Campus News

Students follow up ‘Refocus’ series with group discussion

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From the end of October through the beginning weeks of November, Bethel College hosted a chapel series called “Refocus.” For four weeks, the college focused on four aspects of the Christian faith: faith, prayer, Scripture and community. The Scripture week had the most out-of-chapel follow-up that I could see, coinciding with the annual Scripture 66 (an event where students read the entire Bible from the end of Friday's chapel through Monday morning) and, more recently, a follow-up discussion on difficult Scripture led by Dr. Chad Meister on Friday, Nov. 11. When I talked to Meister as to exactly why this discussion was important, he, like many others in the administration such as Michael Yoder, cited the reveal study done at Bethel right before the “Refocus” series began. “It was a bit revealing,” said Meister, “it’s funny that the study was called a reveal study, because it was quite revealing that there are a lot of students here who have significant doubts about their faith, a lot of students who don’t really understand the purpose of the Bible or don’t use the Bible for their own spiritual edification because it seems confusing. And also, many students here have, despite the fact that they say they went to church when they grew up, really never studied the Bible, really never studied what it is their churches believe...So, there does seem to be an interest here among students about this.” Meister also mentioned that he feels there’s been an almost focused attack on the Bible in our culture by groups such as new atheists, who attempt to discredit the Bible. Meister claims that this combination of lack of understanding and efforts to undermine the Bible is having a cultural impact. This led Meister and Dr. Shawn Holtgren to plan a discussion of difficult Scriptural concepts that students could attend if they were interested. I attended the discussion, which was held in the lobby of Bridges Hall. I actually got there before Meister himself.  As someone on the inside of Bridges let us in, we saw that we were the first of the attendees. One Bridges resident showed up soon after, and soon, more students filed in. We rearranged the furniture in the lobby to be more conducive to discussion. After all was said and done, a total of nine students showed up to the discussion. Meister said that number was about what he expected for a Friday afternoon. The plan was originally to have the discussion Friday morning, during the chapel hour, since chapel had been cancelled that day. Meister said that he felt that more people would have shown up had they had it at that time. However, the discussion was moved to later in the day, and thus, Meister lowered his expectations a bit. Meister opened the discussion with a bit of backstory on his journey with Scripture. He grew up in a non-Christian home. His parents divorced and he went to live with his mother. His biological father was a member of the fundamentalist Apostolic Christian church, and his stepfather was an atheist. Meister struggled with Scripture for years, turning completely away from it for a time. After a particularly hard breakup with his girlfriend, he fell into a deep depression and attempted to kill himself. Just before he did, he cried out to God to ask Him to reveal Himself, if He was really there. Meister said he received a vision of a Scripture reference, Acts 14:22, which includes the phrase,  “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Meister saw this as a sign that all he had gone through was not for nothing. He began to seek after Scriptural knowledge from that point on. After Meister’s account, he opened the floor to questions from students. The first issue brought up turned out to be a rather hefty one, and one that would take up our entire time discussing: the trouble of God’s instructions for Israel to slay entire nations in the Old Testament. The question was, 'how can we justify this God with the loving Jesus we see in the New Testament?' Meister offered several explanations, stating that the way ancient nations spoke about war was usually exaggerated in its accounts. This would mean that when the Bible says that Israel slew an entire nation, that isn’t to be taken literally. The ancient church leaders actually took this approach a step further. They believed that everything in the Old Testament was directly applicable to our daily lives, but that certain passages had to be interpreted more spiritually. One example Meister used was the Song of Solomon, which many early church leaders interpreted as entirely spiritual, representing our relationship with Christ rather than a human romantic relationship. Meister said that his basic rule for knowing what to spiritualize in the Old Testament and what to take literally is simple. He feels that the main idea of the Bible is love. If a passage doesn’t reflect love when taken a certain way, there must be a misreading happening somewhere. He stressed the importance of context when interpreting Scripture. Meister also said that sometimes an evil that causes harm demands some form of judgment. Something that Meister made abundantly clear again and again is that he was not trying to push his own philosophies as the completely right path. On the judgment of evil topic, he recommended students talk to Bro. Tim Erdel for an alternative pacifist perspective. This topic went on for almost the entire hour the discussion was planned to go. Near the end, a few questions regarding the role of women in the church came up. Meister explained that he feels that Paul’s admonition that women not speak in the church was not a gendered statement, but rather one based on the educational gap between men and women. In other words, women were not allowed to be educated to the same level as men in Paul’s day, and thus, Paul felt that they should not be leading church meetings. Meister said that gap has equalized in recent years. As students dispersed, following the discussion, I stayed and talked with Meister about what was the most important thing discussed in his opinion. “I think one of the most pressing questions that I continue to hear by students when they talk about their own struggles with the Bible is the Old Testament,” he said. “These ‘texts of terror’ we talked about. Also, why don’t we follow the laws? I mean, there are, after all, 613 commandments…in the Old Testament, not just ten.” Meister said that he felt that the discussion on the importance of trying to make sense of the Old Testament was the most important thing discussed that Friday afternoon. Meister also said that he hopes that students will want to explore themes like this in more detail following this discussion. He said he was very encouraged when several students, at the end of the discussion, asked him where his office was located in case they wanted to have deeper, one-on-one discussions with him. “Sometimes people don’t want to share their own concerns in a public context, but maybe in a private one they do,” he said. Meister said that both he and Holtgren want to have more discussions of this type, on a variety of topics. To conclude, Meister said he was very encouraged by the discussion that happened and the kinds of questions asked. “There were some very, very thoughtful questions asked,” he said, “and some good feedback, some good comments as well as questions.” Meister went on, “I do think there were people here who expressed interest in meeting privately that didn’t say anything, and I think one of the reasons for that is, again, because it’s intimidating to ask something when there’s a group of people, even if it’s not a huge group.” Meister ended our discussion by saying, “I hope we start doing more of these in such a way that other students hear about it and say, ‘hey, this is a space where we can really have the freedom to dialogue and not be threatened.’” Thus ended the first group discussion that stemmed from the “Refocus” chapel series. Needless to say, it covered a good amount of information, but Meister said that we hadn’t even scratched the surface of the particular issue of Old Testament interpretation. So there’s more to discuss. Let’s see if we’re up for it.
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