The Blind Side is not so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager as much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family
“Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.” —Sandra Bullock, speaking of Leigh Anne Tuohy, whom Bullock portrayed in her first Oscar-winning performance
In the aftermath of the runaway success of The Blind Side, Hollywood has become more open to Christians’ stories. I don’t mean “Christian” stories, but rather human stories about Christians whose faith has been an element in their facing universal human struggles.
The Blind Side was unlike anything normally accepted by the Church as a “Christian Film.” It is neither an evangelistic message about Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) witnessing about her faith, nor Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) coming to faith, nor a missionary appeal for how Christian families should adopt disadvantaged youth, nor a white-washed tale about perfect Christians, living perfect lives, with perfect motives, and everything turning out perfectly.
O, the Humanity!
Instead, it is a very human story about a very human woman whose Christian faith informed and motivated a series of radical decisions that transformed her life, her family, and the young man they adopted. The story is not about her faith, but her faith is clearly part of the story.
This approach works only because The Blind Side wasn’t made like a typical “Christian film.” Although director John Lee Hancock describes himself as a Christian and there are a number of other talented Christians working at Alcon Entertainment who helped guide the project, Hancock made The Blind Side because he thought the story the Tuohys lived was so compelling. Period!
“The fact that the Tuohys are Christians played absolutely no part in me doing it or not doing it…. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s an incredibly charitable act that yields rewards for this family. It would have been an also amazingly charitable act had the Tuohys been atheists. A good deed is a good deed… I thought it was a great story.”
Hancock goes on to explain: “I think that if I set out to do stories based on that (Christianity or even inspiration) then it will probably be like the cart leading the horse… You set out to tell a good story. You don’t do it because there is a deep message involved because the movie is almost always bad when you do that…”
The Future of “Christian” Filmmaking
It is the very humanness of the film that makes it so approachable. Leigh Anne Tuohy is a flawed individual. She is a stubborn control freak, still struggling to stay in control even in the very last scene of the movie. Yet when motivated by her Christian faith Leigh Anne’s flaws propel her to make decisions that few other women would even consider. Her character is complicated (which is why Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for portraying her), and therefore very compelling. We like her precisely because she represents our highest aspirations and our worst self-sabotaging realities.
Hancock’s approach points toward a compelling future for “Christian” filmmaking in Hollywood — If you live it, they will come (to the theater, that is). Audiences don’t want to watch “Christian” films. They want to see good films about good stories. Compelling stories about real life human beings who overcome tremendous obstacles and who are transformed into better human beings in the process. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview. Crash Goes the Worldview.)
If the story happens to be about someone whose faith informed and motivated their journey then who’s to argue? Their story earned them the right to let their faith be part of the film. (And opened up the “plausibility structure” for audiences accepting that not all Christians are the preachy, bigoted hypocrites so often portrayed by the media.)
In the end, The Blind Side isn’t so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager so much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family: all because one woman made the radical decision to actually live out her faith.
As Sandra Bullock opined about Leigh Anne and the Tuohy family:
“[S]he has no idea the path she’s begun, in terms of adoption and fostering. It’s not been on the forefront of people’s minds. It is on the forefront of my mind every day now when I get up. When I look around I go, ‘Is he, is she, what is their situation?’ And it’s because of this family, and I think what they are going to do for our country in terms of being aware of that is – I don’t think they realize the profound affect that they are going to have…. [Y]ou see this family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return… I said, ‘Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.’ ” (Italics mine.)
In other words, if Christians actually lived better stories then we might have a litany of heroic stories to draw upon and films to make that real people in real theaters actually want to see and A-list actors want to play. Stories about men and women (and teenagers) whose faith motivated and informed their choices to live remarkable lives by making remarkable decisions and overcome remarkable obstacles.
Living a Better Story
Every believer (and not just filmmakers) ought to be asking themselves ‘Am I living the kind of story that, in Donald Miller’s words, “leaves a beautiful feeling even as the credits role”? As Miller discovered in writing his book subtitled How I Learned to Live a Better Story, few Christians are living stories that come remotely close to living out the full implications of their faith.
What story are we writing with our lives? Leigh Anne Tuohy’s story is deeply heroic precisely because her faith motivated her to take action toward the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. Will we?
Heaven is looking for heroic stories even more than Hollywood. Will this generation overwhelm the world with stories of very human Christ followers whose faith motivates and informs the heroic lives they live? The world is watching…
“Today’s Christian teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.”
N.T. Wright concludes The Challenge of Jesus with a challenge of his own to 21st Century Christians:
“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who? And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”
Wright’s challenge begs the question whether or not 21st Century Christian colleges hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in as high a regard as the Jewish educators of Jesus’ day held the Torah. Like Greco-Roman higher education, Rabbinic higher education was deeply devoted to the development of the life of the mind in close-knit learning communities. However, the distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinic Higher Education was not so much its pedagogy as its remarkable devotion to its subject matter–Torah. Whereas Greco-Roman students were expected to master the ever-changing philosophies of their masters, students in Rabbinic higher education strove for mastery of the unchanging word of God. The “words of Torah were essentially divine. God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence” (Hirshman, 2009, p. 30).
Faithfulness Before Innovation
This devotion to the word of God resulted in a corresponding commitment to faithfulness versus novelty in Jewish education. “No one was free to choose his own credo or ignore the sage’s mediation in approaching the divine… The way of life was learned, and the worldview the product of particular knowledge and distinctive modes of thinking about and analyzing that knowledge.” The object of Jewish higher education was “full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it…” resulting a intimacy with the words of Torah” written on the pages of the heart (Neusner, 1999, p. iii). Education, or more particularly, learning Torah, became “the Jewish religious pursuit par excellence…” (Hirshman, p. 3, 30). In short, they were true two handed warriors.
Jewish boys (and many girls) entered Beit Sefer (primary school) charged with mastering the Torah before the age of thirteen. This mastery often extended to the oral memorization of enormous portions of the Torah, as well as rudimentary reading and writing. After their bar mitzvah, and the corresponding accountability for obedience to the law, the best students were allowed to go on to Beit Midrash (secondary school, literally, “study house”), while they learned a trade. The Beit Midrash curriculum added the study of the Writings and the Prophets to that of Torah, and more importantly, Talmud, the art of Rabbinic interpretations comprised of both Midrash—inquiry into the sacred texts, and Mishna, the study of oral law independent of its scriptural basis.
Rabbinic Higher Education
Only the most remarkable secondary students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education, by obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi. Teaching Rabbis made up a “collegium of sages” responsible for applying the law of God in new situations and for passing on the tradition of scriptural interpretation to new students. “Each begins as a disciple of a master, then himself becomes a master to the next generation of disciples, in a long chain of learning” (Neusner, p. iv).
