Doing College Diversity Well

Doing College Diversity Well

Nyack College students say the number one benefit of attending Nyack is the preparation they receive to work in diverse environments. (Photo courtesy of Nyack College.)

In the years since Nyack College in Nyack, New York, shared the 2001 Council for Christian Colleges & Universities Racial Harmony Award with another college, the school has become so thoroughly immersed in racial and ethnic integration that it no longer applies to be considered for the honor, its president Michael Scales and provost David Turk told UrbanFaith on a recent visit to the campus.

“We used to submit the stuff all the time, but we decided we would just stop because our communication is on a different level. They’re talking about certain things they’re doing; we’re talking about a whole different culture,” said Turk.

“If you look back over all those awards—I  was even chair for a little while—they’re giving awards for prescriptions,” said Scales.

For Nyack, “intentional diversity” is one of the school’s five core values.

“We think all these are what [founder] A.B. Simpson taught back when we first started this. So, we tried to get back to what is in our own DNA,” said Scales.

At its main campus, Nyack is 37 percent White, 24 percent Black, 14-15 percent Asian, and the rest mixed-race and other ethnicities, Scales said. At its satellite campus in Manhattan, the student body is 46 percent Black, 11 percent Asian, 28 percent Latino, and 6 percent White. There is also a high level of age and denominational diversity, Scales said, with many adult learners attending the city campus.

Diversity Mavericks: Nyack President Michael Scales and Provost David Turk. (Photo courtesy of Explorations Media L.L.C.)

The push toward integration was intentional, said Turk, who has been teaching at Nyack
since 1978. During the 1980s and 90s, the school went through “rough periods” and had difficulty retaining faculty, he said. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the decision was made to innovate in the late 1990s.

“We then had the luxury to develop some things in an entrepreneurial way that other schools with an entrenched faculty group just did not have. One of those ways was diversifying,” said Turk.

Scales described Nyack’s efforts as a “noble experiment,” but said it is one that hasn’t been without costs. The average building on Nyack’s main campus is 76 years old, he said, and the school has had trouble attracting “monied” White investors to update facilities.

“I think it’s changing,” said Scales. “For the first time, we have some people coming around the table who really can be transformative agents.”

Alumni are divided, said Turk. “Some will say this is the best and the greatest thing, and some will just be blunt and say, ‘Well David, I’m not going to send my daughter to your school. She might date a Black guy.’”

In surveys, students say the number one benefit of attending Nyack is the preparation they receive to work in diverse environments, Turk said.

“The truth is that the people who are going to be leading this country are the students who come to places like this,” said Scales.

Creating Sustainable Change

In order to create sustainable change, faith-based institutions must link to their history, their mission, and to biblical principles, George Fox University’s dean of transitions and inclusion Joel Perez told UrbanFaith when he was interviewed for our previous article about the challenges students of color face at Christian colleges.  (Perez researched diversity at CCCU campuses for his doctoral dissertation.)

Joel Perez: 'Sustainable change must be linked to history, mission, and biblical principles.'

“Once you anchor [diversity] in those things, then it’s harder for an institution, when it does change leadership, for someone new to come in and say it’s not going to be a focus or we’re not going to talk about it anymore,” said Perez. “If schools don’t do that initially, or don’t go back and make those connections, I think it’s easier for a school to sort of lose its way in doing the work.”

Unintentional Diversity

UrbanFaith asked Turk if Nyack’s proximity to New York City gives it an advantage in attracting more faculty of color who may be reluctant to move to the rural settings where many Christian colleges are located. He rejects the common argument that geography is a deterrent to pursuing diversity, saying faculty of color want to serve and would be willing to go to rural campuses. His work with Nyack’s Manhattan campus taught him that finding qualified people is as easy as reaching out to their church networks. Now when peers tell him they can’t find non-white faculty, he asks if they’ve even tried those networks.

“I just don’t buy the argument,” said Turk.

James Steen: 'HBU's multi-racial campus is refreshing.'

At Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas, where the student body is only one-third White, diversity is unintentional, said James Steen, its vice president of enrollment management. Instead it simply reflects the southwest Houston demographic. Forty percent of the student body lives within a 10 mile radius of the campus, he said.

“We’re not striving or working to try to attract more diversity. It’s just who we are and it’s just part of the culture. So, it’s a refreshing thing to be a part of,” said Steen, who previously worked at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where, he says, the student body is 70 percent White.

