The War on Faith

Faith no More resized
It’s true. There is a “war on faith” in American university classrooms. There are professors who ridicule the faith of Christians and think it is their job to “educate” their students out of belief in God.

This war on faith began in the universities of Europe more than 200 years ago. The anti-God ideology spread to the US and is now to the point that researchers find a notable anti-Christian bias in academia.

Thankfully, there are professors who are true followers of Jesus on America’s campuses, too.

At Faculty Commons, we’ve found that most campuses have at least a few Christian professors. But often they are isolated and “flying under the radar.”

So we connect them—on their own campus, and with Christian faculty mentors worldwide. These mentors teach them how to appropriately engage their students and colleagues in spiritual discussions and how to offer the hope of Jesus to them.

One of these faculty mentors is our friend Dr. Heather Holleman, a writing instructor at Penn State University.

Heather Holleman

Before each semester begins, as soon as she receives her course roster of new students, Heather begins praying for them by name. “I visit my empty classroom and touch every seat and pray that God would use me to love this student well,” she explains.

“I also pray that things I say and teach will plant seeds for the gospel or at least help prepare the soil of their hearts to know the love and grace of God.” Mid-way through the semester, Heather mentions in class that she is a follower of Jesus.

What would it be like if the college students in your life had a professor like Heather?

Those who are already Christians would have their faith strengthened rather than undermined. Those who are spiritual seekers—and research tells us that many college students are—would have a safe place to ask questions about spiritual issues. And Heather’s students do ask:

• Joe asked Heather to tell the class her secret for being so happy all the time.
• Eric asked her how she knew what the purpose of her life was.
• Carlos asked her why she chose Christianity over other religions.
• Dean invited Heather to coffee and asked her to explain who Jesus was and the power He supposedly has.

Our goal at Faculty Commons is that every student in the world would know a professor like Heather.

An Oklahoma Welcome

OSU Welcome gift web
Each year (since 2001), Christian professors at Oklahoma State University personally deliver welcome gifts to their new faculty colleagues.

In addition to a custom coffee mug full of coffee, tea, and chocolate, the gift includes a couple of books: the practical volume How to Make Tenure by retired professor Dr. Rae Mellichamp, and Mere Christianity, written by Oxford and Cambridge professor C.S. Lewis.

The card with the gift from the OSU Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff notes, “We desire that you see success in the academy as well as in other areas by achieving an integrated and balanced life.”

Faculty Commons staff Gary and Gena Hellman designed these welcome gifts to be conversation starters. “American professors are some of the most influential people in the world,” Gary explains. “We hope our gift will begin to break down that false caricature they have developed about Jesus.”

And it does. One professor, who had rejected Christianity as unintellectual, read Mere Christianity and it awakened his soul. He eventually became a follower of Jesus.

Another professor moved on after a few years from OSU to a university in another state. When he ran into a professor from OSU’s Christian faculty group at a conference, he made a point to tell him that he had read the Mere Christianity he received in his welcome gift. And he now was a Christian himself.

One of our goals at Faculty Commons is that every professor will know another professor who truly follows Jesus. New faculty welcome gifts help us make those introductions.

Christian Scientists Explode the Myth

don winget utexas
Dr. Don Winget describes himself as a former “fire-breathing atheist.” The University of Texas astronomer once adorned the family van with a Darwin-inside-a-fish image that mocked Christians.

“When I was an atheist I felt a very strong need to argue with people about God,” he told a group of 170 Cru students at the University of Texas. “I had 50 talking points that I would use.”

Dr. Winget chronicled his college-aged journey away from his childhood faith, then his family’s eventual return to Christianity. “Ours was really an intellectual journey,” he told the students. As they explored Christianity, “Each one of these 50 points was proven to be false. Every single one.”

His astronomy colleague, Dr. Sarah Salviander, told of her voyage to faith through her astronomy research. “I had an appreciation for how ordered the universe is, how logical. As a kid who had grown up with zero religion, all of a sudden I realized that I believed in a Creator. A universe that is this beautiful, makes this much sense, could not just be an accident.”

Organized by Faculty Commons’ staff Karen Ness, the event was titled “What I Can’t Say in the Classroom.” Karen and her husband Dave (who emceed the evening) drew on the relationships they have built over 20 years of ministry to faculty at UTexas to recruit the three professors who spoke to the students. Currently 90 UTexas profs are involved with Faculty Commons.

