I’m in the Boston airport headed home after a surprisingly good week at Harvard. I say “surprisingly” not because I expected anything bad, but because it was good in a way that surprised me.
I was here talking about journalistic writing with a group of Christian academics. Most of them were Evangelicals, though there were a couple of Catholics too. The ethos and the style of the meeting was very Evangelical. To be honest, that made me a little nervous, not for theological reasons, but because the Evangelical style is a poor fit for me. I don’t like to pray in public the way they do. That is, aside from liturgical or formal prayers, I keep my prayers to myself. Evangelicals don’t. That’s fine by me, but it’s not my way. I find Evangelical personalism to be off-putting.
So you can imagine how I seized up when, on the first day, members of the group were asked to introduce themselves to the others by giving their testimony (= Evangelical speak for “the story of how you came to believe in Jesus, or to discover a mature faith in Him). I would have been able to have told my story had the faculty been required to do so, but I was glad that self-disclosure in front of a group of strangers was not required.
All I knew of any of these academics was their CVs, the papers they had turned in before the workshop started, and, in one case, the academic’s professional reputation. I had an idea who in the group were the liberals, and who were the conservatives. That first session knocked me over. People got really intimate and vulnerable, really fast. I thought I had a pretty good bead on the people I would be working with over the course of the week, but it turns out they were really complex — and most of them had suffered in some serious way.
Never in a million years would a meeting I had anything to do with have started with testimonies (well, maybe a spiritual retreat, but this was a writing workshop, yes?). But it was an incredibly effective way to break down barriers. I’m not sure if anybody came into the meeting feeling defensive in any way, but that session disarmed people.
This turned out to be an effective writing strategy. As academics, most of them were given to writing in a stilted voice. The ice having been broken, we found that the next day, they were able to talk more personally about the passion that caused them to write about the topic they had chosen for their op-ed essay. This helped us coaches a great deal, because we learned that these issues weren’t merely, well, academic to them.
Each morning started out with a “devotional.” Don’t laugh, Evangelicals: I didn’t know what that was, and apparently neither did the two Catholics in the group, because after the first one was over, a Catholic said, “Hey, that devotional stuff is pretty good.” Then the other Catholic and I wisecracked about how different that kind of thing is from what we do in our traditions. But it was really us poking fun at ourselves, because we really had loved the devotional we had just heard. They were great all week, in fact. Who knew?
I can’t say much more than that here, out of respect for their privacy. There were no scandalous revelations or anything, but what was said at Harvard stays at Harvard. The point is, by the time we had our last session today, and were asked to pray for each other, I … prayed out loud for people. I had come to care for these people and their struggles. This wasn’t just business anymore. I had seen how much of themselves these scholars poured into their work, the kinds of professional defeats and professional challenges they carried with them, and how hard they struggle to do the right thing when it is by no means clear what that is in their particular situation.
In the cab to the airport, it occurred to me that for all the criticism I might offer of this or that thing about Evangelicalism, I really appreciated being pried out of my own formalism. Again, I wasn’t asked to share anything here, though I ended up doing so, when I felt it appropriate to a point about writing I wanted to make. What I mean is that I expected to be headed home after a satisfying week engaged in talking about writing and how to do it more effectively. What happened was something so much richer. Had I known it was going to be so spiritually intense, I might not have agreed to participate on the faculty, but boy, am I glad I did. It was great, really great.
So: yay Evangelicals. I learn so much from y’all. Thank you. I’m not going to change the way I pray, necessarily, but I appreciate you.
UPDATE: Forgot to say that in the cab on the way to the airport, I was saying all this to one of the event’s directors, a prominent Evangelical, who replied genially: “I hate to tell you, Rod, but you’re an Evangelical.” I took it as the compliment that he intended.