College was something of a crisis of faith for me. I was basically a fundamentalist when I left high school. After planning on a career in space physics and applying to schools based on this plan, by the time I needed to decide which college to attend I had felt a call to ministry that I could no longer shake. Thank God my dad put his foot down when I suggested that perhaps I should forego a formal university education and attend a Bible college in rural Alabama. “You’re going to go to a real school, son.” And so I did.
I ended up enrolling in Rice University, a research institution in Houston best known for math, science, and engineering. While it would have been the perfect place for me to study physics in proximity to NASA, Rice is also an outstanding school for the humanities and has a top notch religious studies department, so I moved to Houston with the intention of studying religion for four years before heading to seminary. At the time, my only ministry role models were the small church Southern Baptist preachers I had known as a child. None of them studied religion at a school like Rice, but I figured it would be a good investment for future ministry.
It would be an understatement to say that I was completely unprepared for academic religious studies at a non-religious university, even one located in the big Texas buckle of the Bible Belt. For the first time in my life I was exposed to the historical-critical study of the Bible, non-faith-based church history, the sociology religion, and the psychology of religious experience. All of this—along with an increasing awareness of and appreciation for people with very different religious experiences than my own—contributed to the gradual deconstruction of my youthful fundamentalism.
I wasn’t ready to hear that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Bible or that the gospels were compiled from source documents with theological and ideological agendas and were therefore not necessarily reliable witnesses to the historical Jesus. I didn’t really know much about church history between Paul and the congregation I was baptized in at the age of six. In fact, a not-so-subtle subtext of my fundamentalist upbringing was that nothing between the Bible and our current experience really mattered that much. I had certainly never heard of postmodernism and had no idea how it had already shaped my worldview.
In contrast to my academic coursework in religious studies, the evangelical campus ministries I tried to participate in represented a potential retreat to the familiar faith of my youth. Yet I found myself growing more and more frustrated with these groups. Although my fellow students and I were being taught by our professors to think critically and examine the world around us and within us, at Campus Crusade for Christ and Baptist Student Ministry gatherings these incredibly smart students were checking their brains at the door to sing love songs to Jesus and have their faith buoyed against the evils of secular humanism and theological liberalism. The dissonance between our academic pursuits and this type of faith formation was jarring.
During this time one of my two most influential mentors was a scholar of Christian and intellectual history named John Stroup. He taught me the history of the Reformation and introduced me to postmodernism. He helped me see that The Matrix and Fight Club were profound and relevant spiritual texts. Though he feigned concern about the influence it might have on us, he assigned Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm, which foreshadowed my own studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School after college.
In hindsight, it was clear that Stroup did for me and several of my classmates what the evangelical campus ministries were incapable of doing: he helped us navigate the collapse of our childhood faith and shepherded us into new ways of understanding religion and spirituality. One year, in honor of the way he would introduce his classes, we made him a “Your Guide” hat like David Lee Roth wore in his video for “California Girls.” For a while, at least, I think he continued to wear it on the first day of class after we graduated.
Tonight I googled Stroup as I was thinking about his book on cultural pessimism. I discovered a blog post he recently wrote that describes his own perspective on the role he plays in the spiritual lives of his students. It’s called “Millennials and Spirituality: The Religion Professor as Secret Agent, a.k.a. Danger Man.” I encourage you to read it. For my readers, friends, colleagues, and students, it might give you some insight into my own spiritual formation during college and a bit of my academic pedigree—Stroup’s training and teaching reflect much of the turbulence of America’s recent religious history. More broadly, it raises important questions about the spiritual needs of young people and how college professors might address them.
This appears to be Stroup’s only blog post so far. I sure hope he’ll write more.