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This Is How the World Ends: On Jack Crabtree And The End of America, Part One

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Part One: Patience in Well-Doing

 *****

“America as we have known it is coming to an end…It will only be a matter of time until virtually the whole population conforms to the Satanically inspired values and worldview of the superior class.” 

~ Jack Crabtree, 2013

 *****

This summer, a group of people assembled in the dining room of a renovated fraternity in Eugene, Oregon. They assembled to talk about a paper presented by Jack Crabtree, a philosopher who teaches at Gutenberg College — the college that exists inside that brick-covered house. Jack’s paper set forth a bold thesis: Leftism is a satanic beast that has taken over the U.S. and the U.S. is therefore coming to an end. “American culture,” Gutenberg’s website announced, “is quickly, and inexorably, becoming an anti-Christian state.”

Jack’s paper was entitled, “How To Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast.” It was the featured presentation at Gutenberg’s Summer Institute, an annual event held to introduce the college to a broader community than its students. From July 31 to August 3, other members of the Gutenberg faculty and community took turns responding to Jack’s paper — some agreeing, some taking issue with a point here or there, and some disagreeing.

This series is a response to Jack’s end-of-the-world narrative. But more than that, it will call into question the very foundation of this narrative — a foundation that permeates much of the Religious Right’s worldview. I believe this foundation to be nothing less than an anti-intellectual form of historical revisionism and fuel for alarmist claims. By reinforcing this foundation, Jack is doing a disservice to both his own philosophical strengths as well as Gutenberg’s reputation as distinct from the Religious Right.

The outline of this series is as follows:

  • In this first part, I shall provide a short history of Gutenberg and my relationship to it, the Christian homeschool movement, and the sociopolitical activism of my youth.
  • In Part Two, I will do my best to accurately and fairly summarize Jack’s argument.
  • In Part Three, I will examine the evidence provided by Jack to justify that America is ending. I will argue that Jack’s examples are evidence not of Christian persecution but rather evidence of White Protestant Christian Privilege still being on thrones.
  • In Part Four, I will to bring to light the first of what I believe to be two of the most important (yet unspoken) ideas underlying Jack’s argument: a neoconservative theory of a ruling class.
  • In Part Five, I will bring to light the second of what I believe to be two of the most important (yet unspoken) ideas underlying Jack’s argument: a Marxist theory of cultural hegemony.
  • In Part Six, I will look at the words and definitions provided by Jack for the central ideas of his thesis. I will argue that how Jack defines these key words creates a non-functioning thesis. In other words, his thesis is self-refuting.
  • In Part Seven, I will provide an alternative narrative to Jack’s that I believe not only eschews the neoconservative and Marxist cornerstones of Jack’s so-called Gestalt but also makes actual sense of the examples provided by Jack.
  • Finally, in Part Eight, I will look at Jack’s solution and vision of true Christianity and explain why, in its striking resemblance to a nightmare from my Religious Right past, it (intentionally or otherwise) advocates alarmist, homophobic, and cult mentalities that should have no place in either a Christian community or an institution of higher learning.

A Short History of Gutenberg

Gutenberg College is a small, Great Books college in Eugene, Oregon. When I say “small,” I mean really small. Its first class consisted of only four students. Its most recent graduating class had six students.

Jack Crabtree presenting his paper, “How To Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast," at Gutenberg College's 2013 Summer Institute.
Jack Crabtree presenting his paper, “How To Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast,” at Gutenberg College’s 2013 Summer Institute.

Despite its size, however, the college has attracted a significant amount of attention from American Christian culture. The editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine, Marvin Olasky, spoke at the college. Olasky interviewed Gutenberg’s dean, Charley Dewberry, for WORLD as well as recommended the college.  Discovery Institute fellow and Christian worldview author Nancy Pearcey presented a lecture series there. Gregg Harris, one of the four “Pillars of Homeschooling,” has helped the college fundraise. The Classical Christian educational world also has promoted Gutenberg — Andrew Kern’s Circe Institute named Gutenberg “a top liberal-arts college” and Classical Conversations recently highlighted it — not too bad for a college with a current student body of 48.

Gutenberg enrolled its first class in 1994. Its origins, however, date back to 1979, to an organization called McKenzie Study Center (MSC). MSC was created as a Christian ministry to Eugene-area college students — very much in the L’Abri fashion. Many of the teachers, in fact, give credit to Francis Schaefer (of L’Abri) for influencing their thought process.

MSC was supposed to teach college students how to understand the Bible. But as the years passed, the teachers at MSC believed that students were not only lacking in their understanding of the Bible, but also lacking the skills necessary to even read the Bible. Seeing this as an inherent flaw in the modern education system, the teachers decided to create a college that would teach students how to read, how to understand the context in which an author wrote and thereby understand an author’s intent. To this end they created a liberal arts college fashioned in the classical educational model known as “Great Books.”

The Great Books model was popularized in 1940s and 50s by Columbia’s John Erskine, Yale’s Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Chicago’s Mortimer Adler. It became quite a success due to aggressive marketing by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which even included door-to-door sales people. Probably the best known manifestation of this movement today is St. John’s College, with campuses in Anapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

At the core of a Great Books education is an emphasis on reading books and discussing them in small groups, being lead by a “tutor” (the teacher or professor). The MSC teachers believed this to be the best model for teaching students how to read — in particular, how to read the Bible. While there is nothing inherently religious about the original classical education movement of the 1940s, Gutenberg College is religious. Their goals include fostering an environment “respectful of biblical Christianity” and promoting “an accurate understanding of the Bible’s teaching, conformity to that truth, and uncompromised commitment to biblical Christianity as a philosophy of life.”

The college has a “Biblical Foundation Statement,” and “all regular and probationary faculty, administrative staff, and members of the board of governors must acknowledge their agreement with the Biblical Foundation Statement.” Their statement is prefaced with Martin Luther’s Protestant rallying cry, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason…”

Agreeing to a statement of this kind, of course, is hardly uncommon among Christian colleges and universities these days. What is uncommon, however, is that this statement does not involve uniformity of theology or politics. Rather it is an epistemological uniformity— in other words, an agreement on how we come to know what is true. They call it “rational biblicism”:

“A rational biblicist is one who believes that God has given us our rationality as the ultimate arbiter of truth and, therefore, that no truth will be contrary to the dictates of sound reasoning.”

According to Gutenberg College, a rational biblicist can see the core message of the Bible in only one way:

“Anyone who employs the sound, rational exegetical method to which a rational biblicist is committed will inevitably come to an understanding of the core message of the Bible that contains roughly those elements articulated below.”

“Rationality” is key to the Gutenberg approach, as epitomized in the teachers’ love for the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, who advocated a “common sense” philosophy. Common sense, it is argued, would reject much of the skepticism and postmodernism of our times. In fact, Gutenberg sees those very things as part of the problem with modern education:

“Gutenberg emphasizes these thinking skills because the faculty do not share our culture’s fashionable suspicion of reason, a suspicion shared by some non-Christians and some Christians alike. The Gutenberg College faculty are confident that biblical Christianity is both completely true and eminently rational.”

Gutenberg and the Christian Homeschool Movement

Gutenberg College is my alma mater. I attended the school from 2001 to 2005 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts — the one and only degree available from Gutenberg (which is similar to other Great Books-only schools). My older brother and younger sister are also alumni of Gutenberg, and my father was the Director of Admissions and Development there for years.

If there is such a thing as a “Gutenberg family,” as there are “Yale families” or “Harvard families,” my family would be one.

The graduating class of 2005.
The graduating class of 2005.

I enrolled at Gutenberg after being homeschooled my entire life. My parents were leaders in the Christian homeschool movement in California, as well as leaders in NCFCA, the national homeschool debate league (my father was president of NCFCA for a while). Gutenberg was not a typical “homeschool” college in anyway, nor was it “meant” for homeschoolers. Compared with a place like Patrick Henry College, Gutenberg would look practically secular.

But Christian homeschool graduates were overwhelmingly represented. Of the 10 people who started in my freshman class, 7 were homeschooled. Ratios like this would continue, as Gutenberg proactively recruited homeschool graduates. Half of the faculty homeschooled their own children as well.

While the school was flooded by homeschoolers and was intimately connected with the culture of the Religious Right, it contrasted significantly with the homeschool world that I grew up in and knew so well. I experienced a culture shock of sorts.

The Christian homeschool culture I experienced was in many ways insular and fearful. It either discouraged students from exposure to non-Christian ideas or encouraged students to learn non-Christian ideas only so that they could refute them with simplistic cliches. I have spoken of this experience before also in relation to evangelical worldview camps, which are “training up the next generation with nothing more than an arsenal of generalizations, simplifications, and shameless reductionism.”

