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After twenty years of listening to the punk band Bad Religion, I sent the group's front man a note. I greeted Greg Graffin, told him that he had fans among Christian college professors, and I asked about his doctoral work at Cornell University.

I was surprised to get a note back—and then another. After a few months I printed our emails. They came to over 100 pages.

Very little of the written conversation between Greg and me concerns the music of Bad Religion. He gets enough fan mail. Instead, we discussed what my students would call the "big questions." What is life for? What are people for? Why do people think God exists? If you listen to Bad Religion's lyrics, you know that these kinds of questions are important to Greg, who is an atheist.

In time, Greg turned his focus to recording another Bad Religion CD, and I had to face the mounting number of students in my classes. Our correspondence became casual and remains that way. But I learned a lot in those intense months.

For one thing, I realized that the kind of sustained written conversation Greg and I had is rare. It's rare because it takes time and mental energy. It also takes a commitment not to let the discussion turn into a debate. I've held to this commitment through radio interviews that followed the publication of Greg's and my correspondence. I've tried to resist the construal of our correspondence as a "debate." Yes, we disagreed and went at each other, but we didn't debate.

Debate is about winning, and that's important in many contexts. But I didn't care about winning. Nor did I care about "listening" in the gushy, politically correct sort of way associated with people-friendly evangelism.

Mainly I cared about learning. I wanted to learn how Greg sees the world, ...

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Lessons from a Punker Ph.D.
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September 2006

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