Longform

Proselytizing 101

The call to James W. Johnson came in April 2004. On the phone was Winston Thompson, an associate dean at Broward Community College, telling him that Lulrick Balzora, an assistant professor of religion at the college, had been called up for duty in Iraq.

"Would you be willing to take over his courses?" Thompson asked.

Johnson was more than qualified for the assignment. A graduate of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, he had taught religion courses at BCC for more than a decade. What's more, the offer was enticing, since Johnson had over the previous five years seen his course load decrease from full time to only one course per semester. In other words, he could use the work. He agreed to take over two "Introduction to the Study of Religion" courses and one on the New Testament.

To ease the transition to such a busy schedule, Johnson sat in on a few of Balzora's lectures. And that's when he realized something was wrong. "I was dumbfounded by what I thought was his lack of objectivity," Johnson says. "He was teaching with a homiletic style. It was almost as if he were really pushing his religion."

Johnson, a skinny, 44-year-old white man who wears pressed collared shirts, gently asked Balzora about his seemingly inappropriate teaching style. Balzora, a burly black man with a buzz cut, avoided the question and then handed Johnson the textbook for the New Testament course, Encountering the New Testament by Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough.

"I'm not sure what you'll think of the book," Johnson remembers Balzora telling him. "It's rather Evangelical in its approach."

Johnson took the book home and was shocked.

"The courts have been very clear about how the Bible may and may not be taught in public schools, and it is absolutely illegal to promote religion in the teaching of the Bible," he says. "Yet at BCC, Balzora was absolutely promoting a fundamentalist Christian view. It is clearly stated in the text."

Encountering the New Testament, the only textbook assigned in Balzora's class, doesn't disguise its agenda. In the preface, the authors state that the textbook is "written from an evangelical point of view, in the firm conviction that the Scripture is absolutely true and never misleads us. It is the sure foundation on which our faith and life may be built because it unerringly leads willing readers to Jesus Christ."

The phrase "absolutely true and never misleads us" troubled Johnson most, because they implied a literal interpretation of the Bible — a belief to which Christian fundamentalists subscribe. Most academics and biblical scholars agree that the Bible is riddled with errors and inconsistencies because it was written and edited by many different people over time, then translated into myriad languages. As Johnson continued to read the textbook, his concern grew. The text didn't offer an academic view of the Bible; it consistently offered a fundamentalist view. Among the passages:

On the personal significance of the Bible: "The direction that our whole life takes depends on whether we embrace or ignore, or perhaps twist, the Word of God."

On homosexuality: "The modern tendency to condone homosexuality is a denial of God's creation, his law, and his power through Christ's cross to loosen the grip of sin."

On salvation: "The New Testament is clear on the fact that it is only those who accept Jesus as their Savior, the one who died for them, who will enter heaven. Heaven is the free gift of God to those who will repent of their sins and open their hearts to the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. People are lost not because God does not offer them salvation, but because some refuse to accept the gracious offer that is made to them."

For Johnson, the fundamentalist textbook led him to his own revelation. As Johnson's course load had decreased over the past few years, he noticed more and more courses going to five new instructors at BCC — Balzora, David Corbin, Guy Jeanty, Randall Allison, and Milton Davidson. All had received their advanced degrees from fundamentalist seminaries or universities. What's more, when Johnson pulled the syllabi used for Old Testament and New Testament courses at BCC's central campus in Davie, he discovered that these other instructors were using the same textbook Balzora was.

Johnson immediately set up a meeting with Thompson. In addition to being the associate dean, Thompson teaches religion at BCC. He was in a position to put an end to any inappropriate textbooks or lectures at the college. Instead, Thompson declined to act. Johnson's appeals to the administration at BCC did not result in any action either.

"The allegations are meritless," Balzora says without elaborating.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson