God’s Not Dead and the Myth of the Militant College Professor

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Let me qualify everything I’m about to say by first saying that I have not seen the movie God’s Not Dead yet. This is not a movie review nor is it meant to discourage anyone from going to see it. From talking to some friends who have seen it, I understand there are some redeeming things about the movie and the story it presents. Amongst them is the fact that the main character is willing to stand up for what he believes in and takes the time to research and find answers to difficult questions posed by the antagonistic philosophy professor. I find it interesting that Focus on the Family’s movie review website, Plugged In, had this to say as the negative elements of the movie “Pretty much everyone who’s not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they’re being punished for their attitudes.” As much as that bothers me and could be topic in and of itself or a blog—the portrayal of non-Christians in Christian movies—that is not the issue I have with this movie.

Surely there are professors that are antagonistic towards Christianity and organized religion in general. Many of them have published works that provide their explanations of why they think faith in a deity is intellectual suicide. I don’t doubt that many of them don’t shy away from sharing their antagonistic attitude in class. That being said, they are still professional. In any philosophy class you are not tested and assessed the same way you are in a math or even a science class. The field of philosophy does not require that you subscribe to the worldview of your professor. It does however require you give a rational support and or explanation of the worldview you’ve chosen. Thus the premise presented in the movie of a professor demanding that students deny God or gods completely at the outset of the semester is extremely far-fetched. Still that is not what bothers me the most.

For a number of years we’ve been warned that philosophy and professors of the sciences pose a major threat to Christian college students. We’ve been told that these cunning men and women are the main ones responsible for the often quoted statistic of somewhere between sixty to seventy percent of young Christians leave the church by their second year of college, a third of which never return. Yet in all my years of doing youth ministry—as a student, volunteer, and a pastor—I’ve yet to know of anyone who walked away from following Jesus Christ because of what they learned in a college philosophy or science course. On the other hand, I know a multitude of persons who have walked away from Christianity, all of whom walked away for one of three reasons.

The first is that they went away to college and eventually the guilt and shame from having premarital sex and or getting involved in alcohol and drug abuse became too overwhelming and thus it was easier to abandon faith than deal with their junk. Many of them feared being left out of all the fun everyone else was having and wanted to belong with their peers. They had been handed a faith that was primarily about behavioral modification and proved to be shallow and without roots. Some quite simply can be described by John 3:19 in that they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”

The second reason is that they encountered some sort of tragedy or crisis, often the divorce of their parents or death of a loved one, and became either disillusioned with by God’s seeming disregard for their troubles or angry with him. It became easier to walk away than wrestle with what the Bible says about the present age and the age to come, namely the paradoxical reign of Christ on earth (the paradox of Jesus reigning on earth while there is still evil and suffering in the world) while yearning for the overflowing reign of Christ on earth where pain and suffering will be no more, and death will be defeated. Often times they’ve been handed a faith that says you suffer because you’ve been bad and God is punishing you. Ironically enough, this is where some adopt the Anosticism which says, “if there is a God who created the earth he or she is now totally uninvolved in the affairs of the earth”.

My point in bringing this to the table is this… Let’s stop blaming liberal college professors for the failures of the church, youth ministries, and parents. Nancy Pearcey in her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity summarizes the problem quite well, “it remains true that most churches are strong on teaching about conversion, but weak on teaching about how to live after conversion.” If anything college, or more to the point independence, is the testing ground of faith and the gospel message young people have been taught to believe. A gospel that primarily teaches you to modify your behavior is usually heavy on guilt and light on grace. A gospel that primarily teaches you that Jesus came to make your life better is light on hope for a world that is perishing and the cost of discipleship. A youth ministry primarily focused on having fun is going to yield young adults in search of more fun and entertainment. Sermons on how you’re blessed or claiming your blessing are light on telling the story of how God set out to bless the entire world and why it needed to be blessed in the first place. Parenting driven by fear of what could go wrong is light on talking about how the world went wrong and what God does about it in the past present and future.

We need to present our young people with a robust gospel that fosters disciples instead of converts and well-behaved kids. We need to own our failures instead of blaming them on people and institutions that weren’t around for the formational period of young adults lives. Otherwise, God’s Not Dead will be wholly accurate in their depiction of a young adult who has to go search for answers to tough questions in isolation, instead of in loving community, or abandon their faith all together.

The One Question Every Student Asks

A few years ago I was at a small graduation ceremony for a handful of students who were homeschooled. I didn’t know many people there , and thus ended up sitting next to a complete stranger.