The goal of faithfulness to the word of God drove the master-student relationship and teaching style of the study house. Rabbinic education was consumed with recitation and discussion, not merely because of pedagogical considerations, but also for theological reasons. The Rabbis so reverenced the written words of Scripture, no other texts were considered worthy of study. Rabbinic higher education was an oral culture, perpetrated and preserved by an ongoing high-level discussion that eclipsed even Socratic dialogue in its relentless back and forth nature.
In order to facilitate this dialogue, Talmidim were expected to follow their master night-and-day as they taught their tight-knit band of brothers in the study house, over meals, and in the market place. “Study was a process of unending repetition and ubiquitous recitation that transpired in almost every possible venue” (Chilton, and Neusner, 2005, p. 131-132). A good disciple stuck so close to his teacher that by the end of the day he was literally covered with dust kicked up by his master’s feet (Vander Laan). Through it all, Talmidim strove to attain the prerequisite mastery of Torah, Midrash, and Mishnah necessary to become sages themselves so that they too could join the unbroken chain of faithfulness. (For an outstanding discussion of 1st Century BCE Rabbi Hillel and his application to 21st Century culture making, see, Joseph Telushkin’s, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)
From Studying Scripture to Making Culture
Most importantly for our discussion, the goal of this remarkable devotion to the word of God was not privatized faith, but culture making. Rabbinic education was birthed in the cultural crisis of the Babylonian captivity and is certainly the best human explanation of how Jewish culture survived the Diaspora. While Moses commanded the night and day impartation of Torah to the next generation, leading Torah historian, Wilhelm Bacher, notes that Nehemiah’s reading the Torah before the post-exilic community in Jerusalem was the actual “birthday of ancient Jewish education” (cited in Hirshman, p. 121.) Jewish leaders were painfully aware of their society’s need for leaders soaked in the culture-making power of the word of God. “According to the Rabbinic ideal, all of Israel would be teachers, and ultimately masters, of Torah” (Chilton, p. 46). Only then could Jewish society reflect Torah in justice, charitable acts, gifts of first fruits and sacrifices (Hirshman, p. 19).
When the cultural chips were down, Rabbis had the courage to contrast the culture-making power of the Jewish study house, not with the Greco-Roman education, but with the theatre and circus, “pitting the two against one another on the level of popular culture” (Hirshman, p. 121). In most Roman cities the circus/theater and beit Midrash were within blocks of one another. However, unlike the Romans, Jewish commitment to the word of God led to a stronger emphasis upon education than entertainment. Romans flocked to bread and circus, while Jews gathered to study. The Rabbis were confident that, in the end, their deep culture would triumph over Rome’s shallow culture. The beit Midrash had helped them endure the cultural onslaught of Babylon and Persia. Rome would be no match for them. And while the process took much longer than they could have ever imagined, it was a strategy that stood the test of time.
From Deuteronomy to the SAT
It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to envision how this principle might apply to twenty-first century educators seeking to develop two-handed warriors fluent in both faith building and culture making. Entrance into Rabbinical higher education required an oral recitation of the entire Torah. Entrance to most Christian colleges today requires little more than an SAT score of 1500. Entrance to early American liberal arts colleges required a comprehensive grasp of the English Bible. Graduation from most Christian colleges today requires little more than a rudimentary understanding of Scripture. Is it any wonder that pop culture is shaping our students more than their faith?
Whether one is referring to Catholics or Protestants, today’s ‘Christian culture’ is a mile wide and an inch deep. Education is losing out to entertainment at every level. As much as I value the culture-making force of the entertainment industry, the arts nearly always follow the intellectual currents of the day (Hunter, 2010, p. 87-88), and the only intellectual current flowing in pop culture today is a narcissistic, consumer-driven, individualism.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s research into America youth culture discovered that, “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” As a result, “a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives.” Their worldview is little more than “moralistic, therapeutic, deism,” or more specifically, “whatever.”
For Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities to be of any value in helping our faith communities resist this pop culture onslaught and grow into vibrant culture-making institutions ourselves we need to return to the wisdom of the Rabbi’s—a rigorous devotion to the word of God. Like Chaim Potok, the sages of the Rabbinic school might dare ask the leaders of today’s Christian colleges, “Do you have faith in the word of God?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. Our curriculum and campus culture certainly don’t appear to reflect that kind of faith. At least not in comparison to the Rabbinic schools.
Yet I suspect that our best hope for prevailing in the struggle for the souls of our colleges and universities may be engaging in a Rabbinic commitment to the mastery of the worldview-forming, character-shaping narratives of Scripture. I am not talking about a lightweight devotional band-aid, but an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching student-teacher dialogue that dominates our campus culture and captures the hearts minds our students. Anything less may result in a cultural exile from which we will never return.
Chaim Potok gave voice to a more modern expression of this sentiment in his novel, In the Beginning: “If the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”
As N.T. Wright challenges us: “If the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is? If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
Wilhelm Bacher, Tradition und Tradenten in den Schulen Palästinas und Babyloniens: Studien und Materialien zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Talmud. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1966).
Bruce Chilton, and Jacob Neusner, “Paul and Gamaliel.” In, Alan J. Avery-Peck, ed. Review of Rabbinic Judaism. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
Marc G. Hirshman, The stabilization of rabbinic culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: texts on education and their late antique context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
James Davidson Hunter, To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Jacob Neusner, The four stages of rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 1999).
Chaim Potok, In the beginning. (New York: Knopf, 1975).
Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian life in history and practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).
Ray Vander Laan, Stephen Sorenson, and Amanda Sorenson. In the dust of the rabbi: 5 faith lessons. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006). See also, Ray Vander Laan’s excellent website, Followtherabbi.com.
N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: rediscovering who Jesus was and is. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.)
“I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has roused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”
Saint Patrick is credited with numerous extraordinary feats, both legendary and mythical. In fact, the myth and the man are so intertwined, it is often difficult to tell fact from fiction. Can you name which of the following common beliefs about the patron saint of Ireland are true and which are myths?
1) Patrick converted pagan Ireland to Christianity. Mostly true: When Patrick arrived in Ireland in c. 433 there were few if any known churches. When he died c. 461 his followers (and other missionaries) had established as many as 700 churches in more than 30 of Ireland’s 150 tribes.
2) Patrick drove away every snake in Ireland. Myth: There were never many snakes in Ireland. However, God did use Patrick to perform many other miracles in order to demonstrate the power of the Gospel over and against the dark powers of the druids.
