Carolina Way Camp Recap

Carolina Way Camp Recap

Fall classes began at UNC on August 21, but the North Carolina Study Center started the year a little early with its inaugural Carolina Way Camp. 110 incoming first-years joined 30 student counselors and volunteers at Camp Thunderbird in Lake Wylie, SC to spend four days forming Christian community before starting their time at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Triangle Riff 2018 Recap


“What is a human being?” 

On the surface this may seem like a fairly straightforward question, but when you probe it deeper, things quickly get more complicated. In a university setting, how a person answers this question often depends on the operating assumptions of his or her field. In economics, a human being is viewed as a rational economic agent. In biology, a human being is approached as a complex composite of cells, tissues and organ systems (to grossly oversimplify things). In sociology, a human being is primarily understood as a social agent contributing to larger institutions and societal patterns. 

Earlier this month, the NC Study Center brought together seventeen faculty members from UNC, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest to explore how Scripture and Christian thinkers throughout the ages have traditionally responded to the question, “What is a human being?” We partnered with UNC's Intervarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, the Duke Center for Christianity and Scholarship, and The Veritas Forum to host the event, the 2018 Triangle Riff Faculty Conference.


Through teaching from New Testament professor Dr. Ross Wagner and Reverend Allan Poole along with breakout discussion sessions, faculty members were challenged to grapple with the Christian doctrine of imago dei, the image of God.  What does it mean to be made in the image of God? What are the implications of this doctrine for academic thought within the range of disciplines?  How would our work in the university look different if we held this truth clearly in front of us?

After two days of prayer, fellowship and engaging with big questions, the conference concluded with a celebratory dinner and the group dispersed. Our hope, however, is that the theological insights, practical takeaways and relationships formed at the conference will remain for a long time to come.

The following Monday, we returned to work with an email in our inboxes from a faculty attendee that contained this excerpt: 

“I was deeply moved both by the lessons on our identities as image bearers, as well as the wonderful personal interactions I had with the other faculty....Our new graduate students arrived on Monday, and as they filed into the seminar room, they all seemed to glow a little brighter as I recognized them as each bearing God’s uniquely human stamp." 


Matt Hoehn
Director of Christian Thought


To see more photos from the event, please visit our Facebook page here.

Announcing our first Senior Faculty Fellow: Dr. C. Dianne Martin

We are thrilled to announce that Dr. C. Dianne Martin has accepted our invitation to serve as the first ever Senior Faculty Fellow of the NC Study Center! Dr. Martin is a close friend of ours, having participated in numerous past seminars, served as a panelist at the 2017 Wilberforce Conference, and taken it upon herself to meet with and mentor many undergraduate students.

Senior Faculty Fellows are carefully selected UNC professors who put their academic discipline into conversation with Christian faith and theology. As Senior Faculty Fellows, they teach seminar classes at the NC Study Center, make themselves available to meet with students during office hours, and offer input into other programming. This fall, Dr. Martin will be leading a seminar called: ‘Technological Immortality: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.’ Through film analysis, group readings, and small-group discussion, this seminar will invite students to consider emerging trends in technology (e.g. artificial intelligence, transhumanism) from the lens of Christian ethics.

  Dr. Martin presenting at the 2017 Wilberforce Conference on Robots & the Theology of Personhood.

Dr. Martin presenting at the 2017 Wilberforce Conference on Robots & the Theology of Personhood.

Dr. C. Dianne Martin is a computer scientist and the former Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs at George Washington University. She now teaches courses through the UNC Department of Computer Science and the School of Information and Library Sciences. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin was a programmer for IBM on the Apollo space project. She wrote programs that helped make possible the first moon landing in 1969. During her distinguished career, she was also a program director at the National Science Foundation from 1998 to 2000, chief policy officer at GeoTrust from 2000 to 2001, and chair of the GWU computer science department from 2002 to 2005. She attends Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Chapel Hill, NC.


If you are interested in participating in Dr. Martin's 'Technological Immortality: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places' seminar this fall, let us know HERE.

