Why I Don’t Give a Straight Answer to Every Question

“Yeah, but Dave, what do you believe is the right answer?”

One evening during our recent Spring Break trip I was sitting at dinner with two member of our team.   The student who asked this question is Heather.  Heather has been a member of CSF for over three years.  In that time I have gotten to know her well and I am impressed with her spiritual maturity and thirst to grow in her faith.  We have had many conversations, from debates over politics to arguing differences in our theological beliefs.

The discussion on this night moved from topic to topic – the college dating scene, gay marriage, the nature of hell and what it means, at its core, to be a Christian.  When Heather asked me what I thought about some of these topics, I would offer a couple different answers, honestly pointing out where sincere Christians differ.  If she shared a point, even one I agreed with, I would offer the opposing view, just to make her think.  After a while she got frustrated, wanting me to just tell her the answer!

But I have come to believe that simply telling people the answer, or at least what I think the true answer is, may not be all that helpful.  It is worth more to give a variety of viewpoints, to ask questions and keep the discussion going in order for the student to figure out what she thinks the answer is on her own.

That said, there are some subjects where I am much more willing to offer a clear-cut and definitive answer.  If someone asks me how to be saved or who Jesus is, I will answer and be more committed to my answer.  But on most other topics, on the sort of secondary issues that Christians disagree on, I may share what I think but I am more likely to work to get the student I am talking with to think things through.

The goal of campus ministry is to help students become more like Jesus, to grow and mature in their faith.  While I make no claims to be an expert, I have learned that this sort of change happens, and sticks for the long-term, when students begin to discover truth and Jesus and answers for themselves.  So maybe I am simply back at the old adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish.

My prayer in this is that Heather, and students like her, would continue to take the steps to grow in their faith.


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Feeding My Tolkien Obsession with Two Books

One night my wife looked over at me sitting on the couch and asked, “are you seriously reading that book?”  The book was the Letters of JRR Tolkien.  She could not understand why anyone would want to read hundreds of pages of someone’s personal letters.  Admittedly, it is rather odd.  This book is certainly not for everyone.  But for those who have enjoyed Tolkien’s stories, this set of letters offers an intriguing and enlightening glimpse into his mind.  I most enjoyed seeing Tolkien speak of his Catholic faith as well as getting the window into his mind as he worked, for years and years, on writing the Lord of the Rings.  Honestly, I found myself skimming more and more of the letters as I went as it did get a bit tedious.  The verdict is, if you are a fan of Tolkien then this book  might just be for you.

Another book any Tolkien fan ought to read is Tom Shippey’s JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century.  Shippey had written another book on Tolkien, which I have no plans to read (I am done with Tolkien for a while).  In this one his goal is to show that Tolkien deserves a place among the most well-respected and admired authors of the 20th century.  Many academics and critics have disparaged his work as lesser since it is of the fantasy genre.  Shippey’s study of Tolkien’s work reveals just how brilliant and well-read Tolkien was and how much depth there is in Tolkien’s work.  If you are a fan of Tolkien, check this one out too.

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Question and Answer Night (Weekly Word)

Last night we had a question and answer night at our CSF meeting.  Full disclosure – I am writing this at 5 PM, two hours prior to the event beginning, though this post will not go up till Friday.  So I do not know for sure what questions will be discussed.  But I do know that this is always a fun night filled with lots of ideas and dialogue and debate.

It is one of the nights that reminds me why I love campus ministry so much.

On Fridays on this blog I tend to write what I call “Weekly Words”.  These posts are intended for the college students in CSF, thus for Christian students on a secular campus.  Often I basically summarize what we discussed the night before, in case anyone was absent and wants to catch up.  I am thinking that, with summer break quickly approaching, that it would be fun to dedicate each Friday to answering some of the questions from our Q and A nights.  Or even answering new questions that come in via Facebook or email.

I have always hesitated at the title “question and answer” night though, because it seems presumptuous of me to imply I can offer a quick and easy answer to questions that have stumped people and caused debate for centuries.  We have moved to calling the night a “Spirituality and Religion Discussion” though that is vague enough that people ask what it means and the response is: “ask questions and pastor Dave will answer them.”  That said, I am always very clear that I am offering my opinion.  For some questions I offer what I believe is a straight up and certain answer.  Other questions I offer a variety of possible answers and encourage the students to pick one.  It depends on the question.

All that to say, if you have a question about God, religion or whatever, I’d love for you to send it in to me.  You can reach me via email (campusminister_dave@yahoo.com) or on Twitter (dmlhershey).  Starting in a few weeks, I’ll throw out some answers.

It should be fun!

