In It with Them: Embracing Process and Authenticity as Transformational Points of Connection
Richard K. Olsen, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Associate Professor and Department Chair
The essay is as much a confessional as a guide. Sharing my account of integrating and negotiating my personal faith journey with what I believe is my calling to teach at a public university should not imply that I have always done it well. I know that I have always felt drawn to the public academic environment; however, I have not always been a bold witness for Christ. I have been bold at times and enjoyed support. Other times, I have experienced prejudice because of my faith—in part because of the reputation that mean-spirited and poorly thinking Christians have given our faith. But overall, these negative instances have been rare. Ultimately, I feel my contribution as a Christian faculty member on a public campus has been to present the reasonableness of a Christian worldview and the ability to be fully human and fully Christian at the same time. Put another way, I have been as much of a witness in my authenticity and vulnerabilities as in my accomplishments and competencies.
In what follows I explain how living “in between” different groups throughout my life creates a healthy tension that has informed my approach to integration as a type of invitational pedagogy that results in transformational encounters inside and outside the classroom. I will then share several specific integration strategies stemming from this “in between-ness” that help to cultivate a hospitable environment and invite redemptive reflection.
To understand my comfort level as a Christian at a secular school requires a quick journey back to my high school days in central Connecticut. I did not grow up in a Christian home. My early childhood was impacted by alcoholism, infidelity, and divorce. My mother was an alcoholic who eventually found Christ. Meeting Christian counselors at a summer camp sponsored by her church later helped me come to the point of accepting Christ.
As a young Christian entering high school, I dealt with a largely absentee dad and finding out who I was to be in the world. I was in drama club, student newspaper, and track and field; I took college prep classes and shop class while in Future Farmers of America (FFA) for forestry. I lay all that out to say that I have always lived in between different groups and grew to be comfortable with that. I was the smart one in FFA, the weird one on my track team, the sporty one in the drama club, and so on.
Fast forward to my graduate studies. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Regent University. Although perceived by many to be a homogeneous evangelical institution, that was not my experience. Rather, I enjoyed deep discussions that were informed by a wide range of theological perspectives and backgrounds from Pentecostals to Catholics and urban to rural, international, and more. That experience helped me to grow vastly in my understanding of faith as a process of living out beliefs. That there could be a range of beliefs, of commitments, of perspectives within the umbrella of orthodoxy was revolutionary to my thinking. As I was exposed to this variety in both my readings and my classmates I began to understand what tolerance and inclusion really meant. They do not mean we overlook differences or try to minimize them. It means that we can stay in authentic community anyway or even because of our differences.
As I navigated my graduate studies I trusted God that my ultimate goal of teaching at a secular school would be not be hindered by studying at a religious institution. When I was hired, there were concerns about my Ph.D. from a faith-based school among the administration and the faculty within my department. All I could do to ease those concerns was to be a great colleague, teacher, and scholar. And that is was I set out to do.
But my faith commitments still heavily informed my teaching as did my background living “in between.” That is why I wanted to be at a public school. I wanted to be a subject matter expert in communication studies and transform lives through the content of my discipline and the power of the Gospel. Teaching about the power of words is a natural platform for pointing to the power of the Word, Jesus. But I needed to do so in a way that did not violate the trust of the students or the mission of the public university classroom. Just as a teacher can use a political example to illustrate a point without unduly politicizing the classroom, I hoped to use examples from Scripture and from my personal faith journey without seeming to hijack the classroom. My experiences have distilled two guidelines that form the basis of what I refer to as invitational pedagogy:
- Flattering and unflattering examples of Christians and faith-based organizations are equal possibilities. If I am going to integrate examples of faith and the church as natural and normal aspects of the world around us, then my examples must cover the spectrum of communication that can come from those two camps. Communities that foster a rhetoric of hate may be just as important to talk about as one Amish community that forgave the man who shot their children.
