What the Hell(bound)?
Written by Peter Woekel Those who have kept up with Trinity news over the summer may have heard that local documentary filmmaker Kevin Miller will no longer be joining the teaching staff at Trinity Western this year. Miller, who is probably best known for his movie Hellbound?, was set to teach a communications course on documentary filmmaking this fall. However, just over two weeks ago Kevin was told that he would not be able to teach the course because his beliefs on Hell did not appropriately line up with those in the school’s Statement of Faith (Article 10). Over the past week I have been able to talk with both Kevin and our Interim President Bob Kuhn about the whole thing.
About this time last year, Kevin Miller released his documentary Hellbound?, questioning traditional beliefs in a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Within the documentary he introduced what he called “hopeful universalism,” the idea that God is greater than death or sin, and that we can hopefully assume that God will redeem everyone, whether they have accepted Him as their saviour or not.
A few months after its release, Kevin was invited to show the film at TWU and even hosted a question panel afterwards, which included himself, other speakers from the film, and various Trinity professors. The showing and panel were very well received. The auditorium was packed with both students and staff, and the question period resulted in a lot of good discussion, both within the auditorium and afterwards.
That’s why, when last spring he was asked by the SAMC department to teach a course on documentary filmmaking, many students got very excited. Kevin has a lot of experience in the business, having been involved in several documentaries of his own. It is also why, when he was told that he would not be able to teach the newly formed class this year, many students and staff were very disappointed.
Fully aware of his views on Hell, Kevin’s teaching position was green-lighted by the SAMC department in the spring and he was told that his views on Hell would not be an issue. However, after providing a clarifying statement to Trinity’s Statement of Faith, a fairly common practice among professors, he was informed that his views were not clarifying but outright contradictory to Article 10 of the Statement, and that he would not be able to teach at Trinity for that reason. This is concerning for a few reasons.
As a Christian institution, Trinity needs to ensure it is holding itself to an excellent standard of professionalism. Unfortunately in this situation, that standard was not met. Miller was told his view on Hell would not be a problem. It was.
It wouldn’t really have been an issue if Miller was informed in a timely manner. But telling someone two weeks before they start a course that their fundamental views, which are very well known, exclude them from teaching a course is disrespectful of their time and energy.
Trinity recognizes their failure in that regard. When speaking with Bob Kuhn, Trinity’s interim president, he admitted that the process was much messier than it should have been. Miller should have been informed earlier, and he should have been informed better. I hope that Trinity is able to learn from this. It sounds like Kuhn, at the very least, is eager to.
The more concerning issue arises when we start to consider academic freedom. Plato, the father of the university, believed that the heart of education is the discovery of truth. Fundamental to that discovery process is a need for the sharing of ideas. What does it say of our university if we do not allow someone to teach because their ideas are too different? It says a lot, but I think what it says is actually quite hopeful.
Miller recognizes that a Christian university needs to set boundaries of belief for its staff. While I do not necessarily agree with the University’s decision in dismissing Miller’s theology, the fact that the university—under a new president’s leadership—was willing to stick to its theological guns is, I believe, praiseworthy. This is particularly so in the context of the recent attention given to our Community Covenant and proposed Law School.
Miller dismisses the idea that a university should find its identity in its theology, stating that we should instead find our identity in a shared way of life. However, I don’t believe the two can be unbound from each other. What is theology for, if not to create in ourselves a way of life?
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting this theological issue should be left alone. It is important and it needs to be discussed. But we need to recognize that the discussion is dangerous. The Apostle Paul mentions often the dangers of installing those with questionable theology into positions of power. I’m not convinced that Miller’s theology is questionable, but I do believe that we as an institution should be sure of our stance on the issue before we provide the implied support that would come with a teaching position.
Miller has been asked back as a guest lecturer, and Kuhn expressed no interest in shutting down the Hell discussion. I for one have hope that Trinity is fully willing to explore that aspect of its identity, just under its own terms.