Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dear Professor

Last Friday, I was on campus to grade the ScanTrons for the multiple choice portion of my students’ final exams. Earlier in the semester, a professor had set out stacks of unwanted books, but I hadn’t had the time to look through the pile until that morning. Among old textbooks, I found John Warwick Montgomery’s History and Christianity which looks how historical methods are applied (or misapplied) to the New Testament record. The copy had been discarded from a local Christian college’s bookstore in 2000 (according to the stamp inside), and apparently made its way to my colleague’s office via a concerned student:
Dear Professor -----, Okay, bad start of this note. You said, and quite rightly, that most Christians, once you start examining their belief structure, you find them having a central belief system about as sturdy as pudding. This book examines and argues for Christianity from history, and is one of the many reasons I love history. My hope is that, as a historian, you will find the argumentation scholarly and of interest. I am not the type to follow anything or anyone blindly, and the case within I hope you do not find a waste of your time. As I will be up the road at ---------, and taking a course at --- in the fall, if you wish to speak with me, don’t be too slow to call or write.

The note was signed with the student’s name, phone number, and email address. It’s obvious from the tone that he was trying very hard to appear polite and formal and avoid sounding as uneducated and uninformed. As I scanned his note, I began to feel sorry for him. Why? I can imagine him vigorously scrawling on the inside cover with the sincere belief that his endorsement of a “scholarly” book would win instant approval. Although it’s impossible to tell whether or not the professor ever looked at Montgomery’s arguments, I strongly doubt it because of my knowledge of similar instances. It’s not necessarily a slight on the authors chosen, but a statement about reality. People – especially intellectuals and academics – listen to their social equals. A zealous student, poorly armed and in this case too insecure approach the target in person, isn’t going to impress even his Christian professors.

Do I think he should’ve left the professor alone? Of course not! Worse would be to entirely give up on the skeptical to outright hostile academics. But what I’d like to see is a better approach to witnessing, one that’s more likely to produce results. Maybe a series of office hour conversations that give both parties an opportunity to elaborate on their views, and specifically, the student an opportunity to earn the professor’s respect. Maybe an invitation to hear a speaker or witness a public debate featuring well-known and respected academics that the professor might be familiar with. But quietly gifting a book that the average professor doesn’t wish to take the time to read, even with an invitation for further discussion, doesn’t seem effective. Our goal as Christians isn’t to tallying up high number of tracts we distribute. We want to convert souls. And to do that, we need to meet people where they are.