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Monday, 4 August 2008

Laidlaw College

On Saturday Madeleine and I attended the launch of Laidlaw College (formerly Bible College of New Zealand or BCNZ). It was an impressive event which was well attended; the Minister of Education Chris Carter, local MP Lynne Pillay, United Future's Judy Turner, various Waitakere City Councillors and former BCNZ Principals were in attendance. The MC was John Hawkesby, the key note speaker was Principle Youth Court Judge Andrew Beecroft.

The pomp was a little overdone with the Mayor of Waitakere City, Bob Harvey, implying via video, that the lower crime rate in the Waitakere area was attributable in part to the presence of BCNZ in the community. Likewise, it was a bit hard to swallow that Chris Carter really truly was there to support Laidlaw College's plans to develop a more educated and politically active generation of evangelical Christians - more than one person present in the audience had been previously written off as a right wing fundamentalist by the Minister.

The best speech of the evening was by Dr Mark Strom, Laidlaw's Principal. Strom opened by noting that the view of history popularly peddled today that Christianity brought about the oppressive period of time known as the Dark Ages was historically false. He pointed out that the Middle Ages had seen a rise in innovation and education and laid the groundwork for the scientific revolution. Quoting from Julian the Apostate, an early Roman critic of Christianity, he pointed out that Christianity had established charities and schools for the poor, had preached a form of egalitarianism whereby the rank and stature of different levels of Roman society were viewed as unimportant. He went on to challenge the excessive pietism in evangelical circles which draws a dichotomy between secular vocation and ministry, no doubt appropriating the puritan ethos of the university at which Strom studied. He spoke of the need for Christians to be culturally informed and engaged, to demand high standards in education and to adopt an intellectually robust yet orthodox, faith that engages the questions of the day. Strom went on to lay out the plan for Laidlaw to become a Christian Liberal Arts College where ultimately the Humanities would be taught from a Christian perspective to a very high standard. The message woven throughout was that of a vision for Laidlaw to pick up its game and find its place as an institution of higher learning.

It was refreshing to hear somebody say this. In 2000 I came to BCNZ to study theology. I found it a frustrating and depressing experience having come from the University of Waikato's Philosophy department. I was expecting to find a similar academic standard to which I had left and was looking forward to being able to have this within a Christian community and with the support of like minded individuals. My hope was naive.

It wasn't that BCNZ was a horrible experience, the people were very nice and friendly but they were culturally so out of touch and I despaired as I saw time and again the staff and students falling for the most ludicrous arguments against Christianity, frequently post-modern garbage, and then struggle to re-contextualise their faith so as to be sympathetic to these 'genuine, sincere' concerns. The fact that the argument might have been invalid and the complaint unjustified seemed to never enter their minds, in fact they did not seem to even want to raise the question. Then there were the students whose faith was essentially emotional and their approach to theological education was effectively of the calibre of Sunday School. Two years later I gladly left for Dunedin to pursue my PhD at Otago University and breathed a deep sigh of relief to be back in academia.

Last year, 5 years after leaving for Dunedin, I came back to BCNZ initially because we needed somewhere to stay as my mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and we were not sure whether we would move back up or not. BCNZ was incredibly supportive and not only gave us accommodation and fellowship but also gave me some part-time work teaching theology online.

To my pleasure, things had changed at BCNZ somewhat. It is now acceptable and common for students to have theological conversations outside of class. There seems to be genuine interest in thinking and taking ownership of personal intellectual development and trying to come to an informed and reasoned evangelical faith. Strom's leadership has undoubtedly had a lot to do with this change. That said, many of my old frustrations do remain in some form.

Strom's vision for Laidlaw is encouraging. I absolutely support the direction he is trying to take it in. My only concern is whether he can pull it off. My experience with evangelical organisations is that they generally do not take things far enough. They stop at a quasi-popular level that seems sophisticated to a layman but still is appallingly superficial when viewed against the kind of things that would be found within the average University. I am frustrated with the sorts of things that Madeleine was alluding to when she called herself a little p philosopher, people appointed because of their connections and the fact they have worked within some popular para-church organisation and can deliver a 1000 word overview of the thought of some trendy enlightenment thinker (generally holding a bachelors degree in an unrelated subject) whilst qualified individuals who lack the connections are passed over.

I guess time will tell whether Laidlaw College succeeds or not. I will be hoping and praying that it does because New Zealand Evangelicalism desperately needs it to.

