BY DANIEL GARCIA
Last spring, a group of students decided to hold a dinner for the Christian community. Their motivation was simple: to promote cross-Christian dialogue. At this event, Bears Breaking Bread, the hope was that good discussion would be fostered between groups that generally don’t talk to each other, such as Protestants and Catholics. But, it was clear from the start that many groups thought this dinner was a bad idea, spiritually dangerous.They discouraged members from going, warning that if they did go, they should be intellectually armed. In a way, there was a spirit of fear, a quarantine: to venture inside, one must have the right protection.
There are times when this spirit of fear comes home. I know some people who have lost loved ones or are going through tough times. They start asking the hard questions: “God, why? I thought you loved me. Is this what your love looks like? Are you even there?” And then, sometimes, their communities start pulling away; these communities, they don’t want to deal with the dangerous questions, the uncomfortable ones—it rocks the boat. Alas, some pastoral support doesn’t walk with students into the dark places. Instead, the conversation is stunted, replaced solely by reminders of divine sovereignty, consisting of Bible verses protecting faith and hindering discussion, rather than words of hope incarnated by the person present.This is not to undermine the many excellent pastors, ministers, staff workers, and counselors who indeed are a reflection of the unconditional love of Christ in the crisis moments of people’s lives. Those hearts which are legitimately grieving either deal with it on their own, or become so distant from their church or fellowship that they just leave, no longer at home in a community that itself is pulling away.
With the theme of “Heroes and Superheroes” I feel obligated to ask a simple question: What is the essence of a heroic Christian life? The answer that comes up again and again is risk. A world without risk is a world without heroes. And yes, a world without evil is a world without risk. Why is the idea of the hero so ubiquitous, so profound in our collective experience? I think, partly because it is an echo of Jesus Christ, the hero of heroes, and thus one of the “good dreams,” to quote C.S. Lewis, that our species has received from God. The hero looks at a world of evil, full of risk, and says “Onward!” like little Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings who said, “I will take the ring to Mordor…though I do not know the way.” A hero can only exist in a fallen world, and thus is a profound response to that world and perhaps, even of its evil. The more we isolate ourselves from the world, both mentally and physically, the less we will find Christian heroes. I think about Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David. A hero knows the choice of going home to the “pasture,” to the known and understood, but chooses the unknown, chooses Goliath. That is the moment captured in Michelangelo’s epic work. David, with worry covering his brow, embodies the moment when one turns, looks into risk and uncertainty, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, and in doing so lives the Gospel, becoming the Christian hero.
And so I ask the unorthodox question, are we creating churches and fellowships that promote good risk in the spirit of the Gospel? Or, are our churches, our communities, our fellowships places that value safety and hegemony? I regret to say that too often I find our priorities are exclusively: #1 Protect the students from the “world,” #2 Follow Jesus Christ. Additionally, I sincerely wonder, particularly in “immigrant churches,” if that protection is actually partly motivated by a subconscious fear of cultural assimilation, a mentality of “us” and “them” that brings fear. From my experiences, it seems like we are more afraid of the world with its risks, questions, and uncertainties, than of loving it as God so loved the world.
If we as churches and fellowships do not promote a culture where it is safe to take risks and consider ideas that might be at odds with our own, we may still be preaching the Great Commission, but the workers become increasingly inexperienced. The result is we end up “eevangelizing” people who are basically like us. As churches or fellowships, do we “pre-screen” speakers or events for our students? Sometimes yes (e.g. Bears Breaking Bread). I know there are also communities that would rather not have its members reading this magazine. Are we teaching Christian students to engage the world or hide from it? (Indeed, should we be surprised that we have so many Christian bubbles?) Are we teaching them to create two different cosmoses or one unified world? As students at Cal with such a diverse student body and course offering, we will invariably encounter competing ideas in gender and sexuality, in evolution and the origin of biological life, in comparative religion and philosophy. Are we preparing students to interact with these ideas, to learn from them as well as intelligently critique them? Or, are we encouraging them to avoid them, or at best hold them at an arm’s length? This can only result in an odd tension where there is one mode of thinking in church or small group, and then another in the classroom and beyond.
We need communities that acknowledge the hard questions, seek the hard answers, and engage with the campus in ways that take us out of our comfort zones. It isn’t just about having the “right answers.” It is forgivable for a person to wonder if our faith is so weak that we must hide it in protective environments, isolated groups, with tight systematic theologies. If our faith doesn’t work in the day-to-day world of Berkeley, outside small groups and Sunday sermons, then something is not right. This is as much an engagement of our minds as it is of our physical presence. If our response to differing opinions, doubts, or new ideas is to avoid, to return to our pastures, then it is hypocritical to expect anything different from non-Christians we may share the Gospel with.
In the end, we settle for church Christians in a world that needs world Christians. We get Christians that can quote chapter and verse, but when faced with differences, real questions, and real opportunities, they are unable to even attend an inter-Christian event, or allow themselves to struggle with faith. Surprisingly, we end up violating that oft-quoted mantra of evangelical Christians—a personal relationship with Jesus Christ—by precluding the very questioning and experiences that make one’s faith his own. These should be as true after one’s becoming a Christian as they are before.
I’m the first to admit none of this is easy. Indeed, risk for its own sake is pointless, and throwing sheep to the wolves is ill-advised at best. But in many cases, the pendulum has swung too far. This is the paradox of church: to be both safe and unsettling, comfortable and challenging. We need to encourage discussion on a host of issues, to welcome interaction with our campus and its groups, and to support and affirm students who are struggling with faith and, thus, fight the temptation to pull away. We need to be willing to try new things in our ministries as the Spirit inspires students. Ultimately, our faith must be our own. We live on the hopeful side of the Cross. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and we need to trust Him. He went into places, both physically and personally, where His disciples were afraid to go, in some cases commanded not to go. And it was risky, people abandoned Him, and things didn’t turn out splendidly all the time. We need to be such heroes. Every Christian is to be a little Christ, and so every Christian is to be a hero. It is a heroic thing to engage with the world in all its complexities. Anyone can avoid; it takes a hero to engage. If we have no risk, we have no heroes. And so the question remains: Are we more interested in protecting students or letting them follow Jesus into risky places? Do we value safety and hegemony over a very unsafe Jesus? If we want life without this risk, Jesus is a hard Lord to follow.