3) Patrick and his followers saved the great texts of Greco-Roman civilization from distruction. True: As popularized by Thomas Cahill’s best-sellingHow the Irish Saved Civilization, most of the texts of classical antiquity were preserved in Celtic missionary communities during continental Europe’s darkest ages.
4) Patrick made the Shamrock a grand symbol of Ireland. True: He used the three-leafed plant to teach the doctrine of the Trinity.
5) Patrick invented green beer. Myth: But Patrick probably would have liked it. Beer and mead were the favorite drinks of the Celts and many monasteries became known for their excellent breweries. (I’m not sure what he would have made of green milkshakes.)
Patrick’s Greatest Achievement: Missionally Focused Liberal Arts
Ironically, while these achievements, both real and imagined, have made Patrick one of the most popular saints of the modern world,he is rarely credited with what was arguably his greatest achievement: the reshaping of monasticism into a missionally-focused liberal arts education movement.
Let me explain.
The liberal arts and the Christian faith were not immediately on the best speaking terms. While the classically trained apostle Paul treated philosophers in Athens as fellow truth-seekers (Acts 17), Greco-Roman philosophy and philosophers were as likely to be viewed as enemies of the gospel as anything else (1 Cor. 1:20; Col. 2:8). Many early Christian apologists used their liberal arts education to refute much of the Greek philosophy of their persecutors, the end result was often an entrenched anti-intellectualism in the church. Jean LeClercq notes that the general pattern for much of the era was that of “studies undertaken, and then, not precisely scorned, but renounced and transcended for the kingdom of God.”
Following Constantine’s reforms (313 CE) churches began to formalize the catechumenal schools (children and teens) they had founded under persecution and established catechetical schools (college age) often attached to Roman rhetorical schools. Perhaps the most notable of which was the catechetical school and religious community was established by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in the early years of the fifth-century. Trained in the finest higher education of his day—he held one of the most prestigious academic positions in the Latin world as a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan—Augustine’s philosophy of education formed the foundation not only for post-Rome Christendom, but in Christian Education and Instruction of the Uninstructed for the rise of catechetical schools and monasteries throughout the region. Most importantly, Augustine found at least a “measure of compatibility” between Christian and classical thought in training priests and teachers. He devoted several sections of Christian Education to the liberal arts and even began (but never finished) a complete treatise devoted to the liberal arts.
Saint Patrick’s Missional Educational Revolution
As the church grew in influence among the educated classes the commonalities of Greco-Roman liberal arts education, and Jesus’ more Rabbinic higher education model eventually led to the church subsuming the liberal arts academy into its larger project. Their common goals of truth-seeking and leadership training coupled with their nearly identical discipleship-based pedagogy helped calm the once stormy relationship. However, it was only after the fall of the Rome that Greco-Roman culture and its techniques of instruction were “woven into the texture of Christian Education in the middle ages.”And the leader who helped initiate this revolution is none other than Saint Patrick.
Patrick’s mission to Ireland helped reshape monasticism into missionally-focused liberal arts education movement. Patrick arrived in Ireland not as a solo missionary, but as the head of a liberal arts embracing religious community comprised of masters and disciples. Their methodology was the highly relational educational approach they had inherited from the monastic movement, now turned to a missional purpose.
Patrick’s relational approach to the life of the mind was crucial to his missional success. After making contact with the heads of various Celtic tribes, he sought permission to establish a community on the outskirts of the village. A grammar school where Celts were taught to read was one of the first projects in each village, instilling a love of learning where Christianity and the liberal arts were each held in high honor. The native Celts were then invited to take part in discussions, classes, artistic, and agricultural projects. Invariably this relational intellectualism slowly won the village to faith and a local Celtic church was established.
Culture-making–contextualization, education, social justice, and the arts–were all key elements of Patrick’s mission. Patrick was very familiar with Celtic customs, and language due to his time spent as a slave in Ireland in his youth. He sought to redeem Celtic art and worship rather than eradicate them. He created what we now know as the “Celtic Cross” by superimposing the sun—once an object of worship—onto the traditional Roman cross, and recalibrated the use of bonfires in pagan worship by using them to celebrate Easter. Not surprisingly, Patrick was one of the first vocal opponents of slavery in church history. The Irish slave trade was virtually abolished in Ireland wherever Patrick established a church. Devastating social practices such as revenge murder and inter-tribal warfare were also greatly reduced.
Like all monasticism, the life of the mind was eclipsed only by devotion to the life of the Spirit. Prayer played a particularly critical role in Celtic learning communities. The strength of Patrick’s prayer life was legendary and his followers became known for their commitment to praying all 150 Psalms everyday. The strong Trinitarian elements ofSaint Patrick’s Shield/Breastplate Prayerattest to the rich theological life of the mind that undergirded the prayer life of the movement.Students learned to pray because prayer was “theology on fire” where they could experience the love of God, and learn to see God’s love set loose in the world. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.) Like Patrick, the graduates of his liberal arts learning community were fearless in asking the Spirit of God to intervene in the world in supernatural ways. And God answered those prayers with miracles, signs, and wonders far beyond anything the Druids could muster.
This Celtic synthesis Spirit, Mind, and Art in a communal approach to missions was nearly irresistible in its power.He was a true “two-handed warrior,” who established a vast and vital community of Christ followers in a genuinely pagan nation in less than a single lifetime. His schools were so effective at training leaders that he was able to ordain over 1,000 Celtic priests. The Celtic spiritual awakening continued after Patrick’s death as Spirit-empowered missional learning communities under Colomba (521-597) and Augustine of Canterbury (597-604) converted most of Scotland and the English peoples. (Augustine was even warned by the Pope not to get too big a head due to all the miracles God had performed through him.)
In the process of winning the British Isles to faith, Patrick and his spiritual descendants succeeded in saving the liberal arts tradition as well. LeClercq chronicles how “during the long period when invasions were devastating Europe, Latin culture was preserved primarily in England.” While invaders plundered and destroyed many classical texts, Celtic Christians gathered and preserved as many extant manuscripts from antiquity as they could. And it was from England that missionaries carried Latin culture, books and learning back to a large part of the Continent.” God used Patrick to save the Irish and the Irish saved Western civilization.
Is it possible that Patrick’s missional approach to Christian liberal arts education might help save the future of American civilization as well?
How Patrick’s Missional Liberal Arts Education Might Save Civilization …Again!
Anyone following the work of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) knows that we need saving.While over three quarters of America’s youth identify their religious faith as “Christian,” virtually none of them actually follow Christ in any meaningful way. Last night I fell asleep reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s analysis of the NSYR data entitledAlmost Christian: What the faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. I woke this morning with a single thought going through my head, “We’re in trouble.”