- Almost no relevant topic is off the table if students raise it and it can move our understanding of communication forward. To come across to my students as a mature, inclusive academic expert I cannot turn the classroom into a simplistic G-rated family friendly experience. How we talk about a given topic is my responsibility. But if current events require the exploration of fake IDs or Tinder or even sex trafficking, then I cannot run the risk of presenting a version of faith that “cannot go there.”
Some of my integration efforts are small. For example, I typically place a passage from the Book of Proverbs about communication in my syllabus along with quotes from secular sources. I have a quote about humor and language from renowned Christian theologian and author C. S. Lewis in my email signature block. Those are little moves that raise the notion that I am a person of faith. This often emboldens my Christian students to speak with me about issues of faith or to share their worldview more openly in class. Other moves are more significant.
When I teach a public speaking class I rarely censor topics. A persuasive speech to use a condom, even though that clearly indicates pre-marital sex, is permitted and evaluated primarily within the moral framework of the university I work for. However, if I can raise questions about implications I am certainly alert for such opportunities. Simply asking “Why is this speech relevant to those committed to being virgins until marriage?” can foster tolerance and awareness and even some “redemptive reflection.” I use redemptive reflection here to express my belief and hope that my efforts invite reflection with a bias toward big ideas and perspectives that may orient someone’s thinking toward God. This type of invitational pedagogy is not as direct as evangelistic efforts, but rather a subtler, but still hopeful, nudge toward spiritual formation.
Ultimately, I have found that I am more likely to build credibility with students by critically engaging their ideas rather than censoring them. Concurrently, I am open to having a Christian student offer a persuasive speech on following Jesus. In that case I often have to remind them that I must grade it according to the goals of the course: they cannot give a bad speech about Jesus and assume it is a good speech because Jesus is true. For example, what is the persuasive status of Scripture for this audience? If not, what evidence will they use instead? This fosters the critical thinking that Christian pastor and author John Piper among others notes can be lacking in many Christians.
I also find ways to bring into our discussion significant examples of faith. The histories of Christianity and rhetoric frequently intertwine. St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), bishop of Hippo in north Africa, is a prime example of this interconnection. I have an activity based on his principles of interpretation of Scripture for the rhetorical purposes of preaching. In class we apply those principles to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. We try to figure out what it means and what message they would preach—what argument they would make. One semester, I asked my typical question, “What would you say about God from this passage?” A typically quiet student raised his hand and offered, “I think this story makes God sound like a real #$%hole.” Half the class laughed, half were in shock, and all quickly looked at me for what to do next. I was actually thrilled with this comment.
First, it provided a great catalyst for discussion of authenticity before God and encouraging them to look at the book of Job and many of the psalms where, in slightly nicer language, similar sentiments are expressed. It also led to important conversations about the character of God, free will, and more. Second, it showed that he felt safe to share such a “counter-Christian” sentiment so openly. That is where true dialogue can begin not only about faith and Christianity but also how it interfaces with the discipline of communication studies. There are several prominent rhetoricians beyond St. Augustine who wrestled with the connections of faith, rhetoric, and critical thinking. To embrace that history is important for both Christians and non-Christians. Both need to know that big thinkers have come to faith and that Christianity has not always been lived out as it is now portrayed in most popular media.
I also teach a research methods class and I have made it a point to bring in examples of research that hopefully foster some redemptive reflection in my students. Psychologist John Gottman’s research on divorce is rigorous and allows me to talk about related research on infidelity and pornography, all of which hopefully moves students to think deeply and see me as someone who is safe to talk with about real issues. It is in thinking differently, in the processing of controversy and various aspects of the human condition, that I hope to show the difference Christ can make.
“True and Noble” Research
I have always thought that my faith should make a difference in my thinking, including my teaching and research efforts. Philippians 4:8 (New International Version) says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” In my experience, this verse is often interpreted with an emphasis on the pure, lovely, and admirable: think good thoughts about God, think sexually pure thoughts, and so forth. Fair enough, but the passage begins with the adjectives true and noble. “What is the truth here?” In that sense, my faith has also informed my research.
