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Speaking for Your Faith in the Classroom

How do you convey your faith to people who don't share it? Depends on the circumstances.

Throughout college I felt like an alien because of my Christian beliefs, which were often held up for ridicule. It started early — in fact, in my first class (a survey of contemporary American fiction). I don’t recall the teacher’s name, but his bushy white mustache turned south from the corners of his mouth and grew to his chin, resembling a pair of tusks. Combined with his 250-pounds of slumped roundness and a snarling persona, he reminded me of a walrus who also was known to pause mid-lecture to hock phlegm from his throat and wipe it on a handkerchief. The Walrus delivered rambling soliloquies laced with cynicism and mocking what he considered the world’s real evil, organized religion and Christianity.

It was early in the semester when the Walrus asked the question that made my blood freeze. We were discussing a short story that — shocker — subverted religion, when he paused, looked up from his lap and glared at us, his 30 students. “Now, how many of you would call yourself Christians?” he sneered with a wicked glint in his eye.

In my heart, I felt a flash of panic and then hoped it was a rhetorical question. But he watched and waited. Did he want a show of hands, an admission of guilt, a confession of faith that would result in my character and reputation dying on the chopping block in front of these peers I barely knew?

As if the Walrus’ contempt for faith weren’t enough, I also felt pressured by my perception of what other Christians would think of me, depending on my response to his question. It seemed Christians were always saying we should be bold and stand up for our faith. But now, I felt ashamed and powerless in front of the Walrus. After a pause that was long enough to confirm my fear, I sheepishly raised my hand, cringing in case anyone saw it. Subtly, I glanced back and forth. Were there other Christians with me? I was alone, at least in my admission of faith. The Walrus just stared at me — causing my blood vessels to constrict — then out a “huuuumph!” and continued his diatribe.

Christians facing direct or indirect discrimination for their faith is nothing new on college campuses, especially in the liberal arts. Amy Wells, a Boundless reader at the University of Wisconsin, emailed me saying she considered her “Asian American Literature” class a form of sexual harassment. There, she was instructed to read graphic depictions of gay and lesbian sex, and references to bestiality and pedophilia. The class had to watch movies, too, including films that depicted homosexual sex and children being molested. The class made her “sad, anxious and pessimistic,” Wells said. At the end of the class, the students applauded the professor. “When the class applauded this teacher I felt shocked, alienated and depressed. It made me see how weird we Christians really are.”

We’ve got to face it. Our beliefs and commitment to Christ is not in the mainstream among our peers. We’re often in the minority on the college campus and later, in the workplace.

How Do We Respond?

To begin with, we should remember we’re not alone, and we’re not powerless either. Recall what Jesus told His 12 disciples in Matthew 10:16 as He sent them — a distinct minority — to share their faith in hostile territory: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Jesus further emphasized a few verses later that His disciples were to rely on the Holy Spirit when times got tough: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

We’re to be thoughtful and savvy about the ways we espouse the values of the kingdom of God on our campus or anywhere else in the world. Our goal is to be like Christ — led by the Spirit so we’re kind and compassionate even as we uphold and proclaim God’s truth. And there are many ways to proclaim God’s truth, even in a hostile campus environment.

An obvious way to stand up for our faith is to give a well-reasoned and considerate argument in class when it’s relevant and when there’s a decent opportunity. The conditions of classroom discussion usually depend on the professor, but we should never be afraid to be honest about our beliefs. To be afraid is to forget that we’re speaking on behalf of our greatest ally, the God of the universe.

It’s also important to befriend students from diverse backgrounds. It’s tempting for Christians to band together, circling their wagons in a hostile environment. But genuine friendships are a great way to communicate our faith to others, because they don’t just have to hear us talk about faith; they can experience our Christian life through us. Friendships also allow us to share the Christian point of view on destructive philosophies espoused in the classroom. Sharing our faith is important because so many of our friends are genuinely seeking spiritual truth. If we withhold it from them, we’re not being true to ourselves or to them.

Sometimes engaging a professor on issues of faith in class is a losing proposition; he isn’t about to relinquish his position of authority by “losing” an argument, and the prideful need to win can impede communication. But I found I was understood when I’d talk to a professor (or teaching assistant) outside of class, in his offices or at a coffee shop. There, I could dialogue with him about any curriculum questions I had — like why do we only read work by gays and lesbians in our “Jewish American Fiction” class?

Meeting with the dean or department chair is also an effective way for students to communicate any curriculum disagreements. Though it may not change curriculum, it’s important for the people running colleges to know what their customers — the students — actually think. A paying student has every right to share his disagreement about raunchy study material, and the dean has an obligation to listen.

Student writers could raise questions about their school’s curriculum choices by writing a letter to the editor or guest column in the student newspaper. Newspaper editors love controversy, and they’d probably enjoy a thoughtfully conservative voice on the paper’s editorial pages stirring up issues. Sending a letter to the college alumni association, which raises big bucks for the school, is also an idea.

When I look back on my college education, it often seems that I was so indoctrinated with a liberal agenda that I missed out on a real education. To some extent, this is true. But learning to be a disciple of Christ in a secular world is invaluable instruction. Yeah, I felt weird because my belief system was so contrary to the curriculum. But the difficulty forced me to depend on God for my strength, and I learned to have empathy and sensitivity toward people who aren’t followers of Jesus Christ.

Copyright 2003 Marshall Allen. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Marshall Allen

Marshall Allen is a journalist in Pasadena, Calif. He and his wife, Sonja, have two boys.

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