RELATED POSTS: Laidlaw College: Mark Strom Responds to Critics


  1. If this week's Challenge is anything to go by it looks like you are not far off the mark with your concerns.

    Reading the bios of the new heads of department I note Dr Rod Thompson the new head of the school of theology is quoted as having a string of degrees not many of which are in Theology.

    At the launch I distinctly recall Mark Strom explaining Rod Thompson had been hired because of his expertese in how world views influence theology.

    I note he does not have any Philosophy qualifications either.

    What is going on?

    The Challenge makes no mention of his having acadmic publications in this area either.

    The only ostensible expertise he has in this area seems to be his experience teaching worldviews in a very small teachers college.

    Maxim Institute have Rod Thompson speak a lot as an expert on these issues too.

    It is interesting too that Laidlaw's board seems to share faces with Maxim's board too.

    It sounds very much to me like your fears are not in vain.

  2. Rod is a great teacher. I really enjoyed hearing him speak on worldviews. I don't think this is fair at all.

    Its more important to have people who relate well to others that worrying about the letters after their name.

    David I think you stretched Matt's comments into something they were not. He did not seem to be making any criticism of the ministers that have been hired to rejuvenate Laidlaw College.

  3. I'm with Karen on this one - Matt didn't make the criticisms that David inferred. Matt expressed the hope that Laidlaw College will follow through with the vision that Mark Strom has proclaimed, because in the past, the focus of the College has fallen short of it.

    Like Matt, I'm really encouraged by the direction that is being taken here. The changes that are now present in the College's direction are precisely the changes that I thought were called for when I was studying there in 1999-2001.

    Personally, though, I'm quite a believer in faculty that do have the "letters after their name." I robust formal education should not be dismissed lightly as a mere technicality. Having said that, Rod is hardly unqualified, despite not having a PhD specifically in philosophy. Worldview issues can certainly be covered in a good theological education without a philosophy degree, useful though the latter may be.

  4. Karen sums it up nicely when she spoke of the "ministers" that have been hired to implement the new vision. Rod Thompson's only claim to the "good theological education" that Glenn refers to is an LTh which is effectively a licence to minister. Its up there with a certificate!

    I think David has a point. Rod Thompson does not hold a qualification in philosophy and doesn't even have a bachelors degree in theology. His 'qualifications' are that he is popular and that people like Karen enjoy hearing him speak.

    I find it hard to believe that no one with a bachelors degree in theology (or higher) applied for the head of theology position which does raise some questions as to how serious Laidlaw are about stepping up the academic standards.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. :-S I'd be interested in your thoughts on this one - do we really need a Christian liberal arts college? In the US you have an abundance of those and I'm not sure they're a good thing.
    Wouldn't you rather the Christian academics be teaching in secular universities? And Christian students...I can understand good reasons for wanting them in Christian colleges but I don't need to tell you there are good arguments they should be salt and light on the secular scene as ell.

    Also, what is the point of a 'Christian' college unless academic freedom is limited to ostensibly Christian perspetives - and if that is done, where's the 'liberty' which liberal arts colleges should be about?

  7. In America you can see the difference Liberal Arts Colleges make to the culture of Christian academia. Most academics who work in the field move between both so I think the real issue is really that of quality. As such, I think New Zealand definately needs a Christian Liberal Arts College and that is why Matt and I support Laidlaw.

    Christian Liberal Arts Colleges allows the natural creation of a community of Christian scholars and centres of Christian learning. An isolated individual in a secular university struggles to find this, particularly in a small country like New Zealand where there are only a handful of universities and the departments in some fields are very small. When Matt was completing his PhD the University struggled to find supervisors and markers within New Zealand as there just were not specialists in his field.

    I definately think moving between the Christian Colleges and the secular ones is important, you do not want to gheto-ise either worldview.

    BTW Academic freedom is the freedom of the academy - it means a private instution can say 'we stand for these things, if you agree with us welcome, if not go somewhere else.'

  8. Message for David:

    Dr Rod Thompson also taught at NICE (National Institue of Christian Education, Sydney) and holds multiple degres from large institutions.

    In addition I hope you are prepared to concede that one can gain passable knowledge of some aspects of philosphy from within interdisciplinary contexts.

    (Dr) Tony Dowden
    Faculty of Education,
    Uiversity of Tasmania

  9. I never disputed that Rod had degrees in education. I questioned whether the head of Theology should have so few formal theological qualifications and how someone could be an expert in a field with no formal qualifications in it.

