Westmont Magazine Pop Goes the Bubble: Adventure in Christian Culture Crossing
The campus calendar says orientation this year is four days long. Don’t believe it! Orientation is neither that easy nor that quick. It takes at least a semester – often a painful one – for students to be truly oriented to college life, and each new academic year brings new frustrations as students struggle to adjust to new stages in their education.
August isn’t orientation; college is orientation. In fact, if we are living faithfully, life is orientation. And disorientation too. True discipleship involves redirection. Christians call it “conversion” – the shocking, distressing, terrifying, exhilarating, transforming corrections that turn us around and move us away from what is fading toward what is coming.
This realization crystallized for me during a weekend visit to Westmont’s Urban Program. Being a Westmont student interning in the middle of San Francisco is like being a first-year-student, a senior, and a graduate all at once. The experience compresses years’ worth of disorientations and reorientations into a single whirlwind semester. New Testament Professor Bruce Fisk and I spoke to the students in a fireside chat. I guessed aloud how it felt for them to be there: The ubiquitous Christianity of the mother campus is far away; the Haight District is about three blocks south. Westmont’s safe places seem hidden away among the South Coast’s utopian estates, gated mansions, Lotuslands and Neverlands – a location that may suddenly seem appropriate. The San Franciscans they are meeting in their internships are not conservative evangelical Protestants, and are generally uninterested in becoming any one of the three. Not only that, often they seem happier than the students expect – and perhaps happier than the students. They are certainly more at home. “Does Christian faith matter to these people? Does it matter beyond our own little evangelical circles? If not, does it matter at all? Is it even true?” As I asked the students whether such questions had been going through their minds, a roomful of heads nodded.
I can identify with these students. Urban isn’t one semester; it’s a lifetime. In the past few years I have often been as bewildered as any Westmont student struggling to make sense of San Francisco. For me a precipitating event was September 11. Both the attacks and all the events that followed them awakened an urgent need for me to understand what was behind the events. Ordinarily I would have turned to my usual sources to meet that need: Journalists (I have a background in journalism and journalism education), professional analysts and academic experts, and Christians with gifts of discernment. However, with few exceptions, the world’s journalists were ill equipped to understand the crush of events. They have trained themselves to see the world through certain ideological and professional lenses, and in this case the ideological lenses were not very helpful. Ditto for the Western establishment’s foreign policy analysts, comparative area experts, and scholars of Islam. These had grown comfortable seeing the world in ways that proved to be profoundly inadequate. With a few notable exceptions, most scholars of Islam and comparative area experts had failed to appreciate the character of militant Islamism, its appeal, or its root causes. Politicians were typically following agendas that prevented them from speaking plainly about what was happening. Big media, the power establishment, and the academy all failed massively to see 9/11 coming or to respond insightfully in the months afterward. The church failed too. Some of the oddest, least adequate, and most outrageous statements following 9/11 came from Christians. Moreover, the church snapped back to business as usual even faster than these other institutions.
All this sent me looking elsewhere in search of answers. I couldn’t just open the paper or the usual newsweeklies, or scan the bookshelves at retail bookstores or even at school libraries. I sure couldn’t turn on so-called Christian radio. I ended up turning to an informal network of webloggers and on-line commentators that had already begun springing up before 9/11, but which exploded in the weeks and months following as more and more people like me came to the same conclusions that the usual information sources were hopelessly behind the curve. Turning to these people was a godsend; the bazaar of commentary and cross-linking online turned out to be much quicker at identifying inadequacies and improving itself than traditional media.
However, this turn had an unintended side effect. On-line commentary’s voices come from both within and far beyond the subcultures of either western American evangelicalism or professional journalism. It is also far more informal, blunt, self-revealing, and critical than print or broadcast commentary. It doesn’t just offer arguments; it displays personalities and invites people into each other’s lives. So venturing into this medium brought me into contact with whole communities of people I had almost forgotten about in the years since I had entered seminary. They were often unlike me. They weren’t particularly interested in becoming like me. They rarely felt like going to great lengths even to understand me. After a few years as a professor in both the so-called Westmont bubble and the bigger bubble of academic theology, this was a shock!
It was a real shock. My wares were not only unwanted, they seemed ill-suited to the task. I chronicled the growing sense of helplessness I was feeling in an anniversary reflection called “How September 12 Destroyed My Faith.” It tells of my yearlong encounter with two worlds: America after terrorism, and the Muslim world in the face of unprecedented world scrutiny. Both were acquainted with the gospel; neither was governed by it. Even liberal and evangelical Christians usually responded to the situation in pragmatic rather than consistently Christian ways. Neither world was even interested in being so governed. Each was intent on destroying the other and replicating itself. In their conflict, the good news of Jesus Christ as I understood it was marginal. As I looked on, what I had to offer began to seem more and more unattractive, irrelevant, impotent and trivial. Seeing this in 2002 helped me realize it had been true in all sorts of other contexts over the church’s history. Christianity as a substantive way of life, I concluded, was on the edge of extinction. So was my own faith.
What I did next turned things around. An old adage holds that preachers should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Sometimes the same is true of prayer and meditation. I took the question that most bothered me in light of what I had discovered on the Internet – “Why should I believe in the Christian faith when people, including Christians, are doing evil things in God’s name?” – and searched the Scriptures for a satisfying answer. I thought it through in writing. When I finished, I realized that the storm had passed.
