Faith outside of Church

It’s not a simple question.  Where does my faith intersect with my discipline?  I mean, I grew up as a preacher’s kid going to Sunday school and church and camp and Bible drill and more church… even Wednesday night business meetings. I checked all the right boxes on my envelope and turned it into the offering plate. I memorized Scriptures to win a bicycle, sang in the youth choir, and went to vacation Bible school and mission trips. Born and raised Southern Baptist, but is that my faith?

I loved math and science.  I studied the earth, the sky, the outdoors, animals and the wonders of nature.  I wanted to be an astronaut or scientist.  And through high school struggled with how my faith fit with science.

I tried to merge the two areas of my life by going to a small Christian college, East Texas Baptist College (ETBC…I was here before U.) and majoring in biology.  As with most liberal arts colleges, ETBU was not known for its science education. You know, the science professors here probably couldn’t get a job at a real university so they settled for teaching at a liberal arts college.  Still I enjoyed my classes, and although the coursework was more challenging than high school, I made A’s and had plenty of time for extracurricular activities such as Christian ministries as well as pranks other social activities.

It was during these years that I discovered my so called faith was really more religion than relationship.  I spent the first two years of college as a bed-side Baptist playing the religion game. Then at one of the chapels I didn’t sleep in, or a BSU revival week, or a Bible study in the dorm, or somewhere it clicked that the relationship was more important than the religion. Even Jesus said that eternal life was getting to know God and His Son (John 17:3). The Bible became a fountain of knowledge about Jesus and God (even the Old Testament). My faith was flourishing. Obviously I needed to become a minister right? I added a minor in religion. That would take care of that faith and discipline problem.

Still had a love of science… Can a scientist be a minister?

I received my degree in biology and scored high enough to attend graduate school at Texas A&M University.  When I entered Texas A&M, I was directed to the large animal surgical ward in a neuroscience lab.  I found the professor in the middle of surgery in which he was inserting a probe into a cow’s brain.  As he operated, he described the various regions of the brain as the probe passed through them.  As he talked, I found myself totally ignorant of any of the anatomy he described.  I was embarrassed with my lack of knowledge and, in my mind, blamed the poor instruction I received in my undergraduate anatomy class.  I figured that the instructor had skipped those portions of the textbook because he did not know the material.  Of course, what should you expect from a small college where the science professors were probably second-rate or last-chance employees?

Sometime later, I was moving boxes of my old textbooks when a lab manual fell on the ground.  It was my human anatomy lab manual from ETBU. Remembering my embarrassment in the surgical ward, I took this opportunity to revisit my disgust of the former anatomy professor. I turned to the nervous system section and found a picture of the brain.  Instead of being skipped over, I found every blank filled in with proper terminology.  On top of that, it was in my own handwriting!

Not only had the professor gone over this material, he had covered it completely.  Apparently, my learning was not learning after all, but it was short-term memorizing.  I had crammed for the tests and made the grade, but did not learn the material.  My graduate work at Texas A&M took longer to finish than it should have.  I had to spend some of that time relearning the things I had not truly learned during my undergraduate years.

Intersection of faith and discipline? How about working for the Lord and not for men (Colossians 3:23)? Doing my best in all endeavors, including studying. Is that faith?

Faith intersects my Life… Not just at church. Now I look for those intersections in everyday life.  I hope to let you in on the larger intersections I find…

Ironically, I became a biology professor at ETBU, (insert God’s laughter here), where I try to encourage my students to learn it right the first time. And this job was not my last choice…It was my calling and my ministry!

The Fear Factor

I went to an academic conference over the summer.  Several of the speakers zeroed in on an area of research that is finally getting some traction.  The question they addressed concerned student success in college.  One survey, taken at the Community College of Baltimore, discovered two primary reasons students drop out of school—They are overwhelmed by life problems.  Or they are overwhelmed by affective issues, mostly centered around “fear, anxiety, and a suspicion that they are just not college material.”

In other words, ability is usually not the problem.  Life is. The fear factor is.