Twenty-eight percent of Houston Baptist’s student body is Hispanic, 29 percent is White, 19 percent is African American, 14 percent is Asian, and 6 percent is multi-racial, Steen said. The faculty, however, is mostly White, but more diverse than Baylor’s.

Because Houston Baptist has had a highly diverse student body for so long, the school has “grown comfortable” with its diversity, director of student life Whittington C. Goodwin said.

“Now we’re going towards really giving each student a way that they can develop academically, socially and spiritually,” said Goodwin, who came to Houston Baptist 18 months ago from predominantly White Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

Houston Baptist’s diversity not only reflects community demographics, it also reflects the city’s churches, Goodwin said, many of which are “making huge pushes to really integrate those worship services, so it’s not the most segregated hour in America anymore.”

Whit Goodwin: 'Differences make for good spiritual formation opportunities.'

It can be a challenge to clearly define “who your students are” on such a racially integrated campus, said Steen. “What may appeal to one student group is not going to appeal to another student group.” For example one group may prefer a country western dance while another would opt for a hip hop concert.

“We’re cognizant of differences here, but we’re also cognizant of human nature, of what God has called us to be, and all of us living, working, studying, worshiping together makes for a really wonderful educational opportunity, but also a wonderful spiritual formation opportunity,” said Goodwin.

Waiting for the Immigration Law to Catch Up

At Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, the student body is only about 16 percent non-white, its president Randolph Lowry told UrbanFaith, but at one point last year it was the most ethnically diverse campus — religious or secular — in the state of Tennessee.

“The world is a pretty global, cross cultural place. The degree to which the school can reflect that cross-cultural nature, it’s going to be much easier for our students then to go into the world and feel comfortable and be effective,” said Lowry.

Randolph Lowry: 'Educating undocumented immigrants is a calling.'

In addition to a school-wide service requirement that places students in cross-cultural off-campus environments, Lipscomb sponsors Conversations of Significance that bring together ethnic groups for cross-cultural dialogue and the Davidson Group, which pairs community members of different ethnicities for year-long relationship building, Lowry said. The school also admits and financially supports undocumented immigrants.

“We’d like the federal [government] to be more courageous about immigration policy, but until they do that, I think we have to look at what we feel called to do as the Christian community,” said Lowry. “Our board has recognized that Jesus continually responded to those in the world who really were the outcasts. … Some of our students of color fall in that category, and we want to do what we can to respond to their needs.”

Pursuing First-Generation Students

Interracial dialogue is a priority at Lipscomb University. (Photo courtesy of Lipscomb University.)

All the highly diverse schools UrbanFaith talked to have a significant number of first-generation students on their campuses — that is, students who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

North Park University in Chicago, Illinois, for example, recruits first-generation students as part of its mission, regardless of their race or ethnicity, dean of diversity Terry Lindsay said. Still, 40 percent of incoming freshman were students of color in fall 2011, he said.

Like administrators at other highly diverse schools, Lindsay has heard concern expressed that North Park’s commitment to racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity will compromise its academic standards.

“When you intentionally go after first generation college students, they come with their fair share of challenges,” he said. “They don’t know how to seamlessly transition from high school to college. They may … struggle academically with the curriculum. Because we know that, we are very intentional about putting measures and tools in place to make sure all of these students achieve success.”

Scales said there is “a lot of racism” around the issue. When he hears that Nyack is “watering down” academics in favor of diversity, he gives critics an opportunity to reflect on the offensiveness of that perspective and tells them: “We’ve taken that issue off the table.” Additionally, Nyack has pursued every specialized accreditation available for its programs, Scales said, to insure academic rigor.

Terry Lindsay: 'Social justice is key to North Park efforts.'

Like several other schools, North Park offers a program for incoming students to help them navigate the transition to college life. The Compass Scholars program identifies students who are potentially at risk and brings them to campus prior to their first semester, Lindsay said. They are given enrichment activities and academic skill development activities that are designed to help them acclimate.

The school also employs an Early Alert Reporting System that allows faculty to identify students who are at risk in their classes. “An EARS form is done online and that information automatically goes to student development and then they intervene immediately,” said Lindsay.

North Park is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church and its commitment to first-generation students reflects the denomination’s social justice focus, Lindsay said. “Our decision to remain a college that’s committed to urban education, to remain a college that’s committed to our Christian values, and to strengthen our efforts around diversity are all grounded in what the Evangelical Covenant … has always been about,” he said.