Over the course of the evening, these professors exploded the myth that it’s impossible to be a serious scientist and a Christian at the same time.

Cell biologist Dr. Martin Poenie acknowledged, “We live in a post-Christian world, and everywhere you look there’s Christian bashing. Professors will scold Christians in class, saying if you want to be a scientist, you’d better think twice about this Christianity thing.”

Referring to the multitude of books by atheists who aggressively challenge the existence of God, Dr. Poenie said, “I’ve read these books and what I see is a lot of deception; willful distortion. When you pursue and want to know the truth, these things tend to dissolve. Hold on to your faith, and don’t be easily shaken.”

After the event, students lined up to talk further with these three Christian professors.
UT What I Cant Say event web photo

Coercion? No, compassion.

Russ Carlson photo

Professor Russ Carlson could not understand why so many messages awaited him when he returned to his hotel while at an academic conference in Texas.

A voice message from a reporter with the Atlanta Journal Constitution alerted him that he was accused in a University of Georgia Faculty Senate meeting of coercing and intimidating students to believe in Christianity. The president of the university had called for a thorough investigation. The story was front page news.

Actually, Russ Carlson was the one being intimidated by false accusations and innuendo. But, remarkably, the persecution only seemed to steel Dr. Carlson to follow Christ no matter where He leads.

For nearly 20 years, Dr. Carlson has been a leader of the Faculty Commons ministry at UGA. Known for his exemplary character, kind countenance, and vibrant faith, he is soft spoken but always ready to talk about his love for Christ.

Dr. Carlson makes his faith story available to students online and welcomes the opportunity to interact with them. He travels to campuses as near as Georgia Tech and as far away as Poland to encourage and equip other Christian professors.

It is so unusual at a secular university for a biochemistry professor to be an evangelical Christian that student groups invite Dr. Carlson to speak about how he can be a Christian and a scientist at the same time. But he also has the same discussions in his research center where as many as 20 academics from 10 countries have responded to his invitation to interact.

Each semester, Dr. Carlson invites his biochemistry students to his home for dinner and conversation about science and Christianity. From 15-30 students will show up for spaghetti and meaty interaction. Ironically, the university encourages professors to pursue this type of interaction with students. Yet for this Dr. Carlson was under investigation.

Interestingly, both non-Christian and Christian colleagues rallied to Dr. Carlson’s defense with letters to the editor, interaction with the UGA president, and internal memos. After a lengthy investigation, Dr. Carlson was fully exonerated, with a caution not to include the invitation to his home discussions on the back of the class syllabus.

To which Dr. Carlson replied, “Okay, but I was just trying to save paper,” and began planning his next dinner discussion.

Christian Professors Make a Difference

Sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame
Sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame

Go to college and lose your faith? Less likely now than in years past.

Sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame relays this encouraging information:
“among recently surveyed college students, 2.7 times more report that their religious beliefs have strengthened during their college experience than say their beliefs weakened.”

Dr. Smith traces this “clearly perceptible” change to the 1990’s. He credits it in part to an increase in committed Christian professors, both evangelical and Catholic, at secular universities in the U.S.

He also notes that we are now in a post-secular era, in which religious topics are no longer automatically dismissed as “anti-scientific”:

“American culture and perhaps Western culture seems to have shifted from a secular to a post-secular era in which secularist assumptions are no longer simply taken for granted but are rather on the table for questioning and religion is increasingly considered a legitimate topic of discussion.”

Since 1981, Faculty Commons has been sharing the gospel with professors, plus mobilizing and equipping those who are already believers to share the good news with their colleagues and students. We too are seeing a shift toward an interest in spiritual issues among professors.

What a terrific time to be proclaiming the good news of God’s love and forgiveness to this strategic group of people!

Thanking and Blessing Professors

“If I just had one student come by my office each year to say thank you, that would be enough,” a Penn State University professor told Faculty Commons staff Ashley Holleman. Then he added, “However, I never get that student.”

Instead, professors hear from the whiners and complainers: the student who got a grade he didn’t like, the one who needs a reference–tomorrow–for grad school that she really doesn’t deserve.

Last semester was different at Penn State; more than 40 Cru students handed their professors this invitation. The students explained that Cru was a Christian group on campus and was hosting the dinner to thank and bless professors.

