An Interview with Rod Reed
In general, how are speakers chosen?
Reed: Speakers are chosen in a variety of ways. The main criteria is that speakers need to reflect the Christian mission of JBU as a non-denominational, evangelical university. I get somewhere between one hundred and two hundred speaker recommendations a year from faculty, students, parents, pastors, and people emailing me to ask if they can speak at JBU. I bring about twenty-five speakers in per year. I take recommendations from students most seriously – and, well I take recommendations from Dr. Pollard very seriously – but a lot of our speakers come because a student or faculty has recommended them. Whenever a student or faculty member recommends a speaker to me, I have a process that I go through. I never bring anyone to campus that I haven’t heard speak either on YouTube, from podcasts, or in person. I am looking for three primary things: the most important thing is whether they reflect the Christian mission of JBU; second, do they have the communication ability to be able to speak to a thousand university students; and finally, do they understand what a Christian university is about and what it is like to speak to university students--not just a men’s conference or a women’s conference or a youth group or a church or that kind of thing. I put all those things together and then try to think about what is going on in the world, what is going on around campus, and how I can have our speakers give students perspectives on the breadth of Christian life. So it is kind of like a huge puzzle.
So you mentioned that you pay particular attention to student nominations. Why is that, as opposed to paying particular attention to faculty nominations?
Reed: A couple of reasons: one is that chapel is primarily for students, the university is primarily for students, and so I am very interested in hearing who students think would be a good person to speak to them and their peers. I realize that the older I get, the further I get from the student experience. Quite often, faculty members are thinking about more academic and scholarly speakers rather than speakers who would do well in chapel. So that is why student recommendations are at the top of my list.
So occasionally chapel speakers are much more political than normal. What are the pros and the cons of having very political speakers?
Reed: Now obviously last year was more political, and we had some highlights of that. But I went back and looked at the three previous semesters of speakers, and the political ones always get the biggest pushback. Less than 5% of our speakers are explicitly political in any direction even though people remark that we are specifically bringing in conservative or liberal people. It is usually just that those are the ones that people remember because they are high profile. The vast majority of speakers are preaching from scripture and not making explicit political points. That is, I think, an important thing to realize, because I get feedback from both ends of the spectrum accusing me of being biased either liberal or conservative. And my challenge to both ends of the spectrum is that before you accuse me, go back and do your research and figure out what the actual statistics are. Nobody does that. So the reason I occasionally bring political speakers is that if the gospel is for all the world, politics is part of our world, and so we have to look at what scripture says about the history of slavery and racism, as an example. What does scripture say about care for foreigners in our midst? What does scripture say about how we select our leaders? And I get pushback. I recently got emailed after chapel with the remark that “politics shouldn’t be in chapel,” and I just think that is, to use a theological word, crazy, because politics is part of our society. If we are looking to integrate faith and learning, we must integrate faith and politics. Now whenever we do that, we then run the risk of saying, “well you are just representing one side of the story.” That is true. There is always that risk.
So do you think that maybe students would be less shocked if there were more political chapels as opposed to less?
Reed: That is possible. I think there are some other issues at play. I think that the culture of our country these days makes it very hard for people to listen to people whose positions are different from theirs and to not immediately get offended and defensive. And so one of my other criteria for chapel speakers is that most of the time – last year was an exception for both directions –my goal is to bring speakers who can present a message that people from a variety of perspectives can hear. I realize that some won’t always hear, but I don’t like bringing speakers who are very antagonistic and provocative, for lack of a better word. I can’t control them when they get on stage with the microphone. As much research as I have done, it is out of my hands. I do a ton of research on speakers. But I also don’t want to shy away from tough issues just because people might get riled up.
So do you ever have to negotiate the topics with the speakers?
Reed: Oh, I always negotiate the topics with the speakers. And I always know what they are going to speak about, but I don’t always know the tone that they are going to use to speak about the topic. For me, tone is as important as topic, because I think that people respond to tone as much as they do to topic. I really try to bring speakers with the right tone even if it is a controversial topic. The problem is that we all bring our own stuff and our own perspectives, and we hear everything filtered through our own filters. Sometimes it is hard to listen to different perspectives because of our own stuff. I think that the key challenges for American culture today and our students specifically is that people just don’t listen very well, because they don’t listen to listen; they wait for the other person to stop talking so that they can argue. I think that is a fundamentally unchristian thing to do. It is really hard to honor another person if you are just waiting for them to stop talking so you can tell them how wrong they are. Honoring someone is a form of loving our neighbor. It is not very loving if you are just waiting for them to stop talking so you can argue with them. And I think most people all across the political spectrum that is their primary characteristic these days and I think it creates a very difficult environment to deal with hard topics because everyone is just trying to argue which is why I don’t bring more political speakers. I don’t think that a monologue in one direction to a thousand people is the best way to deal with tough topics for the most part. I like panel discussions better for that kind of stuff.
So in general, what makes for an effective chapel speaker?
Reed: I think the most effective speakers, in general, are faculty speakers that students know, because I think that students in general, particularly students in this time of history, value relational authenticity. That is why the foundation of chapel is built on people from the JBU community, and then we add some other voices, but not the other way around. Last year one of the more helpful speakers was Vincent Bacote in the spring of 2016, talking about how Christians should engage in the political process, which is a tough thing to do.
Like as Christians, what does separation of Church and State mean? How much Christianity are we supposed to put in the laws or policies?
Reed: Exactly. And are we asking that question from a political standpoint or a theological standpoint? I would argue that most people approach that question from a political standpoint rather than a theological standpoint. One of the problems I have with people who are on either end of the political spectrum very strongly – strong liberals or strong conservatives – is the way I hear them talk. They identify as a Christian republican or a Christian democrat, and almost all the arguments are from a political standpoint not a theological standpoint. That is troubling for me because it seems like the allegiance is more to the political position than to the Christian position, and I think that is a huge problem in our culture. So I am basically trying to get into as much trouble as I can with both the liberals and the conservatives.
Well that just means you are probably doing things right.
Reed: That or I am putting my job at risk. One of the two [laughter]. If I had a hope for Christians who are interested in politics, there would be two things that I have kind of mentioned. One is that they would learn to love their neighbor who is different from them politically by listening compassionately more often, and two, that their primary allegiance and political arguments would arise from scripture and not from their political position. That is my hope. And if we then arrive at different positions, that happens. But I have great friends who are strong liberals, on the left, or great friends who are strong conservatives, on the right, who can love each other and really listen to each other even as they really disagree with each other. I think that is an incredibly rare thing. I think that we can be a greater Christian witness if we can do that more often. I know people who are married to the opposite party so they go and cancel each other’s vote out every election, which seems crazy, right? Can you literally imagine if the person you are most committed to in life is committed to the opposite political perspective? And if they can do it, live in the same house, sleep in the same bed, I think we can do it with people that we don’t have that close of a relationship with.