A “God’s Not Dead” Retrospective: The Day I Debated the M.Div. Dean of My College.

A “God’s Not Dead” Retrospective: The Day I Debated the M.Div. Dean of My College. April 4, 2014

The backlash continues against that stupid movie God’s Not Dead (which is at this point rounding 20% on Rotten Tomatoes’ review site and a 16% on Metacritic). Christians defend it to the skies–check out the responses to the reviews posted on that first link; people never comment on reviews, except for when the review is critical of a Christian movie, at which point every fundie in the world seems to crawl out of the woodwork to angrily blast the reviewer as an idiot who just doesn’t understand how awesome the Christian god is.

But I can see why there’s such defensiveness. You see, this idea of a young Christian student standing up to a college professor is a very, very old one, and rooted in reality besides. I know, because it happened to me personally in one of my very first college classes. I’ve talked before about a historical class that occurred in my junior year that was instrumental in realizing how non-historical most Christian folklore is, but what I’m going to talk about today was well before that. This was either my first or second semester, what we’re going to look at today.

Dangerfield-elliot-leda-and-the-swan
Dangerfield-elliot-leda-and-the-swan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zoom in with me: a crisp pale blue sky scudding with a few gauzy clouds, and me rushing past the weird Greek-mythology modern-art sculpture outside the lecture hall. It was called “Leda and the Swan,” but it didn’t bear much resemblance to anything I could see, much less to the ancient story of Zeus sexing up the Queen of Sparta. I was already kind of riled and discombobulated by the sculpture when I got into the lecture hall. Clearly this was not going to be a proper Christian environment at all.

I was 18 years old and such a sweet, fresh-faced girl, innocent and trusting beyond all reckoning–in a way that would be difficult to find in an 18-year-old nowadays, I think. Willowy rather than curvy, tall and a little gangly, still awkwardly wearing the calf-length circle skirts and bobby-socks that my church considered the Fundie Burkha, I had been a fundamentalist for only a couple of years at that point, but a lifelong Christian in general. I was dating Biff, and the medium-sized church to which we belonged pressed us relentlessly about setting a date for our inevitable wedding. I had lived in the Christian Bubble to one extent or another for my whole life, and now I was attending a very multicultural, diverse state university. The population of this school was easily into the many tens of thousands.

I was one of the few students to live on-campus in the middle of what I would only later discover was a hellhole of crime and poverty. I didn’t know it, though. I knew I could walk on-campus and feel safe, and I loved the way the school’s streetlamps turned the night sky wine-dark and purple in the quadrangle courtyard. It tears me up a little remembering that precise color, even today, and I think I’ve been looking for it ever since those days. The library was what I imagined Heaven would be like; I often went there and looked for the “new arrivals” bookshelf and grabbed something off it just to expose myself to something new that I’d never have seen otherwise (which is how I became something of a local expert regarding the culture of Tibetan nomads).

Part of college is being exposed to new ideas, but another bigger part is being exposed to new types of people. I was friends with a number of fundagelical young people also living on-campus; some of them were Southern Baptists, some were with Maranatha (a way less hardcore evangelical-type church), some were with other denominations entirely. Some were Classics Studies majors–which is a polite way of saying pre-pre-divinity school, in the way that many Biology majors are pre-pre-med and many History majors are pre-pre-law. We went to each others’ churches; we sometimes attended chapel together, though none of us were happy with such an ecumenical arrangement. We ate together and spent time in our dorm rooms together, earnestly hashing out deep theological questions while Biff worked on this or that sculpture in his room nearby (he was a Fine Arts major for a while, which is a polite way of saying pre-poverty). We made up songs and sang and studied and prayed and made sure to take classes together.

But this class was a step too far, and I could not take it with any of my friends–they were either past their first year in our school’s core program, or else not in the program at all.

I’m telling you all this so you know that I hadn’t been alone or bereft of backup or wingpeople at any point since becoming a Christian until that day.

Now, however, I was alone–alone in a sea of strange faces that looked at me in my fundie burkha clothes like I was a space alien; alone in a swarm of students who wore worldly clothes and talked in worldly ways and clearly, obviously, plainly knew absolutely nothing about the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

In a way, such a thought was a heady challenge for someone like me. I was determined to show them all just what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ looks like.

You wanna yell “Timber!” or shall I?

The class was a doozy–one of those multidisciplinary things popular in the 80s and 90s that drew from all sorts of fields like archaeology, literature, poetry, drama, you name it, to create a general overview of the entire human condition. And today was going to be a firecracker of a day.

