Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Troubling Use of “Information”

For some time I’ve noticed a perplexing quality of college student word use.  Here are a couple of examples:

“I have to miss class tomorrow and I was wondering if I could get the information that you’re going to cover.”

“I want the professor just to give me the information without his/her opinion so that I can make up my own mind.”

I hear some version of these remarks fairly frequently and they alarm me.  In the second one, I can see the student’s concern for not being force-fed ideology and I’ll give that one to him.  It’s a legitimate concern, but in a broader sense reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of what should happen in a college (it was a political science) class.  Secondly, referring to course content as “information” sounds utterly lifeless and sterile, having no more than instrumental value, available only to be manipulated for some pragmatic aim.

(Disclaimer: I believe in the importance of facts and information.  I am not a rank subjectivist.  In fact, I hold an “externalist” view of truth – that it is really “out there” and available.  With that qualification, back to my point.)

How did we get here?  Well, clearly, the “information age” of personal computers and the worldwide web has helped dramatically.  I love the technology, but if we don’t pay attention to the paradigmatic control these computer metaphors are working on us, I can hardly imagine how impoverished, even perverse, our lives will become.

The other culprit is hiding in fifth or sixth grade classrooms, where students are indoctrinated with the fact/opinion distinction.  Certainly, there is a difference between facts and opinions and I applaud the intention, but I’m worried about the misleading implications.  A “fact” is evidently something beyond need of interpretation because it is “neutral.”  We trust facts.  “Opinions,” by contrast, are squishy and subjective and, most damming, idiosyncratic.  How many times have you heard, “That’s just your opinion,” as if the mere fact (yes, I meant that word) makes the whole thing dismissible?

It’s a short step from “fact” to “information,” Same feeling, same attitude, same problem.  First, it seems to assume that people are neutral information processors, a self-evidently absurd notion when one pauses to think about it (but who’s pausing?).  Likewise with facts.  Facts have to be applied and application requires interpretation.  We have to figure out what the facts mean. They tell us nothing in and of themselves.  Do students understand how important this step – from facts to meaning – is?

In this context, campus ministers have a crucial role to play.  The world needs wise, well-formed disciples of Jesus.  Wisdom requires thoughtfulness, the habit of taking into consideration a range of opinions, weighing evidence judiciously; most of all, it means applying truth lovingly, with the heart of Jesus.  In other words, to think well requires a well-formed character, which involves far more than “getting information.”  “Just getting the information” simply won’t cut it.

Campus ministers: we’re supposed to be about developing well-formed followers of Jesus.  We may not assign grades, but we’re still educators in the best sense of that word.  Precisely because we are not giving exams and assigning grades, we have the luxury of helping students learn, untrammeled by the pressures of academic demands.  Let us not squander this sacred opportunity.


October 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In a Sea of Gray Hair

These days I am near-obsessed by two constants: (1) in church gatherings, young people make up the tiniest sliver of the whole group.  I get invited a fair amount to preach here and there and the experience is always the same: a bare few young people in an ocean of gray hair and wrinkled faces.  I mean no offense.  I have plenty of gray hair and some sagging flesh myself.   (2)  Young people really do feel judged and rejected by church people.  I’m genuinely puzzled, because I’m around church folk who truly are kind, gentle, friendly people.  And then I hear another mind-boggling, gut-twisting account from a college student who was told not to come back to church until (s)he straightens out a drinking problem.  I don’t know whether to cry or cuss.  Sometimes I do both.  

Did the student misunderstand?  Maybe.  We’d love to think so.  But I’ve heard stories like this one too often to explain it away as youthful misunderstanding.  Maybe it happens because we’re still “reading” young people through the tumults of the’60s.  Many churches who should be joyfully interacting with young people let this memory dictate their vision and their attitude.  

We mistakenly think of college students as 21st century versions of what we (Baby Boomers) were.  We helped to institutionalize the generation gap.  When we were college students, we felt deceived and angry.  We had discovered the deep hypocrises of “the Establishment,” which included churches and denominations.  

Today’s college students feel excluded and hurt, not deceived and angry. Church leaders, pay attention!   Woundedness can certainly manifest in angry words.  The attitudes of today’s college students can remind us of the ’60s, but let’s take care not to miss the critical difference.  

As a number of studies have pointed out, young people today are knee-jerk individualists.  It’s what they know.  It’s the language they use.  But we should not be fooled by the language and we most certainly should not mistake it for some kind of generation gap.  Under the confident exterior (which is sincere), many college students are scared to death to mess up.  They want to know if we’ll still love them if we discover they’re not perfect.    

I’ve said in other posts that I have little interest in rescuing a denomination, although I love The United Methodist Church.  But I have to say, there is something quite bizarre, even grotesque, about large gatherings of Christians that involve so few young people.

How do we take a collective look in the mirror and get concerned enough actually to do something more than talk?

April 6, 2009 Posted by | Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

“Have to” Questions, “How Do You Know” Questions

I’m helping to teach a class that affords me opportunity to interact with college students about spirituality. In such venues two sets of questions alway arise. I’m thinking about the unhelpful ways we in the ministry often answer them

I call the two categories “have to” questions and “how do you know” questions. An example of the “have to” question: “Do I have to go to church in order to be a (good) Christian?”

To the “have to” question I can give a pat answer: “Well, no, of course you don’t have to go to church in order to be a good Christian. But good Christians want to do what helps them grow, and going to church helps us grow and…” Though true, I think this common answer is wide of the mark.

College students ask “have to” questions because they’re trying to figure out how to handle freedom. Hence, it not a question driven by rebellion, which is typically how we assess it. They are trying to make sense of the multifaceted nature of their desires. They want to be Christian. They don’t want to waste time doing something boring and unhelpful or being where they don’t feel connected or known. In other words, there might be a lot more to the “have to” question than the standard answer permits.

So, instead of answering with the somewhat expected (and superficial) answer, I think we ought to ask students why they want to know. What other thoughts are connected to the “have to” question? What’s driving them to be concerned? The important question: What is it like to be a grown-up Christian where “have to” is irrelevant? I’m reminded again (I’m a slow learner sometimes) of the importance of letting “have to” questions become the staging ground for transformative interaction.

An example of the “how do you know” question: “How do you know that your religion is the right one?” Students face a staggering array of options. After all, they Google something and they get seemingly limitless hits and a head-spinning range of possibilities. How do they know which option to pursue?

If, in response, I switch to “apologetics” mode and launch my vast intellectual armaments in defense of the faith (a very important task, to be sure, but misdirected here), I will lock on to what sounds like skepticism and completely miss the fragile openness, the hesitant vulnerability standing before me. I dare not stomp on the tenderness of this holy moment!

Now, I’m not advocating some version of the high brow liberalism (pardon the term) I got as a seminary student: you know, the “It’s not the answer but the question that matters” claptrap, which is superficially true, but usually intellectually dishonest. Sooner or later, everybody wants a satisfying answer, even while recognizing it’s only partial.

That point accepted, I still must recognize that the “have to” and the “how do you know” questions are golden opportunities for God’s grace to be poured out. If we care about evangelism; if we feel called to apologetics, let us please hold gently in our hearts the people asking the questions.

April 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments