Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Toast to Mars Hill College

The little Baptist college in Buncombe County is turning 150 years old. As a graduate myself of a little Baptist college in Hale County, Texas, slightly less old, I can appreciate first-hand what goes on at little Baptist Colleges in out-of-the-way places.

A spirit of free intellectual exploration used to grace such institutions. Used to.

The very name "Mars Hill College" speaks to that academic freedom that some Southern Baptists have wanted to bury under suffocating robes of Republican right-wing politics, their own version of political correctness.

But "Mars Hill" ... if you don't know, the college was named for the very symbol of freedom of thought and speech, a little basalt knob in ancient Athens named for the Greek god of war, Ares (Mars to the Romans), where freedom of speech and liveliness of thought were both promoted and protected. St. Paul had a run in with the Greeks there (in Acts Chapter 17), but was cornered more by their curiosity than by their hostility. (In the Book of Acts, Mars Hill is referred to as the Areopagus, a combination of Ares -- god of war -- and pagos, meaning rock.)

In other words, those western North Carolina farming Baptists who established Mars Hill College well before the Civil War were staking a claim for their own farm-bred children to hear MORE of the world, not less, to be challenged in their thinking, not congratulated that THEY and THEY alone had the truth and everyone else was going to hell.

That spirit of freedom and the quest for truth DESPITE doctrine were alive too at the little Baptist college I attended in West Texas. I got a hell of an education (so to speak), and one of the byproducts is that I have never had much difficulty recognizing a pious fraud. Back in those college days, we had late-night debates in the boy's dorm -- known by a very un-Baptist descriptor ... "bullshit sessions" -- where we were scoffed at one another, working out our own salvation (as good ole Saint Paul advised the Philippians to do).

I don't have a clue what little old Baptist colleges are like any more, if they are still figurative Mars Hills of the intellectual spirit, or big die-stamping operations meant to turn out exact copies of JerryFalwellPatRobertsonism. Used to be that Baptists were all about "every man his own priest" (hierarchies and "authorities" be damned!). Now men like Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention look like lickspittles to a powerful governmental elite.

I thank my little Baptist college for doing better by me than that.

FOOTNOTE: John Milton (of "Paradise Lost" fame) wrote a ringing denunciation of official censorship. He directed his diatribe against the Puritan government (please note) that had seized England in the early 1640s. He called his protest "Areopagitica," an invoking of the spirit of Mars Hill against overweening governmental power that, incidentally, claimed the divine sanction of God Almighty for oppressive policies. Just a couple of choice quotes from Milton's "Areopagitica":

"As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.

"And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?

"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."

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