Gutenberg, however, was a breath of fresh air, a move in the direction of free inquiry and openness to new ways of looking at the Bible, Christianity, and the world. Yes, it still held to some of the dichotomies that frustrated me. But for the first time, I felt comfortable with breaking from some of the insular and fearful ideologies. I have said this before, and I mean it: In contrast to many of my experiences in homeschooling, the teachers at Gutenberg were the people that helped me deconstruct the worldview I inherited from what you and I would probably consider “extremists.” These are the people that have represented non-extremist Christianity to me — not just that, but non-extremist conservative Christianity. I know they’ve had a similarly wonderful and healing impact on other friends of mine (who come from similar backgrounds).

Where I am today, I honestly owe to these people. They taught me to have intellectual integrity — as well as the importance of seeing a new way of communicating that recognizes the humanity behind ideas.

Dead White Males and My Senior Thesis

There was also something else, something very important, that made Gutenberg contrast with my high school experience. That was Gutenberg’s emphasis on “inwardness,” an idea taken from the college’s patron saint, Soren Kierkegaard. To the Gutenberg community at large, Christianity was something personal, an intimate relationship between one’s self and God. I came to learn that this meant something very specific. But I unfairly misinterpreted it as a bitter, caustic attitude towards “Christian culture”: a sarcastic, Pacific Northwest emo spirituality that eschewed social and political activism as “inauthentic.”

This infuriated me.

I spent high school in speech and debate. I was a human rights activist, an advocate for the oppressed. I wanted to make the world a better place right now goddamnit. I immaturely raged against this Great Books machine in my head every class, thinking, “Fuck these books! We should be out doing something that actually makes a difference, instead of reading dead white males!”

I wrestled with this tension — between Gutenberg’s inwardness and the activism of my youth — for the entire four years.

This tension was finally resolved my senior year. I chose to write my senior thesis on this very thing. I took the patron saint of my alma mater, Soren Kierkegaard, and compared his ideas of inwardness with the ideas of outwardness I found in the patron saint of my Christian activist youth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

And what I came to realize really shook me to the core.

After spending a year studying Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, I realized that this struggle I had between a personal relationship with the Christian God and a public relationship with the world did not have to conflict. In fact, these two relationships were inherently connected. They were prime examples of the struggle between faith and works, between being in the world and yet not of the world. I would argue in my thesis, entitled “Patience in Well-Doing: A Sociopolitique of Signification,” the proper relationship between a Christian and the world was a relationship of signaling to a higher reality, and consequently condemning all world power structures — whether left, right, liberal, or conservative.

It was a watershed moment for me — and Jack Crabtree supported me all the way through writing.

See, I chose Jack as my senior thesis advisor. I chose him because I had never met someone who was so brilliant at making profound distinctions between ideas, and who held both his religious ideas as well as his philosophical ideas to the same standards of common sense and rationality. Even then, while we rarely talked about politics, I was aware Jack and I did not see eye to eye on current events. But I did not care. What mattered to me was that I knew Jack understood what was essential to being a Christian and what was superfluous — and I needed someone to help me with those distinctions as I worked through a really important question to me: how to be in the world but not of it.

Or, put another way, how to follow Jesus when you cannot kill the Beast.

The Fetal Position Is Not the Proper Position From Which to Dialogue

This was the most important question of the first twenty years of my life. I owe the answers I found to Gutenberg, and especially to Jack Crabtree. I also owe to them the freedom and healing I have found from the fundamentalist Christianity of my youth.

For my senior thesis at Gutenberg ("Patience in Well-Doing"), I compared the patron saint of my alma mater, Soren Kierkegaard, with the patron saint of my Christian activist youth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
For my senior thesis at Gutenberg (“Patience in Well-Doing”), I compared the patron saint of my alma mater, Soren Kierkegaard, with the patron saint of my Christian activist youth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It is because of this immense respect I have for Jack, and because of the importance of the answer I found to one of the most pressing questions of my young adulthood, that my initial response to Jack’s Summer Institute paper was so visceral. It has taken me months to put these thoughts together, because I did not understand my reaction.

I did not understand the overwhelming desire to throw my computer across the room and scream at the top of my lungs and curl into the fetal position and cry.

Because I had that desire.