So, how do we help these students?  The suggestions given are common-sense ones—“Create a safe atmosphere” in the classroom.  Find a balance between “flexibility” and “tough love”—between “compassion” and “firmness” (a lot harder than it might sound).  Implement “confidence-building experiences” early on in the semester.

And be aware of mindsets—because students will have “fixed mindsets” or “growth mindsets.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says that a fixed mindset is “the belief that intelligence is fixed [which] dampens students’ motivation to learn, makes them afraid of effort, and makes them want to quit after a setback.”

So when classes get hard, students give up.  Because when they struggle, Dweck says, they “feel dumb.”

Do I have students who have this mindset?  Of course.  But my confession is this: Sometimes I have the same mindset.

I fear failure.  And in my profession, where performance is evaluated and measured each semester, I often feel like I’m not measuring up.  And when I struggle, I feel dumb.  This doesn’t motivate me to be better.  It discourages me and makes me want to give up.

I guess the question is this: How do we establish growth mindsets?  How do we establish the belief that just because something is challenging and causes us to struggle, this is not a reflection of our intelligence or ability?

I’m pretty sure that most of the speakers at the conference did not embrace a Christian world view.  If there is such a thing as grace, I learned, it is merely a human grace we extend to each other.  And as teachers, we know the expectations of gracious teaching.  Help students to realize their potential and to be true to themselves.   Encourage.  Uplift.  Reinforce.  Reaffirm.  We do this because we care about them.  But we do this too because we care about retention, and we must always be looking for ways to keep students from dropping out.

But is this all there is to teaching?  Just getting students to finish college and get jobs so we not only identify them as successful but ourselves, as well?

I worry a lot about leaving God out of this equation.

Do I care for my students? Yes.  Do I want them to graduate?  Yes.  Do I want them to get good jobs?  Yes.  But. . . .

If this is all we are about as educators, we only address part of the need.  Because each one of us has a soul.  And souls don’t have expiration dates, like milk.  We will all live forever.

I take education seriously.  But I take eternity much more seriously.

I admit to my students that college is a big thing.  But it is not the whole thing.  God has opened this door of opportunity for you, I tell them, so seize it.  Work hard and be successful, not to bring honor to yourself, but to bring glory to God.

And when they get scared.  When they start to struggle.  When the challenges seem insurmountable.  I remind them that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength.  Trust Him, I say.  Lean on Him.  Because He is real and He is relevant.

I work hard in the classroom.  I take the material seriously.  But I am also serious about modeling a life that glorifies God, the author of grace.  If they don’t see that life in me, I have failed.  Measure me all you want.  Evaluate me all you want.  But I have a greater judge.  And when I stand before Him, I hope I hear these words—“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I want that for me. I want that for you.  I want that for my students.  Because that is true success.  

SC

A Woman Called to Ministry

As a child, I sat in the pew of a typical Southern Baptist church, hearing strong male voices reading the Scripture, leading the hymns, preaching the Word.  As a teenager, I began to notice that those male voices were never broken by lighter female intonations, that the godly women who taught me in Sunday School never prayed, much less preached, in the vast holiness of the sanctuary.  I began to look around me and realize that everyone looked alike; the black children with whom I went to school never darkened the doors of our church.  I did not understand then why my church seemed so segregated, so exclusionary.  After going to seminary and hearing similar testimonies of the Southern Baptist students around me helped me realize that my church was not the only institution holding desperately to the patriarchy of the past, living out the perfect fifties sitcom within its hallowed walls.  Yet I still could not figure out why, when the world around them had changed and grown, progressing ahead of much of the oppression of the past, so many churches had remained frozen in a time when white men ruled society, government, and especially church.

