One of the things that I am realizing about my education at Christian college is this: I am under-prepared to talk to people about Christianity.
Christian college and especially being a theology student really is a place of higher-learning about Biblical ideas and principles. Freshman year at Harding I was in a Christian Ethics and Doctrine class with Neale Pryor where we were talking about Adoptionism, annihilation and transubstantiation. The conversation just got more complicated from there. After that it was hermeneutics styles, liberation theology, Christology and salvation theories. Some of that stuff is pretty heavy.
Going from that setting to where I am now, the University of Arkansas, has been an awakening as to what people are really talking about in relation to Christianity and religion. Here are a couple examples:
I have a friend who is taking a Literature class. He was complaining about the work load in the class and about all that he had to read. “I have to read the Old Testament,” he said.
“Really?! I studied it a bit, maybe I could help. Do you have to read the whole thing?” I was a bit excited. I have been starved for any sort of meaningful theology conversation for a long time.
“Oh no, not the whole thing just these stories.” He produced his reading list and read aloud, “Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Lamentations and Job.”
I was sad that this is all they had to read, as it was quite the skewed view. None of the love of Psalms, none of the deliverance of Nehemiah and Ezra, none of the real guts of Micah or Amos. Just the hard stuff. My fears were confirmed when my friend said:
“I mean, I know that you believe in this stuff, but I don’t understand how. I just cannot believe in a God that is that mean, you know? I don’t understand raining fire down on people for being gay. I don’t understand Lot shoving his daughters out the door hoping that the people would rape them instead. Why is God okay with that? I cannot believe in that God because he is mean.”
I work with a guy named Dave. Dave is a good guy and he is smart though not particularly educated, which is a cool trait. He had heard that I went to a Christian school and we talked about that a bit. He said that he believed in God, read his Bible when he could and tried to live a good life, but he didn’t think that any church would really accept him if they knew what he thought about things.
“What do you mean? Sounds like you believe in Jesus and believe in God, what’s to not accept?”
“Well…” He looked sheepish. “Well, for one, I don’t think that the earth is actually six-thousand years old. And I think that believing in Evolution doesn’t make you unChristian.” You could see him feeling better and better as he said those words, as if speaking them was a weight lifted.
“I think that is okay too. There is something called Gap Theory which is a way to look at the creation story that makes the earth millions of years old. I think that evolution is okay too.” This seemed to comfort and confuse him. I know it must have been shocking to find out that what you thought was an original idea was actually something that had a name and was already established.
“I also think that some people, that is, people that try to live right and do good works can get into heaven, even if they haven’t heard of Jesus.” I told him that was a growing idea among Christians today; not uncommon amongst people our age.
We talked for a long time about the idea that he would not be welcome in church, and though I felt good that I was able to quell some of his fears of having unique and heretical ideas, he wasn’t sure. I feel like most of my training ended up being more how to combat heretics, an less about how to talk to people who were afraid or hurt by church.
“I was a stripper. I led a lot of men to lust. I don’t know how God can forgive me for that.”
One of the earliest conversations I had with anyone here was with a Muslim guy who noticed my t-shirt that said “Free Palestine.” We got to talking and he could not believe that I was a pro-Palestinian Christian. All that he had read or seen on TV suggested that all Christians were Pro-Israel.
He and I talked for a long time about Palestine. He called himself a Palestinian even though he had never been there: his parents were refugees who resided in Jordan, but he only claimed Palestinian. He asked what it was like, where I went, what I saw there. He was very excited for any information that I had at all. Continually though, he would come back to his main question, “Why does it seem so much that Christians are against Palestine, and for Israel when people there are being killed and starved to death?”
“I am Hinduist.”
“Really?” I asked. “Thats cool. Where did you learn to become a hindu?”
I was talking to a real “cool guy” in the union one day. He wasn’t wearing shoes, but had conspicuously placed his TOMS in pouches on his cool outdoor back pack. Hemp was his favorite accessory: two ankle bracelets, a wrist bracelet and a necklace. He was wearing skinny-jeans that had been cut off to make man-pri length pants and was wearing an old stained v-neck shirt.
“Man, I was just curious and I was looking in a bookstore one day and I just felt this energy from the Bhagavad-Gita. So, I bought it and I read it and knew that what I was reading was truth, man.”
“Wow, so you just read it and believed it and became a Hindu? That’s cool. I think the hardest part for me would be keeping all the deities straight.”
“Oh, well, don’t do all of that stuff.”
“What stuff?” I was confused.
“The God stuff.”
“Oh, so you don’t set up shrines, do sacrifices? Do you believe in any of the gods?”
“No,” he said.
“Okay…” I said, trying to think of any other staples of Hinduism that I may have missed. “What do you believe then?”
“Man, I really believe in the healing powers of incense and meditation. It’s transcendental.”
It was at this point I realized that he liked the cool things about his religion choice. He liked things that were cool about it, but wasn’t willing to look dumb by believing in an elephant diety. Every faith has at its center a core-belief that makes you look dumb if you believe it. Jesus rose from the dead, the Prophet went up to heaven, God chose us, the Bab survived firing squad. Whatever line of belief you choose, own it, go in after it, believe in it whole heartedly. If you just choose the fun parts, you are not a believer at all. You know?
This is kind of what I mean when I say that I feel a bit out of touch with people’s religious conversations. These are some of the conversations I have with people in the world around me. I feel I am graceful. I give advise, guidance and share some facts that I have stored up. Nowhere in my Biblical training was I taught to deal with the statement “God is mean” or answer the question “Why do Christians side with Israel when they are killing Palestinians?”
But how are you supposed to teach that? I suppose you can’t. There is no class for how to counter dumb statements and no class over Christian foreign policy. You just have to do the best with what you’ve got when you are asked questions like that. I don’t know if anyone is ever fully prepared for the questions they are asked, and maybe if they are, those answers are prefabricated and ring hollow.
Perhaps I should be thankful that my time in the classroom was spent tackling bigger, deeper issues than the average person deals with, because that kept me from having pre-scripted answers for people who were really seeking. I developed a strong theological under-pinning while not being so conversion centered that I have a list of go-to lines for someone with questions.
The best thing you can have for someone with honest sincere questions is honest and sincere answers.