A hoary and paternal man gazes from the stage, waiting for those in his idly socializing audience to direct their attention to his dual twenty-foot visages. He begins to pray with twofold purpose: supplication before the Almighty, and tactical acoustic cover for the carefully selected team of ninja-minstrels who, like so many phantasmal Tomlins and Zschechs, stealthily move into position behind Korg, Zildjian, Martin & Co. Voices and arms rise and fall in accord with the brightly projected text on backgrounds of vaguely dynamic geometry (at yuletide, snowflakes). The speaker speaks, the students sit, then leave for lunch.
This pseudo-ecclesial ritual is one of Cedarville’s so-called “distinctives,” a feature of campus life integral to every student’s schedule, every visitor’s tour, every alumnus’s fading remembrance. And though the pants worn and songs sung have changed over the past decades, the core of chapel has remained relatively static; speakers now reference “the facebook and tweeting,” but the form and content of chapel carry on more or less immutable. Indeed, its constancy – 10:00 to 10:47, give or take a minute, Monday to Friday – is precisely what makes it such a central part of Cedarville. It, more than any other feature of campus existence, can justly be called “so Cedarville.”
Yet in spite of its constant presence – or perhaps because of it – we, as students, often find ourselves unable to articulate what chapel ‘is.’ Is it church? Pep rally? Nap time? Extracurricular learning environment? Extra-ecclesial worship experience? The authors of the student handbook describe chapel as “one of the most powerful factors in building a sense of community and family at Cedarville.” Maybe they have a point: putting everyone on campus in the same room every day for an ostensibly higher purpose must lead to some degree of solidarity (if only by renewing our awareness of the existence of 2500 other people in our vicinity). Some students would say that it provides a time of intentional spirituality. To others, chapel is an opportunity to worship and be Christian in community. For others still, chapel is just something we do, at best a break from class, at worst a reason to have to get up before lunch.
But does that really explain it? After all, Cedarville has plenty of other mechanisms that develop community outside of chapel. And, if the purpose of chapel is just to build the student community, why do we broadcast it internationally and advertise it to our visitors (online and on campus)?
Further, if chapel were solely intended to function as a means of spiritual growth for students, why don’t we see a wider variety of speakers? Wouldn’t we benefit from hearing speakers outside our own conservative baptistic traditions? Surely, if we’re allowed to watch (some) R-rated movies and if we take classes featuring Marx and Nietzsche, then we can handle the occasional Claiborne with minimal risk of mass apostasy.
Suppose, though, that there is more to chapel than meets the eye. As a major component of Cedarville’s brand image, chapel and the internationally-available radio broadcasts thereof function as a mode of Cedarville’s daily self-description and self-representation. And who does Cedarville have in mind when it tailors its brand image through chapel?
Largely, parents who pay thousands of dollars to ensure their children have a good Christian education and donating alumni who pay thousands of dollars so long as the Cedarville they remember stays that way. Cedarville, then, has a vested economic interest in maintaining its image as a theologically and politically conservative institution. To be fair, every academic institution which relies on donor and tuition dollars must keep its supporters happy, and even a casual glimpse at most schools’ alumni magazines – Christian or otherwise – reveals this fact. Such an interest is not, in itself, a bad thing.
The problem for Cedarville arises when the institution conflates spiritual and economic interests. Chapel can and should serve as a tool for Cedarville’s growth as a Christian community, while Cedarville’s branding serves to guarantee its financial wellbeing. But when these two priorities lay claim to the same activity – and when that activity is one which is so central to the daily life of every student – there is a significant risk of conflicting interests. If the set of criteria for the administration’s approval of chapel content – speakers, messages, etc. – involves not only chapel’s spiritual value but also its implications for Cedarville’s image, then the ground for the institution’s moral and spiritual authority is seriously compromised.
What is compromised? Diverse voices (voices with theological, political, or social views differing from those of the majority culture at Cedarville) are excluded from the chapel podium for fear of people associating them with Cedarville. Inversely, potentially harmful voices, strongly identified with certain very conservative segments of the Cedarville donor base, are allowed to speak in ways which only serve to reinforce the university’s majority opinion while alienating other voices and communities. We saw this occurring last semester when one speaker made inflammatory political statements referencing the current US president’s “cold, soulless eyes,” and again when the stage was given to the president of a pseudoscientific organization known for alienating the secular scientific community from American evangelicals (scientists or not) through its failure to effectively interact with the larger scientific community on the question of origins. Both speakers were received warmly and, more troublingly, uncritically.
I am not claiming that chapel speakers are selected out of purely economic or political interests or that chapel is inherently a bad thing. What I am saying is that the institution, by placing such a high priority on chapel as a branding tool, has created an environment in which the primary purpose of chapel – the growth and edification of the student body, whether intellectually, spiritually, or otherwise – no longer informs the selection criteria for chapel content.