Having been reared in a loving, Christian home, I came to know Christ at an early age, earlier even than seems possible to me now.  I heard about Jesus from my kindergarten Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Foster. She talked about Jesus’ love and about the sin of humanity and though I probably did not understand everything she told me, I remember feeling both gratitude for God’s love and remorse at being a sinner. I have a clear memory of kneeling by my bed one night—I could not have been more than five years old—and crying, asking Jesus to forgive me. It is actually the first clear memory I have from my childhood. As I look back on it now I understand how remarkable it was that God reached out and showed me love as a small child and that I embraced that love even before I could read the Bible. I consider it an immeasurable blessing that God has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Since I grew up in an army family, we moved several times before settling in Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the world. It was there that I made my faith in God public, during Vacation Bible School at Memorial Baptist Church of Killeen, TX, and I was baptized at that church in 1987 at the age of ten. Church was always a part of my life, so much so that I often tell people that the church raised me. I have always loved hearing and reading Bible stories, even as a teenager, and the Baptist churches that I attended in adolescence helped plant in me a love for the teachings of the Bible and a desire to know more and understand more about God.  I think I always felt a persistent tug toward ministry in the church. When I led Bible study groups and went on Mission trips during high school I sensed that God had gifted me in the areas of teaching and ministry. However, because the Southern Baptist tradition does not embrace the equal gifting of men and women, I never knew exactly where I would fit in ministry. The options that were open to me—children’s ministry or missions work—never clicked as the calling God had for me.

In college, I began to feel that God was leading me to study the Bible in a more formal way; I thought that God was calling me to go to seminary. Some of my fellow students at our Christian college heard that I was considering going to seminary, and they decided it was their duty to remind me that seminary was a place to train pastors, and since women could not be pastors, there was no reason for me to go. It is difficult to point to the most significant spiritual event in my life, because my life has been a continuous series of spiritual events through which God has slowly and adeptly molded me, but I think that the moment I was told that God did not want me to be a minister was a huge moment for me. I heard the words and I understood how the men who spoke them could read the Bible that way, but I sensed something was wrong with their interpretation of the Scriptures. I was sure that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me and called me into the ministry and was prodding me to go to seminary and even though that calling did not seem to be compatible with what Scripture said, I was going to follow the Spirit and work out what the Bible said about that along the way.

In seminary, I began to read the Bible for the overarching story that it told about God and humanity. I learned that the way I had been taught to read the Bible—merely picking out verses here and there and piecing them together into an unorganized system of belief—did a great disservice to the message of the Bible. There was a bigger idea behind the stories and principles of the Bible that was greater than the sum of their varied parts. God loves us. We live in rebellion. God sent Jesus to bring us into a close, communicative relationship with the Triune God. God has gifted people for many different works of love and service. The Holy Spirit helps us learn about those gifts. And finally, God calls the most unlikely people. Regardless of whether Paul said women should not have authority over men or should keep silent, the bigger message of the Bible was that in Christ, there is no male or female, and God used women to do all kinds of ministry during Jesus’ life on earth and in the earliest years of the Christian church.  I knew that God wanted to use me to do whatever it was that the Holy Spirit led me to do. And though I was scared because I knew it would not be easy, I was ready to go where the Spirit led and do what God would call me to do.

God revealed the call on my life slowly but purposefully. The people who had the most influence on my spiritual journey were my religion professors.  Though I learned much from the ministers under whom I grew up, the Christians who truly modeled a servant lifestyle and the sacrifice and love of Christ were my professors.  They gave tirelessly of themselves in order to teach others how to interpret and appreciate the Bible then, in their spare time, they prayed, comforted, and encouraged their students in all of their life challenges. It is their influence that awakened in me the desire to teach and preach.  My worldview was shaped because of how they taught me to read the Bible.  I have come to understand through their instruction that the Christianity that Jesus initiated is a lifestyle of love and sacrifice, not a list of rules that exclude people who do not follow them from the kingdom. Now I believe God wants me to do for others as my professors did for me…teach people how to read and interpret the Bible so that they can carry out the purposes of God in this world faithfully and completely.

Real Live Prof

I live in East Texas. It has been the second dry, hot summer in as many years. Now it is September, but the heat keeps coming. I have really felt it this summer as I have worked outside most days. I would start at daylight, and work until noon. I would come home exhausted, change out of sweat-drenched clothes, eat lunch, and rest. If I still had work to do, I would go back out in the evening. It was still very hot, but evening and shadows and shade were also coming and comforting. Now I look at the 10 day forecast and I am not encouraged. Yet I know that eventually it will get cooler, and even cold. I am eagerly waiting for that day. (By the way, I have learned to pray for rain like a farmer, or, at least, a fisherman).