The week previously, you see, I’d noticed that according to the syllabus, that Monday we were going to talk about the Book of Job. We’d been discussing a few stories from the Old Testament, and I’d become increasingly agitated about the idea of discussing the Bible’s mythology and folktales as just literature. These were things that had really truly happened, or so I thought still, and it offended me that someone could talk about it with less-than-reverent tones. This wasn’t just a neat story to me. It was totally true and real, and these people were going to shit all over it, I was just convinced.

I went all week in a misery until one of my friends, Mike, asked me what was wrong. He was an odd duck–tall, well-built, handsome in an outdoorsy way, with curly blonde hair and a bad-boy beard; had he been that age just a couple decades later, he’d have started a megachurch and been known as its edgy hipster pastor. Now, though, in 1988, he was just an odd duck trying to be as true to the Bible as he could without falling into the dreaded trap of excessive legalism. I secretly liked his version of Christianity quite a bit, but it didn’t especially matter what I liked or disliked; it mattered what was right, so I had to content myself with admiring Maranatha, his church, from a discreet distance while disapproving of it in my out-loud voice.

I confessed my misgivings about the upcoming lecture. Mike understood completely; Biff was outraged, but Mike suggested a different approach from pitching a fit: being as wise as a serpent but gentle as a dove.

“But how?” I asked, still very stressed.

“You’ll use the Book of Job to argue the Book of Job.”

I didn’t quite understand. He went to his room around the corner and returned with a rather large Bible he didn’t use every day. It was, he told me, a Thompson Chain Reference Bible, and it was the answer to my every question. You see, nothing in the Bible is really isolated; it all kind of relates to itself in all sorts of ways, and it is believed that you can’t really lift one book (like Job) out of it without considering its relationship to the other books. What Mike was talking about, and what this Bible was doing, was illustrating the Christian concept of Types and Shadows, which Pentecostals are all about so it clicked immediately for me. He said he’d let me borrow it till after the class, and I’d need every moment to prepare, so I gratefully accepted his loan and excused myself to go back to my room to study.

And I did.

I studied all weekend. I read, I took notes, and I prayed. It amazes me how much time I spent on it, but then, I did take a week not long ago to make a perfect community garden for my Sims 3 build. So full-frontal nerdity runs deep for me.

I was up against the lecturer of the class, who held–among many other qualifications–a Masters of Divinity from a very large and well-regarded seminary. He was a genial and friendly fellow in that reserved way you normally only see from upper-crust Britons. He moved serenely through the sometimes loud and rowdy crowd of Honors students like a particularly stately whale through a pod of frolicking dolphins. I don’t think I ever saw him in anything less than a three-piece suit at any point in my time at that school. He was not just the lecturer of the class, but the dean of the entire school itself as well as a hugely-well-regarded professor in whatever his field actually was (I still don’t actually know what it was–literature, I guess).

But my sincerely-held ignorance was just as good as his book-larnin’ and edumacashun, and I truly believed that Jesus would speak through me if I just made myself available as a conduit. The eternal souls of hundreds of students as well as my professor’s depended upon me doing it right. So you can bet I worked hard to empty myself of fleshly ambitions and desires so that Jesus could use me on Monday.

That Monday I walked past the weird pagan sculpture and sat down near the back of the lecture hall, and waited as it filled up. And it did. This was a large hall, but the class was required for our school and every student had to take it.

Cringing yet? I am, remembering that day. Oh gosh, I was such a twit.

The professor began to talk about the Book of Job, and I squirmed and flinched as I tried to seek an opening in what he was saying. Finally, finally, he got to some aspect of it that I could seize upon. I don’t even remember just what anymore, just that it related somehow to the story of the Tower of Babel (maybe something like this?). I raised my hand, and he called on me.

I said one last quick prayer and stood up. I still remember how my skirt fell across my legs as I stood. I still remember every face, hundreds of them, turning to me. I still remember the faint hesitation in his face, perhaps because I’d spoken up briefly before about various other similar situations that’d cropped up, perhaps because I probably had a decidedly determined look on my face and he had a feeling about what was coming.

Using the notes I had studiously taken, I delivered a passionate monologue about how one could not just take the Book of Job separately from the Bible because it was all divinely-inspired to work together seamlessly, and talking about it separately was like talking only about one chapter from a really long book out of context. I talked about how details from Job improved our understanding of other books and illuminated other stories entirely all through the Bible. Basically, I demonstrated just how good humans are at spotting correlations and patterns even where none actually exist. A chemical rush went through my entire body as I spoke, which I took to mean that Jesus was speaking through me. People’d been telling me for years that I had a unique skill to say just the right thing sometimes, and that day I was on fire.