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Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit

I recently read through Basil of Caesarea’s classic work On the Holy Spirit.  Basil is one of the Cappadocian fathers and this work on the Holy Spirit was hugely influential in the Council of Constantinople’s editing and affirmation of the Nicene Creed, including stronger language on the deity of the Spirit.  This work is also one of those works that I believe any Christian interested in learning about the Holy Spirit, reading some Christian classics, or simply reading something that will help them grow in their faith, could read and enjoy.

Below are some quotes that I found most thought-provoking:

“Testify to every man who is confessing Christ and denying God, that Christ will profit him nothing; to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain; to every man that sets aside the Spirit, that his faith in the Father and the Son will be useless, for he cannot even hold it without the presence of the Spirit. For he who does not believe the Spirit does not believe in the Son, and he who has not believed in the Son does not believe in the Father. For none “can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost,” and “No man hath seen God at any time, but the only begotten God which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, pp. 17–18). New York: Christian Literature Company.

For it is impossible to worship the Son, save by the Holy Ghost; impossible to call upon the Father, save by the Spirit of adoption.” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 18). New York: Christian Literature Company.

“And in the creation bethink thee first, I pray thee, of the original cause of all things that are made, the Father; of the creative cause, the Son; of the perfecting cause, the Spirit; so that the ministering spirits subsist by the will of the Father, are brought into being by the operation of the Son, and perfected by the presence of the Spirit.”– Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 23). New York: Christian Literature Company.

“If on the other hand they suppose the subnumeration to benefit the Spirit alone, they must be taught that the Spirit is spoken of together with the Lord in precisely the same manner in which the Son is spoken of with the Father. “The name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” is delivered in like manner, and, according to the co-ordination of words delivered in baptism, the relation of the Spirit to the Son is the same as that of the Son to the Father. And if the Spirit is co-ordinate with the Son, and the Son with the Father, it is obvious that the Spirit is also co-ordinate with the Father.” –  Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 27). New York: Christian Literature Company.

There is one God and Father, one Only-begotten, and one Holy Ghost. We proclaim each of the hypostases singly; and, when count we must, we do not let an ignorant arithmetic carry us away to the idea of a plurality of Gods “- Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 28). New York: Christian Literature Company.

For we do not count by way of addition, gradually making increase from unity to multitude, and saying one, two, and three,—nor yet first, second, and third. For “I,” God, “am the first, and I am the last.” And hitherto we have never, even at the present time, heard of a second God. Worshipping as we do God of God, we both confess the distinction of the Persons, and at the same time abide by the Monarchy. We do not fritter away the theology4 in a divided plurality, because one Form, so to say, united in the invariableness of the Godhead, is beheld in God the Father, and in God the Only begotten. For the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; since such as is the latter, such is the former, and such as is the former, such is the latter; and herein is the Unity. So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one. How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king’s image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one;6 because the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case or the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead. One, moreover, is the Holy Spirit, and we speak of Him singly, conjoined as He is to the one Father through the one Son, and through Himself completing the adorable and blessed Trinity. Of Him the intimate relationship to the Father and the Son is sufficiently declared by the fact of His not being ranked in the plurality of the creation, but being spoken of singly; for he is not one of many, but One. For as there is one Father and one Son, so is there one Holy Ghost. He is consequently as far removed from created Nature as reason requires the singular to be removed from compound and plural bodies; and He is in such wise united to the Father and to the Son as unit has affinity with unit.”– Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 28). New York: Christian Literature Company.

The way of the knowledge of God lies from One Spirit through the One Son to the One Father”– Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 29). New York: Christian Literature Company.

“For what our Lord says of the Father as being above and beyond human conception, and what He says of the Son, this same language He uses also of the Holy Ghost.” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 34). New York: Christian Literature Company.

“Let us then examine the points one by one. He is good by nature, in the same way as the Father is good, and the Son is good; the creature on the other hand shares in goodness by choosing the good. He knows “The deep things of God;” the creature receives the manifestation of ineffable things through the Spirit. He quickens together with God, who produces and preserves all things alive,3 and together with the Son, who gives life. “He that raised up Christ from the dead,” it is said, “shall also quicken your mortal bodies by the spirit that dwelleth in you;” and again “my sheep hear my voice, … and I give unto them eternal life;”5 but “The Spirit” also, it is said, “giveth life,” and again “the Spirit,” it is said, “is life, because of righteousness.”7 And the Lord bears witness that “it is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” How then shall we alienate the Spirit from His quickening power, and make Him belong to lifeless nature? Who is so contentious, who is so utterly without the heavenly gift,9 and unfed by God’s good words, who is so devoid of part and lot in eternal hopes, as to sever the Spirit from the Godhead and rank Him with the creature?” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 36). New York: Christian Literature Company.

whenever we have in mind the Spirit’s proper rank, we contemplate Him as being with the Father and the Son, but when we think of the grace that flows from Him operating on those who participate in it, we say that the Spirit is in us. And the doxology which we offer “in the Spirit” is not an acknowledgment of His rank; it is rather a confession of our own weakness, while we shew that we are not sufficient to glorify Him of ourselves, but our sufficiency is in the Holy Spirit. Enabled in, [or by,] Him we render thanks to our God for the benefits we have received, according to the measure of our purification from evil, as we receive one a larger and another a smaller share of the aid of the Spirit, that we may offer “the sacrifice of praise to God.” – Basil of Caesarea. (1895). The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, pp. 39–40). New York: Christian Literature Company.