My Favorite fishing place: down from 5 acres to 1/2 acre this summer

My favorite fishing place: down from 5 acres to 1/2 acre this summer

Karl Marx wrote in 1843 that “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).  By using the term “opium”, he meant that religion has the effect of anesthesia upon the religious in that it makes us “dead” to our current bad political situations and instead gives us a heaven to look forward to. If you are focused on heaven, he reasoned, you will never take seriously the exploitive conditions here on earth that you could fix through political revolution (i.e. worker’s paradise, and communist utopia).

Dear Karl, it is true that as a Christian, I am very much looking forward to heaven. Jesus tells me I will be with him and I will have a new body. He is preparing me a place, and preparing me for that place. I will see my family again. A few years later, I fully expect to walk out on my lawn, pick up the paper, and read the 10,000 year weather forecast: Sunny and clear, high of 75, low of 65.

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 8, said it this way, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that. the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

So, finally Karl, as the summer and heat and dry drag on, I am called to hope, which I think you would have to admit is very revolutionary. But my hope is too small if I only hope for cooler temps and a little rain. It is a much better and bigger hope if I groan with creation and look to God to right the wrongs of global warming and global warring against the things of God.

 

 

The Thinking Church

Why are so many young people in America leaving the Church? church-sign-antigay--300x210

A wide array of answers have been suggested lately. The Barna research group conducted eight national studies with teenagers, young adults, youth ministers and pastors in order to shed light on the issue. They found that young adults in the millennial generation find churches to be overprotective, shallow, antagonistic to science, inadequate in their teaching on sexuality, too exclusive, and unfriendly to those who doubt. Millennials themselves have expressed their own perspective, identifying the church’s hostility towards homosexuals to be the main reason that young adults leave the church (see the recent, overwhelming response to “An open letter to the church” blog post from Dannika Nash).

It is hard for those of us in the older generations to understand such harsh criticism. Sure, the church has its problems, but we have experienced it as a place of comfort and belonging, of worship and love. How can there be such a discrepancy between our experience and theirs and, more importantly, what does the younger generation need that the church is not giving them?

Several months ago,in a much-discussed CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans suggested that what millennials (herself included) need from the church is authentic worship, theological substance, an end to the culture wars, a truce between faith and science, a moratorium on divisive politics, and a challenge to live holy and sacrificial lives like Christ.

I want to suggest that all of these needs can be expressed in one foundational need: The younger generation needs a thinking church.

For most of the church’s history, the leaders of the church–pastors, priests, and other clergy–were the most educated people of their times. Even into the twentieth century, it was common for pastors to read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and to have attended the most prestigious schools on earth. Today, we study the sermons and letters of preachers from the past to learn from the clarity of their thought and the beauty of their prose.

However, in the last century, key movements swept across the landscape of the church and changed it drastically. The holiness movement, the first and second Great Awakening, the growth of the charismatic church, the birth of evangelicalism, and the rise of fundamentalism all shifted the focus away from matters of the head to focus on the importance of the heart. With these movements, the church began to seek revival rather than research, to value the work of the Spirit rather than the work of the scholar, to emphasize the importance of conversion and morality over education and tradition. These were all welcome and important changes and they could have enacted a healthy balance in the church.

But as is common with the human practice of religion, we went too far. Churches that emphasized the Holy Spirit became suspicious of seminary and theological education. Churches that valued the Scriptures above all else began to exalt the Bible to a place of idolatry, worshipping the literal words of its pages rather than the living message it conveyed. Churches that centered their services on fear-inducing sermons of the hellfire and brimstone type started to lose the practices of reflective worship and repentant prayer, of intellectual inquiry and cultural engagement.

