By Diane Johnston
Illustration by John Nelson
As a Christian and professional educator, I walk a tightrope. While
colleagues may freely explore Buddhist beliefs or left-wing politics,
Christians are limited in the ways we can practice and model our faith at state
Due to restrictive interpretations of the U.S. Constitutions separation of
church and state, instructors may not express personal religious views for fear
of unduly influencing college students. I believe God called me to this
vocation, and I must serve Him before my employer, which demands great
Walking the high wireOver the past 10 years, I have
been reprimanded for bringing God to college. Early criticism arose in an
American literature class. Of 22 students, two complained about time spent on
Puritan writings. While Puritan literature is part of the American literature
canon at liberal arts campuses like Kent State University, where I received my
doctorate, other campuses omit religious literature. In my class, I asked
students to read works by Jonathan Edwards, John Winthrop and Anne Bradstreet
as representative Puritan writers. Students discussed their letters, sermons
The two dissenting students found no value in Puritan writing, complained
the Bible was obsolete and insisted religious writings should not be considered
literature. Later, my reappointment committee of faculty colleagues questioned
these comments during a routine review of course evaluations. I explained my
rationale for including Puritan writing and asked if two students comments
suggesting I be given a pay raise would offset the two critical comments. My
peers reminded me not to emphasize religious writing, which I had not done, but
I politely acquiesced. I soon realized that academic freedom means different
things to different people.
A second incident occurred in a contemporary literature class. I showed a
recorded episode of Picket Fences, a popular television series, in which a
Jewish teacher was accused of proselytizing students and a Jehovahs Witness
refused medical treatment for his dying wife. I felt this episode would help
students understand cultural diversityone of our academic learning goals.
After viewing the program, students questioned religious differences in
general. I listed tenets of several faiths on the board. Two students argued
about the meaning of communion until I cut it short. In the course evaluation,
one student commented that religious topics were inappropriate for a college
class, but other students favorably described the course and my teaching. At my
next reappointment hearing the critical comments surfaced. I showed the
committee our textbook, which recommends diversity in topics like politics,
race and religion. As I explained how the discussion evolved, the committee
endorsed my approach, but again I was cautioned not to proselytize. I assured
them that was not my goal, but I sensed skepticism and acrimony, and two people
abstained from my reappointment vote.
Recognizing the double standardSoon afterward, our
department adopted a popular textbook for composition classes. It included a
chapter on feminism, which quoted Genesis 3 as an example of what it claimed is
the Bibles anti-woman bias, misquoting Genesis 3:16 to say a womans desire
would be for her children rather than for her husband, adding that she was
doomed to serve him. I wrote the textbooks editor to voice concern. She
responded that a graduate assistant had researched Genesis and assured me that
the error would be corrected in the next edition in a year or two. When I told
my supervisor about the textbooks error, she did not seem concerned.
I am amazed that the concept of biblical inerrancy often offends academics,
but they dont seem bothered at all by inaccuracies in textbooks attempting to
teach students what the Bible says. If they were teaching about a poem by
Longfellow or a book by Dickens, would they put up with inaccurate quotes or
references in the textbook? I doubt it.
Anti-Christian mockery is common on college campuses. Recently two incidents
occurred when Christians were belittled in monologues intended as humorous. The
first happened during a campus luncheon. A speaker asked the audience to hum
Amazing Grace while he imitated an evangelist. A Christian colleague attempted
to leave the dining area only to find all doors locked. Later, a fellow
Christian stopped by his office to share concern about the incident. They
agreed that speakers couldnt target a Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim clergy person
without being accused of discrimination.
The second incident took place in Boston at a prestigious national
conference on the campus of a highly esteemed university. The keynote speaker
re-created a telephone conversation with a college administrator being
portrayed as small-minded and inept. The speaker described the administrators
Christian college and identification, exaggerating the administrators Southern
accent and voice inflections. He scoffed at the administrators precise approach
to negotiating the speakers contract. Christians, it seems, are fair game and
A balancing actNever have college students needed
more to hear of Christs saving power. And never in American history has there
been a more unfavorable time for Christian educators to model their faith.
Todays government-supported campuses prohibit instructors from keeping a Bible
or other religious material on their desks or in their classrooms.
Teachers may not express adherence to nor criticize a religious faitheven
atheism or Satanism. We can only provide limited facts such as the name of the
founder or historical dates and these facts must support academic learning
outcomes rather than teach values, critical thinking or cultural awareness. For
example, if students discuss Christian authors like Tolkien, I must lead them
away from scriptural references or personal beliefs to avoid charges of
proselytizing. Stories that criticize Christianity, however, are prolific and
encouraged. Students expressing religious views in the classroom often are
taunted or avoided by other students, and Im criticized if I dont quickly
Faced with limitations like these, I seek Gods guidance as I edge along a
tightrope that, with one false step, can send my career into a tailspin. In
answer to prayer, I have found helpful methods by which Christian beliefs can
be explored in legitimate ways.
Contemporary videos like Sister Act or Mrs. Doubtfire help students evaluate
literary ideas. Sometimes they bring a film of their choosing. Last year
someone suggested Left Behind, a film based on Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHayes
novel about the end times based on the authors understanding of the Book of
Revelation. Since it was slated for public release and featured popular actor
Kirk Cameron, I showed it, then the class discussed the film. Many students
were impressed by the films message, though some were skeptical about its
cinematic value. One twenty-year-old scoffed, That film will never be released
to the general publicthere were crosses everywhere.
We explored the meaning of being left behind from a Christian prophecy
context, and I subtly mentioned biblical passages for anyone seeking
clarification. I waited with bated breath to see if negative comments would
appear on student evaluations, but none did.
Ingmar Bergmans The Seventh Sea fit into my 90-minute time slot last year.
The 1957 black-and-white film was slow compared to todays releases, and English
sub- titles were hard to follow. But the message of deaths inevitability was
compelling students comments, facial expressions and responses showed they were
forced to face their eventual confrontation with mortality. One student came to
my office afterward to discuss the films meaning in detail.
The ongoing Mideast crisis provides discussion material as students examine
rhetorical styles and political perspectives. Since 9/11, Ive asked students to
compare speeches of President George Bush and Osama bin Laden. Examining their
words side by side offers compelling examples of both leaders religious views,
which helps students distinguish between Christian love and terrorist hate. An
English version of the terrorists final instruction letter references Islamic
principles and Koran teachings, with insight into the terrorist mindset.
This leads naturally to a comparison with Christian martyrs without being
preachy or moralistic.
Anti-Christian sentiment is growing steadily at educational institutions
around the world.
Accordingly, I have come to rely on the scriptural admonition to lead a
quiet life and win the respect of outsiders (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12
excerpted, NIV). I pray for my students, asking God to open their minds to real
truth, not just academic facts.
I offer Christian students and faculty advice from Colossians 2:8: Be
careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based
on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based
I try to remain diligent in seeking Gods truth for my own life and in being
consistent with scriptures command to Walk in wisdom toward outsiders,
making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned
with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person
God promises to be with us wherever we go, and to put the right words in our
mouths when we witness. We neednt worry about taking God to college. Hes
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