“American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship…”
What was so interesting to me in light of Patrick’s life is Dean’s assessment that it is precisely this lack of “missional clarity” that is so devastating the next generation of American believers. The Moralistic Therapeutic Deismthat defines the faith of America’s youth is “the unholy residue of a church that has lost its missional imagination.”One of her proposed solutions for rescuing genuine Christianity from its imposter faith is to recapture that imagination.
Patrick and the Christian liberal arts community he founded were defined by their missional imagination.To Patrick, both the church and school existed to “live my life for God so as to teach these peoples.” He was driven by the zeal of Christ and the love of neighbor to direct his life—his relationships, his study, his teaching, and his prayers—in such a way as to make a difference in the world. Are we?
I would argue that for the Christian liberal arts College of the 21st Century to be of any use to God and to the world we must recapture our missional imagination as well. I do not mean by this “mission trips” (although such trips have their place), I mean “thinking missionally” about our mission as Christian colleges. Building upon the missiological thinking of Leslie Newbigin, Andrew F. Walls, Lamin Sanneh and contemporary “missional church” advocates such as Alan Hirsch, Dean asserts: “The point of God’s incarnation was mission, the sending of God-as-love into creation… created the template for church’s missional way of life.” Genuinely Christian communities exist not for themselves, but for the world. Embracing God’s mission to the world is the “litmus test” for determining whether a Christian is really a Christian and a community is really Christian. 
If colleges are genuine Christian learning communities then aren’t we subject to this missional litmus test as well? Patrick certainly thought so.
Thinking MissionallyAbout Higher Education
How might we do this? At the danger of losing the principle in the midst of flawed practices, let me suggest four ways that missional thinking might help transform our colleges into better world-changing institutions and more deeply transform our students in the process.
1) Think now! Nearly all Christian colleges express their “mission statement” in future-oriented language concerning what our graduates will eventually do someday. How odd this language would have sounded to Patrick.
Patrick’s relational intellectualism and liberal arts based apprenticeship-oriented pedagogy moved the “mission” of his educational community from the future to the present. Making a difference in the world was something faculty and students did together as part and parcel of their shared educational experience. Without detracting from the preparatory nature of higher education nor giving way to knee-jerk activism that too often serves largely out of a sense of guilt or self-congratulation, one way to reenergize our schools and our over-entertained and profoundly bored students would be for faculty to invite students into missional communities seeking to use their expertise to make a difference in the world now.
I like the wayGabe Lyonsdescribes the hunger for the next generation of Christians to live out their calling beyond the walls of the church:
Brokenness exists within each channel of culture… We are called to find things that are broken and affect them in some positive way… Put simply, the next Christians recognize their responsibility not only to build up the church but also to build up society to the glory of God. From genetic scientists to artists, businesspeople to educators, these Christians are letting their gifts flood the world from the place they feel called to work. They have a keen eye to sense what is missing, broken, or corrupted and are courageous enough to respond.
In other words, they need psychologists to help psychology students, philosophers to help philosophy students, economists to help economy students use their calling to missionally better the world now.
2) Think relationally! One of Kendra Dean’s primary findings is the profound lack of adults willing to dig in and do the messy work of helping students “translate” their faith from professed story to experienced story. Adults who will engage students in “catechetical conversations” that evoke what Walter Brueggeman calls a language of ‘transformative imagination.’Students rarely get to transformation alone. “(T)heir faith is the legacy of communities that have invested time, energy, and love in them.” If not us, who? If not now, when?
3) Think strategically! Business as usual will not cut it. If faculty, staff and executives are to lead students in the process of missional education then something has to change. For instance, schools might consider augmenting their stand-alone missions trips and/or service projectsby creating positions that serve faculty in the development of service-learning components in their courses and/or designing missional opportunities based upon faculty passions and talents. Faculty senates could redefine faculty tenure and promotion policies in such a way that peer-reviewed scholarly writing is coupled with student-shared scholarly engagement in culture. College executives could release strategic resources (i.e. funding) for visionary programming, conversations, and staffing.
4) Think big! Dean concludes her book with a note of hope. Students want to be part of something bigger than they are, something that really makes a difference in the world. The real problem “may simply be that Christianity—or what passes for Christianity…—does not merit a primary commitment.”A vision for preserving comfortable Christian subculture simply isn’t big enough to capture the imagination of a sensation-craving, but meaning-starved generation. They want to change the world. A culture of video-games and CGI action movies has trained them to think in only two categories: “Go big or go home.” Will 21st Century Christian higher education rise to the challenge?
Patrick was over 45 years old, well past the life expectancy of his day, when he launched his mission to Ireland. His vision was enormous, maybe even foolhardy. It was also transformative. Patrick redirected the liberal arts learning communities of his day from their purely interior focused purpose to one that was truly missional. In doing so he actually strengthened their spiritual vitality, and their intellectual firepower rather than diminishing it.
He also changed the world. If we followed Patrick’s example of missional liberal arts, perhaps we could change our world as well.
So, today whether you’re drinking a green beer, throwing back a Shamrock shake, or just wearing something green, thank God for Saint Patrick—one of the coolest Saints in history, and just maybe the future of missional Christian higher education.
 A Letter to the Soldiers at Coroticus, in The Confession of Saint Patrick, John Skinner, Translator (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 2-3.
 Perhaps only St. Nicholas and St. Valentine rank higher on the hipness chart.
The love of learning and the desire for God: A study of monastic culture, 3rd Edition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), p. 12.
 J. Van Engen, Christianity and the University: The Medieval and Reformation Legacies. In J. Carpenter (Ed.), Making Higher Education Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1987), p. 20.
 Cited in Alan Cobban, The medieval universities: their development and organization (London: Methuen & Co, 1975), p. 10.
Headlines scream … Ex-Christians, Young Adults Leaving the Faith, A Generation of Dropouts, Quitting Church, the Rise of the Nones. We are on the verge of a crisis with faith and the faithful in retreat. Could we be the last Christian generation? We must rally the troops, cut our losses, and tackle the problem.
Jonathan P. Hill, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Calvin College recently published a short book Emerging Adulthood and Faith that explores the change (or absence of change) in the religious faith of young adults, the so-called generation Y or Millennials who were born roughly from 1980-2000. Much has been written of late decrying the loss of a generation, with the explicit or implicit assumption that the experience and trajectory of Millennials is unique.
But do we have such a catastrophic problem?
Hill, like many other sociologists, argues that we need to take a closer look at hard data. Only then will we make good decisions for the right reasons. Bluntly: We need the facts. Hill’s book is a valuable fact-based resource for anyone involved in church leadership, from lead pastor to youth pastor to elder. Less than a hundred pages and very readable.