And so the scales tipped. Suddenly, churches were not encouraging Christians to be educated and articulate, to study science and literature and art along with Scripture, or to search for deep, thoughtful answers to the world’s most pressing problems. Instead, churches began to discourage difficult questions and academic interaction with the world. They felt challenged by—and consequently became hostile to—new ideas, new technology, and new ways of thinking, speaking, and ministering. The chasm I described in my earlier posts began to grow–that chasm between the intellectual pursuit of God exemplified by the pastors of the 19th and 20th century (also by Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17!) and the religious practice of the 21st century church characterized by fear of scholarship and distrust of the academy.

When the younger generation looks at the church of today, they realize that as the church, we might feel passionately, protest loudly, and correct indiscriminately, but we do not think deeply. And at the end of the day, our young people need A THINKING CHURCH.

A THINKING CHURCH would be able to converse with the fields of science and literature and business and  education, to find truth in them and speak truth to them as well;

A THINKING CHURCH would interact with culture and the arts, infusing more creativity in its worship and more cultural relevance in its message medium;

A THINKING CHURCH would train its people in apologetics, the art of defending the faith with articulation and compassion;

A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to talk with people who are from different backgrounds—whether different religions or cultures—to  learn from other beliefs while remaining firm in the tenets of their own faith;

A THINKING CHURCH would be eager to discuss answers to the difficult theological questions that many millennials ask, like:

  • How does the message of the Bible fit with the principles of science?
  • How can so many Christians read the Bible and come up with different interpretations?
  • How can I love my neighbor (who may have different beliefs from me) while remaining strong in the ethical teachings of Scripture?
  • How can a sovereign God of love allow so much evil in this world?;

A THINKING CHURCH would be prepared to offer compassion and support to those who doubt, who find themselves stuck at the uncomfortable intersection of faith and reason;

A THINKING CHURCH would be willing to change, ready to grow, and open to admitting when they were wrong.

Critical Thinking at Church picWhat the millennials really need is for the church of history, with its intellectual prowess and curiosity about the world, to meet the churches of today, with their passion for Scripture and ethics and service and Spirit. They need to see the body of Christ, in action, engaging soul and heart and strength and mind in order to change the world with the love of God.

Are we, as the church of today, ready to become the thinking church that our young people so desperately need and, if so, how do we do it?

The Chasm, part 2: The People of the Chasm

In my last post, I lamented the wide chasm that separates the church and the “academy” (biblical scholars and their scholarship), a separation I have noticed since the beginning of my theological education and that I am consistently reminded of as I teach New Testament to college students in the Bible belt. In an attempt to transform my fruitless complaints into conversation, I want to use my next couple of posts delve deeper into the chasm and discuss the people who contribute to the chasm, the problems or symptoms that result from the chasm, and the possible solutions we can work toward to eliminate the chasm.

The People of the Chasm:

Are you kidding me?

Group #1: “PLAIN SENSE” CHRISTIANS

These are the devout believers in local churches who can quote Bible verses (out of context), list the books of the New Testament in order, and proof-text better than an inspirational greeting card company. Although many in this group truly desire to understand what the Bible says, they know (or care) little about the literary themes and historical contexts of the Bible, the major doctrines of Christianity, the principles behind responsible biblical interpretation, or even the overarching “big story” the Scriptures are telling. Often, individuals in this group become confident that their interpretation is the only right interpretation of scripture, that their reading, the “literal” or “plain sense” reading, is the only way to read the Bible. This group is suspicious and even fearful of theological education, telling young ministers things like, “Don’t go off to seminary unless you want to lose your faith!,” or, “You do not need anything but a Bible and the Spirit to interpret God’s Word.” Of course, I affirm that the Holy Spirit can speak to any reader of Scripture, regardless of their education or background; however, we all need to acknowledge that understanding the Bible is sometimes a hard task and we would all do it better if we did it as a well-equipped, well-informed body of Christ rather than individuals who confuse Bible knowledge with Bible understanding. When we fail to grasp the complex beauty and depth of the biblical literature, reducing it instead to folksy advice and empty platitudes, the true message of Gospel can be obscured or misapplied in a way that hurts others.