Much of my research has been on popular culture. Within that line of research, I have adopted a framework similar to Solomon’s: there is nothing new under the sun. The human condition continues to reveal itself in new ways, but underneath are universal characteristics and longings illuminated by Scripture as well as communication theory. That does not mean I regularly invoke Scripture in my research explicitly, but it still informs my assumptions and insights. For example, in a research project that analyzed cell phone plan advertisements, I was able to discern a trend toward materialism and self-godhood because of my faith that might not have been apparent otherwise. The ads about cell phones, in various ways, promised an omniscience of sorts and put the user at the center of it all. The advertisements went from “reach out and touch someone” to “reach out and download something.” While not obvious to the reader, my worldview informed my creative process. The general theme of putting the consumer at the center reminded me very much of the eternal struggle with self-godhood that is a defining challenge to our faith and spiritual formation as Christians.
I have also written on explicitly Christian issues such as the “war on Christmas” controversy that emerges every holiday season. In this case, theory and concepts from the discipline (notably German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s distinction between the public sphere and other semiotic spaces), informed my thinking about an enduring source of contention with some individuals and communities of faith. The lesson is that I am also compelled to think on what is true, even if that puts me at odds with other expressions of my faith. Communication theory and my worldview provide a metaphoric visit to the “eye doctor” and help me clarify my insights. I can look at an issue of faith through the lens of my discipline and look at a communication issue through the lens of my faith. Each perspective refines the other and each potentially alienates me from members of the academic community or my community of faith.
Additionally, as department chair, my leadership is informed by my faith. One of my commitments as a teacher and chair has been to whole student development. Such language has offered a means by which we can attend to issues beyond mere content mastery and skill acquisition, even within a public education environment. I facilitated a project that resulted in our department identifying a set of “core skills”—including confidence, intellectual curiosity, responsibility, collaboration, critical thinking, problems solving, civility, and praxis—that, while not explicitly Christian, do open doors to larger issues of character development and our care for the student as a person. We are able to talk in terms of community and public agreement rather than solely in terms of academic department. As much as anything, Christian leadership should be characterized by an authentic recognition of our humanity and deep needs for connection. If we do not have love, all the other things, including metrics of excellence, become “clanging cymbals.”
My first several years as chair, I was a member of an informal book circle. Participants were hand chosen by the initiator. There was an openly gay department chair whose administrative assistant tried to seduce back into being straight; a long-term highly committed couple who were not married; two divorcees (one from an abusive relationship); an open agnostic; and a universalist we will call Kevin, who was having an affair with a married colleague from another institution when they met at conferences. And that is just the stuff I knew about. We knew these things because we felt comfortable risking authenticity and vulnerability. They knew I was a Christian and they shared anyway. Rather than being shocked or repulsed, I was honored by their trust. All of us gently told Kevin that he needed to end the affair. He knew it too. It was me, the Christian, that actually offered the joke that broke the tension: “Or just tell her who you really are and she will break it off.” The laughter was healing. I did not need to hold up the standard. I needed to be authentically present in the moment with him.
In closing, that administrative moment and countless others like them remind me of my calling. My experiences have taught me that whether in the classroom, advising a student one-on-one, or having a coffee with a colleague, I am called to be in it with them: “Complicated? Imperfect? Finite? Fallen? Broken? Me too. Now what did you want to talk about?” That, for me, is the beauty of when we are weak, God is strong, as highlighted in 2 Corinthians 12:10. It is in that recognition that we often closely connect with one another. If I can teach from the perspective of a fellow traveler on a spiritual journey, then I can be shoulder to shoulder.
 John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).
 Richard Olsen, “Reach Out and Download Something: An Analysis of Cell Phone and Cell Pone Plan Advertisements,” in Displacing Place: Mobile Communication in the Twenty-first Century, ed. Sharon Kleinman (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 141-155.
 Richard Olsen and Julie Morgan, “Happy Holidays: Creating Common Ground in the ‘War on Christmas,’” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 21, no. 3 (2009), http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/jrpc.21.3.001.
 See 1 Corinthians: 13-14.