In my opinion, round two from Northland’s public relations attempt is much more clarifying and helpful. The second letter comes from Les Ollila (Chancellor) and is a follow-up to Matt Olson’s (President) open letter which I felt to be unsuccessful at best. In Is Northland Changing? A Chancellor’s Perspective Les Ollila responds with a solid no and yes.
As I said in my previous post, I think that change can be good and, in the case of what I see at NIU, these particular changes are commendable. I claimed that Northland was in a quaqmire because they were trying to say that they were changing while insisting that they weren’t changing. It appears to be political and disingenuous because representing the truth of the situation is very hard. The fact is that they are changing, but they haven’t changed. I argued in my last post that they should just admit it. I am not so deluded as to think that my posts have any kind of influence, but they have certainly listened to some good criticism, because round two gets much closer to the mark.
I would like to make some broad generalizations about ministerial philosophy and specific analysis of the Olson/Ollila letters. There are some people that always read me negatively no matter how I say it, but I hope that most will read this as an attempt to help the discussion going on in these circles.
Proposition #1. Change is not always bad. Sometimes change is good.
Fundamentalists, particularly, have difficulty with this basic reality. As I said in my first critique of Northland’s public relation attempt:
Fundamentalists have so long confused intransigence for steadfastness that they have to resort to announcing change by saying there is no change.
But change is our calling. We are supposed to change. We are supposed to adjust, adapt, correct, and tweak our philosophy and practice according to, as Ollila said in the article, the light that we currently have. To insist that change is wrong is to confuse intransigence for steadfastness and can only mean that one has embrace a philosophy of pride or ignorance, if not both.
Proposition #2: Change does not necessarily mean a change of species.
A sheep may change, but it doesn’t mean that it has become a wolf. A caterpillar changes, but not into a snake. It stays what it is essentially. This is Northland’s legitimate claim. Thus, when they say that they have not changed they are trying to say that they are essentially who they have always been. However, you have some extreme fundamentalists crying, “Wolf!” when the sheep has merely knocked off some badly matted, manure-encrusted hair. There’s been a noticeable change, granted, but not in substance. And there is a large fundamentalist demographic that can’t tell wool from matted hair. The communication problem becomes one of trying to say “We have not changed,” while acknowledging, “We have changed.” And because substance is more important, they are more keen to emphasize what they have not changed. Not only that, they’d like to convey that the “adjustments” we “see happening” are consistent with who they have always been in substance.
I’m cool with that. And from my vantage point I can confirm that with my own personal experience. I have long attested that my own personal philosophy was implanted at Northland and I felt frustrated as a graduate that they did not seem to appreciate the product of their influence on the many graduates who went on from Northland to the left fringes of fundamentalism. But as I reflect on it, Northland’s problem has always been in communicating the “We’re changing. We’re not changing” message. This leads me to the third proposition.
Proposition #3: “Adjustments” and “corrections” in both the English language and common experience are changes.
I am personally in favor of plain speech so I could quibble with the fact that Les Ollila goes to great pains to refer to the changes at Northland as “adjustments” and “corrections” instead of changes, but that really is a quibble because he knows and we all know that “adjustments” and “correction” are a gentle way of saying, “We’re changing.”
Les Ollila used the words “adjustments” and “corrections” to describe “what we see happening at Northland” and what we might “perceive as news” which, he says, “really isn’t news at all.” It borders on the silly because there have been two very public letters about “perceived news” that I personally had barely any perception of until I got the letters in the first place. For most people “adjustments” implies that something was previously maladjusted (at least in the eyes of the adjustor) and “correction” implies that something was previously incorrect. Clearly, these adjustments were worth writing home about, so to speak.
Now, in my mind, what is definitely not news is that at fundamentalist schools there have been some maladjustments and incorrect postures concerning various issues and twenty years ago Northland was certainly among them. Ridiculous applications of separation and insensible views on music were just a few of the things that needed “correcting.” I also knew that Les Ollila was personally unhappy with those incorrect positions. Those maladjustments and incorrect postures have been debilitating to the bible college movement and to the rational and biblical section of fundamentalism in American evangelicalism for years. I agreed with Les Ollila then and applaud him now when he says,
As we have attempted to responsibly adjust the way the vision and philosophy is applied in certain settings at our institution, the foundational principles and historic theological positions to which we have always been committed remain unchanged. These adjustments reflect our desire to be faithful to a vision and to truth in ways that keep vision and truth in front of a new generation facing new challenges in ministry.(Emphasis mine)
But the adjustments are, indeed, newsworthy for a number of people and they are significant enough that many people, including some like myself who are enthusiastic about the non-changes, see the adjustments and corrections as — here comes the blasphemous, red-letter word that’s creating all kinds of nightmares for them from the unreasonable right — changes.
But it is not irrational to assume that it is also true that “the foundational principles and historic theological positions to which we have always been committed remain unchanged.” And here is where Ollila finds himself in a kerfuffle that is similar to the one he was in twenty years ago when he and Doug McLachlan attempted to make a “healthy corrective” to the fundamentalism of that day. He rightly (in my mind) compares the ballyhoo today to the one that erupted in response to McLachlan’s “Authentic Fundamentalism” twenty years ago.
