Seeking an authentic faith and a solid education, this writer enrolled at Oral Roberts University. Soon, he was questioning his choice of schools—and keeping a list.
By Patton Dodd
“I love the beginning of the semester,” says the professor for my technical journalism class, smiling, his gray hair radiating about his face, which is all teeth and eyes. “So much goodwill, so much expectation.” His warmth spreads over us. “The campus is filled with young, brilliant new minds and hearts who are ready to see the spirit of God move in their lives.”
Amens ripple through the classroom. I offer one too. Never expected a professor to start a class this way, but I am rather enjoying it. Plus, this guy has come highly recommended. I feel like giving my neighbor a hug.
“Now, to begin, I never want to go through a class session without praying together,” he says. More Amens. “So let’s just start the semester that way, shall we? I love praying with my students, and I think it’s important for us to feed our hearts and spirits together—just as important as feeding our minds.” More Amens abound. He is half-preacher and half-teacher, even more so than I expected from my ORU professors. He will guide our spirits to God and our minds to journalistic know-how.
He asks for prayer requests and writes each one on the chalkboard. He takes time doing so, dialoguing a bit with each student who makes a request. He nominates a couple of the students to lead us in prayer for some of the requests, and at last our prayer session begins. We take it long and slow. A half hour passes, then ten more minutes, before we are done. There is no hurry, I suppose. We have the entire semester to learn about technical journalism.
I do find this a little odd, though—if only because my suspicion that things might be odd has been raised. Without really know that I’m doing, I have started to compile a list of Screwy Christian Stuff: certain parts of the Bible, certain interactions with other believers, certain moments in certain church services that upset my idea of a Christianity that works the way I expect it to.
When I arrived at ORU, I thought I knew what Christianity—at least charismatic Christianity—smelled like, felt like; but I am quickly discovering the extent of my own naivete.
Near the top of the list of Screwy Stuff: Naming it and claiming it. Prayers that name what the pray-er wants, and claim what the pray-er wants. Name it and claim it, goes the imperative. If you name it and claim it, you will get it.
My mind is boggled by this formula for the first time at a dorm prayer meeting I attend. Not bothered, not bemused, but boggled, astonished into confusion. Tossed all around. It could have been, maybe should have been, a blip on the screen, a bump in the road I hop over and move on. But, no. It is a boggling.
At the beginning of the meeting someone stands up and asks for prayer requests. Hands pop up, are called upon. Requests are taken. A sister-in-law has been diagnosed with cancer. A father is falling away from the Lord. The MCAT is coming up. One person needs help paying for overdue medical bills, another for buying a new truck so he can get to work.
After the requests, people volunteer to pray for each one. The guy who needs the truck volunteers to pray for his own request, and when he does, he names it and claims it:
“Father, You know I need a new truck, so right now I just claim a Toyota 4x4, 3.4 liter, six-cylinder, extended cab . . . red with white trim. I need low payments and affordable insurance. I just claim these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
This being the first time I’ve heard anything like it, I look around and expect to see everyone smiling and nodding along with the joke. But all heads are bowed, all eyes closed. The prayers continue in all seriousness, from the Toyota to cancer.
I slide down into my seat, into my boggling. This, I will discover, is a strange breed of Pentecostalism, a teaching of personal empowerment that had a heyday but is in its dying gasps. But everyone seems on board with it in this moment, and that frightens me into wondering if I am supposed to be on board, too.
Also on the Screwy list: Is Jesus mean?
I am sitting in the lighting booth at the Mabee Center, running lights for a conference (it’s my work study gig; nice work if you can get it). I raise the lights at one point and lower them at another, and have ninety minutes in between to fill as I please.
I please to fill these minutes by reading the Gospel According to Matthew, but I am not pleased to discover something there that I have never noticed before: Jesus sounds rude.
The Jesus I know, the Jesus I love, is uniformly kind, caring, sacrificial, wise, supernaturally powerful. I’ve read the gospels regularly for over a year now and have found this Jesus reliably present. But now, for some reason, as I turn the crinkling, red-and-black inked pages in the lighting booth, a new, sterner Jesus suddenly and forcefully comes into view. A Jesus who is unhelpful. Intentionally confusing. Rude.
When Jesus saw the crowd around Him, He gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to Him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Another disciple said to Him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:18–22).