“North Park has made great strides, I believe because they have linked [diversity] to their mission,” said Perez.

Reconnecting With a Proud Legacy

Unlike Lipscomb and other Christian colleges that early in their histories adhered to a policy of segregation and barred African Americans from enrolling, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, prides itself on in its abolitionist history. Wheaton’s new president Philip Ryken told UrbanFaith many would agree that the school’s legacy was “squandered” at times, particularly in the twentieth century, “through a lack of intentionality about racial reconciliation” that he thinks was “pervasive” in the evangelical community.

Ryken has had a lot of conversations with students of color this year about what he calls “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” “Depending on what day it is, I see our situation at Wheaton either as a glass half full or as a glass half empty,” said Ryken. “There’s no doubt that we have a lot of ongoing progress to make, particularly in the openness of our student body as a whole to experiencing other cultures and also making space for the right kinds of open dialogues about race that really lead to deeper understanding.”

Philip Ryken: 'Wheaton's proud legacy was sometimes squandered.'

One of the positives Ryken sees is the 461 students of color among the 3,000 currently on campus. When he was a Wheaton student in the 1980s, there were less than 100, he said. Forty-nine percent of these students are Asian, 18 percent are African American, and 21 percent are Hispanic, Ryken said, and many of them serve in positions of leadership on campus.

“They’re really thriving in the use of their gifts on campus. They’re not marginalized, but really flourishing,” said Ryken.

Among the ongoing challenges he sees is that “nearly all” students of color at Wheaton say other students and/or faculty have “made assumptions about them” or “made comments that were hurtful in ways that maybe even the person who said it didn’t understand.” Some students are “ready for a dialogue about ethnicity, race, culture, and the gospel,” he said, while others are “indifferent.”

The residence life staff at Wheaton is intentionally being trained to address issues of ethnicity, Ryken said, and talks are underway about designating one of Wheaton’s residence houses as an intentionally diverse living community. Additionally, a faculty development day may be set aside next year to hear from students of color as part of a proactive approach to fostering healthy dialogue about race in Wheaton’s classrooms. Although there has been a long-standing and comprehensive diversity requirement for all of Wheaton’s courses, Ryken said the faculty recognizes its need to grow in “cross-cultural competency.”

When people ask Ryken why Wheaton is re-prioritizing race, he says the most important thing to tell them is, “because this is what Scripture teaches.” But, he said, it also helps to be able to say, “because this is the school that we were founded to be.”

Reaching for the Future

Glen Kinoshita: 'Students need to be engaged on multiple levels.'

For our previous article, Glen Kinoshita, director of multi-ethnic programs and development at Biola University in La Mirada, California, told us that it can be challenging for students to shift their frame of reference, but if it is done with regularity and in community, they can grow in their “ethnic identity development.”

This takes time, Kinoshita said, and students need to be engaged on multiple levels. Individual reflection, reading articles and books, watching documentary films, and getting plugged into a larger group dialogue to gain perspective and build relationships are among the activities he suggests. Kinoshita even formed Multi Ethnic Film Productions at Biola to stimulate “thought, dialogue, and change within Christian higher education.”

While these and other Christian college leaders press ahead in embracing a multi-racial future, friends at secular institutions tell Joel Perez that the diversity conversation is changing. Instead of being driven by a Black-White binary, it has become much more nuanced. Religious diversity, multi-ethnicity, and sexual orientation are increasingly at the forefront of the discussion. Some of the schools we’ve highlighted here are already grappling with these issues. Others have only just begun.

Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection

Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection

SEEKING HEALING: On March 31, congregants prayed for slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin and his shooter, George Zimmerman, during a service at the First Church of Seventh Day Adventists in Washington, D.C. The prayer was focused on racial healing and asked that people exercise patience to allow the judiciary to follow its course to bring about justice. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)

Many words have been and will be written about the death of Trayvon Martin, and the cocktail of grief, outrage, and confusion will likely linger long after the matter is resolved in one way or another. The circumstances of this unfortunate event have directed our attention to some of the challenges we face as a nation and as human beings, with considerable focus on the persistent difficulties connected to race. Whether or not Martin was racially profiled, this tragedy presents the opportunity to take paths that will lead us to better expressions of our humanity.

