‘Triggers’—a new threat to the preaching of the gospel

Categories: Editorials,News

In a fascinating and alarming essay in a national newspaper, Professor Frank Furedi, (author of Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, published by Bloomsbury) sets out a rising threat to academic freedom in British and American universities—a threat which may have strong implications for the preaching of gospel.

Professor Furedi draws attention to two particular areas of academic life where freedom of expression is being seriously challenged. First, there is the banning of speakers whose views are considered controversial. These are not necessarily directly related to the speaker’s present subject, but can relate to something they said or wrote many years ago. For example, the well-known academic and feminist Germaine Greer withdrew from giving a lecture at Cardiff University before she could be banned. Her offence was that she once expressed the opinion that a man trying to act like a woman, even one who has become a woman by surgical means, would not act, sound or behave like a woman. For this and similar opinions the Cardiff students branded her ‘transphobic’, and lobbied for her to be excluded. On this specific point, we as Christians must be very sympathetic towards Professor Greer, who surely expresses the biological and psychological facts of the case. But in any case, surely a university is meant to be a place where a great variety of opinions can be vigorously debated, not a place where speakers who fail to endorse the liberal consensus are banned, and further discussion is suppressed. We live in a very strange world, where feminists campaign to ban Germaine Greer; and she is not the only one who has suffered from this kind of bullying from the ‘trans’ community.

A ludicrous and even more alarming case is that of the Iranian human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie, a refugee from Islamic Iran who opposes the spread of Sharia law. The students’ union at Warwick University—where, incidentally, Greer is professor emeritus and taught from 1968—banned Namazie from speaking on the campus because her opposition to Islamic theocracy might undermine ‘the right of Muslim students not to feel intimidated or discriminated against on the university campus.’ The university authorities supinely did nothing about this absurd and unjust decision. The students’ union only backed down after a public outcry.

This initial response, in the case of Greer and Namazie (and there have been others) to shut down any discussion that might prove controversial, is very worrying. This is linked to the second area of academic life where freedom of expression is under challenge: the use of ‘trigger warnings’ to alert students to material that might unsettle or traumatize them. Books that might require a trigger warning include such classics as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?
Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?
—Walt Whitman, Stronger Lessons

What is amazing is that this demand for censorship comes not from the authorities but from the students themselves. Those of us who were university students in the sixties and seventies would have rejected with well-deserved scorn the suggestion that any book was beyond the pale, or any subject off-limits. Censorship was something the authorities tried to impose, not something we demanded; but today’s students have voluntarily put themselves in the same bracket as Mary Whitehouse, who was (rightly or wrongly) seen as a threat to freedom of expression in the sixties and seventies.

The result, Professor Furedi argues cogently, is that we are raising a generation of young people who are unfit to face the rigours of the adult world. If law students cannot face abstract discussions of the law on rape, how will they cope in practice with an actual victim of that ugly crime? Students cannot and should not be protected from the harsh realities of the world into which they will be precipitated after they graduate. But this is a generation that has been brought up to believe they are little princes and princesses, to be indulged with whatever they want, and shielded from whatever might upset them. (I heard some time ago of supposedly Christian parents who wanted to shield their child from anything unpleasant—including the story of Daniel in the lions’ den—but who were not able to do anything about the far greater unpleasantness of the parents’ divorce.) Now, like Peter Pan, they want never to grow up. They expect their universities to provide safe spaces to retreat to when they are faced with anything they consider offensive. Indeed, one leading American institution, Brown University, has a special room for students who feel they have been ‘triggered’—complete with cookies, Play-Doh and videos of puppies. ‘This is’ writes Professor Furedi, ‘no way to equip young people for the adult world.’

Why should this concern us? Is this not a storm in an academic tea-cup, which we can leave in the academies? I do not think it is. First, it is a matter for prayer. If this the way our future leaders are being brought up and educated, we are in big trouble; and the command to pray ‘for kings, and for all that are in authority’ (1 Timothy 2:2) was never more urgently needed. Second, it has the potential to be a major obstruction to the preaching of the gospel. The message of salvation starts with bad news. Paul pulls no punches in conveying the bad news (Romans 1:17–3:31) before he comes to the good news of justification by faith. We, if we are to be faithful to the biblical revelation, must do the same. The question is how we can tell the bad news to a generation that has been brought up to hide from anything that ‘triggers’ a distressing response.

First, we must not compromise the message by watering it down. We all like to be liked. The temptation to leave out the parts of the gospel message that might offend is always present. We can tell men and women that the Christian life is the best life anyone can lead, that Jesus will be their friend and the Holy Spirit their guide; all this true, but it is not the gospel. Unless we tell them that they are hell-deserving sinners, and that God has provided a way for sinners to be reconciled to him, we are leaving out the main part of the story. We will achieve nothing unless we proclaim ‘all the counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27).

Second, we must not compromise the message by presenting it in an inappropriate manner. The apostle Paul tells us that we should speak ‘the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15). We must avoid giving any impression of arrogance or self-righteousness. We must pass on the bad news as well as the good ‘in love’, showing men and women that we proclaim the gospel to them not out of any sense of superiority over them, but because we love them. We do not do it to win the argument, but to win them. If they are offended, if they retreat to their safe spaces, let it be on account of what we have said, and not the way we said it.

Third, we must not be surprised when the message gives offence. However careful we are to present a full-bodied gospel in Christian love towards lost souls, if they do not receive our message, they will be offended at it. Paul sees ‘the offence of the cross’ as an essential aspect of the Christian message (Galatians 5:11). We should not be surprised, but should rejoice that the message is going home, even to the minds of those who, for the present at least, will not believe it.

Finally, we must continue preaching the message even when it does give offence. From the first days of the Christian church until now, faithful servants of Christ have persisted with the proclamation of the message of salvation, in the face of indifference, opposition, or even persecution. We must do the same, ‘in season, out of season’ (2 Timothy 4:2), and leave the results of our labours in the hands of our sovereign God.

In the tiny poem above, Walt Whitman (who was no Christian) points out that our best teachers have not been those who indulged us or tickled our fancy, but those who have opposed us and made life difficult for us; they, perhaps inadvertently, have given us strong lessons in the realities of life. The strongest and most vital lesson of all is the one that casts sinful men and women down in despair before a holy God, before raising them to his throne by the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In a generation that refuses to face the realities of life as it is, our task is still to preach the glorious gospel of Christ, the bad news as well as the old, and to do so in love.