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Intervarsity Christian Fellowship

From Books & Culture, Nov/Dec 2001

Coming of Age in Ontario: An anthropologist bonds with a tribe called “InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.”

John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University by Paul A. Bradmadat Oxford Univ. Press, 2000 224 pp.; $35

To see ourselves as others see us has been more possible for North Atlantic evangelicals in the last 50 years than perhaps ever before. Since 1976, the so-called Year of the Evangelical, mainstream media have regularly featured evangelical churches, organizations, and leaders. At least as interesting to Books & Culture readers, however, is the flood of academic research that has poured forth from the presses since that time, and especially since George Marsden’s landmark study, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980).

Perhaps the last social scientific discipline to engage evangelicalism has been anthropology. In a new book, University of Winnipeg religious studies professor Paul Bramadat offers the first ethnographical study of a distinctive form of evangelical community: the Christian student fellowship on a secular university campus.

The Church on the World’s Turf is based on Bramadat’s doctoral dissertation at McMaster University, a major university located southwest of Toronto in Hamilton, Ontario. Bramadat studied the McMaster chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF)

for two extended periods: the fall term of 1994 and the entire academic year 1995-96. He attended most of the IVCF events and interviewed many of its leaders and rank-and-file members. He then went more than the proverbial extra mile as he concluded his field research by accompanying an evangelistic team of IVCFers to Lithuania in the spring of 1996.

The resulting study is a rich portrait of a group that will be generically familiar to many evangelicals, yet painted by a sympathetic outsider. Bramadat follows postmodern convention and identifies himself and his biases in his introduction. He is definitely an outsider: a Unitarian Universalist who, he says, “was predisposed to be tolerant of almost everyone except evangelicals or fundamentalists.” Yet he seems to have made an earnest effort to become analytically sympathetic to his subjects. He recognizes that an interpreter fails to truly understand a group if he cannot discern, and then demonstrate, how such a group of people could possibly think and do that.

Indeed, Bramadat went an extra mile in this respect as well. He tried sincerely, he writes, “throughout this project to remain both intellectually and emotionally open to their Lord.” The students who got to know him also thought, he says, that he had come very close to converting. Whether this measure of openness to one’s subject is required for good social science is debatable. But Bramadat cannot be suspected of setting up his evangelical subjects merely as convenient pots at which to aim liberal, secular, or social-scientific missiles.

IVCF emerges here in dynamics quite recognizable to many B&C readers. Bramadat deploys the metaphors of “bridges” and “fortresses” to depict the ambiguous relationship of this group of students with its university home. The very title of the book, of course, implies this relationship. “The church” (IVCF)

is not claiming the university as its own. Indeed, it has ceded the university to “the world.” But it is present nonetheless “on the world’s turf.” And Bramadat indicates that IVCF members are involved not only in their classes but in other sectors of campus life as well. They are not merely huddling in a holy ghetto on campus.

Bramadat demonstrates, however, that IVCFers are more sectarian than churchly. In a chapter devoted to “Otherness,” these evangelicals apparently perceive themselves as quite distinct from their fellow students and from the university as a society. Predictably, this alienation shows up as students feel pressure to toe certain lines of political correctness in class and in the dorms regarding evolution, homosexuality, and religious pluralism. Bramadat quotes McMaster Divinity College professor Clark Pinnock sounding like the late Francis Schaeffer as he tells the students that “there is no common ground between Christianity and secularism.” While Pinnock encourages intellectual exchange with secularists on campus, Bramadat, at least, understands Pinnock as commending primarily a “fortress” mentality.

Other evangelical attitudes clearly helped Bramadat keep his personal distance from the group. Roman Catholics, for example, were widely assumed in the IVCF group to be simply “non-Christians”-even though IVCF has been welcoming Roman Catholic members for more than a generation. Only two of almost 200 members were majoring in religious studies. Yet McMaster’s department, as I know personally, includes several faculty members who are congenial toward evangelicalism. None of them are mentioned in this book. It is not clear, in fact, that IVCF students understand what religious studies actually is on a secular campus. One of them says to Bramadat, “It’s weird. [The religious studies professors] just don’t want to hear about your personal beliefs, which just takes away from the discussion of religious texts and personalities.. I have nothing against learning about the texts, but.. I don’t like not being able to express something that is so important in my life.”

As both Unitarian and social scientist, Bramadat is clearly bemused by the frequent references to spiritual warfare, and devotes an entire chapter to “Satan and the Spiritual Realm.” I interpret this emphasis as an indication of the increasing impact of charismatic and Pentecostal emphases in evangelicalism, as is the group’s choice of worship music primarily from Vineyard-style songs. Twenty years ago, when I belonged to a similar IVCF chapter at a university not far from McMaster, almost no one ever referred to demons, and Vineyard music was just beginning to blossom.

Perhaps most interesting in this account, but also perhaps most ephemeral, is the frequent reference to the novels of Frank Peretti as providing images and categories for conversation in this zone. I wonder whether IVCFers nowadays, just five years later, are still talking this way, now that the popularity of Peretti’s novels has waned.