As director of Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics I had the privilege of participating in an event entitled “Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War” (co-sponsored with The Raven Foundation). Two points raised at this thought-provoking conference can be helpful as we consider the long shadow of our history with race, particularly for followers of Christ. First, I continue to hear the echo of the following statement (paraphrased here) from Luke Harlow of Oakland University: “At the time of the Civil War, white supremacy was essentially held as an article of faith.” By this, he meant most citizens in the United States, North and South. Upon hearing this, I thought, No wonder it is so difficult for us to overcome the negative legacy of race.

The fact that racial superiority was so unquestioned suggests that the social, cultural, and political fabric of the Modern West in general and the United States in particular was constructed with a view of human beings that could be generalized as “whites” (or ethnic Europeans, who admittedly had their clashes) and “others.” Though the latter were identified according a range of racial categories, they definitely were not regarded as equal to “whites,” even among Christians. Of course there were those who did regard all humans as equal, but this was truly a minority report.

While many changes have occurred in the 150 years since the Civil War began, race consciousness remains in our social and cultural DNA like a stubborn mutation, rendering it difficult for us to truly and consistently regard “others” as equal before the eyes of God and fully human. This problem of otherness is not new, but it has manifested in a particularly malevolent fashion in the construction of racial identity. Today, this means that though great changes have occurred that would have been unimaginable 150 years ago, much more needs to change if we are to really live together as caring neighbors, at least in the church if not elsewhere. Yet this is an area where Christians continue to struggle, and many find themselves exhausted in reconciliation efforts.

The stubbornness of our race problem could lead us to despair, but taking a long view in light of where we have come from instead reminds us that we must have great patience as we pursue fundamental change. This patience is not the twin of apathy, but the disposition of steadiness and faithfulness in the face of at times imperceptible transformation. Change has occurred and can occur again.

Second, and more briefly, Dr. Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton College’s history department, urged us to consider the difference between moral judgment and moral reflection. Whether it is the views held by most citizens 150 years ago or today in moments of racial conflict, moral judgment is the easy path which leads us to say “I can’t believe they held/hold such views and did such things.” Moral judgment keeps us separate from those we find reprehensible or disappointing. With moral reflection, while we may be surprised, disappointed, or offended by the ideas and actions we see in others, we are also prompted to consider our own moral architecture. In the question of race and otherness, moral reflection helps us to ask: What would I have thought if I were living at that time; how do I think about those that I readily regard as “other” from me; and does someone’s “otherness” make it easier for me to conclude that they are deficient in their humanness in some way and thus make it easier for me to disregard Christ’s command to love my neighbor as myself?

Moral reflection does not refuse to identify moral failings, but it leads us to look for them in places we might not peer otherwise. Moral reflection can prompt us to look at ourselves, our church, and our world in a way that brings us to a place of repentance that leads to transformation of life and even society.

Steady, faithful patience and moral reflection hardly exhaust our strategies for changing how we honor God in addressing the problem of race, but I find them helpful. What helps you?

This essay was adapted from an article at The Christian Post and was used by permission.

The Challenge of Diversity on Christian College Campuses

The Challenge of Diversity on Christian College Campuses

“Bittersweet” is how Joshua Canada describes his memories of working to improve the experience of students of color at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, when he was a student there.

As vice president of the Multiethnic Student Association at Taylor, Canada successfully petitioned the school to restructure its ethnic recruiter position and to re-establish its director of multiethnic student services position. He was also an original member of Taylor Black Men, a student group that provided support for young men who didn’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing the unique challenges they faced with White classmates.

“I was really excited that I was able to do that, but there’s also this sadness that I have now because, although I felt like it was important, it painted a lot of my senior year,” said Canada, who occasionally writes for UrbanFaith.

He was compelled to act, he said, because he feared that no one else would if he didn’t. “I was blessed enough that I had a lot of coping skills,” he explained. “I could ‘code switch,’ and sometimes get in that middle world, where I could deal with both cultures, but there were several students who couldn’t.”

It is those students that concern a number of professionals who work at Christian colleges around the nation, and especially those affiliated with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The CCCU, an international association of Christian institutions of higher education, seeks to provide resources and support for the students, faculty, and administrations of its member schools. Assisting students of color with their often difficult transition into the culture of predominately White Christian campuses has become one of its chief missions during its 36 years of existence.

Slow but Steady Progress

Twelve years ago the CCCU established a Racial Harmony Award to celebrate the achievements of its member institutions in the areas of “diversity, racial harmony, and reconciliation.”