Group #2: OUT-OF-TOUCH INTELLECTUALS:

These are the well-educated Bible scholars who have studied the Scriptures for decades, have a good grasp of its background and content, and have the skills necessary to do responsible biblical interpretation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this group spends little time teaching people in the churches what they know, instead choosing to write specialist books on specialist topics with specialist vocabulary that no one in a typical church would ever want to read, even if they could. This group is on the other side of the chasm from group #1, although occasionally a few of its members will lay bricks to start the bridge to the other side (the scholar-pastors).

Bible Scholars

Group #3: PROBLEMATIC PASTORS

These are the pastors, both educated and uneducated, who do not take the time to prepare themselves and their people for the challenge of reading and applying the Bible. Pastors could be the largest part of the construction crew to build a bridge over the chasm, but many instead contribute to it. Some do not realize how much time it takes to study and compose a biblically-sound sermon. Some cannot accept that although the Spirit does speak, hearing the Spirit well takes time, thought, and preparation. Some were not properly trained in biblical interpretation, so may need to humble themselves and seek more education. Whatever the problem might be, it is not a solely personal problem because it affects the people in the church who trust and rely on the exegesis and wisdom of their preachers. Although it is true that pastoring is a hard, time-consuming job with high demands, it must be so because the people in group #1 need to be guided to participate in the chasm solution instead of being part of the problem. We who are pastors and teachers must strive for excellence because people depend on us.

OTHER GROUPS?

Have I missed any groups that contribute to the chasm? I would like to hear from you. Leave a Comment.

NEXT WEEK…the problems the chasm creates in our church and society.

My original thoughts in April of 2013

My thoughts
I thought I would post the grant proposal I wrote. As we go through the year let’s see how close I stick to the original intent.

Here is what I was thinking back in April 2013:

Being a Christian in Biology
The mission statement and vision statement of East Texas Baptist University center on the integration of faith and learning in the pursuit of truth. Biological science, by its very nature, is the pursuit of truth in the physical observable universe. Jesus is spiritual truth and the creator of the physical, observable universe. Studying the Bible, prayer and meditation are often times considered the only way to know Christ and to find the truth. Most Christians forget that we may come to know Christ better, more fully, by understanding that which He created. Humans have built barriers between faith and science. Christ has no such barriers. Reflection on Christ’s teachings in conjunction with studying His creation leads to a fuller understanding of the truth and the nature of Jesus as God and Creator.

Those who search for truth need to have the ability and skill to discern truth from propaganda, prejudice, and lies. They need to be able to think with clarity, accuracy, depth, and breadth to understand the significance of the information being presented and the fairness of the presentation. Most people live their lives with a lower order of thinking. They lack reflection and logic relying mainly on distorted, uninformed, self-serving, self-deceiving, and prejudicial thinking. Many Christians believe something is true simply because it’s what they have always believed. For example, many Southern Baptists believe that dancing is a sin. This is not a Biblical truth, it is a cultural construct. As Christian scholars it is our responsibility to teach/lead/model the pursuit of truth with Christ-like thinking. Jesus was a profound critical thinker. He demanded clarity and accuracy from those who were the interpreters of the Law. He challenged the relevance of the traditions of the religious leaders and required His followers to think deeply about complex issues. He taught His followers to broaden their preconceived ideas to include people who had been previously excluded from God’s teachings. He dared to ask questions about the way life was lived and whether or not that way made sense or was fair.

Christ demanded that we know the truth in order to be free. He demands that we be free from the Law, prejudice, hypocrisy, cowardice, arrogance, and conformity. These are all attributes of the sin-filled life. In order to be free we must be humble, have the courage to face the tough issues, persevere in integrity, fairness, and Christ-centered autonomy. To be free we need to think critically the way Christ demands. In my reflections I will discuss what it means to be a critical thinker and the attributes of a critical thinker. I will use biological/bioethical questions and issues to model integration of Biblical principles with scientific reasoning. I will model intrinsic motivation in order to inspire others to begin their search for the truth. By embracing Christ-centered faith, I will model engaging the mind of a critical thinker in order to empower leaders to be free to pursue truth where ever it may be found.