Yam Jam 2018

On February 10, 2018, 40,000 POUNDS OF SWEET POTATOES were hauled in with a dump truck and dropped on the front lawn to be bagged and delivered to local food banks. The event began in the morning and went until all the sweet potatoes were bagged and ready to be donated.

This event was embraced by the University community and appeared on UNC newsfeeds. It was recirculated by newspapers across the country, and it recently appeared as the back cover of the UNC General Alumni Review as pictured below! 

This was our second annual Yam Jam, hosted in partnership with First Fruits Farm, run by UNC alum and NFL-player-turned-farmer Jason Brown. We can't wait for next year!


#GivingTuesday: Give Coffee & Christ to UNC!


It's not just a cup of coffee. It's a tangible extension of Christ's love! It's a symbol of rest and rejuvenation. It's a conversation starter. It's much more than a simple afternoon pick-me-up.

Here's an interesting fact: for the past 2.5 semesters, we have been serving thousands and thousands of cups of coffee... from Sam's Club! Don't you think it's time for an upgrade?

"He has filled the hungry with good things..." Luke 1:53

Will you support this outpouring of Christ's love by helping us sourcing coffee beans from Joe Van Gogh, a local coffee roaster? We need help raising the $6,300 that we hope to spend next year on coffee, hot chocolate, and tea.

You can help pay it forward to current UNC students! Will you consider joining us annually or monthly? Every little bit counts...from $20/month to $1,000/year.

Join us on this #GivingTuesday in welcoming the next generation of UNC students with a warm cup of coffee, a friendly face, and most importantly, the Truth of Christ's love!

Inside the Discussion

Junior biostatistics major Matt Gilleskie explores the Soul of the University

Gilleskie focuses on one of his many assignments

By Matt Gilleskie

In the discussion group “The Soul of the University,” the North Carolina Study Center is challenging students and faculty to examine the institution of the university through a gospel-focused lens. The group offers an array of academic experience which provokes discussion and introduces helpful ideological diversity. Among those present include a retired computer science professor, a classics major, a philosophy major turned accounting Ph.D., an Anglican priest, and roughly ten more students, undergraduate and graduate.

I spend the majority of my time immersed in its culture, and yet I rarely question its practices and methodologies.

A brief scripture reading typically begins our discussion, which hinges on a short article. Thus far, we have read essays by George Marsden and Nicholas Wolterstorff. We have learned  in large part through the application of readings to specific academic situations. My participation in the group forces me to think critically about the institution of the university. As a student, I spend the majority of my time immersed in its culture, and yet I rarely question its practices and methodologies. I am learning that the Gospel relates to all of life, not superficially like I once assumed, but deeply, so deeply that I cannot comprehend it totally. The wisdom of others in the discussion group, both in the form of assigned readings and the wealth and variety of academic experience, help me to plumb these depths. Because of this group, I consider more carefully the institution of the university and my place in it as a follower of Christ.

Summer Reflections: La Familia

Junior Robbie Wooten shares memories from his time at Pico Escondido, a Young Life camp in the Dominican Republic

Robbie (far right, highest in the air) catches some air with his friends.

Sitting at the Study Center, eating Harris Teeter sandwiches and drinking tea with friends, I feel at home once again in Chapel Hill. Cole asks me about my summer, and I begin to panic.  How could I summarize my month-long mission trip in one brief sentence?  I only have one shot before he loses focus.  Here it goes.

“It was amazing… a really life-giving experience. We had such a family down there, working together to build for God’s kingdom in the DR.  Jesus was really with us.” 

I feel pretty satisfied with that answer.  Cole seems interested and happy to hear about it.

Indeed Jesus was with us.  Our community was really close.  We were a family.  I made lifelong friends, around the country and around the globe.  We got so close because we were on mission together.

This was not just any mission, either.  We were living in the middle of poverty, preparing a beautiful Young Life camp for Dominican kids.  We were praying for Jesus to bring his Kingdom of justice and love to the DR, and together we were raking grass to help make it happen.  It was a really exciting mission.

Our community was really close.  We were a family.  I made lifelong friends, around the country and around the globe.

