Review of Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life. By Lauren F. Winner. Chapel Hill, NC.: Algonquin, 2002. 320 pp.
As we’ve started this series on the Nicene Creed, some of you may be thinking about your own church background (or lack thereof). In particular, if you come from a less liturgical tradition, you may wonder how less familiar things like the Nicene Creed fit in with your own spiritual life. And if I’m lucky some of my blog posts have inspired at least a few of you to ponder the Jewish origins of the Christian faith and feel frustrated by the church’s lack of familiarity with its own background! Well, if any of the above applies to you, how about an author that helps you explore both of these at once?
Lauren Winner is one of my favorite people ever. She is hard not to like: young, funny, intelligent, and the author of some fabulous books. One of those books, Girl Meets God, tells her unique story as a Reform Jew who converted to Orthodox Judaism, only to later convert to Christianity. As an evangelical Episcopalian from a Jewish background, as well a scholar of American religion (who now teaches at Duke Divinity School), Winner possesses unique insights into both religions.
I would say Winner played a formative role in my life in college, as well as the lives of several friends). Especially for us coming out of conservative evangelical Protestant backgrounds, Winner was a fantastic introduction to many aspects of Judaism, as well as to a more liturgical Christian tradition.
While admittedly, the book is a memoir rather than a systematic explanation of either Jewish-Christian relations or the Anglican tradition, it is still a useful starting point for the curious. Additionally, it is a fascinating and uplifting book, plain and simple. Anyone with an interest in young adult journeys in religion should appreciate Winner’s story, and many may even find in her a kindred spirit or a hero of sorts. I know for me, Winner has become one of my “smart Christian” role models and an example of how one can successfully integrate various spiritual influences into a more robust Christian faith.
This post continues from Pt. 1.
Tell us a bit about Candler. How did you pick it? Is it what you expected? What has been significant about your experience there, good or bad?
I applied to four seminaries: Candler, Dook (that’s Duke for those not schooled in UNC slang), Boston University, and Princeton Seminary. All of these but Princeton are United Methodist-affiliated schools, which is my denominational background. I also visited all but Princeton—they didn’t contact me with their admission decision and financial aid package until quite late, and I had essentially already made my decision for elsewhere. Princeton did offer the only MDiv-MA in Teaching dual-degree program (which I wonder if I shouldn’t have considered more seriously, now that I am considering the possibility of getting some kind of degree in education after my MDiv).
I visited Duke just for one day—and that visit really turned me off. They are very focused on pastoral ministry—which is great! But I was in a process of discernment (and still am) and wasn’t sure if I wanted to pastor a local church. After saying that in my introductory statement that day, I felt almost shunned. So a definite no-go there. Candler and BU both brought me in for a weekend visit—Candler was first and they really sold me on their program, their faculty, their location, etc., and they were very open with the discernment process. BU was great, too—and they originally offered me a good deal more scholarship money. But Candler counter-offered and once my finances lined up with my top choice, it was easy to say yes!
And I do love it here—of the things that I could have expected, it has been on par. What I didn’t expect, I think, is how challenging seminary would be to my faith. That sounds so strange. I came from a huge public university and was incredibly strengthened in my faith in a tight-knit community. Then I come to this much smaller school where everyone is a Christian, and suddenly I’m encountering much more alcohol, sex, swearing, etc. than I ever did in InterVarsity at UNC! So these types of experiences have been forcing me to reconsider my own boundaries and the boundaries of what I consider Christian community to be—I am re-learning who I am as a person and as a Christian. I think that is ultimately good—but it has been so hard and something I didn’t expect at all.
In either your undergrad or seminary studies, what have you learned that has most challenged your faith? Enhanced it?
One of the major things I’ve learned is that we have to acknowledge the anthropological lens through which all things of faith are considered. Take Scripture, for example. It is, indeed, a holy book, but it has been passed down through human hands for thousands of years; it has been written with human perspectives and agendas and cultural contexts. God speaks through it, but there is as much that we can learn about ourselves in it as we can about God. I think the acknowledgment that we are human gives us great freedom to explore our faith intellectually, but we must do it with an awareness of the challenges it will bring, as well.
It is not always easy to let go of childhood beliefs—there is a huge step one has to take between believing that the stories of the Hebrew Bible happened exactly as they are described and recognizing that they may simply be stories crafted by people who had intimate encounters with a God called YHWH and wanted to convey what they took to be theological truths through stories about their people and their experiences in the world. I think either understanding requires faith, but the one that allows for the reality of human experience has really reoriented my faith perspective—and for the better, I think.
What advice would you give to younger students interested in theology?