Real Live Prof

Here is something I try to do every semester:

When I am thinking about the class before the semester, I wonder about how this particular class should impact my faith and the student’s faith as well. I then prayerfully pick a “Semester Verse” which tries to encompass this oncoming collision.  This semester I am teaching two sections of Introduction to Sociology. One of the things we try to do as sociologists is to look at problems and issues from other perspectives. (As a point of interest, I would suggest that this is one of the most difficult things for us to do. For example, it seems so right for me to look at all things from my perspective: white, male, middle class, employed, married, Baptist, father of three, educated, Texan, middle aged-professor at a Baptist university, person.) Romans 12 This semester I chose Romans 12:1-2 as a semester verse mainly for verse 2, which urges us to “no longer conform to the pattern of this world”.  Early in the semester I suggest that it is extremely hard to notice the pattern of this world and even harder to go against it. How many times have you walked into a store to buy one item and walked out with multiple bags of things of things you did not even know you needed? Partially this phenomenon can be blamed on your cell phone and your spouse and kids, but some of it is subtle but effective advertising that you never consciously hear. (Last year, Wal-Mart played the Old Spice whistle every few minutes as I shopped there. Before I realized it, I had tried all versions of their Body Wash. I settled on “Swagger”, but I am a little worried because new scents are coming out all of the time). Just like below-the-radar-advertising, the world’s pattern of thinking and acting are foisted upon us as normal and preferable at almost every turn. An example would be how society’s attitude about premarital sex has changed in the last several decades from taboo to celebrated and expected behavior that “youngsters” are supposed to go through on their way to finding true love. Even marriages are referred to as “starter” marriages where individuals learn to live with another on an intimate level, and then pull out when they have discovered what they really need and want in a committed relationship.  Hopefully, no kids, no harm, no foul and both are wiser and aware of what it takes to make themselves supremely happy.

As a way to keep the integration of faith and learning alive during the semester, you might ask the class again about the verse as you review for the exams. Next week, before the first exam I will ask the intro class, “How does Culture (Chapter 2), ‘conform us to the pattern of this world?’” A follow-up question will be, “Why is it so hard to ‘transform our minds’ in our American culture?”

The Chasm

bridge over chasm

I admit I am nervous every time a new semester starts and I get up in front of a room of college students (many of whom have been in church their whole lives), and proceed to teach them the Bible. To calm myself, I remember the advice that seasoned professors have given me over and over:

“Oh, don’t worry! Just remember that you know so much more than they do!”

This is true.  Sometimes I take great solace and even pleasure in that fact.

But should I really be pleased that college students living in the Bible belt, raised in the church, who have heard sermon after sermon and studied Scripture in Sunday school and in their quiet times and in their youth groups, still know so little about reading and interpreting the Bible?

No. I should be shocked and saddened.

I give a “what you know” quiz on the first day of Introduction to the New Testament. These questions only cover basic content, order, and historical background, nothing analytical or interpretive. My students fail miserably. Take the quiz yourself as see how you fare:

1. How many books are in the New Testament?

2. Who wrote the book of Acts?

3. Around what year was the first NT book probably written? If you don’t know a year, give a decade or even a century.

4. Which Gospel was probably written first?

5. What was Paul’s name when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus?

6. Who ruled Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth?

7. In the New Testament, which book comes after Jude?

Invariably, question number 5 yields the most right answers. Why? Saul/Paul is a popular topic in Sunday School literature, repeated at least every year if not more often. The next two questions that students tend to answer correctly are #1 and #7. These are both bits of information a child would learn in Bible Drill but have little to do with the interpretation and application of the Bible.

Only a handful of students ever answer the four remaining questions right, the ones that concern the background, context, and authors of the New Testament. Tragically, without the knowledge of issues such as these, right and responsible interpretation of the Bible remains difficult and out of our grasp.

After all, how would we know to read Acts as the second part of the Gospel of Luke if we did not know that Luke wrote it? We would not know to look for similar themes and emphases and patterns that unlock many important undercurrents. Such ignorance does a great disservice to our interpretation and application of the story of the early church.

