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Breaking Stereotypes

{Note:  This is the manuscript of my essay for “The Truth That Makes Them Free" Anthology, described in this post. Thus it is longer than most posts.}

 “Always share your faith. If necessary, use words.”
      St. Francis of Assisi
"Ooh", said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he...quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion!"
"That you will deary and no mistake", said Mrs. Beaver. "If there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?", said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn't safe.....but he's good. He's the King I tell you."
C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

I grew up in a normal American family—my parents and a younger sister. We were Americans, so that meant we were Christians. Then, when I was around the second grade, my dad was urged by his father, “Kevin, you get those kids into church!” So, we started attending a Methodist church. My sister and I didn’t find the services terribly interesting, but I seemed to absorb the Bible stories in Sunday School. Several years passed, and Dad’s Sunday School teacher began to challenge him to take the Bible’s claims about truth seriously. Thus began a bittersweet time for my sister and I—we went from listening to music in the car to all of these radio preachers, hardly an enticement for young kids to be interested in spiritual things. 

However, Dad and I would talk for hours about what he was learning—I don’t remember what all we talked about, just that we did. I also remember being able to tell people when I was around 10 that I was an agnostic and actually had a clue what it meant. I read Revelation during junior high because it sounded interesting, and strongly considered believing, “just in case,” but I soon realized that if God really was God, then he’d see through such a ‘fire insurance’ faith. During 7th grade, I went through my church’s Confirmation Class, and was the one asking the most questions. Sometimes the whole class period was me and the pastor going back and forth. Yet when confirmation came, I couldn’t stand in front of the congregation and tell them I was confirming my belief, because I didn’t have a belief to confirm, so I sat with my folks in the pew while the rest of my peers went up.

Still, Dad and I kept searching. Finally, when I was around 15-16, I decided I was ready, that I did believe that God was real, that Jesus was both real and God’s Son, and died in my place for my sin. I was a pretty well-behaved, complacent kid, but still found ways to do things I knew I shouldn’t, so I needed Him. The funny thing, in retrospect, is that I prayed for Christ to come into my life and cover me with His sacrifice a number of times. I can remember two of them, but not even which was earlier, and know there were others. Finally, God must have been tired of the repetition, and conveyed to me through some sermon or something somewhere that I just had to ask once. It was almost as if He was saying good-naturedly, “Ok, kid, cut it out! You’re in! Let’s move on.” As I was basically a good kid, there wasn’t anything like you hear in a stereotypical conversion story—some miraculous turn-around in my life, no healed addictions, no angelic anthems, not even any giddy feelings of freedom. Just life.

My parents never baptized me or my sister because they believed it should be our decision. Now that I was officially a Christian, I knew I should get baptized, but I was uncomfortable getting up in front of the church and professing my faith through baptism for some reason. Maybe it was because I assumed they all thought I was already a believer, and was ashamed to let them know otherwise. Possibly, and even stranger, I was embarrassed to confess Christ in front of my own church?!? Who knows. I was a teenager—that’s probably reason enough. Towards the end of my senior year in high school, I realized (probably through one of Dad’s radio preachers) that Christianity was not merely a religion, but a relationship, and like any relationship, you need to spend time together. So I began to pray daily and read the Bible.

Off to the ‘big liberal university’ that was UT. I knew that if my faith was to survive in that environment, I needed to become involved with other Christians. A guy from my old youth group was a year ahead of me at UT and helped me get involved with the Campus Crusade group. It was in their small group Bible studies that I really began to grow in my faith and understanding of spiritual things. It was an exciting and fun time. I explored a number of churches my first year, stretching my wings and seeing what was out there. I was on my own, and aware of new temptations. However, they largely didn’t appeal to me enough to pursue them for some reason, and I was spared a lot of pain and heartache. I found a great church, that some relatives also happened to attend, but mostly my Crusade friends.

For some reason, I never experienced the crises in faith that many typically do as a result of their college classes. I was chemistry major in the hard sciences, but never encountered the severe hostility from my professors that one hears about. I recognized that most came from a different worldview, and was comfortable enough with mine that I just let any comments that may have been made blow past unnoticed. The biggest challenges came from other students in Jester dorm on the honors floor on which I lived for two years. Some Christian friends and I regularly got into discussions and debates with them, and we mostly agreed to disagree. I think most of us enjoyed the repartee, even as much as we wanted to convince the others. It challenged and sharpened me—keeping me from taking my faith for granted and encouraging me to dig deeper to understand the whys of my faith—the apologetics.

When I entered college, my dream was to get my Ph.D., become some white-coated researcher on the cutting edge of chemistry in some secret government lab, Nobel Prize by age 26, and so on. In the fall of my junior year, I had a bit of a crisis when I hit the upper division chemistry courses and for pretty much the first time in my life, I had to kick it up a notch to take my studies seriously. It turned out to reverse a gradual GPA slide, but it brought about a more existential crisis—to wit, I decided that ‘people were more important than molecules.’ I began to consider seminary and a career as a pastor.

To understand why this was a significant development, you have to understand a deep frustration I had. While I was (and am) eternally grateful for the growth and training I got through Crusade, I objected strongly to the sometimes not-so-subtle pressure that many parachurch organizations put on to students to pursue ‘full-time Christian work” upon graduation. My feeling was that if all the Christians went into “full-time Christian work” then who would run the post office?! I was bound and determined to be a “full-time Christian worker” in my secular career. Now, I was in a place where I was considering doing that to which I was adamantly opposed. I finally rationalized that if I became a pastor, I could get a WHOLE congregation of folks to do “full-time Christian work” in their secular jobs.

