ever talked to about my doubts and deconversion at Wheaton were those who I had known the longest, who had never shown less than the highest respect for students, and never used them as cautionary tales.  The way professors talk about past students is how they will talk about you to future students.

The irony is that now that I’ve gone public with blogging, I probably will become a cautionary tale.  I hope at least that when bible professors mock me, some student will inwardly cringe and be embarrassed for me.  And I hope even more that people at Wheaton who read this will see me not as an object of ridicule, but as a resource and a voice for the ridiculed.


11 thoughts on “a cautionary tale

  1. Chris S.

    Isn’t that the case in any situation though? What I mean is, we should all be conscious of how we are communicating all the time.

    I am a youth pastor and I am continually thinking about how I am communicating because when a teenager has an issue that they are dealing with (beliefs, parents, sexuality, etc) I want to be one of those safe people that they know they can come to.

    There really isn’t an excuse for speaking in a way that sets one group up as better than another group, is there?

  2. James at Next Reformation

    Wheaton really sound like the movie Saved! set on a college campus instead of a high school.

    I had a friend leave my former church before I did because she was listed in the church bulletin as a prayer request. The worst were listed as an “unspoken request.” These really fueled gossip more than usual.

  3. globalizati

    I was always conscious of the fact that my deconversion would become a cautionary tale to others–about arrogance, about studying too much science, about reading too much, about not respecting the Bible or inspiration enough, etc. I think I knew this was unavoidable, in part because those who don’t know me well would be able to turn my deconversion into a fairly concise narrative–he was smart enough that he didn’t want there to be anything bigger than him, etc. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but the stories we tell each other are always simplifications.

  4. Irritable

    I was a conservative Christian until well after I graduated. I didn’t seriously begin “struggling” until I was in ministry and teaching at a Christian college.

    That was fun.

  5. Lily Post author

    Irritable, that had to be awkward. I bet it made you more sensitive to the students in your ministry, though.

    Chris S., you’re absolutely right, this kind of thing should never happen. But honestly, I don’t think there’s anyone who NEVER says anything bad about a group of people. That’s something I strive for but I’m not perfect either; however, I am an educator and I try to be especially careful when talking to, about, or around students and parents.

    The only explanation I can think of for this behavior in professors is that they don’t consider the possibility that 1) there are any atheists among their classes, and 2) this kind of gossip is hurtful and breaks down trust. Incidentally, this is definitely not the only thing that Wheaton professors seemed to have trouble understanding. I can’t tell you how many inappropriate racial and ethnic jokes I heard from professors in my classes. Oh god, that really burns me up. My favorite of all time was the professor who repeatedly made demeaning joking comments about atheists, Muslims, blacks, and liberals in a course that was designated as a general education “diversity” course! Obviously, there aren’t any atheists, blacks, Muslims, or liberals around, so it was fine. You couldn’t make this stuff up. And the worst part is that Wheaton has no system for making formal complaints about such blatant insensitivity.

  6. Helen

    This reminds me that sitting in church with my doubts unknown, hearing how atheists and/or people who aren’t Christians were talked about in sermons, felt very alienating.

    It wasn’t exactly that they were ‘a cautionary tale’ but I think the effect is somewhat similar, that it made me feel stereotyped and labelled even before I opened my mouth and made me not want to even try explaining where I was at to other Christians there.

    I think it’s very easy for people to fall into ‘insider’ talk when they think they are in a group of insiders. It’s not just Christians who are prone to that – it’s a common human thing, to bond by emphasizing that ‘we’ are insiders and ‘they’ are outsiders. I think it can be resisted by people who feel secure enough about who they are.

    Even if they aren’t true stories (maybe they are, maybe they’re not) I like how Jesus seemed to intentionally avoid becoming an insider surrounded by insiders. Whenever someone tried to impress him with a comment they thought would be an ‘insider’ comment to him, he tended to do the opposite of giving an insider reply.

    I’m happy to take anyone as my role model who resists the temptationl of bonding to others by emphasizing ‘We’re in, they’re out’. I think it should be possible to bond not at the expense of outsiders. I hope so, anyway.

  7. A Fellow Wheaton Alum

    I graduated from Wheaton within the last few years, and I found your blog via the Friendly Atheist. I also became an atheist while at Wheaton, and as I was reading this post, I felt like I had written it myself. While I am no longer “in the closet,” it was certainly an uncomfortable experience at the time, and your blog describes exactly how I felt during much of my time there. Keep up the good work!

  8. kaydonthedinosaur

    I’ve notice at Calvin (where I go…and where I deconverted) this kind of talk is mainly limited to Religion and Theology professors (most of the other profs that told personal or cautionary tales used their colleague’s gaff of giving an entire lecture about “Teutonic” plates or a personal tale of how one mustn’t get caught up watching a South Park marathon at the expense of grading papers).

    It’s maddening and sad. Which is part of the reason why I never talked outside of class with those Profs…why would I want to become more of an object of gossip than I already am?

  9. Pingback: Religious Professors Mocking Students’ Loss Of Faith « Camels With Hammers

  10. atwitter

    It’s so absolutely not acceptable to act like that, especially towards a person who is questioning things that were as important in their lives as religion is for religious people 😦

    I’m sorry you had to go through this!


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