    Of course it is possible to pick up a working understanding of a discipline, Madeleine abley demonstrates some proficiency in analytical philosophy on this blog for example, but one is not an expert unless one has a PhD or a similar in the field that one is supposed to be an expert in as well a string of highly regarded published articles.

    With all due respect to Rod, who is an excellent educational lecturer, he is not an expert by any means in the field of philosophical worldviews. His writings do not come close. His knowledge in the field is popular and if Laidlaw are serious they need to hire seriously.

    A recent example of Laidlaw's lack of commitment in this field is their passing up of the opportunity to host Dr William Lane Craig's Auckland visit because they didn't know who he was.

    How Laidlaw expect to be taken seriously and for their students degrees to be taken seriously when they make academic faux pas of this magnitude.

  10. I know that you must be frustrated that the comments on this post have turned into something you never intended but I hope you resist the pressure to delete comments or censor what people are saying here.

    Within Christendom no one likes to speak their mind and no one feels free to or risk being blacklisted or finding themselves on the outer of the click so no one is openly discussing their thoughts on this matter for example why is Steve Kumar under-utlised in NZ evangelicalism? Even so people want to be able to say what they think, albeit anonymously, and the issues raised here are so very important.

    Essentially what this comes down to is that Laidlaw, like many other NZ Christian organisations has been captured by Maxim institute and appointments are being made not on academic ability but from the approved Maxim checklist. I heard months before the Laidlaw vacancies were even advertised that Rod Thompson was going to be moved from Masters to Laidlaw from a Maxim source.

    Like others commenting here, I too am suspicious that there were really no applicants with Doctorates in the relevant fields, with academic credentials that could top Rod's in this field. It really makes one wonder if the appointment process was rigged and Mark Strom's championing of Rod as an expert in worldviews reeks of the attitude that Christian Philosophy is not really a discipline, its just something you can "pick up". no wonder they didn't know who Bill Craig was (is that really for real?!? who doesn't know who Bill Craig is?) if the extent of their knowledge of Christian Philosophy is Rod Thompson and the other speakers trotted out to Maxim sponsored worldview talks.

    I do not mean to disparage Rod's experience and qualifications in education which are exemplary. I would hate for him to feel that this is a personal vendetta against him. I mean my comments to be on the subject of how academically serious Christian institutions really are? To raise the question as to whether they are pursuing popularism or whether they are stepping up to the big pond and taking their rightful place in academia. If they are serious why are people like you and the author of beretta not on their payroll's?

  11. Please take care when making assertions about people or institutions that your position is reasonably held and can be backed up by evidence.

    The free expression of opinion on material openly available in the public sphere is something we will tolerate (though not necessarily endorse). However despite our opposition to censorship, if the topic turns to personal attacks or defamatory comments we may edit or delete posts as we are not obligated to provide anyone with a platform.

  12. Dr Bill Craig did speak at Laidlaw College. I was there, he was amazing.

    You were wrong when you say they didn't host his visit.

    I was so impressed with him and the directions Laidlaw College have taken since that I am thinking about studying there so I can learn how to think and defend the faith like that.

  13. Laidlaw have taken a step in the right direction. They should be commended for that much.

    Have they stepped far enough?


    They are not going to get the respect in academia they are seeking until they take some of these subjects seriously.

    Dr Dowden summed it up when he spoke of being able to obtain a "passable knowledge of some aspects of philosphy" without formal training. This is Laidlaw's version of "expertise in worldviews."

    They don't yet get the important work that the Plantingas of this world are doing and the necessity for someone skilled and qualified in that field to be on their payroll. They think that if they pick up a first years knowledge of philosphy they can teach it because their knowledge level is so much higher than the average lay person's.

    While this may be true because of the shocking state of the church in this field in New Zealand, it is still not going to cut it in academia.

    The sad fact is that the atheists in New Zealand are not highly trained so a skilled Christian philosopher could have them for breakfast and so tied up in knots they wouldn't know what to do. See what William Lane Craig did to Bill Cooke at Auckland University.

    But Laidlaw are not aiming that high. They can't see past their discovery of the basics so they cannot yet recognise the fact that the popularised version they are peddling will not save the New Zealand church until it is too late.

    Its not Rod Thompson's fault. He applied for a job and they wanted him and he got hired and he will proabably do a fine job as a head of department.

    The fault is those on the board for not aiming high enough and for not fully understanding the depth of the need in New Zealand and the skill that is out there.