First, we need to frame the problem.
At any given moment, age differences between people can be the result of what demographers refer to as age, period, and cohort effects. (p. 7)
Some changes depend on stage of life. In many respects those who are 20 today reflect the same trends and attitudes as those who were 20 in the 50’s, 70’s and 90’s. For instance the elderly pray more than the young. In 1983 42% of those 18-29 reported daily prayer compared with 68% of those 70 and above. In 2012 the numbers were 39% and 71%. This isn’t a generational change; it depends more significantly on biological age and stage of life.
Some changes depend on period – historical shifts, cultural transformations that cut across generations. These events have a significant event on everyone alive at the time, both old and young. The reformation was a historical shift; the great depression and World War II are other examples.
Other changes are generational or cohort effects. These can be significant, but it is important to separate them from effects depending on stage of life and from larger cultural transformations. Bad information will lead to bad responses.
Second, we need to consider the source. There is power in stories, but anecdotal data will only deliver part of the picture. Individual stories always focus down to a specific social context and experience.
Good social science allows us to take a step back from our own experiences, providing data that can give us glimpses of powerful social forces we would otherwise be blinded to. These forces are the background to our lives, though we are often unaware of their influence. Social science can help us see these contexts. (p. 10)
It is important to consider both stories and survey data. In his book Hill focuses on survey data to consider three big issues: the religious identity of young people, the influence of higher education, and the influence of science on faith. He doesn’t disregard stories, but looks at the data that provide a larger context for the individual stories.
Is the religious identity of young adults changing?
Certainly the data tell us that “somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of teenagers who were regularly in church on Sunday morning are no longer attending by their early twenties.” (p. 15) In fact, the drop in attendance begins at ages younger than 15 and levels out around 18 or 19. But much of this is a trend based on biological age. This isn’t a cohort or generational effect. About 12-13 percent of 18-29 year olds attend a Protestant church every week, a number that has been remarkably steady for the last forty years! Similarly about 42% of 18-29 year olds pray at least daily – a number that has been remarkably steady for the last forty years. There has been a significant change with the rise of “nones,” but this comes from those who were less committed to begin with. There has been a significant drop in those who attend services occasionally or who pray occasionally and a concomitant rise in those who never attend and never pray.
At least among Protestants, every concerned parent and pastor should know this: The percentage of young people with a strong Protestant identity, and the percentage who regularly practice their faith publicly and privately has barely budged over the past forty years. They are in your churches, youth groups, and Bible studies. Yes, something has been happening at the margins, but the center has held. (p. 20)
To me this suggests that we don’t need massive institutional transformations. We need to continue engaging people, families, young and old, in strong Christian community.
There is no evidence that Millennials are “drastically different from previous generations” except that those loosely affiliated with religious identity are now willing to drop it altogether. There is little social advantage to maintaining this kind of religious identity.
Is secular college education a threat to faith?
Bluntly, the answer is no, but there is a generational element to this one.
While stories of individual faith loss are real and deserve our attention, there is little evidence of widespread disaffection from the faith as a result of secular higher education. (p. 29)
When college graduates are compared to the general population a different trend appears.
College graduates are actually more likely to practice their faith and say it is important in their daily life. They are no more likely to disaffiliate from a religious faith, although they do appear more likely to shy away from exclusivist claims about the Bible and more prone to switch to a mainline Protestant denomination. (p. 30)
Hill digs deeper and compares those with and without a college education, controlling for religious affiliation as younger teenagers. In the past college education did have an influence on secularization, but this isn’t true for the millennials. At last a distinction, but it isn’t negative.
Overall college graduation has a positive correlation with regular participation in a church, perhaps because college graduates have more faith in institutions than those who have never attended college.
Hill also finds that evangelical colleges and universities are doing a good job of nurturing faith. “On every measure of religious practice and identity, individuals attending evangelical Protestant colleges decline considerably less than their counterparts at other schools.” (p. 50) For example, at evangelical Protestant schools 73% of students who prayed regularly continue to do so, a number that drops to 56% at public schools. This probably results both from the curricular and social environment of the schools and from the family commitments and support experienced by these students.
Does education in science drive young people from the faith?
Again the aggregate answer is no. Surprisingly, education in science in general and evolution in particular seems to have little effect on faith commitments. (As a science professor I cringe at this one – student form their views on “touchy” issues based on things other than the evidence.) And certainly there are plenty of stories of people struggling with these issues and changing their views. Hill doesn’t disregard or discount these (after all, the NSYR survey indicated that some 40 percent of young people with creationist views in 2002-3 did change their views by 2007-8, whether they go to college or not). But science education seems to have a minor influence one positions most people take.
People come to accept or reject evolution not as a result of pouring over the details and evidence, but as a symbolic gesture to indicate to others where they belong in the socio-political landscape. This requires understanding that religious beliefs, and beliefs about other contentious public issues, are intertwined with identity and social relationships. Formal science education, for most young people, is unlikely to change this. (p. 57)
Those who enter college with particular views concerning evolutionary biology are likely to retain them throughout the experience. The more tightly these views are coupled to social identity, the more tightly they will be held by most. This can be a wrenching experience for some who do find their views changing – to conflict with their social community, but it isn’t a widespread crisis for the church.
Why do doomsday scenarios carry such appeal?
Hill suggests three reasons:
“First, our own social experience strongly colors how we frame the problem and interpret the data, yet our personal experience can frequently be an unreliable guide.” (p. 61)
There is a distortion in perception that arises from the ways we receive data. Personal stories are powerful and true, but the ones that “stick” are the stories from the margins, not the mainstream. Hill points out that many Americans feel that violent crime is up while the data shows that homicide, for example, is markedly down since 1990 and at about the same level as the 1950’s. “All violent crime has been declining, yet public perception of crime—largely filtered through mass media and politicians—is systematically in error.” (p. 61-62) The stories told in the Christian community carry the same kind of bias.
Second, generating crises in the Church can be an efficient and effective way to mobilize the faithful to action. (p. 62)
Sociological study of social movements can identify techniques that succeed in building a community.
Elites must work on generating an interpretational framework that identifies a specific problem, then identifies the source(s) of the problem, and finally provides a potential solution in the form of collective action. Further, the entire interpretational framework must align with existing grievances in recruits, otherwise collective action will fail. The temptation, then, will be for leaders in the Church to frame concerns about the next generation of Christians in such a way as to result in action by the rank and file, even if these interpretations are not entirely accurate. (p. 62, emphasis added)
Grabbing onto a crisis works to build a cohesive following.
