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Things what I learnt at university

Recently, my Twitter feed threw up a YouTube nugget that kinda made me want to throw up too. It was a paean to Wayne Grudem, performed – to the tune and choreography of Greased Lightnin' – by a merry band of UCCF volunteer workers at a summer training camp a few years back.

For those of you wondering what half the words in that sentence mean: Wayne Grudem is a well- and widely-respected American evangelical theologian who helped found an organisation working to maintain the subordination of women (and, perhaps not unrelatedly, openly endorsed Trump); UCCF stands for Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship and is a UK-based charity overseeing a large network of student Christian Unions; a 'paean' is, as I was pleased to hazard correctly before seeking the assistance of the Internet, "a creative work expressing enthusiastic praise"; and Greased Lightnin' is a song about a car that will help you to become more manly and to show the ladies who's boss ("a real pussy wagon," coincidentally).

The scene was uncomfortably familiar. I wasn't there but I felt as though I might as well have been. Worse – I knew I once would desperately have wanted to be. The camaraderie, the in jokes, the renowned and learned and soundest of the sound visiting speaker... Probably I'd have been too shy to get up on stage as a pink lady but if they'd've only just let me sit up with them the previous night, companionably honing such lyrical gems as "Wayne may not be Jesus but he writes mean exegesis," and "Although he’s not inerrant he’s a heresy deterrent" [1], I just know I'd have felt like I'd finally 'made it'.

I'd grown up in evangelical churches, but university's where I really got my evangelical education. My CU timetable rivalled (sometimes even interrupted) my academic one. The weekly song-and-sermon gathering, followed by chatter and tea in the chaplaincy, was just the tip of the iceberg. Early morning prayer meetings, lunchtime evangelistic talks, evening small group Bible studies – a 'good' day could feature as many sittings as students in catered halls were served square meals. And I'd be there. Houseparties, training trips and mission weeks: yes please. Plus whatever socials I could guilt-manoeuvre someone into telling me about.

There were a couple of factors driving my devout attendance. One: I was lonely, and socially inept, and figured that if Christians didn't want me nobody else would, so barely even tried with anybody else. Two: I was impressed. Never before had I encountered such thoroughness; such devotion to correct interpretation of the Bible; such clarity and certainty and seriousness. I wanted to be like them, and I wanted to be liked by them.

Well, I never did 'make it' with the CU crowd – although there was a brief and glorious moment when I thought I was about to. (An invite to serve on committee turned out not to be the golden ticket I too-desperately took it for ... but that's another, and a messy, story). Only, now ... now ... well, I can't not regret the personal failings that contributed to my alienation (see, e.g., said messy story), but the alienation itself no longer feels like quite the unambiguous loss it once did.

I've written before of my horror on being confronted with some of the 'fruits' of evangelical Christianity in the world today. Most topically, of course, has been the vote-swinging-sized swathes of white US Christians who got behind Trump, and even now are among the most faithful of his waning support base. It seems absurd to watch them defend the leadership of a man so utterly unlike the One they claim to follow foremost – a president who draws moral equivalencies between white supremacists and those who oppose them (cf., e.g. the unequivocation of Matt 5:10-12 vs. Matt 23:29-35); who blusters his way towards nuclear hostilities (cf. Matt 5:38-48); who proudly protects the wealthy from contributing to the broader needs of an unjustly unequal society (cf. Luke 6:20-23, Mark 10:17-31).

And yet, thinking about it, in the light of my own exposure to (indeed espousal of) evangelical logic, maybe it's not, in fact, all that absurd. Maybe, I begin to suspect, it has to do with that same certainty and clarity I so admired at university. Here is your list of agreed upon truths. The important thing is that they be maintained and propagated. Anything you attempt to that end is moral and good. Opposition is a sure sign you must be doing something right. Failure is testament to the spiritual blindness of the world. Collateral damage is inevitable in any significant mission. Concern for individual casualties is an objective-derailing distraction.

Now, the exact content and ordering of the particular list of truths to be acted on varies to some degree between evangelicals in different times and places, and this can impact on specific outcomes. I don't know if UK evangelicals would have elected Trump, even if we (/they?) [2] had the numbers to do so. But I suggest that we (/they?) are similarly prone to detach 'sound doctrine' (easy to codify and make pin-down-able) from the inconvenient complexities of interacting with actual human beings. Which is ironic because, however diligently Bible-centered the pursuit of the former [3], scripture itself repeatedly tells us that scripture itself is inseparable from the messy business of actually loving actual people...
The Law: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord." (Lev 19:18) 
The Gospels: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37b-40) 
The Epistles: "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'" (Gal 5:14) "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. [...] Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." (Rom 13:8,10)
Suppose I explain to you the thoroughly biblical basis of my stance on X, my argument for Y, my political endorsement of Z, my protest against α, my policy recommendation with regards β, my evangelistic outreach to γ – it doesn't matter how many chapters-and-verse I am able to quote you; if the truth I'm upholding doesn't ultimately uplift my neighbour, it's not the truth of the Bible. Granted, what can and can't be said to 'ultimately uplift' is a whole 'nother troublesome and oft-divisive question, to which I can hardly pretend to know the answer, aargh. But still, can we all just please keep in mind that there's real breathing, living, loving, often-fragile human beings on the other end of that 'sound doctrine' we're wielding... [4]