I miss my mission trip friends.  We had a good thing going.  We shared a purpose.  You simply cannot beat the fellowship of co-mission!  I am excited to get back to it soon.  But I am in school for at least one more year.  Am I going to simply look past this year to whatever mission lies beyond?

Drinking my hot breakfast tea at the Study Center, I see a community before my eyes.  These friends are asking me questions.  Brandt makes a silly joke and I laugh.  It is good to be with them.  We are not working together in the DR, but we are sharing life together.  We are encouraging one another.  Seeking to discern God’s call on our lives.  Learning together.

I look down at a book I have found from the Study Center shelf.  It is a proposal for understanding the unity of the New and Old Testaments.  I have heard lots in class about how they supposedly do not line up, but I am beginning to see a cohesive story in the Bible.  It is a story of Justice at work from Genesis to Luke to Revelation, a story of God’s people expanding and growing as a missionary community of friends.  I am realizing I want to be a part of God’s story wherever I am.  I am happy to be living, fellowshipping and studying for just a little bit longer in Chapel Hill.

Summer Reflections: Merciful Justice

Rising junior Mariah Harrelson spent her summer on the most famous hill in America, Capitol Hill

By Mariah Harrelson

This summer, I was blessed by the amazing opportunity to intern in a North Carolina Senator’s district office and a congressional D.C. office. I’m beginning my junior year studying Political Science and Public Policy this fall, and not only have I learned so much this summer about my studies, but God has also been moving in incredible ways to reaffirm His calling for my life and gift me with opportunities to glorify Him with my passion for policy work.

The calling found in Micah 6:8 has motivated my desire to pursue a career in policy and the justice system:

“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

More than ever this summer I have seen that – just as Christ advocates for us – we as Christians have the opportunity, both through our daily interactions and careers, to demonstrate the Gospel by being advocates for others.

Washington, D.C. is an intersection of ideologies, people from across the nation and those from around the world. Throughout my internship, I was able to have conversations about faith and politics with those I met. Absolute truth, the validity of the Bible, and religion versus relationship were among the topics of discussion as opportunities arose to share the reason behind my career goals.

I am so excited to return to Chapel Hill this fall with a renewed context and vision for the future through my involvement in Student Government, Cru, the Campus Y, and the Study Center’s Lydia Group, a mentorship community for undergraduate women. For me, the Study Center has been the intersection of academics, faith, and community at Carolina, and this group has continuously encouraged me to seek a career rooted in Christ, pursue my passion, and invest in those around me. God has already used the Study Center in incredible ways, and I cannot wait to see how God will use the Study Center this fall to continue the work He’s already started both in my life and in our Carolina community!

The Final 4D Dinner of the Semester with Dr. Wesley Burks


This semester, I have discovered that estimating in advance the number of attendees for our 4D Dinners is an inexact science, to say the least.  Factors such as the weather, students’ exam schedules, and an unforeseen wave of late-breaking enthusiasm can dramatically impact student turnout.  Some weeks, we prepare dinner for 30 and only 20 students are able to come; other weeks, the tables are set for 20 and then 30 students attend.

Our last 4D Dinner of the semester on November 21st was one of those unpredictable Mondays.  It was a cold evening on a short week of class, the day before many students were set to depart Chapel Hill for Thanksgiving break.  Taking these things into account, we estimated 25 students would attend and we cooked and arranged the place settings accordingly.  At 5:55 pm, I noticed a burgeoning crowd of new faces congregating by the front door.  I went out to welcome these visitors and discovered that two different student small groups from Chapel Hill Bible Church had decided to attend the 4D Dinner as their group’s fellowship time for that week.  I then met several Medical students who had heard about the dinner from a classmate and who had made the trek to the Study Center for the first time because they had a particular interest in that evening’s speaker, Dr. Wesley Burks (Executive Dean of the UNC School of Medicine).  After 15 minutes of meeting and greeting these guests, we finally circled up to bless the food, and then everyone transitioned into the dining room. 