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There’s No Silver Bullet in Outreach and Evangelism

Working in campus ministry, the question of the best way to reach out to college students with the gospel is one that is often on my mind.  What sort of activities and programs should we offer on campus?  What types of questions are people asking?  What is the best way to connect with skeptical students?  A lot of churches are clearly asking the same questions as they seek to reach out to millenials, who we often read are leaving the church in large numbers.

Recently I read an interview with Rachel Held Evans where she discusses this.  I have long appreciated her writing and work, from her blog to her book The Year of Biblical Womanhood.  In other words, call me a fan of hers.

The big news surrounding this interview was that Evans has joined the Episcopal church.  It seems a lot of my favorite writers and scholars are either members of churches with traditional liturgical worship or have moved that direction in recent years.  I have heard and read many times that those leaving the church desire this sort of worship more in line with the traditional church.  All the noise and production of contemporary worship style churches are not interesting to twenty-somethings as they were in reaching their parents.  To be fair, Evans did not say this.  But I have gotten this impression from reading some people.

In my experience, it is not true at all.  I took a group of mostly unchurched students to a church last summer when we were on a trip doing a day camp.  It was an Episcopal church and the students were bored out of their minds.  Not one of them said, “aha, this is what I have been looking for that will bring me back to church!”  I think a specific sort of person is drawn to such tradition, people who read and study a lot, intellectuals, people who desire more than a loud worship band.  This is a point which Evans’ recent blog post On “Going Episcopal” makes as all the people who share stories of finding a home in the Episcopal church are white and middle class (Evans notes this in the post so it is not like she is ignorant of it).   Honestly, I am attracted to this sort of things.  But for those who are, it is important not to project this attraction onto others who are also disillusioned with church.

It is important that we realize traditional liturgy is not THE answer.

It is important that we realize contemporary worship services with little to no traditional liturgy is the answer.  

I am saying, there is not a “the answer” when it comes to reaching out to millennials, or to anybody for that matter.

Simply moving from hymns to contemporary songs, from piano to guitar will not automatically draw people to church.

Simply doing communion more often will not automatically draw people to church.

Simply having a shorter sermon will not automatically draw people to church.

Simply changing the dress of the pastor from a suit to jeans will not automatically draw people to church.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I think the closest thing to a “the answer” is relationships, and I think this is what Evans gets at when she mentions anointing the sick and confession and such.  When individuals in the church show kindness and hospitality to their neighbors, when church communities show love to their community, this is what draws people to church.  It is not sexy or glamorous, but such things do lead to real change.

So maybe along with their being no “the answer” we need to modify the question.  Simply getting large numbers of people into church is not the goal.  You can fill an auditorium in many creative ways, but it is worthless if actual life change does not happen.  Perhaps we, most of all, need to  be reminded that the goal is making disciples, one person at a night, and not just filling seats.

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Cold Case Christianity (Review)

In my college years, learning arguments in favor of Christianity was a huge help to my faith.  Christian apologetics provided answers to many questions I had and gave me a love of learning and reading.  Over the years I have become somewhat skeptical of the utility of Christian apologetics, at least in terms of a method for sharing the gospel.  That said, I still think apologetics has value and that good answers are out there.

J Werner Wallace’s book Cold Case Christianity has been on my kindle for months, I finally read it.  There are a lot of Christian apologetics books out there, what sets this one apart is Wallace’s experience as a detective.  The insights he offers from his career and the stories of cases are the best part of the book by far.  I think such things make this a book, perhaps the book, college students ought to go to if they want to begin reading apologetics.

Honestly, I have to say I skimmed much of his actual argument for Christianity as it consisted of mostly standard arguments I have read before.  While I find the answers of people like Wallace compelling, I even give such answers myself when asked, his book also reminded me of some problems I have with apologetics.  Apologists tend to create too tight a case, too quickly ironing over issues that are much more complex if looked at fully.  For example, he argues that Paul quoted Luke’s gospel in his letter to Timothy.  Perhaps, though it seems just as likely that Paul and Luke heard the same quote in an oral tradition floating around.  Or, since Paul and Luke knew each other, maybe Luke shared it with Paul verbally.  It seems a stretch to say Paul quoted Luke’s writing.  In another case he speaks of Mark, the author of the gospel, as appointing teachers in the school in Alexandria.  His footnote here is only to a secondary source.

