All entries for Tuesday 12 April 2005

April 12, 2005

Jesus on Campus: Evangelical Christians at Warwick University

This is an article that I am submitting for the "Modes of Writing" module of my course. I'm posting it here to promote discussion, rather than to get criticism about style or whatever. Please read it and say what you think.

N.B. I've introduced "chapter headings" because Internet users have short attention spans. But there will be no headings in the piece that I hand in.

// Contents


>> Warwick University and the secular consensus
>> The Christian Union and the evangelical mindset
>> Light in a dark place: evangelicals vs. the world
>> Embracing culture: the Alpha Course
>> C. S. Lewis
>> The necessity of an inclusive faith

// Warwick University and the secular consensus [top]


Warwick University is a place of diversity and of diverse beliefs. Its Student Union boasts over forty cultural societies – from Arabic to Welsh – nine affiliated religious societies – from Baha’I to Buddhist to Pagan to Sikh – and a single chaplaincy building to cater for students of all faiths. The Warwick campus, colloquially known as “the bubble”, is somewhat isolated, but one cannot fail to feel the pluralistic ethos of the place when exploring it. Flyers for various religious events compete for space on the campus noticeboards, as students of all nations and creeds pace worriedly towards lectures.

This diversity goes hand-in-hand with a particular and overarching secular mindset. The modern university traces its ancestry to Plato’s Academy, and its influence to Enlightenment ideas of humanism and universal education. The Blairite vision of a diverse and culturally liberal Britain also influences the ethos of a University like Warwick – indeed, the Prime Minister has endorsed the university specifically.

Arguably, in spite of the diversity, the secular consensus at Warwick University works to marginalise religious students. Many students of faith feel that their beliefs are dismissed in their course syllabuses, especially in lectures. There seems to be an automatic assumption that religion is quaint at best, and dangerous at worst. I recently interviewed a group of five Christians at Warwick. Tom, a first year History and Politics student, agrees that Christianity is often trivialised: “pretty much every lecture and seminar that I go to without fail, the lecturer is going to put some sort of slur on Christianity”. In our interview, he observed that Christianity, rather than religion generally, is singled out for this dismissal and criticism.

The secular and pluralist ethos can be seen in many disparate elements of university life, but it is ubiquitous. Such an approach can embrace the diversity of belief found on campus, but it can also dismiss, marginalise and patronise students of faith. As Lawrence Freeman points out, “dumbing-down and marginalisation are a liberal society's form of repression.”

// The Christian Union and the evangelical mindset [top]


Within Warwick University, the Christian Union represents the evangelical strain of Christianity. It represents a movement in Christianity which is centered on outreach and anchored in fixed beliefs and morals, derived from a literal reading of the Bible. Unlike Christian Focus, a more moderate and ecumenical organisation, the CU is not affiliated with the Student Union.

The beliefs of these evangelical Christians are fundamentally at odds with the secular and pluralistic culture associated with university life. For instance, while Warwick undergraduates attend lectures on “Feminist Cultural Studies”, the CU might run a Bible study on 1 Timothy 2 ("I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent"), while more rabid Christians worldwide rant about “a secret feminist agenda… that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” (Pat Roberts). There is clearly some tension here.

John 14 v6 suggests the cause of this antipathy: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” This “One Way clause”, emphasised by evangelicals, is the fundamental point of conflict between evangelicalism and the secular consensus. How do Christians maintain this absolutism in a pluralistic environment such as university?

// Light in a dark place: evangelicals vs. the world [top]


Sadly, I find that many Christians deal with this tension by emphasising the very things that divide them from the secular population. In every attempt at “outreach” or “evangelism”, there is an implicit rift between the saved and the unsaved, wherein it is the obligation of the saved to educate those not so fortunate. Later in our interview, Tom spoke of his view of non-Christians: “there are so many people who are not Christians and are missing out. And we've been so privileged, that God reached down to us… my friends and family are walking around blind to that. They're living so much less of a life than I am. And that's devastating. But ultimately, I hope that God will work in their lives, and use us to shine His light.”

The intention to “shine His light” into the lives of unbelievers seems innocuous in this context, but can become more troubling on a larger scale. Campus Crusade for Christ is a US outreach organisation. Their famous handbook “Knowing God Personally” condenses Christian belief into four easy steps. Step 3 declares, “Jesus Christ is God’s only solution for man’s sin. He is the only way to God.”

