At a vulnerable time in my spiritual development, I found myself at a Bible college with a 66-page rule book and little emphasis on grace. Other students seemed quite content in the controlled environment. In me, however, the campus culture encouraged more cynicism than faith.
My cynicism gradually softened over the course of my sophomore year. I found some relief in a new Christian Service assignment: “university work.” Four of us male students started visiting a nearby state university every Saturday night with the goal of engaging students in conversations about faith.
On our first visit I am dazzled by the plush dorms and student lounges, so different from the utilitarian buildings at the Bible college. Entranced, I study the bulletin boards covered with splashy posters announcing concerts, plays, and other student activities. I want to be one of these people more than I want to convert them.
Strolling through the campus, I notice a group of athletes sitting on a patio. “Where are you guys from?” I ask.
“We’re with the Yale baseball team. How about you?”
“Um, I attend a Bible college down the road, and we came over here to see if anyone wants to talk about spiritual things.” They exchange smirks. I continue, “You see, in God’s economy …”
“That’s funny,” one of the athletes interrupts. “I didn’t know God had an economy.” His teammates laugh, and blood rushes to my face. I head toward the student center to watch TV.
“Don’t worry, Philip,” my fellow students reassure me when I report on my botched attempt at witnessing. “At least you sowed the seed. God’s Word doesn’t return void.”
After that first attempt I spend nearly every Saturday night in the student center, catching up on sports and the news.
Class assignments force me to keep studying the Bible, which unexpectedly captures my interest. I read Ecclesiastes and recognize my own dreary cynicism. I read Psalms and Job and marvel that these sacred books would include such angry accusations against God. Such biblical outbursts are common, though the professors usually skip over them.
I realize I don’t know much about Jesus, apart from the stories I learned in Sunday school. As I study the four Gospels, I encounter more surprises. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” Jesus promises, which strikes me as ironic on a campus that stifles freedom. I’m beginning to like this guy. When someone asks him a question, he never uses circular reasoning. He’s enigmatic, elusive, impossible to pin down. Most times, he tosses the question back to the person who asked it.
If Jesus showed up on campus, I wonder, what would the administration do with him? Would he, too, get shot down for questioning his teachers?
My brother, Marshall, has encouraged me to read books by C. S. Lewis. Reading him, I feel a gentle pull toward belief. The book that hooks me most deeply was published the year I entered high school: A Grief Observed. I read about Lewis’s struggle to survive the “mad midnight moments,” then I lift my head and confront the happy-faced students around me, and the oyster shell snaps shut.
Shockingly, the college has hired a sociologist with a degree from Harvard. He assigns Erving Goffman’s book Asylums, a landmark study of what the author calls “total institutions.” Goffman suggests that institutions such as prisons, military academies, convents, insane asylums—and Bible colleges?—progressively condition their subjects so that in time the insiders habituate to their controlled setting. The ability to make a bed so tight that coins bounce off doesn’t help a recruit on the battlefield. It does, however, reinforce a military command structure: “I am in charge, and you must do what I say.”
As if to confirm my suspicions, in one of our private meetings the dean of men admits to me that he retains some petty rules simply to teach students to obey. Which gives me an idea for my sociology project.
I distribute a printed survey form to every male freshman and senior, asking such unscientific questions as “Which rule bothered you most on entering this school?” and “Has your attitude of rebellion against the school declined since you enrolled?” True to my hunch, the seniors accept, and even defend, rules and policies that freshmen think ridiculous.
When the dean finds a copy of my mimeographed survey in a trash can, once again I land on the faculty’s watch list. “This is an insurrection!” says the college president. “He can’t survey freshmen. They don’t know us!”—which was my point, exactly.
The project helps me separate the school’s subculture from the body of faith it so jealously guards. Perhaps I am resisting not God but people who speak for God. I’ve already learned to distrust my childhood churches’ views on race and politics. What else should I reject? A much harder question: What should I keep?
One scene from the Gospels, in John 6, grabs me. I’ve pictured Jesus as the crucified Messiah, rejected by his own people. But John’s account gives a glimpse of his early popularity. Huge crowds follow him around, dazzled by his miracles and hanging on his every word, eager to crown him as their king. How does Jesus respond? By retreating to a mountain. Undeterred, the crowds pursue him. The next day, Jesus gives some of his harshest teaching, so alienating the crowd that all but his closest followers abandon him. When Jesus asks his 12 core disciples if they, too, want to leave, they answer, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
I have always thought of God as an arm-twister, a cosmic bully who schemes to break anyone who dares resist. In this account, Jesus appears wistful, even forlorn, showing no interest in compelling belief. Jesus clearly did not use the techniques of Goffman’s total institutions.
From the Bible I am learning about a God who has a soft spot for rebels, who empowers such people as the adulterer David, the cheater Jacob, the whiner Jeremiah, the traitor Peter, and the human-rights abuser Saul of Tarsus. A God whose Son makes prodigals the heroes of his stories.
Could that God find a place for a cynical sneak like me?
Excerpted from Where the Light Fell: A Memoir by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 2021 by Philip Yancey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.