Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy
by Amy L. Peterson
Thomas Nelson, January 2020
In Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy, Collegeville Institute alumna Amy L. Peterson challenges evangelicals to reimagine virtues like goodness, kindness, and discernment. The following excerpt is from the chapter titled “Love.” Copyright © 2020 Thomas Nelson. Reproduced by permission.
We sat in a semicircle at a retreat center in the Ozark mountains, huge gray binders on the smooth desks in front of us, pencils at the ready. It was the first day of apologetics camp.
“Before we begin,” our teacher said, “we’re going to give a few minutes to a researcher who has asked for help with a project.”
He introduced Jerry, a dark-haired, bearded fellow in wire-rimmed glasses and a sport coat. “I’m a professor conducting research on the religious beliefs of young people,” Jerry explained. “I’d like to ask you all a few questions. First, is there anyone here who is not a Christian?” We looked around the room at each other, high schoolers eager to learn to defend our faith. Nope, no hands were raised. We were all Christians.
Jerry picked one student to address directly. “So you are a Christian,” he said. “Why?”
“I think it’s the best way of understanding the world?” the student responded tentatively.
“Oh, really?” Jerry looked amused. “And you’ve studied all possible ways of understanding the world?”
“Well, no.” The other students laughed nervously. Jerry pivoted to one of the gigglers.
“What about you? Why are you a Christian?”
The girl stopped smiling.
“Because Jesus saved me,” she said.
“Oh, yeah? Saved you from what?” he asked.
“From my sins.”
“You’re saying that because I haven’t been saved by Jesus, because I haven’t believed the same fairy tale as you, I’m a sinner going to hell?” Jerry pounced.
She nodded silently.
He got down eye to eye with her, and spat out, “You’re a narrow-minded, self-righteous bigot!”
The class was quiet.
Jerry stopped role-playing, and looked at us, serious and sympathetic.
The Bible says that we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have. Are you prepared to defend your beliefs when they are challenged?
“That’s what may happen when you go to college,” he told us. “You are going to face people who are hostile to your faith. The Bible says that we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have. Are you prepared to defend your beliefs when they are challenged?”
Obviously, the role-playing exercise had demonstrated that we were not. Jerry continued lecturing, painting pictures of the kinds of aggressive and offensive behavior we might expect from our college professors. He told us about a sociology professor who had informed a Christian student that if she persisted in believing that abortion was wrong and condoms should not be distributed in middle school, she would have a hard time becoming a social worker; an architecture professor who asked students to try silent meditation; a professor who claimed that communism was superior to any other economic system; a university chaplain who was openly gay; and dorms he’d visited where students did not respond happily to his statement that Jesus was the only way to God.
The solution to these various frightening situations, he assured us, was to be able to give a logical defense of the beliefs we held. It was the only way we would survive.
I should probably confess that I really liked apologetics camp. I went two summers in a row. I loved using critical thinking skills, learning to debate, and getting lost in the woods with smart teenagers who cared about their faith, who were a little geeky, who sought answers to life’s mysteries in Mahler and Dostoevsky. I liked some of the teachers better than others, but on the whole they were good people who were interested in art, science, film, and philosophy, and weren’t afraid of my questions. But instead of teaching me to be curious about the world and open to my neighbors, they taught me to be defensive—to walk through the world expecting opposition, ready to fight until I won my neighbors to my side.
This is the biggest problem with the way I was taught to share my faith—it was defensive and fear-based. It wasn’t the only problem, of course. It’s easy to see now that many of the beliefs we learned to defend were not theological but ethical. The examples Jerry gave to scare us about what we might encounter were only scary if you were coming from a particular partisan position and afraid of any outside influences. That there was a gay chaplain or that it might be difficult to be in social work if you were antiabortion—these were not facts that threatened my belief in God or in God’s goodness. Neither were they attacks on me personally or my faith.
Young evangelicals aren’t leaving because their devious atheist professors got to them but because they saw a church more interested in defending the truth of their political positions than in loving their neighbors.
We fail to distinguish between the experience of living in a pluralistic society and the experience of being persecuted for your beliefs. Putting issues such as these—gay marriage, abortion, evolution, gender roles, and political correctness—in our daily study agenda right next to the existence of God and the historical reliability of the Bible is deeply problematic. Perhaps it’s not too strong to say that the elevation of ethical positions to essential beliefs has led many people of my generation to leave the church. They aren’t leaving because their devious atheist professors got to them but because they saw a church more interested in defending the truth of their political positions than in loving their neighbors.
The strict dividing lines young evangelicals were taught to see between who was in and who was out, who was with us and who was against us, have contributed to the polarization of today’s political and religious climate. Our apologetics lesson didn’t teach us to listen to those who were different from us, but only to defeat their arguments. So the exvangelicals now calling for us to #emptythepews of churches that don’t fully align with their beliefs are in fact enacting the same kind of fundamentalist response they were taught when they were evangelical children: those who are not with us are against us. We aren’t here to listen to them, but to shut them down. On both sides, the need for total purity in ideological agreement ends the possibility of meaningful engagement or personal change or love.
Copyright © 2020. Reproduced by permission from Thomas Nelson.