It is well and good to trust that Jesus is the King of all kings and Lord of all lords. But in the crunch, I found that abstract trust unsatisfying. Part of that might be my weakness of faith; but I think a powerful force behind my dissatisfaction was the Holy Spirit. My faith had grown not only comfortable but insular – at home in a world that was too small for the real thing. So God was goading me outside my bubbles. God was holding back his blessings until I ventured out in faith, both to carry my faith into a new place and to bring that new place to my faith, to test whether and how the two had anything to do with each other. Was my good news also good news to these people? Is Jesus their Lord too? It was easy to answer “of course,” but it was not satisfactory either to me or to God. The true answers had to become concrete. Actual interaction had to take place in order for the leaven to spread further through the lump of dough. My interim answer had to be “maybe” – or, put in a more theologically defensible way, “Let’s find out.”
Since deciding to see for myself, I have kept reading and writing to understand these other communities of Christians, non-Christians, and former Christians. I have maintained a few of the relationships I made during that first year. I have shifted my research agenda in response to the questions and perspectives that I uncovered after September 11. I have kept reading others’ weblogs and writing one of my own, though often I have little to show for it. These have become an integral part of my theology and my life. The book I am writing on theology through the Lord’s Prayer is profoundly influenced by the shift.
So far I am not satisfied with the results. I feel like a missionary who has come away with fewer converts, less enthusiasm, and more questions than I envisioned – or, to bring things closer to home, like a perplexed student in one of my own classes. But I am teaching, praying, and interacting with believers and non-believers differently. I am slowly and painfully being converted. Furthermore, my work has had an effect – tiny, often trivial, but real – in those circles.
We evangelical Christians are not the only ones who stay within our comfort zones. Everybody bubbles: social classes, genders, ideologies, tribes, tongues, and nations; journalists, experts, professors, and professions; churches, webloggers, and even San Francisco’s subcultures. Humanity is not so much a global village, one big family, or a sea as a lather – a thick layer of bubbles jostling, colliding, seeing others only through the distorting curvature of their own dividing walls, interacting with strangers only at their common surfaces, and generally minding their own business.
All of these children of the Father belong to the Son (John 17:10). So the good news of his Kingdom has to be bubble-crossing and bubble-bursting. Following the Son demands that we take on the discomforts of his apostleship, whether that means reading unfamiliar sources and taking them seriously, going on missions and cross-cultural off-campus programs with eyes and ears as open as our mouths, living with roommates we didn’t choose, or just crossing the road to help strangers.
In “Invitation to Theology,” Michael Jinkins draws on Robert McAfee Brown’s “Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes” to describe the “hermeneutical circle” of disorientation and reorientation that happens when we do that. Our action leads to a jarring experience. This shatters our old understandings and creates the need for new ones. We turn back to the Christian tradition and the Scriptures at its core with our new questions, and receive new answers that direct us to new actions and set the stage for another turn of the circle.
These travels are a kind of pilgrimage, not to our faith’s historical center but to its eschatological frontier. They take us out to witness the Spirit’s work, change us, and bring us back to a home that is now inevitably different. In “The Open Secret,” Lesslie Newbigin describes the crises and new creations that come from and lead to cross-cultural contact as a three-way exchange between the acculturated missionary, the cultural mission field, and Scripture. All three are susceptible to being transformed in the course of their conversation as the Spirit guides the Son’s disciples into all the truth, showing the Church and ultimately the world that all that the Father has also belongs to the Son (John 16:12-15).
Heeding the call of God means turning and then going or coming. This takes us around hermeneutical circles and punctures our social bubbles. It disorients as it reorients. It converts both the traveler and the locals to bigger and better visions of God and God’s plans. I find a reassuring instance of conversion in the story of Jonah (see sidebar) – not just because Jonah is converted along with the King of Ninevah, but also because his tale shows that the process works even when the traveler is unhappy or unwilling.
In both life and college that’s heartening to know. Westmont is less of a bubble than we tend to think. Otherwise my students would not be so “rocked” by courses, residence life, and off-campus programs. These years do move us all beyond our own boundaries and into the worlds of other families, social circles, generations, civilizations, church traditions, ethnicities, historical eras, disciplines, and careers. Like the four little pilgrims who are growing up under my parenting, the grown-up pilgrims who travel through my classes span the spectrum of enthusiasm for the journeys they are on. Along with reluctant Jonahs I have enigmatic Abrahams, shrewd Jacobs, fiery Moseses, cooperative Rahabs, insistent Ruths, hospitable Naomis, weeping Jeremiahs, insecure Isaiahs, daring Nehemiahs, quiet Marys, dispirited sons of Zebedee, grateful Magdalens, suspicious Thomases, blinded Sauls, suffering Pauls, generous Lydias, mystical Johns, dazzled Corneliuses, and baffled Peters. Or, rather, we have each other. Best of all, we have the promise that the Spirit is already on the other side of the barriers we are afraid to cross, leading us into his future rather than simply pushing us out of our present.
Does my own story qualify as the Spirit taking what the Father has given the Son and declaring it to us? We’ll see. Might the same Spirit be speaking in the midst of your life’s crises too?
Telford Work is assistant professor of theology at Westmont. He maintains a Web site at http://telfordwork.net.