In 2001, the organization’s board affirmed its commitment. “If we do not bring the issues of racial-ethnic reconciliation and multi-ethnicity into the mainstream of Christian higher education, our campuses will always stay on the outside fringes,” remarked Sam Barkat, former board member and provost of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.

CCCU schools have made “steady gains” since then, according to a report co-authored by Robert Reyes, research director at Goshen College’s Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning and a member of CCCU’s Commission for Advancing Intercultural Competencies.

Robert Reyes: "We're supposed to be unified as Christians."

Reyes and his colleagues found that overall percentage of students of color increased from 16.6 percent to 19.9 percent at CCCU schools between 2003 and 2009 and graduation rates for these students also increased, from 14.8 percent to 17 percent, which still only adds up to a tiny fraction of all students at CCCU’s 115 North American affiliate schools.

According to Reyes, CCCU has a new research director and is developing a proactive research agenda related to these issues. This kind of research “creates a certain level of anxiety,” he said, because it categorizes people and theoretically separates us when we’re supposed to be unified as Christians. “I think it’s a misunderstanding of what the unity of the body is, and what unity means in the Christian faith,” said Reyes.

For those, like Reyes and Canada, who are engaged in diversity work on CCCU campuses, the task can feel like slogging through a murky swamp. UrbanFaith talked to current and former diversity workers at nine CCCU schools about their efforts and experiences. We repeatedly heard that students of color face unique challenges on these campuses and that CCCU schools are not always prepared, or willing, to deal with them. We also heard about successes and how challenging they can be.

The Problem — a Whole Different God

Multiple sources said students of color at Christian colleges are routinely harassed with racially insensitive jokes and comments by members of their campus communities, for example, and that this harassment is sometimes not taken seriously enough by school administrators.

When racism isn’t overt, students often feel like they won’t be accepted by their school communities unless they suppress their ethnic identities. Many students feel profoundly lonely on majority-White CCCU campuses, our sources said.

Dante Upshaw, for example, has been both a student and a staff member at evangelical schools. He recalled the challenge that worship presented when he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

“For the average White student, it’s an easy crossover. … It’s kind of this big youth group. But for the Black student, the Hispanic student, this is a whole different God,” said Upshaw.

He was unfamiliar with the songs that were sung in chapel, for example, and found himself in conversations about what constitutes godly worship. “I was a young person having to articulate and defend. That’s a lot of pressure for a freshman,” said Upshaw.

Monica Smith: "We haven't gone far enough."

Monica Smith has seen the same phenomenon played out on her school’s campus. As assistant to the provost for multicultural concerns at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, she said students of color once complained to her about being judged for skipping chapel services that felt culturally foreign to them. They were told they should be able to worship no matter what kind of music or speaker was up front. “The retort was, ‘You’re right, so why can’t it sound like what I’m used to?’” said Smith, who also teaches courses in social work.

Smith and her colleagues have identified four specific areas of challenge that confront students of color at Eastern: financial, academic, social, and spiritual. “If students are struggling in those areas, they really can’t pay attention in the classroom,” said Smith.

The university is making headway, but it’s slow, she said. “As much as we have done administratively and in the academic arena, I still don’t know that our university’s administration has gone far enough with this.”

Institutional Challenges — Like Turning the Titanic

Upshaw served as a minority recruiting officer and assistant director of the office of multi-cultural development at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, in the early 2000s. He said the number of non-White students who were in pain over their experience at the school would have been as big as his admissions file.

He recalled leaving school one day to commute home to Chicago when he saw a student of color sitting on the stairs “like a lonely puppy.” Upshaw read the student’s demeanor as saying, “You about to leave me here, man? You’re actually going to leave and go to your home?”

Dante Upshaw: "Too many students felt alone."

“There were just too many students like that, where they felt so alone on this beautiful, immaculate campus with great food service and great athletics,” Upshaw said. “Those were some hard years.”

In response to the need he saw, Upshaw founded Global Urban Perspectives, a multiethnic student group devoted to urban issues. He believes it was successful in part because it helped foster healthy relationships.

“The fact that we were together in a safe setting where we were given space to be ourselves, I think that really struck a chord with many of the students,” he said.

It’s a wealthy system, it’s an established system, it’s a strong historic system, and it’s a very Christian religious system,” said Upshaw of the institutional challenges he faced at Wheaton. “Changing a system like that would be akin to turning the Titanic … It is going to take a long time, and it’s going to be real slow.”