I was reminded of Jesus’ miracle of five loaves and two fishes that evening as somehow our meal prepared for 25 was able to comfortably feed the 40-or-so attendees.  Paul’s exhortation from Romans 12:10 to “prefer one another” came to mind as several Study Center regulars willingly gave up their seats to first-time visitors, and instead sat on couches and even the floor.  The dining room was hectic, but also alive with conversation and with new acquaintances being made.  It was a beautiful sight to behold and a fitting end to a semester of wonderful Monday night meals.

At 6:35, I introduced Dr. Burks and handed him the floor.  He proceeded to give an excellent address which included a brief overview of his life story along with a more detailed account of the discernment process that led him to the realization that God was calling him to the vocation of medicine.  He shared about his experiences practicing Pediatrics and also in university administration with UNC hospitals.  He brought along a copy of Every Good Endeavor, a book co-written by Tim Keller and Katherine Alsdorf, and he recommended it as a particularly helpful resource for students with questions about how their faith relates to their vocation.  One of the practical pieces of advice that Dr. Burks shared that evening was that he strongly encourages pre-Med students (and other students planning to go to graduate school) to take at least one year away from school after undergrad to get some work/life experience before continuing on in their field.

After he concluded speaking, there was 10 minutes of question and answer time and then we prayed for Dr. Burks to draw the evening to a close.  Several students stayed beyond 7:15 to continue getting to know one another or to ask Dr. Burks a personal question.  The evening was an excellent reminder to me to trust in the Lord’s provision in every circumstance (especially when we seriously underestimate our number of dinner guests!).  We’d like to thank Dr. Burks for closing out this semester’s lineup of 4D guest speaker dinners; we are already looking forward to the return of these dinners and to new speakers next semester!



UNC Alum Jason Brown on the Journey from Football to Farming

What leads a professional football player in the prime of his career with a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract offer on the table to give up football entirely, and to instead start a farm that doesn’t turn a profit?  This was the question on the minds of 50+ attendees as they overflowed the Study Center dining room on Monday, October 3rd to enjoy a family-style dinner and to hear from UNC alum and former NFL Center, Jason Brown.

The meal that evening will go down in Study Center lore.  Friends of the Study Center (and accomplished chefs) Judy Hill, Sue Ellen Thompson and Dee McIntyre pulled out all the stops: honey glazed ham, baked sweet potatoes that had been gleaned from Jason Brown’s farm, green beans, sister Schubert rolls, and desert platters.  Multiple students remarked, “this was just like having Thanksgiving Dinner here at UNC!”

After 40 minutes of dining and informal conversation, Jason Brown was introduced and proceeded to respond to the question that we’d all been eager to hear him answer.  Jason spoke about how even though he was a Christian during his 7-year NFL career, the trappings and temptations of fantastic wealth, materialism, fame, and constant travel had an impact on him.  He began to realize the effect these things were having on his walk with the Lord and on his marriage.  As Jason prayed for discernment, he sensed God calling him to let go of his NFL career and to pursue a new, bold venture: starting a farm in Louisburg, NC, near his hometown of Henderson.  Faithful to the call, Jason turned down several lucrative NFL contract offers and he, his wife Tay, and their growing family all moved back to NC to create what is today known as First Fruits Farm.

Jason’s story resonated tremendously with the students that evening.  Although Jason, Tay and their children had to head out immediately after his talk, the night did not end with their departure.  Several students stayed late into the evening discussing Jason's incredible story, what it means to obey God’s call, and what it might look like for their faith to shape their own respective vocations in a profound way.

Study Centers in the NY Times

What is it like to talk about things that matter at UNC? Is it always a fight? Do people listen, even when doing so is uncomfortable?

I'm happy to say that Christian study centers have been lauded as one of the few places where big questions are openly raised and answers are hazarded and even taught.

A UNC professor, Dr. Molly Worthen, penned an op-ed for the NY Times in early 2016 titled “Hallelujah College.”

[Some] evangelicals have poured their energies into a different sort of Christian organization, one that has been proliferating quietly for decades at universities around the country: Christian study centers. These are not ministries, exactly, and what they do is not old-fashioned evangelism. Typically they occupy private buildings off campus and exist independently from the university, beyond the reach of nondiscrimination policies. The first study centers appeared in the 1960s and ’70s, but their numbers have mushroomed since 2000. The Consortium of Christian Study Centers counts 20 members — a small but significant number considering that many are embedded in the most prestigious universities around the country.