My vision kept blurring. My blood pressure kept rising. I had to take many breaks while reading. In the end, all I could do was express myself with memes because the absurdity of it all crippled my ability to form cogent thoughts.

This made some people mad. This made some people tell me to shut up.

But I was not trying to attack anyone. I was honestly just flipping out. And after several weeks, I finally realized what I felt:

Betrayal.

Reading Jack’s paper made me feel fundamentally betrayed. As if everything I learned from Gutenberg, everything Jack taught me about distinctions and essentials and being a careful rather than reactionary thinker, everything that made Christianity sensible and respectable and graspable, and everything I worked towards with him as my thesis advisor — was just thrown out the window.

Overnight, a place that represented safety and common sense was transformed into a grotesque monster from a world I have fought so hard to break from.

Yep, He Went There

I should have known better. When I first read the title of Jack’s paper and the description of his thesis on Gutenberg College’s website, my heart got caught in my throat. I also slightly rolled my eyes. “Oh, please don’t go there,” I thought.

But Jack went there.

And after reading the actual paper he presented at the Summer Institute, it confirmed the legitimacy of my initial response. It not only confirmed it, it amped it up. It was exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t be — and then some.

Part of the purpose of this series is explore exactly why I am embarrassed and outraged at Jack’s paper, and also embarrassed and outraged that my alma mater would allow this paper to be the center of an official event open to the public. But the short of it is that this paper represents shockingly sloppy thinking that engages in caricatures and generalizations that are more becoming of pseudo-news sources like Fox News and the Blaze than an institution of higher learning. It moves Gutenberg squarely into the end-of-the-world narrative employed the Religious Right, and with abandon. In doing so, all of the different aspects of that narrative are being enthusiastically assumed.

And that frightens me. Because that is a very dangerous and destructive narrative.

A Word of Caution

I will not mince my words in this series. If spirited and sometimes emotional critique is not your thing, then I would recommend you avoid everything that follows.

I am going to call bullshit. And I am going to call bullshit a lot.

But at no point in this series will I say I hate Jack or hate Gutenberg, or that I think Jack or Gutenberg are stupid. Because I love and respect Jack as a teacher and Gutenberg as my alma mater. Yet my love and respect do not negate — in fact, they only amplify — my condemnation of the ideas, attitudes, and lack of scholarship in the paper in question. As an alumnus, it is my duty to speak up instead murmur bitterly in the shadows.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Before I begin critiquing Jack’s paper, the fair thing to do is present his paper as accurately and fairly as possible. Because if there is anything I can do to pay credit to the gifts of education and dialogue that Gutenberg gave to me, it is do my best to understand an author’s intent and place that author’s ideas into a context.

To that task, I turn first.

To be continued.

9 thoughts on “This Is How the World Ends: On Jack Crabtree And The End of America, Part One”

  1. Very well written, Ryan. I have no idea whether I will agree with you but I am very much looking forward to reading this series. Thanks for taking the time to express your thoughts so clearly. 🙂

  2. I’m jealous over the good books education. That’s one thing I agree with the homeschoolers on. I didn’t learn very much in college academically. I was exposed to new ideas to be sure. But the ideas weren’t connected. Theology wasn’t connected to philosophy or history. Linguistics wasn’t connected to analytical philosophy. Everything was disconnected. I always thought that was not a very natural way to learn. My grad school, of course, is done in seminars instead of classes, and it’s much more interdisciplinary.

    Philosophy students do get to study the history of politics, but my college government courses did study the function of politics. We just memorized the facts. I don’t think most homeschoolers are better, though.

    1. I totally get that.

      The Great Books method definitely isn’t perfect, and there are things I wish I got to do academically, and other things I wish I got to study. I personally wish I had more chances at specialization. But really, I wouldn’t trade the Great Books education — from either Gutenberg or St. John’s — for anything. My mind works with making connections and creating a big picture. So the connectedness of the Great Books method really works with how my mind works.

  3. Thank you for this. Jack and I were friends long ago, before he moved to Eugene. Every year I make may annual trip to the U of O to do research and every year I look at the GC website to see if Jack is a person I want to invite to lunch. That seems trivial, now. My armchair thought is that he needs psychiatric help, which I cannot provide. This saddens me, but perhaps it explains why he no longer with the Study Center/College. Hindsight makes me think I might have seen Jack develop this way. Oh, dear.

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