Even so, Upshaw said he saw “the ship” turn quickly when influential individuals decided to act. Too often, though, he saw inaction born of the fear of alienating potential donors. Upshaw left the school, in part, because he was frustrated with the administration’s commitment to a broadly applied quota system that he felt undermined his efforts to recruit more students of color.

Additive and Subtractive Approaches

Although Joshua Canada is ambivalent about his experience at Taylor University, he returned there for graduate school and now serves as an adviser to the Black Student Union at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where he is also a residence director. He said not all students of color struggle with the racial dynamics on their campuses and some students rarely do.

“In their ethnic development, they’re not dealing with this tension, or this is what they’ve done their whole life and they know how to do this,” said Canada.

Joshua Canada: "To be successful, our vision of being multicultural must be transformative."

He described two approaches to multiculturalism, one that is additive and one that is subtractive. With the additive approach, elements of non-European culture are added to the core culture, he said, and with the subtractive approach, people of color drop elements of their culture to assimilate into the majority culture.

“Students feel it, if it’s additive,” Canada said. “We did Black History Month. We did Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s a nice gesture, but people realize it isn’t who we are.”

“To really be successful, we have to come to a place where our vision of being multicultural is more transformative and then it really does change aspects of the institution. It really does change the big-picture experience, and not in a way that is unfaithful to the history of the institution, but that maybe acknowledges gaps.”

George Yancey is a University of North Texas sociologist and the author of numerous books, including Neither Jew nor Greek: Exploring Issues of Racial Diversity on Protestant College Campuses. (Canada’s UrbanFaith interview with Yancey prompted us to investigate the issue further.) According to Yancey, the task of student retention at Christian colleges is complicated by the evangelical community’s habitual conflation of faith and culture.

“There’s an issue in retaining students of color in higher education in general,” he told UrbanFaith, “but I think Christian College campuses have even more of a challenge because of some of the dynamics that are there. A lot of times, the way the faith is practiced is racialized. People don’t always realize it.”

Nurturing Dialogue

It wasn’t only African Americans, however, who recounted stories about the challenges students of color face at CCCU institutions. Jon Purple is dean for student life programs at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. He recalls the mother of an incoming student crying when she dropped her young Black son off at the rural Ohio campus, and not just because he was leaving home.

“She was in tears and was afraid to leave her son here, because of very real fears that some good-ol’ White boys might accost her son,” said Purple.

Continued on Page 2.

Beware the ‘Twilight’ Zone?

Beware the ‘Twilight’ Zone?

Just weeks before Thanksgiving, taking in a film at a movie theater, I saw it.

Intrigued, at that moment, I was sucked into the phenomenon. The it that I saw was the preview for Breaking Dawn, the latest release from The Twilight Saga based on the bestselling series of young-adult novels by Stephenie Meyer.

Though familiar with the hit series, I hadn’t seen the other films or read the novels. Yet after seeing the preview I wanted to see the matrimonial bliss birthed from a forbidden love affair between Edward and Bella. I was even more curious about the fate of Bella and the half-human, half-vampire child she carried inside her womb.

Lured by the preview, there was a part of me that wondered if this movie was something I should even want to see as Christian. Vampires, werewolves, humans marrying vampires, complicated love triangles and a half-human and half-vampire child, it just seemed so dark on the surface. But those concerns were the furthest thing from the minds of the swarms of mostly tween, teen, and female fans who flocked to see The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 when it opened last month. After just four weeks, the film has brought in more than $633 million in global ticket sales.

The day before the movie hit theaters I listened to a Moody Radio program and heard an expert talk about the hidden spiritual themes in the series. Dr. Beth Felker Jones, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and author of Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga, talked about the relationship between Bella and Edward and gave insight into their backstories. Bella came from a broken home. She moved to Forks, Washington, to live with her father. She is an outsider trying to fit in. Then comes Edward, who sweeps Bella off her feet. But there was something different about Edward; he was a vampire—albeit a good one. Bella and Edward practice abstinence in their relationship — a direct reflection, no doubt, of author Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon faith.

It all sounds harmless at first. A true coming-of-age love story that promotes celibacy, but there’s another side to look at. Edward is drawn to Bella’s blood and has to fight his own urges to have it—and ultimately her. He even sneaks into her bedroom at night and watches her while she sleeps. Bella is so desperate to become like Edward, she is ready to willingly forgo her humanity. After hearing all of this, I had more questions about The Twilight Saga. Was Edward really controlling? Was Bella insecure? Was she losing herself in a toxic and abusive relationship? Was I reading too deeply into this?