US evangelical organisations tend to exhibit far more zeal than their UK counterparts, and far less sensitivity. Sara Diamond, in her book “Spiritual Warfare”, documents how the Campus Crusade’s “Revolution Now” campaign in the University of California was as much about subverting the nascent peace movement as it was about spreading the gospel. I do not wish to condemn all evangelical Christians based on the actions of these more extreme US evangelicals. But it would seem that even the laid-back evangelicals of Warwick University are motivated by the same ideology. The “One Way clause” is extended to an exclusion of all non-Christian ways, and the resulting rift that is made between the Church and the “world” animates that all-too-real intolerance we see at the fringes of the movement.

Even mainstream evangelicals can exhibit this intolerance. Indeed, the reason for the Christian Union’s disaffiliation with the Warwick Student Union was their refusal to back down on the issue of homosexuality. A gay student sought advice from the CU by e-mail – and received a few pages of moralism for his trouble. This was deemed to be in breach of the Student Union's policy of equal opportunities, but the CU refused to issue an apology. The resulting furore led to the CU being disaffiliated from the Student Union. So often, when evangelicals refuse to back down on issues of morality, these unfortunate rifts become manifest. This same moral conflict is currently dividing the Anglican church, in the issue of the appointment of Gene Robinson.

// Embracing culture: the Alpha Course [top]


It is reasonable to observe that, in practice, evangelical Christianity does not blend well with secular culture. It is interesting, then, to note the lengths to which some evangelical movements go to embrace secular culture – or at least to make it appear that they are doing so. These efforts have spawned a whole new musical genre – "Contemporary Christian Music" – in which the emotionalism of alt-rock is transmuted into lyrics of worship and devotion.

Likewise, this attitude is found in the meetings of evangelical youth movements across the country, where the pamphlets are adorned with pictures of skateboards and DJ decks, and the speakers might even use clips from recent films to help convey their message. But this attempt to accommodate secular culture goes beyond outward fashions. Transforming culture by embracing it is the evangelical's modus operandi: wherein a certain easygoing outlook is combined with an earnestness towards God's message.

Launched in Holy Trinity Brompton church in the early 90s, the Alpha Course is a highly successful Christian outreach program that exemplifies the evangelical approach to culture. A 10 week course of discussion on the basics of Christianity, it now runs in more than 7000 churches in the UK, and has further courses in 116 countries worldwide. A spin-off program, Alpha for Students, now runs in 74% of universities in the UK. There have been Alpha Courses at Warwick University, and nearby Coventry churches still offer them. Currently, Warwick's Christian Union does not run Alpha, but does offer similar courses such as Christianity Explored.

According to The Guardian “What the Alpha Course offers… is permission, rare in secular culture, to discuss the big questions.” The first thing one notices about the course is its emphasis on discussion. The tagline used on poster adverts is “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life.” The format used is not a sermon or a speech, but a guided debate in which all questions can be asked.

Those who complain that Christianity is too preachy, or that it is dogmatic and unquestioning, are specifically targeted by this approach. This is a form of embracing culture – an attempt to appeal to those of a secular mindset, through appearing to be open-minded and pluralistic. But it is fair to say that these sentiments are only skin deep.

Indeed, many students remain firmly unconvinced of this seemingly open-minded approach. Warwick student Dean Love, writing in his personal weblog, dismisses Alpha as “a slickly marketed Christian conversion course... the objective of Alpha is not to educate people about Christianity, but to convert as many people as possible to their particular brand of this religion.” In the comments to Love's article, Jeffery Hughes finds annoying “the implication that it will help you to find the meaning of life. If it were an open-ended informative course, then perhaps this would be an acceptable claim, but it is clearly proselytisation in a rather poor disguise.”

The religion espoused by the evangelicals is not one of tolerance or open-mindedness, despite the claims of the Alpha Course and similar outreach programs. The attempt to make it appear so can only be cynical and superficial. It involves the paradoxical situation of arriving at dogmatism through a process of (apparently) open inquiry. And this process is not new. The theology taught in Alpha relies heavily on C. S. Lewis. He is oft quoted during the course, but more fundamentally, his approach to justifying Christian dogma informs the activity of Christian evangelists today.