    Bertrand raised a good point when he asked why the likes of Steve Kumar are not being used in New Zealand or why indeed the authors of this blog and others like it are not being used much as well. I think thats a good question because such people have actually got what it takes and could revolutionise New Zealand's church and community if they were used properly. I don't know what they are scared of. Read the atheist and gay blogs and you see that you and Kumar and others like you are respected, you are living examples of what it is to have and to exhibit faith and reason.

    People who were not familiar with William Lane Craig were blown away with his ability but the same people cannot spot the kiwi versions of Craig sitting there basically untapped.

    There is a reason that this blog is in the top 100 most read New Zealand blogs and ranks as the the most read (non-Catholic) and best Christian blog in the country and that is that not all of us are as blind as the Christian institutions leading us further into popularism.

    People hungry for real food, who can smell it will find it in spite of the junk food their parents hand them.

  14. Nobody has solicited these comments from me. I give them here simply because I am genuinely concerned about Laidlaw college and the fact that it will not reach its potential the way it is going. The information I have, I have simply because I know people who have freely told me these things. They did not tell me with any intentions of criticising Laidlaw College, the criticisms are conclusions that I have drawn myself.

    Laidlaw College received applicants from numerous people for this position who have doctorates in theology and/or philosophy and who have done specific academic work in Christian philosophy, theology and apologetics whose resumes make it look like their academic careers were geared specifically for the position that Rod now has. It's a fact that when it comes to qualifications, Rod simply doesn't get close to these people.

    To anyone outside the scene and who is not familiar with Maxim or its ties to Laidlaw or any political issues that may or may not be involved, the appointment would come as a complete surprise. Of course, Rod has done exactly as he ought - apply for a job that interests him and in which he believes he will do well.

    Laidlaw's stated new directions are/were exciting, and they led many people to believe that there was a change in the air. In very recent Bible College of New Zealand history, lecturers (very good lecturers though they be) have not been required to have PhDs, and the role of the liberal arts in Christian higher education was simply overlooked. The new directions suggested a change in this area. The bar was being raised - this is the message perceived by many. If the fears about Laidlaw simply becoming a professional outlet for the friends of Maxim are correct, then I fear the only remaining option for Christians seeking a serious liberal arts education is to go to University and suffer the perspective entrenched in those classes. But what good is it when the person teaching you has no more than the same qualification you yourself are studying for?

  15. Fiona K, that's not true. Laidlaw did not want to know about Bill Craig's visit. They had not even heard of the guy, and they assumed that nobody would show up. The organiser ended up booking a room at Laidlaw so that the event could go ahead. AFTER the fact, Laidlaw were impressed and wished they had taken more of an interest in the event. Seriously, if that event inspired you and you want more of the same, don't be so sure that Laidlaw can give it to you.

  16. Fiona (and others), perhaps you should take a look at this:

    The website is still being developed, but we are working on that.

    Steve Kumar is being used by TM. I would like to see him used by us, all over NZ in coming days.

    We are also planning an apologetics conference in this country, to pull people together and start talking about this stuff.

    Best regards.

  17. I think something you should know is that Reverend Doctor Rodney Philip Thompson. Went back to Australia which was a huge loss for what was Masters Institue.

    He was more than happy to stay there. It was us here in NZ that didn't want to lose him and head hunted him to come back, for a better position. He is a great man, with an extraordinary vision for a country that needs God.

    I have no doubt in his ability to lead anything he puts his mind to. There is also nothing stopping him from further study if he so wished Give the man a chance!

  18. So the better position he came back to was a jack-up then. Thanks for confirming it.

    I am sure he was a great loss to the Masters Institute which is/was a teachers college given that Rod's PhD is in Education.

    I wouldn't know if he is a great man or not so I will take your word for it. I maintain that he is not an expert at Theology, Philosophy and Worldviews and that he is fairly mediocre, academically speaking, at both.

    If he intends to get qualified in any of the above subjects and shows some proficiency in them I would be extremely happy to cease my critique of Laidlaw's hiring practices and claims to be getting serious about entering academia.

    Oh but wait, they hired him without these qualifications for a head of department position and in doing so they turned down multiple PhD applicants whose PhD's were actually related to the position. But like you said, they "head hunted him to come back, for a better position" and others have reported they were told he had the job before it was advertised by members of the Laidlaw board and associated organisations so it was never a real academic recruitment process anyway despite Mark Strom's waffle where he didn't deny anything.


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