Some evangelists, if allowed to orate at one of the college commencement ceremonies coming up this month, would thunder against outright atheism. I wonder, though, if the problem many students face is not more devilishly subtle. Students I teach at the University of Texas frequently tell me that they come from "Christian homes," and some consider themselves Christians. The problem, though, is that Satan is slick: He has insinuated in many the desire to slice and dice the Bible as they see fit.
I've taught some 1,500 students over the past two years and have seen lots of theologies at work, but when I ask students to write papers describing their own beliefs (and I receive permission to quote them), the saddest contain statements like this: "I believe in Jesus, but I do not believe the Bible is the word of God. It is the word of man: imperfect, judgmental, and overzealous." What this means in practice was explained by another student who also declared herself to be a Christian: "Sometimes my personal beliefs contradict those taught by the church. I make my decisions based on what I feel is right."
So many students "believe in Jesus" but not the Bible; they have confidence in their own ability to pick and choose. One wrote about liking Christianity "in small amounts." Another was laid-back: "I have nothing against God. I just do not believe in religion." A third believed in "taking bits of pieces from several religions and in that way making up my own, personal religion." A fourth said he affirmed Christian principles, but "The bottom line is I believe in me."
Why do these students (and many other postmodernists) shake and bake? Personal experience plays a role; one student related tales of betrayal and concluded, "My governing belief is the only person you can really trust in life is yourself." (It's hard for those who have never known a faithful father to trust our Father in heaven.) Teaching in some churches that stresses externalities and neglects the core may also play a role; one student wrote, "I haven't been to church in almost two years.... I smoke, I drink every now and then, and God is not spiteful or vengeful. I have not been punished."
The teaching that students receive in college also is influential. One student wrote, "What I've mostly learned is that everything is a shade of gray." Another wrote that she had believed the Bible, but she had learned that biblical writers "were white, slave-owning men whose conscious and subconscious biases affected their writing." A third said she been taught that "One should be free to live a life and do whatever makes that life happy."
Clearly, many students take what they know about God and twist it into something that doesn't contradict the thoroughly modern propaganda they have heard. Students often drift: "I lost my faith in Christianity, but I believe in a universal, nameless, omnipotent God. I believe this Higher Power dwells in every living thing on this Earth." Some fantasize: One student wrote that he did not want to trust "the old myths" anymore, so he would become one of "the new priests birthing a new culture, with its own myths, rites, and rituals."
God, however, often restores faith-and we can help by showing students that they can't have it have both ways, kind-of-worshipping God but also worshipping the idols of campus or their own imaginations. Joshua pushed Israelites into declaring whom they would serve and so must we, gently but firmly. Many campuses sport impressive church buildings on the grounds themselves or on nearby corners, but often the pastors within preach a liberal theology that is not Christian and may even inoculate students against the real thing. We need churches close to campus that will challenge these Mr. Smoothaways.
For students unlikely to wander into church but dimly realizing their need, we need tough-minded Christian groups on campus. Many do exist, but some are little more than social organizations. We need campus ministers who will communicate the good news and not just the opportunity for good times. We need ministries that connect students with strongly biblical churches and do not act merely as supposed substitutes for them.
As some of us walk around campus, we need to be praying fervently for the numerous students whom God will seek and save, using a variety of human instruments.