After I heard Tim Keller’s two-minute illustration (38:45–40:45) on the Sermon on the Mount, I tracked down the article he references.
Here it is (published 25 years ago):
Virginia Stem Owens. “God and Man at Texas A&M.” Reformed Journal 37, no. 11 (1987): 3–4.
Most of the students at my university come from middle-class, conservative, Republican families. The vices here, like the values, are traditional—weekend drunkenness and sexual promiscuity. Things a parent can understand.
Therefore, when I assigned my freshman English class “The Sermon on the Mount,” a selection in their rhetoric textbook taken from the King James Version, I had expected them to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the reading and to express a modicum of piety in their written responses. After all, Texas has always been considered at least marginally part of the Bible Belt.
The first paper I picked up began, “In my opinion religion is one big hoax.” I was mildly surprised since this came from a student who had never expressed a single iconoclastic notion the entire semester. I glanced at the opening sentence of the next paper: “There is an old saying that ‘you shouldn’t believe everything you read’ and it applies in this case.”
All right, I thought. Maybe this is just a fluke. I reached for the third paper. “It is hard to believe something that was written down thousands of years ago,” it began. “In the Bible Adam and Eve were the first two people and if they were then where did black people come from? Also the Bible says nothing about dinosaurs and I think God would of mentioned them.”
I put down my red pen. This was no fluke. What I had here was a major trend.
It was not, of course, the loose-jointed logic nor the minimalist approach to spelling and punctuation that surprised me. Although as a teacher I might feel duty-bound to probe their syllogisms and circle their misspellings, the question that I was personally interested in was, Why were these students (a) so angry at what they had read, and (b) so blithe in their dismissal of it? My own introduction to the Sermon on the Mount as a child in Sunday School had been accompanied by pastel poster illustrations of Jesus sitting, like a patient Mister Rogers, on a green hillside surrounded by eager, pink children. It had never occurred to me either to be angry or to turn away from such a scene.
As I read on, the answer to the first part of my question became clear. To wit
“The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not.”
“I did not like the essay ‘Sermon the Mount.’ It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.”
“The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery? That is the most extreme, stupid, un-human statement that I have ever heard.”
At this point I began to be encouraged. There is something exquisitely innocent about not realizing you shouldn’t call Jesus stupid. This was not exactly intellectual agnosticism talking here, usually the perceived foe of the faith. It was just down-home hedonism. It was Herod watching Salome dance. It was the disciples asking “Who then can be saved?” when Jesus deflated their dreams of wealth with the needle’s eye. This was the [p. 4] real thing, a pristine response to the gospel, unfiltered through a two-millennia cultural haze.
In fact, the anger was preferable to the blithe dismissal of the text I found in other papers.
“Many believe that this sermon should be taken literally. I believe, on the other hand, that, because the scriptures have been interpreted from so many different languages, we should use them as a guide—not law. Another fallback is that certain beattitudes are irrelevant to current life-styles. Loving your enemies, for instance, is obviously not observed by the majority today.”
Unfortunately, I have yet to come across a student who sees any logical contradiction between this morality-by-consensus stance and their favorite proverb. Who’s to say? It’s different things to different people.
In another paper, however, one which also relied on the irrelevancy premise, I found the most disconcerting assessment of all.
“In this essay the author explains the doctrines of an era in the past which cannot be brought into the future in the same context. This essay now cannot be taken the same way it was written. It can be used as a guideline for good manners.”
Good manners! Was this all that remained of the old-fashioned piety I had expected? The Sermon on the Mount reduced to suggestions by Emily Post?
Not all my students were religious illiterates, let me add. But that did not necessarily divert that undercurrent of anger. Some had gone to Sunday School. A few had attended parochial schools. One said he “learned a lot going to those schools. The discipline and religion both have helped me.” He does not specify how.
But one young woman who admitted she had “drifted away from the church lately” said that “no one knows exactly what to believe. If pondered enough, one can find reasons to prove almost all aspects of religion are false.” And she, more than any of her classmates, was offended at the Sermon on the Mount appearing unexpectedly in her textbook.
“This is a direct quote from the Bible. Why is it in the Literature Book? It simply states what I’ve studied in Sunday School & Confirmation over the past 18 years. I see no point in this. College is a time to reassess your life.”
So what do I make of these responses? First of all, I now understand why, in literature classes, one has to explain the simplest biblical allusions, even references to Jonah and the whale or Noah and the ark. Beyond that, however, I find it strangely heartening that, except for the young man who found the Sermon on the Mount a guide to good manners, the Bible remains offensive to honest, ignorant ears, just as it was in the first century. For me, that somehow validates its significance. Whereas the scriptures almost lost their characteristically astringent flavor during the past century, the current widespread biblical illiteracy should catapult us into a situation more nearly approximating that of their original, first-century audience. The Bible will no longer be choked by cloying cultural associations.
Certainly this prospect presents a number of frightening possibilities also. The underpinnings of society as we know it, already sagging dangerously, may collapse completely. As Western civilization expends what little biblical capital it has left, we may find ourselves living impoverished, not in just the post-modern age but in the New Barbarism, a sort of fluorescent Dark Age, like the inside of a mall.
On the other hand, those who dream of something brighter than fluorine and neon—or pastel posters—to illuminate their lives, may, by these living words, be lured outdoors into the true light.
—Virginia Stem Owens