I am not saying he is wrong in either of these.  My point is that I suspect New Testament and early church scholars would have a lot more to say on this and that Wallace may be over-simplifying the scholarship to make a case.  Which is fine, he is writing to make a case.  But from that,  I think he could have done better when discussing bias.  Early on he shares how his partner once allowed his bias to lead him down the wrong path in solving a crime.  The error, Wallace says, is that his partner started with the premise – in this case the premise was, when finding a dead woman, that it is usually the husband who did it.  But is Wallace saying we ought to treat every suspect, every idea, equally and never have any biases?  Sure his partner’s bias was wrong in this case, but it is a bias because in most cases it is right.  Such a bias probably helped his partner solve many cases (forget probably, Wallace says his partner was usually right!).  Rather than warning against biases, as Wallace seemed to do, the better thing is to remind us that biases are not 100% correct.  This is what the illustration seems to point to anyway, though it does not seem to be the way Wallace used it.

At the end he discusses the gospels and argues that the early Christians were not biased prior to writing, which is true.  But the gospels, as texts, are not objective documents.  They are written by people who want their readers to believe.  They are biased…and it is okay!  Everyone is biased.  This does not mean we cannot change our opinions or evaluate our biases, but it does mean we ought not act as if they are not there.

So I am sure 23 year old Dave would have devoured and loved Wallace’s book.  If students ask, I will recommend this book to them.  35 year old Dave is a bit more skeptical at points, but still sees value in books such as this one.  Though some difficulties are ironed over to make a better case, it is still a good book.


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God’s Not Dead (Review)

I was not planning on watching the Christian film God’s Not Dead anytime soon.  This was mostly due to limited time to watch movies and a desire to watch other things.  Then I saw it was free streaming on Amazon and I could not resist.  This movie had been heavily promoted in Christian circles and heavily panned elsewhere.  I had to give it a viewing.

My first thought upon watching it was that evangelical Christians who complain about being caricatured in  movies do the exact same thing to atheists!  Every atheist in this movie is a total jerk.  You would think that Christians, knowing what it is like to feel unfairly portrayed, would seek to create sympathetic characters of their so-called enemies.  But nope.  Next time a Christian whines about the portrayal of Christians in movies and television, they ought to expect people to point to God’s Not Dead as an example of the pot calling the kettle black.

For all the problems this movie had, there was an interesting story in there to tell.  I heard a philosopher on the Unbelievable podcast a while back who had a similar experience when he was in college.  He was challenged by an anti-Christian professor.  But in his real-life story the two conversed and became friends.  The Christian student became a professor in the same department as his one-time nemesis who was still an atheist.  That, I thought, would have been a more intriguing story.

Unfortunately, God’s Not Dead surrounded a potentially compelling story with lots of pointless, even offensive, fluff.  A liberal newscaster interviews a guy from Duck Dynasty in a totally pointless cameo.  A Muslim student is beaten by her father for converting to Christianity.  So not only are all atheists jerks, but all Muslims are intolerant and violent.  If I was a non-Christian viewing this film, I would not want to spend time with Christians if this is how they view me.

It is also weird that the only time people feel the need to convert to Christianity is when life threatens them with cancer or kills them with cars.  The gospel here is apparently only relevant if horrific things happen to you.  So…should Christians pray for our non-believing friends to get cancer or hit by cars so they are receptive to the gospel?  Even the way people convert is suspect.  When the atheist professor is dying on the street, the pastor he meets coaxes him to say he “accepts” Jesus.  Viewing the movie, it was clear at this point that he had clearly recognized his wrongs and wanted to know God.  Isn’t that enough?  Had he died before saying it out loud, would the God of this film condemn him to hell for failing to dot his I’s and cross his T’s?

Speaking of the atheist professor, it was a bit comical that he said there was no place in his classroom to discuss God, then he assigned them to read Descartes’ Discourse on Method.  In this work, Descartes offers proofs for God’s existence.  What, I wonder, would that discussion have been like in the classroom?  I think it just shows that this stereotype of such professors is not realistic, for any philosophy class will engage with arguments for and against God just by reading philosophy.  And somewhat ironically, there are schools which demand students sign an affirmation to a belief system, but they are Christian schools.

So yeah, I did not like this movie.  I think there was a potential for a good story with two characters, a Christian and atheist, meeting and talking and both doubting and changing through their relationship.  But real world change is more complex then is portrayed in this film which never rises above the level of propoganda.

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