Most of you who know me know me as an extroverted and engaging person. While I can be very loud and gregarious, I can also be very chill and in a quiet mode. I can be the life of the party but I definitely don’t need to be and will defer to others. All that to say I wasn’t in a chatty mood this particular afternoon. The stranger sitting to next to me on the other hand was all for striking up a conversation.

Upon finding out that I knew the graduate through church because I was one of her youth pastors he became very intrigued. Admittedly most people become intrigued when they find out you’re a youth pastor for various reasons usually to do with your mental health. This individual was intrigued because he was currently in seminary. His plan was to get a job as a Youth Pastor that would hopefully launch him into eventually landing a position as a Senior Pastor. The seminary he was attending specialized in apologetics, so in some ways the question he asked me should have come as no surprise.

“So what do you think is the biggest question that students are asking these days; How can a loving God allow evil in the world, creation versus evolution debate, faith versus reason debate, how can a loving God send people to Hell? In your experience which question is the question students are asking the most?”

I didn’t even have to think about the answer, but I took a second just to look at him in the eyes and pause before I gave him my answer… the answer. I wanted to make sure that when I said it I had his full attention. I also looked into his eyes hoping that in all of his training he hadn’t missed the point entirely. Not that I had something against apologetics, far from it. Something about the way the whole conversation had gone to that point conveyed an arrogance on his part and I felt the need to bring him back down to earth.

“None of my students ask any of those questions”, I said calmly. “There is only one question they ask, and all of them ask it. The question they all ask is, ‘Do you love me? Do you care about me? Will you see me and accept me for who I am; the good the bad the ugly and all the in between?’” How you answer that question will determine whether or not they listen to a word you have to say about all those other questions. If you can’t answer that question to their satisfaction then they won’t care what you have to say about anything.”

Truth be told they have hundreds of questions, but one matters more than the rest. Whether you’re a parent, youth worker volunteer or pastor, be in the habit of answering the one question your student(s) ask in the affirmative. They don’t care how cool or hip you are, they just want to be loved and accepted without pretense, without condition, without having to earn it. 

 

Who Does It Harm Anyway?: The Harm In Using ‘Harm’ As Measure of Right and Wrong

Let me clarify something: this post is not in any way shape or form meant to be a commentary on the marriage debate. I am using it as an example to point to something else that I think the Christian community should be concerned with. How Christians determine or distinguish what is sin, right and wrong, is an area of concern. We would be foolish to believe the line of thinking that has arisen in the marriage debate won’t play a role in how we think of other behaviors that scripture has named sin and more importantly behaviors that scripture isn’t as explicit about. Often times in discussions and debates about gay-marriage, you’ll hear someone make the following point: “Allowing two people who are already in a committed relationship living together to marry isn’t hurting anyone.” For the Christian—whose life and thinking is largely shaped by God’s revelation to us through scripture, and who is committed to having the life of Christ generated in them—this philosophy of using the question of harm to determine what is right and wrong is hugely flawed. Evidence of this kind of thinking has been around long before the “marriage debate”. It has led to many paradoxes that can’t be resolved if harm is the measuring stick of right and wrong.

The question of harm has allowed for many Christians to start questioning the validity and existence of Hell. The question of harm has caused many Christians to be unsettled by God’s allowance of evil, pain, and suffering in the world. The question of harm has allowed for many Christians to excuse numerous behaviors that God says miss the mark of holiness because we determine that it doesn’t cause very much if any harm.  Ironically the question of harm was a reasoning that many in the purity and holiness camp used to try to persuade Christian teens to not even kiss prior to marriage because, they could be someone else’s wife or husband, and could cause harm in their relationship. Ultimately an ethic based on what is harmful potentially leads Christians to ignore or take issue with one of the central calls to the Christian life: to be willing to endure suffering, trial and testing. A Christian who determines right and wrong based upon how much harm is incurred will eventually have to question whether or not God should be God in the first place. A Christian who determines right and wrong based upon how much harm is incurred will not see, in Jesus, God was willing to endure more harm than we will ever know in order to deal with everything that is wrong with and in the world.

For a Christian right and wrong is determined by God’s holiness. Leviticus 19.2 summarizes all of the law of the Old Testament by saying, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’” In Ephesians Paul echoes the call to holiness when he writes, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Not to say causing harm shouldn’t be a concern of Christians whatsoever. In the discussion of human ethics it’s a good place to start. For the Christian, however, human ethics begins and ends with God’s holiness. For the Christian often times the things that cause us harm, pain, and discomfort are also the things God uses to sanctify us and make us holy.