This is not the Jesus I know, not the Great Lover, the Provider of My Every Need. My Jesus is desperate to save souls. He is desirous of helping people receive His love. He is passionate for everybody, and He is so glad when we acknowledge that passion and dwell in it. He is happy when we are happy. But is the Jesus in these passages that same figure?
I am fine with Jesus being critical of His criticizers. He is hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees because they are legalists who want to control people. I cheer Jesus on as He chastises them and uses their own Scriptures against them. I even understand why He pledges to bring not peace but a sword to the earth. He says He has come to turn family members against one another, that households will be torn apart because of Him. I can appreciate this because I have seen it happen—friends who accept Jesus against their parents’ agnostic will, and such.
But Jesus’ harsh criticisms also reach into places I do not expect. After one parable, Jesus’ friend Peter asks for an explanation. “Are you still so dull?” Jesus snaps. Worse, Jesus appears to dishonor His own family. Once when someone tells Jesus that His mother and brothers are standing outside and waiting to see Him, Jesus replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He suggests that His true family is “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 12:46–50). I see His point, but does He have to ignore His mom? And how does this fit with my understanding of a God who wants everyone to be a part of a loving family, a God who focuses on the family and wants us to do the same?
Turning more crinkly pages, I read—as if for the first time—the story of Jesus calling a Canaanite woman a dog. She cries out to Him to deliver her daughter of demonic possession. “Jesus did not answer a word,” says Matthew (15:23). The Great Lover ignores her cries. The woman doesn’t let up, and finally, Jesus’ disciples beg Him to do something to shut her up. “Send her away,” they plead. “She keeps crying after us.” Jesus will have none of it. Why? Because the woman isn’t a Jew. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Even when the woman forces her way to Jesus, kneels at His feet, and cries, “Lord, help me!” Jesus is unmoved. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs,” He says.
No, not says. He mutters. He snipes. He sneers. I try to imagine the way He must have spoken to her. Could He have said it lovingly? Please oh God, show me how He must have said this lovingly. But I know He didn’t. It’s right there on the page, plain to see. I’ve read Matthew a hundred times and never noticed it, but tonight it is leaping from the page.
Fortunately, the Gentile dog is ready with a witty retort. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus likes this. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Her daughter, adds Matthew, was healed that very hour.
He rewards her faith in spite of her ethnicity. Maybe it is all about faith, but this kind of faith, faith-as-token, faith-as-ticket, is not what I expected from my journey into faith, not what I expected from Jesus.
There’s more. Jesus doesn’t always appear to want people to understand His parables (Matthew 13). So far from trying desperately to help people understand that He is the Savior of their souls, Jesus obscures the truth. He predicts quick death and destruction for people who won’t believe the disciples’ preaching (Matthew 10). He cries out against the cities that don’t repent after He performs miracles (Matthew 11).
I can make sense of some of this. Of course Jesus is mad at people who don’t repent after He heals diseases right before their eyes. Of course He becomes frustrated with the silly disciples who have to be told everything ten, twenty, fifty times before they get it. But still, on the basis of everything else I’ve learned about Jesus from CCM and Quiet Time devotionals, the gospels are nothing short of scandalous. Jesus storms through the pages of Matthew in a way I have never seen before, and I am frightened by it. My stomach clenches. I would cry if I were not so horrified. Why has this stuff not been explained to me? I am attending a Christian university. We should be talking about this!
But maybe the problem is that my biblical vision has been veiled. Maybe I have developed cataracts of doubt. If I cannot see in the gospels the wondrous grace of God—even after I have believed in it fully and experienced it excitedly for over a year—then something must be wrong with me.
Patton Dodd is a doctoral candidate in religion and literature at Boston University and the author of My Faith So Far, from which this essay is excerpted by permission of the author and Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.
Seeing Red By Stephanie Hunt Obama's presidential victory is a huge step forward for our nation. But in the Carolinas, it's still North versus South.
October 29, 2008
Ghost Writer By Mary Beth Crain Our senior editor talks about her new book, "Haunted U.S. Battelfields," the perfect read for a creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, altogether ooky All Hallows Eve.
October 26, 2008
The Poison Seeds Spread by Dying Congregations By Matthew Streib Just as a certain presidential candidate has gone to the extremes of negativity in a desperate attempt to keep his campaign alive, so parallels can be seen on the religious front.