Last, there is a fairly large gap between the ideal concept of Christian faithfulness and the “lived religion” of ordinary believers. (p. 62)
There is a tendency to idealize the past and see the current trends as a significant deviation. One thing the longitudinal studies show is that this is not really the case. While there is a clear generational loss of youth from the Catholic church the same cannot be said for Protestants, particularly “evangelical” Protestants. Beyond these longitudinal studies, there is a temptation to believe that the current state is the result of a serious religious decline and the historical evidence (although sketchy) doesn’t really support this. A so-called “Christian” nation didn’t necessarily mean deeper, or more wide-spread, devotion.
One of my theology professors, or perhaps many of them, (sometimes my entire seminary experience simply flows together as one great river) once said that bad art is bad theology. Think about that for a moment. Bad art is bad theology. Good art reflects the world around it. Good art unveils a deeper theme or emotion undergirding its story and truly great art oh-so-subtly transforms the worldview of its audience by making them question things they once thought stable. By breaking out the keen prophetic edge of a good story well told and using it to deftly peel back the layers of an unexamined life.
So what does bad art do? It reinforces preconceived notions about the world and about ourselves. It encourages the mundane and allows its audience to wallow in self-validating sense of security. All of which helps no one and leaves both outsiders and those insiders who are striving for something more scratching their heads and wondering at the inept mangling of something once called beautiful.
God is a vast and wildly wondrous thing that no human can ever hope to fully grasp. And so it disappoints me to no end that so much energy of the American church and particularly the American Evangelical church has been set to pearl clutching in an attempt to confine God, theology and by extension, art to a terribly tiny box whose corners have all been painstakingly mapped. The good news is that neither art nor theology nor God can be trapped in such a suffocating box. It is sheer hubris to believe that this might be so.
So where does this leave us if we want a living, breathing theology that is reflected in our art?
Ashley Ariel studied screenwriting at a college you’ve never heard of and got an advanced degree in theology (in theology! why?!?) at a school you might have. She’s attended several writing programs of fairly vague importance and has blithely put aside any attempt at snobbery, fully embracing her bizarre, hybrid love of the summer tent pole action flick and the soulful indie that inexorably crushes your feelings into dust.
She’s taught workshops on story in the wilds of Kansas City and once, accidentally, ran into Colin Farrell while stocking shelves at Borders. She’s worked on lots, on sets and has read a slew of very bad scripts for several teeny tiny production companies. She currently lives in somewhere in NH and is constantly asking herself how she found herself in this tree.
This spring, Act One is offering its world-class screenwriting course online. Over the course of 10 weeks, writers can immerse themselves in 40 plus hours of video courses, Skype group writing sessions, and interactive one-on-one exercises with a skilled master teacher. Our goal: to launch you on the path of becoming a top-notch screenwriter.
The program kicks off February 19 with a 3-day intensive writing workshop in Hollywood, California. Students will sit with Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and executives and engage in high-level discussions on film, story, faith and contemporary culture. Lectures and workshops will focus on the vision and creativity needed to succeed in today’s Industry. Participants will leave spiritually challenged and refreshed, ready to dive into the 10-week video-based, online courses running the week of March 2 through the week of May 4.
We are seeing amazing things come out of our online program. Here is what one alum had to say:
“Here’s my story… I left in the personal parts because they’re true. I was truly, truly blessed this summer to be part of act one and welcomed into the family of this amazing program…You guys were a life saver for me in a difficult time where the grief of losing my mom could have easily brought me to a dark place where I gave up my passion and dreams of writing for television, for good. Getting accepted into act one and taking part of the writing program this summer gave me hope, took my writing to the next level, and allowed me to get a glimpse of Hollywood. It also brought wonderful new friends into my life…All through act one. God is doing so much more through this program, this beacon of light than just reaching Hollywood, He’s doing a deep work in the people He chooses to take part of the program. For that, I say: thank you.” – Joey C.
Right now, Act One is offering a discounted rate on the tuition. Apply by January 30, get accepted and pay the tuition in full by February 10, and you will get $250 off the current rate. On top of that, the registration fee is waived.
“If you were to walk into an Act One class, it wouldn’t feel any different than being at UCLA or USC. But from a Christian perspective, it’s a community where people can think out loud.” –Kurt Schemper, Emmy Award-winning Act One Alumnus
“Whoever tells the best story shapes the culture. Act One is training Christian writers and producers to be the very best.” –David McFadzean, Act One Faculty, Co-Creator, Home Improvement with Tim Allen
After simmering in the countryside for decades, Chinese churches are exploding among young urban college educated professionals. Chinese Christians now outnumber Communist party members. What’s an atheist state to do?
“Christianity is hard to control in China and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks. The line is blurring between house churches and official ones, and Christians are starting to emerge from hiding to play a more active part in society. The Communist Party has to find a new way to deal with all this.” -The Economist
You may know 28-year-old Shia LaBeouf from his series of light-on-their-feet, live-wire, wise-mouth characters beginning with his first big role as Louis Stevens in the Disney Channel series Even Stevens, for which he won a Daytime Emmy in 2003… LaBeouf, a Los Angeles native, has been working steadily as an actor [ever] since… And even as he fled the Transformers series and the avalanche of money that would have continued to come with it, opting instead for a series of more character-driven films that included Lawless (2012) and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, LaBeouf’s wiliness and ability continued to shine…
When I sat down with him this past September in New York, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d been more interested in feeding his mystique than answering my questions—for instance, that working with Lars von Trier furthered the assumption that anyone out to make sense of LaBeouf was best to view him through a lens of ironic detachment. Instead, the actor’s eagerness to explain himself was a source of continual surprise. Rather than pretentiously discursive, he was intent and thoughtful. His focus was evident and translated into an impressive sense of impact, with the same kind of raw emotion he brings to his newest film, writer-director David Ayer’s World War II action melodrama Fury, in which LaBeouf wrestles with remorse while serving as part of a tank squadron under the command of Brad Pitt’s character, Don “Wardaddy” Collier.
Shia LaBeouf had a lot to say about, well, a lot of different things in a recent conversation with Interview Magazine. He talked about his troubled relationship with his dad, about stalking Alec Baldwin after being cut from a play they were both in, and shared his philosophy on online community (he’s not a big fan). But the part that’s got people talking has to do with his recent conversion of sorts…
I found God doing Fury. I became a Christian man, and not in a f***ing bullshit way—in a very real way. I could have just said the prayers that were on the page. But it was a real thing that really saved me. And you can’t identify unless you’re really going through it. It’s a full-blown exchange of heart, a surrender of control. And while there’s beauty to that, acting is all about control. So that was a wild thing to navigate.