At least one more thing keeps Bramadat from embracing this group’s religion: its lack of serious intellectual interest and ability. Here, at one of Canada’s most selective and productive research universities, the students at IVCF seem much more interested in the affective, relational, and moral dimensions of their faith than the intellectual. That perhaps is not entirely surprising. But when the intellectual aspect of Christianity is directly on trial, it is disappointing to find that representatives of the group fail badly to meet the challenge.

In what was for me the most miserable narrative in the book, the evangelistic team to Lithuania decides to hold an evening event during which the more established Christians would answer typical apologetic questions regarding the problem of evil, the reliability of the Bible, religious pluralism, and so on. Some members got cold feet the night before-prudently, it would seem. One of them confesses to the others, “What am I going to say if someone asks me about fossils or Hinduism? What do I know about that stuff?”

As Bramadat relates, no one else on the team seemed to know much about fossils, Hinduism, or anything else of apologetic interest to the dozen Lithuanians who showed up for the meeting. When one Lithuanian demanded an accounting for atrocities perpetrated by Christians through the centuries, an IVCFer responded, “Well, I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think it’s really our place to judge other people.” When someone asked about reincarnation, another team member replied, “Well, that’s an interesting question. All I can say is that we should all read the Bible and find out what it has to say about these questions, because there can’t be more than one Truth.” Similar questions met with similar answers-or evasions, as Bramadat dryly notes.

Bramadat proceeds to discuss Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind to help his readers make sense of this disaster. But mere analysis doesn’t remove the sting from anyone who cares about evangelical intellectual life even on our leading campuses. Bramadat’s sketch, however, is not simply a list of traits he found perplexing or troublesome. In what might count as the most surprising chapter in the book, he discusses “The Role of Women” who make up the majority of the membership. He concludes that IVCF provides several crucial services to evangelical women: it offers them positions of leadership in a subculture that still generally does not; it gives them a safe place to negotiate the competing truth claims offered in the secular university; and it worships God in a style of piety that is suited especially to single women, with quasi-erotic and feminine imagery in prayers and especially in songs.

This last point might discomfit some readers, but Bramadat details his findings, citing lyrics from what he calls “repetitive, yearning songs” sung at IVCF events. He also notes that IVCF men refer to Jesus in typical masculine roles as “judge, father, teacher, mentor, and, least frequently, friend,” while the women envision Jesus as “the kind, sensitive recipient and unconditional requiter of love.” What Bramadat sees here in microcosm, of course, other observers have noted throughout contemporary evangelical piety.

Bramadat also hints that he admires the way IVCF students distance themselves from their peers at McMaster, particularly in the moral realm. They simply do not abuse drugs and alcohol as their dormmates do, and they refuse to engage in the casual sex, or even the “serial monogamy” of sequential exclusive sexual relationships, which is now typical of students. Indeed, it is in the moral sphere, much more than the intellectual sphere, that the IVCF at McMaster draws its clearest lines between “the church” and “the world.”

Bramadat is a careful enough interpreter to notice that the lines are not always sharp. He cites student references to popular television shows and movies, and wonders how IVCFers who espouse a traditional sexual ethic can so easily enjoy programs such as Seinfeld and Friends. He notes the way the students mimic and quote the characters, seemingly without any sense of dissonance, much less embarrassment.

He sees that, in the dynamics of IVCF as being in fact a mediating institution between church and world, some things come across the bridges into the fortress that perhaps should be kept out. Bramadat recognizes that IVCFers at McMaster are, like so many of the rest of us, bricoleurs (yes, he invokes Levi-Strauss). And he generously cautions his readers against expecting of evangelicals “a degree of self-awareness or consistency we do not expect of non-evangelicals.” Pastors and parents of such young people can decide how much comfort, however, lies in such words!

There is more that Bramadat notices along the way, including a hilariously sober account of evangelical prayer practices that involve both the frequent use of the modifier “just” (as in “Lord, we just want to ask you”) and what Bramadat calls the typical evangelical mouth-click. He tries to interpret the latter remarkable mannerism:

Its location in the rhetoric is similar to and often follows the word “just”: “God, we just [pause.. click] want to thank you for your son and to ask you..” By implying that the speaker is unable to finish a prayer because he or she is overwhelmed by the opportunity to communicate with God, this sound softens the believer’s petition [which otherwise might sound arrogant].

Most of Bramadat’s observations are significantly more substantial than this, of course. And with his light interpretive touch-aware of theory regarding secularization, pluralization, privatization, and a whole range of other social processes, but beholden to none-Bramadat’s book sets a high standard for the anthropological studies of other evangelical groups that one hopes will follow.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, and author of Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century: An Introduction to Its Character (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1993.)

Copyright – 2001 by the author or Christianity Today, Inc./Books & Culture magazine. Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture. November/December 2001, Vol. 7, No. 6, Page 22

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