After months of talking to folks, visiting a couple of seminaries, and of course a lot of prayer, the following January, I felt like God was calling me instead to stay in chemistry through the Ph.D. but instead become a professor in order to reach out to the hundreds of freshmen in my general chemistry classes—offering them a friendly face who cared for them in the mass of humanity at a large university. It was a V-8 moment—of course! Why didn’t I think of it earlier? All of a sudden, I had a passion for teaching. The ironic thing is that Dad was a professor at a community college, and my maternal grandma had taught high school math. It must have been in the genes.

In spite of an unspectacular, though solid GPA, I got into every grad school to which I applied, and ended up at Michigan. There, I went through a number of academic challenges, but managed to survive to candidacy. Whoever described grad school as the “long dark night of the soul” sure got it right. In spite of this, I found a good church, and in 1994, was one of many volunteers that helped bring the Veritas Forum to Ann Arbor. In that period, I developed some relationships with the lead organizers, who at the same time were developing a vision for a grad student ministry under the joint auspices of Crusade and the Navigators. Thus, I was one of the charter students in yet another Crusade group. Between that and my roles at the student church I attended, I was growing deeper in my faith and trying to help mentor others.

I was blessed to get a faculty position fairly quickly that was teaching focused at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. Continuing the theme of ministry, I was the faculty sponsor of yet another Campus Crusade group, this time one I was trying to start. While I ultimately was unable to get a core of students to take ownership of the group so that I could take the more backseat role of advising, I was grateful and amazed that to see yet another broken stereotype—I tended to have more people with questions about Christianity come than folks who already had a faith in Christ, including a couple of faculty members. Being in the heart of the Bible Belt, I was respected for my faith even by those who didn’t share in it, something I recognized as precious, but didn’t realize how much so until recently.

For a number of personal reasons, I chose to leave after three years to move back to Austin where I tried the ‘corporate world.’ It was a challenging time, yet rewarding. I learned quite a bit about myself, yet ultimately, the company and I parted on reasonably friendly terms, but parted nonetheless. The next two years were difficult as I had to reassess my career path and still pay my bills. I will say that every time I was out of money and had no prospect for paying them, I would have enough work to cover what was absolutely needed. There are only so many times that things can work ‘just so’ before one has to give up calling it coincidence, and that, I found out, is stereotypical for people with a Christian faith.

When I was at the final end of my money and the end of my credit, with nothing left to fall back on, I learned of a lecturer position at UT teaching the physical chemistry labs, and was hired. This was more than just a real job when I needed it—it was also the unlooked for fulfillment of a dream from my later undergrad days, that was actually a factor in why I chose Michigan for grad school—the dream to teach at my alma mater. To avoid ‘academic inbreeding’ it is generally recommended that one get their schooling from different institutions, so the proverb goes, “if you want to come back, you must go away first.”

And here I was. I was back. Not quite in the way I had expected—a contract faculty position rather than tenure-track, and nearly destitute, but I was back. To add even more poignancy to the situation, the research lab desk of one of my first teaching assistants was my old desk from when I did undergrad research. The space had changed hands when my professor retired, but the office layout was the same, and Dave had my old desk. My new office was at the opposite end of the same hallway as my old. Sometimes, maybe, you can come home again. Was God behind this, or just the working out of the pattern begun years before, or just coincidence?

Now, having been back at UT for five years—longer as a faculty member now than as a student—I find the environment continues to challenge my faith in new ways. Being colleagues with my former professors has been a new maze to navigate, and it has had a few rough patches as we have had to adjust to the new roles we now have with each other. Then, somehow, I wound up leading the faculty ministry here, and it is a lot harder than doing student ministry—we are busier and tend to have different priorities and definitions of ministry, which means that the traditional form of campus ministry is less effective. This has led me to start a daily blog for Christian academics, called The Scholar Redeemer ( to be an asynchronous resource.

The largest challenge is how to reconcile stereotypical aspects of faith with the demands of being responsible for the education of my students. One of the most freeing books for me in this area is “No More Christian Nice Guy” by Paul Coughlin. Like the Narnia passage at the front of this essay, it helped me to see that “nice” is not equal to “good.” As I teach upper division students, most of whom are near graduation, I feel a certain responsibility to help them learn that college and the real world are different places and have different expectations, that the world doesn’t put up with the things the ivory tower does. I have come to see myself in many ways as a coach, getting them ready for the big game. I find I sometimes have to nail them hard in my one credit hour lab so they learn the lesson here, and not when they have a family and a mortgage. Coaches are not nice to their players, and that is the mark of a good coach. This lesson has been one that has taken me 20 years to learn well enough to be able to teach it to others. It is a struggle still for me to balance, or rather, integrate, fully supporting my students, and giving them a good swift kick in the motivation.

What is the point of all this? Simply that both as a student and as a faculty member, I have found God to be real and present at UT. He has used the spiritually challenging environment here to continually sharpen and challenge my faith and more importantly, my understanding of who He is—what is goodness and holiness, what does it mean to be able to rightly handle Scriptural principles in an environment that would rather go hard on faith than easy, and to discover the robustness of a Christian spirituality that defies stereotype.

Reflecting back on the strange twists and turns of my life and career, I’m reminded of a passage from a short story I wrote while in grad school, where I describe things that do “not come about in the normal course of things, but caused by the very hand of God rippling through [our] lives like a fish flashing silver past in a stream, so sudden and unexpected, yet beautiful, mysterious, exciting. Beyond understanding, but saying, "Come, and behold.  I AM the Lord, the God of all flesh.  I AM come.  Come to me.  I will show you all this and more.  Come; taste and see.  I want you to understand, that is why I AM here."


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