The centers position themselves as forums where students can hash out the tensions between their faith and the assumptions of secular academia — the same assumptions that have assailed more traditional ministries. They are, in a sense, spiritual “safe spaces” that offer cozy libraries, reading groups and public lectures...

Today many evangelical leaders are fond of proclaiming American Christians’ new status as a moral minority, but these students and campus ministers are the ones who are actually living that reality. It has prodded them to seek serious conversation about humans’ profound disagreements over morality and the nature of truth — questions that campus liberals, despite their professed concern for dialogue and critical thinking, often avoid in the name of tolerance and inclusion.

“We think it’s more constructive to talk about differences,” said [a junior at Columbia University]. Minority status sometimes has a funny way of turning people into more thoughtful critics of the culture around them.
— Molly Worthen, "Hallelujah College," NY Times (Jan. 16, 2016)

Bonhoeffer on becoming a Christian

From studying scripture to listening to scripture

"I plunged into my work in a very unchristian way, quite lacking in humility. I was terribly ambitious, as many people noticed, and that made my life difficult and kept from me the love and trust of people around me. I was very much alone and left to my own devices; it was a bad time. Then something happened which has tossed about and changed my life to this day. For the first time I discovered the Bible. Again, that’s a bad thing to have to say. I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and written about it – but I had not yet become a Christian. Instead, I had been my own master, wild and undisciplined. I know that what I was doing then was using the cause of Jesus Christ for my own advantage, and being terribly vain about it. I pray God that it never happens again. Also I had never prayed, or only very little. For all my loneliness I was rather pleased with myself. Then the Bible freed me from that, in particular the Sermon on the Mount. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people around me."

Bonhoeffer had written two dissertations and served as a pastor, yet he says he was using the cause of Christ.

For Bonhoeffer, the transition point happened when he discovered the Bible again.

When is the last time you listened to scripture, reading it not to further your causes and efforts, but as a Word from God? Do other people look at you and see how scripture has changed your life?

Our prayer is that in showing hospitality and giving people fresh questions, they will read scripture again as if for the first time, listening for the voice of the God who changes us.

Life @ UNC: My Life as (Pseudo) Superman

This is the first post in our Life @ UNC series. Contributing is Matthew McKnight, a rising sophomore from Charlotte, NC. Matthew is involved in the UNC Honor System, participates at Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), and is a leader with Young Life. This summer, he is working on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

When I look back on my first two semesters at UNC, I see a year marked by personal difficulty, personal growth, and the ever-present grace of God.

I arrived as a first-year at UNC with a chip on my shoulder and a burden on my heart.

Without a merit scholarship, athletic team, or club affiliation to call my own, I came to Carolina thinking I needed to prove my worth. I felt burdened to be more than a small fish in a large Carolina Blue pond.  I thought my value as a person derived from achievement, in and out of the classroom. My ambition, simply and facetiously put, was to try to become superman

In my first semester at Carolina, life as “superman” quickly got crazy. I joined an athletic club team, an intramural team, student government, the honor system, two campus ministries, and a Bible study while trying to achieve a perfect GPA, make friends, and further my relationship with the Lord. Seeking worth in activities was totally exhausting and I knew I couldn’t keep it up.

Therefore, in my second semester at UNC, realizing a life as “superman” was unsustainable, I turned my focus to academics. The classroom was a place where I knew I could succeed given enough hard work; my grades replaced activities as a frame of my self-image, the self-portrait in which I could control every brushstroke. Therefore, midway through the second semester, when my grades didn’t turn out as I expected, I was crushed. For the first time in my life, anxiety reared its ugly head.

Driven to maximize study time, I stopped going to church, reading the Bible, exercising, eating well, or investing in relationships. I was so anxious about my grades and proving my worth (to myself of all people!) that I started carrying duplicate textbooks, extra batteries, bluebooks, and scantrons with me at all times as academic insurance against any surprises.  My anxieties culminated in sleepless nights and in my final history recitation, when, after receiving a low grade on a minimal homework assignment, I started shaking uncontrollably. I was miserable and knew something had to change.