LaBeouf claims this decision was deeply influenced by Fury costar Brad Pitt and director David Ayer. Pitt, who famously comes from an evangelical family, is firmly in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp, while Ayer “is a full subscriber to Christianity…these two diametrically opposed positions both lead to the same spot, and I really looked up to both men.”
Along with news this week that Brad Pitt’s World War II drama Fury claimed the top spot at the box office, we heard reports that one of the movie’s other stars, Shia LaBeouf, became a Christian during the filming process.
In a rather esoteric, profanity-laced response to a question from the Andy Warhol–founded magazine Interview, LaBeouf (Transformers, Indiana Jones) said, “I found God doing Fury. I became a Christian man, and not in a [expletives deleted] way—in a very real way. I could have just said the prayers that were on the page. But it was a real thing that really saved me. And you can’t identify unless you’re really going through it. It’s a full-blown exchange of heart, a surrender of control.”
Mainstream media outlets like Entertainment Weekly, Extra, and E! Online subsequently picked up on LaBeouf’s assumed profession of faith, as did The Blaze and various Christian news websites.
But in reading the entirety of LaBeouf’s comments in context, it becomes clear that there is another way to interpret them that isn’t quite so headline worthy. Rather than making a personal declaration of his devotion to Christ, the actor could have been merely commenting on his immersive style of acting.
April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Out-numbered, out-gunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.
Though it’s not solely responsible, the internet – along with the way it changes the way we interrelate, communicate, seek and consume information – is certainly doing its part to contribute to the decline. And it’s not just Church that is feeling the pinch; any hierarchic system in which the institution traditionally has played the role of guard, gatekeeper or mediator is finding their authority challenged.
As for why now, the answer is more complex than any single factor. On the one hand, changing domestic, social and economic systems have caused us to spread out and move around far more than before. The churches, as a result, are no longer social hubs of neighborhoods any more. And along with being social hubs, churches also served as economic engines, as businesspeople networked after worship or over a potluck meal. Now we just use LinkedIn.
There’s also been a substantial shift in cultural perception, such that not going to church no longer holds the same stigma that it used to. Even atheists are coming out of the proverbial closet in greater numbers. And as I suggest in postChristian, lower church attendance doesn’t necessarily correlate to fewer people believing in God. Plenty of skeptics have filled church pews out of a sense of familial or other social obligation.
But beyond these factors, there’s the dramatic shift in how we access and consume ideas and information…
In the Orwellian world of many college and university campuses, all faiths are welcome — but some faiths are more welcome than others.
Just last month, California State University (CSU) “derecognized” InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical student organization with more than 900 chapters at colleges and universities across the country.
In plain English, this means InterVarsity no longer will be a recognized student club at any of the 23 schools in the CSU system.
InterVarsity can still meet on campus — but minus the benefits accorded recognized student organizations, including access to meeting rooms and official university events. Not only will InterVarsity now have a difficult time reaching students, an InterVarsity spokesman estimates that losing these benefits will cost each chapter up to $20,000 annually.
Derecognition of conservative religious groups is happening at many other schools, an exclusionary process that is affecting student organizations representing evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics and others.
Why are colleges and universities — places of higher learning supposedly committed to the free exchange of ideas and beliefs — withdrawing recognition from these groups?
For one simple reason: InterVarsity and other conservative religious clubs require student officers to affirm the faith of the group they lead…
A well-established international Christian student group is being denied recognition at almost two dozen California college campuses because it requires leaders to adhere to Christian beliefs, effectively closing its leadership ranks to non-Christians and gays.
California State University, which has 23 campuses, is “de-recognizing” local chapters of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group with 860 chapters in the United States. The university system says InterVarsity’s leadership policy conflicts with its state-mandated nondiscrimination policy requiring membership and leadership in all official student groups be open to all.
“For an organization to be recognized, they must sign a general nondiscrimination policy,” said Mike Uhlencamp, director of public affairs for the California State University system. “We have engaged with (InterVarsity) for the better part of a year and informed them they would have to sign a general nondiscrimination statement. They have not.”
InterVarsity, active in the United States since 1947, has been challenged on more than 40 college campuses, but CSU, with 447,000 students, is the largest to ban it so far. Other schools that have challenged InterVarsity include Vanderbilt University, Rollins College and Tufts University…
Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, USA Today, The Washington Post, The San Jose Mercury News and Newsweek.
There has always been a fine line between freedom of speech and the right to practice one’s religion in the way one sees fit. The Founding Fathers struggled over these rights in framing the First Amendment, with Thomas Jefferson calling for “a wall of separation”between church and state — a wall that has become mighty thin in recent years.
But now, the freedom to practice religion on campuses around the country, including at Bowdoin — an elite liberal arts college in Maine — has crashed into anti-discrimination policies, which also have a long and complicated history in this country.
The gist of the story is this: The Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, a conservative religious group that has lived quietly on campus for four decades, is being kicked off the official roster of college-backed groups. Their keys to college buildings have already been confiscated, and the administration won’t recognize them any longer. The problem is that this group, like many groups of its ilk, insist their leaders must adhere to its version of Christian doctrine.
This problem is widespread now, playing out across the country, as at Cal State and Vanderbilt, where Christian groups, including, earlier, a Roman Catholic organization at Vanderbilt, have been forced off-campus because they refuse to allow their leadership to be drawn from people who don’t adhere to their essential tenets. Let me put this plainly: Houston, we have a problem!
I’ve been a college professor for nearly four decades, and I’ve seen problems with the so-called thought police come and go over the years. At the height of the problem in the mid-’80 and ’90s, it was imagined by many — especially those on the right — that universities had become politically correct to the point where any kind of conservative thought was forbidden.
Certainly these were vital years for the advancement of feminist thought in particular, and for the acceptance of gays as full citizens within the academy (full acceptance by the society at large is only now taking hold). For the most part, I always thought the idea of a liberal thought police was nonsense…
This past Tuesday marked a day of several anniversaries for my family. Twelve years ago, my husband and I started dating. Nine years ago, we got engaged. One year ago, we moved into our current house.
When our realtor got back from taking over our contract to the homeowners last June, she told us that they were the nicest people with whom she’d ever negotiated a contract. They recognized our name on the contract because they attended the same church as my in-laws. They told her that they had been praying specifically for a young, Christian family to buy their house and were so excited it was going to be us.
Our realtor went on to tell us more about them. They kept the autistic children in their congregation during church services, so that the parents could go worship. Bill (name changed) was a contractor; each day he picked up a 75-year-old mentally challenged man who lived down the street and let him ride along on all day to his various jobs. They had kept their house in immaculate shape and spent every Saturday working on their yard.