So, I'm unlearning some of what I learned at university. But here's the thing ... the people I learned it from ... they're real breathing, living, loving, often-fragile human beings too. A three paragraph caricature of 'evangelicalism' might help me come to terms with my faith tradition and its upsetting role in current affairs, but it doesn't actually describe my CU friends as people. Nor does it begin to capture all the stuff they taught me.

I may not have been as close to them as I'd have liked, but that doesn't mean they weren't kind to me. And just because I'm less convinced than I was by some of their then-theology, it doesn't mean they didn't speak words of godly wisdom into my life – words that have stayed with me to this day, and have helped shape my attitude, character and mental health for the unambiguously (albeit slowly) better. "You always have some choice left to you – exercise it as much as you can," said one friend (more sensitively than I've made it sound!) when I felt like depression had robbed me of all agency (see, e.g. Gal 6:9, Phil 4:12-13). "It can be very releasing to show kindness to others right when you feel like you most need it from others," said another, rightly diagnosing me as unhealthily self-absorbed (e.g. Matt 7:12, Phil 2:4). And, when I was contemplating whether to accept my (now) husband's proposal of marriage, "the big 'life decisions' seem overwhelmingly important but really our moment-by-moment decisions to give God sovereignty are far more critical and transformational" (e.g. Ps 139:23-24, Ps 19:14). It is almost uncanny to think how memorable and instrumental these (abbreviated) conversations have continued to be to me over the years; I doubt the people responsible have any idea of their level of influence or of my gratitude! (Phil 1:3)

And, of course, it was in CU, more than anywhere else, that I learned to revere the Bible and care what it says. And – ironically, paradoxically – it was revering the Bible and caring what it says – reading it, grappling with it, memorising bits of it, seeking out scholarship from different perspectives about it – that got me here, this place where I feel moved and emboldened to question the lessons that got me here. My unease with evangelicalism, my anger with Trump and his Christian support base, my dawning realisation of the need for feminism (sure to have triggered warning sirens if some of those old friends have seen enough of me online to notice), my growing (if blunderingly naive) heart for social justice. All of these, as far as I can reliably report my own motivation (which may not, after all, be all that far), have developed out of reverence for the Bible and desire to follow Jesus.

I'm not massively in touch with many of my university friends, but I keep a genuinely affectionate and prayerful eye on the updates of those on Facebook, venturing the occasional shy interaction. (Hello if you're reading this; please don't feel awkward or irked). I see enough to know that we're all on journeys of one sort or another. Still, a good number have followed trajectories considerably unlike mine. Some of the articles and Opinions I see shared in the interests of 'sound doctrine' call for deep breaths and a count to ten ... and no doubt my own posts have drawn similar responses in return. I'm not indifferent to this fact – I don't diverge lightly from the views of people I respect, people who have had a significant impact on me for good. But neither does it panic me like it might have done once. If the Bible is less an instruction manual than a story we're invited into, then it stands to reason that, even while I thought my CU friends were imparting correct information to me, in reality God was weaving our stories together in a far more complex and messy way than I was able to imagine. I might not understand nor feel entirely comfortable with where some of those stories are at now (not that I really have the faintest clue), nor know where mine is going, but I absolutely trust the Author, "being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:6, NIV). Those episodes in which our narratives most seem to part, I pray-file under "if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you" (Phil 3:15) – where 'you' includes myself, of course; I may sometimes forget I don't know everything, but usually I know enough to know I'm not done learning, by a long chalk...
The earth is filled with your love, Lord; teach me your decrees. (Ps 119:64, NIV)

[1] The sentiment of the song may not be to my taste but I'm not one to sniff at a good bit of laboured parody.

[2] The part of me that questions if I'm still 'an evangelical' wants to say 'they'; the part that realises that either way I'm culpable concedes to 'we'.

[3] Although, my previous post questions whether we are always being informed first and foremost by the Bible when we think we are.

[4] Even as I write, the Nashville Statement (from the Grudem-founded organisation I mentioned earlier, as it happens) and the hurt and heart-wrenching responses to it are exploding all over the Internet and, yeah, it all feels tragically 'case in point'. I don't know where to start with words; see here, and here and here, and here for other people's.

[Thumbnail image "ST7764 : Norwood House, University of Bath", cc from].