My body told me what my mind had refused to fully acknowledge: my priorities were completely out of order.

In my insecurity, I had put becoming “superman” above walking humbly with the Lord. I had bought into the lie that I could determine my own value and establish my own worth. In that demented journey, I had lived as if my resume and outward accomplishments would reveal my inner-greatness.  Threatened with the insurmountable demands of a life established on my own terms, my body started to give up on me.

One passage of scripture in particular spoke to me in that place.

1 Peter 5:6-7 says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because he cares for you.”

As Christians, we are called to humility before God in recognition of our own weakness. Trust me, personal worth is not an object to be achieved or a quality to be discovered by looking inward. It is a mindset mercifully granted by an unconditionally loving God, bestowed when we look to Him with trust.

Receiving my worth from someplace (or someone) else has brought me a measure of peace. I can’t definitively say my deep sense of worry is now entirely gone, or that I have completely reoriented my priorities towards Christ. My spiritual walk is a work in progress, and I know that change takes time. However, I can definitively say I have learned God’s grace extends to all people, from those struggling with anxiety to those trying to be “superman.”

"I stopped believing in God."

The whole premise sounds so predictable it's almost uninteresting: a Christian pastor short on book ideas decides to write a book on living as an atheist for one year, and at the end decides not to come back. Setting aside all the ways that this should be impossible if one is truly a person of faith (and there are many, some of which we will get to), in a post-deconversion interview, the author says:

I’d just say that the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary.

Questions of doubt are delicate, and no one should be lampooned or disregarded simply due to his or her faith affiliation (or lack thereof). But this is a a public choice meant to help others, so it is OK to wonder whether this pastor adequately understood his "options." And so we can ask, is Christian belief the icing on cake that is perfectly good without icing? Is it simply an extra layer of complication?

At almost every level of society & from almost every angle, faith is presented as an extra layer of complication. Faith is what you do in your free time when you have it. Faith is a hobby, another reason to get together with other people. Liking Jesus is alot like liking an NFL team - you can be a fan if you have the time & energy, and you like that kind of thing. Even deeper, faith is the act of taking seriously a fairly inconvenient ancient text with views that seem so backwards, and come with so much baggage, that you must have very "interesting" reasons for sticking with it. When seen in full, it's the kind of thing that is extreeemely inconvenient, burdensome, stifling, problematic, willfully myopic, etc.

There are a number of reasons that this position lacks integrity, including:

  1. Christian faith is not a matter of "belief," it is a combination of belief and practice. So you can never live as an atheist for a year without actually being an atheist that year. And if you think you can live for a year as an atheist while on some level remaining a Christian, you probably have a very unchristian idea of what Christianity actually is.
  2. The social conditions and categories that we benefit from regardless of our faith affiliation - a general understanding of human rights, love for one's neighbor, the basic equality of all persons, etc - are derived from Christian belief (this is not to say that the church's heritage is without baggage). To pretend that these conditions will self-perpetuate without Christian faith as a reference point is highly naive, and empirically untested.
  3. Thinking as a Christian is more than harboring certain strange beliefs about the afterlife and several acts of history. It is not simply a set of facts that one can reject, while continuing to understand a separate set of facts the same way. Christianity is more like a set of glasses, binoculars, a telescope, and a microscope, that we have been given through which we see the world very differently than we would without it, and that cause us to linger over certain aspects of our world in amazement and gratitude. This raises the question whether Christian belief can be simply abandoned at all - whether a post-Christian person will not to some extent go on using Christian ways of seeing things, but without committing himself to ensuring that future generations will understand those tools and be able to use them.