And to my astonishment, the professor let me do it. He let me talk. Sometimes he’d inject some gently-humorous comment, sometimes he’d spar with me a little, but he let me talk for a good ten minutes. I don’t know why. Perhaps he thought I was adding something to the discussion; perhaps he was tired; perhaps he was letting me hang myself.

When I was finished, he did one of those things that super-educated but gentle-hearted people do when confronted with rampant ignorance and desperate belief: with two sentences, he more or less negated everything I had said. He agreed totally with what I was saying, but still saw the material as worth examining as literature in its own right. He didn’t disagree at all, but still wanted to do this, even knowing what I’d just said was part of the belief system of a great many Christians (he did not say “all Christians” or imply it was universal, which I did not miss noticing). Was I okay with that?

I really didn’t have much of a choice, so I summoned as gracious a smile as I could and nodded. “Good,” he said and continued his lecture. I sat down, feeling strangely deflated and depleted. He talked briefly about types and shadows for the students who had no idea what’d just happened, and then continued with the lecture.

I wasn’t sure what effect I’d had, but it was the first time I’d ever stood up to an authority figure regarding my faith–and it would not be the last. Afterward, a few students I didn’t know came over to tell me how much they’d admired what I’d done; none actually materialized into converts, and many seemed a bit annoyed that I’d shanghaied the class to basically preach, though nobody actually said anything negative to me at all.

Ironically, the next week we got told we’d be studying the story of the Tower of Babel, and when the professor announced the change to the syllabus (yes, it hadn’t been on there originally), he specifically looked through the crowd for me and asked if that was acceptable, with that same soft reserved smile he’d given me that fateful day.

One thing was crystal clear:

He wasn’t afraid of me at all.

Nothing I said really fazed him.

Jesus had not actually convicted him at all.

This hadn’t gone a single bit like the Chick tract and urban legends said it should have.

How had this happened?!? I was in shock. He was a Christian, right? He’d gone to seminary. Why was he not agreeing with me? Why was he persisting in this disastrous course?

But he wanted an answer, so I smiled and said of course that was fine, because I’d made my point and didn’t need to make it again, though internally I was seething at this display of disrespect toward the Bible. I couldn’t understand how an educated person could surgically extract one story from it like it was no big deal, without considering it in full context.

In retrospect, I think he respected that I’d made my case not just with emotions or the standard fundie talking points, but with fairly solid theological sources. I think he understood right away that I’d spent a lot of time preparing for what I’d said.

Like any real and decent professor, he wanted to teach me how to think, and letting me make as good a case as I humanly could was part of that process. I was probably not the only student riled up about how he was teaching the Book of Job, and probably I was saying stuff he suspected many students were thinking. I suspect now that he got at least one episode like this every semester, and he was just relieved it’d happened so early in the syllabus. Letting me get all those objections into the air allowed him to address them definitively.

See, that is how real professors handle overly-zealous students. They don’t bat them down; they don’t insult them; they don’t treat them like dirt for disagreeing.

And looking back, it was a marvel he got me to even grudgingly accept the idea of treating the Bible like it was any other ancient document, and I don’t think he’d have convinced me to do it while treating me with disrespect or unkindness.

Moving past my idolization of the Bible itself was a big part of my eventual waking-up, so I count that day as one of those “defining moments” in my life, and as I survey the outraged Christians defending their lame-ass little movie to the skies, I think it’s important to note that the trope it’s talking about–the student standing up to the professor–is not only an important part of Christian mythology but also something some Christians (like the 18-year-old me) have actually gone through personally.

Meeting a very theologically-educated person who did not idolize the Bible was a big part of that process. Had this educated person treated me like Professor Radisson treated his student in that movie, I would have understood such blatant persecution and would have reacted much the same way the fictional student had; I’d kind of expected opposition like that, actually, and was almost disappointed that I hadn’t gotten it. It would have fully justified my zeal and allowed me to persist in believing that Christians were persecuted by higher education. But he didn’t do that, and by treating me with respect, he pulled me into reality and kept me from falling into that persecution fantasy.

So yes: I see movies like God’s Not Dead as revenge fantasies from Christians who don’t actually know how real professors operate or what good education looks like. Myths like these are how Christians think higher education works, and they’re really how Christians desperately wish they worked.

The reality, however, is nowhere near those fantasies, and I know that personally, and now you do too.

I’d rather go with reality than fantasy, personally, even if the reality is a little more scary to contemplate and nowhere near as self-serving or personally complimentary.

Speaking of which, we’re going to talk about a Christian leader who has finally seen that the day of the “Christian state” is now over. Well, sort of anyway. Please do join me next time.

Related:

* Dan Fincke responds to an outraged Christian blogger regarding his negative review of God’s Not Dead.

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