Reformation of an evangelical

I began college as a know-it-all Christian. But I learned how to listen to nonbelievers -- and learn from them

Topics: Christianity, Religion,

Reformation of an evangelicalA photo of the author in college. (Credit: Shutterstock/Salon)

Not long ago, presidential candidate Rick Santorum complained that he was discriminated against at the University of Pennsylvania because he was more conservative than his professors. I don’t know what his situation was. But I found that standing up for my faith was a positive experience — once I learned how to do it without being a jerk.

When I entered college, I was a bright-eyed evangelical, ready to take on the world for Jesus. Just getting to college was something of a triumph for me. To say I was a mediocre high school student would insult all the other mediocre students out there. I was on my way to dropping out when I had a religious conversion experience. The most important part of that epiphany was a new focus to my life. Once, I was just drifting. Now, I searched for meaning.

The most meaningful thing I could think to do was to tell the rest of the world how good Jesus was for me, and get them to believe as I did. So I went to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, got involved in the campus Christian fellowship group, joined a small group Bible study, and took my first religion class — Old Testament history.

It was my first brush with academic religion — well, more like a full-scale collision. I believed the Bible was divinely inspired literal truth and a practical guide for living. My professor believed it was a historical document — an inaccurate historical document — and that if there were any truth in the Scriptures, it existed only between the lines.

My grades remained decent because I read every assigned text and did well on the tests. But at the end of the semester I did an extra-credit project to “prove” my theology was superior to his. He tried to dissuade me, but I went for it anyway.

What resulted was perhaps the first time in recorded academic history when an extra-credit project actually lowered an overall grade. His comment to me was something along the lines of, “If this is what you think an academic paper is supposed to look like, you have clearly not learned anything in this class.”

At first I was angry. I was sure he lowered my grade because he was embarrassed to be proved wrong. I wore my poor marks in that class as a badge of honor, a sign that I was standing up for God, and being persecuted for it. But then I encountered a Bible verse I had never really understood before. It was from the Book of Peter (I Peter 3:15). “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

My paper was anything but gentle and respectful. I was arrogant and rude. I never even considered the possibility that my professors might know more about the Bible than I did. And while his approach to the Bible might not have been right, I realized something profound at that moment: Neither was mine.

I changed after that class. In the four years I spent at UNCC, I didn’t stop standing up for my faith. I still challenged professors, wrote letters to the school newspaper, gave talks to student groups, and generally tried to sneak in issues of faith wherever I could. But I tried to do it with gentleness and respect. I tried to give reasons for my hope.

And I was often surprised how well my attempts were received, even by professors I viewed as adversaries. A vocal atheist who taught my philosophy class once made the off-handed comment that Paul was a real SOB for saying “If your hand offends you, cut it off.”

I raised my hand. “Sir,” I said, a little hesitantly, “I think Jesus said that.”

He slapped this away. “No, it was Paul.”

I tried to remind myself: Gentleness. Respect. “I think Jesus said it, in the Gospel of Matthew.”

“I’m pretty sure it was Paul.” He did not sound so confident now.

“I think Jesus said it in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5, probably around verses 29 and 30.” OK, so I was approaching the borders of arrogance, but I also knew that my professor was just plain wrong.

“Maybe it was Jesus,” he said.

After class, as I was leaving, he called me over. I was already wondering if I needed to drop the class now that I was on his hit list. I figured he would say something like, “Don’t ever embarrass me like that again. ”

Instead, he said, “You have something that is disappearing in this country. ” His voice was wistful. “If I mention the parable of the prodigal son, or say ‘Am I my brother’s keeper,’ you know what that means. No one else in the class does. We used to have a common language, but that is a thing of the past.”

The professor and I became friends, and I took several of his classes. I never converted him, nor did he lodge loose my faith, but we had a mutual respect. We often sparred in class, and he usually won, but I came away smarter and sharper for it.

I realized that if I was going to stand up for my faith, I had to read more, and do more work than other people in the class. Jesus did not need any ill-informed half-wits trying to defend him. Standing up for Jesus stupidly made Jesus look stupid.

In English class, we were studying existential literature. Now for me, at the time, the existentialists were The Enemy. But that meant I had to read the text even more diligently than my fellow students, and that I had to know the background and philosophy of the author better than even the professor.

It was a depressing class. As we talked about the short story (Hemingway’s “The Capital of the World”) I could feel a darkness settling. We were all disheartened. But I pointed out that while Hemingway saw life as a futile quest for glory, he also sought glory and his writing was glorious — if sometimes a tad bleak. His life belied his philosophy, I said.

I didn’t mention Jesus or God or the Bible. Instead I spoke about “the hope that I had.” I don’t know if I was right about Hemingway that day, but I know spirits lifted. A few of the class members even thanked me for my remarks.

In my senior year, a traveling evangelist came to campus and gave a fire-and-brimstone harangue in the quad. During a break I suggested he might want to use more sugar than vinegar. “You are not bringing anyone to Jesus,” I told him. “You are just making Christianity look mean and insulting.”

He turned away from me, and started up his diatribe again, but this time he aimed his bile at me. “Mickey Mouse Christians like this man water down our faith, and deny our Savior. He is neither hot nor cold, and our Lord will vomit him out his mouth,” he said, quoting a verse in Revelation. But the real shock came when the group who assembled to heckle the preacher now laid into him with a vengeance — because he had attacked me. People who had previously mocked my beliefs were now standing up for me, and eventually they drove off the preacher. A few weeks later I was offered a job as news editor for our campus paper. “You’ve written so much for us already,” they said, referring to my numerous letters to the editor on faith, “we figured you should probably be on staff.”

When I hear complaints that Christians are being persecuted on college campuses, I want to laugh. Sure there are some nasty people who want to wipe out religion, but most “persecution” experienced by Christians is the result of their ham-handedness in trying to foist their faith on others. They may find themselves ridiculed, but only because what they are doing just looks ridiculous to many people. Standing up for my beliefs never required me to be obnoxious, or an idiot (although I am sure there times when I was both). I got into some pretty heated arguments, but the people I clashed with often became friends.

The important lesson on faith is not “Shut up and sit down.” It is, “Speak up, but do it with respect. And be able to back it up!” Fighting for my faith was a learning process. When I thought I knew it all, I was just a blowhard. But when I listened to my detractors — and respected them — I gained their respect, too.

Murray Richmond was a Presbyterian minister for 17 years and a hospital chaplain for three years. He is currently a legislative aide in the Alaska State Senate.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>