From September 8, 2004, “The transcendent is scary”
In Sunday’s New York Times, Samantha M. Shapiro writes about the students she met while visiting Biola University, an evangelical school that began as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. “All God’s Children” is an insightful, sympathetic piece, and Shapiro’s fondness and sympathy for these young people is clear.
The article is also noteworthy for an accurate and fairminded assessment of this particular slice of the evangelical subculture. Shapiro describes Biola well and provides context for showing how it fits in with the rest of evangelicaldom.
She begins with a scene from the Intro to Mass Media class taught by Craig Detweiler, whose book A Matrix of Meanings is subtitled “Finding God in Pop Culture.” On this particular day, Detweiler’s attempt to introduce his students to the wonders of Björk collides head on with a crippling example of evangelical anxiety:
Detweiler fiddled with his laptop, and an image of Bjork appeared on the projection screen. The music switched to a soothing Bjork ballad called ”All Is Full of Love.” He turned up the volume.
”What do we think of this?” he asked. ”Is God in it?”
”To be honest, I have a hard time with that,” a student offered tentatively.
Adam, a skinny mass-communications major with dark, shaggy hair, said: ”I like the music. It’s ethereal and beautiful.”
”What’s that she’s singing?” Detweiler asked. ”All is full of … ? All is full of … ? All is full of what?”
”Love!” he shouted triumphantly. ”All is full of love! Anybody in this room with that?”
Tracy, a polished journalism major in the back of the room, shot up her hand and asked, a little indignantly, ”Isn’t that just back to the everything-is-love fun, happy relativism?”
Then Christina spoke up. She agreed with Tracy. She allowed that the Bjork song reflects ”the concept of common grace — that everyone has a taste of God’s goodness,” but she pointed out that common grace ”is not enough for salvation.”
Detweiler had an hour’s worth of songs and slides stored on his laptop. He clicked through the Klezmer Conservatory Band and ”The Best of Tito Puente.” He suggested that a recent concert in Los Angeles by Sigur Ros, the Icelandic postrock band, created a ”sacred space of beauty” that might be a contemporary ”site of general revelation.”
The students, all evangelical Christians, were skeptical. ”It’s hard to think the artist is completely in the right if they don’t say the truth — that Christ is the only way,” one remarked.
”This music leads to more music, not to people finding Christ,” another said.
Detweiler seemed agitated. He kept raising the volume louder and louder. He banged his eraser against the dry-erase board, where he had written ”truth” and ”beauty.” He told the students that creative people who start with a message are propagandists, not artists. The teachings of Jesus, he said, weren’t straightfoward moral lessons. ”People had a hard time following Jesus,” he said.
There is a Liliputian quality to evangelical faith. It seems to imagine God lying on the beach of our little kingdom, bound up with the cords of our propositions about him. That which is transcendent — truth, beauty, goodness, Bjork — is too large for our categories and propositions. Too large for our idea of God.
The idea that God might be bigger than we think — bigger than we can know or imagine or explain — can be terrifying. What if God should arise from the beach, shrugging off our tiny chains? Then we would no longer be in control.
What I’m calling “evangelical anxiety” is all about this fear of losing control. The nagging sense, lurking just below the surface, that we are not in control after all, no matter how much we insist we are. One result of this anxiety is a reflexive need to reassert that control, to interpret the world and respond to it in a way that reinforces the illusion that such control is possible.
Detweiler is trying to remind his students of something that C.S. Lewis, the British popular theologian so beloved by American evangelicals, repeatedly wrote: “He is not a tame lion.”
The students’ reluctance toward big, messy transcendence is particularly sad in light of something else Shapiro observed while visiting Biola:
The emotion that is most strongly manifested on campus is longing. The worship music at the Thursday night coffeehouse and at chapel often sounds like an angsty Top 40 guitar ballad. Students sing along to lyrics like ”Lover, love me” with eyes closed, arms raised, shoes off.
A Liliputian God affords a Liliputian basis for hope. Deep down, I think, these students are longing for something bigger. Something wild.