When we looked at the house and in subsequent visits to the house for inspection, I noticed on the front door a cross with “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15) inscribed on it. I really didn’t think all that much of it (because these kind people definitely seemed to be legitimately serving the Lord) until we arrived on moving day and it was still there. While I grew up going to church every Sunday, my family certainly had no bible verses displayed anywhere in our house, especially not on our front door.
Needless to say, I wanted that bible verse cross off my new front door. We arrived on moving day as they were finishing loading up their cars. As they packed their final things, I kept waiting for them to grab the cross.
They left without it.
My initial neurotic thought was “Is this a test to see if we really are a Christian family worthy of their house?”
My second thought was, “Are you really a Christian? You claim to believe the bible! Who cares if you think this cross is tacky, wow, you’re shallow.”
My third thought was “How am I ever going to have anyone over with this thing on my door! My mother would die!”
I expected the shock of an earthquake–not a shooting. In fact, they’re retrofitting our oldest building, Alexander Hall, to prevent earthquake damage. How do we retrofit Otto Miller Hall lobby, where yesterday’s shooting took place? Erase the memories?
Sure, we can remove the blood-stained carpet, paint the blood-splattered walls, clean up the shell casings.
But the lobby, which I’ve walked through hundreds of times on my way to class, where I’ve casually picked up a free copy of the New York Times, where students gather to study and chat, will always be the place where “the shooting” happened. We’ll always be that small Christian college in Seattle that had the shooting. The name will reverberate. Columbine. Virginia Tech. SPU.
Yet this community is so much more than a now infamous acronym.
Last night I sat with a group of students. The scheduled prayer service was packed, overflowing, so my wife Priscilla and I, both SPU faculty, were directed to a makeshift mass of students sitting in small groups in the evening light on The Loop, the central grassy area on campus, which sits less than a football field from Otto Miller Hall. Priscilla started us off in prayer with the words, “Gracious God.” Then we mostly sat silent, bewildered.
None of them, not one, asked God to make things right. They sat in grief.
None of them, not one, found easy solutions. They sat in unknowing.
None of them, not one, filled the air with clichés or cheap prayers. They sat in silence.
At faith-based Seattle Pacific University, grief without despair
Students’ prayerful and grieving but hopeful response to the violence at Seattle Pacific University highlights the deep faith many on campus share. “Our darkest day and our finest hour,” said one professor.
In the hours after a gunman killed one Seattle Pacific University student and wounded two others, what struck many was the way the students responded.
They clasped hands in prayer circles; lifted their voices together to sing hymns; prayed for the shooter as well as the victims.
“I have never been more proud of this institution,” Richard Steele, a professor in SPU’s School of Theology, wrote in an email to friends. “The faith, courage and calmness were just stunning,”
The response of the students, faculty and staff to Thursday’s startling violence highlights the role of religious belief at SPU. The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.
All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, Bible studies, Bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith… Community is emphasized, with students encouraged to participate in activities through their academic majors, residence halls, campus leadership positions, or through ministry or volunteer service.
All of that — and especially his theology classes and relationships with others at SPU — helped develop the faith of Alex Piasecki, a 21-year-old junior majoring in theology.
He is drawing from that faith now, even though “I don’t know if there’s any way of making sense of what happened,” Piasecki said. “I’m placing a lot of faith in God at this time. It’s a new thing for all of us. It’s very hard to go through. I truly believe that God is the ultimate healer and redeemer. We’re just going to have to be patient through this process.”
In light of the school’s emphasis on faith- and community-building, it did not surprise Bob Zurinsky, SPU’s assistant director of university ministries, that students, faculty and staff responded the way they did.
“What we’ve witnessed at SPU,” he said, “has been not so much a reactive burst of energy, but rather a deep response that reflects many years of immersion in the practice of grace, worship and life together.”
During last week’s prayer services, the first held only hours after the shootings, “each of us felt the weight of this horror and grief, but we were not lost,” Zurinsky said. “The essence of the Christian faith that we teach and try to embody on this campus gave us the words and the vision we were looking for.”
He added, “The central proclamation of our faith is that our crucified Lord was raised back to life. God has the power and the will to restore and redeem all that has been terrorized and lost.”
SPU Hero Asks That Further Donations Go To Victims
After an outpouring of wedding registry gifts for he and his fiance, SPU hero Jon Meis asks for any further donations to go to victims of the tragedy
by Jon Meis • Seattle Pacific University Website
To my brothers and sisters at Seattle Pacific University, and my brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the nation and the world,
Words cannot come close to expressing the tragedy that occurred this past week on our campus. Like everyone else, I would hear of these horrible events on the news, but go home knowing that it could never happen to us. On Thursday, my life changed. I was thrown into a life and death situation, and through God’s grace I was able to stop the attacker and walk away unharmed. As I try to return to a normal life in the aftermath of this horrible event, I pray above all things for strength for the victims and their families. While my experience left me in physical shock, I know that many people are dealing with much greater grief than I have experienced, and in honesty I probably would not be able to handle it myself right now if I had personally known the victims.
I know that I am being hailed as a hero, and as many people have suggested I find this hard to accept. I am indeed a quiet and private individual; while I have imagined what it would be like to save a life I never believed I would be put in such a situation. It touches me truly and deeply to read online that parents are telling their children about me and telling them that real heroes do exist.
However, what I find most difficult about this situation is the devastating reality that a hero cannot come without tragedy…
The last day or so has been a blur. We live in a world where one can point to numerous recent examples of senseless shootings. Just typing that is infuriating. It happens in neighborhoods, street corners, houses, navy yards, sororities, and schools of all levels. Remember Sandy Hook? Heck, two men were shot and killed just this past weekend in Central Seattle. But when you watch it or read it on the news (likely on your smartphone or tablet), you can’t possibly fathom it happening in “your school.” Well, yesterday, on a nearly perfect 72 degree Seattle day, that shooting took place at Seattle Pacific University.
And while SPU is not technically my school, it’s the closest thing to a school being your school without one graduating from that school.
SPU is located about a mile from Quest Church where I pastor. Numerous professors and administrators worship at Quest. Numerous. Several dozen undergrad and graduate students (and alumni) also worship there. My wife, Minhee, recently completed graduate school at SPU. Several of my church staff went to school there. Q Cafe’s manager went to school there. One of our baristas is a freshman there. Couple of One Day’s Wages’ interns go to school there. My kids do summer basketball camps there.
It’s surreal. It’s painful.
While two were wounded but on the road to recovery, one was tragically killed. It is painful no matter what. And even more so when a nameless, faceless victim becomes named and identified. Couple hours ago, this faceless and nameless victim was identified. It was inevitable. It becomes even more painful and surreal when it is someone you’ve met.