Despite my questions, I admit, I succumbed to the invisible force that so cunningly reeled me in and I saw Breaking Dawn. Later, I watched the third film from the series and quickly realized that many of the points raised in that Moody interview were valid. While many of the messages in the series are subtle, it reminded me about the subtle way in which the enemy works. In Genesis 3:1 we see this played out with the cunningly sly serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent didn’t force feed Eve fruit from the tree. He merely asked Eve a question that caught her attention. Intrigued, a seed of doubt was planted within in her and she ate from the tree—convincing Adam to do the same.

Like Eve, we too are enticed with all types of fruit (in the form of media) that contain both good and bad messages—some subtle and some not so subtle. In Ephesians 6:12 the apostle Paul says, “ … we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world …” This is not to say that you should stick your head in the sand and never read a secular book or see a secular movie. And it’s surely not to pass judgment if you like the Twilight series. However, with all that said, we can certainly be informed and prepared to take a closer look at what we are watching—and reading. After all, what really are werewolves or vampires and are they all that bad?

In European folklore a werewolf is a man who turns into a wolf at night and devours animals, people, or corpses. By definition a vampire is a supernatural being, commonly believed to be a reanimated corpse that sucks the blood of people while they sleep at night. Another description refers to the vampire as a demon that periodically leaves the grave and disturbs the living. In the Twilight series, Edward is portrayed as a good vampire because he only hunts the blood of animals. Jacob is the werewolf friend of Bella who would do anything to protect her and win her love. They sound like really good guys that just happen to have the wrong DNA, right? But wouldn’t that be like saying, if you’re a good demon you’re okay. Which when you think about it would be like saying if you’re a good sinner you don’t need a Savior, your own desire to be good and exercise self-control is enough. And if we could save ourselves we wouldn’t need Jesus. Though you may not be a vampire or werewolf, we’re all born into sin and in need of a Savior.

Maybe movies like these serve as good talking points and avenues to open up conversations about the true Light of the world — Jesus Christ. But what expense does it take on our souls when we open ourselves up to films like Breaking Dawn? These are just  a few things to consider as we navigate through a world where blood-sucking vampires and bare-chested werewolves woo the hearts and minds of fans — both young and old.

Let’s be realistic: There’s no way we’re going to curb the fanaticism of the throngs of young girls — many of them in our own households — who have pledged allegiance to either “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.” But perhaps we can be more discerning about the messages found in these popular books and films.

What do you think? Should we search for light in the darkness of the Twilight series, or is it best for Christians to keep their distance?

Rob Bell’s Burning Questions

Rob Bell’s Burning Questions

Without a doubt, one of the top religion stories of the past month has been the release of Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The big question that most inquiring minds have wanted to know is: Has Bell officially departed the ranks of solid Christian orthodoxy and gone all universalist on us? Prior to the book’s release, many were convinced he had — and they let him hear about it.

In my previous post regarding Bell, I stated that it is important to think about both the intended audience for the book as well as the opportunity this presents for us to act Christianly in the context where disagreements and passion merge around very important issues of Christian belief. Now that the book is out, we can identify the primary audience and I can try to make the most of this opportunity to live out the second greatest commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself” — Matt. 22:39) while writing a review with affirmations and critiques.

Bell (left) describes his audience in the preface: “I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’ ” Both the beginning and end of the book make it clear that Bell wants people to come to Christ and to the church, especially those who are turned off by a version of the gospel that states that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” Later he similarly states regarding the way that some present the gospel as a rescue project:

God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.

Bell correctly identifies the truth that many people within the church and without have questions about how to understand the gospel as good news, and how to understand the character of God in relationship to salvation and judgment if Scripture tells us that God is truly loving. While Bell is primarily concerned about those “turned off” by traditional presentations of the gospel (or, in my view, bad presentations of the traditional gospel that seem so focused on the specter of God’s judgment that it puts it in tension with His love), all of the questions he asks in the book are raised by many Christians, including a number here where I teach.

Were I a betting man, I would wager that even a strong Calvinist who bows before God’s sovereignty wonders about how they will finally understand the economy of God’s justice when we get to the other side. If we surveyed the people in the pews regarding what they know about our eternal destiny and what they wonder about or hope for, chances are we would find that people at least wonder about those who seemed to live like Christians but either never confessed Christ or never heard of him. Even if they believe that after the final judgment there will be a final separation between believers and unbelievers, they wonder about who will be the surprises in the population of God’s consummated kingdom.