// C. S. Lewis [top]


C. S. Lewis is something of a patron saint to evangelical Christians. Many youngsters, from Christian and other backgrounds, will know him from his Narnia novels, but his non-fiction works on theology remain popular among Christian apologists. His work was not dry intellectualism but expressly accessible, and often deeply personal. Lewis strikes you as a thoughtful, analytical mind, who nonetheless argued an exclusivist position.

In my experience, the most skilful evangelical apologists turn to Lewis in an argument, and with good reason. Most people know his name and many have read a Narnia book or two. His arguments appeal to rationality and pluralism, even though they arrive at the opposite conclusion. For instance, in Mere Christianity, he uses comparative religion to show how a sense of morality is universal in society: “If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him is how very like they are to each other and to our own.”

Lewis never claimed to be an evangelical, but his approach to faith prefigured the evangelical approach. He embraced secular culture rather than remaining separate from it – his books argue their way from secularity to religion, much as he described himself as an atheist turned Christian.

His approach, when it is not persuasive, it is at least provocative. Reading Mere Christianity, you wish you could argue each point with the author in person. To arrive at dogmatism via open-mindedness is an audacious rhetorical gambit. His conclusion is that “being a Christian does mean that thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic, there is only one right answer to a sum; and all other answers are wrong…” In spite of his apparent use of a rational and pluralistic approach, he ends in an exclusion of any non-Christian way of life.

It is important to observe that Lewis did not call himself an evangelical Christian. Reading his books again today, he remains one of the most thoughtful and tolerant Christian apologists. However, the grain of exclusivism in his work – the "One Way clause" that he was bound to defend – was taken by the evangelical movement and blown out of proportion. There are Christians today who share Lewis' careful and humble approach, but the overzealous proselytism of the evangelical movement as a whole does little credit to his legacy.

However much evangelical Christians seek to embrace secular culture in their evangelism, there is still an implied separation in their worldview – a fundamental opposition between the Church and the world. While the Alpha course is advertised as a place for questions and open inquiry, its central motive is to persuade and to convert, a motive that springs from just such a dualistic view of the world. As long as the Church holds itself to be set apart from the non-Christian world, it will remain – in whatever small way – aloof, moralistic, and exclusivist.

// The necessity of an inclusive faith [top]


Can there be a Christianity free from exclusivism and exclusion, free from the divisive dogmatic certainty that characterises the evangelical movement today? There can be. Marcus Borg writes of how his understanding of the Christian faith changed: "I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing… The central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God or believing in the Bible or believing in the Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit." Understanding Christianity as an ongoing relationship with the living Spirit undermines dogmatic certainty. To live as a Christian in this way is to practice an essential and spiritual Christianity, a faith that is humble enough to tolerate, and even to include, other faiths and ways of life.

It is paramount that Christian students find a way to realize a non-exclusive spirituality. The antipathy between Christianity and the secular consensus must continue, for as long as secular culture continues to drown out faith by trivialising it. But the "us-vs-them" mentality, and the intolerance and alienation which that mentality entails, cannot continue.

Alan Watts extends a Buddhist simile of many boats heading toward the shore of enlightenment. "Let all operate ferry boats who will, but if you haven't got the sense to stay off one that sinks, it's your fault!" Many thoughtful Christians at Warwick are disinclined to evangelism and the evangelical mindset: they will remain reluctant to associate themselves with the Christian Union, or indeed any Christian organisation, as long as these organisations continue to preach and practice a narrowminded religion. It is hard to gauge how many former evangelicals have "jumped ship" for this reason. However, some will have the courage to work for change and tolerance within these institutions. Indeed, there must be change – otherwise I am afraid that Warwick's Christian Union will sink under its own weight.

// Further reading [top]


Books quoted:

  • Lawrence Freeman - "Jesus, the Teacher Within" [Amazon UK]

  • Sara Diamond- "Spiritual Warfare - The Politics of the Christian Right"[Amazon US]

  • C. S. Lewis - "Mere Christianity" [Amazon UK]

  • Marcus Borg - "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time" [Amazon US]

Websites:


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