David Bentley Hart describes how Christian belief eradicated "hard-won" ancient pagan wisdom by simply pointing out that the gods were not there. Embedded in many ancient pagan beliefs are matrices of practical wisdom - how to interact with one-another and the surrounding environment, how to go on living as a society. Those traditions have been discontinued and replaced (to some extent) by Christian traditions of thought. A post-Christian era is an untested proposition - how long before it will be a new era that rejects Christian heritage in full? How long can "human rights" be a meaningful phrase without a basic understanding of what it means to be human? No one will remain a person of faith simply from fear of a slippery slope into anarchy - belief in the Bible's God is ultimately a matter of love - but a person who rejects faith must do the hard work of identifying a tradition of goodness and freedom that does not require the resources of faith if it is to be sustainable for generations to come.

This post is meant to raise a question for Christians: is your faith icing on the cake, or does it give you a basic framework for your life and imagination? If you walk away from your faith today, will it make a difference in your life tomorrow?

The future of religion & study centers

If the believer is haunted by doubt, the unbeliever can be haunted by faith. . . . [And] what might stop people short—what might truly haunt them—will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heaven.
— James K A Smith writing at Slate on the future of religion

You can read the rest here.

Now that Christian truth claims are found to be stranger and stranger by a culture more and more unfamiliar with them, we might find that friendship could be a necessary precursor to preaching - only our friends are going to have the time to find out what makes us tick. In Young Life, this is called earning the right to be heard.

Humans are creatures that worship, that cannot stop worshipping. All of our energetic enterprises of entertainment are marked by ceremony and extravagance, from our American Feast Day of Kris Kringle (with the accompanying astonishingly strange myth of a man from the North Pole satisfying the consumer longings of children everywhere) to NFL game day (where our modern gladiators barrel into an arena through fake smoke). This impulse does not evaporate in a secular age. The ongoing "relevance" of the Christian faith will hinge on the Christian community's ability to be a worshipping community, one into which a haunted stranger stumbles and decides to stay.

Premodern unity in a fragmented world

Though we will likely always have easy A courses, there are no easy answers, not for those who want to have lives that make sense.

We walk off our doorstep into reports of confusing times - a technology revolution, an environmental devolution, the evolution of recognized civil rights.  The social climate is polarized and paralyzed. No political party enjoys much support (voters who register "independent" are at an all-time high, approval of the US Congress is at an all-time low, and Democrats and Republicans are stable only in terms of their opposition to one another). In our private lives, neighbors have fewer reasons to talk to one another and often end up bowling alone.

Imagine trying to tell the story of how we have ended up here. Imagine trying to talk meaningfully about this world to your children. A phrase came to mind recently: Modernity is its own punishment. Of course that's too simplistic, but in many ways the sins of our fathers & mothers have intermingled with their greatest accomplishments so that it is hard to tell them apart. Yet we must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, if only provisionally, so that we can learn to tell the story of our times (Matthew 16:3).

A friend of a friend recently posted a great reflection here titled "The Broken Glass of the World." The author gestures toward the picture I have briefly painted, and then discusses how ancient Christian mystical practices can bring unity to our lived lives, hearkening to the ancient church and to The Practice of the Presence of God.

I often feel like we are like Augustine, perched on the edge of a precipice - the end of an empire - with little idea whether order or chaos will follow. As Rome disintegrated, Christians increasingly turned toward heavily ordered lives (think monastery) to bring unity to their relationships and lived experiences - & these lives were fulfilling despite their utter refusal to physically satisfy the sexual urge!

It is hard to say what modern mysticism will look like. There is the danger that it will be a mental exercise hobby - a very brief place of centering that people will use to be more "centered," boost their memories, and forget the times. True Christian mysticism taps into our hunger to live in the singular moment beyond time - to experience almost crystalline instances of being filled with the love of Christ - in such a way that rest of our lives are slowly pulled into line with our meditative practices, practices that will not be sustained unless they are supported by & conducted alongside a community.

I don't mean to structure this in terms of problem-solution format, problem: modernity, solution: mysticism. Christians live in a narrative that is amazingly coherent (Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration), and that is the way that I make the most sense of what I see. But there is also the question of how to feel what we know to be true. It could be that some variation of ancient Christian mysticism is a better answer than the cheap & inconsequential experiences we have embraced and offer to our children as the key to meaningful lives.

For those interested in reading more about our times, I highly recommend that you start with Robert Jenson's How the World Lost Its Story - an article available over at First Things.