The problem they are dealing with, however, is that “adjustments” and “corrections” are still changes. Let’s be real. And maybe they are learning as an institution that straight-shooting is better. And the truth comes out. In the previous letter Matt Olson unfortunately gave many people the impression that they were surprised by the backlash. (I must say that I personally think that was an uncharitable interpretation although I do believe he gave reason for people to interpret him that way). Now the Chancellor writes that, though he is saddened, he is “not surprised.” The fact that this comes as no surprise (and he’s speaking the truth here surely) is that he knows that most people perceive “adjustments” and “corrections” to be changes. Because, in fact, they are.
Proposition #4. Mature people are not afraid of changes.
I think that the genius of the follow-up letter is that Les Ollila has the advantage of coming across as a patriarchal gray head that gives the rest of us a smack on the hand for being all atwitter about nothing. He actually makes the best case Northland has done in a long time in claiming that what they are doing now is what they have always been doing and he does it in such a way that fends off simplistic rebuttals. Kudos. Take this, for example:
Throughout Northland’s history we’ve tried to be as biblical as we knew how — given the light the Holy Spirit made available to us at the moment. Even so, we are human. We haven’t always done it perfectly, and we’ve made mistakes along the way. But when we’ve been wrong, we’ve made corrections. We will continue to do that as long as we keep maturing in the faith as a team.
In other words, a mark of maturity is the humble recognition that we need to change. Granted, Les Ollila studiously avoids the word “change,” speaking as he is to a fundamentalist constituency that perceives of change to be akin to apostasy, but he says “we’ve made mistakes along the way” and “we’ve made corrections.” The chancellor has given his perspective: maturity is not afraid of change. And, for added good measure, he sagely prophesies more change: “We will continue to do that as long as we keep maturing.”
There was one part of that letter that was particularly poignant to me. Les Ollila said,
Some years ago, Dr. Doug McLachlan and I teamed together to reach out to a group of younger men who were growing increasingly disillusioned with Fundamentalism. We heard their frustrations first hand as we ministered around the country in pastors’ conferences and meetings. It was out of such experiences that Doug’s book Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism was born. God used that book to help encourage many young men to remain committed to the true and biblical essence of historic Fundamentalism. Over the years several hundred of them have come through our graduate program. When Doug published Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism , there were a few who expressed genuine, heartfelt concern. There were also critics who wrongly interpreted the intent of the book and, consequently, assumed Fundamentalism was being compromised. Almost two decades later, the results speak for themselves. Some may doubt those results, but I know of many young men who are now serving in churches or on mission fields or leading ministries—who might otherwise have departed for New Evangelicalism—in part because of what Dr. McLachlan had the courage to say. Though some warned that his book was a departure from historic Fundamentalism, it was in fact a refreshing and healthy corrective to the Fundamentalism of my day. It is my belief that the future will reveal the same to be true of some of the adjustments that Dr. Olson has had the courage to implement under his leadership. Time will prove this out.
I was one of those young men. I listened to Doug McLachlan’s lectures in the classroom before they became part of the simple little book that became “Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism.” I remember people clamoring about the change back then, a change that Les Ollila refers to as “a healthy corrective.” I was part of the first wave of graduates that imbibed that philosophy but went out into a fundamentalism and evangelicalism in which we could not find a home. There was no emerging middle.
I was intimately involved in a decision that Northland made five years ago to withdraw from a conference in which Rick Holland was speaking. I was one of the scheduled speakers and though I was just an independent, local church pastor I had to respond to a flood of inquiries about the rationale behind my decision. The letter I responded to in that post was also sent to Matt Olson and Les Ollila. Their decision-making process at that time was much more complicated than mine because they represented an institution with constituencies. I was mistakenly thought of by them as having been among the many that harshly criticized them at the time for their decision. Since then they have come to realize that I was not a part of that. I stayed out of the public commotion except to explain my own actions because I was navigating new waters for myself at the time. It was, however, a time when graduate was acting along the lines of the culture of his alma mater while the alma mater lagged under the weight of complex relations in an environment that believed that intransigence was biblical steadfastness, a culture hostile to “adjustments.”
Five years later, Rick Holland has been a guest speaker at the alma mater, a very commendable and notable “correction” along with their in-the-main commendable “adjustments” to their music philosophy and other thing. And they are publicly learning how to cope with the expression of these adjustments to a diverse constituency.
Ollila’s more plain speech cuts bait. Detractors will find the evidence that Northland is unapologetically on a trajectory toward compromise. On the other hand, many of us who actually sat under his teaching are smiling. We liked the Chancellor’s perspective twenty years ago and we like it now. And the chancellor did what a chancellor is supposed to do. He backed up the president.
I think Les Ollila made it clear. It no longer seems like a quagmire. It’s a statement:
We’re changing. We’re not changing.
Here’s one former student that is saying, “Bravo!”