Penn State FAD invite snip

Most of them–37 of them!–said “yes” and enjoyed a beautiful four-course dinner at a classy hotel near campus. The Cru students ran the evening. Over dinner, the students told the others at their table of six what they appreciated about the professor seated next to them.

“This was the scariest part of the whole evening for us,” Ashley remembers. But the awkward silence he feared never materialized. Instead, conversation flowed throughout the room as the professors relaxed and enjoyed the evening. Many on-going conversations about spiritual topics were launched that evening.

Penn State Faculty Appre Dinner web version

Two senior students spoke briefly to the whole group about their gratitude and their personal faith stories. “It was so cool to see the gospel presented in such a way that professors could understand it,” Ashley tells us. “It really was meaningful to them.”

Clearly, it was. When they were dismissed, no one left. The conversations continued as God led these Christian students into the real lives of real people (their own professors) who need a real Savior.

And the professor who longed to hear one student thank him? He was content. After dinner, he told Ashley how much it meant to have an entire evening dedicated to that “thank you.”

What a Difference a Professor Makes!

We were delighted to host our old friends Dr. Bill and Lisa Miller on our last day of ministry at the University of Bologna. We met them while Bill was finishing his PhD in political philosophy in Dallas. For the last seven years, Bill has been serving as a Christian professor in Prague, Czech Republic.
20130409-132209.jpg

I met Bill and Lisa’s night train from Munich and took them to meet our UNT student team. These American students had been meeting and talking with Italian students about spiritual issues all week long. They listened intently as Bill explained how difficult it is to explain the good news of God’s love and forgiveness to an agnostic or atheist European:

  • Europeans view Christianity the way Americans view communism–as a failed ideology.
  • It takes 3-5 years for a European to decide to truly follow Jesus.
  • They need to hear the gospel several times before they truly understand it.
  • It’s crucial for our UNT group to maintain their new friendships and keep the spiritual conversations going over social media.

After lunch, we settled into a coffeehouse in the university quarter, where Bill and Lisa spent the afternoon with two UNIBO students.

20130409-134906.jpgEva, a Czech student from Prague, queried Bill about Christianity and political philosophy.

20130409-141115.jpg Bill discussed the challenges of being a Christian professor with PhD student Fabricio, who will soon complete his degree and go home to teach at a Brazilian university.

After dinner with our team of Texans, the Millers enjoyed (what else?) late-night gelato with the UNT students before catching the night train to Vienna.

Aperitivo Crush

The back room at Lab 16, an eatery in the university quarter, was packed with students who wanted to practice their English conversation with our group from America. We expected 30…more than 60 people came! Daryl was trying to get out the door for a breath of fresh air and kept running into new Italians who said, “Where are the Americans? We came to talk to them.”

We connected our new friends with the 7-person team of Americans who live in Bologna and work with Agape Italia year-round. They are scheduling one-on-one conversations with the University of Bologna students through their Facebook page. As you can see, it is already up to nearly 1000 “likes”!

Mission Italia–Making the Connections

Buongiorno!!

Yesterday we renewed our friendship with Milli (in the middle), a medical student from Bosnia who we met last summer. On the left is Gwen, one of our team members. She teaches art at an elementary school in Dallas.

We enjoyed cappuccino and conversation with Milli at Cafe Zamboni, the coffee shop where John Grisham wrote his novel, The Broker. From left: Ceil, Milli, Gwen, Jamie and Leah, a senior at UNT.

This photo speaks for itself–Delizioso!!

Mission Italia

Buongiorno!!

As I write this, Daryl and I are sitting in the Apple Store in Bologna (one of two Apple Stores in all of Italy) praying for the UNT students on our team who are in the university quarter meeting Italian students.

We are working with a team of five Americans who live here year-round. We meet together each morning for worship, devotional, and training. Then each afternoon our American students split up in teams of two or three to meet Italian students, make new friends, learn about Italian culture, and (when possible), have conversations in English about spiritual issues.

The piazza that serves as a lunch spot in the university quarter:

UNT students Grethe and Leah:

Jamie in Piazza Verdi:

Italian students are generally eager to meet Americans and practice their English. Yesterday Emily and Alicia (one of the Americans who is here long-term) met a young woman who wanted to learn how to know God personally. They had the privilege of telling her, using an iPhone app that explains the gospel in both Italian and English.

Thanks for your prayers! More later…