What about being aware of the time and historical context during which the epistles and Gospels were written? The language, customs, religious practices, political structures, and societal norms of the biblical times are foreign to those of us living in 21st century America. If we did not know that the New Testament authors wrote in the first century, in a world ruled by the Romans but heavily influence by the Greeks, surrounded by Jewish and pagan religious traditions, how could we ever decipher its images and symbols, the turns of phrases or the metaphors employed? We couldn’t.

So when I grade my students’ quizzes on the first day of class, I am staring into a great, yawning chasm. It is a chasm that represents the great distance between what Christians should know about the Bible and what they actually know. It is a chasm that represents the insurmountable division between the academy (religion scholars who have the training to read the Bible well but do not pass that knowledge to the people in the pew) and the clergy (pastors and teachers in the church who have not been trained to interpret the Bible in its context but still pass on their interpretations as truth). It is a chasm that separates dangerous and irresponsible interpretations based on intuition (such as those that fuel Westboro Baptist Church or result in snake-bitten believers) from edifying and responsible interpretations based on solid hermeneutics.

It is a chasm I am working to bridge when I teach my students all the things they did not learn in church. It is a chasm I hope my students will help bridge when they go on to teach what they have learned in their churches. It is a chasm that I hope, one day, with many of us in the church and the academy working together, will be bridged once and for all.

Answers to the quiz: 1) 27; 2) Luke; 3) I would accept any date around 45-55 AD or just the first century AD; 4) Mark; 5) Saul; 6) The Roman Empire; 7) Revelation
 

Real Live Prof

005I will accept the challenge of chronicling my take on the integration of faith and learning. The process begins with faith and living, and did for me as a teenager in Richardson, Texas. I had become a committed follower of Jesus and I had to learn what it meant to be a believer and student. The early stages for me were immersed in a legalistic regimen of “do’s” (go to church, have a quiet time, etc), and “don’ts” (don’t drink, don’t do drugs, and avoid all things sexual). A strength of legalism is that it does not require deep thinking. One simply refers to their list to see which category a particular behavior falls under. This phase lasted me through college. When I got to seminary, I made new friends who were more into license than legalism, and as such, were happy to drink and party and still manage to love Jesus with a clear conscience. My personal pendulum of living and learning swung their way, for a short while. Granted, it was fun, but not spiritually satisfying. I married two years after seminary, and even as we started dating, I could tell that I had left my new friends’ freedom, and had moved back toward a broader, central place between the two extremes.

After our marriage, Diana and I started going to the University of North Texas together. She finished a Master’s Degree, and I started a Ph.D. in sociology. I think of this short (11 year!!) period as the time that I got the “unintended consequences” education (a sociological theory by Merton). I was studying sociology, which was new to me, but I was also learning about technology (post punch card, pre- PC and email when I started). Suddenly, I was taking classes with “those” people (gays, Lesbians, feminists, liberals, atheists, Democrats, etc) that I had never been around and was taught to fear and avoid in my previously conservative education. Again, I was faced with the integration of faith and learning and being a Christian in front of people who were openly hostile towards all conservatives, but especially evangelicals. I now believe melding faith and learning is a lifelong pursuit. The scenery may change, but we are called to live our faith out loud.

For instance, I was teaching my Sociological Theory class last Spring about Mead’s theory of the generalized other. Simply stated, we base much of our decision-making on what other people think we should do. As an example, I showed a photo of my car, a 2004 Nissan Pathfinder with 224,000 miles on the odometer. The theory suggests that we buy cars based on what our peers think is appropriate for us to drive. Next, I showed a picture of a Toyota FJ Cruiser. I asked the class if I could buy this vehicle. They assured me it would be fine. I then showed them a picture of a VW Beetle Convertible, which was turquoise green. It is my dream car, but they said they would never “allow” me to buy such a car. (peer pressure at my age?) I then confessed that I was actually happy with the Pathfinder because it was the way God was blessing me right now…no payments, virtually trouble- free, and when things have gone wrong, I was able to fix it myself. I think our meta-story comes through to the students as we teach, so I try to be very deliberate and show God as the foundation of my story.