I would encourage high schoolers to check out the program at Candler (shameless plug!) called Youth Theological Initiative. It is on hiatus this summer (2011) but should be back in full swing the following year. It is an amazing month-long opportunity for high schoolers to study theology with renowned professors and be in a peer group that will reflect on theology in the classroom and in the world. It is an awesome program to look into.
Other than that, my advice is to always ask questions! Even the ones that people sometimes don’t want to hear. This may sound strange—but don’t let people treat you like you’re a heretic for questioning something or believing something that is outside the box. God can handle your questions! Find people with whom you feel comfortable discussing the issues you most care about—and let loose! Get in arguments, challenge yourself! Find an outlet where you can creatively express your thoughts–writing, visual art, dance, etc. Explore and learn and think as much as you can!
Not everybody with an interest in theology goes on to major in religion or attend seminary one day…. but some do! What leads people to seminary? What do people appreciate about the experience? Might seminary be for you? To connect you with current seminarians and seminary graduates, I’m going to be posting some occasional interviews. Though I’m limited by my pool of contacts at various schools, I hope these posts give you a sense of what seminary is like, as well as informing you about some schools you might consider!
Our first interview comes from Whitney, a second-year MDiv student at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Whitney graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008 with an A.B. in Religious Studies. We became friends as leaders for UNC’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Tell us a little bit about Whitney. Where do you come from? What’s your religious background? Anything else we should know about you?
I was raised in a United Methodist home. I was baptized as a child and my parents raised us in a local congregation in Charlotte, NC. We were highly active in the church, so I have a lot of memories of Sunday school, children’s choir, VBS [Vacation Bible School], and so on from my childhood. I first read Scripture before the assembly in this church, I was confirmed in this church, and I had my earliest moments of spiritual awakening at this church. I attended a different church in high school after my parents divorced, and this new church was also United Methodist. When I came to college, I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship which had very strong influences on the formation of my faith and my decision to eventually pursue religious leadership at seminary.
Another important thing about my religious background: everyone in my family is in a different spiritual place. Both my parents raised me and my two siblings in the church, but of my immediate family, only my mother and I claim an active faith at this time. My sister calls herself an atheist, my brother is uninterested, and my dad might be called an Easter-Christmas Christian, except that he hasn’t stepped foot in a church in years. My grandmother is my greatest spiritual role model—she has served as the music minister at her Methodist church in Arkansas and is a great encourager for me as I consider ministry as vocation. What’s more, she truly lives a Christian life, and that is an example that is hard to find, even in seminary.
You were a religious studies major at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did you first become interested in studying religion as an academic discipline?
I came to UNC as a journalism major, but realized within my first year that it wasn’t something I wanted to study or pursue professionally. As a sophomore, I took a class called the Philosophy of Religion as an elective credit, and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t declare religious studies as my major until my junior year and decided to do so because the program at UNC is so strong—I still wasn’t sure what career I wanted to pursue, but I wanted to make the most of my time as a student. And I absolutely loved my classes in the religion department at UNC, despite its reputation for devouring sweet young Christians such as myself. ;) I found I was able to maintain a healthy dialogue between my personal faith and my academic study of religion. My studies at UNC most definitely encouraged me to continue studying religion and theology at the graduate level.
Because of your religious studies degree, you already knew a lot more about the Bible than the average person on the street. Why seminary?
I decided around my junior year of college that I wanted to make a career out of ministry, so I knew seminary would be in the picture someday. More than that, though, the religious studies program at UNC was essentially a free-for-all: there were very few required courses and you basically got to choose your own track. Which was great! And for the most part I was able to study what interested me, which did include a decent amount of scriptural studies. But seminary is different, at least in most MDiv programs, I think—you have gen eds [general education classes] that assure you cover all your bases. At Candler we have a year of Hebrew Bible and a year of New Testament that are required for everyone. I have learned so, so much. And even if I had come out of UNC thinking I knew everything there is to know about the Bible, there is always another interpretation, or another manner of presentation, or another professor’s opinion. We don’t call the Bible a living book for nothing—I think it would be most difficult to exhaust its capacity to teach.
This series is continued in Pt. 2.
Review of Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches. Edited By Ronald H. Nash. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1987. 174 pp.
One of the most interesting complexities of the evangelical movement is that it cannot be contained—little bits of it are present everywhere. Of course, many evangelicals in the U.S. are members of conservative denominations which originated in this country, many having separated from older mainline churches which were deemed “too liberal.” I’ve often been intrigued that the conservative split-offs typically see themselves as the only people left who love Jesus. Based on my own personal experience, I have never been convinced this was true, and lucky for me, Ronald Nash agrees and has edited a fabulous book on the topic.