What of heaven, hell, and final judgment? Love Wins presents a challenge for this reviewer: on the one hand, Bell is pastor and not an academic theologian, and the book is not written like a scholarly treatise, though it does wade into that realm briefly at times. On the other, Bell pastors a church of 10,000 and has influence on many thousands more, so he has a tremendous burden of responsibility because of his platform. He cannot say, “I am a pastor, and not a theologian” because his preaching and writing frames the Bible reading and theological reflection for many; this is part of his job as a teaching pastor. Now, some affirmation and critique.

Getting What We Want

Bell states correctly that throughout the history of the church there has been a range of belief regarding the final destiny of unbelievers, from the traditional view to positions such as a limited duration of judgment that either ends with annihilation of those outside the kingdom or a second chance to be reconciled to God, to the view that ultimately all humans will be reconciled to God in the end. While there is much discussion today and more adherents to the latter views, Bell is quite wrong to suggest that anything other than the belief in eternal conscious punishment was the dominant view for at least the first 19 centuries of the church. The consensus was that there is a final judgment followed by some unending experience of separation. There were notable exceptions (Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Clement of Alexandria), but they are in the great minority, and Origen’s views are condemned at the 5th ecumenical council in A.D. 553.

Regarding heaven and hell, Bell rightly states that there is a present experience of eternal life (John 3:16 and 5:24 tells us eternal life begins at conversion), but the future reference of life beyond (whether we used the word “heaven” or “eternal life”) is prominent in the New Testament. I think Bell wants to get past the idea that salvation is only about our future experience, to which I heartily say “Amen,” but we need not swap one overemphasis for another. The same is true regarding hell. Yes, life apart from God’s design can be “hellish” in the present, but the warnings about hell and judgment have in view a future experience of existence (or “non-life”) apart from God.

What about Bell and the universalism question? He has stated that he is not a universalist, and while there are passages that suggest he leans in that direction, his emphasis on human freedom does not allow him to clearly conclude that all people will be reconciled to God. As many have already stated about the book, Bell’s view on hell is like that of C.S. Lewis (not a surprise: he directs readers to Lewis’ Great Divorce in the back of the book): people get what they want.

Explaining Heaven and Hell

One more important critique: When talking about the cross, Bell refers to the range of metaphors used to discuss how salvation works for us: ransom, sacrifice, redemption, etc. He seems to be suggesting that blood sacrifice is only a metaphor borrowed from the ancient context. I think this is an error, because Christ is the culmination of the entire history of Israel with its priestly system that includes sacrifice, and it is hard to make full sense of Christ’s work if we only regard sacrifice as a symbol. Christ cannot be our priest and lamb who reconciles us to God without sacrifice as a reality that also has symbolic import. We need to talk about more than sacrifice, but not less. If it doesn’t resonate with modern ears, then the pastor’s task is to explain how it all works.

Books & Culture editor John Wilson’s Wall Street Journal article on the book reminds us that in the last few decades, there hasn’t been much of an emphasis on sin and hell in evangelical circles. In that light, Bell’s book is a catalyst for addressing what is likely a problem even in churches most conservative on this issue: the ability of those other than the leadership to not only confess beliefs about sin and hell, God’s love and justice, but also to actually be able to understand and explain it. I wonder how many in the pews can help their skeptical friends understand how God is truly loving yet also just in the final judgment as well as what exactly the Bible means when it talks about hell as a place of eternal punishment. Even the most ardent critic should see this as an opportunity to bring to light biblical teaching about the seriousness, darkness, and malevolence of sin with its consequences and God’s nature as truly loving, holy, and just.

Is Bell off the reservation? No. Is C.S. Lewis or Richard John Neuhaus? (On the latter, see this article from First Things.) Bell is right to tell us that love wins, but we need to be clear that so do God’s holiness and justice. God’s nature isn’t only love.

Does this debate matter? Yes it does. While it is not the most pressing issue for those in urban contexts (issues of immediate justice have as much or greater import to many in our cities or underserved areas), it is important because we need to constantly think about how we can better seek to understand the God we worship and the gospel we proclaim. We all tell some gospel story in the church, and we can always refine and deepen how we speak and live out a faithful witness.