Nash notes that many in mainline denominations have evangelical-ish beliefs (which he defines as the basic beliefs of historic Christianity, including the deity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the importance of a personal faith, etc.) whether or not they have embraced the evangelical label. Furthermore, there are discernible movements of self-identified evangelicals within mainline churches. This book attempts to tell their stories, with chapters by various evangelical leaders outlining the history of renewal efforts within eight different traditions:
The United Methodist Church
The Episcopal Church
The Lutheran Churches (focused on Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA)
American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Disciples of Christ
The United Church of Christ
The U.S. Catholic Church
The upside of this book is its ecumenical flavor and its sense of hope about the vitality of mainline denominations. These leaders are not ones to segregate themselves from those who aren’t like them; instead they want to “work within the system” to encourage an orthodox and vibrant faith within their churches. The downside of this book is that occasionally a more narrow understanding of evangelical interests is presented. For example, feminism is often lumped in with evangelicalism’s foes, despite the fact that there are many self-identified evangelical feminists. While not by any means the focus of the book, such assumptions about evangelicals might be distracting or frustrating to some readers.
Additionally, some might complain that the book is outdated. Certain important renewal organizations that now exist are not mentioned, and one wonders what each writer’s attitude toward renewal would be today. Would they be just as optimistic? Would they have any new concerns? At the same time, because of its emphasis on the history of renewal efforts, this book offers something substantial that one might not gain from updated accounts focusing on the last twenty years.
All in all, Evangelical Renewal offers a valuable introduction to evangelical strands within mainline denominations, and as such, it is useful reading for evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. For evangelicals, it offers encouragement and a sense of connection with various renewal efforts, hopefully leading to a more gracious partnership between Christians from diverse backgrounds. For non-evangelical members of mainline churches, this book provides insight into the concerns of evangelical renewal advocates. Perhaps non-evangelicals can relate to some of these concerns more than they expected, or perhaps they realize they very thoroughly disagree with them. Either way, it is always useful to understand those unlike you, making this book a tool for reaching across divides.
Review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. By Mark A. Noll. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. 274 pp.
When a blog is meant to explore various intellectual questions about religion, there is no clear place to start—one place is about as good as the next with a topic this broad! A particularly fitting place, however, might be with a book, and what could be more appropriate than a book about the life of the mind within Christianity? After all, so many people might question this blog’s very premise. Most teenagers have trouble getting up in the morning for school—do they really want to learn about theology? Many would assume they don’t.
Because I was one of those teens who deviated from this stereotype, I was always frustrated by such assumptions. Perhaps they are true of some high school students, but they weren’t true of me, and they aren’t true of many of you. In fact, many of you may feel frustrated by the adult Christians you meet who seem much less intelligent than you. Whether you’re looking at Christianity from the outside or the inside, this can be a humorously annoying experience at best—and a deeply hurtful one at its worst. It feels unfair that the very adults who discredit your significance on the planet with “You’re just a kid,” often lack much of an intellectual life themselves.
It also may often seem that the stereotype of the anti-intellectual Christian (of any age) is quite true. This can easily lead to superiority complexes among smart people, as well as bitterness on the part of those who have not felt their intellectual needs were met by their faith communities. At the same time, these experiences can lead to valuable inquiry regarding the source of this anti-intellectualism.
Obviously anti-intellectualism among the faithful can have many different sources, but in the case of evangelical anti-intellectualism in particular, I was absolutely fascinated by Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind when I first read it as an eighteen-year-old. According to Noll, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (3). As an evangelical professor of Christian history at the University of Notre Dame (previously at Wheaton, an evangelical college near Chicago), Noll has written several books about the American religious experience, often focusing on evangelicalism. As an expert in the field, as well as an insider to the movement, Noll explains when, why, and how evangelical Christianity in the United States became increasingly anti-intellectual—a story few know so well. And because Noll is such an excellent writer, it doesn’t matter whether readers have studied revivalism, fundamentalism, or today’s evangelicalism in any great depth. This was the first book I read relating to church history, but I found it to be an excellent introduction, not only to the problem of anti-intellectualism but also to evangelical history itself.
For anyone who has wondered why evangelicals often seem anti-intellectual or who wants to compare the evangelical experience in this area with that of other Christian traditions, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind will not disappoint. Readers learn about the current state of evangelical intellectual life, the historic impact of the so-called “intellectual disaster of fundamentalism” on evangelical thought in politics and science, and where evangelicals might go from here. This book added much to my knowledge of the American religious experience, as well as aiding me personally in better understanding myself and the Christian communities in which I grew up.